DDRs Drive in the Fast Lane
Posted Oct 14, 2005

How long has it been since you first heard about "the death of videotape"?

It's been more than ten years since Avid and Ikegami introduced the CamCutter (later EditCam), perhaps ahead of its time. On stage at a Las Vegas press conference, the hard drive on the camera's back end was removed, tossed around, and purposely dropped, like the hot potato it was.

Tape is still here, and it's pretty darned important, too. But direct disk recorders (DDRs) are not the delicate creatures they once were. The market is more mature, and products are full of new features popular with wedding and event videographers.

This ability of a portable DDR to record digital video and convert it to an appropriate format for editing means digitizing time is reduced and workflow is enhanced tremendously. The DDR shows up as a drive on the computer desktop, and captured clips are ready to drag to the timeline—as long as you've done your homework.

Not all NLEs use the same DV file format; there are more than a dozen out there, and new ones for HDV. So acquiring the right DDR for your NLE, and setting it up properly by pre-selecting the required format, is critical.

Of course, speeding up the edit process is a bonus only if you are a fast-turnaround editor. Some video is shot weeks, if not months, before the edit. The DDR should not be on the shelf all that time, so transferring files to a storage drive, maintaining their formatting, backing up the native DV, if available, are important workflow considerations. In that scenario it's not a direct-to-timeline edit, but it's still faster than real-time capture from tape.

Depending on the DDR, other new features can help not just with editing, but with shooting and playback, as well. On any live event shoot it's risky business trying to judge just when a certain special moment will occur—and knowing it five or more seconds ahead of time is crucial, so you can start the tape rolling and recording!

DDRs can capture that first scene by digitally looping the start of recording. Roll the camera anytime in advance of the key action, and the DDR records the same five or ten seconds over and over on the drive, storing new scenes and erasing unwanted material as it goes (or dumping extra material later on). You only have to tell it to keep going once that precious moment has been captured.

Most DDRs also let you mark, flag, or otherwise identify key scenes, great takes, and other special shots. That's handy for editing and playback.

You may think the play features of a recorder are somewhat superfluous, but the ability to see and play recorded clips instantly opens several new doors for videographers. Some units can be instructed to play back only marked clips, making a kind of "rough-cut edit" possible in the field. It means a "highlight reel" can be shown minutes after recording—one way to make same-day playback at a reception possible and profitable. That said, video playback could require a conversion device, as most DDRs use FireWire exclusively for I/O.

DDRs can also be used as ISO-record decks in a multi-camera event shoot. Assigning one to each camera feed helps ensure an uninterrupted (depending on size, DDRs support seven or more hours) recording.

Speaking of size, while many DDRs in this class are designed for easy in-field use, some are now so big (physical size and record capacity) that they are seeing more permanent use as DV desktop drives, feeder units for live event playback, even fixed ISO camera or time-lapse recorders.

Datavideo DV Bank

Datavideo's DV Bank is a good example of typical DDR size; it weighs about eight pounds.

Priced around $1,180 for the 120GB, 9-hour model, the DV Bank is a FireWire-based DV recorder/player, with random access playback and loop features. It works with native DV. Transfer of clips from the drive to computer is in real time; the manufacturer is working on faster file copy protocols.

Perhaps in spite of its size, the unit can be driven on location by any battery from 10 to 14 volts (with the DC1215 adapter), meaning that a car battery or a battery belt can be used for power.

Shining CitiDISK HDV

Near the other end of the weight scale is Shining Technologies' new CitiDISK HDV (the CitiDISK has been around for a while, but the HDV support is new). Available in 20, 40, 60, or 80GB sizes, the various CitiDISK models store between 1.5 and 6 hours of DV or HDV video. (Keep in mind that the storage requirements for HDV and DV are roughly the same until software conversion tools like CineForm get involved, and increase HDV filesizes as they convert them into editable streams. But that happens in your NLE, not in the DDR.) The CitiDISK weighs just 10 ounces, including an internal rechargeable battery that kicks in when external power runs low.

Like all the DDRs discussed here, the CitiDISK HDV stores video in the FAT32 filesystem, which limits file size to 2GB, but enables it to be used with both Mac and PC video editors. DV or HDV video can be filed in M2T, MOV, AVI, or DV formats.

Quick-erase and loop-recording capabilities, as well as optional belt, battery, and camera mounts, are also featured. At between $700 and $900, CitiDISK HDV is priced a bit less than some competing models.

MCE QuickStream DV

The MCE QuickStream DV, now in its second generation, is a self-powered mini-hard drive unit that connects to a computer's FireWire port for editing and/or viewing. In addition to the internal rechargeable battery, good for about 90 minutes, an input for 6 V to 18 V DC is included, and an optional battery belt is available for up to 3.5 hours of recording.

