Whether it’s to condense the five tapes of last
year’s road trip onto one reel, or to assemble the promo video for a local company, most camcorder users
need a way to edit.
When even the best of us shoot video, we end up with somewhere between a handful and a bucket of
shots best suited for the cutting room floor. Shaky close-ups, boring zooms or static shots that might as
well be still photos show up in all of our work from time to time.
Editing systems let us weed out the dull moments to create a more potent version of the original
If you’ve got two VCRs (or a VCR and a camcorder) and some quick pause-button fingers, you already
have a basic editing system to get the job done. Beware: this may force you to deal with the quirks of the
VCRs instead of the aesthetic impact of your video.
Adding an edit controller can make clipping and keeping the good moments in your videos much easier,
and the finished product will be much easier to look at.
If you’re in the market for an edit controller, read on. You’ll learn what to consider as you shop, and
how to get the most from the one you buy.
How Edit Controllers Work
A basic edit system usually has either one camcorder and one VCR, or two VCRs. One serves as the
source machine, the other the record, or edit machine.
To edit a video, you play the scenes you want to keep from the original tape in the source machine. You
record them on a master tape in the edit machine.
Editing with a system like this involves a lot of pausing, cueing and starting the VCRs by hand to record
each scene on the master tape. You have to learn how the VCRs stop and start the tapes so you can make
an edit happen at the correct place.
If you misjudge how the machine handles the tape, you either cut a scene short or let it run a little too
An edit controller takes much of that guesswork out of the process. It works on the same two-machine
principle, but it shuttles and cues the tapes for you. You just pinpoint the scenes you want to keep, and the
controller makes the edit happen.
Edit controllers also make editing more precise. They control the machines more carefully than you can
by hand. This results in clipping fewer scenes short or long on your edited tape.
Your VCRs connect to an edit controller using either a special cable or an infrared remote link. Once
connected, the controller operates your VCRs using an electronic language called a protocol.
When shopping for a controller, make sure the one you buy supports the protocol your camcorders and
Protocols differ with manufacturers and tape formats. The popular protocols on camcorders and VCRs
are Sony’s Control-L and Panasonic’s Control-M.
Control-L is most common on Hi8 machines, although a few Sony S-VHS VCRs use it. Control-L
connects an editor to your machines using a cable with 1/8-inch mini phone plugs.
Control-M is Panasonic’s proprietary system used on the AG-1960, AG-1970 and other S-VHS models.
It uses a special cable to connect the machine and controller.
Most edit controllers use either the VCR’s time counter or control track as a reference when marking
scenes on the tape. Some can also read time code tracks, which gives them near-perfect precision when
making edits. Of course, your source and edit VCRs need to support time code as well for the controller to
make use of it.
Some stand-alone and computer-based edit controllers go beyond simply shuttling and cueing the
VCRs. Some let you store time code numbers for each scene you select on a disk or in memory for future
use. They may also have one or more GPI (general purpose interface) connections which will trigger
outboard mixers and digital effects machines. A few add titling and audio mixing themselves.
Just talking about features and functions isn’t enough to help you decide which edit controller is best
for you. To find the right one, think about how much you know about editing, and how much editing you
plan to do.
If this is your first edit controller, don’t scare yourself away by getting a complex one designed for
seasoned editors. Start with a small, capable model to help teach the aesthetics of editing, as well as
Look for a system with simple controls, and not too many of them. It should support whatever
camcorders or VCRs you have.
The Videonics Thumbs Up ($199) is a good entry-level controller for those just starting to edit. It
features enough control to help you put shows together with very little hassle. It has a 62-edit memory and
can also work with time code if your decks support it. Edit protocols are Control-L for the source and
infrared for the recorder.
Canon’s ED-100 Video Editor ($270) also supports Control-L and gives first-time editors the control
they need to cut out the boring or bad scenes.
For More Advanced Users
If you’ve already edited your share of programs the hard way, consider a system with more bells and
whistles to get your shows really moving.
A controller with more memory can keep track of your creative decisions, and let you go back and
change things if a given sequence doesn’t work.
If you have more than two VCRs, consider getting a controller that handles more than two decks. With
it, you can add more sophisticated transitions and layers to your videos.
A computer-based edit controller is worth thinking about if you have a home computer. In these
systems, hardware plugs into the computer that lets you control your tape machines with the keyboard or
mouse. The computer’s memory and hard disk store edit points, scene information and sometimes even
scripts and storyboards.
If you plan to use a stand-alone titler or an audio or video mixer, get a controller that can trigger them
during an edit. Make sure these items, and the controller, have the GPI triggers already mentioned. It will
keep you from having to push too many buttons as you build complex parts of a show.
Also keep your eyes open for edit controllers that include basic titlers in the package. This is a great way
to make two major improvements in your work with only one purchase, depending on the quality
of the built-in titler.
