MiniDV brought digital video recording to the masses, but dropouts, head clogs, and the post-production lag of real-time capture make it a less-than-perfect medium for pros. More and more videographers are turning to hard disk digital video recorders to back up or even replace tape. Here's a look at the latest in tapeless DV storage.
Back in the early days of tract housing and bedroom communities, folks used to say that the great thing about the suburbs was that they offered all the disadvantages of the city with none of the advantages of the country. One could make a similar claim for MiniDV, the format that brought digital video recording to the suburbs: all the disadvantages of digital (that cold, 30fps interlaced look) and many of the disadvantages of analog (degrading, dropout-prone tape).
That's oversimplifying the case considerably, of course. There are MiniDV cameras—like Panasonic's 24p-capable AGP-DVX100—that do a reasonable job of emulating film. And for those who'd question the reliability of MiniDV tape, there's always DVCAM, which distributes the same video data over more tape real estate. Proponents say it ups the reliability quotient by a third.
DVCAM, of course, isn't available to all of us in the way that MiniDV is; it's too expensive. For all its shortcomings, MiniDV is the format that—at its best—brought TV-quality video capture to the masses, and thus opened the door for all kinds of creative work. And if the claims for MiniDV's magical eradication of low light-related concerns are grossly exaggerated, it's certainly the best building block we have for great video shoots with reasonable equipment investments. It offers good quality, only modest (5:1) compression, and indispensable timecode data.
All that said, magnetic tape has never been the best way to store digital information. It's fine for backup—especially far-line and off-line—where it's a last-resort safety net that's rarely if ever used to access data that's critical to daily work. Live-event video footage is exactly the opposite. Where tape-based data backup is an after-hours process used to duplicate information stored elsewhere, MiniDV tape's first use is to capture content live. Its second use is the first stage of post-production: capture.
Capture is a sensitive, real-time process. It's more reliable than it used to be—we have faster hard drives and more robust PCs and Macs to thank for that—but its real-time rate doesn't meet contemporary expectations of digital data transfer. Plus, if you're a one-camera shop and you use your camera for capture, basically you're doubling the wear on your tape heads with an hour of capture for every hour of shooting. DV decks like the Panasonic AG-DV1000, the Sony DHR-1000, and the JVC HRDVS3U are especially good—some would say essential—for batch capture, especially with mountainous quantities of footage.
But you're still working in real time, and still relying on magnetic tape for frequent, time-critical transfers with the ever-present possibility of dropped frames if the capture process breaks down at any time. Again, the sensitivity of the process isn't the nagging issue that it used to be, but a dirty tape head, diverted processor, or same-bus hard drive can introduce flaws that make captured video unusable.
Freeing the live shoot from the vagaries of tape and eliminating the capture process have obvious advantages for videographers and editors. Luckily, there a variety of strategies for doing just that. One is the use of DVD camcorders, particularly those from Hitachi [see sidebar entitled "Direct to DVD?"].
The more likely alternative to tape-based shooting and capture for professional videographers is to choose among the variety of hard disk-based products on the market today. Some of these drives attach directly to a camcorder, such as Focus Enhancements' FireStore line. These recorders are OEM'd to a number of vendors, sold directly from Focus Enhancements via its Videonics brand, and feature prominently in several integrated camera-recorder systems from JVC. NAB 2004 brought news of a forthcoming FireStore model designed specifically for use with JVC's HD10 professional HDV camcorder.
One of the hallmarks of these hard disk units is compact size. Among the smallest of the non camera-mounted units is nNovia's QuickCapture line (which can actually be mounted on the camera or worn on the videographer's belt), popularly rebranded as the Laird Telemedia CapDiv. Other solutions, like Sony's DSR-DU1, connect to a camera via FireWire and provide similar real-time video recording and high-speed ingestion for desktop video editing.
