The greatest issue facing the switcher business today is the management of the many different formats available for production.
The fact is that while the majority of content producers continue to work in SD, they must consider shifting to HD production - even if their output remains SD - simply to preserve the future value of their media archives. Likewise, when a channel or an entire network moves into new definitions and frame rates, this commitment raises a new set of questions with respect to production standards.
Having a lot of options is generally a good thing, but choosing which formats to accommodate and how to build a system that supports these formats is no easy matter. At some point, there is a cost for trying to accommodate a variety of signal types, and this goes not only for the switcher, but also the rest of a company's equipment, as well.
Within a fixed environment, where production is not targeted to different distribution channels, it's much easier to fix on one format. This decision makes life a lot simpler, but it's not entirely realistic, as few facilities receive all production material in just the right format for their needs.
To meet the demands of the dynamic media industry, vendors of production switchers have developed multi-definition products that can handle multiple formats at once. While a few systems truly can support multiple formats simultaneously, most simply offer operation in one of a number of formats and standards.
In the latter instance, the user may choose to work in HD 1080i, for example, but then will need to use an external conversion system to crossconvert HD 720p to match that HD standard. Likewise, working with a combination of SD and HD signals often requires external equipment, along with extra cabling and connections, to carry out conversion and thus enable integration of multiple formats within one production.
The extra cost of external conversion gear, the larger footprint and the greater complexity of signal routing makes this an inefficient approach. A small number of manufacturers have solved this problem by incorporating conversion tasks into the switcher itself to create a truly multi-definition system. The user can go ahead and fix a production standard while continuing to accept other types of signals on the input. This mix-and-match capability yields a high degree of flexibility in working with different formats and sources.
A number of other features and capabilities being integrated into today's switcher systems add efficiency and versatility to production. While traditional broadcasters are used to engineering their own systems and supplying the genlock and references needed to switch a live production successfully, not all production teams are quite so accustomed to working with such a complicated system design.
In production for live news, rock concerts and conventions, applications in which a lot of things often happen at once, wiring up all the necessary connections and getting all equipment locked onto the production switcher can be difficult. The need to account for timing adds to the challenge.
To simplify production in both the broadcast and event production arenas, developers of advanced switcher systems have begun to incorporate frame synchronisation into the switcher input.
This feature has the effect of eliminating timing requirements and thus allows the producer to bring in a variety of cameras and other equipment, simply plug them all in and get to work. By integrating this functionality, switcher manufacturers enable smoother handling of satellite feeds and microwave links for broadcast production and reduce the volume of equipment needed, power consumed and setup time needed for live event production.
Another trend in switcher functionality is the integration of frame stores. Many production applications, such as a live news event, will bring up not only camera feeds, but also graphics, introductory pages and bugs - typically from a CG or other piece of equipment. Internal frame stores allow the switcher operator to have instant access to clips and graphics, downloaded from a PC or CG and installed on the switcher itself. This, too, is a way of eliminating the need for external devices and their respective power and space demands while streamlining production.
The incorporation of these features into production switchers has been made easier through the use of field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), which enable manufacturers to divorce the actual hardware design from the physical hardware itself. The increasing sophistication of FPGA technology allows for integration of more functionality and processing power in smaller, faster, more efficient packages. Once designed and built, these types of switcher products can be modified without a physical hardware change. Thus, one system can remain a state-of-the-art solution through upgrades to system programming.
Production switchers that leverage forward-looking technologies in their design can support today's multi-definition production environment and maintain their value as the industry continues to evolve.
HD may be the pinnacle of production quality today, but 1080p60 is already gaining significant attention. Advanced production switchers will be able to accommodate such changes while providing more and more functionality at the user's fingertips. There are no second chances in live production, and today's best switcher systems provide the flexibility and functionality that support efficient, accurate multi-definition production even in the most challenging applications.
Nigel Spratling is president of Echolab Corporation
The dual-format Opera production switcher lets analogue facilities transition to digital easily, cost-effectively and at their own pace. Analogue input modules feature internal conversion, and internal frame synchronisers let operators connect analog or digital cameras and 'wild feeds' directly to the switcher without concern for timing. Internal frame stores allow unused inputs to be loaded with often-used stills. Analogue and digital output modules enable Opera to be integrated into analog facilities without additional gear.
The Overture 2 includes features found in the Opera 1-M/E series, along with a look-ahead preview, a complete set of transition options, programmable macro keys, traditional DSKs and a dedicated playback block that enables automated control of third-party products directly from the control surface.
The OvationMD provides unparalleled versatility and power in handling fast-paced, live production. With support for SD video formats, built-in conversion between analog and digital and internal up/down/crossconversion, the compact switcher simplifies the transition to HD production. OvationMD switchers accept a wide variety of input formats of the same frame rate and output, and each features simultaneous signal format production, multiple key layers, advanced 3-D DVE effects, full-function keyers on each M/E, downstream keyers, frame buffers and frame synchronisers.