Blackmagic Design UltraStudio 4K and UltraStudio Express

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Post-production technology is changing with the shift to file-based workflows, Thunderbolt data paths, and adoption of 4K. To address the varied needs that range from one-man-band shops to large facilities, Blackmagic Design has developed the UltraStudio Thunderbolt product family. This includes the low-cost Mini Recorder and Mini Monitor modules at one end and the UltraStudio 4K Extreme at the other. I tested the UltraStudio 4K and UltraStudio Express, which sit in the middle of the family.

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UltraStudio 4K

The UltraStudio 4K is a rack-mount unit that’s designed for facility or mobile truck installation. It is one rack unit tall, connects to a Mac or PC via a single Thunderbolt cable, and is compatible with Thunderbolt and Thunderbolt 2 protocols. All connections are on the back plane and the fan vents through the sides for tight rack spacing. The sleek front surface features a small confidence LCD display and six illuminated audio/video input selector buttons.

As a 4K unit, it supports numerous 4K UHD, 4K DCI, 2K, 1080p, 720p, NTSC, and PAL formats and frame rates. The back panel connections cover pretty much everything, including SDI, HDMI, composite and component analog video, AES digital audio, as well as XLRs for timecode and two channels of analog audio. If you need more than two channels of audio, then that is designed to be passed as embedded SDI or over AES. There’s a Thunderbolt loop-through, as well as two SDI loops for the two SDI input connections. Finally, UltraStudio 4K supports connection to a VTR, so it includes a standard 9-pin remote connector.

Like other Blackmagic rack units, UltraStudio 4K does not come with a power cord. This is an international, multi-standard system that can be installed into 120-240V/50-60Hz electrical systems. Since power plug configurations vary around the world, Blackmagic has opted to have you provide your own. In the United States, any standard three-prong power cord – like the one on the back of most monitors – should fit. Thunderbolt cables are also not included.

UltraStudio 4K is built around a chipset that supports SDI, 3G-SDI, and 6G-SDI bandwidths. This is essential for high-frame-rate 1080p, stereo 3D, 4:4:4, and 4K workflows. Yet these units are still compatible with SD and HD infrastructures. 6G-SDI (6Gb/s) is fast enough for UltraHD video at up to 30fps to be passed over a single BNC cable. In standard HD operation, the two SDI outputs can be configured for a full HD and a second down-converted signal. This unit doesn’t up or down-convert between 4K and HD or SD. However, if you are working in DCI versus UHD sizes, UltraStudio will up or down-convert to the nearest 4K size – up to 4096 or down to 3840 pixels wide.

In the UltraStudio product line, the big brother is UltraStudio 4K Extreme, a larger, more powerful unit with 12G-SDI bandwidth. That’s enough for 4K 60p video over a single BNC cable. It features even more connections, a larger LCD display, dual power supplies, and built-in hardware encoding for H.265 and Apple ProRes (on Mac OS X). 4K Extreme not only connects via Thunderbolt, but can also connect to a PCIe host using a small PCIe adapter card. Therefore, you aren’t limited to computers with Thunderbolt. This is the same unit that Avid will be selling as the Avid DNxIO. That version will embed hardware encoding of the Avid DNxHR codec and will be sold and supported through Avid and its reseller channels.

df2915_ultrastudioexpress34UltraStudio Express

If you need something portable, then UltraStudio Express fits the bill. This is an SD/HD unit that connects and is powered via a single Thunderbolt line. The small aluminum housing includes SDI and HDMI i/o connectors, as well as a multi-pin port for everything else. The unit ships with two breakout cables for a variety of analog audio and video connectors. One breakout cable features professional BNC and XLR connectors, while the other uses RCA plugs. The “pro” cable also includes a 9-pin VTR remote. UltraStudio Express is fanless and small, so it’s a perfect laptop companion. If you only need SDI or HDMI connectivity, then there’s no need to connect either of the breakout cables.

Like the larger 4K systems, UltraStudio Express supports a wide range of SD and HD standards with some conversion capabilities. On input it can convert HD to SD or SD to HD. On output from HD to SD or 720 to 1080. UltraStudio 4K adds SD to 720 or 1080 conversion on output. So, while there is a good range of conversion options on both systems, these might not cover every combination of frame rates, pulldowns, etc.

