Capture Cards and Codecs

April 8, 2002

Capture Cards and Codecs
By Marco Solorio

Page 2 of 2
Continued from page one

Okay, so let's move on to other DV related capture card issues. Here's kind of a third reason why some users buy 4:2:2 capture hardware for their DV edits, even if they don't use any graphics: Offline. Take the Aurora Igniter for example. This system comes in different configurations. At the base system (with no options installed), you have YUV hardware that comes with Y/C and composite video I/O, RCA unbalanced audio I/O and Motion JPEG-A as it's compressed codec format. The Aurora Igniter's MJPEG codec is touted as one of the best in the industry for a compressed codec. You can really crunch those video files down to very small sizes and still maintain great visual quality. Since FCP's DV-Offline cannot output to an external video monitor and you cannot change the ratio of the offline compression, the use of the DV-Offline function can be limiting for some. With hardware like the Aurora Igniter, an editor can capture hours of footage from a DV source to the MJPEG codec at any compression ratio they desire, still maintain good video quality and edit their project to an external video monitor in real-time. When the edit is complete, simply do a batch re-capture of the clips needed in DV mode via FireWire. Now when you dump your completed project back to DV, your source clips will have zero generation loss in transmission.

Depending on how involved you want to get into editing, or if your needs are requiring that your mixed media stay at an optimal level and budget allows for this, then looking into an uncompressed system for FCP may be a good idea. If you're starting to incorporate a lot of rendered graphic clips and effects, then an uncompressed system may be even more of an incentive for you (again however, except in the case of coming from and going to 4:1:1 DV).

For those using any high-end digital decks like DigiBeta, IMX, D-5, D-9, or DVCPro 50, then an uncompressed system should practically be required in your edit suite! For those using component analog decks like BetaCam SP or MII, uncompressed is highly recommended for the most seamless quality. But if you're outputting to MiniDV, DVCAM, DVCPRO, 3/4", or VHS, you may find NO readily observable difference between DV-native and uncompressed editing.

If you're thinking of adding hardware to create a FCP uncompressed system, will it be for editing purposes or CGI purposes? Maybe Both?
The role of the editor and graphic artist is being blurred these days. So many users want to have the ability to use an uncompressed system for both edit work and CGI work. Some uncompressed systems have better real-time editing features and other systems have added functionality in CGI work.

Most uncompressed systems have functionality to drive the After Effects comp window to an external video monitor by selecting this in the AE preferences. These include Aja Kona, Aurora Igniter, Digital Voodoo and Pinnacle Cinewave for starters. However all but Cinewave can do a continual screen capture anywhere on the desktop, which can be fed to a video monitor. This is very suitable for image applications like (only to find their values are out of range when you finally do bring it into FCP). For Cinewave users, please check out EchoFire software for desktop capture through your Cinewave hardware.

Digital Voodoo and Aurora Igniter also boast the best codec quality available for FCP (and even rivals most non-FCP NLE systems). For people rendering CGI to an uncompressed system's codec, this is very important. More details on codec quality are discussed further in this article.

What are your I/O needs? SDI, Component, FireWire, Y/C? Break-out-box or direct connections?
Do you already have pricey video decks that may dictate which uncompressed system you need? Sometimes the issue may be a preference based on budget, personal choice or a combination of both.

Systems like Pinnacle Cinewave and Aurora Igniter give the user the option to fit their I/O needs. Whether it's SDI or yucky composite, the user chooses. With Cinewave and Igniter, you can get an analog break-out-box (BOB) with component, Y/C, composite as well as XLR and RCA audio I/O. An Igniter base system comes standard with Y/C and composite I/O with unbalanced audio I/O for the budget conscious buyer (component BOB is optional). Cinewave also has a new Pro BOB that includes 10-bit SDI I/O, multiple channels of audio output (when FCP supports it) but amazingly no Y/C I/O (yes there is composite). Cinewave and Igniter also both have the option to have SDI I/O in conjunction with the analog I/O. It's entirely user selectable.

