Review: Blackmagic Design ATEM 1 M/E Production Switcher
Posted Jan 5, 2012

I'm glad I waited before upgrading my SD video switcher to an HD model. Part of what made me wait was that my regular live-switch clients were still webcasting in SD resolutions, but the other part was that none of the other HD video switchers on the market had the mix of features that I required at such an attractive price point. When Blackmagic Design announced its ATEM Production Switcher line at NAB 2011, I knew the timing was right for me to seriously consider moving the last of my SD productions to HD.

It also didn't hurt that some of my clients were starting to ask about HD IMAG (live feed to projectors) and HD webcasting, but what sealed the deal for me was that I was able to sell my gently used Roland LVS-800 SD switcher for $2,000 on eBay and the ATEM 1 M/E Production Switcher that I had my heart set on was only $2,495. That's not a typo—the ATEM 1 M/E Production Switcher costs less than many new SD switchers, including the one I was replacing it with.

The ATEM 1 M/E Production Switcher is an 8-input HD switcher that has 4 HDMI and 4 HD-SDI inputs. Legacy analog video inputs are also a nice touch, as is the breakout cable for 2-channel XLR inputs and outputs. Program outputs are available in HDMI or HD-SDI and there are two analog outputs-one HD/SD-switchable and the other permanently downconverted to composite SD-and finally a downconverted SDI output. On top of that there are preview outputs, three Auxiliary outputs, a USB 3.0 output, and your choice of HDMI or HD-SDI Multi-View outputs. Having a variety of inputs and outputs is extremely important for event video producers as you never know what will get thrown at you at the last minute and it is nice not to have to carry around an arsenal of converters, just in case.

I'm not going to cover off all of the inputs and outputs on this switcher as there are just too many but I did want to expand on a few of them. The Aux outputs are like having a second, third, and fourth bus. So in addition to the program output, you can output three additional video feeds, which can be assigned, to increase the number of program outputs, or to output one (or up to three) of the inputs. This feature is really useful for live audience filming, IMAG with computer presentations, and webcasting when you require more than just one output.

Blackmagic ATEM
Shawn Lam running switching a live event with the Blackmagic Design ATEM 1 M/E

The USB 3.0 feature, while only recently activated via a firmware update and untested by this reviewer, is also very exciting for me as it would allow me to record my Aux 1 output via USB 3.0 cable, to a computer for a quick client handoff, probably via external hard drive. The software on the recording computer is Blackmagic Media Express 3 (included with purchase) and it allows uncompressed or compressed intraframe recording. It even allows me to webcast the output on a computer or laptop without adding any additional hardware but the thing I'm finding out about the ATEM 1 M/E is that there are so many possibilities that with every new update I uncover additional functionality. Right now I currently record my program out on an external recorder, like my ATOMOS Ninja, or to a computer equipped with an HDMI capture card, like the Blackmagic Design Intensity Pro.

I also really like the multiview monitor outputs as they allow me to see all of my inputs and outputs on a single display. In my case, I'm using a 1920x1080 computer monitor. In the past I've had individual preview monitors for each input but this takes a lot of extra time and cables to set-up and it can be challenging to calibrate each monitor. Using a multi-view output makes quick work of color matching as you can see everything on one monitor. The multi-view monitor also puts a red border around the live input and a green one around the preview input.

Now I have to admit initially I was a bit confused with the naming mechanisms of the broadcast panel and production switcher, so I'm going to explain which is which. The Production Switcher is a panel that you plug all your i/o's in and out of, while the Broadcast Panel has the t-bar switcher and all the controls. Every configuration requires the Production Switcher but the hardware Broadcast Panel can be substituted with the ATEM Software Control Panel, available for free on both Mac OS X and Windows.

Performance in Testing
I tested both the ATEM 1 M/E Broadcast Panel ($4,995) and the ATEM 1 M/E Production Switcher but in the end I decided to only keep only the Production Switcher as I found the software panel fit my current needs, although it was nice to know that I could always buy or rent that component at a later date if I found the need for it.

I operated the software control panel from my laptop, which connects to the Production Switcher with an Ethernet cable. This is the same way the Broadcast Panel connects and it is possible to connect all three at the same time (the panel has two Ethernet connections), which then allows you to customize the display and input names on the multi-view monitor. The software panel interface looks much like the hardware control panel but instead of pressing buttons and sliding bars, you use your mouse. At some point I'd like to try the software panel on a tablet PC or touchscreen monitor to see what that experience is like as well.

