Paying Its Way
AG-456UP S-VHS Camcorder
Panasonic Broadcast & Television Systems
One Panasonic Way
Secaucus, NJ 07094
($2495)

The Panasonic AG-400 series of S-VHS camcorders has set a standard for providing high-quality, industrial-level camcorders at consumer-level prices. Notable features in past models have included a two-CCD imager section (AG-460) and vertical interval time code support (AG-455).

The newest entry into the series is the AG-456UP, a direct descendent of the AG-455. While the AG-456UP has only a single image chip, it does offer VITC time code, as well as enough features and controls to stand tall in the semi-pro camcorder market.

The unit retains the shape of past AG-400 series camcorders and is about the same size and weight. Those unfamiliar with this line will find the AG-456UP light for its size and very comfortable to use. Designed for right-shoulder shooting, all camera controls sit in a logical arrangement on the left side of the body near the lens. Most of the controls are push-button types. There is minimal tactile feedback from these buttons–it’s good that the viewfinder indicates when a feature is engaged.

Only What You Need

The AG-456UP has 12:1 zoom lens with 100x digital zoom. If you need to get video of an extremely small
subject, the macro function will focus as close as 1.5mm away from the lens. Panasonic says the zoom
rocker switch is continuously variable right up to where the digital zoom mode kicks in. I was able to
distinguish just four distinct speeds in each direction. Even with just four zoom speeds, this is an
improvement over the AG-455’s zoom.

The most significant improvement in the AG-456UP’s lens assembly is the addition of a manual zoom lever. This lever, which was missing on the AG-455, makes it possible to perform quick focal length
changes. No serious camcorder should be without this control.

Focus, iris and white balance controls are automatic with manual overrides. The manual iris override is an absolute control, meaning it will not shift once you’ve established an iris setting. This is preferable to those “manual” iris controls where auto iris continues to function after a level is set. The viewfinder indicates the present f-stop and white balance setting in both auto or manual modes. A low light button acts as a backlight button, opening the iris for backlit or low light situations.

When in the manual mode, you have a choice of eight shutter speeds controlled by the + or – buttons. The range is from normal (1/60th of a second) up to 1/8000th of a second. Panasonic points out that using high shutter speeds in fluorescent lighting will subject the image to flickering.

You view your scenes on the monochrome 0.7-inch viewfinder. An on-screen display (OSD) button enables in-viewfinder indicators. The viewfinder has indicators for white balance, tracer, digital wipe and mix, gain, low light and self timer/interval recording. A sliding diopter adjustment sets the viewfinder focus for your eyesight.

The AG-456UP gives you several digital effects including Still, Strobe and Tracer. The still function freezes images, filing them in memory for later use. You can wipe or mix (dissolve) from your current image to any image captured with the still effect, and visa versa. The AG-456UP allows only one still in memory at a time. Strobe offers the familiar stop-motion effect common on many camcorders. The tracer effect produces a ghost-like after-effect to moving images. A fade button fades your images in or out to black.

The interval recording control allows you to record one second of video every fifty seconds for time-lapse effects. You can set a timer to automatically stop recording after twenty seconds.

Audio comes into the AG-456UP through the attached stereo mike. A switch on the side of the mike allows for selecting wide, tele or zoom modes. A mike jack allows use of an external stereo mike.

Built into the left side of the unit is a small loudspeaker for monitoring audio while recording. It also provides audio during playback. There is no headphone minijack. Instead, Panasonic suggests using an
RCA-to-minijack stereo adapter to connect headphones to the AG-456UP’s RCA-style audio output
jacks.

A sliding plate on the top of the AG-456UP switches the unit between record and playback modes, revealing the VCR transport controls.

All external connections are on the rear of the unit. Included are stereo audio, composite video and S-video connectors. A switch selects between hi-fi, normal (mono) audio, or a mix of both for playback. Another switch disables the built-in monitor speaker.

A DC power connector allows for external power from the battery charger or a car cigarette lighter.

A 5-pin Control-M connector allow you to hook the AG-456UP up to any edit controller that supports this protocol. The unit’s internal VITC generator/reader will send VITC information out to the editor through this connection. The AG-456UP will generate up to 24 hours of uninterrupted time code provided you do not record over a pre-recorded section of tape, or remove the tape from the unit (which re-sets the time code generator).