The other nice thing about a BOB with multiple I/O is that all the outputs are active. Your component signal can go to your deck/monitor, the Y/C signal can go to another deck or monitor and your composite signal can go to a 'scope or VHS deck for instant client approvals.

The Digital Voodoo and AJA Kona cards have SDI video and AES/EBU audio I/O built directly on the PCI card. This can be very limiting to some potential buyers, but shouldn't in reality. A true SDI suite can be extremely pricey to build, starting with DigiBeta. For people wanting the best quality though, this is a non-issue. Keep in mind that using analog component to SDI converters will never give the full benefit from a true 10-bit, digital source. If you're not coming from a DigiBeta type deck, then you're just not using the full potential of the Voodoo or Kona card's awesome quality with converters.

Should this be reason not to get a 10-bit SDI system? NO! Absolutely not. In fact, it is technically better to have an SDI-only system, even if all you have are analog sources. When you buy a system that has built-in analog I/O, you are relying on the manufacturer's hardware to do the conversion. If you buy a dedicated analog to digital converter, you are picking the best converter within your budget. Additionally, if for some strange reason your built-in analog I/O goes on the fritz, you must replace the entire card instead of just a little converter. It's also note-worthy that having a long analog "snake" from your BOB to your PCI card can induce 60-cycle hum. If you have long SDI digital cables and short analog cables to the converter, you've successfully reduced your chance of 60Hz interference. A side bonus of having a converter (as opposed to the conversion being built into the PCI card for a BOB) is that you can pull the SDI converter and use it for something else should you need to do so.

Let's look at the cost factor as compared to an analog BOB. Let's look at the AJA Kona SD. It has built-in SDI I/O. Everything is totally digital. For complete analog component conversion, you'll need a video converter to the Kona, another video converter from the Kona and an analog audio converter like the Midiman Flying Cow for AES/EBU. For the price of a Kona SD and these converters, you're spending as much (or less in most cases) than other systems with BOBs. Remember, with a converter, you get SDI and analog. Obviously a BOB makes things very convenient and tidy, but sometimes, this is at the risk of quality.

One way to gain multiple video outputs on an SDI to converter scenario is to (1.) daisy-chain the analog signals one after another, (2.) use other outputs from your video decks, (3.) buy a video splitter/distribution amplifier or (4.) buy a quality I/O router/switcher. All these solutions are either free or fairly inexpensive.

Digital Voodoo is coming out with a new product called the "Compound" card, which according to them will be released in late May 2002. This card adds built-in analog video I/O to the card's already SDI-native structure. Component, Y/C or composite video is hooked up via a little tether snake by means of a little DIN connector on one end (on PCI card) and appropriate video connects on the other end. To me this seems like a week link in the video chain with this DIN connector. For me, I would rather have BNC connectors on a BOB, or I'll simply use a converter with proper BNC connections on it. Note also this card does not have analog I/O. For me this whole idea seems a bit funky, but for other users, it may be a Godsend.

Is High-Definition (HD) in your facility's future?
There's a pretty large buzz with facilities wanting HD in their next possible uncompressed NLE purchase. The reality is that a true HD suite is extremely expensive to build. An HD monitor alone is the cost of some uncompressed NLE packages! Currently, Pinnacle Cinewave, AJA Kona HD and Digital Voodoo (Voodoo has playback only, no capture support yet) are the only systems to offer HD for FCP. With time this will change and hopefully the cost of an HD suite will change a little too.

Keep in mind that although the Cinewave HD can capture and edit in HD, its dual stream real-time capabilities are lost to allow for the HD functionality. Cuts only or render. However, it appears that the new Kona HD system will have some RT included in its system. Keep your radar on for developments.

What about the need for 24 FPS real-time editing for film?
I do a lot of 2D and 3D animated projects. Producing projects at the traditional 24 FPS rate is ideal. For me, I wanted an upgrade path to edit 24 FPS in real-time. A $100k Avid film suite is out of the question and the only other alternative is Cinewave HD running at 24 FPS, which is not practical for me since I wont be editing HD resolution (with no HD gear to boot). The Aurora Igniter has a Film card upgrade made simply for this purpose. I can edit at either 24 FPS or 23.976 FPS. Everything is real-time: 3:2 pull down, reverse telecine, letterbox masks at any custom ratio and audio synching for the different frame rates.

