By Neil Bennett | on July 11, 2002
Price: £2,190 plus VAT; SX-8 Switcher £1,500 plus VAT
You get a lot for your money with Video Toaster 2 – essentially a live-production studio on a PCI card. The £2,200 price tag includes the capture card and software, real-time live-production tools, a real-time NLE, titling software, a 3D-modelling and animation suite – with a built-in 3D wizard for non-3D heads – and a full compositing tool. But, contrary to the original announcement, European users don’t get In-sync Speed Razor. An extra £1,500 gets you the SX-8 Switcher breakout box – which for the price is pretty stunning. It’s a 5U box with eight inputs, each featuring a Y/C input and component Y, U and V BNC inputs. That’s not all, as the component inputs can each be used as composite inputs, allowing users to have up to 24 concurrent inputs (or mix-&-match between component, Y/C and composite) – more than enough even for the budding Big Brother producer. A Switcher in time The Switcher also features two microphone inputs, balanced stereo (one pair), unbalanced stereo (six pairs) and an Aux Return for outboard device input – plus four rows of video out, two stereo pairs of balanced outs, six stereo pairs of unbalanced outs and an Aux Send channel. Alongside the standard analog inputs on the PCI board and the Switcher, the Toaster can also receive a DV signal from a standard OHCI FireWire card, with the possibility of multiple cards/connections being available in the future. Start working with video within Toaster 2 and anyone who grew up with desktop-based NLEs will find things a little strange. Anyone with studio experience will feel instantly at home though, as the interface is analog looking and covered with buttons, switches and even a virtual crossbar. I suspect more Toaster users will come from the former background than the latter, and I wonder about the efficiency of the mouse-driven button interface, but a healthy dose of training and a well-configured keyboard – as there’s a good number of shortcuts available – should allow most users to work with speed and accuracy. However, the Toaster interface’s clarity is good. It’s clean, which is compounded by the modular nature of the tools. They pop up and slip away depending on what a user is working on. Users will probably need a dual-display set-up though, especially when working with multiple sources. The software switching tool exists in two modes – one for up to six inputs and one for up to 24. As well as having your live feeds and being able to cue up and preview feeds and clips, you have instant access to DVEs through a set of buttons (14 or 24). This allows you to quickly and smoothly transfer from one feed to another. There’s a wide range of DVEs overall (more than 300), which are smooth and range from the sublime to the corporate video-ready ridiculous. The basic switching environment is backed up by a wide range of professional live-broadcast tools – including a digital-disk recorder (DDR), audio mixer, chroma/cross key, procamps and even a background generator and downstream key. It’s items such as these last two that show just how much thought has gone into Video Toaster. The ability to add a plain colour or gradient background – with alpha – behind your keyed-out presenter or plant a keyed ident in the corner of a broadcast may not be the first thing a user looks for in a live-broadcast tool, but they can be used repeatedly. The DDR holds all of the pre-compiled clips for easy insertion into a user’s broadcast. The procamps – of which you can have up to 24 running concurrently – are backed up with a full waveform monitor and vectorscope. The outstanding thing about Video Toaster 2 is that for all of this to work properly it has to run in real-time. It’s nowhere near as robust and reliable as a hardware-based solution, so Avid and its ilk have nothing to worry about, but it’s good enough for most low-end broadcast output. And with built-in real-time Web encoding (to Real or Windows Media formats), it’s great for Web programming as well. The main event Video Toaster 2 ships with four main non-live applications: Toaster Edit, Toaster CG, Aura 2.5, and LightWave Express. Toaster Edit is a basic NLE based on the live-production environment. While sturdy and running in full real-time for multiple effects – depending on your computer’s specs – it’s not in the same league as dedicated NLEs such as Final Cut Pro. It uses the same DVEs as the live environment, which are smooth but inflexible next to the software-driven effects of Final Cut or Matrox’s hardware-rendered effects – and many standard NLE filters are missing. Toaster CG is one of the best titling tools currently shipping with video-editing systems, with great control over text and graphics within a production studio-style interface, though it’s not in the same league as standalone tools such as Boris Graffiti. Aura is NewTek’s 2D-compositing tool. More like Commotion than After Effects or Combustion, it specializes in video paint – where it’s not quite up to Commotion’s level – but also includes filters and a chroma key with decent gamut controls. LightWave Express is a cut-down version of the full package but does include FX_Monkey, which uses a wizard-based system to quickly build simple 3D objects such as titles. It’s basic but ideal for non-3D pros that just want to spruce up their graphics. LightWave Express features the great rendering engine from the full package and can be used to design DVEs for the Toaster. Video Toaster is an excellent solution for live and Web broadcast with no real competitors, offering real-time switching with a huge range of complementary tools. Its software base – excluding the capture card – should make upgrading easy and inexpensive, which should allow NewTek to iron out its few niggles and maybe even create a full NLE in there as well.