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The Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini--Is It for You?

Smashing through the $1,000 floor for a 4-input hardware video mixer, the Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini costs just $295, and it looks like a stunner on paper. Let's take a closer look.

How many times does Blackmagic Design drop a hole through the floor? Smashing through the $1,000 floor for a 4-input hardware video mixer, the Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini costs just $295, and it looks very good on paper. But there are a few missing features that you need to know about before you plunk down your money. Let's look it over.

Positives

  1. Price. OMG! $295 for a 4-input, frequency-agile, scaling input video mixer, with an internal audio mixer? Take my money! Heck, that’s less than some scalars, let alone the ability to also embed multiple sources of audio into the program stream. Wait, did we mention the ability to store 20 RGBA graphics for titles, logos, etc. And these don’t take up one of the 4 inputs. Chroma Key! Plus an additional downstream keyer, DVE, etc. That’s a lot of capability for $295.
  2. Audio features.6-band EQ, compressors, gate, panning, expander, “audio follow video” on all 12-channels of audio going through the ATEM Mini. It even works with external physical audio control surfaces, if you have a connected PC running the control software dedicated to audio control and connect a USB control surface to that computer. So, add the cost of a computer, and the control surface.

  3. Physical audio controls.You can do basic audio adjustments on the ATEM Mini itself! Turning channels on and off, adjusting levels for both the HDMI sources and the two microphone inputs into the ATEM. That’s something that's very handy indeed.
  4. Separate Fade To Black. It’s like having a whole additional bus to be able to fade your talent, keyed over a moving video background, with logos, and a lower-third all going at the same time, and cleanly fade all of that to black is a very polished way to end a program.
  5. No T-Bar. Some may argue with me on this one but after more than a decade of doing live events I simply don't see the need for a T-bar. Unless you need the partial-dissolve, which faded out in the ’70s. In fact, I’ve been switching on software systems for many years and have never missed it. Hobbling a compact control surface with a T-bar that sticks out and makes it hard to pack is just an annoyance. I’m happy not seeing it on the ATEM Mini.

Negatives

Aside from needing external recorders, external playback, external laptops for control (which is the same for the other ATEM mixers), the first big problem I see with the ATEM Mini is...

  1. No Quad-Split Preview. This is huge. The $1,000 competitors—Roland V-1HD, Cerevo LiveWedge—offer the ability to see a live preview of all the sources in a second HDMI or SDI output. Cerevo also makes those sources visible in its Android app. BMD, however, has no visual preview of all your sources, not even in the app. Several Roland mixers even offer the source previews in a screen on the mixer itself. How can you see the shot of all your cameras before you call any of them up live? Imagine a church service where you cut to the audience camera only to catch someone yawning away. Corporate training, or cutting to a sports camera but the operator lost track of the play. You need to see what’s coming before showing it to the world. You can set up the ATEM Mini into a preview/program mode where USB is the program, but now the HDMI out is the preview. But in order to see the shot each of the other sources have, you have to constantly cycle between them. Which is a lot of extra work, and it removes the possibility of leveraging the HDMI out for something very important: a master recording. I always recommend a high-quality local record of the HDMI program. First, because it’s not compressed for streaming. The streaming app can crash. The stream to the cloud could have dropped frames. It could even be arbitrarily cut off because of music in the background (I’m looking at you, Facebook). Because of all these reasons, and more, having a clean, high-quality, local record of the master program feed is essential. To do this, you need the HDMI for program. This leaves you with no way to see a shot before taking it live.

  2. Not low-latency mixing. No mixer with internal scaling processors is low latency. BMD touts a low-latency passthrough of Input 1 for eSports. Other mixers do this too. It means the one video input is hardware routed to the HDMI out, which the gamer can use on their monitor so the video they see is not delayed by the mixer's scaling and frame sync. It doesn’t mean the whole mixer is low latency.
  3. Audio metering. Unless you feed it into a monitor or recorder that displays audio meters, you’re pretty much guessing what your audio levels are. When you push to YouTube or Facebook, there’s no on-screen audio level meter. Even Skype, mentioned throughout BMD’s web pages, doesn’t give you an on-screen audio level indicator. Alternatively, you have a PC dedicated to call up the ATEM Software Control’s audio panel, and leave it active, so you can see, and control, the audio. Which leads to...
  4. Needing a computer.BMD has this very basic app that could run fine on a tablet, or even a phone, but it requires a computer. How many times do you see someone using a $1,500 MacBook Pro to set up or run ATEM Software Control? The app is simply a GUI to commands that tell the ATEM what to do. It’s a virtual Control Surface. No processing or anything. One way around this is to leverage a basic Windows tablet for a few hundred dollars each, which I’d actually make a dedicated device to do nothing else but deliver access to the audio mixer, and setup for the ATEM. Remember to add the USB networking adapter and the ethernet router to the total package price. Maybe the ATEM Mini 2 will have an attached, 7" flip-up touchscreen tablet already set up with a touch version of the ATEM Software Control. It would be the part of the mixer you never knew how you lived without.

  5. Wearer of Many Hats. While the ATEM Mini instills the belief that one person could operate camera, adjust audio, switch cameras, and run the live stream for a live band show (as pictured on the ATEM Mini page), I highly recommend against it. One person simply cannot pay critical attention to the audio mix of a live band, while ensuring quality camera framing for each camera, punching the right shot up at the right time, and making sure the stream is solid the entire time, all at the same time.

As Blackmagic Design shows in many other places, the division of labor is a much better way to do those kinds of productions. Having camera operators, having a dedicated audio person, allows each to give their task the attention it needs. ATEM Mixers are designed for collaboration, that’s a good thing.