April 2012 – I haven’t updated this page in about a year and a half, so please take these recommendations with a grain of salt. I’m leaving the info up for people that might be intersted in these items, but I no longer recommend most of these products in their respective categories because so much has changed in the last year and a half.
Reviews will continue this summer, so stay tuned. They will mostly focus on post production hardware, software and workflows. I think there’s plenty of reviews of cameras out there in cyberspace, but not nearly enough on things like storage and SAN systems. I’m going to concentrate on items that I think are less served.
Digital SLR with Video
Canon 7D and T2i (550D) (oh hell, all the Canons)
Canon 7D (body only): $1599
Canon T2i (body only): $799
Buy whichever Canon you can afford
Experience: I’ve read about the T2i, I own the 7D
The T2i is the newest in the Rebel line. It’s very similar to the 7D, but only costs half as much. From reading the specs sheet, the T2i is the same body as the T1i (500D), which is smaller and not weather sealed like the 7D. It has the same 18MP sensor and Digic IV image processor as the 7D, but only 1 Digic IV (the 7D has 2), so it doesn’t have the high still image burst rate that the 7D has. But since the video capture only uses one processor, the video capabilities should be identical.
Edit: Here are some initial impressions by Philip Bloom. He makes a pretty convincing case to stick with the 7D, mainly because of the lack of the top mounted display and no manual white balance for video. And there’s the consumer Rebel body vs. the Pro level body. From what I’ve read, these are the main differences for video in addition to finer control over ISO settings. Philip Bloom wrote this after the Zacuto Shootout:
With the ISO we did some noise tests on the different ISO and found that on the Canons 160, 320, 640, 1250, 2500 were the most noise free. Interesting and surprising as I had always thought 100,200 etc were the native ISOs. To get these you need to go into ISO expansion in the register new settings and make the ISO increments 1/3. Interesting the Rebel T2i only has 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400. I have not done a noise test on this camera so I cannot say. All I can say is the best we could get image noise free was using the 160 etc…
If you ignore the video capability, the 7D wins hands down. It’s a pro-level camera with features like 19 point AF and 8fps burst rate vs. the Rebel’s 9 point AF and 3.7fps burst, to name only 2 features. I’ve been shopping around for a new DSLR for awhile. I’ve finally decided to drop in on the 7D since it represents the best of both worlds and doesn’t compromise like the Rebel. Don’t get me wrong, the Rebel is an amazing camera for the price. If you’re only looking to shoot HD video, then the 2 cameras are very similar and the T2i might be the better option and you can spend the money you saved on nice glass. But I went with the 7D.
Edit 2: I’ve heard anecdotal reports of overheating with the T2i and less so with the 7D. I also think it’s more prone to happen in 720p60 mode. This would make sense as the camera system is doing much more image processing at 720p60 than 1080p24 or 1080p30. This might explain why even after a firmware update, the 5D still doesn’t support 720p capture.
Edit 3: Since I wrote the above, the 60D has been released and many reviewers claim it’s the best of the Canon video SLRs, mostly because of the flip out screen. I’m a huge fan of the magnesium weather sealed body on the 7D, so for me the 60D doesn’t make the cut. Unlike the 50D that it replaces, the 60D has a plastic body like the Rebels.
Camcorder around $500
Canon HV20 or HV30 (used)
Experience: I’ve used it
Check out this video recently produced by Tate MacDowell of Death Cookie Entertainment. He has a 35mm adapter and Nikon lenses, but for this shoot decided to leave them at home and shoot the HV20 “bare” using methods he would normally reserve for 35mm shooting.
Experience: I’ve read about it
$1000 – To be honest, I have never shot with this camera. I have shot with and used footage from the HV20 and HV30 cameras, the first of the Vixia line and was impressed with them. The HF-S cameras are the continuation of the Vixia line, but use AVCHD instead of HDV. The difference between this camera and others from Canon is that it only uses SD cards. Their other cameras either have built-in flash memory or hard drives. I don’t like hard drives because they are finicky in cold weather and can’t be used where the camera will be shaken too much. And the models with built-in flash cost too much extra for the memory you get. The most cost effective is the HF-S200. Compared to Panasonic’s version, which has 3 CMOS chips instead of 1, the Canon offers better low-light performance due to its bigger single chip. The only knock with this camera is its lack of a viewfinder, which is becoming more common unfortunately.
