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Review: Blackmagic ATEM Mini Video Switcher

With their new ATEM Mini video switcher, Blackmagic Design has packed thousands of dollars of value into a $295 appliance that costs less than buying many of its individual constituent parts.

Missing Headphone Output

Sticking with the theme of missing outputs, you might think it would be obvious that a video switcher that can mix 6 channels of audio has a headphone output, but this one doesn’t. This omission took me by surprise, because everything I have read about the ATEM Mini is so focused on the multi-viewer conversation with no mention about not having a headphone output. I can see how this might get overlooked because there are two 3.5mm microphone inputs and one might assume one is in and the other is out.

Is this a deal-breaker? It actually isn’t. Yes, I have come to expect a headphone output on my video switchers and soundboards but, to be honest, I only use these briefly during my setup as I do all my critical audio monitoring downstream in my live-switch and recording workflows. In my case, my headphones either connect to my laptop and I monitor the audio in vMix, or to my Matrox Monarch LCS webcast encoding hardware. If you absolutely feel the need to connect your headphones earlier in the workflow, then the previously mentioned Behringer UMC line of USB audio interfaces has you covered both for XLR and ¼ TRS inputs and with a headphone output.

HDMI Output

Normally, I wouldn’t assume there would be much to say about a single HDMI output on a video switcher, but the ATEM Mini’s lone HDMI output has a few tricks up its sleeves. Normally you would assume that the HDMI output is the program output, but that designation goes to the USB output that I will discuss in the next section. The HDMI output is more like an Aux output and you have several display options.

The ATEM Mini is the first ATEM model with a Camera 1 Direct mode. The low-latency pass-through of the first HDMI input to the HDMI output is useful when you are capturing gameplay. If you used the HDMI as a regular Aux or Program output to your monitor, the HDMI signal would be a few frames behind and that is a big deal for gamers.

You can also change the HDMI output to show either of the 4 HDMI inputs, the Program output, or the preview output. These changes are done via a connected computer running the ATEM Control software, which is a free download.

While I don’t want to come back to the whole multi-viewer conversation, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that with a connected HDMI monitor that you could preview each of your 4 inputs, one at a time, if you set the HDMI out to display the preview and you set the panel switching mode to Program Review instead of Cut Bus. In this workflow, your preview is your HDMI monitor, and your program is the USB output.

USB Output

If you are running software to record and webcast a signal from your video switcher, then you are most likely using a hardware video capture card. There are PCIe versions for desktop systems or Thunderbolt enclosures and USB devices to are popular on laptop systems. Considering that the popular Magewell USB Capture HDMI Gen 2 costs $299, you will really appreciate that you can connect the $295 ATEM Mini via, its built-in USB-C out, directly to any computer. We just talked earlier about trade-offs and the costs to add a multi-viewer and USB audio interface. What you really need to consider with USB capture (as with any other) items you might want to add to an ATEM Mini workflow, is that with the ATEM Mini you pay for that component and the rest is not only free, but is actually $4 less expensive than the most popular alternative.

In addition to being your audio and video input device to a connected computer, the USB connection also is the only connection you need to connect the same computer with the software control panel. You can still use the Ethernet port on the ATEM Mini, the same as you can with the rest of the ATEM line of video switchers, to connect the ATEM Mini to multiple computers with software control panels—and even Hyperdeck—to control recording and playback, but the USB connection for a single computer is much easier to configure.

Hardware Controls

In Program Review mode your 4-input buttons are lit green when it is the preview input and red when it is the Program output (Figure 4, below). Taking the preview as your program is as easy as selecting the Cut or Auto buttons. There are 4 buttons for selecting the duration of the transition effects that occurs when you press the Auto button, and you can also choose Mix, Dip, or among 4 DVE effects. There are 4 Picture-in-Picture presets that you can preview and turn on directly from the hardware, and you can activate the keyer as well. The hardware switcher also has buttons for Still, Black, and Fade to Black (FTB). Still activates the cirst selection in the Media Player still store, whereas the black and FTB cut to or fade your output to black.

Figure 4. ATEM Mini hardware controls

The audio controls on the ATEM Mini are very easy to use and allow you to manually turn on or off each of the 4 embedded HDMI audio sources and the 2 3.5mm mic inputs. The audio follows video (AFV) mode for the 4 video inputs automatically activates that input’s audio only when that video input is selected. Each input has a simple up and down arrow so you can adjust the levels up or down. You can even reset these levels using the Reset button, which is useful when you aren’t running the software control panel and don’t have a visual reference as to where your levels are currently set.

Software Control Panel

More advanced users will want to use the free-to-download ATEM Software Control Panel (Figure 5, below) instead of or in conjunction with the hardware switcher panel as it offers more control than the presets that the hardware buttons correspond to.

Figure 5. The Blackmagic ATEM Software Control panel

Rather than rehash the typical features and controls that are familiar to ATEM users, I am going to use this space to emphasize the usefulness of the Macros to record and replay a series of instructions. Macros are one of the features that I benefit from, especially when I am multitasking in multiple roles and need to recreate multiple different looks or call up and key out multiple lower-third titles with ease.

On the Media Pool tab you can drag and drop or use the file folder structure to add graphics to your media pool. One new feature that is unique to the ATEM Mini is the ability to capture stills from the video and add them to the media pool.

Audio Controls

The ATEM Software Control has an audio tab that displays the levels for each of the 6 inputs and master output with familiar green, yellow, and red colors for easy visual monitoring of the levels. In addition to the gain and pan for each input there are two really powerful features that are worth looking further into. The 6-band parametric equalizer allows you to shape your audio with a bell, high and low-shelf, notch, and high- and low-pass filters. I like to think of the EQ filters as tools that let me remove unwanted frequencies that aren’t part of my presenter’s vocal range and enhance those that are.

The dynamics controls are especially useful for live-streamed and on-demand video because in this medium you normally mix the audio levels a bit louder than you would for broadcast television. The reason is that you audience might be watching from a cell phone or laptop with low powered speakers and these benefit from a more compressed audio level range. The expander, gate, compressor, and limiter controls let you find a happy balance between the noise floor, average levels, and avoid clipping.

Conclusion

In many ways, purchasing the ATEM Mini is a no-brainer because of its extreme value and professional features. If you get your mind past the lack of multi-viewer and headphone jack, you will appreciate the versality of the ATEM Mini as the star of your webcast workflow, as a backup for your regular components, or to extend your current workflows to the next level.

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