Since Blackmagic Design acquired DaVinci a few years ago we have all wondered the same thing: when is BMD going to slash the price of the full grading panel? That hasn’t happened. I suspect this is because of the limited sales of the panels and their probably being fabricated in a manor that didn’t lend itself easily to volume production.
For a very long time there have been rather limited choices in having a dedicated control surface for your grading app. There are some third party panels which vary quite a bit in terms of price, features and application support. They all work with varying levels of ergonomic comfort and product support. However, there had been a large hole in the market for something we’d all been wanting: A grading panel that was high quality, thoroughly integrated, and reasonably priced.
The new BMD panels were announced a couple weeks before NAB 2017. The excitement was big at the show to be able to see and touch the new Micro and Mini panels. They are very welcome options for using Resolve. The two panels are aimed at different spots in the marketplace and different needs. Having taken both for a quick test drive at NAB, I ordered the Mini a week after I got back. Lets take a look.
One thing that has made some panels tricky to get going is the combination drivers, panel configs and app settings. What a hugely pleasant surprise to get the Mini panel working without a fight. When it powers up, it presents you with a generic screen that has a couple menu options on top. Hitting network brought up the settings you’d expect for DHCP or manual IP configuration. A couple quick turns and clicks on the knobs and I had the panel manually set up for my network. My old grading panel also used ethernet so the network wire was already in place for me. In the past, this had been the trickiest way of getting a panel working but this time it went painlessly. Opening up Resolve and going to Prefs / Panels, Resolve simply saw my panel on the network. I selected it and was done. There nothing to install, meaning no need to make sure you have the right drivers, OS and app configs and connections to the panel. What a pleasure when something just works right out of the box!
Just as a test, I powered off the panel and also disconnected the ethernet wire from it. Resolve just reconnected to the panel when I turned it on in silence and kept working. There were no silly warning dialogs from Resolve nor did the panel complain. I just plug it back in and it works. That’s the way its supposed to be.
- I had misconfigured the IP gateway on my panel. It still worked fine. I fixed it once the Panel Config App pointed it out to me.
- Resolve apparently launches the BMD Panel Config app in the background. The second time I started Resolve up, it asked me to update the panel firmware. Hitting yes flipped me over to the config app where I did the update without any drama after connecting the USB cable to my machine.
- Power over ethernet is supported. I tested it and it worked fine. If your current router or switch doesn’t support POE you can buy an under $20 adapter to add POE which plugs inline with the ethernet cable. Its handy for remote powering the panel since you’d only have to make a single wire connection to it.
USB C is the future of computers connecting to peripherals. The Micro and Mini panels have a proper USB C connection. With a regular USB A to USB C wire you can connect it directly to just about anything. For simple single user setups and mobile use on a DIT cart thats perfect. If you have USB C connections like on a new MacBook Pro you can also power the panel from that connection as well. Lacking a USB C to C cable, I didn’t get to test powering the panel from my laptop, but I’m not worried that it works provided the laptop or hub has the output power rating.
A very nice addition for mobile DIT use is a standard XLR 4 pin for external battery power.
Build and Feel
When you first lay your hands on either new BMD panel, its clear they have been built with top quality components throughout. If you have worked on gear from the tape era, you know what I mean about stuff from that era having a super solid feel designed for everyday use all day long.
The Mini panel starts with a real metal case which should to take years of abuse. The buttons have a firm touch and positive click. The buttons are also large and well spaced out even for large hands. No chiclet buttons here. Even the smaller buttons on the top of the panel have a nice solid feel to them. The knobs are metal and have a nice roll resistance to them. Pushing them down does a reset for that parameter. On the Mini Panel they control items that appear just above them on each LCD screen. This is a great way of providing maximum flexibility while not having to use a dedicated control knob for everything.
The track balls and rings have a very deliberate and heavy feel. The rings are metal castings and have some real weight to them. The rings are held on via magnets and are replaceable. The balls also have a somewhat stiff feel in a good way; a light glance over them won’t cause them to change. This is unlike my old grading panel where the balls had a very light touch and it was easy to move them accidentally. The balls feel quite nice and deliberate in movement. I’m sure that a lot of good experience was borrowed in building the new panels from what’s now called the Advanced Panel.
The overall feel of the controls is something you just have to experience to fully appreciate how right they got this. I’ve certainly had my hands on a few other panels and owned the Artist Color for a year as reference point.
The LCD Screens
The use of LCD screens is something new for a panel like this. Traditionally, some sort of OLED or other matrix type display would have been used. Going with a pair of mini LCD’s provides a much more versatile interface. There is nice clean text rather than dots, and graphics can be displayed in full RGB color. Some settings also use red, green or blue boxes to better indicate what a knob is adjusting.
One complaint I’ve heard about the screens is that users want to be able to adjust the brightness because out of the box they are a bit too bright with a blue hue. While adjustment isn’t provided for brightness directly in the panel right now, it is provided in Resolve. Go into Projects settings via the gear icon, and go to the Control Panel section. At the bottom are two settings, one that will control the LCD screen brightness and another that will control the brightness of the button illumination. I’ve set the LCD brightness to about 5 from the default and that works really well for me. With this setting, the LCD’s loose their blue color and become a much more neutral dark gray. Everything otherwise still looks fine on them. The backlight for button brightness can also adjusted to suit.