Sony EX1R or EX3 with external recorder
EX1R – $6300, EX3 – $8300, Nanoflash – $2900, KiPro Mini – $2k, Cinedeck – $6k, Cinedeck Extreme – $10k
Experience: I’ve used them, except for the Cinedeck
It’s hard to recommend a camera in the sub-$10k range. This is a highly competitive segment with truely amazing technology. Of course, everyone’s talking about the RED Scarlet. I don’t like to concentrate on vapor-ware, though. It’s nice to know what’s coming, but if you have to shoot NOW, all the knowledge in the world of RED won’t help. It’s also difficult recommending a camera in this range because I’ve seen some terrible looking footage from every camera in this category. I’ve also seen amazing footage from every camera. So with these cameras, you REALLY need to spend time dialing in the settings. The first project I color corrected with EX1 footage, I wanted to strangle the videographer. It looked incredibly bad and all he could say is it was a new camera. He took it on a trip having never turned it on. I’m sorry, but that’s not acceptible for a professional. I haven’t heard of him since…
That first color correction experience left a bad taste in my mouth in regards to the EX line of cameras. But soon after I spent time with an EX3 so I could design a workflow and teach the videographer who just bought the camera. I liked it. Of all the cameras in this category, the EX line offers the most options to the shooter. My friend Jason Fish shot some great looking stuff with an EX1 and Letus adapter that really swayed me. But I will say, the XDCAM EX codec really left me wanting more. A max of 35Mb/s with Long GOP encoding, I was not impressed. It really broke apart on fast movements and anything that was out of tonal or luminance range. I’ve told everyone with an EX that asks, to shoot super flat, and pan slowly. And for the love of God, dial back the sharpness. That camera’s default sharpness is too high, like most Sonys. But a little $3k box has come to the rescue from Convergent Design – the NanoFlash. Using 2 Compact Flash cards in a spanning arrangement similar to Panasonic’s P2 and Sony’s SxS cards, the Nanoflash will take HD-SDI or HDMI output from the camera and record up to 280Mb/s 4:2:2 in either Long GOP or I-Frame compression using the XDCAM 422 codec. Yes it records an MPEG-2 codec, but you can really up the bitrate, which takes MPEG-2’s negatives away. The HD-SDI or HDMI outputs on all video cameras (that have them) bypasses the internal recorder of the camera. So the NanoFlash gets as close to uncompressed HD as the camera is capable of shooting. With the EX line, that’s good enough to run as a “B” camera to the F23 and F35, which was done on the recent digital film “Public Enemies.” For that production, the EX cameras were recording to a SRW-1 HDCAM SR field recorder via HD-SDI. Can the $3k NanoFlash, which is the size of 2 iPods stacked on top of each other, beat a $70k HDCAM SR field recorder? Let’s just say, in a few months I’ll be able to tell you. At Brain Farm we’re experimenting with a NanoFlash to replace our SRW-1 on shoots where it just doesn’t make sense to lug that thing around.
OK, EX1R or EX3? This one comes down to how you will use the camera. They are the same body and guts, but the EX3 has a removable lens and a larger viewfinder that’s positioned at the front left side of the camera, where as the viewfinder for the EX1R is in back. If you’re using a field monitor, there’s no difference. But if you have lenses from a B4 mount shoulder camera, you might want to consider the EX3 with a B4 adapter. The EX cameras have a 1/2″ sensors, so it will be a bit different than your shoulder mount camera with 2/3″, but it will be better than other cameras in this range with 1/3″ sensors. If you remove the lens on the EX3 to add a 35mm adapter like one from Letus, you will need an additional adapter called a relay lens. With the EX1R, you would attach the 35mm adapter directly to the front of the Sony lens. With the EX3, you have the option of either using the stock lens, or a relay lens. Using a EX3 with a relay lens will give you about 2 stops of additional light. But that comes at a price of $2900 just for the relay lens (it would be cheaper to use a 7D for your 35mm shots). All this adds up, so in the end it may come down to how much you want to spend. Finally, I would never consider a camera like the EX1R or EX3 without the NanoFlash. It makes that much of a difference. See comparisons here.