If you prefer to edit in the camcorder, the unit’s flying erase heads allow fairly accurate insert editing. You can also audio dub to the normal audio track. You’ll find instructions for both procedures in the well-written manual.

The AG-456UP does not include a remote control.

Shootin’

Except for those improvements mentioned, the AG-456UP is nearly identical to the earlier AG-455.
It’s made for serious shooting and it produces serious results. Recorded images are quite sharp with good
color, once you get used to the white balance settings. There is a tendency for images to go red if you don’t
properly white balance in the manual setting. When set properly, colors are quite accurate.

Big as this camcorder is, it was not uncomfortable to use for long periods. A shoulder cushion (actually hard rubber) built into the bottom of the unit works nicely.

Audio is superb compared to other standard VHS hi-fi units. However, the small speaker doesn’t
provide the audio quality of headphones. Panasonic could have eliminated the hassle of using an adapter
cable by simply adding a headphone jack.

The manual zoom lever, missing on the AG-455, is sure nice to have for quick zooms and manual
focusing. This lever has since disappeared on many smaller consumer camcorders. I don’t understand
why.

The AG-456UP is probably overkill if you just want to chronicle the growth of your kids or the antics of the dog at a family picnic. But if you’re getting serious about your videomaking, perhaps hoping to make some money at the craft, you couldn’t do much better than the AG-456UP.


Technical Specifications

Panasonic AG-456UP S-VHS Camcorder

  • Lens
    Variable-speed 12:1 optical zoom, f/1.6, 5.6-67mm focal length, 100x digital zoom
  • Image sensor
    1/3-inch CCD
  • Focus A
    Auto with manual override
  • Maximum shutter speed
    1/8000 of a second
  • Exposure
    Auto with manual override
  • White balance
    Auto or manual
  • Digital effects
    Still, strobe, tracer, wipe, mix and fade
  • Audio
    Stereo AFM hi-fi, linear mono
  • Inputs
    External stereo microphone
  • Outputs
    S-video, composite video, stereo audio
  • Edit interface
    Control-M (Panasonic 5-pin)
  • Other features
    Vertical Interval Time Code (VITC) read/write, diopter control, in-
    viewfinder indicators, camera mode edit search
  • Record & playback
    • Horizontal resolution (camera)
      420 lines
    • Horizontal resolution (playback)
      400 lines
  • Performance times
    • Pause to record
      1 second
    • Power up to record
      3.5 seconds
    • Fast forward/rewind (30 min. tape)
      2 minutes, 30 seconds
  • Dimensions
    5 1/8 (width) by 9 11/16 (height) by 18 3/4 (depth) inches
  • Weight (sans tape and battery)
    6 pounds

The Family Grows
CCD-TR600 Hi8 Camcorder
1 Sony Drive
Sony Corporation
Park Ridge, NJ 07656
($1299)

Sony’s TR camcorder family continues to grow with the addition of the CCD-TR600. This unit sits just
one step below Sony’s flagship TR700, the main difference being the TR600’s lack of RC time code
capabilities. And while the TR600 offers features that will make the sophisticated videomaker take notice,
anyone desiring high quality video will find it easy to operate.

The TR600 retains the shape of past TR models. It weights less then three pounds fully loaded,
and is easy to hold and use for long periods. Most of the controls are where you need them, and they
provide good tactile response.

Seeing is Believing

Images enter the TR600 through it’s f/1.8, 12x power zoom lens; digital magnification extends the zoom to
24x. You control both normal and digitally-extended zoom with the zoom rocker switch. You can switch
focus between auto and manual modes, the latter controlled by a small dial wheel found below and to the
left of the lens.

If you’re not adept at holding a camcorder still during shooting, you can turn on the SteadyShot
stabilization. The TR600’s stabilization uses horizontal and vertical motion sensors to smooth out your
image; the TR600 performs image stabilization digitally on the CCD instead of with a moving optical
prism. The viewfinder indicates when SteadyShot and manual focus are in use.

The TR600 sports two methods of exposure control. The first is Sony’s AE (auto exposure) mode.
The normal position sets the iris and shutter speed for normal shooting. Three other settings raise the
shutter speed as necessary up to 1/2000th of a second. A fourth position locks the shutter at 1/4000th for
recording fast action shots.

Regardless of the setting of the AE control, you can override the exposure using the Exposure
button and adjustment wheel. When you press this button, an exposure indicator appears in the viewfinder
and reacts to the wheel as you turn it. Once you select an iris setting, the TR600 stays locked at that setting
regardless of shooting conditions. White balance is automatic with no override available.

