Aston Broadcast Systems

Aston Broadcast Systems


Following 15 years of employment with EMI Electronics, Sales Engineer Dennis Jones started up a company called D. N. Jones Electronics Ltd., selling electronic equipment. An ex-colleague then introduced him to a two-man firm in Aston, Birmingham, UK that manufactured digital Sync Pulse Generators for Closed-circuit television systems. One of these men later left, so Dennis Jones and the remaining man partnered to form Aston Micro-Electronics Ltd. A few months later, Dennis' partner died, so Dennis carried on the business, manufacturing and selling Sync Pulse Generators from the loft of his home in Camberley, Surrey, UK.

Inevitably, Dennis was asked for products which at that time were unavailable, so to satisfy the requests, his friend and neighbour Laurie Mayhead - whom Dennis had first met at EMI in the late 50's - agreed to help design various television equipments in his spare time for Dennis to manufacture and sell. One day, London Weekend Television, who were preparing to take over their franchise, asked Dennis to try and acquire 2000 P.O.-type jack Sockets for their audio systems. This led to a year when Dennis, along with his wife, children, a local metalworker and assorted relatives worked around the clock making over 7000 jack sockets for LWT, the BBC and a few other customers.

As the business grew, it became necessary to expand, so some disused buildings in Pirbright, Surrey, UK - originally used as stabling and latterly as a blacksmith's shop - were bought with planning consent for industrial use. At the same time, Laurie Mayhead decided to leave his job and join Dennis in partnership. As Dennis' deceased partner in Aston Micro-Electronics still had a shareholding in the company, it was decided to cease trading under this name and so in 1969 D. N. Jones Electronics Ltd. changed its name to Aston Electronic Developments Ltd., and Aston Electronic Designs Ltd. was also formed, headed up by Laurie to concentrate on the design of new products.

Following an enquiry from the BBC for another 25,000 jack sockets, Aston Electronic Developments Ltd. was led back into the jack socket business again, and over the next few years sold around 100,000 jack sockets per year, as well as manufacturing lamp sockets for Plessey, while Aston Electronic Designs Ltd. started on sub-contract wiring. The Television business, however, gradually increased - due in great part to John Holton, who joined the company in 1971 for this purpose - and so eventually the company decided to concentrate on this far-more-profitable side of the business and the jack socket business was transferred to Mosses & Mitchell Ltd. of Farnham, Surrey, UK, who'd been the main sub-contractor at that time.

During this period of expansion, the number of staff had gradually increased to twelve, working in 800sq/ft of space, so - thanks to an introduction by the Council for Rural Industries - the company relocated to its current premises in Deepcut, Surrey, UK - a building originally built for use as a cafe, bungalow and garage. Today, following many extensions and alterations, the only original part of the building still in existence is a section of wall!

The company continued to be customer-led into new products. The original Sync Pulse Generator design that Dennis had acquired from his former Aston-based association was replaced by a new design by Laurie called the "SPG5", using the latest in integrated circuits. A Vision Mixer was also designed but didn't sell very well. Because of this interest in video, the companies were approached by an entrepreneur who wanted them to design a teleciné machine that could be used in the home to show films on the home TV. A design was undertaken that would be smaller and cheaper than anything previously available, and Aston Electronic Designs Ltd. entered a new and challenging field of design.

Meanwhile, a special video system had been put together for the RAE at Farnborough, UK, which allowed them to record and freeze the movement of machine parts. The timing of these events was recorded by an ordinary clock which was included in the picture. This wasn't very precise so they were asked to design an electronic system which would enable each frame of the TV picture to be timed. They were able to crib ideas from the 7-segment displays that were just becoming available, and by this time real integrated circuits in DIL packages were available, and so they were successful in their attempts - and being able to display time directly in this way was but a short step to the concept of an electronic video clock/timer, hence shortly afterwards the "VNG1" was launched which was known as a Television Number Generator, a forerunner to the Character Generator.

By this time both companies were doing well, although the audio jack socket business was declining, so the two companies decided to join forces, with Laurie taking over R & D and production and Dennis looking after sales and finance. The combined business was run under Aston Electronic Developments Ltd., and Aston Electronic Designs Ltd. remained dormant for some years.

Since the company could now generate numbers electronically, they decided that it ought to be possible to generate the complete range of characters using the same principle but with more segments. With the help of friend and consultant design engineer Laurie Atkin, Aston launched the first Video Character Generator, the VCG1. Following a demonstration of the unit at the BBC, the producers were so excited about the equipment that they insisted on hiring the only two prototypes to use for the 1974 General Election. Of course, Aston employees were the only people who knew how to operate it, so Laurie Mayhead and John Holton spent an exciting night live on-air showing a very wide audience just what an electronic Character Generator could do. After that day, the company never looked back.

In the mid 70's Aston also became involved in designing Teletext encoding & decoding hardware, and won a significant project with the European Broadcasting Union (the EBU).

For the next range of Character Generators, digital design techniques were required, and so in 1978 John Wood was recruited from ITN, where he was head of development, to lead the design team on this project. Although the original Character Generators had been called the VCG1, customers had been just calling it the "Aston", so it was decided that its successors would be simply be called "Aston" and sequentially numbered. This led to the "Aston 2" in 1980, and then the "Aston 3" in 1981, which was an improved update on the Aston 2. Significantly, users could now select from a palatte of over 4000 colours, instead of the previous eight, and great effort was taken to ensure that the product was easy to use. This attention to the ease of operation was to become a marker in the company's DNA - a factor that still drives Aston's designers today - and these two models were the backbone of the company's sales for several years, selling thousands in over 50 countries. In 1982, the company won the Queen's Award for export achievement.

