Friday, December 18, 2009

Building a Modern Professional Editing Room

Boy, things sure have changed. Back in the Stone Age, we had linear edit suites that cost anywhere from $250,000 to $1,000,000 - yes, one million dollars (and more) - to build one of these rooms. When the AVID came along, it cost a "measly" $80,000. The response? All those linear editors said "What a piece of junk!" Those same linear editors have either adapted to nonlinear editing systems, or have become unemployed.

It's easy to see that prices have come down since then but, if you're going to build a truly professional modern edit suite, maybe not as far as you think.

Pick your editing system, any system. You will still need "all the stuff" to make an editing system really work - well, if you want to be a professional, anyway.

This is one of the fallacies of the infamous Apple Computer ad for Final Cut Pro. Yeah, the one where they said that "The $50,000 editing system, now just $995." As we all know, $995 got you a CD with Final Cut Pro software on it – and you need one hell of a lot more to build a professional editing room than a box of software.


Choosing the right storage is very important in building a professional editing system/suite. I'm always amazed when I see people going out and buying one of these modern editing systems, thinking that they can record their HD video images right on the internal hard drive of their computer. Not!

If you think you are going to store it on your computer's internal hard drive, you're kidding yourself. You need disk drives - and lots of them! You have lots of video to edit and store, and that media has to go somewhere. And it needs to go there fast!

There are lots of choices out there today – Fibre Channel, SCSI, Firewire 800, Firewire 400, and SATA drives. Lots of companies make this stuff. It can become very confusing to decide which disk drives are the right ones for you.

If you are working with little DV cameras, then inexpensive Firewire 400 drives may work just fine for you. But if you are working in Hi Def, you may need the "big mama" drives, with terabytes of storage.

Products like the Apple Xserve RAID were one of the early "big mama" disk drives. It's a fibre channel solution – it's terrific, but it's really expensive. Recently, new technology from companies like Hitachi and Seagate have allowed for low-cost SATA drives that let us capture even Hi Def video right to these drives at very inexpensive prices.

Companies like CalDigit, GTech and Sonnet make SATA arrays that allow us to digitize almost anything (ok, no almost about it - they'll handle anything) - without breaking the bank.

This is not to say that SCSI and Fibre Channel products from companies like HUGE Systems (now Ciprico), Medea and Apple are not fantastic – they certainly are – they just cost more money.


If you think storage is a controversial subject, just ask someone's opinion about video monitoring.

Recently, many manufacturers have decided to stop manufacturing CRT (glass) TV monitors, leaving us with LCD and plasma displays to choose from. Many people hate plasma and LCD screens, and cry for their old CRT monitors. Purists like me still miss the days of CRT monitors, where standard-def signals would look just as good as HD signals.

Some of those who still own glass CRT monitors are hanging onto them for dear life, and others are scrambling to find good condition used ones on eBay. Still others, who demand only the best, are buying the last of Sony's BVM series inventory, at a measly $35,000 each.

Some companies, like Sony and Panasonic, are making LCD monitors specifically for the professional video market. They have features that allow us to put analog composite, component, and serial digital, as well as Hi Def signals into these TV monitors.

Other computer companies, like Hewlett Packard, Apple, and Dell, are making terrific computer monitors that can be adapted to accept professional video signals. Both AJA and Blackmagic Design make converters that will convert a SDI or HD-SDI video signal to DVI - the standard used by these computer monitors - so that we can observe the video signal on an inexpensive computer monitor.

There are other companies that make competing products, such as Convergent Design, Gefen and Doremi. They also make wonderful HD-SDI to DVI converter boxes.

It would be great if Final Cut, AVID and others had good quality waveform monitors and vectorscopes built-in - They don't. they suck, really suck...


Here's where it gets really controversial. Back in the Stone Age - you know, last year - we would discuss putting up bars for our CRT monitors, using PLUGE to adjust brightness, switch to blue-only to adjust phase and hue. We might have even discussed adjusting the bias on the guns.

