The value of X-10/HD-4000 as a professional camcorder stabilization system is hard to beat.
Last month we test drove a Blackbird Handheld Stabilizer. This month, we strap on Glidecam's X-10 vest and support arm and test fly their re-designed HD-4000 sled made for camcorders that weigh between four to ten pounds. The Glidecam design is similar to that pioneered by Garret Brown, inventor of the Steadicam, but the HD-4000 can be used in either hand held or supported modes.
There are three basic components, the vest, the spring-tensioned support arm and the sled, together called a "rig" in operator parlance. There are differences that we will investigate below, but by far the most important is price. Many of the higher-end rigs designed for heavier camcorders, such as Glidecam's Gold-series, begin at 26-thousand dollars. The total cost of our X-10/HD-4000 system was only $2,998. Keep this price difference in mind as you read this review.
Our Glidecam system came with two manuals; one for the HD-4000 sled and one for the X-10 which includes the support arm and vest. The instructions for the sled assembly are very clear and enough photographs document each step so that you might be tempted to not even read the instructions. With any counter-balanced camcorder stabilization device, it is a very good idea to read everything. Unless, of course, you don't mind dusting dirt off your dented camcorder.
The instructions for configuring the X-10 support arm and vest are equally clear. In particular, Glidecam gives a good amount of attention to adjusting and configuring the support arm. This is important since you can configure the support arm with two or four springs, expanding the range of weight it can support from a maximum of 9 to 18 pounds. For the best performance, Glidecam recommends operating the rig as close to the maximum weights as possible.
After unpacking all the parts, laying them out on our test bench and carefully reviewing all the assembly instructions, it took us less than four minutes to put everything together. This included attaching the telescoping post to the base platform, adding counterweights, inserting the telescoping post into the central post and threading the camera mounting platform onto the central post.
We added one of the several included steel plates to the quick release plate to give our 9-pound JVC GY-110 camcorder a little more mass and get our complete rig/camcorder close to the recommended weight of 18 pounds. The quick release plate does not have any anti-slip material or a locking pin so we had to tighten things down a little more than we would like with the standard 1/4-inch screw. Finally, we mounted the quick release plate to the camera mounting platform on top of the HD-4000.
Everything in Balance
Every counter weighted camcorder stabilization system requires you to dial in just the right balance for smooth and level shots. The Glidecam manual recommends balancing the sled by supporting it with your hand. While this method would probably work well for lighter systems, it was awkward for our 17.25-pound camcorder/rig combination. So we chose to balance the rig by putting it on the docking bracket post. The printed manual does not describe this procedure but it is an industry standard method of balancing.
Before we moved the rig and camcorder from the docking bracket to the post, we made sure all of the adjustable components were secure. We then firmly grasped the central post just below the pan gimbal bearing and picked up the rig to do a rough balance test. This tells us if we're in the balance ballpark. If the rig seems a little top heavy we could either add more bottom counter weight and/or extend the lower portion of the telescoping post. Be careful when extending the lower post because there is nothing to keep it from falling out. Even though your rig is in the docking bracket, it could cause the upper portion, with your camcorder, to tip over.
With our rig roughly in balance, we placed the gimbal handle on the docking bracket post and began our fine adjustment to get everything level. The fore and aft adjustment screw gives you a great deal of travel giving you lots of room for fine tuning. The side to side adjustment is a bit coarser, making it more sensitive to small turns of the adjustment screw.
Once the rig was level, we did a drop test. This test tells you how quickly your rig will return to level. We held it at approximately 90-degrees from the resting position and let it swing down. The time it takes the lower portion to swing past its neutral position is the drop time. Shorter drop times make the rig feel more stable but will cause the camcorder to tilt or roll when changing your rate and/or direction of motion. Longer drop times will reduce these tilt or roll problems but will make the rig slower to return to level. We like operating with a two to three second drop time.
One last balancing test is sometimes called, "dynamic balancing." By placing two fingers on the post just below the gimbal's pan bearing and giving a light spin in the vertical axis, you will see if there is any wobble indicating a need to redistribute the relation of the top and bottom masses. Our rig was quite stable but we did have to perform this test by holding it by hand as the docking bracket post is not far enough away from the stand to allow the rig to spin on its vertical axis.
Before we took our rig for a walk we made a few adjustments to the vest and support arm. For such a low cost piece of gear the vest is surprisingly well constructed. It was very easy to adjust the straps for a comfortable and all around secure fit. Three quick release plastic connectors get you in and out of the vest from either the right or left side. The vest's support arm mounting block can be flipped to allow for right or left-hand operation.
The support arm comes preset at the lowest tension settings, so we used the included Allen wrench to make an initial guess at a higher tension. To give you even more control over your rig's weight, the X-10 comes with both an aluminum and a steel arm post. Since we were still a little under the recommended maximum 18-pound weight, we secured the steel post to the arm. Once you have the support arm tensioned for your camcorder/rig weight, you don't need any tools for setup.
With the rig balanced and parked in the docking bracket, we put on the vest, slipped the support arm into the adjustable vest mounting block and hooked into our rig. The docking bracket allows you to easily slip the arm post into the gimbal handle. The edges of the bracket are somewhat sharp, so you may find it useful to file these down a little to keep from scratching the gimbal.