Focus Enhancements FireStore
The Focus Enhancements FireStore series is probably the most visible and widely used DVR technology on the market. The FireStore series includes three basic models: FS-1, FS-2, and FS-3. All models support DV-25 and FireWire I/O, embedded two- and four-channel DV Audio, and DV timecode support. They all feature an LCD status display, loop playback capability, and full-disk partitioning and formatting. The FS-3 (2.75"x6"x8.5") mounts directly on supported cameras, while the FS-1 attaches via FireWire. A special version of the FS-3, FireStore DR-DV5000, was designed expressly for use with pro JVC camcorders (the GY-DV5000), and adds cableless camcorder connectivity, FireStore status in the camera viewfinder, and "dump to disk" and "dump to tape" record modes.
The FS-1 and FS-3 use 2.5-inch, 5400RPM removable hard disks of 40 and 80GB; the 40GB hard disks currently sell on Focus Enhancements' Web site for $445. The FS-1 lists for $995, while the various direct-mount versions of the FS-3 ship with a 40GB removable hard disk and sell for $1995 in the Focus Web store. One downside of the drives is that they use the FAT32 file system for broadest compatibility, which means 2GB file-size limits—less than ideal if you're doing sustained shots of more than 10 minutes.
The FS-2, designed specifically for in-studio use and not for in-the-field operation, is a rackmountable unit made for hard disk-speed video data ingestion. All three models are designed for rapid data transfer, but the FS-2, like the Sony DSR-DR1000 is the homebody of the bunch. Adding a built-in (same dimensions as the FS-3) 7200RPM, 120GB internal hard disk drive and all the transcoding capabilities of the FS-3, the FS-2 also boasts additional analog, SD-SDI, balanced audio, and AES/EBU digital audio I/O capabilities befitting a rackmounted pro-studio deck. Like the Sony 1000 model, the FS-2 also has multiple device control options, including Sony 9-pin RS-422, RS-232C, and AV/X (FireWire). A 10/100 BaseT Ethernet port enables network-based and FTP file transfers.
Key features of the FS-3 and the FS-3-equipped GY-DV5000 camcorders include electric shock protection via an 8MB cache, a file error-correction utility, and an internal shock gasket. The FS-3's Retro Record feature guarantees 10 seconds of buffered record-ahead video for every clip. It also offers time-lapse recording (user-definable) and a "good shot" marking feature. Compatible shooting formats include DV, MiniDV, DVCAM, and DVCPro.
All the FireStore models use Focus' proprietary Direct to Edit (DTE) technology for post-production use. A built-in transcoder supports conversion to RawDV (.dv), DV-AVI Types 1 and 2 (.avi), Canopus and Matrox AVI (.avi), QuickTime (.mov), and Avid DV-OMF files (.omf), enabling ingested clips to be imported directly into an NLE's timeline without requiring additional format conversion. With FireWire digital I/O supported on all models, a lengthy list of compatible NLEs includes Adobe Premiere, Apple Final Cut Pro and Express, Avid Xpress DV and Xpress Pro, Sony Vegas, Ulead MediaStudio Pro, and Canopus DVStorm.
Sony DSR-DU1 and DR-1000
Sony's two entries into the tapeless storage field are the DSR-DU1 camera-mountable disk recorder and the DSR-DR1000 studio recorder. Designed to complement rather than replace tape shooting, according to Sony, the DSR-DU1 lists for $2250 and uses a 2.5-inch, 40GB hard drive capable of storing three hours of DV video. In addition to support for cameras working in DV format, the DU1's main selling point is support for the DVCAM format. The recorder boasts FireWire (or as Sony calls it, i.Link) I/O and a viewfinder that enables instant video review after shooting as well as in-field edit preparation. Using an SBP2-FireWire connection, the DU1 can be attached to a computer for 2X-speed video ingestion. The DU1 ships with a camera adapter, a two-meter FireWire cable, and an Infolithium L Series battery and charger.
