Like most couples who got married a decade ago, my wife and I have a VHS copy of our wedding ceremony.
I still remember the anticipation we felt when we picked up the tape from our videographer, and the excitement as we settled in after our honeymoon to watch the footage.
We pulled it out again on our first anniversary and shared smiles and memories as we ate that year-old wedding-cake top that our grandparents told us to keep in the freezer for that very day. We fast-forwarded through a few parts to get to the "good stuff"—my father-in-law giving away the bride, our vows, that ceremonial kiss—and probably ended up watching about 70% of the tape. (We didn't do nearly so well on the stale cake.)
That was 1995, and we haven't watched it since. Not because we don't want to see it again, but because it just seems like too much effort to put it in the VCR, rewind it, and then scan through for the parts we really want to watch. That's a shame, because we know that it might be just the thing to give us some perspective when the going gets rough.
If only we had it on DVD, with a menu and the ability to get to the good stuff with a single click, I'm sure we'd watch it more often. Today, of course, you'd be hard-pressed to find a newly married couple who get their wedding video on VHS. While the DV format revolutionized event video production, DVD proved just as revolutionary in post-production. It didn't happen overnight, of course; while Daikin introduced its professional DVD authoring system Scenarist in 1996, it wasn't until 1999 that we saw the first authoring software that was accessible enough for most videographers to use.
The availability of usable tools and the emergence of inexpensive DVD recorders added a new step to the videographer's post-production process—DVD authoring—but each generation of software made that step easier to learn and less painful to execute. Today, there are dozens of DVD authoring software tools to choose from, ranging from the very basic to the advanced, and no videographer who hopes to stay competitive can afford not to use at least one of them. Most of them probably can't remember the last time they paid someone else to do their authoring.
But what about the output and distribution? Well, in the last five years, that's come in-house, too, with the advent of reasonably priced, easy-to-use automated disc duplicators and printers. It's been a boon to the duplicator manufacturers; R-Quest VP of sales and marketing Tim Furnas estimates that videographers account for 40% of his company's sales, while Microboards marketing manager Aaron Pratt says the duplication market has quadrupled in the last five years, with videographers being the #2 segment of that market.
"End users are starting to snap this equipment up more and more," says Mark Strobel, VP of sales and marketing for Primera. "We're seeing a notable shift in our customer base to more videographers, recording studios, and amateur musicians and filmmakers. Service bureaus are still buying the big equipment, but if you're doing a small run, why go to a service bureau?"
It's also been a boon to videographers, who can now quickly generate short runs of event or corporate projects without having to outsource duplication. Whether using a tower duplicator that can make multiple copies from a single master at the same time or an autoloading system that provides the ability to generate runs of 100 or more discs, a videographer can satisfy most client requests without taxing too much manpower or time, especially now that DVD duplication has hit 12X speed. And if the duplicator is also a printer, that makes it that much easier.
"Most videographers want to keep duplication and printing in-house, so they can control when, where, and what is produced, without having to commit to numbers they may not need," says Furnas. "Content changes rapidly, and most videographers like the flexibility to burn what they need, when they need it." Here's a look at the latest in DVD duplication and printing technology, as well as the pros and cons of duping it yourself.
The Tape-Disc Business
Doing DVD in-house requires videographers to do more than simply substitute one duplication process for another, and the switch from VHS production to optical disc wasn't necessarily a no-brainer. "VHS or any tape format has always been the simplest to distribute, because there's no additional authoring step between the completion of production and distribution," says Brett Culp, founder and creative director of Creative Video Productions in Land O'Lakes, Florida. He says the interactivity and A/V quality of DVD made the switch worth it, but it didn't come easily. "Rather than being able to run straight to tape, we had to encode, author, and burn. Until we were bright enough to move these tasks to a separate computer workstation, this was very frustrating, as it could add four hours to the production process."
Then again, copying tapes brought its own time-consuming challenges. When making multiple copies, Culp says, you either need to run them one at a time from your editing decks or set up some sort of VHS duplication system, which is bulky and requires regular tape changes. "The duplication system is also real-time, which can be troublesome if you're running off multiples of a 90-minute production," he adds.
Tapes also need to be checked upon completion for quality control, which adds more time to the process. Since most DVD duplicators can verify the contents and quality of a copied disc—usually in less time than it takes them to make the copy—videographers can both burn and check the disc in less than real-time, even if their duplicator only copies at 4X. For example, Darren Purcell, whose Purcell Productions in Alta Loma, California specializes in motor sports events, says he can do a duplication and print run of 200 discs in about two days. You don't even need to do the math to see that that's quicker than VHS.