Both units are driven by Blackmagic Design’s Desktop Video software. This installer includes drivers, the Desktop Video Utility, Media Express, and Blackmagic Disk Speed Test. On a Mac, you access the Desktop Video Utility through System Preferences to set up the configuration of the unit. Media Express is Blackmagic’s own media player, capture, and print-to-tape software application. This is important for Final Cut Pro X users, since that NLE is designed only as a file-based editor without its own tape capture or output modules.

Diving in

df2915_Media-ExpressSince these are Thunderbolt devices, I tested both the UltraStudio 4K and Express units on my Retina MacBook Pro. I connected the output to a Panasonic 1080p monitor via SDI and later to my home Samsung using HDMI. Thunderbolt is hot-swappable, so it was easy to go back and forth between units. The Blackmagic Desktop Video Utility quickly recognized each unit for fast reconfiguration of settings if needed. Both units work with a wide range of Apple, Adobe, Avid, and Blackmagic Design software, so regardless of whether you are using Resolve, Premiere Pro CC, FCP X, or Media Composer, the systems just seem to work. Check the specs on the website, but a ton of other applications, like Smoke, Fusion, and Photoshop, to name a few, are also compatible.

I spent a fair amount of time running both Apple Final Cut Pro X, as well as Adobe Premiere Pro CC 2015 through both units. These are generally the NLEs I work with today. Naturally I expect DaVinci Resolve to work, but I was pleasantly surprised that Adobe SpeedGrade CC 2015 now also works. Enabling Mercury Transmit out of SpeedGrade through Blackmagic hardware has been a bit of an issue in the past. This meant the user had to decide between working with SpeedGrade and AJA hardware or Resolve and Blackmagic hardware. For Blackmagic owners this dilemma is gone. Finally, with current hardware, it all works as expected.

How 4K is handled with each unit depends on the application and what it’s capable of. For example, I have a test clip of Sony XAVC 4K footage (4096×2160). When I play that in either Premiere Pro CC or Final Cut Pro X through the UltraStudio Express it will display as 1080 even though the sequence is 4K. That’s because the unit can only output 1080. Both applications are savvy enough to downscale the sequence to 1080 and therefore it plays. Naturally this taxes the computer, although FCP X had far less trouble than Premiere Pro is doing so.

This was not the case when I connected the larger UltraStudio 4K. When you use Final Cut Pro X, the video output is determined by the settings in the Desktop Video Utility. If you set it to 1080p (to match the monitor), then FCP X will downscale a 4K timeline to 1080p and it will be happily piped to the monitor. This isn’t true in Premiere Pro, which overrides the Desktop Video settings. Even if you set it to 1080p, because the unit is capable of handling 4K, Premiere Pro will cause it to be set to match the 4K sequence. If you are working in a 4K sequence, UltraStudio 4K will play it at 4K (one of the 2160p choices). When that happens the 1080p monitor goes black. This means that you have to know which unit is right for you based on the monitors you own and the NLE you cut with. Or you may have to upgrade your monitors.

Both units work well. The Thunderbolt loop-through on the UltraStudio 4K came in handy by leaving my second port on the MacBook Pro free. I connected a LaCie Rugged FireWire 800 drive using a FW800-to-Thunderbolt adapter. It could effortlessly play a single stream of 1080p or 4K for a long time without dropping frames or causing any issues. Latency was extremely small over SDI (a bit more on HDMI) and there were no issues with audio sync. The build quality of both units is solid and Blackmagic Design now offers a three-year limited warranty.

The only caveat I would offer is that the UltraStudio 4K (and I’m sure this would go for the Extreme, too) is definitely an item that should only go into a noisy machine room. That’s because the fan is very loud – think hair dryer on low. The nice PR images that show a short rack containing one of these units next to an editor or colorist are pure fantasy.

Blackmagic Design has come a long way in a few short years to be a key player and leader in broadcast, production, and post technology. If you are considering any of the new Macs or even PCs that employ Thunderbolt, then you’d be hard-pressed to beat these units. They perform well, handle 4K, and set the standard for affordability.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2015 Oliver Peters