- Sony DCR-TRV9 Mini-DV camcorder
- Rab-Byte 3-D Animation Library Professional Tapes Volumes 1-19.
- Elite Video Variety Pack Volume #1 Royalty-free Music CD
- Videonics Python Video/Still Digitizer
- Pinnacle Systems Studio 400 Video Digitizer and Edit Suite
Sony DCR-TRV9 Mini-DV camcorder
Sony’s newest DV camcorder, the DCR-TRV9, is a compact unit designed with travel shooters in mind. Don’t let its small size fool you, the DCR-TRV9 is one of the most feature-packed camcorders we’ve ever tested. Best of all, it doesn’t just offer the latest bells and whistles, its feature set is packed with truly useful stuff. Since writing reams about its features and performance isn’t an option (though it would be easy enough to do), we’ll at least try to hit the highlights.
Highlights, Low Light
The DCR-TRV9 is set up like your usual right-handed, normal-color-viewfinder-plus-flip-out-LCD camcorder. The Sony’s 3.5-inch screen swings out from the left side of the camcorder, shutting down the smaller viewfinder in the process. Brightness and volume controls sit next to the panel, opening the LCD reveals a tiny speaker and several control buttons. Rotating the LCD panel 180 degrees flips the display over vertically, allowing you to monitor the shot from in front of the lens. The standard viewfinder tilts up about 70 degrees and extends, making it easy to shoot from a more traditional position.
As with most camcorders these days, the Sony DCR-TRV9 has a menu to control many of its special functions. Stepping through the menu is made easy by a knurled wheel that falls conveniently under your left thumb. In addition to turning in discrete steps, the wheel pushes inward with a definite "click." This wheel is at the heart of the Sony’s control system. Many different functions (besides the menu) use it for input.
Above the wheel are several other buttons, including Sony’s auto/manual focus toggle. From the manual mode, tugging further down on the switch quickly runs the lens out to infinity focus. This feature is handy when you want to shoot some distant subject immediately upon powering up the camcorder (a UFO, for example).
When it comes to manual functions, the DCR-TRV9 hands you control over everything but high-speed shutter and white balance (which is constant auto only). For manual focus, the DCR-TRV9 has a knurled ring that sits–get this–around the lens. Though not quite as responsive as a traditional lens, this ring works much better than a knob (or worse–focus buttons) mounted on the side of the camcorder.
The DCR-TRV9 offers a true manual iris mode that spans the full iris range. It’s not an offset that simply shifts the auto iris point, nor is it limited to a few stops in either direction–it’s the real deal. Other exposure-related goodies include a dedicated backlight button, black or mosaic fader (with dedicated button) and six program exposure modes.
The Sony’s programmed auto-exposure modes consist of spotlight, soft portrait, sports, beach/ski, sunset/moon and landscape. Most are self-explanatory, but one deserves some elaboration. The soft portrait mode is noteworthy because it actually softens the image electronically, losing about 50 lines of resolution in the process. This takes the "edge" off the video, giving it a slightly more dreamy look. Interestingly enough, this mode doesn’t do much to soften the background.
In addition to the auto-exposure modes, the DCR-TRV9 offers eight picture effects, including pastel, negative art, sepia, black and white, solarize, mosaic, slim and stretch. I really like the look of the sepia and black and white modes, but find pastel and mosaic to be a bit over-the-top.
The DCR-TRV9’s NightShot mode is great fun, though not really a picture effect. It increases the CCD’s infrared light sensitivity, delivering a virtually monochrome image with a pronounced green cast. The real kicker is a small light-emitting diode you can turn on in NightShot mode–it illuminates a small area in front of the camera with light invisible to the human eye. As if wielding an invisible flashlight, this LED allows the Sony to shoot in total darkness. The LED does double-duty as the camcorder’s Laser Link emitter, which transmits the audio and video signal to a compatible television sans cable. Video from the NightShot mode is infrared footage, and should be great for commando/espionage/sci-fi shots.
Where the DCR-TRV9 really offers creative power is in its ability to combine picture effect modes, program modes, manual exposure control and NightShot. I fell in love with the stark, bleached-out look I got from mixing NightShot, the B&W effect, soft portrait program mode and manual iris. Shooting this way outdoors, green grass looked like ashes and trees looked positively surreal. Swapping negative art for the B&W effect made things even more strange.
