While nonlinear editing systems seem to be all the rage, computer-controlled linear editing is tried, true and affordable.
Everyone’s talking about how you can turn your personal computer into a nonlinear editing system by
simply adding a few extra pieces of gear. They tell you to pick up a couple big AV-compatible hard drives,
some double-digit RAM chips and a video capture card and “poof,” you’ve got a nonlinear editing system
in your computer.
While that “poof” might be the sound of all that editing power appearing on your desktop, it might
also be the sound of all those dollars leaving your pocket. Prices on many nonlinear systems have dropped
dramatically in recent years, but they remain out of reach for many videographers. Either they can’t seem
to find enough money to do the nonlinear thing, or they can’t justify spending that much on a system to
make better home videos.
No one’s disputing that nonlinear is an editing dream come true. It’s just difficult to choose
between staying with trusted linear technology which costs less, or spending the extra money to reap the
If you’ve recently pondered the upgrade and decided against it, did you consider using your
computer as a linear editing tool instead? Did you know you could?
While nonlinear products ultimately provide the most editing features and flexibility, they have a
number of desktop video cousins that can turn even a moderately powered computer into a serious linear
That’s what this article’s all about: teaching you how to get more from your computer in a linear
editing environment. You’ll learn the kinds of editing tricks your computer can do, and the products you
need to make it perform them. Along the way, you’ll get to keep your existing linear editing investment,
and make both it and you work more effectively.
Why a Computer?
We all know that computers are amazing pieces of technology. They crunch numbers in spreadsheets,
keep the kids busy playing adventure games and help you track your investment portfolio. By adding some
inexpensive software and hardware, your computer can also perform one or more linear editing chores:
control your VCRs, generate digital video effects and on-screen titles, or control a special effects generator.
The link between the computer on your desktop and all of your video gear is usually the serial port on the
back of the computer. It might also be through an empty card slot inside. Put the right wires and cards in
the right places, and your computer instantly becomes a powerful editing tool worthy of professional
As an edit controller, it can control most consumer and professional VCRs, depending on the
installed hardware and software. Through an on-screen interface, you can tell the computer to shuttle the
tape forward or back, mark and save edit points, and perform a long list of edits.
Why, you might ask, would you buy the computer-based version of an edit controller or special
effects generator (SEG) when a perfectly capable stand-alone version already exists? If you buy the
computer product, you run the risk of incompatibility with your current PC system, or of a conflict between
the controller and another program on your computer. The editing programs themselves may also use up
some valuable hard disk space.
Even with these caveats, the fact is that computer-based editing products offer more power and
control over your video equipment than stand-alone models. Most also have an easy-to-use interface that
takes less time to learn than the control panels on stand-alone models. Computer-based linear editing
systems can also store more details about the edits you make.
Stand-alone edit controllers, for example, save time code or counter numbers in their memories,
but lose those numbers when you switch the power off. Computer-based controllers let you save your edit
points, or the entire edit decision list (EDL), in a file on the hard disk that doesn’t go away until you delete
it. That means you can preserve your edit lists for as long as you need them.
Computer models also let you store much more than just the time code or counter numbers. Most
systems let you save a short description of the edit. Some even help manage your entire raw footage
library, letting you search with keywords to find the specific shots you need.
Even if you already own a personal computer that supports a video editing product, you’ll probably
find that adding a computer-based product to your system will cost a bit more than a stand-alone version. If
you don’t already have a computer, obviously getting the computer-based version will cost quite a bit
more. They do, however, return that extra investment in ease of use and features. Whether the return is
enough to justify the extra expense is a decision only you can make.
Most of these products include some type of interface hardware: either a cable that connects to the
VCRs, or a card that plugs into the computer. They all have software that installs on your computer and
interacts with the VCRs and/or SEGs in your system. These interfaces let your computer “talk” to the video
gear exactly like a stand-alone edit controller would. These products usually require little if any
upgrades to your current computer or video systems. Those that do may include any needed equipment
inside the box. That means you can boost your editing capability and efficiency without dropping a huge
chunk of money, or rendering your current editing system obsolete.
For those videomakers who have a computer, but don’t have a big budget, there are some great
options for getting into a computer-based edit controller.
On the PC and Mac platforms, Pinnacle offers the Video Director ($99), the cheapest way to get
into VCR edit control. To run the program, all you need is a 386 or better PC, (I’d recommend a 486 at
least), 4 MB of RAM, an available serial port and a 256-color display. The software comes with a “Smart
Cable” that plugs into the serial port and provides Control-L and infrared links to your decks. Just tell the
program what kinds of decks you’re using, and it does the work for you. It has an easy-to-use interface and
features to simplify editing. It can even print tape labels for you!
