Imagine two VCRs sitting side by side. One is
a regular VCR, like the one perched atop most TV sets across the country. The other is a deck built
especially for video editing.
To VCR users who don’t edit their videos, these two decks are basically the same. Both play and
record tapes, both have blinking clocks, and both require at least a masters degree to program the record
Those who do edit, however, see big differences between them. The edit VCR has features that
will make the editing process more efficient and much easier. The regular VCR doesn’t.
So how can you tell the difference? The jog/shuttle knob, audio and video insert buttons, and a
funny-looking jack labeled “Edit Control” are good places to start.
In this month’s column, I’ll cover these and a host of other features that set editing VCRs apart
from regular VCRs. I’ll also point out features any useful editing VCR should have.
A flying erase head is one of those crucial features that make an editing deck an editing deck, because
it makes for glitch-free video edits. Without a flying erase head, pictures jump, roll or break up at the
moment the edit happens. Unless you want your videos to have that “amateur look,” don’t edit without
flying erase heads.
Real-time counters record tape movement in hours, minutes and seconds. With real-time counters,
you can refer to scenes on a tape using times. (For example, you can note that the shot of Bill falling off the
horse is at 00:12:05 on the tape.)
All 8mm and Hi8 VCRs and camcorders include these two edit-friendly features. VHS users
aren’t quite as lucky. Since VHS was around long before consumers had the need or desire to edit their
videos, many ordinary VCRs don’t have flying erase heads or real-time counters.
VHS machines, particularly older ones, have simple counters that mark tape travel with arbitrary
numbers. The reference numbers from one VCR usually don’t match numbers from another, and neither
relate to actual tape time. That makes finding exact parts of a tape more difficult, especially if you search
the tape using a different VCR.
When shopping for a VHS format edit deck, check the specs for flying erase head and real-time
counter. It’s especially important if you’re considering a regular home model. New home VHS decks may
have these features. Dedicated edit VCRs certainly will.
If you’re considering a used or rebuilt VCR, make sure it’s got at least a flying erase head, or it
will do more harm than good for editing.
Beyond the erase head and tape counter, edit VCRs have a bunch of features and functions that serve
one purpose: to simplify your editing. Some you can live without, others you shouldn’t.
An easy way to keep track of which features matter most is to draw two columns on a blank sheet
of paper. Label one, “Must Have,” the other “Nice to Have.” Read along and write each of the following
features in the appropriate column based on your budget and needs. Take the list along when you shop for
edit decks, or keep it handy as you surf through video catalogs. (Also, when your list of “Must Have” and
“Nice to Have” features is complete, check out Videomaker‘s VCR Buyer’s Guide in the April,
- Jog/shuttle control. This special set of knobs makes finding exact in and out points much simpler than
searching with pesky transport buttons. Still frames and slow motion searches are a breeze. You’ll almost
certainly enjoy editing more with one of these controls on your edit deck. Pros have had jog/shuttle
controls for years–now consumers do, too.
- Audio level controls. Ever tried to record someone’s voice at a whisper and wound up with an
annoying ambient “roar” on tape?
Blame the automatic gain control (AGC) inside the VCR. AGC boosts sound levels when they get
too low, and reduces them when they get too high. At low levels, the AGC boost puts an unnatural amount
of ambient noise on tape. Noises like the hum of air conditioners or fluorescent lamps–things our ears
barely notice while in the room–come across like a low-flying jet.
Manual audio level controls allow to prevent this ambient roar by setting VCR record levels
manually. Make sure the deck has good audio meters so you can see the levels as easily as you set
- Audio insert/dub. A must-have if you want to add narration or music to a video after you
finish shooting. Most of us do, so audio dub belongs in the “Must Have” column.
Note that on all VHS-family decks, audio dub replaces only the linear audio track. For Hi8 users
with PCM digital audio, audio dub replaces the PCM audio track. Users of 8mm and Hi8 units without
PCM audio are out of luck, since it’s not possible to dub the standard AFM audio.
The other VHS family audio format, hi-fi, records sound underneath the video signal. Like 8mm
AFM, you can’t dub to the VHS hi-fi tracks.
- Video insert/dub. This features is identical to audio dub, except it inserts new pictures instead of new
sounds. If you want to replace existing images on tape with new ones while leaving the original audio track
intact, you need video insert.
Currently, the only consumer formats capable of a true video insert are those in the VHS family
(VHS, VHS-C, S-VHS and S-VHS-C). Many of these VCRs allow you to replace the video and hi-fi tracks
without affecting the linear audio track. Until you get up into the $6000 plus range of professional VCRs,
no Hi8 or 8mm unit offers video dub.
- Microphone jack. It may seem like a simple feature, but many decks don’t provide it. If you
want to narrate your videos or add other sounds only a microphone can pick up, consider a deck with a
mike input. Otherwise, you’ll need a stand-alone mixer to get the mike’s signal on tape through the VCR’s
line-level audio input jacks.
- S-video support. Jacks labeled “S-video,” found on S-VHS and Hi8 format edit VCRs, are the
gateway to cleaner looking dubs and edit masters. These formats offer higher resolution, as well as the S-
video jacks to help preserve it.
Standard RCA or BNC-style video jacks carry composite video signals. As the word
suggests, composite video signals mix different elements of an image into one signal: the horizontal and
vertical sync pulses, the brightness and color information.
