- Videonics MXPro Digital Video Mixer
- Panasonic PV-A208 VHS-C Camcorder
- Sima SFX-M Digital Video Mixer
- Crystal Graphics 3D IMPACT! Pro 3D Title Creation and Rendering Software
- Dubner Scene Stealer Tape Logger
A Pro for the Masses
MXPro Digital Video Mixer
1370 Dell Ave.
Campbell, CA 95008
It’s been a long wait, but the MXPro, Videonics upgrade for the MX-1 video mixer, is finally here. The MX-1 has been a popular video mixer for consumer and prosumer video producers. We’ve all been wondering what kind of improvements the MXPro will have. Let’s take a look.
The MXPro is wider than the MX-1, and the sides of the case curve down instead of up. These physical changes make the MX-Pro much more comfortable to operate. The MXPro groups its variously sized and shaped buttons according to function, making it easy to operate by touch. The MXPro uses a T-bar (Take-bar), like the MX-1, but the MXPro includes a multi-function joystick used for setting colors and moving boxes in the "COMPOSE" function.
The MXPro is equipped with a new power supply. The main power switch is in a safely recessed area on the right side of the unit, making the MXPro hard to accidentally power-off in mid-production. It also sports a standard detachable three-prong AC power cord that’s easy to replace if it breaks.
The MXPro has four Y/C inputs (or S-video, with separate luminance and chrominance signals for a better picture) and four composite inputs (RCA). It accepts any combination of four Y/C or composite video input signals at one time, and four stereo audio inputs. The mixer supplies two Y/C or composite video output signals, but only one set of stereo audio outputs.
A Pro in Action
The MXPro, like the MX-1, uses a preview screen to displays needed system information. You can switch both the MX-1 and the MXPro’s preview display to a full screen, full resolution display of either the "CURRENT" source or the "NEXT" source. However, the MXPro has added two more preview screen options. One displays only the "CURRENT" and the "NEXT" source image next to each other with the first two rows of the "TRANSITIONS" menu underneath. In this view, the source images are larger and much easier to see than in the default display. The second option displays all four inputs, each fitting into one-quarter of the screen without the "TRANSITIONS" menu. The online source, denoted by a white square around the selected image, is a nice option when switching a four-camera production.
A Gold Mine of Transitions
Perhaps the biggest difference between the MXPro and the MX-1 is the increased number of transitions; 501 compared to 210. Many of the new transitions are outstanding. The most notable are the "SHAPE" transitions: circle, star, square, heart, diamond, keyhole and binocular. These shapes have many variations, from an expanding wipe to transitions that slide and bounce around the screen.
The quality of the edges of the shapes really impressed us. The borders around the shapes are anti-aliased very smoothly without the usual jagged edges. Other new transitions are "EDGE" and "TRAILING" transitions. "EDGE" transitions create a jagged or tearing edge across the screen, while wiping to a different source. The "TRAILING" transition leaves a trail behind the wipe that disappears once the transition is completed.
On the downside, when making a transition, the MXPro displays a time delay problem similar to the MX-1’s. When you move the T-bar or press the "PLAY" button (to perform a selected transition automatically), the MXPro must perform some processing. This processing delays the transition a fraction of a second. Unless you are careful while using the T-bar, you can easily move it half-way through its range before the effect appears. When the effect does appear, it begins partially completed, missing half of the transition. Most of the time it’s better to use the "PLAY" button. There is still a delay, but you get the entire effect.
Is it Better?
Many people want to know is if the MXPro is an improvement over the MX-1, and if it is a worthy upgrade. Yes it is an improvement, but whether the MXPro is worth upgrading to depends on how well the MX-1 is working for you.
While there are improvements in the quality of the MXPro’s signal processing over the MX-1, the big improvements are in its physical characteristics and its functions. Improvements in video signal processing are limited to the Y/C signal, which is now a 60dB S/N ratio and uses 10-bit sampling. The composite video signal specifications remain the same as the MX-1, with 56dB S/N ratio and 8-bit sampling. This means that if you use Y/C signal inputs you will have a slightly improved, higher quality image than you would with the MX-1 Y/C channel. The signal for composite video is the same.
