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Ross Video Team Mar 8, 2021

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Living Live Podcast: The Past, Present and Future of Production Switchers


There are many moving pieces and cogs in a well-oiled production, but one of the most critical is the production switcher. As Ross Video CEO and President David Ross puts it, you can think of these key tools as real-time video editors of sorts.

Production switchers allow producers to select different audio and video sources, graphics and more, effectively crafting a “finished,” edited final production on the fly. For that reason, the person operating the switcher is just as important as the tool itself.

“It’s kind of like [a piano],” Ross said. “You’ve got a piano, but the piano player is an integral part of this, as well, because it’s a bit of an art to run [a production switcher]. … Every second counts and, if you press the wrong button, something very bad can happen.”

Ross Video has used that mindset to build a long history of expertise in production switcher development, aiming to empower producers and operators to achieve the best possible results without being inhibited by their tools.

“We have to remember we’re, in some ways, developing an artist’s tool,” Ross said. “A lot has to go into the human interface of that, as well as the technology.”

That development – and Ross’s position as an industry leader in switchers – goes back to Ross’s father, who designed an early production switcher while still in high school, eventually designed the first solid-state switcher and was one of the pioneers of chroma keying in a color other than blue, helping bring the now-iconic green screen to life.

Ross and Ross Video have upheld that tradition and built upon it, helping bring to market exciting innovations like digital video effects, high definition and other technological leaps that are propelling the art of production forward.

AUTHOR: Tyler Kern
CONTRIBUTORS: David Ross

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Podcast Transcript

 

Tyler Kern:

Ross Video has a long history with production switchers, so there's no one better to join this episode to discuss the past, present, and future of production switchers than the CEO of Ross Video himself, David Ross. David, thank you so much for joining me today.

David Ross:

Thanks for having me.

Tyler Kern:

Absolutely. So David, for anyone who doesn't know, can you explain what a production switcher does, and its importance in terms of the anatomy of a broadcast studio?

David Ross:

Absolutely. A production switcher is, you could think about it as a video editor that you have to run in real time. So if you sit there and you say, "I'm going to put a production together, and I'm going to figure out where all my cuts are going to be, and my edit and any sort of effects are going to happen, any layers you're going to add to the video, maybe a title, it's right there behind me or in front of me, the CEO Ross Video," it's supposed to be able to do things like that on the fly, and make it look as good as it was going to be if you did it in post-production.

David Ross:

And so, the person who runs this production switcher is almost as important as the switcher is. Kind of like you've got a piano, but the piano player is an integral part of this as well, because it's a bit of an art to run this. And it's also like riding a fighter jet sometimes, where every second counts and you press the wrong button and something very bad can happen, like putting somebody backstage who maybe isn't doing what they expected to be put on air, you can suddenly put them on air. So there's some big mistakes that you can certainly make in running a production switcher.

Tyler Kern:

Absolutely. You could take the nicest piano in the world and put me in front of it, and I'm still only going to know how to play Chopsticks. And so, you're right. It's one of those situations where the person and then the product have to work in tandem together to create something great.

David Ross:

Absolutely. So sometimes, when we're designing production switchers, we have to remember we're, in some ways, developing an artist's tool. And so, a lot has to go into the human interface of that, as well as the technology. Another thing that it can do, for example, is green screen and things like that, where you can superimpose video and things like that. So there's a lot of technology under the hood, and some of these switchers can be hundreds of thousands of dollars, so they can be quite expensive as well.

Tyler Kern:

Certainly, certainly. No, that absolutely makes sense. And we know that Ross Video has a long history with production switchers. In fact, I believe it was the first product that Ross Video produced in 1974, was a switcher. Can you explain your dad's role in the development of switchers and their design?

David Ross:

Oh, well that goes all the way back to my father. When he was 14 years old, he worked at a television station as a transmitter operator, and lied about his age, and eventually got involved in working in the studio and saw something doing wipes going across the screen, and layering, and things like that, and he wondered how that was done. So he actually designed a production switcher while he was still a teenager and hadn't even graduated from high school, just from knowing electronics, from looking at books on tubes, and things like that.

