Blackmagic Design UltraScope

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Blackmagic Design’s UltraScope gained a lot of buzz at NAB 2009. In a time when fewer facilities are spending precious budget dollars on high-end video and technical monitors, the UltraScope seems to fit the bill for a high-quality, but low-cost waveform monitor and vectorscope. It doesn’t answer all needs, but if you are interested in replacing that trusty NTSC Tektronix , Leader or Videotek scope with something that’s both cost–effective and designed for HD, then the UltraScope may be right for you.

The Blackmagic Design Ultrascope is an outgrowth of the company’s development of the Decklink cards. Purchasing UltraScope provides you with two components – a PCIe SDI/HD-SDI input card and the UltraScope software. These are to be installed into a qualified Windows PC with a high-resolution monitor and in total, provide a multi-pattern monitoring system. The PC specs are pretty loose. Blackmagic Design has listed a number of qualified systems on their website, but like most companies, these represent products that have been tested and known to work – not all the possible options that, in fact, will work. Stick to the list and you are safe. Pick other options and your mileage may vary.

Configuring your system

The idea behind UltraScope is to end up with a product that gives you high-quality HD and SD monitoring, but without the cost of top-of-the-line dedicated hardware or rasterizing scopes. The key ingredients are a PC with a PCIe bus and the appropriate graphics display card. The PC should have an Intel Core 2 Duo 2.5GHz processor (or better) and run Windows XP or Vista. Windows 32-bit and 64-bit versions are supported, but check Blackmagic Design’s tech specs page for exact details. According to Blackmagic Design, the card has to incorporate the OpenGL 2.1 (or better) standard. A fellow editor configured his system with an off-the-shelf card from a computer retailer for about $100. In his case, a Diamond-branded card using the ATI 4650 chipset worked just fine.

You need the right monitor for the best experience. Initial marketing information specified 24” monitors. In fact, the requirement is to be able to support a 1920×1200 screen resolution. My friend is using an older 23” Apple Cinema Display. HP also makes some monitors with that resolution in the 22” range for under $300. If you are prepared to do a little “DIY” experimentation and don’t mind returning a product to the store if it doesn’t work, then you can certainly get UltraScope to work on a PC that isn’t on Blackmagic Design’s list. Putting together such a system should cost under $2,000, including the UltraScope and monitor, which is well under the price of the lowest-cost competitor.

Once you have a PC with UltraScope installed, the rest is pretty simple. The UltraScope software is simply another Windows application, so it can operate on a workstation that is shared for other tasks. UltraScope becomes the dominant application when you launch it. Its interface hides everything else and can’t be minimized, so you are either running UltraScope or not. As such, I’d recommend using a PC that isn’t intended for essential editing tasks, if you plan to use UltraScope fulltime.

Connect your input cable to the PCIe card and whatever is being sent will be displayed in the interface. The UltraScope input card can handle coax and fiber optic SDI at up to 3Gb/s and each connection offers a loop-through. Most, but not all, NTSC, PAL and HD formats and frame-rates are supported. For instance, 1080p/23.98 is supported but 720p/23.98 is not. The input is auto-sensing, so as you change project settings or output formats on your NLE, the UltraScope adjusts accordingly. No operator interaction is required.

The UltraScope display is divided into six panes that display parade, waveform, vectorscope, histogram, audio and picture. The audio pane supports up to 8 embedded SDI channels and shows both volume and phase. The picture pane displays a color image and VITC timecode. There’s very little to it beyond that. You can’t change the displays or rearrange them. You also cannot zoom, magnify or calibrate the scope readouts in any way. If you need to measure horizontal or vertical blanking or where captioning is located within the vertical interval, then this product isn’t for you. The main function of the UltraScope is to display levels for quality control monitoring and color correction and it does that quite well. Video levels that run out of bounds are indicated with a red color, so video peaks that exceed 100 change from white to red as they cross over.

Is it right for you?

The UltraScope is going to be more useful to some than others. For instance, if you run Apple Final Cut Studio, then the built-in software scopes in Final Cut Pro or Color will show you the same information and, in general use, seem about as accurate. The advantage of UltraScope for such users, is the ability to check levels at the output of any hardware i/o card or VTR, not just within the editing software. If you are an Avid editor, then you only have access to built-in scopes when in the color correction mode, so UltraScope is of greater benefit.

My colleague’s system is an Avid Media Composer equipped with Mojo DX. By adding UltraScope he now has fulltime monitoring of video waveforms, which is something the Media Composer doesn’t provide. The real-time updating of the display seems very fast without lag. I did notice that the confidence video in the picture pane dropped a few frames at times, but the scopes appeared to keep up. I’m not sure, but it seems that Blackmagic Design has given preference in the software to the scopes over the image display, which is a good thing. The only problem we encountered was audio. When the Mojo DX was supposed to be outputting eight discrete audio channels, only four showed up on the UltraScope meters. As we didn’t have an 8-channel VTR to test this, I’m not sure if this was an Avid or Blackmagic Design issue.

Since the input card takes any SDI signal, it also makes perfect sense to use the Blackmagic Design UltraScope as a central monitor. You could assign the input to the card from a router or patch bay and use it in a central machine room. Another option is to locate the computer centrally, but use Cat5-DVI extenders to place a monitor in several different edit bays. This way, at any given time, one room could use the UltraScope, without necessarily installing a complete system into each room.

Future-proofed through software

It’s important to remember that this is 1.0 product. Because UltraScope is software-based, features that aren’t available today can easily be added. Blackmagic Design has already been doing that over the years with its other products. For instance, scaling and calibration aren’t there today, but if enough customers request it, then it might be available in the next software update as a simple downloadable update.

Blackmagic Design UltraScope is a great product for the editor that misses having a dedicated set of scopes, but who doesn’t want to break the bank anymore. Unlike hardware units, a software product like UltraScope makes it easier than ever to update features and improve the existing product over time. Even if you have built-in scopes within your NLE, this is going to be the only way to make sure your i/o card is really outputting the right levels, plus it gives you an ideal way to check the signal on your VTR without tying up other systems. And besides… What’s cooler to impress a client than having another monitor whose display looks like you are landing 747s at LAX?

©2009 Oliver Peters

Written for NewBay Media LLC and DV magazine