The QuickStream DV allows you to preset the drive to the capture file format (MOV, Windows and Canopus-type AVI, DV), and comes in capacities from 90 minutes to 6 hours (the latter priced at $999).

With just three basic operating buttons, the newest models now include features like Instant Review (one-button playback of the last recorded clip) and a looping six-second record technology called SureCapture, which even in standby mode is buffering video. Once the recorded button is pressed, the cache becomes the head of the clip.

The software launched when QuickStream DV is plugged into a computer shows all clips, length, and time/date stamp. Clips can be previewed, sorted, renamed, copied, or deleted as necessary with the software tool.

One unique QuickStream feature is a 1/4" thread connection and a hotshoe adapter, very handy for mounting the unit just about anywhere (it weighs about 9 oz.).

nNovia QuickCapture

Products in the nNovia arsenal (QuickCapture DDRs with or without analog-to-digital conversion) have recently been enhanced with a time-lapse and pre-trigger record capability. They will also add HDV recording capability through a firmware upgrade, capturing in its native format with an .mt2 file extension. DV recordings are still in AVI or MOV formats, and both standards will coexist in the same volume (but limited to its own bins). 

Available in 3, 4.5, 6, and 7.5-hour (100GB) versions, QuickCapture models include belt bag, rechargeable battery and AC power supply. Camera-mounted QuickCaptures include AC power supply and camera mounting plate. Interestingly, the HDV QC's storage time will be equal to that of DV25 when recording the 1080i format, and 25% longer when recording 720p (1080i HDV is 25Mbps, while 720p HDV weighs in at 19Mbps). 

The 14 oz. belt-worn QuickCapture 100GB/7.5-hour model costs $1,599; it can be powered via 6 to 30 V DC or an optional AC adapter. QuickCapture A2D, with up to 80GB storage, includes a multi-connection cable for attaching outboard analog or digital devices; it's $1,999.

Laird Telemedia's CapDiv DV disk recorders, slightly reconfigured versions of the QuickCapture line, were unveiled some four years ago, and have been a consistent choice since then. Available now in two sizes (3- or 4.5-hour capacity) in NTSC and PAL, the unit is powered by a 12 V DC source. A 6-hour rechargeable battery (and belt) supplied with the CapDiv is handy, but seems larger and heavier than the DDR itself (about 3.5 lb, all told).

The drive operates in either VTR or AV HDD mode—bins, folders, and clips are organized and numbered in user selected parameters. CapDiv converts native, digital video (DV) content to an AVI file format in the FAT32 file system. Either Canopus or Microsoft .avi file types can be selected. The 4.5-hour (60GB) CapDiv is priced at $1,199.

Focus FireStore

When it comes to supporting as many edit formats as possible, FireStore from Focus Enhancements has covered its bases. Nearly a dozen file types, including manufacturer specific and raw .dv, are supported (note that not all models support all formats; check specs closely before purchasing a specific model).

New for the FS-4 and FS-4 Pro models is the HD mode, handling 720p or 1080i MPEG-2 transport streams to be recorded and used immediately with supporting HDV-capable NLEs.

FireStore's direct-to-edit can transfer clips to a host computer at up to four times real-time speed, or it can act as the media source itself while editing.

FireStore not only matches well to the editing program; it matches with specific cameras, too. The DR-DV5000 was specially designed for use with JVC's GY-DV5000/5001 camcorder, and features a cable-less connection as well as viewfinder status displays.

The FS-4 Pro has several retro-record time-lapse and loop-playback modes, and works with handy pre-named folders or reels to help categorize clips. It's a small (barely 2 inches thick), lightweight unit (about a pound, with battery), something like a large MP3 player.

A 40 or 80GB drive (up to six hours) comes on the Pro version, and a removable, rechargeable battery, good for up to 90 minutes, comes with the line. Prices range from around $850 to $1,500. The HD update is priced at $299.

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Suggested Resources

For more information on DDR operation and products, check out Stephen F. Nathans' http://www.eventdv.net/Articles/ReadArticle.aspx?ArticleID=8681 and David Doering's http://www.eventdv.net/Articles/ReadArticle.aspx?ArticleID=8950.

Datavideo www.datavideo.us

Focus Enhancements www.focusinfo.com

Laird Telemedia www.lairdtelemedia.com

MCE Technologies www.mcetech.com

nNovia www.nnovia.com

Shining Technology www.shining.com

Sony Electronics www.sonystyle.com