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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Losey

Installing a Video Router (Not a Video Switcher) | How-to #3

Updated: May 2, 2023


Whenever you take on a large project like swapping out or setting up a video router, you want to ensure you have your ducks in a row. You shouldn’t take it lightly and you shouldn’t go into a project like this without planning and having contingencies in place.

First and foremost, you are likely going to want to do this within a single week. Your installation window is between Sunday and Sunday and if something is going to take longer than expected, you will need those extra couple of days for testing and troubleshooting. If you forgot a cable, broke something, or something was DOA (dead on arrival), you will need replacements with enough time for shipping allowances.

I always plan on starting this kind of installation on Sunday evening after church, or on Monday morning. Let’s face it, I still need to be up and running by the next week no matter what.

Here are some items you may need to get started other than your actual equipment

  • SDI/BNC trompeter to plug in and remove SDI cables

  • Cable labeler

  • Temporary cable labeling tape rolls

  • Assortment of zip-ties and cable ties

  • 50% more pre-made SDI/fiber cables than you need

  • Spool of SDI cable and terminations if you are making your own

  • Equipment rack cable support bars

  • Equipment rack screws

  • Equipment rack shelves (with holes/slots for zip-ties)

  • SDI/Fiber cable tester

  • SDI/Fiber video test signal generator if you have loads of money

  • IEC cables (sometimes incorrectly called “D” plug cables)

  • Ethernet cables

  • Video converters

We are going to break this process down into three parts. Planning, execution, and testing/troubleshooting.

Planning

Before we even take a look at what your budget might be, we need to count up all of our inputs and outputs in a cell-based program like Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel. Your inputs will consist of all of the video sources and destinations. Here is a list of the inputs and outputs from an old project of mine. Don't forget your video switcher, audio embedder and audio de-embedder, graphics computers, recording and playback devices, any TV destinations you might have, future expansion slots, frame rate converters, etc.

You will probably need to look at every piece of gear you have to make sure you put it all on there. Keep in mind that all outputs on your gear will be considered inputs on this hub and vice versa. If your gear has an input, it will be considered an output on the video hub.

The industry norm for video hubs is SDI-based (either HD/4K). But now that fiber costs are coming down and more affordable for the average organization, you can get modular video routers that have both integrated fiber and SDI so you don’t have to do conversions down the line. This is very helpful. Side note—HDMI routers are few and far between but they do exist. I don’t recommend them because you will quickly find yourself throttled by their inflexibility. It would be far more accommodating to use an SDI router and use a converter that you zip-tie to a rack for the couple of HDMI connections you might have.

Now that you have your list of inputs and outputs you can take a look at what your requirements would be. In the case above, the environment would be best fit with a 40x40 Blackmagic Smarthub. It’s not terribly expensive and easy to use for our staff. It can be remotely operated, assigned a static IP and replaced it easily if it fails. Also for this environment, a 40x40 would allow for enough future expansion and wouldn’t have to worry about jerry-rigging things together during the life of this equipment. You would expect that this router, assuming it is taken care of, has adequate ventilation, and doesn’t see excessive humidity, should last about 5-7 years without issue.

If however, you are in a situation where you are looking to fit an environment to a specific router size because you already own it, I would try to cut back on inputs and outputs by direct routing them. That means you are plugging inputs directly into the switcher and bypassing the router. But that of course means you are likely just using the router as a glorified distribution amplifier. A low cost distribution amplifier is another great use of video routers, but in this case, we are looking to simplify our troubleshooting while maximizing our operational flexibility.

Just imagine, your graphics computer dies and you already have a backup routed into the video router. All you have to do is hit four or five buttons to re-route them into the switcher. The alternative is climbing under the desk, unplugging things, replugging them in, and hoping not to cause further damage or confusion amid the chaos of repair.

There are many options for SDI and Fiber routers. Blackmagic makes 12x12 versions to 256x256, but they’re not the only company available. There are Grass Valley routers, AJA routers, Ross routers, and more. Because I worked at a church, Blackmagic ends up being the most economical and accessible and we were also comfortable with its reliability. Consider your needs, budget, redundancy needs and your organization's capacity to troubleshoot and provide maintenance throughout the life of the router.

Execution

So now you have everything purchased, you have either pre-made SDI/fiber cables or are ready to make your own, and you are ready to pull the first cable. Whether you are operating out of the back of the equipment rack or have everything strewn over a large table, you need to double-check all of your inputs and outputs. Go over them once more and physically put check marks on your router map printout. If you’re sure you’re set, start unplugging.

Congratulations, you’ve reached the event horizon of what I recognize as a conundrum of escalating commitment. The further you go down this installation rabbit hole, the more committed you are to having to finish the project and the direr any mistakes will become should they arise. But don’t worry. Mistakes and oversights are the one thing you can count on happening. Hopefully, you’ve mitigated as many as you can in the planning phase but time will tell.

Once you have everything unplugged, you can get a good look at the situation. Plan out the best way to physically route the cables away from the video router on the equipment rack. This will save you a lot of headaches later if a cable spontaneously goes bad or you are tracing a mislabeled cable back to its source. Clean and manageable cables will also help with ventilation behind the router and lead to prolonged equipment life. It’s sort of like how you are supposed to keep your house organized and not have things all over the floor. If there’s a fire you have a safe path to the exit. If it’s organized, you have a lot more room but somehow the same amount of stuff. It is all efficiently managed.

To do things effectively, one technique I use is to either make all my own cables with two feet extra length or use pre-made cables and pull them tight enough to be smooth in a swooping direction away from the router. Then about three or four feet away from the connection, I coil and zip-tie all the excess that I can access later if necessary. I may need to use that service loop to re-terminate a bad connection or get the length to relocate a cable that was plugged into the wrong location.