There are other DCR-TRV9 features worthy of note. A dedicated photo button freezes the image on the screen when pushed halfway, then records it to tape when fully depressed. The camcorder offers a LANC jack, headphone jack, external mike jack, S-video jack and FireWire connector. All video and audio jacks switch to inputs in record mode, which means the DCR-TRV9 will record from another source. If you record your audio in 12-bit mode, you can audio dub a second pair of stereo tracks. During playback, you can control the relative mix of the two audio programs.
All these nifty features would be worthless if the DCR-TRV9 didn’t record good images and sound. Thankfully, it does. The video performance is top-notch for a single-chip camcorder easily hitting around 450 lines of resolution. Color reproduction appears good in a variety of lighting conditions. Video noise is a bit on the high side. I found the DCR-RTV9 to suffer from noise problems even in moderately well-lit indoor scenes. The camcorder’s Super SteadyShot system is excellent, dampening unwanted movements with no toll in image quality. Stereo audio performance is good, though a bass roll-off in the mike section makes the sound a bit on the thin side.
I do have a few minor gripes with the DCR-TRV9: though it won’t see much use, the camcorder’s traditional color viewfinder is grainy and quite small. A top-mounted record trigger would be nice when monitoring the LCD and shooting at waist level. I feel Sony could have incorporated a little wider lens on the DCR-TRV9, especially for indoor shooting. Finally, the camcorder exhibits vertical streaks tailing down from very bright objects when shooting in the sports program mode (high-speed shutter).
In the final equation, these negatives don’t detract much from the DCR-TRV9. This camcorder is certainly one of the best-performing, most feature-packed single-chip DV units on the market. Factor in the DCR-TRV9’s low price, and it becomes clear that Sony has "raised the bar" for the compact DV format.
Rab-Byte 3-D Animation Library Professional Tapes Volumes 1-19.
Rab-Byte Computer Graphics, Inc.
High quality titles and graphics will make any video program look better. We are used to seeing network television programs that open with flying, three-dimensional titles, however, the home video producer seldom has the time and resources to create such animated titles. That’s where Rab-Byte Computer Graphics, Inc. saves the day. With its pre-produced 3D Animation Library Professional Tapes, you can buy a collection of professionally produced title animations, and use them whenever you need them, without the need for computer hardware and know-how.
Royalty Free Animations
The Rab-Byte Library is a collection of buy-out, royalty-free 3D animated titles and backgrounds on 19 VHS, S-VHS, 8mm or Hi8 tape. Each tape contains an assortment of generic titles and graphical elements which are easy to incorporated into your programs. You can use some of the animations just as they are on the tape. Others include areas of superblack (areas darker than screen black) to make use of a video mixer’s lumakey. Many cuts, but not all, include pre-produced music in hi-fi stereo and standard analog audio. This royalty-free, professionally produced music is a great bonus.
We received and looked at all 19 tapes. The tapes, or volumes, can be purchased separately or in any combination. Each tape has from 30 to 47 cuts. Each cut has a five-second video and audio count-down to help cue-up and roll the recording tape on time.
Most of the tapes include full-field IRE (Institute of Radio Engineers) color bars and an audio test tone at the beginning of the tape (tapes 1 through 4 overlooked the color bars and test tone). The bars are very helpful when setting video levels while using a TBC (time base corrector) or a proc amp (processing amplifier). This is also important because a correct black level is necessary for a lumakey to work properly.
The first seven volumes are categorized as mixed events and contain animations for holidays, weddings and special events including New Year’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, 4th of July, birthdays and more. There are also animations for both Jewish and Christian holidays and weddings, as well as general wedding animations.
Tapes 8, 10, 14, 16 and 17 include wedding animations exclusively. Volumes 9, 11 and 18 fit into the general production and special events category. Volume 12 offers Spanish language animations covering weddings, holidays and special events. Volume 13 contains a selection of animations for family histories and tributes. The last tape (Volume 19) is transitions, and most of these transitions are keyable. The length of these transitions range from one-second (camera shutter transition) to over two-minutes (winter wonder background).