The unit also features shock-resistance features similar to the FireStore models, as well as cache and interval recording, EDL creation, and switchable NTSC and PAL. Compatible DVCAM equipment includes models in Sony's DSR-570, DSR-370, DSR-500, DSR-300, DSR-250, DSR-PD150, and DSR-PD100 series.
On the ingestion side, both the DU1 and its studio-bound stablemate the DSR-DR1000 offer up video in a proprietary Sony recorder format that in some cases requires special versions of software, plug-ins, or a Focus Enhancements tool called Advanced DV File Converter Pro. Supported NLEs include Adobe Premiere 6.5 (via a downloadable plug-in) and Pro, Apple Final Cut Pro 4 (native), Avid Xpress DV and various other Avid NLEs (File Converter Pro converts DU1 files to OMF at half real time-speed), Canopus CWS-30/50/100 (native), Pinnacle Liquid Purple and Liquid Edition, Matrox RT2500/DigiSuite (via File Converter Pro), and Ulead MediaStudio Pro (via File Converter Pro). Sony Pictures Vegas 5.0, just released, has also added native support for DU1 and DR1000 file import. Additional features of the DSR-DR1000 include an 80GB internal hard drive capable of storing up to six hours of DVCAM video and four-channel audio, support for 4X file transfer via FireWire, continuous loop recording, 30-second pre-alarm/trigger recording, VTR-style operation via a familiar control panel and jog/shuttle dial, 10/100 BaseT Ethernet support, and simultaneous recording and playback. RS-422A Disk Protocol support enables remote control of clip playback. Additional I/O features include SD-SDI, component, composite, S-Video, analog audio, AES/EBU audio, and timecode I/O.
One of the newer players in the video HDD scene is nNovia, purveyor of a compact (5.75"x4.25"x2.5") recorder box that attaches to a camera via FireWire and clips onto your belt as you shoot. The QuickCapture boxes come in three capacities—40GB, 60GB, 80GB—and are sold direct from nNovia and through a distribution partnership with Laird Telemedia, which rebrands the QuickCapture as CapDiv. The QuickCapture comes in two designs, one fitted for use with DV cameras and the other for analog (QuickCapture A2D, with both analog and digital camcorder support). List prices range from $1100-$1800 depending on hard drive size.
Key features include bi-directional operation, direct recording to edit-ready file formats (Canopus or WMV DV-AVI Type 2 files), a sync-to-tape mode that aligns camcorder/QuickCapture operation and keys QuickCapture control to the camera's function buttons, live clip-marking, VTR emulation, and creation of a new numbered "bin" on the QuickCapture HDD for each new tape in the camcorder (with a maximum of 99 bins). Users can also choose to lock the timecode on the QuickCapture to the timecode on the camcorder tape or start a new timecode when QuickCapture recording begins. NLE compatibility includes Apple Final Cut Pro, Avid Xpress DV, Adobe Premiere, and basically any software that accepts its file formats.
QuickCapture also includes a transcoding function that converts QuickTime (.mov) files to AVI format. Like the Sony and FireStore products, the nNovia drives use FAT32 format for broader compatibility, but with the attendant file-size restrictions described above.
MCE Technologies QuickStream DV
One of the newest entries to the hard disk DV storage category comes from MCE Technologies, a company best known for its aftermarket internal CD and DVD recorders designed for Macintosh systems. QuickStream DV, introduced by MCE at DV Expo West in December 2003, is a camera-mountable, battery-powered hard disk unit boasting 5.5"x3.5"x1.2" dimensions and weighing in at 9 ounces.
The QuickStream DV connects to both camera and computer via FireWire and records live video in four user-selectable file formats: Raw DV (.dv), Canopus AVI-2 (.avi), QuickTime (.mov), and Windows AVI-2 (.avi). With its DV-AVI support and FireWire connectivity, the QuickStream can export video directly to NLEs such as Final Cut Pro, Premiere Pro, Vegas, Studio, DVStorm, iMovie, and the like. With support for Windows 98SE/2000/Me/XP, Mac OS 9.2, OS X+, and Linux, the QuickStream DV essentially acts as an external FireWire hard drive when connected to a PC or Mac.
