Choosing the right Blackmagic Design ATEM for the job | What you need to know
Do you work in live production? Do you run a multi-camera set up? If so, you probably experience the same frustrations that we often come across – there are never enough inputs, never enough outputs, always the wrong sort of feed coming into the switcher...
The Blackmagic ATEM line up is one of the biggest on the market so there’s likely to be a mixer that meets your needs. But how do you select the right one for you to give you what you require today and is ready for tomorrow’s challenges?
When deciding what ATEM is going to work best for you, these are the main questions you’ll need to ask yourself:
- What resolution and frame rates you want to work with?
- How many physical inputs and outputs you’ll need?
- If you’ll need a Mix Effect (M/E) bus, and if so, how many?
- How many keyers you’ll want to use?
- Standard or advanced chroma keying?
- How many media players and the clip and still stores you’ll need available?
- How much physical control you want?
Once you’ve decided on the above, you’ll be able to make a call on which ATEM is most appropriate for your production. So, let’s go into a bit more detail about each requirement.
Resolution and frame rates
If you’re set on working in HD, then the ATEM Mini, Television Studio HD, and Television Studio Pro HD all support up to 1080p at 60fps. If you’re wanting to work in UHD 4K, then the ATEM Television Studio Pro 4K, the Production Studio 4K, the 1 M/E Production Studio 4K, and the 2 M/E Production Studio 4K all support up to 2160p at 25/30fps. If you’re requiring 2160p at 50/60fps you’ll need to opt for the ATEM Television Studio Pro 4K, the 4 M/E Broadcast Studio 4K, or the Constellation 8K as these are the only models with 12G SDI connections. Of course, given the name, the Constellation 8K supports not just UHD 4K at 60fps but also 4320P at up to 60fps.
Inputs and Outputs (I/O)
Connectivity is going to be a big factor in selecting the right ATEM. The amount of inputs is straight forward to calculate, you just need to know the amount of video sources you’re intending to run in your production, and this could be cameras, playback devices (such as the HyperDeck range), or even a laptop etc.
The outputs are where you really need to give it more thought. You’ll ideally want to be able to route a return program feed to each of your cameras, as this is how you’ll be able to make use of remote camera control, tally, and talkback with Blackmagic cameras - whilst also offering the operator the ability of viewing the program feed. You’ll then want to account for the different recording devices and whether you’ll be running multiple screens, projectors, or auxiliary feeds to certain destinations.
Some of the ATEM models also have physical outputs dedicated to outputting what’s called a clean feed. This is the main program out without the downstream keyers (more on that below), primarily used for outputting your show without graphics and text overlaid. The auxiliary output can be configured to output a clean feed should the ATEM you want to use lack a physical clean output.
If you’re looking at an ATEM model that has fewer physical outputs than what you were needing, then you can always increase the flexibility of the system by incorporating one of the Blackmagic Smart VideoHubs into your setup. It’s always advisable to have more outputs than you think you initially require.
The most basic part of a switcher is a bus, usually a row of physical buttons on the mixer that each correlate to one of the multiple video inputs. Typically, you’ll have three buses, one for preview, one for program, and one for compositing called key – this is what we would call a 1 M/E (short for Mix/Effect) switcher. On more complex switchers it’s possible to have multiple M/Es available. This allows you to create various effects, layered sources etc within the additional M/Es, and then make them live by simply selecting it as a source on the main program bus.
If you intend on compositing various layers and utilising a lot of effects in your live mix, then the more M/Es you have available in your ATEM, the more flexibility and capability you’ll have. To make it easier to visualise, imagine we have a 1 M/E mixer, this would allow us to create a simple Picture-in-Picture effect, consisting of having a presenter’s resized camera feed overlaid onto a PowerPoint presentation. If we want to then add another presenter camera overlaid onto an additional presentation, and cut between the two shots, then we’ve already used our one and only available M/E to do so - this is why having multiple M/Es becomes invaluable.
Upstream and Downstream Keys
All the ATEM switchers give you the ability to utilise upstream and downstream keyers, the amount available to you will vary per model. If you’re unsure of the function of keyers, it’s best to think of the program and preview rows on the switcher as being the ‘background’, to which the keyers can be overlaid on top. An ATEM switcher can have up to four upstream keyers per M/E, which can all be individually configured. These keyers can function in one of four ways; either as a luma key, chroma key, pattern key, or DVE and are overlaid before any transitions. Popular uses for an upstream key would be to remove a green screen background from a presenter camera (much like what broadcasters do for weather forecasts), or create Picture-in-Picture (PiP) compositions (think of a news broadcast having two presenters in different locations on screen at once).
The downstream keyers (DSK for short) behave in a similar fashion to the upstream keyers, with the key difference being they are overlaid over the preview/program bus post transitions. They operate independently to what’s selected as the ‘background’, making them ideal for bringing animated bugs or logos on screen. Unlike the upstream keyers, the downstream keyers in the ATEM range can only act as either a luma or linear key.
All the ATEM models have a chroma keyer built-in as part of an upstream key. There are currently two variants to the chroma keyer; there’s the standard chroma keyer and the advanced chroma keyer. If you intend on heavily shooting with green screen, then you’ll get a lot more control and finesse in pulling a clean key with the advanced chroma keyer. If you’re only going to be using a chroma key ad-hoc or if you’re streaming a heavily compressed output from the ATEM, then the standard Chroma Key is fit for the job.