The MXPro is easier to operate, more versatile and has better features then the MX-1. However, if the MX-1 is working for you, it may not be worth replacing just for these improvements.
Panasonic PV-A208 VHS-C Camcorder($500)
Panasonic Consumer Electronics
One Panasonic Way
Secaucus, NJ 07094
Not all videographers want to produce epic programs. Some simply want a good quality camcorder that is easy and convenient to use. To many people, all that counts is recording the vacation while still enjoying it or grabbing the camcorder to get a shot of the kids at play without having to set up a truckload of gear. Well, if you are part of this point-and-shoot crowd, Panasonic may have the camcorder for you.
Video at Your Fingertips
The PV-A208 is light and easy to handle. The right hand comfortably curves around the lens, and all the controls are right at your finger tips. The power switch, located at the back of the camcorder, is easy to reach with the thumb–allowing one handed operation. It’s a breeze to put the camcorder up to your eye, flip the power on with your thumb and start taping. A helpful feature is the automatic lens cap, which also helps the one-handed shooters. As soon as you put the power switch in the "CAMCORDER" position, the lens cap opens. At any other time, such as during VCR operation, the lens cap is closed.
The PV-A208 has a ½-inch color LCD viewfinder with the VCR controls ("PLAY," "FAST-FORWARD," "REWIND," "STOP" and "STILL") mounted on the bottom. At first this seems like an odd place for the VCR controls, requiring you to completely tilt the viewfinder over to operate the controls. This makes looking in the viewfinder nearly impossible. After a few minutes, however, it becomes apparent that the design of the button encourages operation with the thumb. Holding the viewfinder gently between index finger and thumb, all of the VCR controls are comfortably under the thumb and can be easily operated by touch.
Take the Point, and Shoot!
The PV-A208 is a great point-and-shoot camcorder, with automatic controls that performed well. The white balance was consistently accurate, even when we took the camcorder from bright sunlight into a room with fluorescent lighting, and then into another room with a tungsten light source. This is an important ability in a point-and-shoot camcorder that is often used in rapidly changing light sources.
The autoiris and autofocus also worked well, with one exception–the autofocus lagged a bit when panning from a close object to a distant one. It took the camcorder nearly three seconds to find focus in this situation.
If you like a little control, the PV-A208 will accommodate you. It has an eight-step high-speed shutter (from 1/60 of a second to 1/10000) which allows some exposure control for those action shots. It also has a manual focus knob mounted on the front under the lens, but using it can be tricky at times. To activate the manual focus you have to push in on the knob. At first this might seem like a good idea, but you may be frustrated after you turn manual focus on and off a few times when trying to focus in a hurry. It might have been a better idea to have put a separate on/off button next to the focus knob.
The four-speed zoom is easy to operate and has a neat feature that automatically slows the zoom to a smooth stop as the lens reaches the end of its zoom range. It does, however, make for a slight lag when starting a zoom. This feature helps make zooms much smoother. No more taking off at high speed at the start of a zoom, or coming to a screeching halt at the end of one.
Of course, the PV-A208 has a backlight control and a fade in/out feature. You can turn off the tally light on the front (if you don’t want people to know when you’re recording). One important feature in a point-and-shoot camcorder is a titler to add simple identifying titles to your home videos. The PV-A208 has what Panasonic calls an "Intelligent Titler." Besides being able to add your own custom titles, this camcorder has many pre-made holiday and special occasion titles, which can be selected at the touch of a button.
Easy To Control
All said and done, with its simple controls, automatic operation and compact size, the PV-A208 is a good little point-and-shoot camcorder–especially for the first time user.