DVD output also allows for super-fast turnaround—sometimes even at the event site itself—of same-day or no-edit projects, allowing videographers to capitalize on participants and attendees who are still caught up in the rush of the event. Some videographers do very rough edits and get discs out to people within 24 hours of the event, while others do it right on the spot using an automated duplicator/printer like Primera's Bravo II. Strobel himself says he recently bought a DVD copy of his niece's dance recital. "This guy was selling discs for $50 apiece, right after the event," he says. "And people were snapping them up."
On the other hand, some videographers are hesitant to jump into the quick-turnaround game, even though the capability is there. Culp says that his studio will occasionally produce a 4-minute highlights piece and deliver it quickly for an additional fee, but he worries that rushing DVDs out the door too quickly will reflect poorly on his work. "I'm confident we can produce a nice highlight video in a few hours," he says, "but I'm not willing to distribute a video we only spent eight hours editing as a sample of our production quality."
No matter what your approach is, the bottom line is that if you're going to output to and distribute on DVD, you need a duplicator unless you want to outsource every project. "It's just not that efficient to use computers to make DVD duplications," says Todd Gillespie, a director and producer at the University of California, Santa Barbara who has two Rimage Producer II units in his studio.
Like any capital investment, of course, buying a duplicator pays dividends but doesn't offer immediate payback. Prices start around $1500 for a four-disc tower duplicator without a printer, while automated duplicator/printers MSRPs begin at just above $2,000. Some videographers might find it beneficial to wait until they get a large-run job of upwards of 500-1,000 discs, where they find that the cost of outsourcing the burning, printing, and packaging of that single job would cost about the same as buying their own machine.
Tower of Power
The most straightforward duplicators are the tower variety, available from manufacturers like Disc Makers, Microboards, MF Digital, and Condre. (These aren't the only suppliers, of course, just a representative list.) Towers such as MF Digital's ScribeEC [see review, pp. 24] are available with robotic autoloaders, though the autoloader often doubles the price compared to units that you need to load manually. Since the primary benefit of towers is that they make more copies at once than most automated units, however, manual loading isn't necessarily the burden you might expect. Tower unit output capacities start at one. That's not much help to most videographers, but the price point (they start at around $400) makes them attractive to those just getting started. On the other hand, the per-drive price for a tower duplicator goes down with the number of drives; Disc Makers' $1,290 ReflexPro4 outputs three copies from a single master, while the $1,790 ReflexPro7 doubles your capacity. Both Disc Makers and Microboards offer tower units that also include 80GB hard drives, meaning that you can copy a disc image or several to the partitioned hard drive and keep them handy for future, faster burns. The Microboards CopyWriter DSR DVD-D8810 [reviewed in this issue, see pp. 30], includes ten 8X DVD burners, so you can generate up to 10 copies of a single master disc image. That's up to 60 DVDs in an hour; the Editor's Choice-winning unit retails for $2,345.
In addition to hard drives that allow onboard creation of disc images, some tower units also offer FireWire or USB 2.0 connectivity (sometimes for an additional cost), so you can record to the hard drive directly from your PC or Mac, meaning you never actually make a physical master.
The biggest downside to tower duplicators is that they don't print, meaning that unless you're comfortable printing and applying those awful self-adhesive labels, you're also going to need to buy a separate disc printer. Plenty of options are available, from inkjet models like Epson's $99 Stylus Photo R200 to thermal transfer units like Primera's $140 Signature Z1—both of which are manual-load, one-at-a-time products—to higher-end models like Rimage's 480i, which can be found for around $1,000. In terms of quality, you get what you pay for, of course; the cheaper units start at 200dpi while the pricier products provide resolutions up to 4800dpi. In December, Microboards (which resells Rimage and Primera products as well as having a longstanding manufacturing partnership with Japanese duplication giant Hoei Sangyo) will be introducing the Print Factory 2, an automated printer with a 100-disc input/output capacity and 4800dpi, 4-picoliter printing for $1,995, $500 less than the 50-disc Print Factory it introduced in 2003.
Automatic for the People
Most videographers opt to go the autoloading disc publisher route. Specifications vary wildly, but all of them use robotics to move blank discs from a spindle or bin to a DVD drive, then to a printer, and then to an output spindle or bin, and many of them are small enough to be considered "desktop" units. One such unit is the Bravo II DVD Publisher from Primera, which has a 50-disc input/output capacity. It copies and burns one disc at a time at up to 16X speed, then prints the disc at up to 4800dpi inkjet resolution; users can create disc labels with the supplied software or import labels created in Photoshop or other graphics programs. The Bravo is a PC- or Mac-connected unit that comes with Sonic's PrimoDVD software to let users set up jobs—burn speed, print quality, quantity, etc.—and then walk away, and it retails for $2,695.
Earlier this fall, Primera introduced the BravoPro, which adds another drive and doubles the input/output capacity to 100 with a form factor similar to the Bravo II. "Now that 8X media is common and faster media is on the way, speed has really become an issue in a way it wasn't before," Strobel says. "So we've looked at every way we can optimize speed and put it into the BravoPro." Strobel says that Primera has doubled both the loading and print speed (by doubling the size of the print swath), meaning that total job time could be cut by more than 50% with the new product, which sells for $3,495.