HD – GoPro HD HERO
GoPro Helmet Hero package – $300
Experience: I’ve used it
Pros: Super-wide image at 170 degrees, all-in-one design that can fit in a single waterproof case – great for surf boards or extreme mounts like helicopters, the least “jello-effect” of the HD POV cameras, good microphone design, 5MP stills and timelapse mode, inexpensive
Cons: mounts are only so so – the thumbscrew at the base of the waterproof housing is difficult to loosen and lock down, mounting it to the side of a helmet or goggles is not as stable and invisible as other cameras, the 1080p mode seems to punch in on the 720p image reducing the angle of view, no LCD, no 23.98 mode
I like the all-in-one design of the GoPro the most. I can put it in places – car mounts, surf boards, heli skis, etc; that I wouldn’t put a 2 piece unit like the VIO POV.1.5. At $300 including mounts and waterproof housing, every cine should have a few of these things in their bag. You’ll get angles that you never thought were possible.
POV.1.5 with chest harness, POV pouch, goggle mount, TGR’s ReSession – $600
Experience: I’ve used it
Pros: the best mounting options by far, great GUI which makes it dead simple to use, ability to watch and delete bad clips, interchangeable lenses and filters, wireless remote, 2 piece design makes it the most “invisible” of POV cameras, wider stock lens than other 2 piece cameras that don’t have interchangeable lenses
Cons: only SD resolution, expensive compared to all-in-one units, but inexpensive compared to the 2 piece units from Sony and others
The VIO POV.1.5 is the best POV camera if you’re mounting it on a person and want it to be next to invisible. This is where the 2 piece design is superior. Everyone else needs to catch up to VIO in mounting options and GUI design. I can’t wait for the HD version.
Editing Computer NEW, but not new
Apple Mac Pro – Nehalem (3rd Gen, not current Gen)
Going further, I recommend a higher clock speed Quad Core over a low clock speed 8 Core, if Final Cut is your primary app.
Experience: Use them everyday
OK, I’m updating this post to not update it. After a year and a half, Apple refreshed the Mac Pros to add Intel’s Westmere architecture to the Nehalem line. Once I broke everything down, I noticed very little changed. In fact, I see some negatives. Yes, you can now get up to 12 cores of power. “By the power of Grayskull!” and all that. But 12 cores is $5000, which is double the base price for the Quad Core 2.66 Nehalem. In Digital Cinema, there’s just no use for that power. Very few of the apps we use can take advantage of those processors. In many respects, the 3rd Gen Nehalems are still overpowered, and they’re a few years old. Second, Apple dumped all the nVidia GFX card options. For those of us that use After Effects, or are thinking about getting a DaVinci Resolve system, this is not good. ATI just doesn’t offer the number of processing cores and third-party SDKs that apps like After Effects and their plug-ins need. DaVinci has stated that that Resolve will only work with nVidia. So this means as soon as you buy this computer, you instantly have to pull the GFX card. At least with a used 3rd Gen, you can keep the stock nVidia card and add more.
If I were buying a Mac Pro right now, I would buy a used or refurbed 3rd Gen. Because of the release of the 4th Gen, they should already be knocked down a few hundred bucks. Apple’s release schedule has looked like this: 1st Gen – huge jump over G5, 2nd Gen – incremental, 3rd Gen – huge jump due to processor/memory architecture, 4th Gen – incremental. As a Color user, I like that they have updated the ATI card for the 4th Gen (Color is optimized for ATI cards, really the only app that is), but I am so ready to dump Color for Resolve, I don’t even want to dwell on it. I’m getting deeper and deeper into After Effects everyday, and with Resolve on the horizon, I am looking at a 2x nVidia GFX setup and the 4th Gen Mac Pro just doesnt help fulfill that.