Blending the signals means you need a simpler cable to transmit video between machines, but it
weakens picture quality and stability in the process. S-video keeps the brightness and sync information
separate from the color signal so pictures look better, especially after multiple generations.
To use S-video in your projects, you need two decks that support it and cables to hook them
together. If your projects need to look the best they possibly can, get high-band decks and camcorders that
Protocols and Time Code
If your editing aspirations are more ambitious than just condensing the good stuff from last year’s
vacation tapes, edit control features may be your most important consideration.
Some midrange VCRs, and most high-end edit VCRs, can control another VCR or camcorder by a
cable and something called an edit protocol. Edit protocols are electronic “languages” that let VCRs and
edit controllers communicate with each other to increase edit precision.
Simple protocols control only one function of a VCR, usually play or pause. Advanced protocols
give access to many of a VCR’s important features with one cable. That means you can program one VCR
to operate another, which keeps you from pushing lots of buttons.
The more powerful the protocol, the more likely it will improve your editing. Two-way protocols,
in which the two devices talk to one another, are the best. A one-way connection, though not optimum, is
better than none.
Several protocol standards exist in the industry, but support on each edit deck varies. Some decks
use only one protocol, others two or three. Here’s a quick list of common protocols and VCRs you’ll find
to work with them.
- Remote pause/synchro-edit. These are the simplest control protocols, and they often go by
different names depending on manufacturer. Information flows only one way, and usually performs just
one function: to release the VCR’s pause button. This protocol is found in some form on most midrange
VHS VCRs and camcorders.
- Control-S. Common on older 8mm units as wall as a few VHS/S-VHS decks, this protocol is
rarely found on new models. It’s a one-way protocol only, but it controls more of a VCR’s functions than
- Control-L. One of the best consumer-level edit protocols, Control-L “completes the loop” by
offering two-way control of VCR functions. It’s found on most Hi8 edit decks and one Sony S-VHS
- Panasonic 5-pin. This protocol is similar to Control-L, but is found only on Panasonic Broadcast’s AG-
series edit VCRs. Though exclusive to Panasonic, several stand-alone and computer-based edit controllers
will work with this protocol.
- RS-232. This protocol bridges the gap between consumer and professional worlds, offering a
flexible two-way link between machines. Unfortunately, few lower-priced S-VHS and Hi8 edit decks
- RS-422. This is the professional protocol standard, and it’s even more powerful than RS-232.
Thankfully, it’s showing up more and more on reasonably-priced consumer edit decks.
Time code is a system that assigns every frame on a videotape a unique number or address. These
numbers let edit controllers and decks find exact edit points easily when performing edits. The result:
greatly improved accuracy over non-time code editing systems. Time code also makes logging and
searching more efficient, because you can record where a scene starts and stops with frame accuracy. Time
code values also won’t slip relative to the tape, as will a real-time counter.
Several Hi8 VCRs offer Sony’s RC (rewriteable consumer) time code, a flexible system that sits
on a special area of the Hi8 tape. Other time code systems include longitudinal time code (LTC) and
vertical interval time code (VITC). LTC requires a spare audio track and a dedicated audio output. Because
it’s recorded as a part of the video signal, any VCR will record VITC time code. If you need time code, do
some digging into a deck’s product info to make sure it’s time code-capable.
Some companies load their edit decks with extras you’d normally buy separately; titlers, video faders
or even a second VCR transport. These are frills, things to consider if you’ve got a few extra bucks to
spend and want added luxury in your edit VCR.
I recommend getting decks with these features only if the edit VCR will likely be the last thing
you buy in your edit system. Otherwise, save your money and spend it later on a more capable, more
versatile stand-alone product.
Here are some common extra features, and decks that offer them.
- Time base corrector (TBC). TBCs keep images clearer by stabilizing the invisible sync pulses
in the video signal. Better TBCs let you adjust the brightness, color level or chroma, hue and black level as
well. Several low-end professional VCRs offer built-in TBCs with signal correction controls.
- Titler. While typically nowhere near as flexible as stand-alone models, some edit VCRs have
titlers or character generators built-in.
- Fade. If you want an easy way to fade to and from black in your videos, and don’t have the
cash for a separate special-effects unit or video switcher, choose an edit deck with video fade. There are
- Pre-roll. Instead of triggering the start of an edit by releasing pause, some edit decks rewind
the tape a few seconds before the edit and then trigger the transition at the edit in-point. It’s called pre-roll,
and it gives you smoother transitions between edits.
- Multiple decks & formats. A few manufacturers make edit VCR packages that have two
VCRs built into one unit. Sony’s EVO-9720 Hi8 Studio, with its two Hi8 decks, is an example. GoVideo
makes a VHS-to-VHS system that includes standard VCR features plus editing extras like flying erase
heads, titlers and a real-time counter.
GoVideo also makes hybrid systems with a VHS and 8mm deck in one package. Their GV-8050
($1099) offers quasi-Hi8 playback, titler and multiple edit storage.
Goldstar’s GVR-DD1 ($900), also a VHS/8mm hybrid, has similar features: titler, real-time
counter, microphone jacks and audio/video dubbing.
The best advice for choosing an edit deck is to know what features you need, and then check the
decks that have those features. Doing this assures you’ll find the best model available to suit your situation
and your budget.