Choosing a video switcher (also known as a video mixer) is an important decision for most video producers. Like Hal, the computer in 2001, a Space Odyssey, it's the brain and central nervous system of a production. Like Hal, the switcher could kill that production if it isn't up to the job. This section of the buyer's guide will give you a round-up of what to look for, followed by listings of which models are available.
For the neophyte, a switcher, with its myriad of knobs, faders, T-bars and inputs and outputs can be overwhelming. But there's an enormous amount of repetition involved. The control of all video inputs is the same as the next, so once you understand what's going on with one row, you'll understand what the next does.
When choosing which model is best for you, it really helps to know what kind of productions you'll be using the switcher for. Will you use it for switching between cameras in a live performance? Do you need to assemble footage for future editing and fine-tuning later? Are you a VJ working in a club, timing your cuts and dissolves to the beat of the music? How many cameras or sources do you anticipate plugging in? Will you be mixing sound as well, or will someone else be handling that phase of the production? What sort of environment will the switcher be in? If it's a controlled back room sort of facility, the switcher can be less rugged than one that has to go out in the field.
That's a lot of questions, but it's better to spend more time planning ahead, before shelling out four figures worth of cash only to feel disappointed with the switcher on the job.
To T-Bar or Not to T-Bar
Perhaps the most important element of a video switcher is its T-bar control–or lack thereof. Some low-end switchers lack them, but the typical tradeoff is that these products have simpler effects to manipulate. Another advantage to not having a T-bar is that it's less likely to get bumped if the switcher is in a busy, high-traffic area. Also, some VJ-style productions prefer the quick-throw element of a fader, as opposed to the slow, steady feel of a T-bar. Obviously, it helps to know what the switcher's primary use will be. Most directors expect a T-bar to be there, preferably something with a solid metal feel that's easy to swing to manipulate effects.
Beyond the T-bar, there are other important features to look for, such as the number and type of inputs and outputs you'll need. The more inputs, the easier the set-up and less fiddling in mid-production is required, even if the all of the inputs can't be active at any one time. Most switchers will have a mixture of composite and S-video inputs. Higher-end switchers will have bayonet-style BNC inputs, which help to prevent an accidental yank of cables when the switcher is in a high-traffic area.
Naturally, outputs are essential as well. Lower priced units typically have composite and S-video outs. Higher priced units also add BNC connectors to the mix. Not all video switchers contain audio inputs and outputs. Some mixers assume that you'll be summing the mix as it goes into the master recorder using separate audio gear, which may or may not be a consideration for your projects. If all-in-one sound is important to you, make sure the unit has a sufficient quantity for your needs, which are typically RCA-style connections.
Generally, the greater the cost of the switcher, the greater the number of effects it has, but this isn't always true–with some switchers, you're paying for durability, not a myriad of flashy effects. But typically, video switchers allow for chromakey effects, a variety of wipes and pattern dissolves, and the ability to do titles. Some mixers allow for a variety of chroma colors others less so. Also, some video switchers feature a beats-per-minute display to allow VJs in clubs to sync up transitions and effects to the beat of the music that's playing. Others also include a MIDI-input, allowing the switcher's effects to be remote-controlled using the common language of electronic musical instruments.
Lower-end machines often lack chromakey, but typically have luminance control, allowing them to at least insert simple titles into a project. These types of low-end mixers also occasionally lack preview outs, but then they typically offer very simple effects, and thus little to preview.
So how to best use this guide? Make sure you have some idea of what most of the projects you'll be using it for entail. But also try to leave some room for expansion. And consider the environment you plan to use the switcher in as well. You want to be switching your switcher for as long as possible!
Ed Driscoll is a freelance journalist who's covered home theater and the media for the past decade.