At this point one last set of adjustments are usually necessary that are controlled by four thumb screws on the vest's support arm mounting block. These give you control over front/back and side to side swing of the arm/rig assembly as a whole and are normally only set up once.
We now have the rig flying in a neutral left-hand operating position. We lightly grasped the foam padded gimbal handle with our right hand and, also with a light touch, placed the tips of our left hand thumb and fingers on the central post just below the gimbal panning bearing. To the test course we go!
To test the X-10/HD-4000 in action, we set up three courses used to train professional Steadicam operators that simulate a variety of conditions. The first test called, Hurdle, included a narrow tracking tape stretched tight between two C-stands about 20-feet apart that ran from about four feet off the ground to about six feet. An obstacle in the middle required us to step on and over it. The second course called, Stairs, used the same two C-stands and tape placed alongside a rock stairway. The last called, Target, was simply a large cross made with black gaffer tape on a white garage door at about chest height.
Keep in mind that all three courses are as much measures of an operator's skill as they are of the rig being tested. Our tester is a professional Steadicam operator with more than 15 years of experience who spent several hours practicing with the X-10/HD-4000 before performing these tests. The goal of each test is to keep the center cross hairs of the camcorder's viewfinder pointed at the tape or target at all times.
The Hurdle test measures how quick changes in up/down travel while walking impact the rig's dynamic stability. After only two trial runs, we were able to consistently keep the camcorder's crosshairs on the tracking tape on both the up and down motions. The review footage confirmed the apparent lack of any transition up or down.
The Stairs test measures how successive changes in terrain and subtle changes in rate alter the rig's dynamic stability. Since the level of the tracking tape ran from about waist-height to about head-height, we had to induce a small amount of tilt. Again, we did several trial runs before recording a take. The results showed a very smooth beginning but, toward the end of the stair climb, a small amount of vertical bounce was noticeable that quickly stabilized after a couple of oscillations. Walking down the stairs gave us similar results.
For our first Target test, we started about 30 feet away from the Target, set our camera's lens to its widest setting and aligned the Target with the center crosshairs in the viewfinder's display. This measures how easy it is to keep the camera on target in all three axes. We started walking in a straight line toward the Target, slowly at first, then at a faster pace, then slowing to a stop a few feet away. The footage revealed very good stability in roll and tilt, but again a very slight bounce as we picked up the pace in the middle.
With the camcorder still just a few feet away and facing the Target, we turned our body so that the camcorder is now facing behind us. We then walked about 30 feet away from the Target then slowed to a stop, walked around the central axis of the gimbal and now returned to the Target with both body and camcorder facing forward. This is a common, though more advanced, technique used to shoot talent walking forward then changing direction. This tests the amount of friction of the panning bearing in the gimbal.
We found that transitioning from one side of the rig to the other required very little countering force from our left hand fingers, a good measure of the gimbal's pan bearing friction. This is often an area where low cost stabilizers fall short. But the HD-4000 appears to have not skimped here. Without a monitor mounted on the bottom of the rig this type of transitioning move is difficult. The X-10/HD-4000 does not come with a monitor but you can easily add one to the base platform.
Of course, what test would be complete without a little jogging and running? This is a good way to not only see how well the rig can smooth extreme movements but also can reveal any noises induced by poorly fitting components in the vest, arm or sled. After working up a good sweat we were glad not to hear any clanking, squeaking, or sense any general instability. All the parts work in silent harmony, a feat not always achieved by much more expensive rigs. And while there was some degree of bouncing, it was not unexpected or objectionable.
The X-10/HD-4000 balances economical design and construction with good performance. The system is easily configured to fit a wide range of camcorders, is easy to adjust and balance, is made of quality materials that fit together well, and it looks great too. But like any professional stabilization device, it will take a fair amount of practice to get consistently well framed and stable shots. While the HD-4000 can also be handheld this can become fatiguing with anything other than lighter camcorders. The X-10/HD-4000 is truly a pro-class stabilization system that is so inexpensive compared to other devices that it is hard to come up with a reason not to have one.
X-10 (Vest and Arm)
Support Arm: configurable for either a left or right-handed operator
Dual Support Arm Boom Range: 30"
Dual Support Arm Weight: 5 pounds 12 ounces in Two Spring Mode, without arm posts
Individual Weight Plates: each 12.9oz (366 grams)
Designed For: compact and full size cameras weighing from 4 - 10 pounds
X,Y Head Dimensions: 8.750" x 5.00" x 1.00"
Base Platform Dimensions: Shortest - 13.75" x 4.75" Longest -18.25" x 4.75"
Central Support Post: 1.00" diameter, 20" tall in shortest mode, 28" tall in longest mode
Weight: 3.315 pounds without counter weight plates. Each Custom Counter Weight Plate averages .272 pounds. 12 custom counter weight plates = 3.264 pounds 1/4" & 3/8" camera plate mounting holes
- Good design construction and performance for the money
- Support arm a bit bouncy
The value of X-10/HD-4000 as a professional camcorder stabilization system is hard to beat.
Glidecam Industries, Inc.
23 Joseph Street
Kingston, MA 02364
$2,399 - X-10 ; $599 - HD-4000
Contributing editor Brian Peterson is a commercial video producer and Steadicam operator.