The unit ships with MCE StreamManager, a clip management tool designed for use with Mac OS 10.2 or later. StreamManager launches immediately when QuickStream DV is plugged into the user's Mac, and displays all recorded clips, allowing the user to preview, delete, copy, or move the clips at will. The interface also shows remaining recording time.
The QuickStream DV can mount directly to a camcorder or attach to a user's belt. It is also capable of operating in concert with rolling tape or independently with shooting-to-tape de-activated. The recorder ships in four configurations: 1.5-hour ($599), 3-hour ($729), 4.5-hour ($849), and 6-hour ($999). The QuickStream Battery Pack is sold separately.
Brent Warwick, co-owner of 9AMPS (9th Avenue Multimedia Production Services), weighs in on his experiences shooting live events with the JVC GY-DV5000. A division of the 9th Avenue School of Dance located in Federal Way, Washington, 9AMPS (www.9amps.com) specializes in audio/video production, DVD authoring, digital photography, graphic design, live event coverage, and Web design. On the post-production side, Warwick is a Windows XP-based editor using Sony Pictures Vegas 5.
Warwick initially purchased the JVC camcorder without the hard disk recorder, but says he "made the jump" to a FireStore 3 about a month after he purchased the camera for two reasons. "One," he says, "the GY-DV5000 has a reputation, earned or not, of having head clogs at the worst possible moments. One such story occurred when a guy was shooting a live event, the camera got a head clog, and the camera didn't warn him for whatever reason. He got home and realized that half the show was black. So reason one was for fail-safe redundancy.
"Reason two," he continues, "was for ease of capture. You can fit three hours of footage onto the 40GB drive I have, and it's so nice just to take the drive out of the camera, attach it to my editing workstation, via a FireWire cable, download everything in about five minutes, and eliminate capturing from tape altogether. It eliminates a lot of time that would otherwise be spent letting my editing deck roll for two hours."
Warwick says the tapeless approach has improved his work—and his business—in several ways. "It's made video taping less stressful because I don't worry about head clogs or dropouts at all anymore," he says. "In fact, it's a major selling point we advertise to our clients. The chance of both the tape and disk experiencing a problem is almost non-existent."
One concern videographers would certainly have with adding hard drive storage to their live shooting gear is the added weight for a basically redundant function; generally, the goal in live event-shooting, when possible, is to carry less, not more. Warwick admits that the DV5000 is a bit heavier with the FS-3 on board. "But although it's heavier," he says, "it also helps balance the camera. I have the Canon 19X lens, and it just seems to sit better on the tripod and my shoulder with the added weight of the FS-3."
The GY-DV5000 allows users to work in two modes, either shooting to tape and disk simultaneously, or to one or the other. Warwick says he always shoots to both. "The main reasons for doing so are for redundancy and archiving," he says. "Although it's unlikely, something could theoretically go wrong with the FireStore, and then I have the tape to back me up. Also, it makes starting and stopping recording easier because I can use any of the camera's VTR buttons. The FS-3 can run in a ‘split-slave' mode, where it's toggled separately from the camera's VTR controls. I usually run it in ‘synchro-slave' mode, where the tape transport and the FireStore are linked. If you run it in split-slave mode, you can get continuous recording on the hard drive when starting and stopping the tape transport. If the tape can't be continually recording, having it lose footage when switching tapes makes it pointless to use tapes at all."
As for archiving, the benefits are business-related. "I save all the footage I shoot for commercial work just in case the client ever wants to buy it outright," he says. "In one case, I had a client who wanted a demo tape of productions I'd shot for her in the past. Without archiving the footage onto tape, I wouldn't have been able to do that."