This card was really designed to work for film editing (and in some cases, in conjunction with an application called FilmLogic now owned by Apple under the name Cinema Tools), but I use the Film card as my secret animation weapon!

You can even render your clips at a true wide screen (or custom) aspect ratio without the black letterbox, i.e., 720 x 328 with no letterbox instead of 720 x 486 with a letterbox. FCP can play back your non-letterbox, vertically smaller clip with all the real-time functions in place. With this technique in place, you can substantially reduce your file size by half. How? First, you're at 24 FPS, not 29.97 FPS, thus eliminating 6 uncompressed frames for every second. Next, and most importantly, you're cutting your vertical size, which will decrease the amount of pixel data needed for each frame. Take a 5-second uncompressed clip for example. At 720 x 486 @ 29.97 FPS, my file size is 100.1 MB. At 720 x 328 @ 24 FPS, my file size is 54 MB.

Render times of animations will also decrease. How? At 29.97 FPS with interlacing, the rendering application needs to render a separate result for both the odd fields and even fields. You're basically rendering 60 frames for one second of animation, not 30. . With this method, your rendering 24 progressive frames per second, eliminating interlaced fields altogether. Additionally, you're shaving 6 frames off every second of animation to reduce render times. And if you're frame size is vertically smaller like the 720 x 328 example above, then you'll save even more render time. In some case, your renders could be cut down by 70%!

Animators without the Aurora Film card can still render to 24 FPS, but in the end, they'll have to render 3:2 pull down to view it on a video monitor, which is an added time constraint. With the film card, you can play your 24 FPS render on your video monitor with real-time 3:2 pull down. No more rendering!

Unfortunately, there are no other uncompressed hardware manufacturers besides Aurora that make a comparable film card to add to their uncompressed systems for real-time 24 FPS playback and editing within D1 resolution. This is really too bad, as it can both be an incredible time saver and creative tool.

Not all systems have a full set of real-time capabilities. How much real-time functionality can you sacrifice for other needs you may require?
To start off, the Pinnacle Cinewave RT system has the best real-time capabilities of any FCP system to date. This is due to its dual stream system. In fact, it has 2 streams of video and 2 streams of still images (with alpha channel), but only 3 can play back at once in real-time, i.e., 2 video tracks and 1 graphic track, or 1 video track and 2 graphic tracks. You can stack real-time effects too (limited to processing power). An example would be the 3-way color corrector on clip A and clip B with a 5-second dissolve between the two... all in real-time. Besides real-time imaging, it can do other real-time effects like moves, rotations, etc. Some users buy the Cinewave RT based off this powerful functionality alone.

So what about the "other guys"? Aurora Igniter and Digital Voodoo are single stream cards, so for now, their real-time capabilities are limited, but they do have some; most importantly the new FCP 3-way color corrector. The Igniter cannot currently do a real-time dissolve between two clips, but the Voodoo can in limited fashion. The Voodoo needs an incredibly huge RAID array hard drive system to accomplish this and can only dissolve for about 3 seconds. Still though, better than nothing if you have the hard drives to do it.

So what real-time functionalities would be sacrificed for other needs you require? The Cinewave is by far the best system for real-time functions, hands down, but it doesn,t have other functions some of these other systems hold. Take for instance Cinewave's offline mode. It's touted as the worst in the industry. If you need a system with awesome online quality and offline quality because you capture hours of footage for your edits, then maybe a Cinewave system isn't for you.

Another trade off might be customer support or product development. This is an area Aurora shines in. They've been known to update and post a new driver in a day or two from a reported bug from "Joe User". The Igniter is their product, so they can put all their resources into it as opposed to having dozens of products to attend to.

