Shoot Review: Datavideo SE-800
In television and video production, gone are the days of simply switching between two sources. Our viewers expect more than that.
The switcher is the heart of most video production and broadcast operations. Over the past few years, feature-packed switchers have become much more affordable. Datavideo offers the SE-800, its own entry into that product niche.
The functionality of a whole television control room, by and large, now fits into an affordable device that's the size of a small suitcase. The SE-800 is a four-input digital and analog video mixer that handles multiple formats. It allows you to mix multiple sources, enhance your video and audio, and add titles and special effects. Best of all, it does so for less than $5,000.
With sales of FireWire-enabled DV cameras at an all-time high, the SE-800 is perfectly positioned, allowing users to employ both the older analog and newer digital formats.
According to Datavideo, the SE-800 is a broadcast-quality switcher. I always find it curious when manufacturers use the term “broadcast quality.” What is broadcast quality? On one hand, it's a judgment call, as in, “It looks as good as what I see on TV.” (Sometimes this is not saying much.) On the other hand, it's an engineering term that describes a product that can produce an NTSC/RS-170A signal able to be broadcast over the airwaves. While I think the term is overused, the SE-800 meets both criteria.
The switcher can mix four separate audio and video channels. The SE-800 digital video production center is a perfect bridge between the older legacy video formats, like Super VHS and YUV, and the new digital ones. With SDI and IEEE-1394, you have a range of digital compatibility.
Regardless of the source, the switcher synchs them all via a powerful internal TBC (time base corrector). The SE-800's 4:2:2 full-frame synchronizer/TBC allows you to switch between up to four analog or DV sources and record the mixed output to either tape or a hard-drive-based medium. Alternatively, output a stable signal for live broadcast or webcast it to the Internet.
SE-800 ships with over 50 transition effects. All of them are smooth with no jaggies, as befits a hardware-based solution. However, they're mainly traditional, with wipes, reveals, and dissolves.
Unlike the case with most switchers, sound has not been forgotten. For audio, there are four stereo inputs with two additional aux channels. It's all controlled by a built-in 4-channel mixer with smooth slide controls.
The audio mixer-like layout and the smooth, solid feel of the controls will make those who like a traditional interface feel at home. From the T-bar for transitions to the joystick for processing to the large click buttons, the SE-800 feels like an audio mixer — only for video. There are tons of tools, effects, and features in this portable production center that's nothing if not practical.
I was able to use the SE-800 in two different settings: a live presentation mode and an editing mode. Setting up the unit could not be more simple. With the optional ATA-grade case, you are ready to go around the world. Just pop the top, plug in your sources and output, and away you go. The hard-shell case allows you to attach the optional TLM-404 four-screen LCD monitor to the SE-800 via a special holder and keep it in place during transport, which is a nice time-saver.
I tested the unit's signal processing and output on the bench with a Magni Systems waveform and vectorscope. For both tests, I used three cameras: a Sony VX1000, a VX2000, and a Panasonic AG-DVC60, all DV cameras. For good measure, I plugged in a JVC KY-27 with a Betacam SP back and YUV component I/O. For a recording deck, I used a Sony GV-D900 DV recorder and a Sony RDR-GX7 DVD recorder. It all worked without a hitch.
The back of the SE-800 predominantly uses professional BNC connectors, and there are tons of them. One of the strongest selling points for me is the SE-800's plethora of input and output choices: standard composite, Y/C for S-VHS, component YUV for Betacam SP, SDI, and, of course, IEEE 1394. No matter what kind of video signal I fed it, the SE-800 took it. The output looked as good as the original, which is a feat in and of itself at this price.
In addition to the switcher, I also had the opportunity to use the Datavideo 200Mbps FireWire cables that can have either a 30ft. or 60ft. reach. This flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that says that a 1394 cable can be only 15ft. long. Datavideo also makes DV Repeaters that allow you to string even more of these long cables together. I sent NTSC color bars through both a 15ft. Sony cable and the 60ft. Datavideo one, and the output signal was virtually the same on the scope. Impressive, and a perfect add-on for the DV switcher.
In a live setting, I used the SE-800 at a well-known nightclub in Waikiki, Hawaii. I took the feed of my four cameras and switched them live, adding some cool special effects like mosaic and picture-in-picture along the way. I rolled out to DVD, which I then gave to the guest of honor. Later, I took the program into an Avid NLE system to package it for a cable TV dance show.
The Datavideo switcher performed well, but the transitions were a bit ordinary. Because I had no laptop PC, I was unable to generate any decent titles. But everything performed in realtime, and with the onboard colorizer I created some very way-out effects. It was easy to see that live switching is the SE-800's forte. A special-events production company could be built around one. As could a small TV station.
Next I used the switcher as the centerpiece of an old-fashioned realtime editing suite. I used a DV deck, an S-VHS deck, and a live camera as sources. I could control the decks via FireWire or using the older RS-232 protocol. In general, I knew the footage well and could easily transition from one deck to another while rolling to a third. The SE-800 was perfect for this.
With the SE-800's software interface, those who are used to computer-based solutions will feel right at home. You can save up to 30 transitions (from the 50 that are available) in a sort of playlist to be triggered automatically. Another handy feature is the Voice Sync tool, which allows you to delay or advance the audio so that it matches the video. There's also the joystick-controlled realtime color processor/corrector.
From the interface and feature set to the tactile feel of the controls, the SE-800 feels and operates like a much more expensive piece of gear than it is. Purchased separately, the included tools would cost many thousands of dollars more than the SE-800.
If budget is an issue (and when is it not these days?), you can always start with an analog Datavideo switcher for about half the price of the DV version. Then you can add the IEEE 1394 input/output later.
Like its other products, Datavideo's SE-800 DV switcher takes a rugged, no-nonsense approach. One feature I'd like to see integrated, however, is a better character generator for titles. And make sure it comes with a full alpha channel integrated into the signal chain. There also seems to be no accommodation for the 16:9 aspect ratio, HD or not. But the limitations are few and far between. This switcher is built for the long haul and designed to be pounded on day after day. While I was able to spend only about two weeks using the SE-800, I could tell it could and would stand up to heavy use over a long period of time.
At this price and with these features, the Datavideo SE-800 switcher with the optional TLM-404 four-screen LCD is a solid, professional solution worthy of consideration. This is especially true if you have both analog and digital media sources to deal with, whether you plan to use it at live events or in an editing suite. For content producers in religious broadcasting to corporate and local TV producers, the Datavideo SE-800 offers rock-solid performance at a very affordable price.
The SE-800 DV switcher and the TLM-404 monitors add up to a professional, portable production powerhouse that fills the needs of a wide range of video projects.
Whittier, Calif.; (562) 696-2324
Product: SE-800 DV switcher with TLM-404 four-screen LCD
Assets: Heavy-duty construction, internal transcoding and time base conversion, configurable, easy to use.
Caveats: Limited transitions and titling, proprietary system.
Demographic: Small-market TV stations, schools, churches, independent video production companies.
PRICE: APPROXIMATELY $6,000 AS TESTED