One concern with some HDD recorders is that when the tape runs out, the recorder stops as well, which scuttles the redundancy argument from the HDD side. As for the FireStore, Warwick says, "I found that if your tape runs out, the disk will continue to record fine. However, you can't easily stop the recording! You can't stop recording by pushing any of the record buttons on the camera. I called Focus on this and they said you have to eject the tape to get the FS-3 to respond."
There are other integration issues he's found that detract from the usability of the product. "One thing I don't like about the DR-DV5000 integration with the GY-DV5000 is that it behaves differently if you're using a tape or not. If you're using a tape and the FS-3, the standard record buttons on the camera all work fine. I shoot with a Varizoom PG-C, and one click on that unit starts recording. However, if you don't have a tape, only the record button on the left side of the camera will work, and you must put the FireStore into ‘split-slave' mode. If you try to start recording by using the lens button or Varizoom without a tape, it won't record and you get an annoying NO TAPE message."
But the integration story isn't all bad—far from it, in fact. "I love the integration the DR-DV5000 has with the GY-DV5000," he says. "You get the FireStore's status displayed in the viewfinder, and you don't need a FireWire cable to use the unit. But—and I didn't know this until after I bought the DR-DV5000—the camera doesn't natively capture the video through the integrated 52-pin connector on the back of the camera. You'll still get the viewfinder information, but as shipped, you have to use a FireWire cable from the camera to the DR-DV5000 for the actual video transfer. If you want to eliminate the cable, you have to ship your camera to JVC where they make a minor modification (for free in my case at least) to the internal wiring that enables the 52-pin connector. The downside is that the modification disables the camera's nine-pin FireWire port. If you ever take the DR-DV5000 off the camera, you won't have a FireWire port unless you once again ship the camera back to JVC to get it ‘unmodified.'"
Also in the minor-to-major inconvenience department is the FAT32, file-size limitation issue. With "all of your recording split into 2GB files, shoot a two-hour show, and you've got about fifteen of these files. It makes batch renaming a chore, and you also have to group them in your NLE to keep them from sliding around. That isn't an issue when you capture from tape."
One of the key issues in choosing tapeless storage vs. sticking with tape alone is price. In some cases—as with the DR-DV5000—it's a major investment; at what point is the expense justified? "For me, it was the type of shoot," Warwick says. "When shooting live events, a head clog or tape running out can be disastrous. Suppose you pre-sell 100 videos at $25 each, then you get a tape malfunction of some kind halfway through the show. You've just lost sales, and even worse, your reputation. If that were to happen at the moment wedding vows were being spoken or much worse—the kiss at the end of the ceremony—you're in a lot of trouble.
"If you're just playing around or doing ‘one-off' jobs," he continues, "not having to use tapes saves money, and it saves wear on the camera. But my reputation means everything to me." With the DR-DV5000 on-board, he says, "I'm confident I will never tell a client that my camera screwed up, so your event wasn't captured, and here's your money back. It's nice to have that peace of mind."
Direct to DVD?
One approach to tapeless storage that's popular in consumer circles is using DVD camcorders that record video directly onto DVD-RAM or DVD-R discs.
The upside, of course, is that tape is never a factor; with Hitachi's DV-MZ580A and similar models, you also get automatic thumbnail creation.
The downsides are several:
• The video is converted on-the-fly to MPEG-2, which immediately compromises video quality by using an encoder optimized for speed rather than quality; this may also mean a second MPEG-2 encode after the video is edited and augmented with transitions and other effects, with the attendant degradation in quality
• The mini-DVD discs used in these recorders are expensive, and the DVD-Rs are, of course, write once-only, which may be an issue for some users
• Logically, the recorders write DVD-VR discs, which some set-tops, ROM drives, and software NLEs don't support
• DVD-RAM discs offer limited playback compatibility
• Most DVD camcorders are single-chip models with minimal on-camera controls.