But the world has changed!

There isn't any blue-only on Apple Cinema displays or HP 2335, and calibration software is virtually non-existent. Today, you take the LCD monitor out of the box, and plug it in, and you will probably get a picture - but with no adjustments.

Now, this will change as companies like Teranex start to promote their $8000 Clear View monitor. Maybe others.

This is one area where, if you spend right the first time, you won't need much extra stuff. Spend right.


The last section says that if you have a really good monitor, you can edit with it, color correct, whatever. While you work. That's not talking about getting your work ready for output. For that, you need scopes.

Boy, it would be great if Final Cut Pro, AVID and the others had good quality waveform monitors and vectorscopes built right into their software - but they don't. They suck. They really suck.

So you either do the best you can, or you spend a lot of money buying external waveform monitors and vectorscopes to check your levels. There are lots of choices out there from Tektronix, Leader, Harris (Videotek), Astro Systems, and Hamlet, but they all have one thing in common - they are all expensive - especially if you want SDI or HDSDI monitoring.

One day, someone will come out with an inexpensive software scope, and we'll look back on this and laugh. Unfortunately, this is not that day. Until then, if you want to accurately check your levels for broadcast standards, you're going to spend a lot of money for a scope. And if you're a pro, you do want to accurately check your levels, so don't even think about skipping this.


OK, you need a set of speakers. And guess what – you ain't gonna be using the 2" speaker inside your MAC. PC users, those Creative Labs thingies ain't gonna work either. Your audio will be out of sync, and you can't tell what is going on, and it's gonna sound like crap.

NO, you can't just go out and get a set of powered speakers and plug it into the Audio Output mini jack on the back of your PC or MAC. You must must must monitor the audio from the output of your AVID electronics, or FCP or Premiere Pro electronics (from AJA, Blackmagic, Matrox or whomever).


Now, for some more of the "controversial" part...

You need a mixer.

Many reading this are saying "No way! I don't need no stinking mixer!" Well, this can become a long drawn out topic - but after it's all said and done - you need some way of selecting what you want to monitor, and you need some way to adjust your volume.

If you are using analog audio sources, you need some way of raising and lowering these levels Even if you use embedded digital audio, you need to raise and lower your volume, and if you need to dump out to a dreaded VHS machine, you need to attenuate (lower) those levels, or you will get distortion.

With the advent of Chinese manufacturing, great mixers can be purchased for between $100 and $300 dollars, so there is no financial excuse not to get one. And for the truly stubborn, audio selectors with a volume knob, like the Mackie Big Knob, is a great substitute for a mixer. Psssst – it's really a mixer in disguise.


It's funny how the least expensive part of the system is the one item that many editors simply refuse to purchase, because they don't understand its purpose.

Professional video equipment, especially professional VTRs, are designed to operate with a "sync signal" run into them. But countless editors refuse to buy the little black burst generators that makes these machines run properly.

Some modern VTRs can reference to the incoming digital video signal, but this is not always the case. With the low cost of color black generators, it's just nuts not to buy one for a professional video editing system.


From the early days of professional video, sync generators have been required to synchronize separate pieces of equipment, so they all run locked together at exactly the same frame rate.

In the United States, a modern sync generator uses a color black signal, which runs at 29.97 frames per second. You take this color black signal out of your sync generator (or black burst generator, it's the same thing) and stick these signals into the sync inputs, reference inputs, or genlock inputs of your equipment. Various manufacturers use different names but they all indicate the same thing.

With this reference signal, everything locks up just fine and dandy. You don't get drifting, you don't get lines running through your picture, and you don't have lots of lights flashing on your VTRs.

Video Keyboard


Oh my! This is getting really expensive - first buying a PC and a piece of software, and now there is all this other stuff. But wait! There's more!


You are lucky if you have one tape machine and it's all you need. You plug your cables into your capture card, and away you go. But this is not common for most editors.