Another trade off might be that you want to integrate your 10-bit SDI equipment into an uncompressed FCP system with no need for a break-out-box (BOB). A Digital Voodoo or AJA Kona card would be in order then.

Maybe you're willing to sacrifice real-time functionality for the best available codec quality like Digital Voodoo or Aurora Igniter. This is the next topic.

For many, image quality is their highest priority. How does codec quality compare against each other and what do they mean to your finished product?
A Discreet Fire suite, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars is out of the question for most people, so a compromise has to be made (or this article wouldn't even exist). You need to purchase an uncompressed system within practical budget, yet maintain the best image quality as possible. And yes, there can be big differences between all these codecs and how they render an image.

Let's go back to the 4:2:2 theories. If general video was uncompressed 4:4:4, then there wouldn't be issues of how well a codecs perform. They would all look exactly the same... flawless. The strength (and in some cases, the weakness) of codecs is how well it can maintain a YUV image or encode an image in a "compressed" color space of 4:2:2, which again is half the color space resolution of a pure 4:4:4 scale. And don't forget... it must do all of this in real-time!

In terms of YUV color space and never rendering to an RGB color space most of these uncompressed systems do quite well. But who doesn't render graphics, effects or titles? When you do render, you're going into RGB color space, and in this conversion process, codecs can diminish in quality.

The Aurora uncompressed codec (8-bit) and the Digital Voodoo uncompressed codec (10-bit) both have the best quality so far and visually look identical. No contouring/banding on gradients and very little RGB edge blocking or "mosquito edges" (which is tough to accomplish in 4:2:2 color space). When it comes to color filtering from YUV to RGB, these two codecs do it the best. However, if you "look under the hood" and really investigate, the Digital Voodoo codec maintains the highest pixel accuracy of any 4:2:2 codec out there.

For some people, image quality is the most important feature of an uncompressed system, or they wouldn't go get an uncompressed system in the first place. Broadcast networks require the absolute highest quality possible of your master tape since they'll be broadcasting your beautiful work through a series of transmission loss over and over again before it hits a person's television set, which in most cases will be worst factor in the chain!

If image quality is at the top of your list, consider the Digital Voodoo product and the Aurora Igniter uncompressed product. For those with 10-bit and digital SDI equipment, i.e., DigiBeta decks, SDI monitors, etc., then Digital Voodoo is for you. For those with a tighter budget and use analog component decks (like BetaCam SP), the Aurora Igniter is a top choice. So what about the AJA Kona quality? I personally have not tested the new OSX codec yet, but will shortly. But keep this in mind...
some of the people that were initially on the development team at Digital Voodoo are now with AJA. But keep in mind that original Voodoo people are still there cranking out good stuff. With some of these people now developing at AJA, one would have to believe the new OSX codec for Kona will either be as good, or better than the Voodoo codec. We shall soon see, but it's all assumption for now.

So what about Pinnacle Cinewave? How do they stack up in the mix? Where real-time functionality is Cinewave's ultimate strength, its RGB to YUV codec quality is its weakness. Even with the Cinewave 16-bit codec, the majority of pixels are not holding true to the originals. There is still banding/contouring in heavy gradients, blocky "mosquito" edges and an incredibly large file size to boot (40 MB/second). It's also note worthy that since 10-bit SDI SDI (via the Pro break-out-box) is going to the Cinewave 16-bit codec, 6 bits of information are not being used. Thus, the 40 MB/s file is inefficiently being used. To make things even more interesting, the quality difference in the Cinewave's 8-bit codec and its 16-bit codec can be very small in some cases. However, many Cinewave owners say their 16-bit output to NTSC/PAL looks perfect. Whether it's due to the Cinewave hardware or the inherent way video output can be forgiving on display, this can all be true. However the issues still stands... when it comes to RGB rendering with multiple Cinewave clips or multi-generation passes, this is where the codec can suffer, mainly due to its poor color filtering. Again though, when it comes to basic YUV editing with not much rendering, all systems pretty much fair equally. But remember this, codecs are software based. Pinnacle, at any time, could update or even re-write their codecs and achieve quality that matches or surpasses Digital Voodoo or Aurora Igniter. It's all about continued product development and customer support, something Aurora, on the other hand, does uniquely well in.

