Review: Hands On with the Spark D-Fuser
By now we all have figured out that analog video connections are not the way forward. Being limited to SD resolutions is just one thing. Those of you that ever tried to do a pixel mapping on a LED wall via a scan converter and an Edirol V8, you will know that pixel perfect digital connections can be better than free beer and pizza under a hot shower.
Trouble was that up until last year, there was no hardware mixer available that could mix between two digital sources. None that a normal person could afford anyway.
If you've been keeping your finger on the VJ pulse as close as we do, you couldn't have missed the arrival of the Spark D-Fuser. However, we appreciate the fact that some of you are busy touring or designing wicked content. Or even may actually have a social life. Either way, you could have missed it getting that elusive 'Buy Now' button earlier this year.
Or it could be that you've seen the button and the hype, but are wondering if it's really all that it's cranked up to be. It could be that you want to know more about this mysterious magic box that will solve all your problems, before you part with your hard-earned VJ cash and actually press that 'Buy Now' button.
Either way, we've had the pleasure of working with that little bad boy on various occasions, as well as seen it in use by quite a few touring VJs. So we figured it was high time to give a first hand experience of what the D-Fuser actually defuses.
What it is
The Spark D-Fuser is basically a remote control for the TV-One 1T-C2-750 Scaler. That sounds a bit 'un-glorifying', but if you ever had the displeasure of working with the TV-One bare bones, you know that it is in dire need of a better user experience. This is what Toby Spark thought as well, and it became his ten year odyssey to create exactly this. Braving sirens, cyclopses and sleepy toms, this finally resulted in the Spark D-Fuser.
Put simply, it allows you to connect two DVI sources, fade between them with a crossfader, and send the resulting mix as one fresh, crispy DVI signal. In the words of Toby himself: "Boom…"
Looks good on paper. But let's get to the meat of this burger, how does it actually perform?
Look and feel
The overall look of the D-Fuser is very smooth. It's black and yellow color scheme is pleasing to the eye. We know it doesn't count for anything when it comes to how well it works, but hey, who doesn't like to look good in pictures?
Toby kept the actual product to a minimum. The D-Fuser itself is a small separate box which connects to the TV-One scaler via an included RS-232 cable. This means that the total weight of the D-Fuser is less than a kilo, and fits snugly in your backpack. Anyone who has ever played the game of "how-much-extra-weight-can-I-fit-in-my-hand-luggage-before-they-kick-me-off-the-plane" can appreciate this. So can everybody that ever rode their bike to a gig with two laptops and a projector balanced on their baggage rack.
The choice to have the TV-One box separate however, results in 2 extra cables on the table, and on an already crowded space, this can get messy real quick. Also the control panel is still exposed, which can result in accidentally activating something on the processor during a changeover. Trust me that that results in hilarious panic all around.
On the up side, the separation does mean that if you do need to dive into the TV-One menu itself, it's easily accessible. Also it keeps the clutter of connection cables out of sight behind the laptops, where they belong. The controller is what matters, and this can fit easily on any table.
The controller itself feels a bit plastic, and does not really feel meant for quick mixing. For VJ use, on an already messy table, it can be hard to quickly find the right knob to fade out when you missed a musical cue. Any attempt to get some rhythm going with the crossfader results in the device making laps around the table.
But perhaps that's an old-fashioned way to approach a mixer. During the days of the V4, we used the mixer as an additional instrument. Computers were struggling to keep up with 3 layers as it was, so doing some quick invert flashes or cross cutting on the mixer improved the overall performance in ways not possible in software.
The Spark D-Fuser is a new mixer for a new age. Compositing and layering are done in software, where we have blend modes and effects that actually look good. We're capable of running the entire show of one laptop with 8 layers of 1080p steamrolling along at 50 fps. The actual performance happens in the software and on the midi controller. The mixer just needs to provide a stable output for that performance.
Instead of being a 'anything-goes-VJ-mixer', the D-Fuser is meant for people who take their art seriously. It feels at home with a touring visual artist where the intended use is a smooth fade from A to B for the next artist, or a quick cut to the backup laptop in case of emergency.
This is where the D-Fuser really shines. It's very clear that Toby spent quite a few nights with his baby, coming across every problem and thinking of a good way to fix it. Setup is very intuitive, and once you get the hang of the onboard menu screen, you can setup everything you want without reading the manual. Which is good, because none is included. Extra info can be found online however.
The onboard menu itself is very well designed. It gives direct feedback on the important bits, and has an easy to navigate menu structure for the harder bits.
