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Desktop Video Software By Dave Shapton
Published October 2001


The future looks bright for those musicians who want to use desktop video software to produce their own promotional videos. Dave Shapton explains why.

A year is a long time in media technology. I distinctly remember that the hottest topic of conversation amongst exhibitors at Streaming Media 2000 was the show itself; specifically, the rate at which it was growing. At the time, the show was being held every six months and appeared to be doubling in size with every iteration. Well, I don't have the figures, but I wouldn't be surprised if many of the companies around then are now either out of business or have been taken over so many times in the last 10 months that their genetic material is diluted beyond recognition.

Streaming isn't going to disappear, though. In fact it may eventually replace all forms of broadcast media and point‑to‑point communication. The process has already started in the form of 'Voice over IP'. VoIP is an offspring of the merger of telecommunications and computer networking, and is the method of sending voice communications over a computer network.

The advantages quickly become obvious. In a typical office today there is a telephone network (a set of cables that goes through walls and under the floor, to each telephone in the building), and a computer network (a set of cables that goes through walls and under the floor, to each computer in the building). But VoIP uses the same cables for both computer and telephone purposes. It's cheaper to install, and much more flexible. And it shows us how we might soon be wiring up our houses: one network cable for computer data, control data (lights, heating, etc), entertainment data (radio, television and playback from a household music library), and, of course, the telephone.

Pinnacle On Top

Affordable desktop video editing at the most serious level has come several steps closer with Avid Xpress DV, a software‑only version of Avid's top‑flight editing system.Affordable desktop video editing at the most serious level has come several steps closer with Avid Xpress DV, a software‑only version of Avid's top‑flight editing system.

This month, Pinnacle announced their new Pro 1 digital video card. It's a device that will allow you to transfer video from DV cameras to your computer, edit it and process it. It's the video equivalent of a soundcard.

And just as higher‑end soundcards have acquired more and more processing power (to add reverb and EQ, and to act as samplers, for example), so have video capture cards. So not only can you edit your video in much the same way as you can manipulate the position of audio segments in Cubase, Logic or Pro Tools, you can now process it with multiple video effects. Earlier generations of (sub‑£1000) capture cards could do one or maybe two processes at once: perhaps a dissolve (the video equivalent of a crossfade) and a colour correction. The Pinnacle Pro 1, however, can perform up to 10 simultaneous effects in real time — including 3D phenomena such as page‑turns. It's impressive. Wedding photographers will love it. And I suspect it'll be great for pop videos.

Remember, though, that the greatest skill in editing is knowing where to cut from one clip to another. How many TV dramas have you see where every shot transits to the next courtesy of a 3D pink rotating soft‑focus heart shape? None, of course. In fact, you'll find that the highest‑profile productions tend to have the most prosaic editing style. I have to say that I'd normally prefer to have a tooth out than have to watch a wedding video, but I was struck by one I saw at a video trade show a couple of years ago. Just one effect had been applied to the whole production: black‑and‑white. And it looked brilliant. I suppose that's the video equivalent of using tube amplification.

Going back to the comparison with soundcards for a minute, while the hardware DSP capabilities of high‑end soundcards has been growing, lower‑end devices have been dumbed down to become essentially I/O devices: D‑A and A‑D converters with a slot on the computer's PCI buss. But there's actually nothing wrong with this approach, given that the processor in any new computer you can buy today will have plenty of real‑time audio processing power. My experience with configuring complex systems suggests that the simpler the soundcard, the more likely the system is to work overall (though I accept that this is a somewhat sweeping generalisation).

And so it is with video. On the one hand we have massively powerful video capture and processing cards, and on the other we have utterly generic and simple OHCI (Open Host Compliant Interface) IEEE 1394 cards that are now plug‑and‑playable with Windows 2000. Most of these low‑cost cards come with some video editing software that is completely adequate for simple video work. But for aspiring and actual professionals, here's the big news: you can turn your desktop or notebook computer into an Avid.

Affordable Avid?

If you've only ever been interested in music, it's possible that the only time you've come across Avid is in the small print at the bottom of Digidesign ads. Avid own Digidesign. But if you've ever worked in or around television or film, then you'll know that the Avid system is — by a big margin — the industry‑standard non‑linear editing system for video editors. I'm not sure of the exact figure, because it depends who you listen to, but it's reasonable to say that over 90 percent of major films and TV programs have passed through an Avid workstation.

One of Avid's strengths is its interface. It's not intuitive (at least, that's my opinion of it), but it's doing a complex job. It's powerful in the sense that it gives you the right tools to do serious work. And being a professional tool, it used to come with professional prices. Software upgrades alone could cost £60,000. Until recently, the cheapest Avid system you could get had an on‑the‑road price of around £15,000.

But now you can buy it in a shrink‑wrapped box, as Avid Xpress DV, for £1200. Load the software into your desktop PC or notebook, show it to any of the 60,000 Avid editors in the world, and they'll be able to use it immediately. Genetically, I'd say it's 98 percent similar to Avid's more expensive products. What it can't do is work with the high‑end broadcast tape formats like Betacam SP and DigiBeta. But it can work with DV and its professional derivatives DV CAM and DVC PRO. I've got people in the room next to me using Avid Xpress DV for a series on The Discovery Channel.