At the back of the TR600 is a Menu button and selection wheel. Pressing this button produces a
menu screen in the viewfinder which you can use to set up the unit. Menu choices include Commander (to
turn on or off reception from the external remote controller), beep signal on/off, clock set, mike wind
buffer on/off and digital zoom on/off. You can also set the internal date; turn the tally light on or off;
engage edit mode or choose right channel, left channel or stereo audio playback.

The TR600 also offers the standard time/date and edit search features, as well as a function that
automatically records for five seconds every time you press record.

You view what you’re shooting with the unit’s color LCD (liquid crystal display) viewfinder. The
display has adequate sharpness for manual focusing; a diopter adjusts the viewfinder for eyeglass
wearers.

The TR600 offers seven effects you can incorporate into your shooting. You can fade your scenes
to or from black, or scramble them in or out with a mosaic effect. A picture effect button on the left side of
the unit steps through the other digital effects. The first setting is normal followed by mosaic, solarize,
black & white, sepia tone and negative. In recent years different camcorders have offered these
effects, but here are two that rather uncommon: slim and stretch. These squash or elongate your image to
give your video a funhouse mirror effect.

Audio enters the TR600 through its internal stereo mike; a stereo minijack allows use of an
external mike. The TR600 has a stereo headphone jack for monitoring your sound.

A strip along the top of the unit lights up the playback controls when you toggle the camcorder
into playback (VCR) mode. You’ll find stereo audio, S-video and composite video outputs on the right
side.

The wireless remote control operates all transport functions, provided you point the remote toward
the front of the camcorder.

Makin’ Videos

The Sony CCD-TR600 works nicely and is simple to use when in full automatic mode. The auto iris setting
changes quickly with varying lighting conditions, but the change is smooth and the iris does not hunt when
bright subjects pass by.

The manual focus wheel is quite sensitive, and focusing quickly without overshooting takes a little
practice. A momentary push of the focus button kicks in the auto focus to get you into the ballpark.

Although the TR600’s resolution and color reproduction is good for the Hi8 format, its images just
don’t quite stand up to those of the TR700. While color reproduction is quite good, colors seem less
saturated and the image a bit less sharp than in the TR700. Nevertheless, the TR600 produces very useable
images.

Most of the digital effects available in the TR600 have been around for quite some time, and the
serious videomaker will probably find limited use for them.

The focus override–and especially the iris manual override–offer a high degree of control when
setting up your shots. And bravo to Sony for retaining the external mike and headphone connections.

If you’re looking for a camcorder to start making serious videos, or you simply desire a high
quality unit to capture family events, the Sony CCD-TR600 is definitely worth a closer look.


Technical Specifications

Sony CCD-TR600 Hi8 Camcorder

  • Lens
    Two-speed 12:1 optical zoom, f/1.8, 5.4-64.8mm focal length, 24x digital zoom
  • Image sensor
    CCD
  • Focus
    Auto with manual override
  • Maximum shutter speed
    1/4000 of a second
  • Exposure
    Program AE with manual override
  • White balance
    Auto, no override
  • Digital effects
    Mosaic, solarize, black & white, sepia tone, negative, slim and stretch
  • Audio
    AFM Stereo
  • Inputs
    Composite video, stereo audio, external stereo microphone
  • Outputs
    Composite video, stereo audio, stereo headphone
  • Edit interface
    Control-L
  • Other features
    Diopter control, viewfinder indicators, camera mode edit search, remote, SteadyShot image stabilization
  • Record & playback
    • Horizontal resolution (camera)
      450 lines
    • Horizontal resolution (playback)
      400 lines
  • Performance times
    • Pause to record
      0.5 second
    • Power up to record
      3 seconds
    • Fast forward/rewind (30 min. tape)
      1 minute, 50 seconds
  • Dimensions
    4 1/2 (width) by 4 3/8 (height) by 8 1/4 (depth) inches
  • Weight (sans tape and battery)
    2 pounds

Now Hear This

The AT-MX341a comes in a very simple black metal box with a gray front panel. It takes up far less
space than a phone book, and is very light. All controls are on the front panel, including an on/off switch,
four level knobs, a master threshold knob, four mini-dip Priority Pre-select switches and a recessed master
level trim pot.

