When you get right down to it, editing is about choices–choosing what to keep and what to eliminate,
where to cut and what to cut to.
Editing controllers help you execute those choices. They take ideas like “I want the next scene to
happen here” or “I don’t want to see this shot in my video” and bring them into reality on your master
Does that mean you need an editing controller to make edits? Hardly.
Scores of talented videomakers get by with nothing but a camcorder and a VCR. (A few don’t even
have the luxury of a second VCR.) They’re able to effectively tell their stories by editing footage on simple
You can learn to do the same by using some of the tips and techniques you’ll find in the next few
While it will never be an exact science, mastering the art of editing without a controller is something
that many experienced videomakers learn to do at some point. It’s also a handy skill to have if you’re away
from your edit setup and need a way to cut scenes together.
To help you learn this skill, we’ve described the process of editing without a controller in the pages that
follow. With this information, you’ll be able to start editing your videos without spending a bundle on
fancy equipment. And as you learn the craft of editing, you can focus your energies on the important
things–the choices–rather than worrying about how to operate a new piece of gear.
So let’s get started with the most basic form of the craft: in-camera editing.
Every camcorder possesses the simplest edit system: a start/stop button. If you want something to
happen on tape, press the button. When you want it to stop, press it again. Editing doesn’t get much
simpler, and it doesn’t need more complexity to work properly.
You decide what you want to see, when you want to see it, where it should happen and how it should
look. Tell the camera to record it for you, and then move to the next part of the story. It’s a technique
called in-camera editing, and it’s the simplest way (not to mention the only way) you can edit without a
It seems primitive, but in-camera editing works astonishingly well. Shows can come out looking like
you hovered over an edit controller carefully picking and placing each scene. In reality, that’s exactly what
you did, except your edit controller consisted of only one button.
Before you scoff at calling such a process editing, know that scores of professional videographers
around the world use this very technique every day.
Why use such a simple trick when they have thousand-dollar edit suites at their disposal? Because it
forces them to get shots that tell the story, not just shots that look nice.
It also saves them time in the final edit because they don’t have to search as long for a good shot to use.
In many cases, the next shot they want in the story is the very next one on the tape.
You’ll reap precisely the same benefits in your projects. Sound too simple to work? That many pros
can’t be wrong. Whether you’ve got an expensive edit system or not, try editing your next simple project in
As useful as the in-camera technique can be, it does have drawbacks. The biggest is accuracy.
Although the start/stop button lets you trigger your edit decisions, it forces you to rely on the precision
of the mechanisms inside the camcorder to record the scene. You may already have noticed that your
camcorder doesn’t start recording the instant you press the button. It usually takes somewhere between a
half second and two seconds to start recording.
If you don’t press the button at just the right moment, you might miss the start of an important part of a
How do you know the amount of time your camcorder needs to start recording? One way is to point the
camcorder at a clock that shows seconds.
Press the start button when the second hand hits twelve or the digits read zero. Roll ten seconds or so of
tape, and then rewind. Watch the tape and note how many seconds elapsed before recording began. That’s
your camcorder’s lag time.
You can improve accuracy on your next project by anticipating the beginning of a scene and pressing
the start button early enough to compensate for the lag.
Another in-camera editing problem comes from rewinding and reviewing your footage while you’re on
the shoot. Maybe you recorded a second or two more video than you needed, or you want to start the next
scene a little sooner than where you stopped the tape.
The common practice is to roll the tape back to the point you want, press pause and switch the
camcorder into record mode. When you punch the start/stop button again, the camcorder starts recording at
roughly where you paused the tape.
Edits like these aren’t for the faint of heart. They can ruin your video if you don’t pause the tape
carefully. If you hit pause a little too far back, you’ll clip off the end of the previous shot. If you set it too
far forward, you end up with a second or two of snow between shots.
The only way to know how far you can back up the tape is to practice making these kinds of edits.
Always watch the viewfinder, and pause the tape with a frame of video showing.
Remember too that unless your camcorder has a flying erase head, you may get glitches or color noise at
Along with a lack of accuracy and flexibility, in-camera editing won’t let you change shots on
already-recorded tapes. You could make a clean edit into a scene with the in-camera technique, but the
camcorder could leave big sections of snow between the end of the new scene and whatever else is on the
tape. The result: a ruined program.
If you find yourself in a situation where you want to either remove or reorient parts of your raw footage
(and many of us do), the only real solution is to use two VCRs.
One VCR or camcorder serves as a player, the other as a recorder. Audio and video signals from the
player feed the inputs on the recorder. The play, pause and record buttons serve as your edit start and stop
To make edits, you play the original footage in the playback VCR and record scenes you want to keep
onto a blank tape in the record VCR. To skip parts you want to leave out, pause the record VCR and shuttle
the player past the bad footage. You can also rearrange the order of the shots on the record tape to improve
the show, if you like.
Obviously, to do any of this you need a second VCR or camcorder, and not just any VCR will do.