The TV-One does not have a preview output, which can result in it being a bit of a black box. The D-Fuser solves this issue by sending a Spark logo as long as no inputs are found. This is also reflected in the onboard menu, where the word Logo is displayed. This is actually very useful, because you can be sure that at first start up, a logo is always shown on the output. If this is not the case, you know the problem lies somewhere in the signal flow behind the D-Fuser.
The moment an input is detected, it changes it's status to Live. When said input is lost, the output is frozen. This makes it a very useful piece of kit for setting up before showtime. Once the signal is correctly detected and set up, you can take your laptop back to the hotel while leaving the D-Fuser running as an active input. When the time comes to plug back in, everything is handled smoothly without loss of signal.
The D-Fuser, or rather the TV-One, has one big drawback when it comes to connections: when for some reason the input is not recognized correctly, you're out of luck and have to figure it out by trial and error. No additional info as to why you're not getting a signal is to be had, which can be extremely frustrating when setting up in a stressful environment. This is purely a limitation of the TV-One, and if you really can't live with this, you're going to have to spring for a V800.
Choosing the correct output resolution is quick and painless, and has support for the most common digital resolutions, as well as dual head and triple head resolutions. Once the output resolution is changed, the inputs are scaled automatically to this new resolution, which results in quiet sighs of relief when struggling to get things set up correctly with the promoter breathing down your neck. For fine tuning, there are additional options for fit, fill and 1:1.
In case you're completely lost, there's also a hard reset option, that walks you through the key presses needed to reset the TV-One itself. It's little things like this that make the D-Fuser feel very user friendly and thought out.
The D-Fuser has the basics down pat: it has a crossfader, cut buttons and a fade to black. As a testament to the work that Toby put into this, he managed to talk the TV-One people into making a custom additive blend mode, which allows the D-Fuser to mix without a dip in the brightness when the crossfader is in the middle. It's awesome to see a company like Corio actually take the VJ industry seriously in this way.
It also supports luma and chroma keying. I'm actually quite surprised by the luma keyer. It can pull an especially clean key when using alpha channels on the source laptops.
After this it pretty much ends for the D-Fuser. Personally, I think it's a shame Toby hasn't come up with an elegant way to control the scaling functions of the TV-One. For most users, the Fit/Fill/1:1 scaling options on the D-Fuser cover 99% of the bases when it comes to scaling issues. It's a very elegant and quick solution to a process that is nail pullingly gruesome to fix on the TV-One itself.
But if you regularly come across weird LED processors or use uncommon inputs like an iPad, the scaler can really come through. The TV-One is capable of pixel level positioning, and allow you to adjust even a single misaligned pixel. Of course, these functions can still be accessed via the front panel, but they are horrible to use.
Then again, you can also get lost in the scaling options. More menu options, buttons and dials do not necessarily make the product better or easier to use. All in all the features of the D-Fuser are minimal, but they do what they need to do, in an intuitive and easy to understand way.
A very powerful feature is the support for two-way OSC communication. This means that the device can both send OSC messages and can be controlled by them. The implementation is relatively straightforward. Both the fade to black and crossfader output their values and can be accessed using fixed addresses.
The D-Fuser has the additional benefit of being DMX capable for either input or output, so you can fade the house lights with it. Perhaps even more useful, it can be used in a cue controlled theatre setup to have control over projector brightness levels from the lighting desk. This makes the D-Fuser a very powerful tool outside of the VJ circuit as well.
If you're looking for a relatively cheap way to mix two laptops while on tour or just at your local residency, the D-Fuser is the way to go. It has plug-and-play appeal and fits in your backpack.
Functionality wise the D-Fuser doesn't offer much in terms of customization unless you want to get deep and dirty by editing .ini files and uploading to the device, which can be a bit daunting to most users and impossible to improvise on the spot. As a tool to work with many changeovers or guest VJs during a long festival day, the TV-One has too many quirks. Instead, the D-Fuser is mostly meant as an addition to an already existing visual setup. Once you get your kit working correctly with it, it will keep working, reliably and solidly.
In the end the D-Fuser is being marketed as a DVI mixer. In that it does what it says on the tin, which is a good thing. Toby really spent a lot of time on it, which he used to narrow down the TV-One functions to what a user would actually need, and what they shouldn't be bothered with. You can argue about some of the choices he made, but the result is an easy to use and intuitive product, that does what it needs to do.
In this, the D-Fuser is very much like Resolume, where we sometimes have to choose usability over feature. Believe us when we say this is often a much harder task than actually writing the code.
In the end, we can do nothing but applaud Toby for the crazy amount of hours, blood, sweat and tears he put into giving us this very useful tool. It's this DIY spirit that makes the VJ community what it is.
Toby, here's to you! You rock because you rule. Now go press that button, everyone.
Posted by Joris on Monday August 12, 2013 at 15:39 Tags: D-Fuser * TV-One
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