The most important control is the bank of Priority Pre-select switches. Any switch set in the up position assigns priority to that channel over other channels. In other words, as a speaker talks into a priority-set microphone, it locks out all other mikes whose switches are in the down position. You can set any combination of channels for priority. For example, these switches would allow you to assign priority to any talent on a set–his or her mike would then override all others when in use.

The four gain knobs adjust each channel for proper level. Under each knob is a red LED (light-emitting diode) which indicates when each channel is active. The factory has pre-set the recessed master level knob to provide maximum output level, but you can readjust it with a small screwdriver if necessary.

To the far right of the panel is the threshold control knob. This sets the level that any mike must achieve to be active, allowing you to keep ambient background sounds from triggering the mikes. When this knob is switched to the Manual position, the AT-MX341a becomes a standard four-channel mixer without automatic features. An LED under this knob aids in properly setting the threshold adjustment.

Finally, on the top right of the front panel is a set of LEDs indicating the output level. These range from -20dB to +6dB.

There are four XLR inputs and one XLR output on the rear panel. You can internally switch the XLR inputs to accept line- or mike-level signals. Likewise, the XLR output will generate line-level or mike-level signals. The latter is handy for plugging directly into a camcorder without needing an attenuator or line-matching transformer. An internal switch provides phantom power (12 volts DC) to condenser mikes.

Four control voltage outputs become “hot” when a given mike is active. This allows you to
automatically control various devices as new a speaker talks–these could be a specific camera or indicator
light for each mike.

Also on the back panel are the Link In/Out 8-pin din-style connectors. You can use these connectors to daisy-chain several AT-MX341a mixers if you need more than 4 inputs. When you connect more than one unit together, the priority switches work as if the connected units were one large mixer.

Once you hook up your mikes, you have a choice of three modes of operation based on the settings of the priority switches. The first mode is with all priority switches in the up position. This mode does not lock out any mikes, but the threshold feature will still mute out unwanted background sounds below a certain level.

Next is with all priority switches down. In this mode only one mike can be on at a time, and it will lock out all other mikes until that speaker or sound source is silent. Interactive discussion is still possible in this mode, thanks to the Audio Technica’s fast switching speed.

Finally, you can flip any combination of priority switches into the up position. In this mode, the priority mikes will override all other channels. This mode works great for those situations where you want more than one priority channel.

A clear and fairly concise manual gives full instructions for removing the top cover and making internal adjustments. These adjustments include choosing mike or line input and output levels, -20dB to -6dB attenuator adjustments for each input, and a switchable 10dB pad for each input. Further, you can switch the meter to indicate peak or RMS (average) signal level.

Blending

The AT-MX341a SmartMixer sounds very good. All mike switching is quiet, and goes virtually unnoticed
as the mixer works its magic.

It’s easy to set the threshold level too high, causing the mikes to remain muted even when spoken into. It will take a little experimentation to get the threshold set properly for each shooting location.

My biggest gripe with this mixer is its lack of stereo outputs. While I understand the reasoning behind it (dialog between speakers doesn’t require stereo), the unit would be considerably more versatile with stereo outputs.

My second gripe is the power supply. Its a 12-volt AC unit, putting out a scant 150 milliamps. It would have been a simple design alteration to make the AT-MX341a run off a 12-volt DC supply. You probably see where I’m headed with this–a DC supply would make the unit capable of running off batteries for portable use. This unit was designed for indoor studio use, but why limit it to that? Perhaps future versions will have such a feature.

Aside from these gripes, the AT-MX341a SmartMixer certainly has a place with professional
videomakers, semi-professionals and serious amateurs looking for better control over their audio. If you’re
planning to buy an audio mixer for studio shooting, check out the Audio Technica AT-MX341a. It’s one
smart mixer.

Technical Specifications

Audio Technica AT-MX341a SmartMixer

  • Input channels
    4
  • Inputs
    4 balanced XLR, mike or line level
  • Outputs
    1 mono XLR, mike or line level
  • Effects sends/returns
    None
  • EQ bands
    None
  • Other features
    Phantom power, auto input switching/gating, threshold control, daisy-chain
    multiple unit operation, LED metering
  • Dimensions
    11 1/2 (width) by 2 3/4 (height) by 10 1/4 (depth) inches
  • Weight
    7 pounds
  • Audio Performance
    • Frequency response
      60Hz to 30kHz (-3 dB)
    • Maximum output level
      > 70 dB

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