On the Screen
The animations are all well done. Most of the text models fly and spin into the frame, and are metallic looking with shining and sparkling highlights. Some animations are very simple, nothing more than twinkling stars running across the screen. Others are quite elaborate, with multiple models moving around and many changes of the camera’s viewpoint.
The 4th of July animation on tape one is a good example of one of the more elaborate cuts. It starts with an overhead view of a barbecue and a table with condiments. The camera moves towards the barbecue for a closer view as the salt shaker lifts off the table and floats over to the barbecue. It shakes salt onto the rotating spit over the charcoals. The camera rotates as it moves closer to the barbecue, and we see that the spit has the words "4th of July" on it as it spins over the coals. The camera drops down to a front view as the ketchup bottle flies up to put ketchup on the spit. When the ketchup bottle returns to the table you can see that the condiments spell out the word "happy" next to the rotating "4th of July." This animation runs 28 seconds.
Each of the wedding tapes has a slightly different look and theme. Volume 8 features a traditional white lace and gold satin look, with classic styled music. Volume 10 has a storybook theme. Volume 14 has a spring/summer theme, with computer-generated butterflies and outdoor scenery as backgrounds. The wedding tapes have titles for everything from the morning of the wedding to the honeymoon.
We tested the lumakey titles with the Videonics MXPro video mixer. Once we got the mixer set up right, the keyable titles worked well. A TBC or proc amp would certainly help with the lumakey animations.
Time for Titles
Don’t expect the kind of computer graphics that you would see in a major Hollywood motion picture. However, Rab-Byte’s animations have the look and quality of 3D animated titles that you might see on network television. With Rab-Byte, you can get animated 3D titles without the time, hardware or skill needed to create them. Even one of these tapes would be a worthwhile tool for any consumer or prosumer video producer and many full time professionals.
Elite Video Variety Pack Volume #1 Royalty-free Music CD
Music has the power to generate or amplify most every human emotion, a simple fact videographers have known for years. Sprinkle appropriate music throughout your videos, and you’ll increase their impact and professionalism considerably. Royalty-free music is one easy way to do this. You pay for the music once, buying the rights to use it as many times as you like–no copyrights, royalties or lawsuits. No hassles.
Elite Video, a company once known primarily for itsinstructional videos, is stepping into yet another new market with their Variety Pack music CD. Variety Pack Volume #1 contains just under 50 minutes of music, offering about 30 different tracks. A few crowd sound effects or noise and drum hits are thrown in for good measure, but the bulk of the CD is music.
Most of the tracks on the Variety Pack CD are under two minutes in length; the CD doesn’t offer multiple lengths (i.e. 30 and 60 seconds) of the same track. This makes the Elite Video CD trickier to use for folks making commercials. On the flip side, only one of the musical pieces tops three minutes in length. This may pose challenges for folks working on longer-form videos. There is plenty of room on the CD to include some longer tracks.
As for musical styles, the Variety Pack CD offers a pretty diverse selection. The majority of the songs use simple drums and bass and electric guitar instrumentation, which works best for certain genres of music. The retro-surf, Beatles-esque, country, blues and classic rock and roll tracks sound quite good. The disc’s "three musicians in a garage" production approach, with its distant-sounding drums, also suits these styles. This same approach robs the more aggressive and modern guitar-heavy cuts of punch and power.
Several tracks use sequenced keyboards, drums and bass, but no guitars. These synthesized tracks cover the motivational/corporate, Dixieland jazz, disco, romantic, slow soul and ethereal musical styles. They have the unmistakable feel of "canned" music, and the performances lack polish and inspiration. One standout is the track Rave Review, which pulls off a decent techno/rave sound. Other than this track, the Variety Pack Volume #1 offers almost no modern-sounding music (i.e. alternative, acid, grunge, hip-hop, rap, house, drum loop, etc.).
In addition to music, the disc tosses in a few tracks of crowd laughter and applause, some brief musical stingers (the disc and case insert call them "singers"), synthesized church bells and some drum fills. The quality and variety of these tracks is fair, but they seem like filler on a music CD. I would have preferred that Elite save these sounds for an effects CD, putting more music (or longer cues) in their place.