You have Beta VTR, a DV VTR, a VHS machine for quick dubs, a DVD Recorder, and now an HDV VTR, an XDCAM HD VTR, a DVCProHD VTR, - and more is on its way.

How on earth do you get all this stuff into a single set of inputs on your video capture card in your edit system?


The least expensive way to do this is with a video patch bay. A patch bay allows you to hook up all the inputs and outputs of your equipment, so when you want to go out of machine A, into machine B, you just stick a patch cord in the patch bay - like an old fashioned telephone switchboard - and it's done!

So when it's time to choose the DV VTR instead of the Beta VTR, a few patch cords is all it takes - instead of crawling around on the floor with a flashlight, reconnecting cables to the different machines.

Isn't there an easier way? Sure there is.


Routing switchers can be expensive. People see ads for routers that cost $1500, and say "I am just going to push a button, instead of doing all this stupid patching." They soon realize that modern video systems require more than composite video. Modern systems required different signal paths, for analog composite, analog component, Serial Digital, and HD Serial Digital.

You need different routers, or expensive multi-level routers, to switch and route all of these signals around. This stuff winds up costing more than the tape machines, and people get discouraged when they discover this.

Your audio can go to an audio patch bay, but one of the wonderful uses of an audio mixer, is that it too can route analog signals around from one machine to another - simply by raising the faders on the mixer. So even if you hate mixers for adjusting levels, it is an inexpensive way to route audio signals around your edit room.

Modern digital tape machines that use SDI or HD-SDI use embedded audio, so the audio will travel along with the video signal. If you use a video patch bay, or a SDI or HD-SDI router, the digital audio will travel along with the video signal.


Maybe you need a UPS (uninterruptible power supply)? Do you need a surge suppressor? Do you need something like a line conditioner to clean up the "dirty" power coming into your building that's causing all kind of power spikes, brown outs, and complete loss of power?

Everyone, including me, always says "No." Until the first disaster, when your computer blows up, or you lose all the information on your disk drives. Now I say "Yes, you need a UPS."

Companies like APC, Tripp Lite, and PowerWare make wonderful UPS systems that protect against blackouts, brown-outs, and power surges, so you don't have any disasters. Living in Florida - the lightning capital of the world - I would never consider running a system without a big UPS, these days.

Many people say "modern power supplies have surge suppression built into them." Like I said, it's not until your first disaster that people really pay attention to this stuff. How badly do you want to find out how bad it can be?


Cable is expensive. In these days of $179 audio mixers, $249 capture cards, and $750 Hi-Def DVI monitors, it can be very discouraging to find out that buying all the cables to hook up your system costs more than much of the critical equipment that you are buying.

High-end cable manufacturers like Belden and Gepco say it's because of the rising costs of copper, but one thing is for sure: the days of "I'll just go to Radio Shack to pick up some cheap cables" is over. Even Radio Shack is expensive today.

Buying professional cable made with Canare or Belden cable, and Kings, Switchcraft or Neutrik connectors is very expensive. But when you use cheap cable, your signal path will suffer, and you will get horrible pictures and weak or dirty audio. After all your hard work, do you really want this?


I could go on for hours more about this stuff but that's probably beyond the scope of this article. Racks for your equipment, rack shelves, desks with rack rail so you can mount your equipment properly. Sound isolation cabinets to keep those computers quiet. Special lighting for your room. Wall mounts for your speakers. Large plasma screens.

As I often say to my clients: "It never ends, and the spending is never over." This is an expensive craft, made more expensive by the fact that - except for those racks I briefly mentioned above - all of this equipment becomes obsolete again after a few years.

The nice thing is that it does cost a lot less to do this today than it did 10 years ago, or even earlier this year.

This article is just an overview of what's out there, and what's involved in putting together a truly professional modern editing room. Some will say: "What about this, and what about that - don't I need one of those little converter boxes so I can use this device?" Maybe you do. Maybe not. Finding out is what Creative COW is all about. Visit the forums. It's about getting all those little details worked out, getting your personal editing system just the way you want it, just the way it needs to be for working pros.
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