The $295 ATEM Mini switcher— Is it any better than OBS or Wirecast?
2020–04–06 Update: There is now a $595 ATEM Mini Pro switcher. It adds the much-needed multiview, built-in streaming output (via a wired network connection), and recording of the program output (in streaming quality) to a USB drive. I have not tried this device, but it does not appear that my criticisms about the PiP or lower-thirds functionality have been addressed.
I gifted myself the $295 Blackmagic ATEM Mini for Christmas this year. My use case is quite straightforward: I live stream events that consist of a presenter’s laptop output and their talking head fed from a camera. I’ve been using OBS and more recently Telestream Wirecast due to some stability issues with OBS to produce the event and deliver the live stream to YouTube.
For the event, I have two picture-in-picture (PIP) layouts: one with the presenter’s laptop overlaid on the talking head, the other reversed with the talking head overlaid on the presenter’s laptop. I also have some lower-thirds for each presenter and a walk-in loop that plays while we’re waiting for people to assemble.
I use a couple of game streaming devices that connect via USB to the host computer and provide an HDMI input for the camera or presenter’s laptop. One of them has an HDMI passthrough and I use that to connect the presenter’s laptop to the projector in the room — after all, those in the room can see the presenter and don’t want to see produced live stream. All of this is pretty easy to set up in OBS or Wirecast, though they each have their own peculiarities and require the use of laptop.
The ATEM Mini is a $295 magic box that has four HDMI video inputs, one HDMI video output, a USB-C interface that makes the device look like a webcam to a computer and is used for control, an Ethernet port for IP-based control, and two 3.5mm audio inputs. It has physical buttons for basic switching, mixing and audio functions and they light up too! :)
The ATEM Mini has comprehensive documentation (online) and you really do need to read through all of it. There may be sections that you can skip but it is a deceptively complex product with a lot of functionality and you’ll be scratching your head if you don’t read the manual at least once — after all, you just spent three hundred bucks on this thing, why wouldn’t you read the manual? Chromakey and audio processing were not immediately useful to me so I skimmed those sections and focused on: streaming output, source switching, PIP, lower-thirds, media playback, HDMI passthrough, and software control. Here’s what I found:
1. ATEM Software Control
This is a common piece of software for all ATEM switchers big and small. It is a skeuomorphic representation of a hardware control surface that takes up the entire screen on my 13" MacBook Pro. Because of that, I would need to use a second screen to see the live program output. It is also used to configure certain functions on the ATEM Mini (see below) and unlocks more advanced functionality like audio processing and keying. There are certain buttons that are not available when used with the ATEM Mini. The documentation, while otherwise really good, tends to fall down when describing the advanced functionality in ATEM Software Control, because it is not always clear what does and does not apply to the ATEM Mini.
2. Streaming Output
Plugging the ATEM Mini into your computer via the USB-C connector makes it appear as a webcam. On my Mac, it showed up both in OBS and also directly through the YouTube browser-based live streaming interface.
There are two switching modes: “cut bus” is the out of the box default where switching sources is immediate upon pressing one of the input buttons, and “program preview” where pressing on the input buttons puts it in preview mode and you commit the switching action by pressing the CUT or AUTO button. I use Wirecast in preview mode so that I can see what is about to happen before I push it to the live output, so I set the ATEM Mini to program preview mode using the ATEM Setup application.
4. Passthrough Output
The ATEM Mini has a single HDMI output. Using the ATEM Software Control application, you can configure this output to always be one of the four inputs, program, program preview, or input 1 direct which is a low-latency passthrough of first input.
This is where I encountered my first issue: I want to use the ATEM Mini in program preview mode, I need to set the HDMI output to program preview mode, but since there is only one HDMI output, I cannot also have a passthrough of presenter’s laptop input source to feed the projector in the room. An easy solution could be to use an HDMI splitter on the presenter’s laptop so that output from the splitter feeds the ATEM Mini, and the other feeds the in-room projector. However, this is an additional piece of equipment and HDMI is finicky at the best of times, so it isn’t a great solution and one that could have been avoided if Blackmagic had added a second HDMI output like on the Roland V-02HD (which is more expensive, only has two video inputs and cannot provide a webcam output).
The ATEM Mini has four PIP buttons (top left, top right, bottom left, bottom right) and by default, input 1 is the PIP source. The source, size and position of the PIP can be configured using the DVE settings in Upstream Key 1 section of ATEM Software Control, but there doesn’t seem to be a way of having two different configurations readily accessible, e.g. to replicate my current setup that enables me to switch between two different PIP configurations, I would need to go into ATEM Software Control and change the input. Furthermore, once I customize the PIP, the effect is controlled using the KEY 1 software button in ATEM Software Control or the physical KEY button on the ATEM Mini rather than the PIP buttons. If there’s a way to use those PIP buttons, I’ve not discovered it and that’s my second problem.
6. Media Playback
ATEM Software Control has a media pool that lets you load up to 20 different still images, which can include alpha channel (transparency). To choose which image to use, you use the Media Player tab to select it. Then you can use the MP1 software button in ATEM Software Control or the STILL button on the ATEM Mini to use the image. What’s important to note here is that the Media Player only supports stills — no video loops here. So that’s my third problem: I would need to use the presenter’s laptop or another video source plugged into one of the inputs for my walk-in loop or another other kind of bumper or motion graphic.
Static lower-thirds can use the Media Player and Blackmagic supplies some sample graphics both as PNGs and as layered PSDs. You can edit the PSDs to modify them. There is also a PhotoShop plug-in that gets installed (if it doesn’t get installed, it is in /Library/Application Support/Blackmagic Design/Switchers/CS5/SwitchersExport.plugin on a Mac). This takes a PhotoShop layout and sends it directly to the ATEM Mini assuming it is connected via the Ethernet connector and its IP can be reached from your computer. This is the recommended way to make quick edits and push them to the switcher in a production environment but only over IP and not USB so that wasn’t an option for me.
For lower-thirds to work properly, you need to have an alpha channel in PhotoShop and at least to me it wasn’t particularly obvious as to how to do that (I’m not a regular PhotoShop user). It seems that the PhotoShop plug-in does some of this work for you but since it won’t save files locally, I couldn’t test this. For my workflow then, I would need to create lower-thirds with the correct transparency, save them as PNG or TGA files (because PSD is not supported by ATEM Software Control), load them into the Media Pool and then pick each one as needed through the Media Player. All of that is akin to how a traditional broadcast switcher works but because the ATEM Mini only has a physical and virtual button for one media player, it is incredibly cumbersome to use.
Is the ATEM Mini worth it?
For basic production switching, the ATEM Mini is self-contained and works well. For more advanced functionality, you need the software control (or a control surface but I assume that the typical purchaser won’t have access to this), so it is less self-contained but pretty incredible in that it has a lot of advanced functionality like chromakeying and audio processing.
For my usage and with my existing equipment investment, it misses the mark and both increases my equipment footprint (HDMI splitter, preview monitor, secondary display for streaming computer), and workload. Someone suggested that if I didn’t already have the HDMI to USB game streaming dongles, the ATEM Mini would be a good way of getting switched video into my system. I could use OBS or Wirecast for the video loops and lower thirds. This is true though doesn’t solve my PIP requirement. The comment below about using an Elgato Stream Deck is a good one, but rather than using it in conjunction with the ATEM Mini, I am probably better off using it with OBS or Wirecast and my game streaming dongles instead of the ATEM Mini.