In the Mix
SFX-M Digital Video Mixer ($600)
Sima Products Corporation
140 Pennsylvania Ave. Bldg. #5
Oakmont, Pennsylvania 15139
Until a few years ago, you could find only the ability to perform A/B-roll dissolves and wipes on professional special effects generators (SEGs). However, thanks to low-cost, digital time-base correctors (TBCs), we now have video mixers for the consumer.
The SFX-M digital video mixer is Sima’s latest upgrade of 1995’s Ed/it Digital Mixer. Although cosmetically and functionally the same, there are improvements in the operation of the mixer.
New and Improved
The most noticeable improvement is the addition of smoother sliders for transitional wipes or dissolves between video sources. There is also less video noise when using digital effects. The home video user that wants to include A/B-roll transitions and simple digital effects should certainly look at this low-cost video mixer.
With the on-board TBC feature, the SFX-M will synchronize two video sources allowing true A/B wipes and dissolves. The SFX-M will also do simple digital effects with additional features like still frame, strobe, mosaic, paint and color negative. In addition, this inexpensive mixer can also perform chromakey (which Sima calls blue key) and lumakey (luminance).
The SFX-M is simple to set-up. In fact, many will be tempted to forget about reading the short manual. However, we suggest you read it to understand how the buttons work when choosing the wipes and digital effects. The mixer has two video input channels (A and B) and each channel has a composite and an S-video input. The SFX-M has two output channels, each with composite and S-video, so you can record to two sources at once. Two composite monitor outputs are also included. There are stereo audio inputs and outputs as well. There are auxiliary stereo audio inputs for a separate music source and two microphone inputs.
Operation: Video First
There are five buttons for wipe patterns: one circle, two vertical and two horizontal, but there are more than five wipes available. You can use the buttons in combination to create more effects. An angle-adjust button, when used with the angle adjust slider, will change the angle of the wipe.
With a combination of multiple buttons and angle adjustments, you can make squares, triangles and even change a circle wipe to an oval.
The SFX-M has five basic digital effects: still, strobe, mosaic, paint and color negative. Like the wipe patterns, the digital effects can be combined by activating more than one effect at a time.
In addition to digital effects, the SFX-M includes chromakey and lumakey capabilities. Chromakey is the ability to shoot a subject in front of a colored background and electronically replace the colored portion of the image with video from a different source. This is similar to the way your local television station puts the meteorologist in front of the weather map. Lumakey is another flavor of key. However, it replaces the parts of the video image at a defined brightness with video from a different source. Both the chromakey and lumakey are adjustable.
Let There be Audio
For adding audio the SFX-M includes a simple audio mixer with five faders: one between A and B audio sources, another to fade-out the A/B mix, a third for the left and right mike inputs, a fourth for the separate music source and the last to fade-in and fade-out the entire audio mix.
Sliding into Action
The sliders all worked smoothly and displayed no jumping or jittering during the video transitions, an improvement over the previous version of the Ed/it mixer. The key effects work well, but don’t expect the quality of broadcast products.
Creative Hobby Tool
The most striking physical feature we noticed was the size of the mixer and the layout of its controls. Although it’s a small, inexpensive mixer, it’s large enough that big paws won’t smoother it. All of the controls are in a comfortable, natural position. We have used other mixers that were just too small to operate comfortably. While this is not the mixer for a busy prosumer looking to build a full time production business, it may be just the tool for the video hobbyist who is looking to expand his creativity a notch.
Crystal Clear Titles
Crystal 3D IMPACT! Pro ($99)
Crystal Graphics, Inc.
6650 Scott Blvd. Bldg. #14
Santa Clara, CA 95054
Creating three-dimensional flying titles, like those seen on broadcast television is the dream of many home video producers. Crystal Graphics may have made that dream a reality. This month we are going to look at Crystal Graphics 3D IMPACT! Pro, which brings the ability to create high-quality animated three-dimensional graphics to the PC platform.