The BravoPro also is compatible with dual-layer discs, which hold 8.5GB, or about twice the amount of data as traditional DVDs. Creative Video Productions' Culp says dual-layer discs will open up new possibilities for his event videos, particularly weddings. "Often the clients we work with ask us to be part of the entire weekend, including brunches and dinners," he says. "That kind of stuff can easily spill the content over the 90-minute mark, which is as much as I'm willing to shove on a single DVD. This forces us into a two-disc scenario that I hate. It makes both duplication and viewing more complicated."
Rimage desktop series product manager Tim Teeter says his company's success in the videographer market has come primarily with its 2000i, which includes two drives and a 100-disc input/ output capacity [see Josh McDaniel's review in October, pp. 28-30]. Retailing for $3,179, the 2000i combines the two drives with its 480i, a 3-picoliter, 4800dpi thermal inkjet printer. Duplication is driven by the supplied QuickDisc disc mastering software, which lets you create multiple jobs, assign them priority, and then begin duplication. So if you need 25 copies of a wedding, 40 copies of a corporate training disc, and 30 copies of a high school graduation, you can set up all three jobs at once, then begin your output and walk away. "Videographers need production-type equipment that pushes the extremes of available technology," Teeter says. "We've noticed that the videographer market is very concerned about the professional quality of their content, and thus they are particularly interested in high print quality on the disc. And the sub-$4,000 price point is very important for this market."
Though they've found their niche with the smaller products, Rimage and Primera both offer larger-capacity systems. Also making waves in the heavy-duty market is R-Quest, which until recently only made products available via the OEM market. Their TCP series runs the gamut from the two-drive, 220-disc capacity TCP-7200 to the five-drive, 550-disc capacity TCP-7550 system.
Needless to say, the high-end TCP units are overkill for most videography studios (the 7550 sells for $7,995), but R-Quest sales and marketing VP Furnas says the company has found success in the videographer market with the 7200, which retails for $4,000. At 25"x21"x20" it still fits in the "desktop" category, and prints both inkjet and thermal labels. "Printing has caught up to—and even surpassed—silkscreening for quality," Furnas says, "so now most videographers can meet or exceed their expectations with smaller, professional systems." Like most autoloaders, the 7200 can be networked to run jobs off of multiple workstations.
Virtually all manufacturers make a wide variety of products in both the tower duplicator and autoloading duplicator/printer (or "disc publisher") categories, so what you've read here is by no means a comprehensive survey of what's available. You need to carefully weigh all the considerations—speed, capacity, print quality, and price—to determine which solution is right for you. But with the wide range of both options and prices now available, do-it-yourself duplication is more accessible than ever.
See the Sidebar 1 for More Information on Outsourcing
Sidebar 1: When It's Time to Outsource
Depending on your clientele and the type of work you do, there are still likely going to be jobs that can be more efficiently sent to a service bureau than duplicated in-house. According to the University of California, Santa Barbara's Todd Gillespie, the tipping point usually comes on runs of 500 or more discs, and once you move into the 1,000-copy range, you're likely looking at replication rather than duplication. For the 500-1,000 disc runs, however, new services are popping up that make outsourcing easier than ever.
In addition to manufacturing duplication equipment, Disc Makers also offers duplication and replication services. Earlier this year, the company introduced CD & DVD Self Service, which allows producers to submit jobs online. Users upload their content, as well as any packaging images, select the type of disc printing, insert, and packaging they want, and Disc Makers delivers the final product within two days. Prices vary depending on options, but a full-color DVD in an Amaray case with an insert runs $5.54 per unit in runs of 500 or more; the cost goes up to $7.59 per unit for a run between 50 and 99 pieces. "If you need 1,000 or more, replication is the way to go," says Disc Makers sales and marketing VP Tony Van Veen. "The advantages of the online Self Service program is that you can get short runs as small as one disc with a professional insert."
Online Duplication, a division of replicator Acutrack, offers a similar service but with a few more options. According to Phil Peretz, the company's chief marketing officer, Online Duplication offers a three-tiered service. "Tier one is being an online service bureau," he says. "You go online, place your order, and have us produce and ship your product. Pretty simple stuff—on-demand, short runs, in a hurry."
The second tier lets clients "private label" the service. When customers log on, they see a screen branded with their own company's name. "Online Duplication then becomes the engine for production and ecommerce, allowing the customer to believe they have never left the videographer's Web site," Peretz says. The third tier is for clients "who want to create a resalable product without manufacturing any inventory," he says, e.g., a commercial documentary or concert film. As with the Disc Makers service, clients can choose from a range of printing, insert, and packaging options.