VIDEO CAMERA 1995

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REVIEW

 

HEAD

THE X-FILES

 

INTRO

Desktop editing and video processing takes one step forward and another sideways with Como's Video X and Control X  PC-based systems. Rick Maybury wheels out his trusty 486 to see what's what...

 

COPY

Even after all this time there's still something slightly disconcerting about hooking up a camcorder up to a personal computer. Admittedly computers used as edit controllers make a lot of sense, it's something they're very good at, as it involves them taking control of another device,  handling lots of data -- in the form of edit decision lists -- as well as providing a clear and easy to use visual interface.

 

However, video and computers still do not mix all that well. IBM compatible PCs and Apple Macs use an entirely different video standard to domestic TVs, camcorders and VCRs. A lot of heavy-duty hardware and software processing is needed to get good quality PAL-standard video in and out of a PC. True, there are plenty of inexpensive digital compression systems around, that can record and playback jerky postage stamp-sized video clips into a form a PC can work with, but in general the quality is not sufficient for serious post-production work and high quality compression systems are prohibitively expensive.

 

That has tended to limit the PCs role in home movie-making to edit control and maybe some audio processing, but the cost of video hardware for PCs is falling all the time. We've now reached the point where the PC is becoming a viable alternative to stand-alone mixers and video processors.

 

We've been looking at two products that clearly illustrate the progress being made in the desktop video market. They both come from the German company Como and are distributed in this country by Vine Micros. They are Control X, a sophisticated three-machine, (two replay, one record) edit controller, and Video X, a two-channel video and three-channel stereo audio mixer, processor and special effects generator.

 

COST EFFECTIVE?

The basic Control X outfit  sells for 465, we've also been looking at the optional desktop jog/shuttle control unit which costs a further 200. There is also a 'Lite' version of Control X, with two machine control for 200. The Video X mixer/processor is priced at 765.

 

Don't forget you'll also need a computer, fortunately it doesn't have to be particularly fast or high-powered; any IBM compatible with a 386 (or higher) processor will do, preferably with 4 megabytes of RAM, a few megs of hard disc space, Windows 3.1 or higher, a spare serial comms port, and a free expansion slot. Control X works with camcorders or other source machines that have Control L, Panasonic/RMC 5-pin or PC-VCR  edit terminals. It will also work with the Panasonic AG-5700 edit deck. Record VCR control is via learning/stored infra-red commands, or the same selection of hard-wire systems as the source machines.

 

CONTROL X

Control X has an impressive list of features, it can operate two source machines, it can read both VITC and RC time-codes, and it has a simple video processor with adjustments for brightness, saturation and contrast, plus red, green and blue colour balance. If it's used in conjunction with Video X or other PC-based hardware (genlock etc.) it can control a wide range of effects and transitions; there's also a range of audio facilities, though many of them are dependent on Video X, and/or the PC's own audio capabilities (CD ROM, sound card, midi controller etc.).

 

The outfit consists of a black box that acts as the interface between the PC and the camcorder, it also handles VCR control via an infra-red wand; a set of Control L and 5-pin leads are also supplied. Software installation takes a couple of minutes, using the normal 'run' Windows routine. The hardware side of things is not so simple, in fact to put it bluntly, the instructions are bloody awful. There is a connection diagram but it is almost impossible to work out what goes where, and the control box sockets are ambiguously labelled; two sockets are marked 'player 1' and 'player 2', but what are they for?. Even if you are familiar with PCs and camcorders you'll probably still find it very hard going. The instructions are awful full stop; it's clear whoever wrote them might know a thing or two about computers but seems to have had little to do with camcorders and video editing.

 

If you're lucky and manage to overcome that hurdle, and get it up and running, there's a few configuration duties to perform, such as telling the system what camcorders and VCRs it is connected to. We experienced a slight hiccough with our set-up, and we couldn't find a reliable driver in the IR command library for an oldish Sony VCR; in the end we resorted to using the learning IR facility after that everything went without a hitch.

