Editing: Digital Spaghetti

Before a couple gets married, they often find they have to reach basic agreements on some fundamental issues like finances, religion and raising the kids. In our house, it was wiring.

My then wife-to-be took one look at my stacks of audio and video gear and the morass of wires hanging behind every component and sat me down for a nice long talk. I learned that in her world, subtleties such as hiding the wiring might be as important as getting it to function correctly. Who knew?

So in the interest of promoting domestic peace, I present my personal Top Ten Tips for setting up, hooking up and making it easy for everyone in your house to live with a video editing computer system.

10. Plan Ahead

Even though digital production gear continues to get smaller and smaller, a working editing rig still is going to take up a good chunk of space. Before you put a single component in place, it’s a good idea to sit down and plan everything on paper. A good system plot will plan how your overall editing rig will be positioned in the room, provide a top-down look at how the gear will sit on your editing surface and can even plan how the equipment will be stacked on your desktop. Will that window reflect in the monitor? Will you need to run extension cords past doorways? Will a small, medium or large edit desk be the best fit for the room? If you want both your computer monitor and your video monitor front and center, how will you stack them?

9. Sound Matters

No, I’m not talking about recording or playing back your program’s audio tracks here. That’s also important, but what I’m talking about here is the noise that your editing system creates. Have you ever thought about it?

A few years back I was editing when we had a power outage. What startled me as much as the sudden darkness was the sound of my system winding down. Between computers, disc drives and VTRs, I had at least eight equipment fans running while I edited. And they were loud. After researching sound-friendly computer housings and racks, I was able to cut down the noise considerably. That’s some of the best money I’ve spent, since it makes a difference in my working environment every day.

8. Hide It if You Can

Whether you’re comfortable with a snake pit of cabling drooping down behind your edit desk is an individual call. Some folks feel that carefully coiled cables are a sign of someone who takes their craft seriously. Others feel that good wiring is wiring that works, regardless of what it looks like, and folks with neat wiring apparently have too much time on their hands.

Also think about where you will locate your edit system in the room. Would it be smart to keep all your pricey equipment away from prying eyes? I have a good friend who also makes his living editing video. His very sophisticated edit system lives in his living room. He has to be careful about inviting people over because anyone entering his home also enters his production studio. So when you decide where to set up your rig, the wise editor will consider both convenience and security.

7. Honor Your Butt (and Back)

Video editing is largely a sit down occupation and it’s amazingly easy to look up and find that you’ve been sitting in your chair for hours at a stretch. What you sit upon can have a big impact on your productivity. Thankfully, office chair manufacturing is a pretty competitive field and there are lots and lots of excellent task chairs that work wonderfully for video editing. Some, even, at very reasonable prices. You don’t need an executive show piece, but your chair will probably be around long after your current computer has been retired, so don’t skimp on the chair.

6. Where’s Your Camcorder

For many of us, at least one of our camcorders serves as a VTR, at least occasionally. Where is your camcorder going to go when it is in the edit bay? Today, it’s common in home studios to have the computer feed a camcorder via FireWire and then have the camcorder output to a television. In this arrangement, the camcorder functions not only as a video recorder/player, but also as a transcoder, translating the digital FireWire signals into analog signals suitable for feeding your monitor and speakers. What is displayed on your television monitor and speakers will always be what’s actually going out to tape.

5. The Joy of Patch

Sooner or later (most likely sooner), you’ll find yourself temporarily disconnecting something so that you can hook up something else. Maybe you want to run your system’s main video outputs to a client’s portable VCR or perhaps you need to run your program audio off to a MiniDisc or DAT. If it becomes a regular practice maybe it’s time you added a "patch bay" to your system.

Of course, today, they’re likely to be a digital router and will be a very sophisticated version of what patch bays have traditionally done. Whatever the device is called, it’ll have a bunch of inputs, a couple of outputs and some switches or knobs to control where the signal is going. Configured properly, they also keep you from having to dive under your edit desk to re-route stuff, which in turn will usually keep the lumps on your head down to a minimum.

4. The U Factor

Perhaps all you’ll have space for is a single flat rectangular table to hold your editing gear. If so, the typical setup is to locate your monitor and keyboard in the middle and arrange your main recorder, computer and any other critical gear such as your audio mixer on the sides. As you stack elements on the table, you’ll discover that if you push them all flat up against the wall, perhaps in an effort to have more open space on your table, you’ll spread out the gear and make it harder to get to.

A better arrangement is to slide the items on the far left and right slightly in toward the operator so that the controls are more accessible. This follows the "U" shaped arrangement you’ll most likely find in catalogs of furniture specifically designed for video editing.

Another useful trick in edit system design is the "monitor riser," an elevated shelf where computer and video monitors can be positioned allowing room for components such as decks, scopes and patch bays underneath.

3. If You Don’t Use It, Lose It

In my experience the best way to arrange equipment is to keep the things you use the most the closest. For a long time I had a scanner on my edit desktop. Then I realized that I only used the scanner a few times a year. So it got bumped to the closet. That freed up a bunch of desktop real estate. On those occasions when I do need it on a project, it’s easy to haul it out and hook it up. So look at your edit desk plan and, if you don’t use it, lose it.

2. Change Is Good

No matter how much you plan your edit system, one thing is certain. Sooner or later, you’ll want to change it. So why not plan for change? If you want neat wiring, will you accomplish it with permanent wire ties, drilling specific wire holes in your desktop and tacking up loose wires with a staple gun? Or will you use removable ties?

You can avoid drilling permanent holes by using slotted "lay in" cable trays that will be useful no matter how you rearrange your system. Planning for future change will bring big benefits, as will keeping in mind that the perfect editing suite for you today won’t necessarily be the perfect one for you tomorrow.

1. Label Everything

The best and easiest decision you’ll ever make in setting up your edit bay is learning to label everything clearly and accurately. This includes the connection points on the gear itself and separate labels on both ends of every patch cable, signal line and speaker connection. One day, when you have to slide under the desk to figure out why signal A isn’t getting to input B, those little wire markers, strips of masking tape or whatever you use will make the difference between frustration and delight.

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