Next is the most important part aside from actually getting everything plugged into the right location. It’s cable labeling. You might think that this is easy and could be done on the fly as you go. Just label the cable with where it’s going. But now you have to consider and remember, an input from one place is an output on the other and from which perspective will you label it? Will you label a cable with one identifier on one side and a different identifier on the other? That will get confusing fast. I prefer to use a kind of shorthand. I standardized my own labeling system so that I will always be able to quickly identify a cable.

Video cable labeling should always be from the perspective of the most important equipment. Since you usually only have one router in small to medium churches I use the router as a reference. In the event you have two, it’s important to identify which router it’s referring to. I’ll give you an example using the table from earlier. The label will be signal type : router ID : input or output number : direction from router.

When troubleshooting, I need to be able to quickly identify the cable type, direction, and location. Because I see “V,” I know it’s video. If I saw an “N,” I know it’s network. An “A” would denote audio and an “S” would be sync. The next number XX refers to which video router and so on. If you plan your labeling ahead of time, and I hope you do, you can have all of your labels pre-printed if there are not too many. You’ll need two labels for each cable, one for each end but if you have a larger video router system, it may be best to print them as you do so you don’t lose them.

After you label the cable, I recommend that you plug in the cable immediately so you can move on to the next one. I also recommend that instead of plugging the cables in sequential order (1, 2, 3, 4…) you actually plug the cables in by cable accessibility instead. That usually means plugging in the thing that’s hardest to get to first. If you are very organized, that might be tough to do but it will help in the end. Don’t bother zip-tying everything either. You’ll kick yourself in the testing phase because you’ll have to dig your hands through all the sharp zip-tie ends like some low-budget version of the Saw movies to cut them all. It’s best not to waste your time and zip-tie them at the end.

But still, as you’re plugging them in, make sure they have enough slack to pull to the right locations. Here is an example of an audio rack I soldered. I actually terminated everything in the order I wouldn’t be able to solder anymore. I know it’s not a video rack but it still applies. I soldered everything first, tested each channel, fixed anything I needed, and then zip-tied them to look neat. I’m glad I did because I accidentally swapped two cables even though they were labeled with cable flags. I was thankful because I didn’t have to pull everything apart to fix them.


Testing and Troubleshooting

Let’s say that you plugged everything in, labeled it all correctly, and are now looking to start troubleshooting. This is the fun part. Depending on the type of router you decided to purchase, you may even get to label your inputs and outputs and use drop down menus. This makes your life very easy. But sometimes you don't. All you might get is a network interface designed with Windows 95 and a matrix of X’s across two axes of numbered inputs and outputs. You’ll be thankful you have a printout of your router plan and can go one by one through your list.

As you go one by one, make sure you have your whole system powered on. This way, you’ll be able to see things start to work. If you have a recording of your church service, you can play it through your playback system and physically route it through your system to make sure the signal path is working. If you don’t you can rely on a BNC cable tester but that won’t work through the router. You’ll need a video test output tool which is very expensive and usually out of reach for the average church. It plays stock videos with sound at output frame rates and resolutions based on your choice. Again, helpful but not necessary or normally feasible.

If you encounter an issue or see something you don’t expect, don’t panic. Don’t start trying to fix it. Plug everything into where you expect it to go and get a “lay of the land.” Everything that does or does not work will give you a good idea of what you need to prioritize. For example, if you have a frame rate converter for a DVD player or something that you aren’t using the next week, forget about it for now. Work on the video switcher inputs and find out why they aren’t working or are out of order. Find out why the projector isn’t getting a video signal, or why the SDI recording equipment isn’t able to play back any video. I’m not going to go into the weeds on the best way to fix anything. All I am going to do is walk you through how to approach the concept of troubleshooting.

When troubleshooting any production things, whether it’s video, network, audio, or lighting, follow this simple rule.

Stay consistent.

Consistency is what is going to solve your problem. It’s going to feel like it takes longer but it’s actually going to be faster. You also will find that you will understand your system better as well. Follow the entire signal path from the beginning to the end of each problem. Below is a list that you would follow to give you an example of troubleshooting a camera sending a video signal to the video switcher.

  1. Is the camera on?

  2. Are the frame rates and resolution of the camera matching what you set for the video router?

  3. Do you get a positive cable test from the camera to the video input?

  4. Can you send a different video signal through that same physical cable line successfully?

  5. If you bypass the router, is the camera signal seen when going directly to the video switcher?

  6. Does the cable from the router to the switcher have a positive signal test?

  7. Can you send a different signal from the router to the same input?

  8. Is the frame rate and resolution of the switcher match what you set the router to?

If you follow this same logic from the beginning to the end of each cable problem, you will find the issues. Usually, it’s your own mistake. But every once in a while, there is an issue with the equipment. At least now you can tell the manufacturer with confidence your process and skip their monotonous and terrible help-desk questions.

Conclusion

This was not an exhaustive or comprehensive how-to guide for installing a video router. It was merely some considerations and questions for how to approach installing a router by yourself. Once you do it, you will be better equipped to handle another one. Just in case you have more questions, I am going to give you a list of considerations you need to look up to have a more complete picture of what to look into before your install. I will hopefully get to make posts for each of them in the future but I’m betting you’re resourceful enough to find the information in the meantime.

  • Generating a video sync signal and distributing it across your environment.

  • Making your own SDI cables

  • Racking and managing cable tension for video cables

  • Basic networking knowledge and remote control for video routers

  • How to use wire snips to shorten zip-tie tails

  • How to embed or de-embed audio to and from an SDI or fiber-based video feed.

  • How to set up a computer with SDI/fiber or HDMI outputs

Happy routing!


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