HyperDeck Studio by Blackmagic Design
I recently reviewed the HyperDeck Shuttle, Blackmagic Design’s portable uncompressed field recorder and discovered the Australian-based company came up with yet another important product: a useful and portable device at a great price that allows you to capture high quality, file-based video from any HDMI or SDI equipped source. You can read my review of it here.
Now Blackmagic ramps it up with the introduction of the more functional and full-featured HyperDeck Studio. Referred to by Blackmagic as “the broadcast deck for the 21st Century”, the Studio model amplifies what is so compelling about the Shuttle–the ability to record high quality video on low cost SSD drives–into a rack-mountable studio version.
If the HyperDeck Studio truly is the broadcast deck of tomorrow, of course that implies that SSDs would become the common production media of the future. And why not? SSDs don’t use proprietary technology owned by any one company, unlike some earlier tape formats. The drives are also commonly available and grow in capacity even as price per gigabyte drops. While spinning magnetic media will stay price competitive for years, it won’t be long before solid state gear overtakes today’s magnetic drives for postproduction. SSDs already beat HDDs on throughput and read/write speeds.
Adding to the guaranteed interest in the HyperDeck Studio is Blackmagic’s recent announcement that the device will record into Avid’s production-proven DNxHD format. (The deck already records uncompressed HD video at 1080p for the best available quality.) While DNxHD is a compressed format, it has gained fans for combining quality and a robust nature that also saves valuable resources such as drive space and processing cycles.
Two are better than one
The HyperDeck Studio differs from the HyperDeck Shuttle in several important ways. First of all, it can hold two removable SSD drives, while the Shuttle holds one. Having two drives naturally means that you can record twice as much video, but there is also another advantage: it also means that you can record indefinitely.
When the first drive fills up during a long take, recording will automatically switch over to the second drive. Then you can just keep popping in new drives as they fill up, providing you’ve invested in enough SSDs to keep you going.
On the front side
Besides the ports for two SSDs, the front of the HyperDeck Studio sports familiar VTR-style controls to play, rewind, jump to the next clip and of course record. There’s also an input button that lets you switch between different input sources.
A handy LCD display on the front not only allows you to monitor your recording, but also changes the display to offer video resolution, frame rate, timecode and even an audio meter. While you will probably plug in a full-size external monitor, having a small display on the front is a useful and welcome feature in case you are using the Studio on location or need to quickly check what’s on a drive.
To the right of the display is a jog/shuttle wheel which allows you to advance through your footage manually frame by frame. This is an important professional feature that helps to solidify the notion that the Studio is not just a capture device, but indeed a new breed of fully featured professional broadcast deck.
The HyperDeck Studio has an abundance of connections on the rear of its case, so you’re pretty much covered with whatever gear you want to use with it. There is an SD/HD SDI input for recording from a high-end source such as a professional camera and two SD/HD SDI outputs that send the signal to monitors, routers, production switchers, decks or other recording devices.
There’s also an output port, labeled ‘Loop Out’ which is reclocked from the video input and can be connected to other devices such as a monitor or a second HyperDeck for redundant recording. You’ll also find a ‘REF IN’ port which accepts blackburst (for setup) and tri-level sync signals from a sync generator, useful in providing a master timing source in a video facility.
The HDMI input, meanwhile, allows capture from any HDMI source (such as a video camera or HDSLR), while the HDMI output enables monitoring on an HDMI monitor.
The back panel also features a RSS-422 remote input for external control of the HyperDeck Studio with any standard RS-422 remote controller. To finish the I/O offerings, an Ethernet port enables updates, configuration and control. Perhaps one day they will develop a software update which will permit the Studio to be connected to a network through this port, but that is just speculation.
As with the HyperDeck Shuttle, the HyperDeck Studio allows you to record mathematically perfect, uncompressed high definition video from input sources such as an HD video camera or HDSLR. While this is great for things like green screen acquisition or backplates for visual effects and feature film production, uncompressed recording has a tremendous appetite and will eat up massive amounts of space on those still pricey SSDs.