David Ross:

And I think the network came down and said, "You're using a switcher on the air. We haven't bought one for you yet. How can you possibly..." "John Ross did it." And they actually used that switcher for many, many years. And he actually went on to working at another company after working at the CBC designing television stations after he graduated, designing the very first solid state switcher. In other words, getting rid of tubes, going into chips, and integrated circuits, and things like that.

David Ross:

And he also had the patent for being able to chroma key on colors other than blue. So he actually thought through, green screens would be quite good. It's good for the flesh tones, and things like that, and how it all works. So he was one of the founders of that. And in fact, he just won an award for SMPTE for a Presidential Proclamation, which is saying he was up there with Edison, Kodak, Disney, and he shared the award this year with the founder of Netflix. So we have a lot of history in production switchers and in the base technologies. So yeah, when he started Ross Video, switchers were an obvious first choice.

Tyler Kern:

That is an absolutely incredible story. And I mean, you did out your dad for being an underage worker, but it seems to have worked out really, really well for him. And he's created some amazing things, obviously. And so, how did you get involved in switcher design with Ross?

David Ross:

Well, I was kind of born into it. Even before the switcher was founded when I was nine years old, I remember going to a little TV studio in the previous company, and sitting on a little stool, and they put a camera in front of me in the 1960s, and I'd be able to say, "Oh, this is like a mirror, but backwards." You look at yourself in the video. It was quite exciting, actually.

David Ross:

And I worked on test systems and things like that in manufacturing when I was a student in high school, and then when I was in university, I actually went on and started redesigning switcher software and designing circuit boards for the switchers as well. So by the time I graduated, it was easier for me to slide in and just suddenly become in charge of all production switcher research and development, and actually marketing in a lot of ways, as well, right out of school.

Tyler Kern:

So over the years, what changes have you seen in production switchers, in terms of features and industrial design? What types of evolutions have occurred over the years?

David Ross:

One of the things that's interesting, you used to be able to get, and you can still sort of buy them, but they're not mainstream, the chroma keyers that do the green screen, you could buy that outboard. You used to be able to, if you wanted to do wipes, something going across a screen, or things like that, that would be done outboard. Even the control panel, you would actually have to punch yourself in a machine shop. It was something that was done custom.

David Ross:

And what's happened over the years is switchers have just been this magnet that's brought in more and more different types of technologies that used to be in external boxes that have just been folded in. So some of the first things that we put in were digital video effects, like being able to squeeze back boxes. And then, back after that, when it was really cool to do video page turns, and warp effects, and things like that, that went into production switchers. They used to be standalone boxes.

David Ross:

And then, when we went to high-definition and we had to change from 4:3 video to 16:9, we had to put aspect ratio converters into them, and then up converters and down converters to change the video resolutions. And then we put color correctors in, and then that tied into when we're now doing HDR video, the high resolution color and so on. And control has gone into them as well.

David Ross:

So it used to be that if you wanted to control a robotic camera and just tweak the shot to get the person in the center of the screen, you would have a second device. That has gone into switchers. So switchers can now control, you can say, almost everything in the studio. So they've become this, not just a video mixer and not just a video format converter and manipulator. They've become controllers of the entire production.

Tyler Kern:

That's incredible, just to see more and more features rolled into these, and how they're able to accommodate those changes and evolutions over the years. So, David, I'm sure you've seen switchers being used in all kinds of settings, but what's the most unexpected place that you've ever seen a switcher being used?

David Ross:

Well, I think one of my favorites was actually when somebody said that they had taken it into an active volcano to do some sort of a broadcast. I mean, that's not a normal studio application. There's a lot of things that could go wrong. We didn't test the switcher to see if it worked when submerged in lava. I liked that one, for sure.

