From Damon Tracy, Science Teacher & A/V Coordinator at Lakeside Lutheran High School …

blackmagicdesignThis is a tech review of the Blackmagicdesign (BMD) ATEM 1M/E Production Studio 4k digital HD video mixer. I have only had the unit for a month at the time of this writing and have used it to record a commencement concert and the graduation here at Lakeside Lutheran H.S. When my old Videonics MX video mixer died, I started looking for something that could handle HD video and found there are a number of different units out there. I choose the BMD ATEM because its particular strengths matched my needs. But, each application is different and I will say that this unit may not be the best choice for other users. For instance, our church is also looking at the possibility of HD recording of services. St. Paul, Lake Mills (WI) also has a Videonics mixer, but after talking with the people that do the recording of services, they have a completely different set of needs.

The BMD ATEM family of mixers are inexpensive, rack-mounted systems designed for all-digital HDMI and SDI/HDSDI signals. From simplest (and cheapest) to most complex they are the:

  • ATEM Television studio – $1000 (prices aproximate)
  • ATEM Production Studio 4K $1700
  • ATEM 1 M/E Production Studio 4K $2500
  • ATEM 2 M/E Production Studio 4K $4000

The ATEM family of mixers has several strengths.

  1. They use SDI /HDSDI and HDMI signals from the cameras and as outputs. SDI (serial digital interface) and the familiar HDMI are totally digital signals. While HDMI has a fairly limited range and expensive cables, SDI can travel for 100+ meters over simple coax cable without the usual problems of noise and jitter that come with the use of baluns over long distances. We record concerts and athletic competitions in our 2 gyms as well as the football bowl. All these signals come back to a single small control room where they can be mixed and recorded. For my situation, where our “control room” is far removed from the venues, SDI would be great.
  2. The mixers are not actually controlled at the mixer, but rather through a computer program or dedicated control panel that talks through a standard network Ethernet connection, so they could be controlled from anywhere. Again for us, this is great. Remote control of the mixer which can stay near the cameras is needed.
  3. They are rack-mounted and have very small form factors.
  4. They can handle Standard Definition, High Definition, and even 4k resolutions.
  5. They are very inexpensive in comparison to other HD mixers.

All the specs of the unit and the ATEM family of video mixers can be found on the very comprehensive website. However, reading the specs and looking at reviews doesn’t always tell the whole story. Which brings me to a list of limitations.

  1. They use SDI/HDSDI. The mixer that I have, the 1M/E, has 1 HDMI input and 8 SD/HDSDI inputs. I have access to 4 decent HD cameras at LLHS and only 2 of them have HDMI and none has SDI. In the past cameras with SDI connections were sold with a significant premium over the same camera without SDI. The cameras that we have went for about $3500 without SDI and $6500 with SDI. I don’t know of any church that has SDI equipped cameras. So how do I get my cameras to talk to the mixer? We purchased 2 BMD analog to SDI converters which adds to the cost. But it also adds to flexibility because the converters can be used on any camera with analog output. For a church running fairly short cables, SDI is probably not needed.
  2. The mixers are not controlled at the mixer. This adds to the complexity of your setup. I had asked our recording people about capturing to a computer instead of / in addition to a standalone DVD recorder. They were against the idea because of the knowledge level of the volunteers doing the recording.
  3. They are very inexpensive compared to their competition: Roland, Ederol, Panasonic. Which means some of the things we take for granted are NOT included. The big thing missing – a SCALER. Their website shows all the different resolutions that can be used. All very true. BUT, only one resolution at a time is supported. This means there is NO mixing of SD and HD footage. Everything connected must be running exactly the same resolution, frame rate and form factor. Set the mixer to 1080i, and anything that is connected that is not 1080i won’t even show up. If all your equipment puts out the same signal, then there is no problem. But mixing old SD cameras with new HD cameras will mean everything must be set to SD or it won’t see the SD signals. The cheapest two of the family have no DVE (digital video effects) processor. Thus they can do simple switching and overlay work, but no resizing or PIP. The 1M/E is the smallest (8 inputs) that has a DVE processor which is why it was chosen over less capable models.

The Blackmagicdesign world of video products has components that can give your system as much flexibility as a very nice Roland VR50-HD that retails at about $7500. For me, piecing together the needed components to get a system working is what I needed. And the cost is still less than a “normal” mixer. In my ministry I look forward to using it to record school-wide events as well as chemistry and physics tutorial videos with the aim of possibly “flipping” the classroom. But for weekly church use with a few remote operated cameras, other choices may be better. In any case, remember “content is king.” You want to focus most on the message, less on the form. A well done SD church service that gets to people smoothly over the internet will be better received than an ill-constructed bandwidth-limited stuttering one in glorious HD.

May God richly bless your ministry!

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