Once upon a time editors had to customize their rigs just to edit a movie. Welcome to the New Age of video editing.
Orson Welles once said that a film studio was “the biggest electric train set a boy could have.” Of course, these days, that train set comes in a much smaller box: programs such as Apple’s Final Cut Pro, Sony Vegas or the products within Adobe’s CS4 Master Collection contain possibilities that even the greatest craftsmen at RKO during Welles’ tenure couldn’t imagine.
But, as they say in the computer industry, it takes both chips and salsa to get things done. The salsa – these software packages – need the right chips, or in this case, the right microchips to get the job done. So what should you be looking for in terms of computer hardware if you want to run today’s video programs?
First, it helps to define your terms. Workstations fill a niche between ordinary desktop PCs and servers. Their processors are built for speed, and, unlike a server, the workstation has video and sound cards optimized to output quality multimedia.
Want More Memory? Go 64-Bit
Back in the April 2007 edition of Videomaker, we looked at the then-nascent 64-bit revolution, which is slowly making its way through the computer industry. At a minimum, 64-bit computing promises buckets and buckets more RAM than that offered by 32-bit computing, whose standards were set in the 1960s and 70s, back when four gigs of RAM must have seemed like an astronomical amount.
64-bit computing allows for a much greater theoretical amount of RAM, and an increasing number of Apple and Windows-based multimedia workstations have eight gigs of RAM, double the maximum RAM of only a few years ago.
Alex Westner, the director of product management at Cakewalk.com, which creates digital audio workstation and software synthesizer products primarily for the Windows environment, believes that 64-bit is one of the quieter revolutions in computing.
“With the public release of Vista X64, I’m actually seeing it a lot more in stores. It’s much more accessible for any consumer to buy a new computer with X64 on it, without them having even realized what they bought,” Westner says. “Today, if you buy a new computer with four gigs of RAM, it probably has Vista X64 on it, and I think for most customers, they don’t even know what that means.”
Of course, for video pros, what it means is not running out of memory, especially with RAM-intensive multimedia like video, and that is a good thing for a workstation.
An often-overlooked option is a fast hard drive. Most workstations should contain multiple hard drives spinning at 7200 rpm (or possibly even faster). Multiple drives allow for a separation of programs on one drive, raw video files on another and a library of stock footage, sound effects and other building blocks on the third. Be sure to also look for a high-speed interface, such as a SATA (Serial ATA) connection.
Hardware Follows Function
In the world of architecture, it’s true that “form follows function,” but for computers, hardware follows function: the choice of sound and video cards will depend upon the primary product for which you will be using the workstation.
Naturally, for anyone reading this magazine, the video card (or cards) will be the heart of any computer system. There should be a provision for dual monitors. Using a video-editing program allows you to display the timeline and raw video assets on one monitor and the video display on another. It also reduces the amount of time you have to spend sizing and resizing your windows.
More and more, video card manufacturers are working with software providers for a seamless interplay between the worlds of chips and salsa.
Giles Baker, group product manager for editing workflows at Adobe mentioned to me, “On the videocard side, we actually work very closely with NVIDIA and increasingly AMD and the ATI stuff, to make sure that our products are really optimized for the GPU (graphic processing unit). Because increasingly the GPU is becoming a large portion of the processing power that’s on a system. NVIDIA has a really nice graphics card called the Quadro CX, which they just released actually as kind of a supporting product for CS4; it’s designed to work very well with the Creative Suite product. It’s a pretty high-end card, but it really has some massive benefits for performance,” particularly in Premiere Pro and Photoshop. The lesson here: check your card’s compatibility with your favorite programs.
Give some thought to the audio half of your production needs when considering the soundcard for your workstation. Will you be working primarily in stereo? Or in surround sound? Will you need to plug in multiple simultaneous microphones or external audio hardware? The more overdubbing you’ll be doing, the greater the need for low latency.
All of these are factors you should weigh when choosing a soundcard, which may very well connect to a breakout box for mixing purposes and for ease of plugging multiple mics, instruments and outboard gear.
Make sure your workstation has plenty of room for expandability. The sound card will take care of most audio inputs, but you’ll also want lots of USB and FireWire ports, ideally on both the front and rear of the unit. And, unless your goal is solely to produce product for the web, make sure the workstation you’re looking at has a built-in Blu-ray Disc burner.
Shopping for a computer workstation is a combination of knowing what sort of material you will want to use your workstation to produce, what your budget is and what’s available in the marketplace. So do your research, and think about your future, as well as present needs.
Ed Driscoll is an independent producer and freelance journalist covering home theater and the media.
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