To get the best performance from a two-machine setup, the record VCR must make clean video edits
from one scene to the next. It should also stop and start the tape quickly and predictably to give you the
most potential for accurate editing. As mentioned above for camcorders, your record VCR should have a
flying erase head.
Unfortunately, many consumer VHS VCRs don’t qualify. As a result, their video edits jump and
roll, and you may even see flashes of snow in between scenes.
Because most camcorders have flying erase heads, they make great record VCRs. If you have a home
VCR that uses the same tapes as your camcorder, you can use the home deck as a player and the camcorder
A pair of camcorders also works as a two-machine edit setup. The formats don’t need to match, either.
You can play the original tape in one, and record the new tape in the other.
Otherwise, you’ll need to either buy a VCR that plays your camcorder tapes, or one with special editing
features built in.
To make an edit, search for the places on each tape where you want the edit to begin. Pause the player
unit a few seconds ahead of the edit point, and the record unit right at the edit point.
With both machines cued, you’re ready to make the edit. First, release pause on the playback
machine. Then carefully watch the screen and release pause on the record machine the moment you see the
edit point on the source side. Presto, a video edit. Add a second or so to the record side if your camcorder’s
lag time is too long.
Without a controller, maintaining precision with this system gets tricky. You might have edits that
happen two to three seconds early or late.
As with in-camera editing, knowing the lag times of your playback and record VCRs will improve
accuracy. Be sure to measure those times before you perform any edits.
Even if you know exactly how much time your machines need to make edits, reliably triggering them to
compensate for that lag is difficult indeed.
You can make it easier by watching or listening for a cue on the source tape. For example, someone
might enter or leave the previous scene, or speak the last few words of a sentence just before the edit
Instead of trying to count exact seconds before the edit, use that audio or video cue as your sign to
It’s hardly an exact science. Once again, practice will make this technique more precise. At best, you
can expect edits to happen within a second of the desired point. Not great, but it’s more flexible than in-
Working with Audio
Whether it’s a piece of music or a little narration to help the story along, adding new audio tracks is an
easy way to dress up even the simplest video project. Too bad so many consumer video formats make
doing that so difficult.
All VHS and S-VHS tapes can record up to three audio channels–one linear and two hi-fi. However,
you can only change what’s on the linear audio channel because camcorders encode the hi-fi tracks into the
video signal as they record the image. If you tried to dub to the hi-fi tracks, you would erase the video.
Audio dubbing replaces the existing linear audio with your new soundtrack. Any original sound on the
linear track gets erased when you start the audio dub process.
For that reason, make sure that you do indeed have sound on the hi-fi channels before you proceed with
audio dubbing. (A switch labeled “Monitor” or “Audio Out” on your camcorder or deck will let you verify
the hi-fi audio.) Otherwise, you may end up destroying the only original audio you have on tape.
8mm and Hi8 decks don’t have linear audio tracks and so in most cases don’t offer audio dubbing at all.
Only high level Hi8 equipment offers PCM audio that you can dub to. When dubbing to Hi8 PCM tracks,
you can use the same VHS dubbing tips mentioned here.
If you don’t have a camcorder or edit deck capable of dubbing audio, and you want to add audio to your
tape, you’ll have to copy your edited master footage to another tape and mix in the new audio while the
Regardless of your tape format, if you’re doing any audio work, a mixer is a very handy tool to help
keep things sounding their best. If you’re dubbing audio from one tape to another, be sure to run the
playback audio output into the mixer, and the mixer output into the record deck. Then you can adjust the
mixer faders to compensate for excessively high or low sound levels on the original tape. Plug your other
sound sources (cassette decks, CD players, microphones, other VCRs, etc.) into the other available mixer
inputs. Be sure to cue up whatever music or sound effects you want, and have them ready to trigger on the
Keep the fader controls for secondary sound sources down until a moment before the sound should
come in. When you see or hear the cue, quickly trigger the source and bring the fader up smoothly until it
sounds right to your ear.
As with video edits, it’s always a good idea to practice making audio edits before working on a critical
Many decks don’t allow you to adjust the level of the various audio tracks during playback. In those
cases, you’ll need to mix the soundtracks at the right level as you edit. The only way to know the right
level for your system is to do a few audio edits, and then trust your ear to tell you if it’s mixed right.
Making It Work for You
Always remember that the story is the most important part of any video project. Use the technology to
tell a story, not just to use the technology. It doesn’t matter whether you use the simple in-camera edit or a
$10,000 frame-accurate edit suite; the story must motivate the edits you make or the project won’t entertain
After a while, you’ll probably grow tired of pressing the tiny buttons on your camcorder and VCR to
make edits. The poor precision these systems force you to deal with will get old, too.
At that point, you’ll have much more incentive to get a nice edit controller. You’ll also know more
about how a dedicated controller can improve your work.
Those two bits of knowledge will help you make a much more informed purchase. Until then, make the
most of these simple edit techniques. They work!