I realize that my recommendation is very personalized to my use of these machines. Everyone has a different use. But at least on this blog, I know that everyone is coming from a Digital Cinema background, so your uses are somewhat similar to mine.
SSDs: One note about Apple’s new SSD option. I tested SSD drives in the editing Mac Pros used in an ethernet SAN environment. We had problems. Actually we had one problem – they were too fast! Specifically, the driver for the PCIe ethernet card couldn’t load properly during boot up. For awhile, clearing the caches helped (I think it slowed down the boot process enough for the drivers to fully load). But after a month or so, that workaround stopped working and the card wouldn’t show up and the SAN volumes would not mount. Because of this issue, I can’t recommend SSDs in Mac Pros because of other problems that could crop up during boot. So few people have put SSDs in Mac Pros that all the possible problems just haven’t been discovered yet. Since I was using an “unsupported configuration” I was on my own with any issues. I could see Apple “slowing down” their stock SSDs to fix these issues. But then techie end users will complain saying Apple’s stock SSDs are too slow and swap them out for a faster brand. BTW, areas where I thought SSDs would help on an edit system, didn’t. Specifically, FCP projects didn’t load any faster. Autosave was still as annoying as always. When it comes to FCP, I’ve eliminated all the bottlenecks, except for FCP itself. In the end, I don’t recommend SSD drives for Mac Pros used for editing. Your best bet is to keep your boot drive big and clear, and defrag every so often.
Quad Core vs. 8 Core: The big thing you have to remember here is that an 8 Core running at 2.66GHz is not twice as fast as a Quad Core running 2.66GHz. It all depends on the software that you’re running – is it designed to address those individual cores? Is it multi-threaded or multi-core aware? This is a big reason why Snow Leopard is faster than Leopard. But that doesn’t make the apps run faster. If you’re primarily running Final Cut Pro, you won’t see any gain running an 8 core machine over a 4 core machine, because of FCP’s lack of multi-threading. But you will see a bump if you buy a computer with a higher clock speed. For example, with FCP, a Quad Core 3.2GHz machine will be faster than an 8 Core 2.26GHz. (The only exception to this I’ve seen is transcoding AVC Intra to ProRes HQ in Log and Transfer. In that case, FCP will use 1000-1100% processor speed out of a possible 1600% on an 8 Core Nehalem. That’s the only time I’ve seen FCP go above 600%. In the cases where it’s 600%, a 3.2GHz Quad would be faster than a 2.26GHz 8 Core.) The exceptions to this rule are Compressor and After Effects (and I’m sure there are more), which can use multiple cores if you’ve set them up that way. But in my experience, I’ve had to shut off these features because the plug-ins that I’m using for these apps can’t use multiple cores. So for me, a higher clock speed is better than more cores. Again, this may not apply to you and your situation. If you do run After Effects in multi-processing mode, AE can use up to 3GB of RAM for every core – if you have a Quad Core, you need 12GB of RAM; an 8 Core would need 24GB to maximize After Effects rendering. This is practical maximum, not a minimum. But if you don’t have a lot of RAM, don’t run After Effects in multi-processing mode or it will skid to a halt and crash. Moral of the story: if your apps are multi-threaded, then get more cores; if they are not, get a higher clock speed with fewer cores.
This recommendation comes with a major caveat. We bought 5 of these for the Ethernet SAN installation at Brain Farm. During the process, we found a bug in the built-in Ethernet ports. If the connection goes over 60MB/s, which is pretty easy in this setup, the Mac will just drop the connection. The beach ball will start spinning and whatever SAN volumes you have mounted will disappear. This is because Apple changed up the Ethernet chip thats used in this 3rd generation of the Mac Pro. Earlier Mac Pros don’t have this issue. The solution is to use a PCIe Ethernet card from a company like Small Tree. Not a big deal with our main edit systems since we have open PCIe slots, but it is annoying. However, it is a big deal with our Pro Tools Mac Pro, which is using all the internal PCIe slots for Pro Tools cards. We now can’t access the SAN through the Gigabit Ethernet connection. We have to use the regular office Ethernet to access the SAN from the Pro Tools Mac Pro.
