Blackmagic's UltraScope

It's been eight months since Blackmagic Design released the UltraScope. I have finally got my hands on this HD/SD scope and installed it in Online Creative, a post-production facility in Brighton, UK.

The facility has two main suites running Avid Media Composer in SD, as well as a Final Cut Pro suite running HD. For grading, we use Apple Color and Digital Vision Film Master. Where production budgets are tighter, we use the Magic Bullet plug-ins from Red Giant. Whichever grading solution is applied, the UltraScope provides an essential tool for getting the job right.

UltraScope is a standalone Windows application with a dedicated PCI Express card. The card has one input for HD/SD SDI and a single output for HD/SD SDI. Both connections are 3Gb/s-compliant and offer loop through. In addition to these two connections is an optical fiber connection giving 3G/HD and SD input and output. The manufacturer's Web site has a definitive list of approved graphics cards with a more liberal specification for the host PC. UltraScope will only work with qualified graphics cards, all of which support OpenGL 2.1. This approved list has a range of graphics cards to suit all budgets.

The specification of my machine used for this review is HPXW4800, Dual 2.66GHz Xeon with 3GB RAM running Windows XP with a GeForce 9800GT graphics card with 512MB RAM (GDDR3). Once the PC and graphics card are set up running the UltraScope, the next consideration is a monitor to view the software interface. The scope needs a high-resolution display, 1900 × 1200 pixel, as a minimum specification. This allows the software to display all six panels at a comfortable size, neatly emulating the size of an individual classic CRT scope on a 24in LCD monitor. I am using an HP LP2465, and it also worked well on my 23in Apple Cinema display.

Six displays

The six displays are made up of parade, waveform, vectorscope, histogram, audio metering and a picture confidence display. All the switches are mouse-driven on the interface, so it is simple to use. The interface is clean, well thought out and easy to read. There are no visible Windows-style menus at the top, which keeps the interface tidy. To exit the application, you simply click at the top, and an exit menu appears. There are no other menus, resulting in easy operation. UltraScope launches with the same scope preferences you selected on the previous launch.

The parade display gives RGB parade and YUV settings. You can switch the color (red, green and blue trace) off so that RGB is displayed as a single white color. The gamut button shows illegal levels, highlighted in red. The waveform display does exactly as it should and, like the parade, has a gamut button to show illegal levels.

The vectorscope has two scales at 75 perecent and 100 percent. It would be nice to have some kind of scale or graticule here, or simply a fleshline vector, to line up human skin tone, and basic percentage calibration would be useful. There is no way to zoom in or magnify the detail in the vectorscope or any of the other displays.

The histogram has high and low switches, which adjust the brightness levels of the trace. The audio metering monitors up to eight channels of an embedded SDI signal. This can be monitored in either dBFS or VU formats. The right segment of the audio metering display shows phasing. Any two of the eight channels can be selected to check if the phase of the audio is correct. This is certainly no substitute for the PPM meters I use currently but serves well as a quick reference to make sure all relevant channels are being heard.

Finally, the picture confidence view displays the actual picture coming from the SDI or optical sources. Options to switch to black and white and also to show just blue level for checking compression are part of the display. The VITC is also displayed. However, when I monitor from my Final Cut Pro system, the time code output was not supported by the Multibridge Eclipse input and output.

Easy to use

I love the simplicity and cleanliness of the interface and also the fact that the scope automatically switches to handle whichever format users are working in. However, I cannot help thinking that a 24in monitor is just too big to use for scopes. The system would fit much better in my studio on a 17in or even a 15in monitor. I would like the option to then choose which of the six displays were active at any one time.

The delay of the signal was minimal, and the accuracy of the signal levels was excellent. Although Apple Color provides very good, reasonably accurate software scopes, you cannot display the Y waveform and parade at the same time as you can with the UltraScope.

For Avid users, where scopes are only displayed in color correction mode and take up valuable screen space, the scope is ideal. Any nonlinear editing system, compositing software and grading package would benefit from this scope on price alone. Measuring levels accurately in HD can be an expensive business. This makes this product an absolutely unbelievable value. You do not need an expensive display to view UltraScope.

Blackmagic Design's development team recently announced a new software update for the waveform monitor. Blackmagic UltraScope 1.1 now adds a new composite waveform view and is available to download free for all UltraScope customers. A software based-scope allows for an easy upgrade and feature enhancements. The scope doesn't have error logging like some of the high-end systems, but I have paid a fraction of the price for a scope almost as featured. The fact that it only runs in a minimum resolution of 1900 × 1200 doesn't matter at this price. It looks great, it is easy to use, and it works!

Darren Mostyn is senior editor and colorist at Online Creative.