However, as mentioned earlier, Blackmagic has recently released a software update for the HyperDeck Studio that allows you to record with the broadcast-quality DNxHD codec from Avid.
Avid created its open DNxHD HD codec to offer mastering-quality HD files at significantly reduced file sizes. It’s similar to Apple’s ProRes codec. While HD camera compression formats are efficient, they are initially designed for image capture, and not necessarily for high-end complex post-production and visual effects image processing. As long as you’re editing on an Avid Media Composer, DNxHD is a good choice to deliver both efficiency and high quality.
In order to get the HyperDeck Studio to record in DNxHD, you will need to download the HyperDeck software update from the Blackmagic website. Then simply connect the HyperDeck Studio to your computer via a USB 2.0 connection and run the update.
The update also installs a utility in your computer (I am running Windows 7 on an HP Z800 workstation). It allows you to switch between recording uncompressed 10 bit Quicktime and DNxHD. When you want to switch things over, you use the utility to choose the format you wish to record in.
To give you a sense of what DNxHD delivers, consider this: a small, 64GB SSD holds 6 minutes of uncompressed HD video. However, in DNxHD mode, you can record for more than 40 minutes. That’s a big difference, and one which will allow you to watch your budget.
According to Blackmagic, this reduces the actual cost of using SSDs to around $2 per minute, and is actually lower in cost than some high-end videotape formats.
In a prepared statement to the press, Grant Petty, CEO of Blackmagic Design said “Now customers get great 10 bit quality in the MXF format that allows all files to be loaded into Avid Media Composer without any import processing. That’s the fastest and most efficient workflow possible, vitally important in fast moving broadcast stations.”
While other competent NLEs are available, Avid remains a major force in professional video editing; it’s used on prestigious and award winning feature films, television shows, concerts, and news broadcasts. Blackmagic has done a really smart thing by choosing DNxHD as a recording option, compared to going with ProRes or Cineform. Not only is DNxHD’s quality highly regarded in the industry, Avid has made its source code open.
Putting it to the test
With all of these exciting hardware and software developments, I was anxious to get started testing out the HyperDeck Studio. In my previous review of the HyperDeck Shuttle, I recorded various outdoor shots in my local park, Washington Square in New York’s Greenwich Village. With the HyperDeck Studio, I decided to go with a green screen test.
If there is one thing that can mess up a nice keying job, it is the artifacts that are a result of camera compression. In areas like loosely flowing hair, noisy compression can cause an unsightly buzzing or boiling effect around the edges. My test, therefore, consisted of a quick shot of none other than your humble author in front of my green screen sipping a cup of tea at 24p (at 1920 X 1080 pixels).
First I set the HyperDeck Studio to record in uncompressed Quicktime mode. I made sure to let it run for a long time and sure enough, when the first SSD became full, the Studio switched over immediately to the second one and continued recording.
The uncompressed take I wanted was on the second drive, so I popped it out and into a hard drive dock, which I connected to a USB 3.0 connection on HP’s potent Z800 workstation. (You can read my review of the Z800 here.) The nice thing about using a USB 3.0 dock is that it is fast enough to preview the clips right off the SSD without first having to transfer the files. In any case, I found the clip I wanted and copied it onto the Z800′s internal RAID. I slipped the uncompressed Quicktime file right into an After Effects project with no problem.
Switching over to DNxHD
Next it was time to try recording in DNxHD format. I ran the installed Hyperdeck utility program with the Studio connected to the Z800 and switched the system over to DNxHD.
Back on set, I tried my best to do pretty much the same tea sipping action that I did before so as to later compare the two. I popped the drive out, slipped it into the dock and took a look at the files.
The first thing you’ll notice is that DNxHD files look different from Quicktime files. Of course the Quicktime files have a .mov extension while the DNxHD files are wrapped in MXF (Media eXchange Format). Unlike Quicktime, the DNxHD files are comprised of three files, a video file and two audio files (left and right).