The ATEM 1 M/E Production Switcher is a very thin 2 rack-unit panel. It is so thin that when I mounted it in a shallow 2 RU Gator case, the case was still too deep for the unit, which made connecting cables difficult, especially without a flashlight. The other problem, which was more with the case then the switcher, was that the aluminum fins, which serve to dissipate excess heat, were too long for me to mount the switcher backwards in the case and still put the lid back on. I haven't done so yet, but I plan on getting a custom case built because I haven't seen any off-the-shelf solutions that are just right.

The image quality on the ATEM 1 M/E is absolutely amazing, as it should be for a 10-bit digital HD video switcher. The really nice thing for me about having HD switching technology is that I can now run computer presentations (such as PowerPoint) straight into my switcher for my own mix, in HD, along with my video inputs, and output any of the inputs or the program out, again in HD, to a projector. I never liked mixing in SD with computer inputs because the resolution was just too low (and non-square pixel). The result is that you could never read the computer presentations once they were mixed in SD and their aspect ratio (usually 4:3) often dictated my aspect ratio. Now I can have it all-HD video in, HD computer in, and even if they're sending me a 4:3 computer input, it doesn't matter too much as there is enough resolution that my viewers can still read the text, even when I output to 720P.

When I first sat down to write this review I wasn't yet aware of the latest firmware update and as it turns out all of my concerns had been addressed. In a previous firmware update SD output that was added as this was lacking after the initial release but the most recent update enabled the USB 3.0 output. In addition to adding more external recording options, it allows monitoring with Blackmagic Design's UltraScope software (a $695 value, included for registered ATEM owners, PC-only).

The UltraScope solves one of my biggest problems with the ATEM 1 M/E as I tested it: There was a lack of audio controls. Initially I was surprised that there are no VU meters, headphone outputs, or levels that can be adjusted, which made mastering audio levels a guessing game. So my workflow consisted of recording the audio on an external recorder, such as the Zoom H4N, or connecting a soundboard feed directly into the webcast encoding computer and/or video camera. I also found that HDMI audio would sometimes make its way through the 1 M/E input to the output and sometimes not. So needless to say I didn't feel that on the ATEM 1 M/E it was possible to record audio with the levels of controls I required.

Blackmagic ATEM
The ATEM 1 M/E with multiview monitors in the field

Fortunately, the UltraScope has an audio view so that you can see each of the individual channels of audio. I'm not sure if there are any audio controls though but perhaps we'll see this in a future firmware update. The UltraScope display adds a Parade Display, Waveform Display, Component Vectorscope Display, Histogram Display, Audio Metering Display, and a Picture Display.

Other Features, Other Versions
On the video side my only complaints are that 24P and 30P formats are not compatible and 30P just happens to be my frame rate of choice on my Sony NEX-FS100 video cameras. So when I use the ATEM 1 M/E I have to change my camera to 1080 60i. Every switcher has some delay; the ATEM 1 M/E's can be as low as 1 frame on syncronized HD-SDI inputs and 2 with HDMI. There are so many really cool features that I don't yet require but when I need them the ATEM 1 M/E is ready. These include titles straight from Photoshop, two media players, a transition keyer for stingers/DVE, and a bunch of upstream, downstream, chroma, and linear/luma keyers.

Blackmagic ATEM

One of the features that I currently miss is an intercom system with tally lights. Blackmagic Design has announced two products that will solve this need, but at the time of this review they were not yet available. The first is the ATEM Camera Converter and the second is the ATEM Studio Converter. Think of the Studio Converter as an intercom base station and the camera converters as belt packs, but instead of XLR cable connecting them, they connect with optical fiber. They also transmit HDMI or HD-SDI video both ways, including a tally signal to the camera operator so she knows when she is live. Optical Fiber cable can run up to 28 miles without signal loss, which is dramatically more than the few hundred feet limit on traditional cables.

I also feel it is important to note that Blackmagic Design also has two additional models, the $995 ATEM Television Studio and the $4,995 ATEM 2 M/E. The Studio has fewer features, including only 6 inputs and no aux outputs and the 2 M/E has 16 inputs and 6 aux outputs.

Last thing, ATEM was the name of Egyptian Mythology's creator god and means completion. For me, this is fitting, as the last SD holdout in my workflow was live switching, and now I'm complete-or I will be, as soon as I get some more advanced audio controls.