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The Magic of the Video Router
A True Matrix Solution to Cable Swapping Mania
by Bob Hudson

It started out simply enough - you had a DV camcorder which you connected to your computer via Firewire so you could capture video to your hard drive. Later you realized you needed to plug a video monitor into the camcorder during editing because you realized a computer screen is not a good way to judge video quality and colors.

Then you decided to plug a VHS VCR into the DV camcorder to capture some analog tapes to the computer. Later came a U-matic VCR to handle some tapes from a client. Then you realized you needed a timebase corrector and a proc amp to improve the quality of the old tapes and audio mixer and audio equalizer to help process the sound.

Even a simple workstation for converting analog video to digital video includes several pieces of equipment, each needing lots of cables for the many input and output jacks. The setup above includes an S-VHS player, a U-matic format VCR, DVD player, a proc amp for black level and color corrections, a video mixer with timebase corrector, a DV camcorder being used as a digital video recorder for the analog-to-DV conversion, a video monitor to watch all of the above, and tying it all together: a SignVideo video router that allows all of those input and outputs jacks to be "re-wired" without having to unplug a single cable.
What was a simple tidy setup has now grown into a rat's nest of cables and constant confusion as you plug and unplug cables in order to connect different pieces of equipment together.

I know that confusion all too well. No matter how I set up my equipment, I found that there were many, many cables that all too frequently needed to be moved from one connection to another.

An example is having one timebase corrector (TBC) and several VCR's representing different formats. If you want to record from VCR "A" to VCR "B" you plug "A" into the TBC and the TBC into "B." Later you need to dub from VCR "B" to VCR "C'" what happens? You unplug everything and move the cables to different connections. Add an audio mixer to the mix and the confusion multiplies.

This can be, to put it mildly, a real pain, often involving moving equipment around to get to the connectors, awkwardly trying to read connector labels that are small, appear upside down from your vantage point and are poorly illuminated.

Obvious solutions to this include designing your studio with enough room to walk behind the equipment; carefully labeling each end of each cable; and, keeping a flashlight and magnifying glass on hand so you can read the labels on the connectors. This makes it easier to see what you're doing, but you still have to re-route cables to connect different pieces of equipment.

Adding a simple video mixer seems like it will help, even if you don't actually need to do any mixing: mixers have multiple inputs and often more than one output so it should eliminate some of the need to move cables from one connection to another. I've used a mixer for that very purpose and even added some of the inexpensive mechanical A/V switches to gain more flexibility.

But even the mixer and the little video switcher failed to solve the problem of needing to move cables when using different pieces of gear.

What did solve the problem was being introduced to something called the "matrix video router."

Think of it as a video switcher on steroids.

Before we get into the details, let's talk about the name - or names - of this miracle worker. You can call it a video router, a video switcher or even a video routing switcher. And, there's the mouthful, "true matrix video router."

The unit I work with is made by Sign Video and they call it an " 8X8 Video Routing Switcher," and it's not just a video router it is also an audio router.

The real key to the operation of this type of video switcher is the "routing" part of the name.

The "8X8" refers to the fact that the router has eight sets of inputs and eight sets of outputs each with video and audio connections. The audio connections are RCA jacks. The video jacks vary depending upon which model you use. Sign Video makes models with s-video jacks, composite video›with RCA jacks and a model with three channel component video.

Switching between the various inputs and outputs is done electronically and this is where the magic happens. A mechanical video router can select one input and send it to one output. You could wire a mechanical switcher to send the video signal to more than one output, but it would make the signal unusable.
Bottom right are two simple switches that switch multiple sources to one output. Bottom left is a video mixer: it also switches multiple sources to one output, but has circuits to make a smooth transition from one source to the other, with options for more than 200 types of transitions. On the top is a Sign Video 8x8 routing switcher - with 8 inputs and 8 outputs and the ability to send a source to multiple outputs, or set up one or more chains or loops of video connections.
A true matrix video router has no such problem: it's designed to not only allow one signal to go to multiple outputs but also to keep that signal as clean as possible, free of degradation.

When I first heard of video routers I thought of them as something that would be handy if you wanted to perform a task such as copying one videotape to several VCR's at once. Indeed, they will do that and you can plug eight VCR's into Sign Video's 8X8 video router and feed one of them to all the others. Or if you need to make cassette copies of an audio project, you could plug in multiple cassette recorders and use it as an audio router.

However, this is not just a video distribution amp, as I discovered. Let's take a look at some of the tricks you can do with a video router with matrix switching.

Getting back to those eight VCR's plugged into the video router: what if we wanted copy four tapes at the same time? We could do it, just by pushing the appropriate buttons on the front of the video router. We could connect any pair of VCR's, or connect one VCR to two VCR's and yet another VCR to three other VCR's. In short, you can have several things going on at once using the same video router.

For example, you could have one path with video going from one VCR to another via a proc amp, while another path routes the audio through an audio mixer or audio equalizer. The audio and video do not have to follow the same path.

But what if you don't make multiple dubs to tape, how then does a matrix router fit into your studio?

These days when I shoot new video, it's on digital tape, but I have a large archive of projects I did on analog tape. I want to capture most of the master tapes to the computer so I can archive them to DVD. Just recently I had to dig out some 9-year-old analog camera tapes because the client wanted that video on DVD after selling it only on VHS all these years. I digitized those camera tapes and edited the project from scratch to make a new digital master.

My analog tapes are on VHS and SVHS, Hi 8 and Regular 8 and U-Matic. In addition I have a lot of reel-to-reel and cassette tapes from audio-only projects that also need to be digitized.

So, between my own stuff and analog tapes that clients might need included in a project or converted to DVD, I've got a lot of analog formats to deal with. I also have to connect a video monitor and an audio amplifier so I can see and hear what's going on. Then, I have connection to the computer for digitizing the audio and video, and of course the proc amp and a couple of mixers.

At last count I have 11 pieces of analog gear neatly stacked in a corner of my studio and for the first time ever it's easy to use it! I'm able to route all of it through the Sign Video 8X8 router and, as silly as it sounds, it's kind of fun to use.

How did I connect 11 pieces of gear to a router with eight inputs and eight outputs? Well, I use my video and audio mixers and the little mechanical switchers you can pick up for a few bucks at Radio Shack. With these, I'm able to make a set of router connections do double or triple duty. For instance I never need to playback an audio cassette and reel-to-reel tape at the same time, so they can share a router connection via the audio mixer which goes directly to the Sign Video router.

I am able to route any piece of audio or video gear through the audio mixer and the video gear can all be routed through the video mixer which functions as a timebase corrector and/or the video can be routed through a proc amp for adjusting black levels and colors.

As I mentioned, the Sign Video router lets you set separate paths for the audio and video so the video from VCR "A" could go through the proc amp to VCR "B" while the audio takes a separate path through the audio mixer enroute from "A" to "B". And while that is going on I could have the output of the audio cassette player also going through the router to the computer's audio input.

I've created a written list of which gear is connected to which set of connections on the router and it is very easy to set up a new path using that list and the numbered inputs and outputs on the 8X8 routing switcher.

Analog is not dead: if anything, the easy access to DVD and CD recording and has led to a whole new business digitizing analog audio and video tapes and interest in archiving analog to digital will only increase when we get the next generation of DVD's that will allow a single DVD to hold far more data than the first-generation DVD's. If your studio uses analog, chances are a good video and audio router is going to make your life a lot easier.

Article Copyright © 2005 by Bob Hudson

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