Most high-end stand-alone edit controllers cost between $600 and $5000, depending on features and
who the manufacturer is.
Sony’s RM-E700 controller ($1000) works with any Control-L, Control-S or infrared controlled VCR
or camcorder. It includes a basic titler, and reads 8mm RCTC (Rewritable Consumer Time Code).
The RM-E700’s most valuable feature: it can also make up for differences between source and record
VCRs, letting you edit between different formats with ease.
Sony also makes the XV-AL100 edit controller ($699), which comes with a basic titler and audio mixer
built in. The unit offers Control-L protocol on both sides, and infrared control as well on the record side. It
can store up to 20 scenes in its memory.
Panasonic makes the AG-570 and AG-A96 controllers. The AG-A96 ($570) works in tandem with
Panasonic’s popular AG-1960 and AG-1970 decks. The AG-570 ($700) works with a set of AG-5700
portable S-VHS decks. While neither support Control-L or infrared protocols, they work very well with
their intended partner VCRs.
JVC makes the RM-G860U ($3709) which works only with S-VHS decks that support either 9-pin or
45-pin connections. It also supports triggering of two stand-alone devices, such as a titler or switcher.
Videonics makes the Edit Suite ($699), perhaps the most versatile edit controller available. It supports
Control-L, Control-M infrared and professional VCR protocols. It stores up to 250 scenes in a non-volatile
memory that holds data even when you switch off the power.
Once It’s Hooked Up
Editing novices and experts alike might expect a new controller to transport them instantly into
editing nirvana. Len Marinaccio, a public access producer, says that approach can quickly take the fun out
of making videos. He’s spent over six years working with video gear, including both consumer and
professional edit controllers.
He says the first and most important thing to expect from your edit controller is a learning curve. After
the initial frustration, though, he says you’ll be amazed at the power they now have in their hands.
Marinaccio also has tips to help both novices and pros get the most from an editing system.
He cautions users away from setting multiple edit points in memory ahead of time, especially if the
controller isn’t using time code.
"Some of these slip pretty badly and can really miss on edit points. Just do one at a time," he
Editing audio on low-end edit decks and controllers causes videomakers the most aggravation.
Marinaccio has a few suggestions to get as much as you can from what seems like an unforgiving
He recommends starting with an audio mixer that has VU meters. "This will allow you to easily preview
all your audio levels and will save the re-cutting of scenes because your levels didn’t match," he says.
On VHS and S-VHS hi-fi systems, he suggests mixing all program audio and sound effects to the hi-fi
tracks. This leaves the linear track open for a continuous music bed.
He notes that during playback, with the hi-fi and linear audio mixed together, you may find that the
levels don’t sound right.
To fix the problem, you have to re-insert the music on the linear track at a different level. "Keeping that
track otherwise clear is a big help," he says.
He also suggests using visual cues to mark audio edit points, since most machines don’t allow you to
monitor audio in search mode. Resetting the counter at the right moment can also serve as a marker for
audio editing, but only if your deck doesn’t automatically end the edit when the counter hits zero.
Another of Marinaccio’s tips is to avoid re-doing edits too many times.
"High-end systems are very forgiving about having to re-do edits," he notes. "Prosumer systems, with
their less-than-exact nature, force you to leave wider tolerances, thereby invading adjacent scenes." If
you’re in doubt, try re-doing an edit a couple of times and see what’s left.
Marinaccio’s best advice is to plan your projects ahead of time so your show needs only minimal
editing. He says planning a shoot with your limitations in mind can save a lot of hassle.
Anyone who’s spent just a few hours working with a consumer video edit system knows that while
they can get the job done, there’s room available for improvement.
Len Marinaccio hopes to someday see edit decks and controllers with features he can really use, not just
silly extras many companies add to their gear. Among the items on his wish list: standard RS-232 and RS-
422 protocols, which would open a broad range of edit control options.
"It isn’t really any harder to do, it’s much more universally accepted and it’s much nicer than Control-
L," he says.
He’d also like to see important editing switches like counter reset or audio monitor mode included on
the front panel of VCRs, not just the remote.
Despite drawbacks, today’s edit systems offer a tremendous amount of power and control for the
money. If creating your own productions intrigues you, check out what’s on the market. You’ll likely find
something to fit your needs.
As you shop, you may decide to buy a more advanced edit deck to get the most from the newest
Features like insert audio edits, two-channel audio editing and split audio and video editing depend
more on the features of the VCR than the edit controller. If you’re current edit deck can’t handle those
functions, the edit controller won’t let you perform them.
Whatever you choose, try to get beyond the technical side of running the edit controller as soon as you
can. The fun of editing isn’t in pushing the buttons, but instead in creating an entertaining show.
Focus on ways to make watching the show more fun, and then learn ways to make the controller
perform the necessary technical tricks. You’ll make better video that way, and who knows–you may even
have a good time as you tackle the learning curve.