The DNxHD MXF files can be easily imported into Avid Media Composer by dragging them into the Avid MediaFiles/MXF/1 folder on the root of your hard drive. Once inside of this folder, use the Media Tool to locate them, and drag them into your bin. That’s it. They are immediately ready to be dropped into an Avid timeline as you would any piece of footage.
However, for this test, I wanted to first bring the footage into After Effects to key it out. Those who work with the Avid NLE might know that DNxHD MXF files will not import directly into After Effects. If you try to do so, you will get an error. After Effects can import MXF files that have been encoded with codecs such as DVCPRO HD, XDCAM HD, MPEG-2, AVC-Intra and others. However, at this point it does not import DNxHD MXF files, even if you had downloaded and installed the DNxHD codec for Quicktime first.
However, getting them into After Effects turns out to be a cinch. Just choose ‘export’ from within Media Composer. You’ve got two choices for this. If you are handing the footage off to someone who is working on a different system, you can export the entire segment (after first setting the in and out points) to a DNxHD encoded Quicktime file. At that point, it can be directly imported into After Effects or any other Quicktime enabled application.
If you plan to work with AE on the same system that you installed your Avid on, you instead have the option of exporting a Quicktime Reference file. The difference between the two is significant. A Quicktime reference is a file that simply references–points to–the MXF file that lives within the Avid’s media files. As such, it is miniscule. For our test, the file size was a mere 10KB. Compare that with the megabytes or gigabytes that would be required to export an entire Quicktime movie. The reference can then be imported directly into any application that supports Quicktime, such as After Effects, Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro.
I then opened both files to compare the uncompressed and the DNxHD frames side by side. While they both looked very good, I could see a slight difference between them. Of course, this is only natural since one is compressed and one isn’t. The quality is, however, quite comparable; differences become apparent only in areas of fine detail and critical focus. DNxHD, as Avid suggests, is capable of mastering-quality compression and for many purposes it will be sufficient. However, if you are working on feature-level projects and want to get the maximum quality for crucial VFX shots, uncompressed is still the best path. But at least with this setup you have the flexibility to choose.
After I did a visual comparison, I then pulled a key on each clip to see how they would fare in this critical test. As expected, the uncompressed footage quickly keyed out with a minimum of work, not much more than choosing the key color, a bit of adjustment to clip the black and white points and applying an ever so slight choke on the matte.
Next, I answered for my own eye the question of just how well the DNxHD footage would hold up in a color keying scenario. The short answer? Very well. Yes you can spot a difference when comparing the two side-by-side. But for the most part it is really good.
It should be noted that I was recording from the HDMI output of a Canon HDV tape-based camcorder, circa 2008. If you’re not aware, this circumvents the compression circuitry of the device, enabling you to record an uncompressed 1920 X 1080 HD signal. Naturally, recording quality will vary depending on which camera you use. (Note: just last week, NYCPPNEWS acquired a new, large sensor HDSLR, the well-regarded Panasonic GH2. Look for our upcoming tests of this camera.)
The following movie demonstrates my results on matte extraction on both the uncompressed and the DNxHD footage using the Canon camcorder.
Blackmagic seems to be on a roll introducing innovative new products that are both useful and cost effective. With the addition of Avid’s excellent DNxHD codec as an option to record with, the HyperDeck Studio becomes that much more compelling.
As mentioned before, Blackmagic has described the HyperDeck Studio as the broadcast deck of the future and SSDs as the video tape of tomorrow. Whether and whenever this prediction comes true, there is a lot that validates this claim, especially if you consider the price of say, Sony’s SR-series mastering VTR at around $60,000.
Of course the Sony machine earned its top position after many years in the market. The SR machines also handle lots of specific signal manipulations that the HyperDeck Studio doesn’t pretend to address. However, with its low cost (around one thousand dollars) married to the non-stop SSD trend (capacity going up as prices continue to fall), Blackmagic Design’s HyperDeck Studio just might be the next big thing for anyone seeking the highest quality recording capability.
More details about the HyperDeck Shuttle can be found here.