One thing that editors should know about Final Cut and the new Mac Pros, is that you won’t see a huge speed bump. Final Cut is 32bit software that’s really starting to show its age. It can’t take advantage of the multiple cores the way other apps like After Effects can. It also can’t address more than 4GB of RAM. It can’t take advantage of all the hardware the 8 core Nehalem Mac Pro has to offer. So, if you’re mainly using Final Cut, and you’re already on an Intel Mac, then I would recommend that you save your money. Wait until Final Cut is updated to 64bit before buying new hardware. If you’re on a G5 or older though, you will see a nice speed bump and I would recommend this computer.
Capture Card – Fully Loaded
Experience: I’ve used it
The MXO2 received a 5 COW review over at Creative Cow.
Edit: Most people who are looking at this unit, are also considering the AJA Io HD. There are 2 major differences that could sway your purchase decision, that are not really addressed in the review above. One, which is why I prefer the MXO2, is that it has 6 analog audio outputs so you can monitor surround sound mixing. The AJA Io HD tops out at 4. The second issue is regarding Apple ProRes capture. To capture ProRes in HD, you need at least a Quad-core processor. This means that your MacBook Pro can NOT capture HD material in ProRes. The AJA Io HD on the other had, has a ProRes encoder built-in, so it doesn’t have to rely on the computer’s processing power. This is also why it can run over Firewire 800 and the MXO2 needs a PCIe/Expresscard connection. We had this issue on a recent shoot where we wanted to capture from an HDCAM deck at ProRes, but we had a MXO2 and a laptop, so we were limited to only DVCPRO HD. We use tapes so rarely because the vast majority of our shooting is to flash memory, which is why we went with the MXO2 over the AJA Io HD for field use. But in this one respect, the AJA Io HD would have been the superior product. For that shoot, we ended up shipping a Mac Pro with a Kona 3 up to the crew. They preferred the tower over the laptop anyway, so I think in the end it’s a non-issue. We’re planning on sending a tower on every multi-week shoot now. We’ll probably swap out the Kona 3 in favor of the MXO2 to use the H.264 encoder.
Edit 2: The MXO2 software cannot coexist with the MXO2 mini software or another capture card from another manufacturer. I was a bit bummed by this because I could see owning a few Minis for inexpensive monitoring on a bunch of Mac Pros and one MXO2 for capturing/printing to tape that I could use on whatever edit system I wanted to. But when I hooked up my MXO2 mini to my laptop, which had the software for the MXO2 installed, it wouldn’t work. I had to uninstall the MXO2 software, then install the MXO2 Mini software. It even shows up in System Preferences as “MXO2 Mini”, so it definitely is a different piece of software. This is dumb and Matrox should fix this.
Edit 3: A friend of mine with the MXO2 LE tells me that there’s an audio output problem – levels from FCP are jacked. There are details on Matrox’s site and they’ve issued software updates that instead of fixing the problem, subvert it by disabling CoreAudio. Matrox has been promising a fix for awhile now and has been telling customers to hold tight. But it’s been a long standing problem and Matrox’s inability to fix it in a timely manner has me doubting their commitment. I don’t know if this applies to all of Matrox’s boxes, or just the MXO2 LE, but it’s enough for me to question the customer service level of the company and remove their recommendation from my site. I’m gonna double-check which products are affected and change this page accordingly.
Capture Card – Inexpensive
Blackmagic Intensity Pro
Experience: I’ve used it
This card is a really great value. For only $200 you get HDMI In and Out, Component In and Out for HD and SD, and analog RCA connection for audio. Throw in a cheap LCD monitor and you have full HD viewing for your edit system. If you’re still just using the Canvas window to edit, you need to step up. I spend quite a bit of my time during an online edit correcting problems that the offline editor could not see because they were using the Canvas as their viewer. Your edits WILL be better with proper monitoring.