In my opinion, Pinnacle should dump the 16-bit codec and write a 10-bit codec. Simply throwing extra bits at the problem doesn't rectify a solution. This way they could also maintain RT functionality, lower the file size and stay in-line with a 10-bit source. It's not about the amount of bits, but how they are used.

Is 10-bit better than 8-bit? If the codec is written correctly, yes, it can. There have been huge debates on the battle of 8-bit and 10-bit, so I would rather stay away from "bit wars." Some say it's mathematically provable to achieve the same results as a 10-bit codec, but in reality (and technically), the 10-bit Voodoo hardware and codec is still the best for maintaining the most accurate pixel replication. It seems without a doubt though that 10-bit architecture and codec software is the future for all these cards and the migration has already started.

Apple DV Codec: As a side note, let's also briefly discuss the Apple DV codec under QuickTime 5.0, even though this isn't an uncompressed codec like the ones mentioned above. Any QuickTime version prior to 5.0 (technically version 4.1.3) produced pretty ugly DV results. It is imperative a user has the latest QuickTime version installed in their Macintosh to get optimum DV results. By comparison, the Apple codec pretty much has the same quality as Sony and Matsushita hardware codecs. Likewise, Apple's DV codec quality is comparable to Canopus and Matrox software codecs. It's better than the C-Cube hardware codec used in the RTMac, DigiSuite DTV/LX, Pinnacle products, and the majority of broadcast video servers! Go Apple!

So how do these different codecs visually compare in quality? In fact, how do they compare to other mainstream codecs? When I was first investigating different uncompressed systems and their quality against each other, one of the things I did was download each company's codec and run renders in Adobe After Effects to see how well they stack up in RGB rendering. I created a codec web page, which shows how all the codecs render a complicated test image in After Effects:

What are the highlights of all these uncompressed systems?

AJA Kona - The newest breed of uncompressed capture cards is the Kona SD and HD systems. But being the new kid on the block doesn't mean they're green... they recently won the "Pick of Show" award at NAB 2002.
Probably the biggest advantage to the Kona cards is that they are built on OSX hardware with OSX drivers. The Kona SD card is Apple certified for OSX. The quality should be as good or better than Digital Voodoo. The RT functionality of the Kona card is free... there are no upgrade options. Oh, and did I mention this card is dual stream? You get one card, with everything it has to offer, with no surprise options you'll need later on for an extra bill of sale. Both cards also let the user choose from the 8-bit or 10-bit codec, which is an important key. If you have an hour or two-hour long program, then the 8-bit codec would be a wise choice for disk saving space over the 10-bit codec. And in reality, the 8-bit codec won't deviate greatly from its 10-bit big brother. Kona also has the same RT desktop capture feature as Digital Voodoo. A preview of this at NAB was a welcome sight. Six channels of AES/EBU audio are standard feature on the Kona card. Slick! Six channels work since the card is running in OSX, whereas other cards cannot do more than 2 channels because of the OS9 limitation. Embedded 8-channel SDI audio will be in a future software release for both cards as well. And of course, the Kona SD uses SD-SDI I/O and the Kona HD uses HD-SDI I/O for video. This card will be the closest competitor to the Digital Voodoo card, or should we say Digital Voodoo's closest competitor to the AJA Kona? All AJA products are warranted for at least 3 years for free. And from what I hear, AJA offers a 30-day money back guarantee on their products. Keep your eyeballs on these guys.

