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4HM – finding the gaps in broadcast technology

The ever growing need from broadcasters to interface equipment and convert different audio formats has brought both new products and new manufacturers into a small but necessary marketplace. Kevin Hilton profiles one of the latest entrants to the field, 4HM.

No matter how full a market might appear gaps will invariably appear as people realise they need their systems and installations to do something else or they have to deal with an application or function that was not apparent before. Commercial success for manufacturers can rest on spotting these opportunities and creating an individualistic product before anyone else.

That’s the background to specialist UK company 4HM, which was founded approximately two and a half years ago by Barry Revels (pictured, right) and Craig Lovell (pictured, left). Both have track records with niche manufacturers and distributors – Revels worked at Canford and, briefly, Wohler, while Lovell’s CV includes Cadac and Dolby – but in recent years both were self-employed and met while working with Bel Digital Audio.

The gap in the market the two saw was, explains Revels, something that would “bridge audio and video”. He says the de-embedders provided with many sound desks used for sound to picture work were expensive so he and Lovell thought there was some mileage in a stand-alone unit. The result was the SAM64 SDI to AES and MADI interface. This 1U rack-mount unit extracts 16 audio channels from each of its four SDI inputs, producing a total of 64 audio channels in both MADI and AES3.

Revels and Lovell founded 4HM to produce and market the SAM64, with first deliveries going to broadcast equipment hire company Presteigne Charter for facilities it provided to the BBC and ITV during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. “They were the main de-embedder for them and took the MADI feeds straight to the Lawo consoles,” explains Revels.

Soon after the World Cup contract further SAM64 were sold to the BBC for its coverage of Formula 1 motor racing. Despite having what Revels acknowledges were “two big projects” right from the start, there was the realisation that 4HM would need to create a range of products to really establish some credibility. “It’s always frustrating when you bring out your first product,” he comments, “because with only one thing to offer you don’t look like a proper company. But as the portfolio grows there is more of a system for people to work with.”

Consequently the SAM64 was joined by the MA64 MADI to multi-format AES converter, which produces 32 pairs of balanced AES/EBU and unbalanced AES3-id signals to be passed to routers, mixing consoles or other AES compatible equipment. “It’s a useful tool for capturing any MADI stream,” Revels says.

The 4HM product range partly reflects the resurgence of MADI in the last four years, despite, Revels acknowledges, being written off prior to that. “Texas Instruments stopped making its TAXIchip but now everyone is making their own MADI chips,” he says. “Part of the reason is the move away from Dolby E in favour of more discrete audio to move signals from A to B. MADI was the obvious solution and fibre connectivity came along at the right time to give it an extra lease of life.”

Another major factor in all this has been the continuing rise of sports broadcasting, which demands not just surround sound but multiple channels for a range of applications. “Sports is certainly driving the need for more exchange,” agrees Revels. “There is the interface between the broadcasters and then file-based OBs and flyaway installations, which are used at the big sporting events. MADI is designed to reduce some of that and units like the SAM64 mean multiple de-embedders aren’t necessary, because there’s often the need to bring in individual audio feeds from up to 24 cameras.”

The SAM64 and MA64 are now part of a five product range that is completed by the ASBO AES and BOB/O-32 AES/EBU breakout boxes and the BOB/I-32 AES/EBU interface unit. These are all designed and built at 4HM’s facility in Milton Keynes, to the northwest of London. The company has formed relationships with local component suppliers because, Revels says, “production is key” in this kind of small volume manufacturing.

Three new products are planned for the coming four to five months, with launches due at IBC 2012. One of these, Revels promises, will be “unique”. In the meantime he and Lovell are building up a distribution network but it is the investment in R&D that will carry on the search for those remaining gaps in the market.