To run the program you will need a computer with at least a 486 CPU and 16MB of RAM. Crystal Graphics recommends at least a Pentium[TM] CPU, and 64MB (or more) of RAM for optimum performance. You will also need a minimum of 50MB of free hard disk space (over 120MB of free hard disk space is recommended) and, because the program comes on a CD-ROM, you will need a CD-ROM drive. The system we used in our test was a Pentium[TM] 133MHz CPU, with 32MB of RAM, a SCSI hard drive, and Windows 95 for the operating system.
3D IMPACT! Pro loaded quickly and easily. A nice feature is the group of built-in Internet links, which take you to the Crystal Graphics Web site, a chat room for users and a "tips and tricks" site.
When you first start the program, you get the option of using the "Auto Content Wizard," which will walk you through creating your first 3D animation. We recommend you do this to learn the process and have some fun. With the "Auto Content Wizard," we designed our first 3D animated graphic in just 15 minutes.
The first step is to select a template. The program includes a number of basic templates designed for both Web and video use. Choose the template that meets the mood you wish to create, then press "NEXT" (you can backup and change things at anytime) and go on to "Text Entry," where you can type your title. Once entered, you can change the font, size and justification of the text in real-time. Being able to see the changes as you make them is a great feature.
The next step, beveling, is what gives the text its third dimension and forms the computer model of the text. There are 10 pages of bevel types with 12 variations of each type (120 bevels). You can also change the bevel depth (how thick the letters are from front to back), bevel just the front (the default) or apply the bevel to the front and the back of the text.
After creating the 3D text, you need to assign it a texture. This is what makes the text look real. In the "Apply Materials" menu, you get to decide the texture of the text. Once again there are 120 different materials to choose from, including: metal (gold, chrome, brass and copper), marble (various colors and types), stone, fabric, wood, plastic, or effects like water, crystal and luminescent.
Move the Words
Once the 3D text model is complete, you have to decide how it will move. In the "Apply Motion" menu, there are, once again, 10 pages of 12 predefined motions for the text to follow. This section will probably take the most time, it did for us. You pick a motion, then watch the preview to see just what it will do (with 120 choices it may take a few minutes to decide). When you’ve picked the one you want, just press "NEXT" and you’re done designing.
When your design is completed, 3D IMPACT! Pro will show you a preview of your finished sequence. If you don’t like the way the preview looks, press "BACK" to make changes. If you’re happy with it, press the "FINISH" button. It took us 15 minutes to get to this point.
Building the Frames
What about rendering? Will it take all night? The animation we designed was one word, flying into the frame in a straight line. We went to the "Make Movie" menu under "Animation," set the length of the animation to one second, left the frame rate at 30 frames per second (it is adjustable from one to 72 frames per second), and then pressed the "OK" button. It took 18 minutes to build a one second .AVI animation. At that rate, a 30 second animation would take nine hours. Yeah, all-night rendering on all but the fastest machines.
3D IMPACT Pro! has plenty of tools for creative control. It’s possible to use different types of virtual lights and place the lights in almost any location in relation to the text. There are plenty of pre-made objects and shapes in the program that you can use and you can import objects created in other modeling programs. You can import a two-dimensional graphic file (like a logo) and make it 3D–a nice feature.
The program will output images in many formats including .GIF, .JPG, .PNG, .AVI, sequential TGA (with NTSC video color correction) and video backgrounds (using .AVI or sequential .TGA files).
3D Titles at Home
The big networks will probably never use Crystal Graphics 3D IMPACT! Pro for making 3D flying titles, but they could! The important thing is that for a modest investment and the use of an ordinary PC, it’s possible for the average home video producer to make some impressive looking 3D animated titles. Best of all, it’s fun to use.
Scene Stealer ($960)
Dubner International Inc.
13 Westervelt Place
Westwood, New Jersey 07675-1921
You’ve finished shooting your epic video, now the real work begins — sorting through boxes of raw footage and logging everything. Dubner International decided there should be an automated way to accomplish this task, and developed the Scene Stealer scene detector/logger software.
