Best video switchers for live events

Whether your live show is a sporting event, a late night talk show, a church service or a corporate meeting, the video production switcher is the centrepiece of the entire production workflow.
When selecting a live production video switcher, there are three broad categories to choose from – hardware, software and cloud-based

Why? Because the video switcher is where it all comes together—literally. At one time, all roads might have led to Rome, but today all signal paths lead to the video production switcher. It’s the device that enables a technical director to switch between different video sources, add graphics and text, roll in replays and edited packages, layer in effects and blend different video sources on the same screen.

However, finding the best video switcher is a bit like finding the best vehicle for your family, they come in all shapes and sizes and cater for different needs.

Similarly for production switchers, a $100,000-plus setup with 48 inputs, multiple mix-effects busses, built-in digital video effects, multiple keyers and more, probably is a bit of overkill for a live stream of a worship service, while a full-blown awards show production for a TV network might be a stretch for a sub-$1,000 production switcher with four HDMI inputs.

The bottom line is the capabilities of the production switcher needed for any given live production must match the demands of the production and the budget of the producer.

 

Hardware switchers

Hardware production switchers are purpose-built for video production and range from low-cost products like the Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini to high-price, feature-loaded switchers from Grass Valley, Panasonic, Ross Video, Sony and others. In between are switchers from a variety of companies with incrementally escalating price tags that climb in relationship to their available features.

Black video switcher with cables
Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini

There also are a several products in the market that have come to be known as integrated video production systems –all-in-one hardware solutions— such as several models of NewTek Tricaster and the Broadcast Pix BPswitch.

On the plus side of the ledger, hardware production switchers are reliable. These devices have been used for decades and the technology companies responsible for their design and manufacture have enormous experience building switchers producers can depend on to work. They also are quite familiar to a cadre of technical directors who are well-versed in their use.

On the other side of the ledger, is premature obsolescence. The video industry evolves quickly. SD gives way to HD, which diminishes as 4K comes along, which even as it comes into greater prominence hears the footsteps of 8K approaching. There’s a similar progression of digital video signal transport standards, and the addition of new production realities that must be accommodated, such as high-dynamic range, wide color gamut and high frame-rate video formats.

Each has the potential to upset the amortization apple cart, obsoleting what can be a sizable investment before anticipated.

 

Software switchers

Software-based video production switching makes it possible to use a Mac-, Windows- or Linux-based computer to perform many of the same functions of a purpose-built video production switcher and spend far fewer dollars.

Some of the more popular software production switcher applications include Telestream’s Wirecast, Vmix, VidBlasterX and OBS Studio. Besides offering functions normally associated with a traditional video production switcher, many software-based switcher applications also encode video for internet streaming or work in a complementary fashion with an application that does.

Video mixing software
Vmix mixing software

Software-based switching offers a variety of benefits, including a far lower price than hardware switchers, a solid complement of features and, in general, ease of use. On the downside, they are software after all. Bugs, incompatibilities with the preferred operating system, unexpected glitches introduced with new versions of the application or underlying operating system and security issues are all possible. Further, a stable system might become unstable if new hardware is added.

Overall, these solutions offer a positive experience and professional results, but it’s good to use them with the awareness that they and the computers they run on are susceptible to the same technical issues that affect computers and software in general.

 

Cloud-based switchers

The newest alternative is to virtualize production switching and all of the associated production tasks in the cloud.

In a sense, this approach takes the best of dedicated hardware switching and switching software running locally and moves it to the public cloud. Here’s how. Hardware-based switchers really consist of two components—the control surface an operator uses to execute desired switcher actions and rack-frame electronics that actually perform all of the signal processing. At one time, those electronics included custom ASICs (application specific integrated circuits) and FPGAs (field-programmable gate arrays).

However, over time as CPUs and GPUs have become incredibly powerful and relatively inexpensive, many of those ASICs and FPGAs have been replaced in that rack of processing electronics. Those same CPUs and GPUs are now available in vast quantities in the cloud to power cloud-based video switching.

Like software-based switching, virtualized production switching in the cloud requires software, too. But rather than simply moving one big switching application to the cloud, a microservice software architecture that “break(s) up monolithic code into easy-to-maintain chunks” is frequently used with container technology –“a kind of enabler of microservice architecture”—to improve performance and spread tasks across multiple cloud servers.

TVU Networks’ TVU Producer virtualizes video production switching in the cloud. It fully takes advantage of the computing resources available there, performing live multi-camera switching, rolling in pre-recorded edited packages as needed, adding graphics and text, supporting audio mixing and handling other common production workflow tasks.

Video production in the cloud
TVU Producer virtualizes video production in the cloud

But rather than requiring expensive video switching hardware or software to run on a local computer, TVU Producer is offered on a pay-as-you-go basis, dramatically reducing upfront costs and bringing powerful multi-camera production switching within reach or everyone.

What video switcher is the best? It’s like asking which car is best for my family. It all depends. But as we journey into future, the road increasingly looks like it is headed for the cloud. 

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