Blackmagic video switchers are great but if you’re a regular at DigiProTips then you know that my background has dealt a lot with vision mixers/live video switchers and more specifically, Tricaster vision mixers from NewTek.
However, I’m also aware that Tricaster’s are quite advanced machines and not everyone needs their full capabilities. In fact, for the majority of video production professionals and video creators out there, something like the Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini has all the inputs and outputs you need.
But therein lies another problem, which ATEM Mini to choose (there are three) for your first video production switcher?
How do I know what I’m talking about? Head to the DigiProTips Experience and Background page to find out how I’ve built up my knowledge over a career spanning feature film, broadcast TV and digital content production.
It’s probably also fair to say that at DigiProTips I’m a fan of Blackmagic Design equipment and software as well. However, although I have a very slight bias towards the brand, I can guarantee this article is not in any way promoted or paid for by them. These are my own views and using my own experience, I will help you decide which is the right choice for you.
What Does A Video Production Switcher Do?
The first thing to note about them is that they are called many different things but essentially they all mean pretty much the same. You will hear them called ‘media switchers’, ‘video switchers’, ‘mixing desks’, ‘live video switchers’, ‘vision mixers’, and many more. Also, note that ‘vision mixer’ can also refer to the person in control of the mixing desk.
If you’re just entering down the rabbit hole of live video switchers and vision mixing desks (or software), then you need to think of them as physical video timelines with a limited amount of inputs. Instead of layers or nodes, you have SDI or HDMI inputs, and instead of a program monitor to see your edit you have a physical HDMI output to a TV or computer monitor. You cannot see a timeline, rather the timeline playhead is constantly playing and you are making cuts/transitions as you go.
Vision mixing is essentially live video editing.
It does take practice to get it right.
Why would you want to do this?
Well, there are quite a few reasons, the main being for live productions where it is being broadcast out live to a TV channel or to social networks. The second main reason is for video creators to reduce the amount of post-production work. By editing as you go on the video production switcher itself, you only have to make a few, if any, tweaks in post before your video is ready to send to a client or publish online.
How Do Live Video Switchers Work?
Every video production switcher/vision mixer is slightly different in its set up and how you operate it. Some come with operating software (Tricaster’s/Broadcast Pix) others are purely physical hardware, such as the ATEM Mini Blackmagic video switchers, others can just be software-based and not have physical inputs at all (such as Wirecast and vMix). They are all video production switchers.
For our purposes with the ATEM Mini Blackmagic video switchers, they work by way of an onboard computer taking multiple high-resolution video sources (in the form of HDMI) and simultaneously displaying and recording both the inputs and outputs of that setup.
That computer is controlled by a physical interface known as a ‘control surface’. It has a unique set of buttons on it that correspond with the actions you wish to perform with your live edit or video previews.
Depending on the ATEM Mini Blackmagic video switcher that you intend to get, you also have options for recording the live mixed output (that you see on your program monitor) and in the Pro ISO version, you also get the ability to record each individual input to its own video file as well (known as ‘ISOs’).
Using the ATEM Mini Blackmagic Video Switcher
The way you use all live video switchers, including the ATEM Mini Blackmagic video switchers, is by orchestrating the live inputs into the switcher. Pressing each input on the control surface/mixing desk as and when you want to ‘switch’ to that input.
Your aim is to seamlessly cut/transition to new shots/angles/inputs at the right time, and without mistakes or technical errors. Essentially, you (as the vision mixer on the desk) become the director and have to not only think about what you want to show and when but also know where each key is under your fingers to get it right. It is like playing a technical piano.
That might sound daunting but with a few practice sessions under your belt you’ll be off and flying, live editing and leaving your post-production intensive competitors in the dust.
In large TV studios, the role of vision mixer and director are split. The director of the gallery is in charge of what to show and when and verbalises this to the vision mixer who executes the directors’ commands at all times. Fortunately, the ATEM Mini Blackmagic Video Switchers are much smaller than TV studio mixing desks and the learning curve is therefore much smaller.
The Different Types of Input on Video Production Switchers
With the ATEM Mini Blackmagic Video Switchers you have four physical HDMI inputs on the back of the unit. These are the four inputs that you can switch between with these video productions switchers.
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that each HDMI input has to be a camera. As I have done many, many, times in the past, I use inputs for all sorts of things, by way of connectors and adapters. A popular option for gaming streamers is to use one or two of the inputs for gaming consoles and then the remaining two inputs are different camera angles of themselves. That means that the streamers can have picture-in-picture (PiP) of the gameplay over their camera, cut to full-screen gameplay, and have PiP of themselves or switch between all four as and when they please.