The hardware installation is a breeze. All you need is a 386 or above PC with one ISA slot (for the Scene Stealer) and one PCI slot (for the color board). The software installation requires the user to complete the operation, making it a hassle. For products in this price range, installation should be totally automated. The poorly written manual further hinders installation and operation of the program.
Logs and More
Although it captures images and audio, the Scene Stealer is primarily a database. In addition to sorting, building storyboards, and printing images, Scene Stealer allows you to export data to Microsoft Access and to the Nesbit Systems Inc. Media Library System. The program enables you to build a storyboard and create an EDL (edit decision list) for use with CMX systems and a list for use when batch digitizing clips with D/Vision editing systems.
There are many database programs to keep track of tape log information. The Scene Stealer, however, does more. This hardware/software combination scans your video footage, digitizes frames (at pre-determined intervals), marks them with time code addresses and saves the images to the hard drive. The Scene Stealer is designed to mark every scene change with a "cut" notation. And, it does this unattended.
Don’t confuse the Scene Stealer with a video capture card. It doesn’t capture and save high quality, running video. It captures low-resolution, monochrome or color still frames. If you have a sound card, it captures audio.
For color capture, Dubner supplies a miro video card. Unfortunately, we experienced problems with device driver conflicts when trying to use color (we’ve heard others also experienced this problem). Dubner recommends reinstalling Windows to solve the problem. We simply decided to use the monochrome mode, since it uses less hard drive space and color is not necessary for logging. Unfortunately, there is not a monochrome only version of the program available.
Ready, Set, Log
The program, however, is simple to use. First, you must define a few parameters. The type of time code used, if any, must be set. Scene Stealer uses any time code and reads it directly through COM ports. However, it also supports the PreVue Technology LTC Reader Board and the Adrienne Electronics LTC Reader Boards.
Another parameter is the sample interval, or how often the program captures a frame. The interval is preset with a default of one image out of every 30 frames displayed (one image every second). The rate is adjustable from one image for every 99 frames displayed, to one image for every one frame displayed (the quickest our hardware could capture was one image every six frames). Remember though, the more frames you grab per second, the more hard drive space you use (16,564 bytes per image for monochrome and 57,600 bytes for color).
You can also set the Scene Stealer to stop capturing after a specific time limit, or to run forever (it will stop automatically when there’s less then 100,000 bytes of free disk space.)
Grab a Scene
Grabbing footage is easy. Pull down the "Grab" menu and choose the "Grab" sub-menu. Select a directory, type in a file name, roll your tape and press "OK." The program starts logging as soon as you press "OK."
You’ll see a display of the video in the "Grab" window and another display telling you the number of grabbed images and the amount of bytes used.
After grabbing, Scene Stealer will shift to the "Display" page, where you will see the frames and a tool bar that looks like VCR control buttons. You can scan forward or backward through the frames, shuttle forward to the next frame marked as a cut (viewing all of the frames in between as you go) or you can jump right to the next cut mark. Check your marks though, we found that the Scene Stealer was sometimes off a frame or two when marking scene changes, and occasionally missed a scene change altogether.
The images will have the corresponding time code number displayed on the bottom. If time code is not used, the Scene Stealer assigns a reference number that you can re-calibrate at a later date. Re-calibrating allows you to match the frame numbers in Scene Stealer with the frame numbers on a window dub.
There’s also a text box connected with each frame for notes and scene descriptions. If you capture audio (using Creative Labs SoundBlaster[TM]-compatible board for Windows 3.1.[TM] or any Windows-compatible sound card for Windows 95[TM]), the program will show a graphic display of the audio waveform, this display is necessary when setting cut marks according to audio cues.
Telling a Story
Choosing the "Storyboard" option will open a new window underneath the "Master Reel" window where you can drag and drop copies of scenes from the "Master Reel" window to create a storyboard. You can trim and adjust the scenes, and play the storyboard to check the changes (playing a storyboard will animate the frames captured and play the audio). We found it best to use the audio display for trimming scenes with dialog. To create an EDL or text file for the Nesbit Media Library System close the Scene Stealer files and the program will automatically create the needed files and store them on your hard drive. The EDL could then be loaded into any program that uses a CMX type of EDL.