 

As we mentioned earlier we used our system with the optional jog/shuttle controller. This plugs between the control box and the PC, the necessary extra lead is supplied. It's a good idea, though we have to say that at 200 it's extraordinarily expensive for what it is. Inside the box there's just three chips, a handful of components, the jog/shuttle knob and a few buttons; you can buy a VCR for less than that!  However, price aside it works well with source machines that support all of the trick-play features and it reduces the strain of controlling everything from the computer screen, using the mouse.

 

Control X uses a timeline editing system, which is significantly different from the way most stand-alone, (and many simple PC-based) edit controllers work. It's takes some getting used to but it is actually a lot easier to manage, and a lot more intuitive as video and audio clips, effects and transitions are shown graphically, rather than as rows of numbers. It's not necessarily faster though, and with so many extra possibilities it can actually take quite a long time to even relatively simple tasks.

 

The time line is divided into five streams, two for the source decks, there's one for video effects, such as fades and wipes, though these will only work if the PC is fitted with a Video X board and software;, there's another for computer-generated effects, these too rely on additional hardware, such as a genlock and titling software. The bottom stream is for the audio mixer, and this too is dependent on Video X.

 

Control X will generate a library list and edit decision list, but they're not especially well laid out, nor is it possible to directly modify cut points; to do that it is necessary to return to the VCR control panel, used to designate the edit points, and manually change the digits in the counter or timecode fields.

 

PERFORMANCE

Accuracy can be very good with timecoded material, to within a frame or two, though it will depend on the characteristics of the record VCR, and how much time and trouble is taken to calibrate the system. It is possible to use Control X record a VITC timecode on second-generation recordings, though this will result in a noticeable reduction in picture quality as the final edit will be a third generation copy. Accuracy on non-timecode material is a bit variable, we managed to get to within a second or 25 frames of cut points without too much trouble, it's possible we could have shaved a few frames off that under ideal conditions.

 

Control X is a bit if a mixed bag. On the one hand it's a highly proficient semi-pro three-machine controller, and we suspect that anyone coming to it from a studio background, already used to timeline editing, and well versed in computer and multi-media systems, should find it reasonably easy to work with. On the other hand, home video movie makers looking for a quick and simple way to assemble their productions, or tidy up holiday footage, will probably find it an absolute nightmare. Compared with the majority of stand-alone controllers, and most other PC edit packages, it is difficult to set-up, slow and relatively inflexible. It's rather expensive too, particularly if you add on the cost of the jog/shuttle box.

 

VIDEO X

This is much more like it. Video X is an excellent two-channel digital mixer, that could finally provide some serious competition for the Panasonic and Videonics production mixers, even when you take into account the cost of the PC it needs to run on.

 

Video X is a full-length plug-in PC card, accompanied by a single 3.5-inch disc of operating software. It also comes with a set of connecting leads, and this time, some reasonably easy to follow instructions. The card fits into one of the PC's spare expansion slots. It's a fairly easy job, but if you don't feel completely happy about taking the lid off your computer and burrowing around inside, get someone to do it for you.

 

With the board in place the software has to be loaded, it's another Windows program that runs from Program Manager, ours installed without any problems and it ran happily from the defaults. On the back of the card there's four sockets: a single phono for composite video output; three S-Video mini DINs, one for S-Video out, the others are for the two video input. Composite video inputs are handled by a pair of S-Video-to-phono adaptor leads, doing it this way makes a lot of sense as there's precious little space on the back of a PC card for sockets. All of the audio inputs and outputs are carried by a 15-pin D connector; the kit comes with a D-plug wired to a small forest of flying phono cables. It's horrible, but it's the only way of doing it, other than using a separate interface box, and inevitably that would add to the cost, which is quite enough to begin with...