Each ATEM has a built-in media pool, to which graphics and image sequences can be transferred from a computer to be stored in the ATEM. The amount of memory available to store these assets will vary across the range. For example, the ATEM Mini can store 20 still images and has no clip store, whereas towards the other end of the spectrum the 4 M/E Broadcast Studio 4K can store 64 still images and has a clip store of 360 frames in 4K UHD – so if that ATEM is running a production in 4K UHD at 25fps, you’ll be able to play a clip of up 14.4 seconds long (360/25=14.4). Once the assets are loaded into the media pool they can be assigned to one of the available media players so that they can then be pushed live. The amount of media players available will again vary depending on the model of ATEM, from one in the ATEM Mini, to four in the Constellation 8K.
It’s important to note that the clip store is not designed to be used as a video play in, it doesn’t handle traditional video formats, instead it’s designed to handle image sequences for graphic transitions and animated graphics such as lower thirds etc. A model from the HyperDeck range is recommended for video playback, especially as they can be remote controlled right from within the ATEM software.
So, we’ve covered that you can load pre-created graphics into the media pool on the ATEM, but what is exciting is that it’s also possible to create and publish graphics by using Adobe Photoshop CC or Photoshop Elements whilst your production is live. With the ATEM Photoshop plugin installed on a computer connected to the same network as the ATEM, you can create complex graphics within Photoshop and export them straight to the Media Player on the ATEM, which can then be brought live at the push of a button. It’s a fantastic feature that’s used mostly creating name straps for anyone that appears on screen during your show on the fly.
You’ll want to be aware of the way the memory works within the ATEM range. There are five ATEM models that have non-volatile memory; the ATEM Mini, Television Studio HD, Television Studio Pro HD, Television Studio Pro 4K, and the Constellation 8K. What does this mean? Well, it means once you power off the ATEM and turn it back on again for your next production all the previous settings, including what’s in your media pool and media players, will be recalled. In contrast, a volatile memory system loses its stored data when power is lost.
All the ATEM models feature physical controls on the main unit, and some of them will even allow you to control every aspect of the switchers settings without having to use the software control panel. However, if you’re wanting to speed up the process of manipulating these settings, switching sources, and running layered graphics on the fly, you’ll likely want to use a control surface that has these functions mapped out so that they can be triggered at the push of a button.
The ATEM Mini, Television Studio Pro HD and Pro 4K have this added control surface built into the switcher itself. If you’re looking at the other ATEM models, then you’ll potentially want to opt for including the Blackmagic ATEM 1 M/E advanced or the 2 M/E Broadcast panels in your setup. These panels connect to all the ATEM switchers seamlessly using a standard Ethernet cable. If you want to keep your setups physical footprint to a minimum, you can control all aspects of the ATEM via the software control panel on a computer connected to the same network (or just simply attached directly to the ATEM by an ethernet cable).
If you’re working on larger productions, you may also want a dedicated control surface to act as a CCU (Camera Control Unit), typically used mainly in broadcast scenarios. Again, Blackmagic have a panel like the Advanced panel for this function alone, called the ATEM Camera Control Panel, allowing a single operator to control up to four cameras at any one time. The Blackmagic Design cameras that can be remotely controlled by ATEM are; the URSA Broadcast, URSA Mini, Studio and Micro Studio.
The ATEM is an incredibly powerful live production tool, It’s the heart and brains of the live ecosystem. So to help you choose the right model, we’ve put together a quick comparison guide based on the key points we’ve highlighted in this article. If you have any further questions or want to know something more in-depth about the ATEM range, then do send us an email or give us a call and we’ll be more than happy to help.
Live Production Jargon Buster
PGM / Program Out: This is the main output from the ATEM switcher. This is what you’ll deliver to your audience whether that be via a live stream or projects onto a large screen at an event.
Preview Out: This is a secondary output where you can view video sources on a separate or larger screen before making it live on the program out.
Auxiliary Out: Auxiliary outputs are extremely flexible; they can be assigned to output any of the available video sources, composites, and effects within the ATEM. This could also be used to output what’s called a clean feed, which is the program out without any of the down-stream keyers overlaid.
Bus: The most basic part of a vision mixer, this is the term used to define a signal path that consists of multiple inputs that feed into a single output.
12G SDI: The current highest specification of SDI cabling which is used to connect video sources to the ATEM, as well as outputting from the ATEM to destinations. 3G allows up to 1080p60 transmission, 6G up to 2160p30, and 12G 2160p60.
Chroma Key: An effect used to remove a user specified colour/chrominance value. Typically used to remove the green screen from behind a presenter.
DVE: Short for Digital Video Effects, typically used in vision mixers to resize, distort, or move a video source within a frame.
CCU / Camera Control Unit: In broadcast, typically the camera operator will control their framing and focus whilst another operator in the control room adjusts the overall look coming from the camera (colour balance and shutter speed etc). This secondary operator concentrates on the quality and consistency of the images coming from the cameras and uses a CCU to make adjustments.