Easing Your Burden
While easing the task of logging tapes, the Scene Stealer doesn’t eliminate it. The Scene Stealer does, however, move the work from the video deck and notepad to the computer, where it’s more efficient. The ability to make playable storyboards and EDLs directly from the raw footage log is great but the difficult installation makes this a program only for techno-savvy videographers.
Strobe, mosaic, flips and posterize
Chromakey and compose
501 different transitions in five groups: Basic, Edges, Trailing, Shapes and User.
Black, white, gray, red, yellow, green, bright blue, light blue, purple and medium blue-green. All but black can be user modified.
Freeze frame, joystick for variable PiP location (with compose) audio mixer.
Composite: (4x), S-video(Y/C): (4x),
Stereo (4x), RCA connectors
Preview: composite (1x), Main: composite (2x), S-video (2x)
Stereo (1x), headphones (stereo jack with mono signal)
Meets broadcast specs of CCIR-601 sampling and RS-170A
Y/C: 10-bit, composite: 8-bit
480 TV lines
Video S/N ratio
60dB (Y/C) 56dB (composite)
Audio S/N ratio
16.6-inches x 9.5-inches x 3-inches
Panasonic PV-A208 Camcorder
23:1 optical zoom (3.8-87.4mm), four-speed power zoom, f/1.6, inner focus
1/4-inch, 270,000 pixels
Auto, push-button manual
Maximum shutter speed
Auto, manual (through high-speed shutter), backlight compensation
Fade in and out.
1/8-inch stereo mini phone plug to mono audio/composite video (RCA-style)
7.1 (width) x 3.8 (height) x 3.5 (depth) inches
Weight (sans tape and battery)
Video Performance (approx.)
Horizontal resolution (camera): 300
Horizontal resolution (playback): 250
Pause to record: 1 second
Power-up to record: 4 seconds
Fast-forward/rewind (20 min. tape): 4.5 minutes
A fun-to-use VHS-C camcorder with average image quality
Sima SFX-M Video Digital Mixer
Built-in full frame, dual-field time base corrector
Dissolves, A/B-wipes, blue key and lumakey
Still, strobe, mosaic, paint and color negative
Hundreds of wipe patterns in eight colors.
Black, white, blue, yellow, cyan, green, magenta and red
Audio fades, stereo music input, narration input, audio level meter
Composite (2x), S-Video (2x),
Stereo (3x), left and right ¼ microphone jacks
Composite (2x), S-Video (2x), monitor composite (2x)
Stereo (2x), headphones
16½-inches x 9½-inches x 3-inches
Video S/N ratio
Audio S/N ratio
Crystal Graphics 3D IMPACT! Pro
PC (Windows 95/NT)
Minimum System Requirements
50MB free space
8-bit (24-bit graphics card recommended
GIF, JPEG, PNG, AVI and sequential TGA
64MB (or more)
24-bit color capable
Fast and intuitive interface
Complete lighting control
High-quality image outputs in multiple formats
Need a frame-accurate editor or playback card
An outstanding low-cost 3D animated titling program.
Dubner Scene Stealer tape detector/Logger
PC (Win 3.1, 95 or NT) with one available ISA slot and one available PCI slot.
Minimum system requirements
386, 486 recommended.
4MB, 8MB recommended
Creative Labs SoundBlaster[TM]-compatible board for Windows 3.1.[TM] Any Windows-compatible sound card for Windows 95[TM]
storage requirements vary. One hour of video grabbed at one frame per second uses 60 megabytes. The program files require only 200K of disk space. Color images require 3 1/2 times more disk capacity than monochrome.
composite BNC connector
For color compatibility
PCI expansion slot
High color display
Easy to operate
Storyboard building and previewing
EDL and database exporting
Great for the professional that handle