Working In Resolve
My learning curve on this panel was minutes. To really start grading, I was mostly up and going in an hour or so. A large contributor to that was the LCD panels making accessing most of the grading controls pretty straight forward if you already know your way around Resolve. There are two things still not available as of firmware 1.1: the FX and User screens. No complaints, as I’m sure they will be completed reasonably soon.
When actually grading, you’ll find the transport controls along the right side are pretty handy. There are dedicated buttons for next and previous frame and clip. I find I hit next and previous clip all the time to do quick A/B comparisons between clips rather than wipes. The play forwards, backwards and stop buttons also work fine. What I’d like to see is that hitting the play buttons more than once quickly will emulate what most NLEs do with JKL by increasing the speed of playback to 2X, 5X, 10X, etc.
Also in this area of the panel are Previous and Next node buttons. This makes it quick to move between nodes within a grade of a clip without using the mouse to navigate them. Its very nice to keep both hands working on the panel with these options. Navigating a mix of parallel and serial nodes works fine.
Other buttons on the bottom of the panel serve to enable either a single node or an entire grade, show keyed area in image, restore previous grade via Prev Mem, undo, redo and grab stills, aka image plus grade.
One thing absent for now is an easy way to save or apply grade memories. I find this a bit odd. I’d expected that once the user button and screens are active, you’ll be able to set something up if it didn’t come that way out of the box. For now, you can copy and paste grades via the two dedicated buttons on the top. Perhaps a tease of what’s to come is that the buttons on the top right are numbered 1 through 15. Seems to me like the addition of a load and apply mode would turn these into memory buttons rather nicely. We’ll have to wait for the next firmware update or two to see how they get used.
On the top right of the Mini panel you also have buttons to add serial or parallel nodes, with or without a mask and keyframe navigation.
The left side upper buttons navigate your between main pages or functions. As you hit each button Resolve’s screen will change to match the appropriate mode. Perhaps one of the nicest features here is the Curves section. The upper most buttons above the LCD displays give you access to the 6 curve types. The lower buttons give you various adjustments depending on which curves you have active. In the main custom curve mode you get 6 knobs set to 0,20,40,60,80 and 100%. When you touch a knob it will automatically add that point. If you don’t like exactly where the point is in terms of left to right, moving the right most knob will allow you to shift that point left or right. This means if you want the 80% point at 90% its a simple knob twist. No mouse required to adjust the most common types of adjustments you’ll make in curves. This is one of the best features on this panel.
While in the Curves section, you can hit the Left and Right arrow buttons in the top left to go from the curves adjustment to several sub screens that give you the rest of the adjustments in the curves panel including the very important High Soft to roll down highlight areas.
Two other sections that the upper left buttons let you navigate to are Sizing and Window. I really love having instant access to sizing as I frequently make small adjustments in images like rotations to fix an shot thats not level, or came in scaled for height rather than width. Likewise being able to use the knobs to adjust a window, its size, position and feathering with both hands is a lot faster than the mouse. If you have multiple windows applied in a node, the left and right arrow buttons will move you between windows without need of the mouse.
Anything To Improve?
If there is anything I’d like to see implemented on this panel, it is to use one of the trackballs as a mouse control. That would cover the once in a while times you do need the mouse. Of course, if you are doing a really refined window (mask) you’ll want the mouse for that as perhaps the only real exception.
I’d also like to see some way of being able to save and apply memories rather than having to use the regular keyboard. I suspect this will be addressed a firmware release or two down the road.
A few folks have complained that the side of the panel facing the monitors is silver and is causing some reflections. The quick fix is some black gaffer tape. Maybe BMD will fix this but the tape cover is easy enough. With my setup the front edge of the panel is just under the screen above so its not really a problem for me.
After having spent a week grading a project from scratch, as well as just updating a working project, I was pleased with the performance of the Blackmagic Design Mini Panel. I picked up some speed over my last panel because of how well the Mini panel is laid out. I found myself needing to relearning where things are but it didn’t take that long. Better yet, I was keeping my eyes more on what I was grading and less on the UI for the most part.
One thing I did do when grading for more than a few minutes was to move the panel over into the middle of my desk so it sat right under the monitor. This panel is pretty big; it wants the space. You’ll want it centered so you can more easily work it with both hands. I guess that’s an excuse to finally clean your desk. I also adjusted my screens up about 2 inches so that the top of the panel just fit under the front edge. This of course also fixed any reflection issue since the silver part of the panel was now out of the way and couldn’t reflect.
Overall, the Mini panel is the panel most of us having been waiting for. If you spend any significant time grading without a panel, this will be a huge improvement over just using the mouse. It’s not just in speed, but the quality of what you are doing. Once you start bouncing between shots with one hand while making final tweaks with the other, it’s a new world. It’s much faster and more accurate than using a keyboard. Perhaps the only other panel in this price range just doesn’t have the same feel of durability or the big LCD displays. For a very long time, I thought I’d never really work on dedicated hardware again, as software and computers have taken over. Thankfully, the BMD Mini Panel feels like those big old dedicated hardware driven control panels of the past, and it’s great.