At the January 17 meeting...

The Password is... "Robust"

The new digital tape formats

By Brian Galford

The buzzword at this meeting was "Robust." Each manufacturer, across several different product lines, from tiny DV to Beta SX, described his technology with this very word.

However, the first to speak was not an equipment representative at all, but Bill Churchill, the "C" of CF Video. He showed us side by side comparisons of 35mm film, DVCPro, Digital Betacam and BetaSP. We watched a tape edited on BetaSP, that had a vertical wipe separating the two halves of the screen. One half showed one format, the other half a different format. The tape played on a UVW deck, whose signal was sent through a composite cable to a 35" monitor.

Expecting clearly visible differences, we readily saw none. Then it was pointed out that the composite cable seemed to be acting as the least common denominator in the system, rendering what might have been more significant differences less noticeable, and lending a bit of chroma noise to all images except the 35mm film.

We all had to strain to see differences between Betacam and DVCPro. One place where DVCPro showed artifacts that 35mm and the various Betacams did not was on diagonals. Bob Doyle (columnist for New Media Magazine) pointed out the jaggies on the DVCPro image that did not occur in other formats. In most other ways it went toe to toe with the other formats. Of course, it could be argued that Bill showed us the formats in the environment in which they’d be finally presented: composite output. But for a more exacting test-well, let's leave that to another meeting.

The New Technology Chair of the International Technology Society, Mr. Churchill had a few things to say about the current state of the technology. For one, the new DV format shows us that tape is far from dead. It still gives us the best data capture per dollar of any imaging/information system. And the DV format only strengthens that position. Smaller, lighter, "robust", holding up to 60 minutes of high quality imagery on a single tape, nothing else comes close to its capacity vs cost ratio.

The new DV format effectively blows Hi8 out of the water as an acquisition medium. Even Paul Roberts of Newtonville Camera said as much during his presentation. The current price of DV camcorders are within reach of most serious producers. (And when that comes down, as it surely will, then the revolution will be televised.) Bill has many clients who shot with Hi8, then edited to Betacam. They liked what they had with Hi8, but will be overjoyed with DV, which is practically indistinguishable from BetacamSP.

In Bill's presentation, he used the baseball analogy of a "sweet spot" to describe the marketing niche fulfilled by, first, Betacam, then again with D-Beta. CF Video doubled in size when D-Beta came out. "These formats gave us portable image quality at a low cost as well as computer interfaceability" he said. D-Beta especially fulfills the "faster, better, cheaper" triple threat. As such, it outperforms D1 in the edit suite, but, he added, does not outdo BetaSP in the acquisition cost/performance arena, because of D-Beta’s pricier cassettes.

All in all, he thought that the new DV format showed great promise to qualify as the Next Big Thing.

Echoing his sentiments were Ray Blumenthal, the Panasonic representative, and Paul Roberts of Newtonville Camera, showing the Sony product line. The new DV cameras have color viewfinders, a very nice feature for truer judging of a scene without a separate monitor. TBCs are built in to the technology, as is the ability to go 5-15 generations, depending on picture complexity, without any loss of picture quality. Except for the Panasonic DVCPro line, all other cameras are aimed at the consumer line, with mini microphone connections.

There is a curious combination of new technology that seems on the surface to equal their broadcast rivals, yet falls down in certain key areas. Thus, we find composite-only outputs from the camcorders. And of course, there is the scare of piracy if they made digital outputs available to the average consumer.

As well, one supposes they didn't build this line to completely cannibalize the broadcast quality standard bearers. For example, why only 4:1:1 processing? This leaves Digital Betacam with twice the chrominance bandwidth of DV. But then, D-Beta is not nearly as cheap a way to acquire images as DV. Sony’s camcorders have the unique feature of being FireWire compatible, the only tape-based products to be directly transferable to a computer. Sony's VX1000 and VX700 have a wonderful optical image stabilization feature, a Steadicam(tm)-like feature that all but obviates the need for a car mount. All DV cameras have some sort of image stabilizing feature, but only Sony's is optically, rather than electronically, based. Sony claims this is the only way to maintain image quality.

Some other nice features on the Sony models include manual audio gain, two separate stereo tracks and a digital 20:1 zoom. Only Control-L editor connections are available. And the time code is a DV-version of RC TC from Hi8, and uses a drop frame system. That's curious, since drop frame is something only broadcasters would have need for. These are, we must keep reminding ourselves, consumer-oriented products.

The Panasonic DVCPro line, however, is not. It is part of a complete family of products, including studio and field recorders, a laptop editing system and a 4X transfer player. Perhaps because of this family of edit decks etc. Panasonic left out FireWire compatability from this, its first entry. The AJ-D700 camcorder has features you'd expect from a broadcast-quality camcorder, such as interchangeable lenses, three 1/2" CCDs and XLR inputs. Two channels of digital audio and an analog cue track can also be recorded. A whopping variable shutter range of 30 to 250Hz is featured, as well as a proprietary time code that, according to Mr. Blumenthal, is easily converted to SMPTE TC.

We were treated to a sample of the image quality from a Panasonic demo tape featuring bikini-clad women on bright sunny beaches. In this illumination, the images looked superb. We never got a chance to see how the blacks would hold up in a more contrasty scene. The Sony camera was plugged in that evening and pointed into the semi-lit audience. The picture looked electronically enhanced; grainy, as if shooting with the gain in the +18dB setting. When I asked if the gain was on, the answer was no. So, yes, it does have low-light picture-making capability, but the image quality suffers. But we didn't get to see this camera head to head with anything else at that lux level, so it is difficult to compare it with anything but my memory of other cameras.

Bob Turner (columnist with Videography magazine) made the point that the whole idea of the DV format and the agreement of 55 manufacturers was to standardize so we didn't have format wars anymore. Why then, he asked, is Panasonic's DVCPro line incompatible with the consumer DV format? DV tapes will play in a DVCPro machine, but not the other way around. And why is the DVCPro line $12,000 more expensive than its consumer brethren when it isn't offering any Earth-shatteringly new features that they don’t have? As if we should pay so much more for lens interchageability, XLR connectors and control track-technologies that have been with us for decades and take no great engineering leap to incorporate.

There was much to celebrate at this meeting, and much to puzzle over. The Next Big Thing has, for the professional user, almost completely arrived.

Perhaps to fill the gap in between DV and Digital Betacam came the presentation of Betacam SX, a 4:2:2 component digital format with a unique MPEG-based coding syntax. Actually, Sony's representative Nick Di Lello said it was positioned between BetaSP and D-Beta. It hasn't the multigenerational capability of D-Beta. However, it uses the same SP tape as the UVW series, but records at half the tape speed. Thus, its cost per minute is roughly that of oxide Betacam. BetaSX is also more computer ready than any current incarnation of Betacam.

BetaSX is backwards compatible with all other Betacam formats, due to its four head system. Two for SX, two for SP. This brought up the thorny question of head life. Seems as head prices have gone up, head life has gone down, making investment in new machinery doubly more expensive than it ought to be, and bucks a trend found in other parts of the industry, such as hard drive capacity/cost.

The overall impression I came away with from this meeting was that, although there are wonderful things on the horizon, manufacturers sometimes seem to giveth with one hand and yet taketh away with the other.

Brian Galford is a writer/director/shooter with the Educational Media Center at Tufts/NE Medical Center. He can be reached at (617) 636-0931.

Panasonic response to this article