Review: Adobe DV Rack HD 2
Posted Mar 28, 2007

In spite of the many cool features and functions in the $499 DV Rack HD 2 package from Adobe, I need to make one point right at the start: DV Rack is a passive product. It does not provide active tools for controlling or manipulating a digital video signal. Many people seem to think it can be used to change the signal, but that's not the case.
 What it can do is help monitor and evaluate the signal across several important parameters, so that you can go to the right place, make the necessary adjustments, and be assured your digital video is recorded properly.
 What DV Rack says or shows might send you running to your camera so you can change the overall exposure or other specific image elements as required. It might send you scurrying to your outboard display so you can properly set up your monitor's visual characteristics. You might even find yourself running from your DV Rack monitor to the microphone or audio board, because DV Rack will provide audio-level monitoring and other important information about your recording.

figure 1Capture, Recording, and Format Support
The signal coming from your camera or other production device moves as a data stream along a FireWire (IEEE 1394) cable—it's already been converted to digital form in the camera, so again, DV Rack lets you look at what's there, not change it.

It does an amazing job showing you what needs changing and what doesn't in your production set-up. Then it records digitally everything you have told it to, acting as a digital video recorder or clip store, in concert with an internal or external hard drive. Just connect a camera to a laptop, via FireWire, and shoot away. You can record video and audio clips onto the laptop's hard drive, and you can control them with the program's transport controls. It's an instant start with a Record button push, and the space bar is a stop/start toggle, too. You can pause a recording without creating a new clip, but as new clips are recorded, each will appear in a clip list in the program interface, along with comprehensive clip information.

DV Rack works with DV, HDV, DVCPro50, and DVCProHD. It supports 1280x720 resolution and will accurately display and monitor 720p footage at a pixel-by-pixel level. It supports timecode in NLEs from Adobe, Apple, Avid, Sony, and other companies, so you can save recorded video clips on a hard drive in the format you need. The program supports "regular" DV timecode, too, so if you decide to do simultaneous backup recording (using a tape in the camcorder and DV Rack's DVR function), both will have the same timecode.

DV Rack records video at the same rate tape devices do—25Mbps (roughly 13GB/hour) for DV and HDV, 50Mbps (26GB/hour) for DVCPro50, and 100Mbps (52GB/hour) for DVCProHD. DV Rack doesn't decompress or recompress your video, so it gives the same record times as tape.

Monitoring and Assessment Capabilities
What DV Rack will do is give you the information you need to adjust your video signal effectively, confidence about all of its technical specs, and the ability to do quick edits on location, so you can see right away how a final edit might look, and whether or not another take is needed or necessary.

Even without its recording capability, DV Rack will tell you if your camera exposure is too hot, or if your mic is too bass-heavy. Then you can close the iris, move the mic, or do whatever is necessary to get better-quality image and sound. That kind of confidence is not easily replicated in the field, or in all honesty, in many studio setups I've seen, either. DV Rack is a turnkey production solution, doing the job of several different hardware devices, each one of which could cost more than the software itself.

Set-Up Issues
DV Rack can turn any production environment into a full-blown digital studio, and it's being positioned as a great tool for laptop shooting on location. Sure, being able to shoot in the field this way is very handy, but laptop shooting in the field requires some support other than what DV Rack can provide.

You'll need a long FireWire cable to ensure freedom of movement, and lots of power, both for your camera and for the laptop itself. Because you want to be mobile, you'll need extra charged batteries for both. In bright, outdoor locations, your laptop LCD screen might be difficult to read, so a computer display sunshade or other screening device might prove helpful.

In situations such as these, direct-to-disk recording may not be all that easy or appropriate. That's not DV Rack's fault, of course—but it can influence how and when you can use DV Rack most effectively. You'll probably want as large a screen as possible to display all its features, and that's not necessarily what most laptops provide.

What You See, What You Get
The main DV Rack interface includes the DVR control display, a professional field monitor, a waveform/vectorscope monitor, an audio spectrum analyzer, a timer and clock module, as well as a DV display frame grabber. It's a single, unified display for the most part, even with all these features, so managing it and maneuvering around it means you will do a lot of scrolling, or mouse-clicking up and down, on your display.

The Field Monitor is designed to look a lot like the old reference CRTs found in high-level post facilities and TV studios—right down to the twist knobs and illuminated push buttons. It features framing and composition tools like underscan, safe title, rule-of-thirds, and letterbox display. Because it's a digital monitor with no analog conversion, it displays the image exactly as it is recorded.

DV Rack also generates professional SMPTE color bars, and its display has blue-gun mode, so you can always set up your displays or outboard monitors with confidence, and you can rest assured they show what the camera sees. Alongside the main monitor display is DV Rack's waveform monitor and vectorscope, now enhanced with higher sampling rates supported by today's faster CPUs.

The Waveform Monitor shows video signal characteristics as a viewable waveform representing luminance and saturation levels. To experienced videographers who know how to read such a display, a waveform can tell more about picture quality than an LCD screen. Vectorscopes can be used to judge color fidelity, such as matching hues among separate cameras, or even matching skin tones across multiple takes. A handy split mode lets you compare pre-recorded clips with live incoming video, so camera matches, system settings, and continuity can be maintained and matched appropriately.


figure 1New Recording Features
The DVR component sits beneath these monitors in the DV Rack interface. Alongside the standard Play, Record, and Stop transport controls, it has the eight-digit TC counter you'd expect, along with dual-channel LED audio monitor readouts.