Mac users can also check out Videonics’ Video Toolkit 2.2,($99), a similar product that controls
any VCR and outputs an edit decision list (EDL), so you can save your edits and use them in the future if
Aver offers the Video Editor ($499), a Windows-based edit controller/SEG combo that works
with any Control-L or Infrared-capable VCR or camcorder. Features include a storyboarding view of your
video using small still images, called “picons,” captured directly from your raw footage. It comes with
Curtain Call software to generate wipes, dissolves and special video effects. You can watch your video on
the computer monitor, and make edits by dragging and dropping picons from one place to another. The
Video Editor uses an external box that connects to the computer through an available serial port.
Aver’s Video Suite, ($700), a more advanced controller/SEG combination, also works with
Windows-based PCs, and offers composite or S-VHS/Hi8 video signal support. The Video Suite includes
customized versions of the Video Director and Curtain Call software from Aver’s Video Editor, and adds
2D and 3D titling software as well.
If you have an edit controller, but want a special effects generator, check out Fast’s Movie
Machine Pro ($449) for Windows. It offers 18 A/B roll effects including chroma and luminance keying.
(Luminance keys lets you overlay clip art or logos over a video image. Chroma key lets you shoot someone
against a solid green or blue background, and then replace that color with a video image in editing.) The
Movie Machine Pro can also import titles from any Windows graphics application.
If you already have an SEG, but need an edit controller, FutureVideo’s V-Station ($699) might make
a great fit. A full-featured controller that works with any industrial, professional or consumer deck, the V-
Station controls a number of external SEGs like Panasonic’s WJMX-30/50 and new WJ-AVE55, and
Videonics’ MX-1 AV Mixer. For the WJ-AVE55, the V-Station offers an on-screen control panel so you
can program the SEG with mouse clicks from your computer. It also supports unlimited EDLs and auto
assembly of programs in any format.
Another high-end edit controller package is TAO Systems’ Editizer for Mac or Windows
($2,495). The Editizer supports three VTRs on-screen, and supports every control protocol available. Its
unique feature is dynamic tracking or slow-motion video on decks that support it.
If you want a desktop linear system with more editing features and a pro-quality SEG, check out
the Fast Video Machine Lite ($2195) for the PC platform. An almost complete TV studio in one package,
the Video Machine Lite is a popular product among videographers. It offers a 6-input video switcher, A/B-
roll video mixer, edit controller, programmable 2-channel SEG, titler, 4-channel audio mixer, standards
converter and two frame synchronizers to stabilize incoming video signals. A feature-packed product,
indeed. The Video Machine Lite’s edit controller can read or write all forms of time code including
Industrial 8 and RC, and also works with Control-L and IR decks. One big bonus: should you decide to
move into nonlinear in the future, you won’t need to abandon the Video Machine Lite. Fast has a video
capture card you can use for digitizing video onto your hard drive. The Video Machine Lite works with
either composite or S-VHS/Hi8 component video signals.
Mac users can check out Silicon Valley Bus Company’s VideoEdge ($995) a hybrid
linear/nonlinear editor and SEG. It offers 3D animation and titling in addition to A/B-roll linear editing and
digital nonlinear. It doesn’t, however, have frame synchronizers built-in.
TV One’s Control X ($795) and Video X ($1,295) are solid one-two punch linear editing systems
for the PC platform. The Video X is a single-card dual-channel video mixer with SEG. It’s S-Video and
composite video compatible. You can pair it with the Control X edit controller card for a complete
editing/control system. The Control X supports VITC and RC time code and Control-L/IR decks, and
automatically triggers transitions and effects programmed in the Video X card.
The oldest and perhaps the best known computer-based SEG product is NewTek’s Video Toaster,
now available for both Windows ($7995) and the Amiga ($2495). It features a switcher, titler and SEG, but
doesn’t offer any edit control options. It also doesn’t have frame synchronizers, so you’ll need to add your
A Great Way to Upgrade
All of these computer-based linear editing products can make the editing gear you already have, and
your computer, more useful. Even the inexpensive products can boost your creativity, or improve your
editing efficiency. The more advanced, and hence more expensive, systems can take your videos one major
notch higher in quality.
Some of these products also work in both linear and nonlinear modes. You can use them in a
linear setup now, and continue to use them in the future when nonlinear becomes more affordable. Other
linear editing products offer upgrades to make them work in nonlinear configurations.
Whatever you decide, be sure to verify the product’s compatibility with your system before you
buy or order anything. Also, especially if you order through the mail, ask about warranties, service or
repair procedures, and return policies. While these products most often work magic in a computer, they can
occasionally cause problems. Protect yourself by asking plenty of questions about the product before you
spend any money.
Even if you don’t have any problems installing or operating the system, it’s good to have this kind
of information handy if you need it down the road. If you’re one of the unlucky ones who finds a glitch or
two, you’re covered.