Black-box workhorses may not be the glamour tools of the video world but theyre more necessary than your camcorder for making good video. Sure, you can spend a lot of time shooting footage, but until you enter the editing phase, your program is just a figment of your imagination. Editing allows you to reach into the ether and lay a coherent program down to videotape. In this column, well take a look at the heart of your edit suite–editing decks.

Videotape editing can happen at many levels. It can be simple deck-to-deck editing, in which you hook up two VCRs and use the pause button to perform cuts-only edits. You can also build your own edit "suite" that consists of an edit controller, one or more editing decks and possibly a computer and/or a special effects generator (SEG). Youll find that purchasing editing decks is a significant investment, usually running several thousand dollars. So before you plunk down your cash, lets take a look at what youre investing in when you buy an editing deck.

What Makes a VCR an Editing Deck?

Youd be hard-pressed to walk into your local consumer electronics store today and find a playback-only video cassette deck. Most consumer VCRs today allow you to either record television programs "off the air" or record audio and video signals from another source, such as a separate VCR. So why is it so important to invest in professional editing decks? Why cant you use consumer-grade VCRs that seem to do the job just fine? Well, you can, and many people do. But in order to use a consumer-level deck as an editing deck, you may have to find one that has many of the features commonly found on professional editing decksfeatures like jog/shuttle controls, time code, edit control protocols, etc. This means that in our discussion of editing VCRs, well include those consumer decks that include some of these features for the home video editor.


Consumer or professional, there are a few important features that mark the differences between ordinary VCRs and editing VCRs. First, editing decks offer advanced recording functions that allow you to do more than just lay audio and video down to tape. Second, most editing decks can connect to a whole host of editing components in a variety of ways. Finally, editing decks offer you other "bells and whistles" not available on ordinary VCRs. These characteristics are critical to smooth, seamless editing.

The Proof is in the Recording

The differences between ordinary VCRs and editing decks come into sharp focus when you look at their respective recording capabilities. Thats because an editing deck is defined not simply by its ability to record, but rather by the flexibility it provides when you record.

Like ordinary VCRs, editing decks allow you to record audio and video simultaneously, or in "sync" with one another. However, many editing decks also give you the freedom to record video independently without affecting audio, and vice-versa. This is referred to as "insert editing.”

Insert editing is truly at the heart of the editing process. Suppose youre creating a music video. Youve shot three segments you want to include. In a basic setup using two VCRs, you could record each scene one after the other, each with its respective ambient sound. What you would probably not be able to do is replace that audio later with your musical soundtrack. Why? Because most ordinary VCRs do not allow you to record audio and video independently of one another.

With an editing deck, on the other hand, an insert edit can solve your problem. Editing decks allow you to "insert" audio and video signals independently, each without affecting the other. You can record video without affecting audio; you can insert audio without altering your video. These advanced recording features define editing decks and separate them from their rental-playback and TV-timeshifting cousins.

Connectivity, Components and Compatibility

As you develop your edit suite, you are going to have to consider its overall configuration. For example, you might develop a conventional edit suite with one or more source decks feeding a master record deck via an edit controller. If desktop video editing has hooked you and youve made an investment in computer hardware and software, a nonlinear edit suite may suit you.

In any case, you must determine how your decks will work with each other and with the other components in your suite, such as audio equipment, monitors, computers, etc.

Perhaps the most important component in your suite apart from the decks is the edit controller. With an edit controller, you can harness the power of your editing decks and make them work effectively for you.

An edit controller is typically a stand-alone console from which you manage practically all of the functions of your various decks. An edit controller can also be a personal computer. The edit controller syncs up the activities of your decks to make sure that each edit is seamless. This kind of coordination, while it sounds simple, is no small task.

For precise coordination to happen, your decks must be able to “talk” with the edit controller. That means they all have to be able to understand the same electronic language, called a communication protocol. For your system to work properly, all of your components must understand the same protocol.

Communication protocols fall into two basic groups–universal and proprietary. Universal protocols allow a variety of components from a number of manufacturers to understand each other. An example of a universal protocol is RS-422. It allows video components to communicate with each other and it also facilitates the interface of editing components with computer control.

By comparison, only components made by the same manufacturer can understand proprietary protocols. For example, Sony has developed a protocol called Control-S; only Sony components can utilize and understand this protocol.

One way to be on the safe side is to try to develop a suite around components made by the same manufacturer. If your decks, edit controller, monitors, etc. are all made by the same company, you can be 99 percent sure they will be able to communicate with each other. However, not even this will guarantee that all of your gear will work together, so be sure to check out your potential gear thoroughly before you buy.

Hear the Bells Ring and the Whistles Blow

What else separates editing decks from ordinary VCRs? You can purchase editing decks with a number of options and accessories that are much more than just "bells and whistles." They contribute significantly to the overall usefulness of the deck. Lets look at a few of the more common accessories.

An important extra that youll find on many editing decks is the jog/shuttle dial. Unlike rewind and fast-forward, jog/shuttle allows you to view the video on a tape while moving the tape backward and forward at variable speeds. You can move it as fast as thirty times normal speed or as slow as a single frame at a time. You can also freeze on a single frame if you need to scrutinize it.

Most edit controllers also have jog/shuttle dials built into them. You can use this dial to jog the tape in any of the decks in your suite. In this case, the jog/shuttle dials on the decks themselves become necessary only in stand-alone applications when youre not using the controller.

You may have gotten the itch to build an editing suite because youve heard about the wonders of frame-accurate editing. That kind of accuracy is not possible, however, without the use of time code. Some editing decks come with time code generators/readers built right into them. With these components, you will have the ability to generate time code, record it to your tape and use it to edit with single-frame accuracy. By comparison, editing without time code results in an accuracy of plus or minus ten, fifteen, or even twenty frames or more.

If your introduction to editing was by deck-to-deck or camcorder-to-VCR dubbing, you may have noticed occasional glitches at the beginning of an edit. Glitches occur for many reasons, but occasionally they happen because the video signal becomes unstable during an edit. One way to avoid glitches is to get an editing deck that has a built-in time-base corrector (TBC). A TBC stabilizes your video signal throughout an edit, making sure that the edit is not only seamless, but also glitch-free.

No matter how good an editor you are, if the audio is poor or nonexistent, your program will become very boring very fast. You may want to add music or sound effects from a variety of sources–audio tape, CDs, the radio, etc. To be effective, however, you must mix your audio at the right level. After all, you dont want your music track to be so loud that it drowns out your narration.

Many editing decks come standard with audio level meters, sometimes called VU (volume unit) meters. These meters can be analog or digital, and if you have an advanced stereo system at home, youre no doubt already familiar with their use. They indicate visually what your ears may already be telling you–your audio is too loud, too soft or just right. Control knobs allow you to adjust the audio levels while you record.

Try Before You Buy

Before you make a buying decision, you might want to experiment with all the nifty gadgets on an editing deck by renting one. You can usually rent an entire editing system for only a couple hundred dollars a day. This may seem like a lot, but when you consider that you could be shelling out thousands for the edit suite of your dreams, $200 is a relatively small price to pay for preventive medicine.

Regardless of what you buy, the features afforded by professional editing decks will impress you. Your videos will become more polished and professional in appearance, and your audience will thank you for the increased quality of your productions.

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