Making the right connections isn’t just smart, it’s a neccessity.
Does this ring a bell? Your camcorder, your VCR, and your TV each come supplied with several types of
cables, all individually packed in redundant baggies that stubbornly resist opening.
Your camera, VCR, and TV are also provided with thick manuals in two or three languages that
purport to explain how to hook A to B to C, and three tries out of four you open these manuals to the
French section (unless you are Quebecois, in which case, the manuals default to English).
When you do locate instructions you can read, you’re dismayed to discover that the accompanying
- resemble circuit blueprints for a Pentium chip, and,
- cover a dozen different equipment configurations, none of which seems to match your situation,
- refer to switches and jacks that you can’t find on your hardware, and,
- are mutually incompatible, in that the VCR instructions contradict the camera instructions, and neither
agrees with the diagrams supplied with the TV.
On top of which, you appear to have enough cables to make every connection two or three different times,
using entirely different plugs and jacks.
As Charlie Brown would say, “AARRGGHH!”
It’s no wonder that video newcomers resist editing their footage, because just trying to connect the
hardware for the simplest post production can invite a vacation in a rubber room.
Don’t book space at Dippy Dell just yet, because you can connect editing equipment successfully,
honest. The following are some simple procedures and common sense tips. To achieve that simplicity, let’s
assume that you will edit by connecting your camcorder to a VHS VCR and watching the results on a TV
The Outs and Ins
As you can see, the connections run from camcorder to VCR to TV in a single, one-way progression
that’s often called daisy chaining. (In more complex lashups, this one-thing-after-another approach may not
be desirable, but that’s beyond our scope here.) In our setup, the camcorder plays the videotape, sending
picture and sound signals to the VCR, where you edit by copying selected parts of them. The VCR, in turn,
ships the results downstream to the TV, so you can see what you’re editing.
As we start building this setup, consider these first two very fundamental rules:
- You MUST plug Cables that bring the signal OUT OF a piece of hardware into jacks marked “out.”
And you MUST plug cables leading INTO a component into jacks labeled “in.”
- You MUST plug VIDEO (picture) cables into jacks at both ends marked “video,” and you MUST plug
AUDIO (sound) cables into “audio” jacks.
It’s astonishing how many otherwise honor-roll students keep getting this wrong, even after a year in a
beginner’s video course.
To help you remember, all modern video hardware has jacks color-coded the same way: yellow
for composite video; red for right channel stereo audio, and white for left channel stereo audio.
(Incidentally, to avoid the dangerous swamp of gender-dependent language, we’re referring to any so-
called “male” connector as a plug and any “female” connector as a jack.)
The color-coding system is well-intended, but it only seems to confuse people further, for two
reasons. First, many camcorders lack stereo sound, so they have only one audio out jack. If the VCR is also
mono, no sweat: there’s only one audio in jack to choose from.
But what if it’s stereo and has both red and white jacks? The answer is, plug the audio cable into
the left (white) audio in jack, because it doubles as the mono audio jack (except in a very few high-end
models, which have separate mono jacks).
The second source of confusion is the cable plugs. They may be color-coded yellow, white, and
red like the jacks, or they may be plain gray or black or whatever. Here’s how to handle this problem:
- If the cable plugs are color-coded, match each one to the same color jack. This will simplify tracing the
signal (and sooner or later you’ll need to do this).
- If the cable plugs lack color coding, not to worry. Unlike jacks, which are hard-wired to particular
circuits, plugs are not wired to anything until you plug them. That means that any color plug will work fine
in any color jack, as long as it fits.
Kinds of Plugs
I say “as long as it fits” because consumer video equipment may come with as many as four different
types of connectors. BNC connectors appear mostly on expensive
prosumer gear, so let’s go directly to the RCA plugs.
These are the same plugs found on stereo cables, and they do carry the VCR’s the audio signal.
But in almost all consumer camcorders, VCRs, and TVs, RCA-type connectors also carry the “composite
video” signal. It’s called composite because it’s composed of the signal information for both picture color
and picture brightness, mixed together.
Nowadays, however, many camcorders and most newer VCRs and TVs have a second video
connector called “S-Video” or “Y/C.” (We’ll call it Y/C because the term S-Video sounds too much like it
only works with S-VHS, when in fact the Y/C connection will accept all consumer video signals.)
Unlike composite video connectors, Y/C connectors handle the video signal in two separate
streams of information, one for the picture’s luminance, or brightness, and the other for its chrominance, or
color. (For that reason, simple folks like us would call these connectors “L/C” instead of Y/C, but engineers
need incomprehensible acronyms to make their work seem mysterious.)
To complete our survey of plugs and jacks, behold the RF connector, a design of
stunning incompetence that is (per Murphy’s Law) the most nearly universal connector of all. If you have a
TV antenna, its cable ends in an RF connector, and so does the line from your cable company or your
From a mechanical standpoint, RF connectors are dismal performers, for two reasons. First, they
depend on a skinny central wire so flimsy that you’re certain to bend it eventually; and when you do, it will
no longer find the tiny hole it must fit into. Secondly, many RF connectors slip over their receiving jacks
instead of screwing firmly onto threads, so they pull out every time you shift your VCR’s position. (Hint,
for all RF applications, be sure to buy only threaded-style connectors.)
If these plugs are so cheesy, how come they’re so widespread? Simple: RF cables carry all the
necessary video and audio signal information through a single coaxial line. No left stereo here and right
stereo there and composite video someplace else and what the heck is this Y/C jack for anyway? Make just
one RF connection and you’re done. But the penalty you pay is in picture quality.
