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Blackmagic H264 Pro recorder review

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Daryl Watson
Blackmagic H264 Pro recorder review
on Jul 24, 2011 at 2:18:00 am

Review Of Black Magic H264 Pro Recorder

I do script supervision/continuity and I've been looking for a device to tap into the video split to monitor the shots on my laptop and record to hard-disk for playback to enable the matching of shot to shot and scene to scene continuity. This review is from the point of view of a script supervisor using the recorder in the field. Any criticisms may not suit the concerns of people using it in post-production or for other purposes.

The H264 Pro Recorder seemed to fit the specs. It has inputs for HD/SDI, SD and HDMI. It has a USB input. It converts to H264 which compresses to manageable file sizes (although perhaps not small enough). It is small enough to carry and use in the field. The positives are that it works with my pretty low-tech computer. It's the basic Mac Book with a 2.26 GHz processor and 2 GB of memory with about a clear 100gb harddrive storage space spare. However, after putting it the test, I found the BM PR lacks either the flexibility or the reliability to warrant a glowing review or suit the purpose of recording in the field.

Hardware:
The convertor has a small footprint. If you shake it it feels as though the internal components shift inside the casing.

The power plug adapter is the kind that blocks an adjacent socket on a power board because it's bulk runs to the left or right of the plug instead of straight out. Alternatively you can position it on the end of a power board but ideally it would be smaller and not block adjacent sockets.

The power is 12v. The connector is a barrel connector 2.1mm (ID) and 5.5mm (OD) with a centre pin positive. If you want to run off battery BM support has offered little by way of suggestions other than providing the power source specs. They do not support or recommend any 3rd party power supplies for use with these devices and any damage caused by third party devices will void the warranty. Depending on your flavour, getting battery power can range from a cheap 12V battery and cigarette lighter to 2.1mm/5.5mm adaptor to the more expensive options. These include a Nebtech adaptor (US $119) which uses DV batteries so you'll need a charger/battery set as well, or Switronix have a cable for US $150 to connect the BM device to D-Tap. B&H have a full set up (Switronix Powertap BlackMagic Converter Cable w/ XP-L90S Battery and Charger Kit) with battery/cable/charger for the tidy sum of US $422 or you can jig around and make your own.

As for the software, the device is linked to the software. You cannot use the hardware without Media Express. There is no other option to use than Media Express. Unfortunately all of the benefits of the hardware are hampered by the limitations of the software, and there are a few limitations.

Only four Project Video Formats
- Apple TV
- ipad / iphone 4
- You Tube 720p
- You Tube 1080p

Bitrate ranges from 2.0mbs - 10mbps.

J, K, L shortcuts don't work as advertised.

The layout of the program uses a lot of real estate for controls and icons. It could do with consolidating these controllers and enlarging the video screen or at least providing options to enable the user to resize the screen to suit their preferences. A full screen option is available for instance - but this is more of an 'actual size option' rather than offering playback or capture that fits the screen of the display being used. There are also animations to show that capturing is taking place, but that seems rather unnecessary and just adds to the drain to the battery (if you go that route) and wastes space on the user interface that could be used for more functional purposes.

Media Express project files can only handle one video format at a time. It cannot input 1080p for one clip and then 720p for the next without opening a new project. I'm sure there is a good reason for this but in itself it is a pain because if for instance, you need to capture from an HD source one moment and then an SD transmission from a steadycam the next, you'll need to close a project, then start a new project before capture.

The problem isn't limited to simply switching formats for input. I tested the unit on a location shoot where we were using two cameras (Alexas). The camera positions changed and the BNC cables were unplugged and reconnected. On the A Camera for instance, the signal dropouts caused the program to no longer recognise the signal as the same format, causing the program to prompt to save and close and open a new project. This also happened when the cables where not even disconnected but simply a signal change had been detected. I didn't diagnose the cause of the signal change because I ran out of time as I had more important things to do than frig around with gear before the cameras turned over but the format being sent from the camera hadn't changed. This is a real pain because it means that instead of having one project that contains all the shots captured you end up with multiple projects, and have to wait for a new project to open/close and sometimes need to close and reopen the software or wait for the wheel of death to pass.

Furthermore if you want to open a project after capturing as a means of reviewing the clips, but are not connected to the hardware, the software will not open. You will need to go to the folder where the clips were saved to to review the clips.

The logging option allows you to add metadata such as Reel, Name, Description, etc but only before capture. Once capture has occurred these terms are not editable. So if the shot was going to be a CU John but ended up floating from CU John to CU Jane too bad. The time has passed and you are left with inaccurate descriptions.

Being able to produce a shot log list from the day would be great as a feature, but if the all of the metadata was in tact and you wanted to export it to use in conjunction with another program there isn't an option for this either. This would be a great feature in future if the metadata could be exported as comma separated text, or tab separated text, or plain text!

When it works the quality is great. I hadn't experience any of the pixel pops that I've read about but because it's really a means of playback I'm not too concerned. But given the lack of reliability in maintaining a signal, combined with being tied to the threadbare software, I can't see myself using it regularly in the field. Another option for me would be to get something like the Decimator Quad to provide a stabilised signal and then digitise the SD signal through a cheaper consumer digitiser that isn't tied to a particular software, but then I lose the HD quality which made the Pro Recorder so attractive in the first place. At the moment it's caveat emptor for this one. If anyone has contrary opinions I'd be interested to know in case I have misrepresented the product. In particular, it would be great to know if there is a way to bypass Media Express!

Daryl


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Daryl Watson
Re: Blackmagic H264 Pro recorder review
on Aug 5, 2011 at 10:13:38 pm

Some further detail of the limitations of Media Express are mentioned here.

http://lists.opencastproject.org/pipermail/community/2011-July/001290.html


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Etienne Mare
Re: Blackmagic H264 Pro recorder review
on Sep 27, 2012 at 6:55:19 am

Thank you Daryl for all the info on the Blackmagic Pro Recorder.
Do you know of any alternatives, and, was the consumer version (Blackmagic video recorder) released prior or after the Pro Recorder described above?
Etienne


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