Blue laser-based units that record directly to high-density discs may change the demographic appeal of optical disc-based cameras, but most of the current crop of DVD camcorders are single-chip, low-cost consumer products, with minimal appeal to professionals. One exception is Hitachi's CR-D10, which takes the approach of camera-mountable hard disk video recorders by providing a dockable recorder appendage to select compatible cameras. Designed to bring direct-to-disc recording to broadcast and professional camcorder use, according to Hitachi, the CR-D10 uses 8cm DVD-RAM media and offers 4.7GB of storage. The recorder creates DVD-VR discs (the only option for on-the-fly recording since disc parameters cannot be set—as with DVD-Video—before recording begins) using MPEG-2 video recorded in two modes: high picture-quality (40 minutes) and standard picture-quality (60 minutes).
A 2.5-inch LCD offers the usual video preview during shooting, but also provides menu navigation for access to the clips on the inserted disc. The CR-D10 detaches from the camcorder and can be connected to the user's PC via USB 1.1; the disc can also be removed and be used in a DVD-RAM-compatible DVD-ROM drive, on the off chance the user has one. A smattering of NLEs, such as Ulead's MediaStudio Pro, have built-in native support for the DVD-VR format, which allows them to read content directly off the disc, either in a RAM-compatible drive or via the USB connection. In either case, the RAM format allows for slightly-faster-than-real-time data transfers, so it offers a small advantage in capture speed over the tape approach (and the process is certainly less sensitive and susceptible to frame-dropping).
Where DVD-VR is not supported, digital-to-digital capture with a DVD camcorder is not possible. Editors will need to use the analog audio and video outs and capture the footage to their PC via a supported analog capture card or A/D converter box.
Station to Station
Joel Cogan, chief engineer at Kansas City municipal cable station KCMO, is a recent convert to tapeless storage. Each staffer at the four-person station has his or her own FS-3 unit to run with a JVC GY-DV5000 camcorder, and Cogan says KCMO recently acquired "a new CapDiv from Laird for use in a small, three-camera flight pack."
KCMO's rolling stock includes two GY-DV5000 cameras and four 40GB removable disks—"one for each shooter." Having a drive for each member of the station staff "keeps any confusion on tape ownership and storage to a minimum," he says.
The station made the move to tapeless for several reasons, foremost among them the time savings on the capture/editing end and "to limit the need for tape wear-and-tear." With a tape-only approach, he says, "dropout is always a factor. There is no dropout on the HDD—and if there is, you have bigger problems."
Cogan also cites the advanced features of the FS-3 as a plus on the shooting end. "Retro Record is a great feature, and we have it activated on both cameras. It eats up a little more battery power but is worth it. We get better reactions and are able to catch little tidbits when we have a few seconds of ‘pre-record.'
"Our people have the option of combined or separate recording," he continues. "I recommend combined—that way, if there is a drive failure, there is tape backup and vice versa." KCMO's shooters use both slave mode, where operation of the FS-3 is subordinate to the VTR controls on the camera, or in panel control where VTR operation of the FS-3 is separate. Other options he describes include using the the FS-3 as a sort of backup where if the tape runs out, the drive starts recording.
Back in the studio, KCMO uses Adobe Premiere for editing, although Cogan says "we are waiting for the Avid Studio system. So far I have been able to plug the HDD into my FireWire card and my XP box just brings it up as a new drive. Copy the clips to my media drives, import, and away I go. No capture and digitize. You gotta love that."
companies mentioned in this article
Laird Telemedia, www.lairdtelemedia.com
Adobe Systems, Inc., www.adobe.com
MCE Technologies, www.mcetech.com
Apple Computer, Inc., www.apple.com
nNovia, Inc., www.nnovia.com
Avid Technology, www.avid.com
Pinnacle Systems, Inc., www.pinnaclesys.com
Focus Enhancements, www.focusinfo.com
Sony Electronics, Inc., http://bscc.sel.sony.com
Hitachi, Ltd., www.hitachi.com
Sony Pictures Digital, www.mediasoftware.sonypictures.com
JVC America, www.jvc.com