Unlike the Pinnacle Pro 1, Xpress DV doesn't do any effects in real time, but it's the more important product nevertheless, for two reasons. First, it's a product professionals can use that's an order of magnitude cheaper than anything they are used to; and second, because some day all media workstations will work like this: a simple I/O device, masses of generic processing, courtesy of industry‑standard motherboards and processors, and some very clever software.

Note that there are other editing interfaces around: Fast Multimedia's DV Studio 3 at £695 for PCs is worth a look, and of course there is the widely‑praised Final Cut Pro for Macs. I like FCP, but think it's not as deep as Avid Xpress DV (which is only available for PCs). Even though Macs are an obvious choice for video editing, because they come equipped with FireWire I/O, it's only a £50 option on PCs. I like and use both PCs and Macs, but I have to say that at the moment, for video editing, there are more choices for PC, both in terms of hardware and software. It's early days, though.

I know I keep going on about video in this column. That's because I believe it's important to musicians. Here's just one reason why. You can buy DVD players now for the same prices as CD players. Look in the right places and you can find them for £99. So why would you buy both? (Except, perhaps, that expensive CD players sound better than cheap DVD players). And if everyone's going to be playing CDs on DVD players, they're going to want to see music videos on the same disc, aren't they? That's not a big problem for the record companies: every track that charts has a video made with it anyway.

But wouldn't this make life even harder for independent and small labels, who wouldn't have the resources to make music videos? Well, no. Not any more. Because now they can afford to do it too, on their PC or Mac.

And, as I said in an earlier Cutting Edge, selling video on the same disc as an audio track is a great form of copy protection. It takes ages to download from the Internet.

Microsoft See The MP3 Light

Reports suggesting that the XP version of Windows would only be able to 'rip' CDs at low quality were met by surprise — not to say derision — amongst the MP3 community. This reaction may have been behind Microsoft's recent decision to endorse third‑party products (from CyberLink, InterVideo and Ravisent) that will allow full‑resolution MP3 ripping from within the Windows Media Player. These MP3 products, together with a software DVD player, will be available as add‑ons for XP from its release date. Of course, the Seattle giant would prefer you to use their own WMA format, but they are perhaps recognizing that MP3 now has a life of its own, and that to oppose its use would ultimately be counter‑productive.

'Phone Ranger: Digital Wireless Headphones?

I often come across new devices that are, in themselves, interesting. I only rarely find things that immediately solve a problem for me. I'll tell you about the problem before the product: over the past year I've acquired (legally, of course!) thousands of MP3 files on my computer. They've come from my CD collection, which I now hardly ever touch, because it's so much easier to search for the track I want on my hard disk. When I buy a new CD (yes, even MP3 users buy CDs) it goes straight onto my hard disk. I can listen to my pre‑arranged playlists, or a completely random selection: it's like having my own radio station. And there's the problem. I want to listen to my personal radio station in every room in the house. But I can't take my computer and its speaker system — including sub‑woofer — with me as I wander around dusting, ironing and washing up (yeah, right!).

Recently I've been driving my partner and the two cats to distraction with half‑baked schemes for wiring up the computer to a multitude of amplifiers and speakers around the house. This is never really going to work. It's messy, complicated and unreliable, and basically just the wrong way to do it.

A better way, I thought, was to set up a real radio station, using wireless headphones. So I bought some FM headphones for about £40, and they worked — at least in the sense that you could occasionally discern some music underneath the cascades of swooshes, bangs and farts. Imagine a firework display at Niagara falls and you wouldn't be far out. So I was excited when I came across a German company called Amphony, who make digital wireless headphones.

The principle is very simple: there's a transmitter unit with two phono sockets that you connect to the line‑out of your amplifier or sound card. The transmitter contains an A‑D converter and sends the audio uncompressed, with error correction at a rate of 3Mbit/S. (44.1KHz stereo audio has a data rate of 1.4Mbit/S). The headphones contain a receiver and two AA‑type batteries, one in each earpiece for physical balance. There's no obvious aerial on the phones, and the only other features are an on/off switch and a volume control. Battery life is claimed to be around a hundred hours, which seems pretty reasonable.

Compared to the FM phones, these sound brilliant, and they're not bad headphones in their own right, though I'd like to see a digital input, which would cut out an additional D‑A and A‑D conversion. It would ensure that there are no problems with levels either. The range of the phones is really good. So good, in fact, that I couldn't find anywhere in my house where they didn't work. If you live in a mansion, or a bank vault, you can even get radio repeaters. And Amphony don't just make headphones. There's also a range of wireless audio transmitters and receivers, so that you can send digital audio throughout the house to amplified speakers as well as headphones.

You must never, ever use the microwave oven while you've got the digital cans on (the aural effect of this is like being hit by a Romulan disruptor beam), but I have to say that they're great value at $129. The price is given in dollars because the headphones are only available in Germany and the US at the moment. I'll let you know if Amphony decide to sell them in the UK.