Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve Panels

I started my editing career in the era of linear editing suites, where dedicated control panels ruled. CMX keyboards, Grass Valley switchers, ADOs – you name it. These enabled operational speed and experienced editors could drive these rooms like a virtuoso pianist. Much of that dexterity has been lost, thanks to the ubiquity of software-based user interfaces for applications running on general purpose computers and controlled by a mouse. But Grant Petty and Blackmagic Design have set out to change that. At the beginning of March, he introduced two new color correction control panels as companion tools to the company’s DaVinci Resolve editing and grading solution. According to Petty more people are using Resolve to edit than to color correct. By introducing these new panels, he hopes to get more of these users involved in the color correction side of Resolve.

Blackmagic Design now offers three DaVinci Resolve panels: Advanced ($29,995), Mini ($2,995) and Micro ($995). Obviously, the Advanced panel is for serious, dedicated color correction facilities with the traffic to support that investment. It’s a large, three-module console with four trackball/ring controls in the center section. The Mini and Micro panels are designed to be more portable than the Advanced panel. The Mini is essentially a three-trackball subset of the center section of the larger panel. The Micro is the trackball section of the Mini, without the Mini’s tilted backplane. If you are an editor who uses Resolve for color correction, but that’s less than 50% of your workload, then the Micro is probably the right panel for you. If you color correct more than 50%, then the Mini is the better bet. However, these panels are designed for more than just editors. If you work as a DIT (digital imaging technician) in the field or on-set, you most likely use Resolve, making these panels the perfect addition to your toolkit.

Taking the Mini for a spin

Blackmagic Design loaned me a Resolve Mini panel for about two weeks for this review. I have to say, it was love at first sight. These panels continue with Blackmagic’s modern industrial design style. This has earned them an international Design Team of the Year award from the Red Dot Awards last year. The Mini panel is a well-constructed metal console with precision trackballs, rings, knobs and buttons. (The panel also uses some high-impact plastic in its construction.) With packaging, it weighs 24 pounds, thus it’s more “transportable” than portable. If you want something to toss into a gig bag, then the Micro would be the panel to buy. The Mini is better for facility use; however, it’s easy enough to move between rooms as needed.

The smaller Micro is bus-powered over USB, but the Mini includes several connection and power options. Communications can be over ethernet or USB/USB-C. Power options include standard AC wall power, 12 volt 4-pin, or ethernet PoE. Like other Blackmagic Design products, you have to supply your own power chord, but the Mini does include a USB-to-USB-C adapter chord. To run the panel, you need to install Resolve Studio (paid) or Resolve (free), version 12.5.5 or later. And yes, these panels only work with Resolve. Connection is drop-dead easy. Just power it up and plug in the USB cable to any available USB port on your computer (or looped off of a connected device, like a monitor). Then select the panel in Resolve’s preferences. This ease of installation is refreshing, without any of the finickiness of other protocols, like EUCON. The one downside for editors is that this panel only controls the color mode of Resolve. There are no dedicated controls for editing, importing or exporting. So you won’t be able to shed the keyboard and mouse completely.

Everything at your fingertips

The main section of the panel includes three trackballs for hue control and rings for luminance control. Generally these correspond to shadow, mids and highlight ranges of the image. Across the top of this flat section are twelve knobs for additional color controls. Push in the knobs to reset their adjusted values. On the right are buttons to move through nodes, clips and stills, along with play/stop buttons. The slanted backplane of the Mini panel features two five-inch, high-resolution LCD menu/control displays, fifteen buttons on either side, eight soft keys across the top, and eight knobs under the displays. The buttons on the left select the portion of the interface that you need to deal with, like primary correction, tracking, sizing, blurs, etc. The buttons on the right are to add nodes, copy and paste, move through stills and keyframes, and toggle the computer display to a full screen viewer.