Why? Because of a fundamental principle: the more signals you mix together, the more quality
you lose. So let’s organize the connectors we’ve covered into a hierarchy of quality:
- Lowest: RF connectors, which combine video luminance, video chrominance, mono audio, and often
stereo audio information in one signal.
- Better: RCA connectors. They carry video signals separately from audio signals. However, the RCA
composite video connection still combines luminance and chrominance information in one signal.
- Best: RCA audio and Y/C video connectors. The RCA cables deliver separate audio signals and
the Y/C cable delivers the separate luminance and chrominance parts of the video signal.
Since recently manufactured VCRs and TV sets typically have RF, RCA, and Y/C connectors, you have a
choice. But whatever your setup, use the plugs and jacks that will carry the highest-quality signal.
The exception to this rule concerns the connection between your recording VCR and your TV. It’s
perfectly all right to use the simpler RF connection here, because by the time the signal hits this cable, it’s
already been recorded, so a modest quality loss is irrelevant to the editing process.
But until you record that signal on your edited tape, you need to do all you can to preserve its
quality on the way from the camcorder. In addition to using Y/C video and RCA audio cables, you can do
two other things to prevent quality loss:
- Keep your cables as short and fat as possible. The longer and thinner the wire, the greater its resistance
to electrical current, and so, the greater the signal loss between A and B. Avoid the anemic RCA cables
sold for sound systems, and keep Y/C cables under 20 feet. In fact, you shouldn’t need any cables longer
than six feet unless your editing setup has a very peculiar geography.
- Put as few devices (VCRs, SEGs, edit controllers, etc.) in the signal path as possible. The more
components you daisy chain together, the more quality you lose. This is not a problem in very simple
camcorder to VCR to TV setups; but as your interest grows you’ll want a separate monitor for your source,
plus a switcher/mixer and maybe a color processor and a titler and an audio mixer and… well, you get the
drift. Each of these components affects the signal a little, and collectively they can degrade it a lot.
Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong…
Even without a bunch of extra components, it’s possible to lash everything
together, turn it all on, play a tape in the camcorder…
…and get nothing on your screen. Happens to the best of us, so here’s how to troubleshoot your
But before you do so, we need to talk about what you should see (and hear) on your TV. Here is
how manufacturers have designed VCR circuits so that you can edit with only one monitor. They work like
- When you stop the VCR, it passes the signals from the source camcorder through to the TV. That
way, you can review your footage and cue up the shots you want to transfer to your edit tape.
- When the VCR is playing, it automatically blocks the source camcorder signals and substitutes its
own signals instead. That way, you can review what you have transferred to the VCR, even if the source
deck happens to be playing too.
- When the VCR is recording (or in a record/pause mode) it shows what’s coming in from the
source camcorder, so that you can see when to start recording and then monitor the transfer as it’s
The only tricky thing about this system is verifying which source is on the TV screen at any given time. To
summarize, if the assembly tape’s playing back, its signal’s on-screen. Otherwise, you’re looking at the
source tape playing in the camcorder.
Or maybe not, if there’s some kind of problem, so let’s get back to troubleshooting. First, consider
that there are four possible reasons for bad connections, and here they are, in order of frequency:
- Mis-connection. You’ve plugged something, somewhere into the wrong place, or it isn’t plugged at
- Switching problems. Either the recording VCR or the displaying TV are not set up to recognize
the signals reaching them.
- Cable failure. Y/C cables have delicate pins that break. RCA cables have collars that can loosen
and break contact. As for RF connectors, well, @#$%& *!! Cables are tough to fix and cheap to
replace, so when one starts going, chuck it out.
- Equipment problems. Mechanical or electronic components in the camcorder, VCR, or TV are
Mis-connections, cable failure, and equipment problems are pretty self explanatory, so let’s focus
on switching problems. Many VCRs and TV sets do not automatically detect the source of an incoming
signal and switch to it. For example, your VCR may have two sets of RCA jacks, a regular one in the rear
and an extra set in front, for convenience in plugging in your camcorder. Usually, you have to tell the
machine which set of inputs to activate. And there are other settings too.
As an example, let’s use one of JVC’s editing VCRs. Every time you turn it on, you have to make
four separate selections before it will display incoming video. Those selections are:
- TV or VCR mode to VCR.
- Input source to AU (for “auxiliary”).
- Input jacks to “front” or “rear” depending on where the camcorder’s plugged in.
- Audio playback to “normal” so that you hear the mono track on the TV speaker.
How do you make all these selections? By acessing an on-screen menu tree via the VCR’s remote
control. Older VCRs use electro-mechanical switches for these selections, but the trend today is toward
setup via less convenient (but also less expensive) chips.
And here’s how you troubleshoot a system:
- Play a tape in the record VCR. If it appears on screen, then the problem is not in the TV or the
VCR output. If it does not appear, check the cabling and the cable condition between VCR and TV.
- Cable the camcorder directly to the TV and play a tape. If the signal appears, then the problem is
between the camcorder and the record VCR. Replug, then check the cable quality and the selection
switches on the VCR, as explained above.
Nine times out of ten these procedures will fix the problem. If not, the chances are you have equipment
One last warning from the land of Murphy’s law: Many VCRs have poorly labeled switches or
menu settings that don’t appear to affect signal connections, but somehow do (the Panasonic AG-1970s are
like this.) So if you’ve exhausted every common-sense possibility and you still don’t have the connections
you need, you’ll have to drop back and punt–i.e. read the directions.
Which is a good idea just on general principles–assuming you can find the English language