The next Character Generator was the "Aston 4". The major new feature on the Aston 4 was the anti-aliasing of the characters. This removed the stair-stepping and inter-line flicker produced by Character Generators such as the Aston 3, which produced digital characters with hard edges. In addition to anti-aliasiing, it was possible to configure the Aston 4 to be a dual-channel Character Generator, allowing dual user operation or Preview-Program use. The Aston 4 was launched in 1985. In addition, the "Caption" Character Generator was designed as a single-channel cut-down Aston 4.

In 1988 the "Wallet" 'Still Store' was launched. This provided a cheap and fast way of storing and recalling images. This was superseded in 1991 by the "Wallet 2" Still Store, which offered improved functionality and dual-channel output. In the tradition of innovation, 1991 also saw Aston design and launch what is regarded as the world's first high-definition Character Generator, the Model 1250. Around this time, Dennis Jones & Laurie Mayhead decided that they should start preparing the way for the business to continue successfully after their retirement, so John Holton and John Wood were encouraged to take on more responsibilities.

As the product range grew, Aston dropped the sequential naming convention, and the "Motif" Character Generator was launched in 1991. This Character Generator offered new features such as online Fount sizing and smooth roll and crawl at any speed. The previous Character Generators could only roll/crawl smoothly at predefined speeds. The Motif "ESP" (Extra Static Plane) offered 32-bit colour and dual planes, allowing a static plane and a dynamic plane, which enabled rolls and crawls over static backgrounds - thus negating the need for additional Still Store hardware. The top of the Motif range of Character Generator was the "Ethos", which was launched in 1994, offering dual outputs which enabled Preview-Program operation, and also introduced character animation. The final member of the Motif Character Generator range, the Motif "XL", was launched in 1995, offering the power and performance of an Ethos but without the Preview option - enabling it to be the same size as a standard Motif.

The Motif and Motif ESP were a big hit in Germany, and, through distributor Penta Studiotechnik, units were sold to most major regional broadcasters in the country. Aston were also one of the first manufacturers to address the needs of the new European electrical emissions regulations.

At IBC 1996, Aston demonstrated the prototype "VIP" addition to the Ethos. The VIP (Video Insert Plane) enabled real-time video to be recorded and replayed. In addition to demonstrating the VIP at IBC 1996, the prototypes of the "Concept" Still Store were demonstrated.

The Concept Still Store followed the trend of many other broadcast equipment manufacturers in using Microsoft Windows as the core operating system rather than products like OS-9 as used in products like the Motif. This helped reduced development time considerably as Windows developers were much easier to find.

Motto Character Generator: TODO

In June 1997 the company entered new ownership, with Mike Clarke and Peter Radford joining the company as Managing Director and Financial Director respectively, and three senior executives joining the board.

In 199?, The Motif range of Character Generators was replaced by a new improved range based on a new platform named "ViVid". This new range comprised of a family of interfacing and offline preparation products designed to ease integration into any facility, no matter what the size or budget. The Aston "Green" was an entry-level single-channel Character Generator aimed at budget-conscious broadcasters and facilities. The mid-range offering was called the "Blue", and was again a single-channel Character Generator but with greater power than the Green and the option of VIP for the integration of clips into the information graphic. Finally, the top-of-the-range "Red" offered dual-channels for live application where manual editing of one channel is required while the other channel is on air.

In 2001, Aston became a wholly owned member of the Softel Broadcast Equipment Group, consisting of Softel Ltd., Softel USA Inc., & Aston Broadcast Systems Ltd.

The latest generation Aston graphics product, the Aston 7, matches the strengths of modern Windows PCs and PC graphics hardware, with the needs of today’s 'IT-centric' broadcasters, to offer a unique, powerful and future-proof 3D TV graphics presentation platform. For the new A7, Aston has abandoned the traditional design of CG hardware products and has developed a flexible and scalable graphics 'system' to meet the needs of the increasingly 'IT-led' broadcast industry.


* 1966 - Dennis Jones joins Aston MicroElectronics Ltd., manufacturers of Sync Pulse Generators
* 1973 - Aston's first Character Generator, the VCG1, is launched.
* 1980 - The Aston 2 is launched, Aston's first digital Character Generator.
* 1982 - The Aston 3 Character Generator is launched.
* 1985 - The Aston 4 is launched, the first anti-aliased Character Generator.
* 1988 - The Caption Character Generator and Wallet Still Store are launched.
* 1991 - The Wallet 2 Still Store and the HD1250 high-definition Character Generator are launched.
* 1992 - The Motif is launched, the first Character Generator with smooth roll and crawl.
* 1993 - The Motif ESP Character Generator is launched.
* 1994 - The Ethos is launched, the first Character Generator with animation.
* 1995 - The Motif XL Character Generator is launched.
* 1996 - Prototypes of VIP and the Concept Still Store are demonstrated at IBC.
* 1997 - Company enters new ownership with Mike Clarke as Managing Director.
* 1998 - VIP and the Concept Still Store are launched and the Concept Clip Store is demonstrated at IBC.
* 1999 - VIP Clip is launched.
* 2001 - Softel acquires Aston.
* 2006 - The Aston 7 is launched

External links

* [ Aston Broadcast Systems Ltd.]
* [ Softel Ltd.]


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