Other uses are to have computers attached via HDMI so that you can show desktop operations whilst recording a camera view of yourself too. Or you can have other switchers attached via HDMI so that you can have a completely mixed output from another switcher going into your switcher to be used as a separate source. Small TV and studio setups do this so that one vision mixer can be working on the VTs/graphics inputs whilst the other is switching between camera angles of the presenter.
Another use, using one of my favourite technologies, is to have sources from anywhere on your network connected with NDI and then fed into your switcher with a converter. NDI is a cable-less protocol for sending video and audio data between computers using your network connections.
NewTek Tricaster switchers have NDI inputs built into them but on the smaller scale of ATEM Mini Blackmagic Video Switchers, this isn’t available. However, NDI to HDMI converters are now readily available and not too expensive either.
Why is this of use?
Well, it’s of use in small to medium studio setups where you have editors or motion designers working on VTs or overlays that you want to include in your stream/live recording, that aren’t physically in the same room as you but they are on the same network as you. With NDI you can play out of Adobe Premiere Pro or After Effects live and have it playing instantly as an input to your switcher, no export or ingest procedure needed.
There are many more uses for NDI for video productions of any scale. Find out more about them in my eBook, ‘Your Guide to NDI’.
Why ATEM Mini Blackmagic Video Switchers?
For me the answer is simple… They just work.
When you first start out with video production switchers you don’t want to make it overly complicated and complex to just connect up a few cameras and record between them. With some switchers, you have to learn the whole internal operating system and it’s physical capabilities first before you can start to comprehend and master the art of vision mixing.
With the ATEM Mini series of switchers all of that is taken away and you can almost be up and running in 5 minutes but the quality is still there.
This is their big advantage. Easy to use, great quality and low entrance price.
One really important, and integral part of vision mixing, is colour balancing. ATEM Mini Blackmagic video switchers come with a free copy of their software called ATEM Control Software. This not only allows you to control the switcher via a computer software interface but if you are using Blackmagic Cameras in your setup it also has Camera Control too.
This allows you to control the colour balance of individual cameras and ensure that your cameras all look balanced and that you won’t be switching from one shot to another that has a completely different colour and brightness to it. Trust me, I’ve spent many an hour in post trying to correct these mistakes by vision mixers not correctly setting up the cameras before recording and it defeats the object of having less time in post by using a live video switcher.
Another reason to go with the ATEM Mini range is their inclusivity with the Blackmagic Design ecosystem. Bringing your footage into DaVinci Resolve to tighten up your edit, improve the grade or add effects is incredibly easy and intuitive. Adding more Blackmagic Design peripherals like a Hyperlink is simple to do and expands your production set up to be able to record more inputs and outputs or share to bigger screens.
A great feature of the ATEM Mini Pro is that you can save your program mix as a DaVinci project file. So you can go into it and change any of the edits you made on-the-fly, for your final export.
The ease with which you can set up and get to work with the ATEM Mini range is its true benefit. They are incredibly small for live video switchers, 9.35×1.38×4.07in and 19.4oz of physical hardware is incredibly easy to transport around and takes up minimal desktop space in your studio set up.
They feature 4 HDMI inputs, two mic inputs (3.5mm jack connections), ethernet port (for software control), power and if you are using the Pro model then you have a USB-C port for connecting an external drive to record to also. That may not seem like a lot of ports for a video production switcher but you have to ask yourself what it is that you’re trying to achieve and how many cameras or mics you need to achieve that? For many entering the game or who are looking to downsize even, the ATEM Mini range has the perfect amount of I/O.
Ok, So Which ATEM Mini Video Production Switcher to Get?
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ATEM Mini – Beginners Video Production Switcher
The baseline model Blackmagic video switcher is simply called the ATEM Mini. It is the lowest priced of the three options to choose from and it has everything you need to get set up and running with live video switching for streaming or broadcast.
The ATEM Mini has built in DVE for picture-in-picture effects, broadcast quality transitions, upstream keyers for removing blue and green screen backgrounds, a downstream keyer for superimposing custom graphics, audio inputs and mixer.
There is HDMI out for monitoring your program mix or for connecting to a projector or HDMI recording device. The ethernet port allows you to connect to and control your ATEM Mini from the ATEM control software.
The ATEM Mini is a great first live video switcher for anyone new to video production switchers and doesn’t want to be over-faced with complicated menus, workflows and also, doesn’t want to invest too much into it before getting the hang of it.