Resolve’s primary color correction window is pretty deep, requiring paging through different sections of the control window, such as primary bars, primary wheels, log, raw and more. There’s actually a fourth control wheel for offset in addition to lows, mids and highs. Much of this is exposed to the panel. For example, you can use the knobs to adjust the primary bars, while also moving the trackballs, which would normally adjust the primary wheels. Across the bottom of Resolve’s primary window are additional controls for contrast, saturation and more, which spread across two pages of that interface window. These controls are all active on the Mini by using the twelve knobs located above the trackballs. In some cases, you’ll need to change the part of the interface that appears on the two LCDs. This is enabled by the two arrow keys in the upper left corner of the panel. However, switching pages on the panel is required less often than when you only use the mouse with the interface.

The offset function (the fourth primary wheel and fourth trackball on the Advanced panel) can be accessed by selecting the offset key located above the middle trackball. In that mode, the left ring controls temperature, middle ring controls tint and right ring controls level. The right trackball controls color balance.

Resolve is built around controls that may or may not be present in other applications. For example, it is designed as a YRGB system, meaning you can gang level and color controls, but can also correct Y (luminance) lift/gamma/gain levels independent of color (RGB). In addition to standard three-wheel color corrections, you also have contrast/pivot control, as well as some photographic-style enhancements. These include color boost (like a vibrance control), mid detail (softens or sharpens the image), plus blurs. In you are using Resolve Studio, then temporal noise reduction is active. From what I can tell, this is the only control not active when using the panel with the free version of Resolve.

Resolve uses an elaborate curves system, which you would think would be difficult to implement with knobs and buttons. However, Blackmagic has done a wonderful job. The normal curve levels (ganged or independent channels) can be adjusted by six of the knobs under the LCD displays. These work at preset intervals of 0, 20, 40, 60, 80 and 100% along the curve path from dark to light. If you use hue curves, you start with one of six preset colors selected from the panel. Then an “input hue” knob lets you change the selected color left or right within its hue range, based on the last color knob selected. Custom curves also offer a YSFX tool. This is an adjustment to shrink and even invert the curve range. The extreme opposite setting results in a negative image.

There are plenty of other tools. Resolve has a powerful point-cloud tracker, which can also be accessed from the Mini. One handy feature is the ability to automatically add a node with a preset box or circle window. Once applied, then you adjust the window. Although you can step through keyframes, it still requires the mouse to add or delete keyframes. You also have to delete nodes via mouse and not from the panel. Some keys, like FX and User are available for future expansion.

In practice

I spent about a week with the panel, working on and off with some test projects. Needless to say, I enjoyed the process, but there are a few things I wish were different.  The Mini panel is really designed for full-time color grading. If you have a desk layout for editing, then there probably isn’t enough extra space to situate the Mini is an optimal location. For instance, if you wanted to place the panel between your keyboard and display, then the Micro would be a better option. There is no power switch, so the panel is always on. Fortunately, it’s fan-less and quiet, even when on. There are no illumination controls for the displays or the backlit keys. That’s fine in a normally lit room, but might be too bright for some, if you keep the light level very low in the suite.

I’d like to see more versatile transport control. Resolve supports faster-than-real-time playback and scrubbing, but the control panel only gives you 1X play in the forward or reverse directions. It would be nice to have better transport control from the panel. Resolve functions, like adding LUTs, can’t be handled from the panel. The controls to select HSL qualifiers for secondary color correction include eyedroppers, but you still need to use the mouse to graphically pick the right area of the screen. It would be nice if you could do this with the trackball. These are minor points and by no means deal breakers.

A dedicated color correction panel will not only make you a faster colorist – it will also make you a better one. More controls are front and center, which means you are likely to discover and use processes that you would otherwise miss if you simply relied on the mouse or a pen and tablet. You have two hands to control the panel. As with any other tactile task, such as audio mixing with a mixing board, your hands will soon know instinctively what to adjust without having to look at the panel. You can stay more focused on your video display and the scopes. Grading is not only faster, but it’s more intuitive.

Some are going to baulk at the price, no matter how reasonable these portable panels are. To place that into context, at $2,995, the Mini is still less expensive than a decked out Mac Pro or MacBook Pro, which might be your main editing/grading workstation. Plus they work with the free version of Resolve. So if color correction is part of your business model and Resolve is your color correction tool of choice, then either of these two DaVinci Resolve panels is easily justified. The more I’ve been using the Resolve Mini, the more I like it. It’s the Porsche of small grading control panels – solid, stylish and powerful.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters

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