In the Mix
Sonically, the Variety Pack CD sounds good. Mixes are well-balanced and have enough high-frequency energy to pop off of the speakers. It’s the music itself that seems a little weak. My hunch is that the majority of the tracks were composed by a single guitarist, including several of those arranged with a sequencer and synthesizer. There’s no way to be sure, as Elite’s inkjet-printed case insert lists no production credits.
The Variety Pack Volume #1’s strengths definitely lie in the area of old-style, electric guitar-based music. At least eight or 10 of these tracks are authentic-sounding and catchy. The sequenced music cues leave much to be desired. In this age of affordable, powerful electronic recording equipment for music, there’s no excuse for bad-sounding programmed tracks.
Is putting an Elite Variety Pack Volume #1 track on your video better than having no music at all? In the case of some of the disc’s tracks, definitely. Is Elite’s buyout music offering worth the $50 price tag? That’s for you to decide.
Videonics Python Video/Still Digitizer
It seems like there’s been a flurry of activity in the low-cost MPEG digitizer market lately. These little video-squashers often plug right into your computer’s parallel port, require little or no installation, and can pack hours of highly compressed video on a hard drive. The video that results isn’t good enough for editing and production, nor is it meant to be–MPEG video of this caliber is best suited for Web site, email and multimedia applications.
Videonics’ Python is one such low-cost product, offering MPEG and still frame JPEG capture from an easy-to-install external box. Python comes with a healthy supply of software, allowing you do to anything from touching up a digitized photo to putting streaming video on a Website. Installation requires little more than plugging Python into your computer’s parallel port, attaching a video cable and installing the software.
The stylish blue Python comes with a permanently attached parallel cable, pass-through parallel connector (for operation of an attached printer or other parallel device) and an external wall-wart power supply. S-video and composite video inputs sit near three status LEDs. These allow you to see whether the Python has power (green LED), is ready to digitize video (red LED) and has pass-through enabled (yellow LED) so that any attached parallel device can function. Putting these visual indicators right on the unit was a nice touch.
Python does not support audio directly, and has no audio inputs or outputs. Instead, it relies on your computer’s sound card to handle the audio chores. You can control the quality of the recording from Python’s software, as well as playback parameters like volume and stereo balance.
Python comes with a suite of software including the main capture application, Astound multimedia authoring package, Kai’s Photo Soap SE for still image touchups, Xing MPEG player/encode, StreamWorks streaming video applications and Adobe Acrobat PDF reader (for the on-line manual). All these install easily from two CD-ROMs.
The primary Python application has one main screen with mode buttons down the left side, transport controls on the bottom and video/audio controls on the right. In the middle of this sits the preview window, which you can toggle between 352×240 and 176×120 size modes. These correspond to the two sizes of MPEG video that Python will capture.
The four basic software modes include MPEG movie, JPEG still, web page and V-mail (video email). In the first two modes, capturing a movie or a still is as simple as watching the preview window and clicking the record button at the right time. You can set up Python to stop recording after a certain amount of time, to avoid filling up a hard drive with video. Python handles files, automatically incrementing a number in the name with each new capture.
Once you’ve grabbed an MPEG movie, you can view it immediately from the Python application. You can also adjust the in- and out-points to save a trimmed-down version of the movie. The append feature allows you to tack movies end-to-end, while a "Save Compressed" option cuts the video file size down by as much as two thirds (with a corresponding loss of quality).
Python allows you to capture stills in four resolutions: 176×120, 352×240, 704×480 and 1208×960. "Square Pixel Compensation" drops the horizontal resolutions to more familiar values (i.e. 640×480) for computer displays. Though Python literature and box tout its 1600×1200 resolution, it doesn’t appear as an option in software. No biggie–resolutions above 352×240 make limitations in the quality of the source all too apparent. Still image captures from a DV camcorder look excellent at 352×240, for example, and noisy and washed-out at 704×480. Capturing stills at 1208×960 is pointless with consumer gear, though Python seems to do a great job at this resolution.
If you have an MPEG clip open and press Python’s Web video button, the software will generate a full-blown web page to show off your movie. All you have to do is select downloadable or streaming video. In a few minutes, you’ll have a web page with your movie in two different file sizes, helpful instructions, a download time chart, streaming video help, software links and more. With a little HTML cut-and-paste, you can put multiple movies on the same page. Sure, the resulting page is going to look like every other Python owner’s page, but the process is seamless and painless. Great idea, Videonics.