The ATEM Mini is a great price for anyone looking to get into live video switching and usually retails for around $295.
It’s worth noting that with the baseline model of the ATEM Mini you won’t be able to stream out directly using the ethernet port. That is reserved for the Pro model and above. To stream, you need to use the USB out and route the output like a webcam.
ATEM Mini features 4 HDMI inputs and has an intuitive, easy to use design that makes it possible for anyone to live stream multi camera productions online via services and software such as YouTube Facebook Live or even Skype.
ATEM Mini Pro – Intermediate Level Video Production Switcher
The ‘Pro’ model of the ATEM Mini has everything the baseline model has but it also includes direct recording to USB flash disks in H.264 and direct streaming via Ethernet to YouTube Live and more. There’s also a multi-view with 4 cameras, media, preview, and program plus status of recording, streaming, and audio.
This is where the world of live video switching/vision mixing starts to level up. With the introduction of the multi-view capabilities, you can start to orchestrate your mix by queuing up shots and play-ins to make your production more fluid and professional looking.
The ability to stream and record to external storage is the real win here. Many streamers, content creators, and video professionals want the final program out recorded to be able to create cut-downs for social media or to be able to pull out sections of the broadcast for VT packages to be broadcast in other parts of the studio. It means you don’t have to rely on an HDMI recorder or other peripherals to record your final mix.
The ‘Pro’ model is a fantastic piece of kit and is still a brilliant purchase for someone looking to enter the game without having any prior knowledge but even better, this would be the perfect kit for someone migrating from software-based video production switching to hardware-based switching.
The ‘Pro’ usually retails for around £595.
ATEM Mini Pro includes 4 HDMI inputs, USB webcam out, HDMI out, Fairlight audio mixer with EQ and dynamics, DVE for picture in picture, transition effects, green screen chroma key, 20 stills media pool for titles and free ATEM Software Control. ATEM Mini Pro also includes direct recording to USB flash disks in H.264 and direct streaming via Ethernet to YouTube Live and more.
ATEM Mini Pro ISO – Professional Level Live Video Switcher
The ‘Pro ISO’ is the top dog of the ATEM Mini range. It offers everything the baseline and ‘Pro’ models offered but with the added ‘ISO’ in the name you now get 2D DVEs, transitions, and 20 stills for titles. Offering you the ability to level up the visual elements of your production another notch by including overlays, transitions, keyers, and titling.
ATEM Mini Pro ISO also includes a built-in hardware streaming engine for YouTube Live, Facebook, Twitch and more, plus multiview to see all cameras on a single monitor. Plus with the ATEM Mini Pro ISO model you also get recording of 5 streams including all input as clean feeds for editing, plus a DaVinci project file for fast edit turnaround and Blackmagic RAW file relinking for finishing in Ultra HD.
This last part is the real definition of a video production switcher in my opinion. In my career, using live video switchers, I have always recorded each individual input as its own video file (ISO) so that I can relink in post and re-mix the final program if needed. Mainly I use them to be able to create cut-downs for social media and other VT packages for the studios but re-mixing it in post. The way you mix for live TV is not always the way you want the edit to look when it’s a separate, smaller, video. Having the ability to record each camera input is therefore a vital piece of that workflow and shouldn’t be overlooked.
If I were looking at getting a video production switcher and were very serious about having all the necessary functionality that much bigger and more expensive switchers had but without having to put down that kind of investment, then I would 100% be looking at the ATEM Mini Pro ISO as the go-to model.
It’s a steal to have this much functionality for only $895. Even Wirecast and Wirecast Pro cost in this region and that is a purely software-driven video switcher. You can’t beat the amount of I/O, recording ISOs, and visual overlay abilities in this price range.
I would highly recommend anyone who is looking to get an ATEM Mini to consider going with the ‘Pro ISO’ model. Once you have got used to how a live video switcher works you may end up kicking yourself at the lack of capabilities of the lower two models.
ATEM Mini Pro ISO has everything the previous two models had but you also get recording of 5 streams including all input as clean feeds for editing, plus a DaVinci project file for fast edit turnaround and Blackmagic RAW file relinking for finishing in Ultra HD.
Whichever model you end up going with, remember that practice really does make perfect and with vision mixing, you are the director, editor, camera op, and audio technician all in one. So you need to know your way around the kit and be able to troubleshoot on the fly.
Enjoy the experience because live video switching is a real thrill when you get it right and it really does improve your level of quality, efficiency, and ultimately makes you work smarter, not harder. And that’s what DigiProTips is all about!
For more content on video production switchers then check out my post on NewTek Tricasters: