Standard consumer editing gear often doesn’t include much in the way of high-end features. This is often
an annoying wake-up call for videomakers who dream of expanding their creative and technical
capabilites. Rewinding and resetting counters each time you change tapes or remaking edits because the
decks slipped and cut scenes short can try the patience of even the most dedicated editors.
If these frustrations sound familiar, consider upgrading to time code editing. While not necessary for
every videomaker, time code can give you back the time you waste fussing with little flaws in non-time
In these pages, we’ll cover the reasons why time code helps you work more effectively and efficiently.
We’ll also discuss several different ways you can add time code to your current production setup. Then it’s
up to you to decide if the benefits are worth the extra cash you’ll have to spend to get them.
Why Time Code Helps
Time code editing gives you a consistent way to reference specific scenes on a videotape. In a system
without time code, you usually refer to the location of scenes by using tape counter numbers. Those
numbers usually relate to the start of the tape, where you reset the counter to zero.
The technique works as long as that tape stays in the machine. When you change tapes, however, you
lose the relationship between the counter number and the position on the tape.
Time code, on the other hand, records a unique address consisting of the hour, minute, second and
frame number for each frame on the tape. The number doesn’t change for that frame, and it
doesn’t go away unless you record over the tape.
You can find exactly where a scene starts and stops by referencing the time code numbers. As long as
you play the tape in a deck capable of reading and displaying time code, you can find the exact scenes
quickly and easily.
Because each frame on a time-coded tape has a unique address, your edit controller can also find those
frames much more precisely.
In a VHS-style control track system, the edit controller marks frames by counting control track pulses as
the tape rolls. In a preroll, the controller doesn’t recognize specific frames as it winds the tape back.
Instead, it simply counts the number of frames relative to the edit in-point. (8mm systems use a similar
When VCR mechanisms shuttle the tapes back and forth, the tape itself pulls away from the heads and
occasionally slips one way or the other. That means the place where you marked the in-point moved, but
the edit controller doesn’t know this. The result: edits happen either too early or too late.
In practice, control track or 8mm counter editors can be quite accurate. But with time code, controllers
use frame numbers to find specific places on the tape. With these numbers, they can preroll tapes and
trigger edits more precisely than with control track. If the tape physically slips, the machine will adjust
until it again reads the time code number it wants. Accuracy is therefore greatly improved.
Making the Move
If you’re seriously considering moving beyond the world of control track or tape counter editing,
expect to spend some money on source and edit VCRs and maybe even camcorders that work with time
Before you start choosing machines, however, you should know what time code standards are available
Hi8 users have two choices: Sony’s Rewritable Consumer Time Code (RCTC) and 8mm Professional
time code. You’ll only find the latter on certain professional Hi8 machines like Sony’s EVO-9850.
S-VHS owners can choose control track linear (CTL) time code, currently supported by JVC’s Edit
Desk system, standard SMPTE vertical interval time code (VITC) or linear time code (LTC).
It’s not critical for you to understand the minute technical differences between these time code
standards. They all do essentially the same thing: mark each frame with an hour, minute, second and frame
However, you do need to know a few things about how each system records time code on tape so you
can make the proper choices when upgrading your equipment.
Recording Time Code on Tape
The easiest way to record time code numbers on your tapes is to buy a camcorder with a time code
generator built-in. With this setup, the camcorder records the frame numbers while you roll tape. When you
finish the shoot, just pop the tapes into the machines and edit away.
You can find both Hi8 and S-VHS camcorders that generate some form of time code. You can also buy
a separate time code generator that plugs into one of your camcorder’s line-level audio inputs, if you have
If your camcorder doesn’t generate time code, or if you have older footage you’d like to use in a time
code system, you have other options.
Some Hi8 edit decks and camcorders have a feature called time code dub, which lets you add RC time
code to a previously-recorded tape. You might hear it called post-striping. It’s a great way to get time code
precision when editing with older tapes.
Unfortunately, S-VHS users don’t have it so easy. To post-stripe an S-VHS tape, you have to use LTC,
or linear time code.
LTC requires an available linear audio track to work, and most S-VHS systems have only one. Putting
LTC on the linear track destroys any prior linear audio, and leaves you with only the sound from the hi-fi
channels (if you have them). While this works for source tapes, it might make audio editing difficult on
That’s not your only choice. Some pro S-VHS decks support two linear audio channels. That means you
could use LTC and still have an open channel for audio editing.
JVC’s Edit Desk gets around the LTC problem by using a different time code format called CTL time
code and recording it on a separate individual track.
CTL gives you precision while preserving audio channels for editing. It’s not compatible with other
time codes, however.
If you’re an S-VHS user, and LTC doesn’t sound like the answer, you can try using VITC, or vertical
interval time code.
Instead of recording time code on a linear audio track, VITC encodes the numbers in the "hidden"
vertical interval of a video frame. Like JVC’s CTL, VITC gives you all the precision without sacrificing an
VITC does have a drawback: permanence. Since it’s recorded "inside" the original video signal, it can’t
be added or changed after the shoot without losing a generation. The only way to add VITC is to dub the
original footage down a generation while recording new time code on the dub.
Now that you know the different time code standards and how they’re recorded, it’s time to plan how you can upgrade your present gear.
Planning the Upgrade
A basic edit system needs a player VCR, an edit VCR and a controller. Depending on the time code
format you choose and the gear you already own, you may end up buying one of each.
If your camcorder doesn’t have a time code generator, you have four options for generating time code
on your tapes.
- You can buy a new camcorder that records time code.
- If you can’t afford this, you could add a separate time code generator to your current camcorder. To use
it, plug the generator output into a line-level audio input, if your camcorder has one.
- You can buy a time code generator that adds VITC time code to a video line. You can use your
camcorder as a camera only and place the time code generator between the camcorder and the deck.
- You can choose a time code format that allows post-striping, such as LTC, RCTC or CTL. Choosing
RCTC or CTL, however, will require purchasing a deck that can post-stripe time code.
New Source Deck
Next, consider the source or playback deck.
If your camcorder has a generator/reader built-in, it might also work as your playback deck. While not
the most elegant solution, it can save you the cost of buying a separate playback deck.
As we said before, you can dub linear time code to the linear audio channel of your VHS or S-VHS
deck. Now you can use the deck as a source machine in a time code editing setup, right? Not so fast! Very
few decks have a separate output for the linear audio channel, so you couldn’t access the time code. And
besides, if your deck doesn’t have special time code editing circuitry, you couldn’t control it with time code
If you choose VITC and you’d rather not use the camera as a source deck, you’ll need to either
buy a VITC-compatible deck or run the VITC-encoded video signal through a VITC-to-LTC converter.
This solution may cause problems with some controllers. Be sure to "test drive" the converters before you
Hi8 users without an RCTC-capable camcorder need to look at source decks that both read and post-
Edit Decks and Controllers
Along with ways to generate and play back time code from your tapes, you also need an edit deck that
uses time code. For both Hi8 and S-VHS users, this may likely mean buying a new VCR.
As far as controllers go, you’ll need one that uses the time code format you choose and controls your
source and edit decks. If you’re using an older controller that only supports either infrared or proprietary
cable control, you may need to add a controller to the list of things to buy.
To ease the move into time code editing, some manufacturers offer packaged systems that include a
time code format in the original design. That means no extra worries about generators, readers or
For example, JVC makes the Edit Desk, which uses the S-VHS format. Sony and Panasonic make pro
S-VHS decks that support two audio channels as well as VITC and LTC.
Sony also makes Hi8 editing combinations that work with RCTC.
Two cautions with these systems: price and compatibility. They don’t come cheap–usually well into the
thousands of dollars for two machines and a controller.
Also, while they work wonderfully by themselves, they may not generate tapes compatible with other
time code editing systems.
Time Code Trickery
Tighter editing precision isn’t the only benefit you get from time code. If you make video for profit,
time coded tapes can give you a major edge over your competitors who use control track or tape counter
One of the most valuable things you can do with time code is generate something called a window burn.
It’s essentially a dub of time-coded raw footage with a small window superimposed or "burned" on the
picture. Frame numbers appear inside the window as the tape rolls.
If you work on projects where the client needs to choose the scenes to put in the finished show, a
window burn can make the job of logging the scenes much easier for both of you. Your client simply jots
down the exact start and stop numbers of each scene they like. During the edit, you’ll find the takes and
angles they chose by using those numbers. No more counters, no more confusion.
Not all time code systems can generate a window burn. If yours doesn’t, you can buy a separate window
burn generator that will do the job.
If you shoot projects with two cameras, you know how tough it is to sync them together during an edit.
No matter how hard you try, you always seem to end up with lip-sync problems on the edit master.
Try setting up each camera with a portable time code generator. Many companies make small portable
generators that you can connect together, causing them to produce the same time code addresses for both
With the same time code numbers on each tape, you can easily find what each camera operator
was shooting at a specific point. You don’t need to fuss with trying to match action or sounds.
Of course, you’ll need two time code capable source decks and a compatible controller to edit the final
program. For those who make a living shooting events with two cameras, however, the price is well worth
it, because matching each tape’s time code can make lip-sync problems all but vanish.
Do You Need Time Code?
While every camcorder owner would probably love the luxuries a time code editing system offers, not
every camcorder owner needs one. In fact, unless you’re doing projects for people other than your own
friends and family, the expense of a time code upgrade may not be justified.
If, however, you do projects for business or professional clients, or if you aspire to these goals in the
near future, time code should appear somewhere in your long-term plans.
Until full-resolution desktop editing systems become the standard, we’ll continue to edit on videotape.
As long as tape remains a viable medium, time code will continue as the standard for precision cataloging
and edit control.
So if you truly want to take your equipment arsenal to the next level, you’ll need to consider upgrading
to time code.