Current List Pricing in US Dollars (Street prices may be less):

AJA Kona SD - $3,295.00 (SD-SDI I/O and 6-channel AES/EBU audio. Includes RT and 3-year warrantee)
AJA Kona HD - $10,995.00 (HD-SDI I/O and 6-channel AES/EBU audio. Includes RT and 3-year warrantee)

Aurora Igniter - The beauty of this system are the many ways it can be configured for your needs and within many budget levels. At the base level you get Y/C & Composite video with RCA unbalanced audio. You can upgrade to the uncompressed codec (and still use the fine M-JPEG-A codec), add single stream real-time (IgniterRT) effects functionality, add an analog component break-out-box, add SDI I/O and add the film card option for 24 FPS editing. Get everything together at once and you have what's called the Aurora IgniterRT Studio. Remember the uncompressed codec (8-bit) looks identical to, but is technically just a little less accurate in pixel replication to the Digital Voodoo codec (10-bit). Aurora's offline Motion-JPEG-A codec is truly wonderful for those really long projects. The desktop capturing functions are also nice for CGI artists. And for the price conscious, uncompressed video can be played from striped ultra DMA hard drives... the other capture cards cannot do this. The only weakness of this system is it's limited non keyframable single-stream RT effects, although it does include the new FCP 3-way color corrector in RT. With such steadfast product development Aurora is known for, limited RT may become a thing of the past. Its greatest strengths are its quality online/offline, 24 FPS, product support and devotion. For the money and quality, this could be a great system for many users.

Current List Pricing in US Dollars (Street prices may be less):

Igniter 001 - $1,149.00 (Base system with variable 1.5:1 to 50:1 MJPEG-A, Y/C, RCA audio)
Igniter 101 - $3,099.00 (Same as Igniter 001, and includes Analog component/XLR BOB)
IgniterRT 011 - $1,999.00 (Same as Igniter 001, and includes RT and Uncompressed option)
IgniterRT 111 - $3,999.00 (Same as Igniter 011, and includes Analog component/XLR BOB)
IgniterRT 211 - $4,999.00 (Same as Igniter 011, and includes SDI and AES/EBU I/O)
IgniterRT 311 - $7,999.00 (AKA, Igniter "Studio". Bundles Igniter 111 with SDI, AES/EBU and Film Card)

SDI upgrade - $3,999.00 (Adds SDI to any Igniter card)
Component upgrade - $2,999.00 (Adds rack mountable component/XLR BOB to any Igniter card)
Film Card upgrade - $3,999.00 (Adds 24 FPS, inverse telecine, 3:2 pulldown, etc. to Igniter)
Studio upgrade - $6,999.00 (Converts your current Igniter to full 311 Studio package)
RT upgrade - $1,000.00 (For Igniter users that do not have RT functionality)

Digital Voodoo - Voodoo really has a diverse selection of cards, from their popular 10-bit SDI cards up to their 4:4:4:4 uncompressed cards (using the "None" codec) for digital compositors. Are there any 4:4:4 video decks out there? No, but it's still pretty neat to see 4:4:4 in action. Although Digital Voodoo has a large selection of cards, the majority of them are output only, which wont work for an edit-only workstation, thus they are not referenced in this article. For a second "compositing" or "effects" station, these output-only cards offer great output for a great price.

The popular D1 Desktop 64 AV is now going to be a new card under the D1 64RT title. The 64RT will have different RT upgrade options, which may or may not hurt them since AJA Kona SD offers all its RT at no additional cost. Likewise, a 3-year warrantee for a Digital Voodoo card will run you about $2,245.00. Note that this price could change at any point in time.

Currently, they have the best codec quality from a technical stand point in their SD line. Currently, their only I/O is via SDI and AES/EBU, but their new "Compound" card due to release in late May 2002 will have analog video I/O via a DIN connector. The current cards are single stream, but most notably uses the new FCP 3-way color corrector and can do about a 3-second dissolve granted a very fast and fat SCSI RAID array is used. However, the new dual stream 64RT card (with the highest RT upgrade option) should give us several dissolves, 3-way CC and other HSL effects. Voodoo also has superb desktop capturing to the video monitor, like AJA Kona SD. For the DigiBeta/SDI user, this system is grandioso. But watch out because AJA Kona is coming along and should be their closest competitors.

As for Digital Voodoo's full HD package, it's been promised for a year and a half, so hopefully we'll finally get this in the market place. The HD Fury, as it's called will have 10-bit HD SDI I/O and eight channels of AES/EBU audio (when QuickTime supports it). For now you can edit HD with Digital Voodoo via the Iridium HD or Iridium HDXP card, but you still can't capture with it.

