Buyer's Guide: Editing VCRs

The world is awash in VCRs–dozens of models from as many manufacturers. And some are specifically designed to edit video. But computer editing systems are replacing old-style, multi-VCR edit suites. A single computer can now replace the bank of three or more VCRs that used to be required for A/B roll editing. That makes the role of the editing VCR different today than it was in the old days. Here are some things to consider before you buy a new VCR to use in your edit bay.

Ins and Outs

One easy way to spot a VCR designed for editing is to look at the input and output panel on the back. Like its consumer cousin, the professional VCR will have video and audio in and out jacks, but the terminations may be different.

Consumer gear typically sports RCA composite video and audio jacks, F-connectors for antenna connections and possibly an S-video interface.

At the high end of the consumer spectrum, you’ll even find VCRs that sport component connection – a high-end signal transport arrangement that used to be exclusively the realm of professional decks. Component video connections have found a consumer home as an interface to the high-end big-screen direct-view sets and video projection systems that often form the heart of sophisticated home theater installations. Component connections alone no longer put a device into the professional use category.

On a professional deck, you may find an array of BNC connectors for video and balanced XLR-type audio connections, even if RCA audio outs are still present for monitoring.

The big difference in a true editing deck will be the presence of one or more ports for connecting some kind of edit controller interface to the deck. The traditional port type for editing used to be a serial connection for the RS-232 or RS-422 protocol, and these ports are still found on many professional editing decks. But newer standards are now taking over rapidly, particularly on digital VCR decks.

The IEEE 1394 standard (FireWire or i.LINK) is a digital protocol for combining digital video, audio and deck control information on a single cable. External deck control is often the key element that differentiates an editing-capable deck from one not built to edit. IEEE 1394 support may be important for use with your nonlinear editing system.

Heavy Duty

Another big difference between a household VCR and one designed for video editing is that the editing VCR typically needs extra heavy-duty motors, pulleys and other transport components.

A home VCR will play or record a movie, then will be idle for hours before its next use. The life of an editing VCR is far different. Depending on how much you edit, your editing VCR will likely have to go more rounds than a typical home VCR will experience in a month of use.

A robust transport mechanism typically separates a pro VCR from a consumer model. But it’s hard to see inside a VCR to know if the motors, belts and pulleys are light- or heavy-duty, and marketing types spray terms like "heavy-duty," "fine pitch" and even "professional" onto their boxes with abandon. So we have to find other ways to judge whether we’re buying an industrial-type product or a glorified consumer unit.

Time Code

The use and display of time code is another indicator of a deck designed for rigorous editing. Time code is simply a unique number assigned to each frame of video on a tape.

If a deck can’t read some form of time code (see Time Code Types sidebar), then an external edit controller can’t accurately control it. One element that separates prosumer from real professional VCRs is the accuracy of that control. If you specify a particular time code for the starting point of an edit, a system based on less expensive equipment will often not be completely frame-accurate.

Even today, when we use computer editing systems for most of our editing, quality deck control provides many advantages. Say you have a one-hour tape, and the client makes a change to the graphic opening. With a computer-only editing system, the only way to make that change is to capture the entire hour onto your hard drive, make the change, then print the entire hour back out to tape.

If you can use your computer editing setup to accurately control an editing VCR, however, you can simply change the slate and do an insert edit of just the new material. That ability alone can turn a two-hour job into one that takes 10 minutes.


The Formats

When shopping for a VCR, carefully consider the format that you select. If you’ll use it to transfer source footage into your computer, you’ll need to select a deck that is compatible with your camcorder. If you’ll use the VCR as a recorder, to transfer your productions from the computer back to videotape, you’ll need to select a high quality format. The recorder will determine the quality of the edited master tape that you’ll store and use for making dubs.

Price Check

It used to be that a professional video deck was easy to spot because the price difference between consumer and pro gear was so wide. If a VCR cost more than $10,000, it was clearly for professional use. If it retailed for under $1,000, it was clearly consumer.

Today, there’s a huge range of both consumer and professional video equipment priced directly inside that former gap. By shuffling around some of the ideas we’ve dealt out to you in this article, you should be able to greatly improve the chances of finding your ideal editing VCR.

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