David Ross:

I think part of them, is when I go to broadcast stations all over the place, and I see them at the highest level for doing things like that and stadiums as well. But when I go to a concert, like a rock concert, and I remember seeing The Police a few years ago when they did their world tour, it was so cool to be able to walk to that tent right in the middle of the crowd, where you know they've got the audio mixers and the video switchers somewhere, and I said, "Hey," and they're like, "Ah, another fan, another fan. Whatever. Go away."

David Ross:

And I was like, "By the way, what's the model of production switcher you're using." And they're like, "Oh, this guy's actually asking an intelligent question." And they say, "We're using a Ross Synergy." And I went, "Oh, I'm David Ross. You're using my switcher. How awesome is that?" "Oh, come on in. Let me show you." So, it's another way of being a fan of your favorite band or whatever else, to actually know that they're a customer of yours.

Tyler Kern:

Oh my gosh, that's an incredible experience. That just has to be amazing, getting to have that sort of experience. So, David, let's talk about the future. What does the production switcher of the future look like? In 2030, let's say, will it looks similar to the way it does now, or what kinds of changes can you foresee coming to production switchers?

David Ross:

One of the funny things about technology at this time period, is it's not so much an evolution as a fragmentation in the directions that things are going. So, it used to be that switchers were sort of medium expensive, for example, and now there's medium expensive, really expensive, and really, really inexpensive, and everything in between, to hit every single market price point, and use point, and so on.

David Ross:

From the point of view of the technology that they're on, with Moore's law still happening, it's getting harder, but transistors are getting smaller and electronics are getting more powerful, we're able to pack more and more technology into a smaller package for a lower price. And so, when we're doing that, that's going to just continue along for quite some time. We'll continue to take things from other technology, I'm sure, and build them into the switchers.

David Ross:

But at the same time, cloud is happening at the same time. And so, how do we make switchers that are software, spin them up in Amazon, and maybe it takes up one computer in Amazon, maybe it takes up 20 computers in Amazon, depending on what you're trying to do and how many signals you want to mix. That's going to happen as well. But then, the control surface is evolving as well. I mean, we just came out with a new control panel, just about a month ago, called TouchDrive, and we put the equivalent of 50 cell phone displays onto this control panel, and added touching gestures to every one of those 50 cell phone displays. And it totally changes how immediate you can interact with this switcher to do things live, and it just looks spectacular.

David Ross:

So, if you own a television production anything, if you're giving a tour, one of the first places you're going to go is to the switcher, because it is just a work of art, just like your grand piano and your audio mixer. These are the things that you're proud of, and so on. At the same time, the switcher is also evolving into even more sophisticated devices, and Ross is a world leader in something called OverDrive, where the switcher panel is an option. You don't even need to buy it, and all the control I was talking about, you take that and you put it on steroids, and now there's just one guy with a mouse doing the news.

David Ross:

The graphics that show up, all the robotic camera controls, the video, playing stories, doing remotes, you name it, there's one guy that's just sitting there, going, click, click, click, next, next, next, problem coming up, fixed, and so on, which is completely... Imagine trying to play a piano with a mouse and a touch screen, and have a sound fantastic and be immediate. That's what we've been able to do with OverDrive. Maybe we should do that with pianos. I'm going to think about that. It could be a new product.

Tyler Kern:

That would be helpful for someone like me.

David Ross:

Yeah. So, I think it's really exciting, not just the way we think about switchers today, but all of the different directions that it's going in and all the fun designing it for customers.

Tyler Kern:

Well, that's incredible. And I loved getting to hear you talk about the past, the present, and the future for production switchers, where we've been and where we're going, because I think it's incredible. And you can't take Ross Video out of that history of production switchers, because you are just such an integral part of what's going on in this world. And it's been awesome to get to hear more of your stories, and to hear about your experience with The Police. That was certainly a good story. So David Ross, CEO of Ross Video. David, thank you so much for joining me today and talking production switchers with me.

David Ross:

Thanks. It was an honor.

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