Current List Pricing in US Dollars (Street prices may be less):

D1 64 - $3,995.00 (Dual SDI key outputs for 4:2:2:4 or 4:4:4:4, single SDI input. No Audio)
D1 64AV - $3,495.00 (Single SDI I/O and AES/EBU 6-channel output when supported by QuickTime)
Warrantee Program - Should the hardware fail within the first two years, the hardware is replaced on a no questions asked basis. The card must be sent in before a replacement can be made. If on the third year
anything might happens to the card, it will be replaced for 75% off the retail list price. However, a Premium Warranty can be purchased for $2,245.00 whereby three years covers the product. This premium warrantee is an advanced replacement program whereby any issues with the card are immediately resolved by calling the local distributor and requesting a replacement without having to return the product prior to receipt at the distributor.

Future releases when available:
D1 64RT - $3,495.00 (Entry-level RT card. Replaces 64AV card with same specs)
D1 64RT RT upgrade option 1 - $ N/A
D1 64RT RT upgrade option 2 - $ N/A
Compound - $4,495.00 (Much like the 64AV and includes analog video I/O via DIN connection)
Zenith - $5,695.00 (Dual SDI key outputs for 4:2:2:4 or 4:4:4:4, single SDI input and AES/EBU 8-channel output when supported by QuickTime)
Dual Zenith - $5,995.00 (Dual SDI key I/O for 4:2:2:4 or 4:4:4:4 and AES/EBU 8-channel output when supported by QuickTime)
HD Fury - $11,995.00 (Single HD-SDI I/O, one SD-SDI downconverter and AES/EBU 8-channel output when supported by QuickTime)

Pinnacle Cinewave - By far, the two biggest advantages to the Cinewave systems are the powerful dual stream real-time capabilities (in SD) and it's ability to capture and edit in HD (without its dual stream SD RT capabilities). Different break-out-box options give the user the ultimate choice in I/O integration. This system is ideal for the editor that requires powerful dual stream real-time capabilities over anything else. And believe me, having all those real-time capabilities can really make one's self feel quite spoiled! Its only current limitations are its RGB to YUV codec quality (as compared to all the other codecs), product development from a customer support standpoint, its offline quality (which is quite bad) and non-support for desktop capturing to video output outside of After Effects (which may hurt CGI artists). Keep in mind though that these are software-based issues that can be fixed... but that all depends on their motivation for product development.

Current List Pricing in US Dollars (Street prices may be less):

Cinewave Classic - $4,200.00 (Base Cinewave card. No BOB or RT. Must also purchase analog or SDI BOB)
Cinewave - $6,495.00 (Base Cinewave card. No BOB or RT. Must also purchase analog or SDI BOB. Comes with Final Cut Pro, Commotion Pro, Knoll Light Factory)
Real-Time upgrade - $2,199.00 (RT option for base Cinewave system)
CinewaveRT - $9,999.00 (Base card with RT functionality. No BOB. Must also purchase analog or SDI BOB. Comes with Commotion Pro and Knoll Light Factory)
Analog BOB - $1,295.00 (Analog component/XLR BOB)
SDI BOB - $1,295.00 (Junction box for SDI I/O)
Pro Digital/Analog BOB - $4,995.00 (SDI I/O, 4-channel AES/EBU I/O, SPDIF I/O, component, composite, 2-channel RCA audio I/O, 4-channel XLR inputs, 6-channel XLR outputs. Please note that 3 or more channels of audio I/O is not supported in the current version of QuickTime 5)
HD BOB - $9,995.00 (HD-SDI I/O with embedded audio. Required for HD editing in Cinewave)
Rack Mount for Analog BOB - $150.00 (Needed to rack your analog BOB)

How does your ideal "perfect system" fit in your budget?
Buying a speedy G4 with fast hard drives (or RAID array) and a good amount of RAM is your first step of course. This can start from $2000 up to around $10,000 very easily. The Final Cut Pro software is $1,000, and an uncompressed system to match it (should you need it) can run between $3,000 to $15,000 and up. And if you get into SDI or HD land, you'll be opening up your wallet inside out.