 

The main desktop screen is a model of clarity, simply presented and easy to use. There's a series of windows, two (one for each input channel) for adjusting basic video parameters (brightness, saturation, contrast, red, blue and green intensity). The audio window contains two banks of 'sliders', one for setting input channel levels, the other for adjusting bass, treble, output level and balance. The main fader window has a large T-bar slider that's used to control fades, wipes and transitions, they're chosen from a menu bar that runs down the left side of the screen. From top to bottom the choices are:

 

* fade: manual, auto variable speed and cross-fade from one channel to the other

* wipe: twenty wipe pattern to choose from

* move: six ways of shifting the other channel into the picture

* chroma-key: adjust key colour, second channel appears superimposed on chosen colour

* luma key: adjust key level, second channel appears superimposed on areas of chosen brightness

* strobe: jerky stop action applied to chosen channel

* freeze: image frozen from chosen channel

* digitise: frozen image stored as bitmap file

* upload: loads bitmap file from disc

 

The effects and transitions can be controlled manually or automatically, or triggered by Control X, and there's plenty of additional options, far too many to detail here. One of the most interesting, though, is the 'bump' function, which can be used with move effects. It literally introduces a bounce into the transition, very simple, very effective. The chroma and luma key effects are used to superimpose selected parts of one image on the other. These are the kind of effects used to create classic Superman-type flying sequences or superimpose weather forecasters and news readers against background graphics. Both of them have very precise colour and brightness intensity controls, so the effect can look very clean, with none (or at least not so much) of the whiskery edges associated with simpler systems. 

 

A second piece of software, called Edit X, is included. This can be used to create custom wipes of up to 64 steps. It's very impressive, but it can be very time-consuming. In addition to the normal audio mixing facilities the system can store two general settings, to save having to keep resetting the controls for each input.

 

 

PERFORMANCE

The mix and fade functions are very clean. Video signals pass cleanly through Video X, with no noticeable increase in noise. The transitions themselves are a little jerky at higher speeds but it is by no means serious. Audio performance is good, we tried the card on three computers, on two the audio quality was very good, on the third there were a number of high-frequency interactions, and an annoying intermittent buzz on the soundtrack for which, no cause could be found.

 

SUMMARY

Most of our reservations about Control X centre on the instruction manual, which turns a powerful and sophisticated 2-machine editing system into an absolute nightmare. We would suggest that  anyone not completely familiar with computers and a working knowledge of multi-media gives it a wide berth. It's a high end product, with enormous scope and potential, and the price for the basic Control X outfit seems reasonable, but to charge an extra 200 for the jog/shuttle box is simply ludicrous, if it's going to be taken seriously in the enthusiast market.

 

Video X is a complete contrast, even when you add on the cost of a modest 486 PC it's still not much more than a stand-alone digital mixer, plus you have all the additional facilities offered by the PC, including editing and graphics handling. Some of the transitions are a little lumpy but they're still good enough for serious and semi-pro users.

 

The two together make a formidable team, in fact between them there's the makings of a highly proficient, compact and cost-effect post-production system, particularly if the manufacturers can do something about the instruction manual and the price of that jog/shuttle box. 

 

SPECIFICATIONS

Make/model                             Como Control X

Guide price                                  465

System requirements               IBM PC or compatible with 386/40 processor or better, 5MB free hard disc space, free serial port. Windows 3.1

Control system             2 source machines, 1 record VCR

Camcorder/VCR control            Control L, Panasonic 5-pin , PC-VCR; learning/programmed IR (record VCR only)

Edit system                              liner timeline

Edit memory                            more than 200 scenes

 

Make/model                             Como Video X

Guide Price                             765

System requirements               IBM PC or compatible with 386 or higher processor, free serial port, Windows 3.1 or higher

System functions                      2-channel video mixer/processor, 3-channel audio mixer

Video input/output                 PAL S-Video or composite

Features                                  Video: brightness, saturation, contrast, RGB intensity, fade, wipe, move, chroma/luma keying, strobe, freeze, digitise. Audio: fader, bass, treble, balance                       

 

Distributor                                Vine Micros Ltd., Vine House, Cowper Road, Margate, Kent CT9 1SX. Telephone (01843) 225714.

 

 

 

VIDEO CAMERA RATINGS

CONTROL X

Value for money 8 (6 with optional jog/shuttle)      

Ease of use                  7

Performance                9

Features                      8

 

VIDEO X

Value for money 8         

Ease of use                  9

Performance                9

Features                      9

---end---

( R. Maybury 1995

 

 


 

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