The Gadget Bag
Posted Apr 25, 2006

This month's collection of helpful tidbits contains a number of solutions to common problems that videographers have been inquiring about.

I got this one from one of the online forums: I need additional light for interviews, but even a 20 W light creates some pretty harsh images. A simple solution is a small softbox by LumiQuest (Mini Soft Box), which can be used for low-wattage on-camera lights (like the popular Sony shoe-mount lights). This neat little accessory was designed for photographic strobe flashes but works quite well with the 20-30 W video lights. Mounting is via hook-and-loop fasteners (Velcro) and easily withstands the heat generated by the lights. The Mini Soft Box is available from B & H Photo Video (NYC) for about $20 (Mfg. # LQ951D).

Everyone wants a studio that is neat and organized, but getting there and keeping it that way isn't the easiest task. One way to get there is to look at the many plastic storage-drawer units that can be found in almost any store. These range in size from tiny three-drawer units that are great for desk use (pens, pencils, etc.) to some rather large multi-drawer units that could hold cameras, entire boxes of tape stock, DVD spindles, and other bulky items. Generally, products by the same manufacturer (and series) can be partially disassembled and combined to create custom units with various drawer sizes (depth only). It may sound Martha Stewart-ish, but I have dozens of these and they have helped with organization and efficiency. Use your imagination, then once you start using them, get into the habit of returning "things" to where they belong. That is the first step in having an organized studio. Price depends on size and quality level, but the units are worth the cost.

Solid-state audio devices such as iRivers, iPods, and dozens of other brands can also be used as standalone recorders, some "out of the box" and some with adapters, but they are not all created equal. When investigating what you need, pay close attention to the input specs. Some will only accept a line-level signal, meaning that you can record from the output of an audio mixer or stereo component (or your NLE system). Others will accept a microphone (useful as an audio backup for the wedding vows). Some allow for both with input-level adjustment. But some do not allow enough adjustment to do both, so read the specs, and if you don't understand the technobabble, ask someone who does. It could save you some money and aggravation.

Everyone knows about USB hubs, but did you know that there exists an IEEE-1394 (FireWire) hub? Sounds nice, but what the heck do you use it for? First, since they are powered, they can be used as a line extender (there are still length limits) or a distribution block to feed multiple units (i.e., DVD recorders). I have been using one to feed a desktop DVD recorder and a bank of VHS recorders (via a FireWire-to-analog video converter) from the output of my NLE system. Why? Time savings. I'm able to record a batch of VHS copies (remember them?) and burn a DVD master at the same time. If you are talking about a play or dance recital, that's a good two hours, times dozens of events a year . . . you get the idea.

The catch with using one of these hubs is that all FireWire devices want to be the controller, so to have all your devices behaving and playing nice, you should have your feed device turned on and outputting a signal before you plug in/turn on your "receiving" devices. That way, the recorders will know immediately that they will be listeners. You can double-check this by monitoring the outputs of the recording devices for the video/audio signal. Products, including Datavideo's DV Repeater, are available anywhere computer and/or video equipment is sold, starting at $30.

This tip is one that everyone should know about but at times they ignore. When running audio cabling, make sure that you don't run them near AC power wires. Granted, XLR mic cables do a good job of rejecting noise and hum, but running any low-level signal cables for more within a few feet of AC power wires (including building wiring) is asking for trouble. This becomes extremely important within the confines of the modern video studio that has miles of audio, video, digital, and power cabling. Those split-loom tubes designed to hide wiring could cause problems if you try to stuff all types of cabling into a single tube. Use two tubes—one for signal cabling and the other for power—and run them down opposite sides of the equipment rack.

Have you ever found yourself wondering, "Does this cable go to Camera one or Camera two?" The easy solution is to color-code the cables. Take a colored self-adhesive label or electrical tape and wrap it around the cable about six inches from the end. You can take a strip of plain white label and wrap that in the center of the color, then mark (using a permanent ink marker) the length of the cable. While you're at it, scribble your company's name on the label. Then wrap the whole thing with clear packing tape to protect and waterproof it.

As cell phones become more and more sophisticated, they can wreak havoc on some audio systems. Not only can phones emit signals upon ringing, but now with GPS and other bi-directional communication, you don't have to be talking on the phone for them to interfere with your audio. The only way to eliminate interference from showing up in your audio track is to completely shut off the phone. Putting some distance between the phone and any audio lines can help, but depending on the equipment, that could mean 3-4 feet, which is often impractical.