Finally, the fourth button allows you to enter recipient, subject and text for a "V-mail" message. Python attaches the pertinent info to the active movie, and fires it off to its recipient (provided you’ve got your dial-up software configured properly). You can even have Python automatically re-compress the video file before sending it off.
In use, Python generated relatively few surprises. The system crashed on rare occasion, and the blue box itself would fail to initialize now and then. Overall, performance was brisk (as you’d expect) on our Micron Millennia 300MHz test system.
Python does what it’s designed to do, which is compress the daylights out of video clips. Video quality isn’t pretty, but this type of MPEG-1 is all about file size, not quality. The five compression settings weigh in at between 100k and 200k per second at the larger resolution (without audio). Re-compress, and you’re looking at dramatically smaller files (from 140k per second down to 40k, for example). I wish only that Python allowed you to set compression ratios and frame rates with more precision, especially on the re-compression. Likewise, the JPEG still photo algorithm offers no quality controls.
Minor quibbles, all in all. Videonics’ Python may not the cheapest MPEG-1 capture solution out there, but it offers solid value and good performance.
Pinnacle Systems Studio 400 video digitizer and edit suite
Although fun and easy to use, not everyone can afford a non-linear editing system. Pinnacle Systems, maker of the Video Director 200, PC based edit controller, has created the poor-man’s non-linear editing system. It’s called the Studio 400 and uses the off-line, on-line edit procedure that professional producers use, only without the high cost.
Easy Work Prints
The Studio 400 follows the professional video producer’s method of off-line editing. What most of the pros do is to make the edit decisions on a low-cost system and, in the process, create a low quality "work print." Then, using the decisions made off-line, a high quality version is edited with a high-quality, on-line edit system.
The Studio 400 applies that procedure to home video by digitizing footage as high-compression, low-quality files. These files are so compact that even a slow IDE hard drive can handle them in real-time.
With the compressed footage on your hard drive you can decide what order you want your shots in, trim unwanted parts off the ends of your shots, design your titles and digital effects (using Pinnacle’s professional titling and digital effects software) and record and mix three audio tracks. The program displays a small screen, full-motion version of the show at any time, so it’s easy to fine-tune your program quickly. The program even creates music sound tracks for you and includes a sound effects library. Because the audio is digital, it’s easy to move and modify the music and sound effects to match your original footage.
Once your creative decisions are made you’re ready for the on-line edit. Using the information in the work file Studio 400 will control two video tape decks and build a finished version of the show using the original footage from video tape. This keeps the video that was recorded on the original tape uncompressed while creating a second generation, edited master complete with effects, titles and mixed audio.
The Studio 400 will even create a music track to accompany your show. You just have to pick out the style of music you want and a theme, then stretch it on the music track time-line to match the video that you want it to accompany. The Studio 400 will create a completely arranged piece of music, with an opening and a close, the exact length that you need; it’s pretty amazing.
When designing your show the program is simple, intuitive and fun to use. The ability for a real-time preview, without rendering, is a great feature that helps making edit decisions much quicker and easier. Unfortunately problems arise when trying to save the file and when trying to make the "on-line" edit, at least they did for us.
Needs Some Refinement?
The Studio 400, uses the same type of hardware interface as the Video Director 200. The Studio Mixer, also known as the "little purple box," is a video mixer which processes the incoming and outgoing video, making the digital transitions and title overlays possible. The Studio Mixer attaches to your computer externally through the printer port (LPT 1)and that is where the first problem arises.
The program seems to have a problem recognizing the Studio Mixer. We spent several hours trying to find the problem. We checked the program’s troubleshooting guide in the help menu and it said to check the computer’s BIOS (Basic Input and Output system) settings. The computer’s parallel port must be enabled and must not be set to EPP. We checked our computer’s BIOS and the parallel port was disabled and set on EPP. We corrected the settings and started up the system, confident we had found the problem. We hadn’t. The program still didn’t recognize the Studio Mixer. We were able to eventually get the computer to recognize the mixer by continually trying the Studio 400’s mixer set-up and re-booting the computer until it worked, which it did, intermittently.