Okay, so maybe you're not going to SDI or HD. The different qualities in video decks and their prices are all over the board. Do you buy used or new? In some cases, buying a used deck from a reputable source can be a very wise choice. And these days, a high-end deck can be purchased for a great deal. I bought a used Sony BVW-70 BetaCam SP deck for the deal of the century. The guy that sold it to me even let me use it at my facility for testing and inspection for a full week before I even paid him for it! These deals exist if you look hard enough.

But decks are only part of the equation. Do you need a nice little audio board to tie in all your sources to FCP? What about your external video monitor for playback? Do you need high-end reference audio monitors or will cheap ones be okay for your application? Single display or dual display? CRT computer monitors or LCD flat panel displays? Do you edit BetaCam SP but also need a DV deck since you're getting new clients that shoot on this format? Do you need to buy a nice quality flat bed scanner for photos? What about tape stock? You should always have enough tape stock on hand for surprise edits or client needs. You never know if they'll need two BetaCam SP masters, or ten VHS window dubs! Oh, and the thing I hate the most... cables. Do you bite the bullet and buy high quality cables for both video and audio? You should, it can make a big difference. A good printer is always nice too for videotape labels and such. Making everything look professional can really add value to your product.

To date, Aurora Igniter is the only system that can run uncompressed video with Ultra DMA drives striped to a RAID array (although a SCSI RAID array is still recommended). Many uncompressed Igniter users run Ultra DMA hard drive systems and have had great results. This in itself can be a huge money saver for people.

Let's not forget about all the software you'll need too. Final Cut Pro can work fine by itself, but in reality, you should have an arsenal of other tools. Adobe Photoshop seems to be used in any project, whether it's video related or not! Buying and learning Adobe After Effects could really add artistic value to your video projects with nice looking effects, bumpers, titles, etc. Adobe Illustrator can be a lifesaver too, especially when you want to maintain a client's logo with a perfect alpha channel in any resolution. For some, using a quality 3D application can add value to their workflow. Newtek Lightwave 3D is my favorite, but there are numerous 3D apps with assorted pricing to choose from.

Do you need to purchase a video camera? This can be as tricky as buying the uncompressed system itself! As you can see, things really start to add up, and making the right choice for all of them can be mind-boggling. With enough patience and self-education, you truly can achieve the ideal system for your budgetary needs.

Is there really a "perfect system" that can cover everything?
Not yet, but it looks like there may just be one in the not so distant future. Expect another in-depth article from me should this system come to pass. The future looks bright.

For now though, the key is finding a system that fits your budget and needs. Even with a fat budget, or no budget at all, each system has its pluses and minuses. In some cases, staying entirely in DV and not buying an uncompressed system can be the best choice for some people. It's really about doing your homework and how your educated findings fit into the format you need or use in relation to your output or client requirements.

If you do end up buying an uncompressed system, it's important you find out what you need first or a reseller or company spokesperson, whether they are correct or incorrect, may give you the impression of what you think you may need. Best of luck, there's a lot of toys out there. Just make sure you get the right ones!

copyright©2002 Marco Solorio

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Marco Solorio is a multi-award winning digital media producer in the San Francisco bay area. He owns and operates OneRiver Media, which focuses on producing animated content for broadcast, as well as serving production needs for content developers. Many thanks go to Adam Wilt for sharing his incredible DV knowledge; especially for his help in the making of the DV to 601 tables and descriptions.As a side note (and in relation to this article), Marco Solorio owns an Aurora IgniterRT with the uncompressed component option and film expansion card. He also owns a Sony BVW-70 BetaCam SP deck and a Sony DSR-11 DV deck. Dexter's Laboratory is his most favorite cartoon in the world, which bares no relation to this article whatsoever.


This article first appeared on lafcpug and is reprinted here with permission.

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