More than a mere list of recorded clips (which, as it includes clip time, type, name, and other user-defined fields, is handy enough all by itself), the DVR display can be used to scrub through existing clips, too. The DVR records and stops when the camera itself does, and it can be set to trigger buffered recording automatically, so no action need be lost to a slow trigger finger.

In DV Rack HD 2, there are new recording features in the DVR, including Stop-Motion, Time-Lapse, and Motion-Activation. With a handful of parameters to control Motion Activation, for example, we found this very handy. Once it was set up properly (record delay between movement and no movement, time in between movements, etc.), we found it would start recording dependably each and every time our talent walked into the shot, saving us a body for cues and a finger for Start Recording.

Below the DVR display is the DV Grabber module, where high-resolution video stills can be grabbed direct from incoming live video. You can select the file format ahead of time and display frames individually once captured.

Additional QA Tools
Additional monitoring, analyzing, and quality assurance tools are found near the bottom of this long, tall interface. Video analyzers, spectrum analyzers, and quality assurance tools can be used to show, on a pixel-by-pixel basis, numerical video color values. Audio clipping or signal thresholds can be set and monitored automatically.

If a recording exceeds recommended or desired audio and video thresholds, DV Rack will create a Clip Alert, and display it in the PVR section as a little red rectangle.

Depending on your own production requirements, you can use this section to compare and match audio and video levels and signal qualities between existing clips and new recordings. Luminance spikes, chroma mismatches, audio buzz, sibilance (hissing sounds in speech), or other signal interference can be identified and flagged. This allows you to take control of your content and guarantee its quality.

There's even a built-in wizard that walks you through the main steps for camera setup and calibration, using the included Camera Setup cards for focus, exposure, and white balance.


figure 1Testing Notes
During this product review, I worked with Bruno Marsala at HDMediaCreations, an independent video production company based in Toronto. Our shoot took place in a green-screen studio environment, not out in the field. We were shooting video intros and outros for a major grocery store, part of an online V-mail promotional campaign. Non-professional talent (mostly the store manager) appeared on-camera, delivering a short pre-scripted welcome to store visitors and community residents.

We used DV Rack HD v. 2.1.157, and instead of a laptop, we ran the software on a Gateway GM series desktop with dual Pentium 2.8GHz processors, 1GB RAM, and a 320GB, 7200 RPM IDE hard drive, plus an ATI Radeon 256MB video card.

The software itself seemed a little quirky; on occasion, we had to reboot the PC to get running after a freeze-up. Once or twice, the whole system seemed to respond very slowly, and the DV Rack field monitor display shut itself off. Tech support told us that setting the monitor's MPEG display to half res, interlaced, would save on overhead and free up system resources.

The waveform display also taxes the system, we were told, and it was recommended that the feature be turned off if not in use. In the Windows Task Manager, sure enough, we could see a 10% surge in CPU usage if this was not done, even with our rather hefty system specs.

Our camera is the JVC GY-HD110, shooting 720p HD. The FireWire connection fed our hard drive, and we also used the camera's component output to feed an outboard HD display, the Panasonic LH1700. Because we could, we shot a "double system" recording to tape and hard drive simultaneously. The edit system at HDMedia is Final Cut Pro HD, so we selected the DVRack's QuikTM.mov format, for recording and editing compatibility with FCP.

Each take was short, but the shot clock was invaluable in letting us see the exact final run time on each segment. We could click on each clip on the fly and name it appropriately, assessing that take against the script itself or our own judgment on good or bad deliveries. With just a glance at the vectorscope, we could make sure skin tones and overall color rendition were kept consistent over several takes throughout the morning shoot.

Experimenting with the Motion Activation function, we found that recordings could be triggered by the talent's own motion on set, and the movement towards his mark. Adjusting the sensitivity back and forth across three parameters, we could get DV Rack to start and stop recording on its own. This proved handy, as we did have a PC prompter system running, so often our eyes or hands were elsewhere. Many of DV Rack's features, like this one, are invaluable in a one-operator environment.

DV Rack's ability to easily record and store lots of clips on a hard drive means clip management and editing issues will need to be addressed at some point in your workflow. The program creates folders for clips-in-use, ejected clips, and garbage, and an internal database helps keep track of them all. It's not hard to end up with lots and lots of clips, so naming, managing, and re-filing them becomes critical. We spent some time with the Read Me File, and its hip, edgy language—at one point, it says if you cannot find a certain clip, that you will "bloody well" find it in the database. Anyone who reads the file receives a "bless you" from the author!

As we neared the end of our shoot and evaluation, the producer was glowing: He had multiple clips to choose from, each with a useful name, description, and note attached. Once he selected a clip based on talent delivery, we could check each take for any technical issues by looking at the clip list to see if any quality alerts had come up.

Throughout the taping process, the clients had been watching the external HD monitor, so they could see full resolution video throughout the recording. Upon playback of identified "good" clips, which looked just as good, their confidence and assurance about the quality of the material in the can was confirmed. We knew at a glance (the clip alert warning window) that each take was technically solid, too, even without having to re-screen each take.

A Note on Serious Magic Serious Magic, founded in early 2001, was acquired in late 2006 by Adobe Systems. Adobe announced on March 27 that it plans to include DV Rack HD (under the new name On Location CS3) in its forthcoming Creative Suite 3 Production Premium bundle as a component of Premiere Pro when the new suite is released in summer 2007. All features discussed and reviewed here will remain relevant to the DV Rack/On Location product. For more information on CS3 Production Premium, click here.

Lee Rickwood is a media consultant and freelance writer.