The second problem we encountered was that the program occasionally crashed at the most inopportune times. Three times the program crashed while we were trying to save our work file. The result was that we lost all of the work we had just done in designing our show. We lost the shot order, the transition choices, the title design, the music: everything.
It Did Work
We were able to get the program to work correctly. We designed our show (for the fourth time) and decided to put it on tape… without saving it. Using the Smart Cable that comes with the system, the program controlled the camcorder (a Canon ES4000 8mm) with the LANC remote control. It was able to find the shots needed and was accurate to about plus or minus four frames. The record deck was a JVC HR-S9400U and was controlled through the infrared remote. Unfortunately, the Studio 400 does not normally support hard-wired control of the record deck.
In the end, the finished show turned out rather well. The video looked as good as if it had been edited with an edit controller.
In theory, the Studio 400 is an impressive product, especially for the price. It can create videos with excellent digital effects, professional looking titles and sound tracks that would be hard to achieve any other way. Once Pinnacle works out the few remaining bugs this will be a killer application.
- 15:1 optical zoom (3.4-51mm), 180:1 digital zoom, eight-speed power zoom, f/1.8, inner focus
- Image sensor:
- 1/4-inch CCD
- 3.5-inch LCD
- color LCD
- auto, manual (lens-mounted ring)
- Maximum shutter speed:
- 1/4,000 (in sports program mode)
- auto, full manual
- White balance:
- continuous auto
- Program modes:
- Picture effects:
- user-selectable 12-bit or 16-bit digital stereo
- DV FireWire, S-video, composite video, stereo audio, stereo microphone
- DV FireWire, S-video, composite video, stereo audio, stereo headphone
- Edit control:
- Other features:
- Photo mode, NightShot mode, mosaic or black fade, backlight, editsearch, data code record, 16:9 mode, end search, date/title/photo search, titler, three start/stop trigger modes, audio dub, Laser Link playback, infrared remote, built-in speaker, infoLithium battery
- 3.5 (width) x 4.1 (height) x 6.9 (depth) inches
- Weight (sans tape and battery):
- 1.7 pounds
- Video Performance (approx.)
- Horizontal resolution (camera):
- Horizontal resolution (playback):
- Performance Times
- Pause to record:
- less than 0.5 seconds
- Power-up to record:
- 4 seconds
- Fast-forward/rewind (60 min. tape):
- 150 seconds
very good image quality
lens-mounted manual focus control
plenty of creative power
standard viewfinder somewhat small and grainy
prone to video noise even in moderate light
A feature-packed, great-performing mini-DV offering from Sony.
- VHS, S-VHS, 8mm and Hi8
- Tapes length:
- approximately 30-minutes each with from 30 to 47 cuts each.
- hi-fi stereo
- Many cuts include superblack areas for lumakey. Some cuts include blue areas for chromakey.
large variety of animations
many wedding animations
Not all cuts have music tracks
A good product for the hobbyist and low-budget prosumer producer.
- Total music time:
- Total tracks:
- Average track time (music):
- approx. 1:55
good variety of styles/genres
convincing "oldies" and guitar-based tracks
poor keyboard performances/programming
most tracks too short
A buy-out CD with diverse styles, short tracks and hit-and-miss quality.
- MPEG-1, JPEG
- S-video, composite video
- Windows PC
- Digitizing resolutions (NTSC):
- 352×240, 176×120
- Audio support:
- real-time or after-the-fact encode from existing sound card
- Still image capture:
- 1408×960 pixels max
- Minimum System Requirements
- Windows 95
- parallel port
crisp still image captures
impressive bundled softwar suite
auto web page generation
no control over JPEG compression or MPEG re-compression
no editing functions
A solid, well-engineered solution for capturing quarter-screen MPEG-1 videos.
- Intel Indeo
- S-video, composite video
- S-video, composite video
- Audio support:
- through sound card
- Minimum system requirements
- Pentium or equivalent
- Operating system:
- Windows 95
- 16MB or more
- VGA card Direct-X 5.0 compatible, 256 colors minimum
- Sound card:
- Direct-X 5.0 compatible
- parallel port
- Hard drive with sufficient space (1 hour requires 150 MB)
Makes AVI files
Professional looking titles
Trouble communicating between interface and computer
The Studio 400 has the potential to be a great product if Pinnacle can work the