Matrox MXO2 Mini Don’t Buy! – Possible Audio Output Problem
Experience: I own it. I bought the one with MAX H.264 hardware encoding for $800
The MXO2 Mini has the same features as the Blackmagic Intensity Pro, but it’s a separate box like the full-size MXO2. Like the MXO2, it works via Expresscard to a laptop or PCIe to a desktop. Yes it costs twice as much as the Intensity Pro, but it can be used by either a desktop or laptop, and it’s the cheapest option available to laptops.
Edit: The MAX H.264 hardware encoding is awesome! It’s a real time saver and pays for itself very quickly. The Matrox MAX has 2 quality settings – The high quality setting looks really good, but definitely takes longer than the standard setting. With Compressor, at it’s highest quality setting, it looks better than all the hardware encoders, but at a huge cost of time – many times over what the hardware encoders take (why is H.264 encoding on the Mac so sloooooow?). When dealing with clients that need decent quality, but need it NOW, the Matrox has been great. When encoding stuff for web or podcast that doesn’t need to be released right away, I go with Compressor at the highest settings.
Hard Drive Controller
ATTO R380 SAS
Experience: I use it everyday
Atto Tech has THE best tech support hands down. This was just reaffirmed to me today (2/3/10). Super nice and helpful people, based in the USA! Don’t buy something from Highpoint because it’s “cheaper.” Atto Tech is a prime example that the true value of an item is rarely it’s selling price.
Hard Drives (internal)
80GB – $240, 160GB – $450 (but these prices can vary quite a bit)
Experience: I use them everyday
The first generation Intel x25 was the first serious Solid State Drive to hit the market. There were other SSDs that claimed low power consumption and fast read/write speeds, but the X25 was the first drive to really deliver the promise of SSDs. The M was targeted to general use while the E is the much more expensive Enterprise version. It blew away everything else on the market at the time and quickly became the standard to which all other SSDs are compared. In late summer Intel updated the X25 and it was quickly scarce. Even at this point in time (Dec 2009) it’s difficult to find and if you can find it, it will likely be selling for more than Intel’s MSRP. Is it worth it? A resounding YES. I have installed 4 80GB X25-M drives as the boot drives in 4 of Brain Farm’s edit suites in their new production facility here in Jackson Hole, WY. Replacing a 640GB drive in a Mac Pro with a 74GB SSD does take a bit of data movement (and you have to let the editor know or they will unknowingly and quickly fill it with media). But it’s pretty painless on a new computer. The default, no-frills install of Mac OS x 10.6 is only 6GB. When you get an SSD, you’ll really start to question what exactly you’re using all that space on your hard drive for. Then get a second internal drive to put all the extras and media on. The speed difference is very noticable. SSDs are very fast with small file reads and writes, which makes it perfect as a boot drive. Your computer will boot up faster, applications load faster, everything is, just, snappier. For a computer that’s starting to show its age, an SSD can be a real shot in the arm. It will make it seem new again. The old adage has been if you can’t afford a new computer, get more RAM. It will make it feel like a new computer. That definitely holds true with SSDs.
I’m not going to bore you with charts and comparisions. You can go to Anandtech.com for that. There’s a lot of different SSDs out there and they have different capacities and price/performance ratios. But if you want the best, just get the Intel. Yes SSDs are expensive right now. But they pay for themselves in increased productivity. In the case of edit systems or servers, where time really is money and every little slowdown is critical, especially when a client is in the room constantly looking at their watch, these guys pay for themselves very quickly.
Edit: They might be TOO fast. I installed these in a bunch of Mac Pro editing systems to speed up everyday tasks. But the PCIe ethernet cards we were using stopped showing up. After doing some digging, I realized that the OS was loading so quickly during boot up, that the ethernet card drivers didn’t have enough time to load properly. I couldn’t find a way to fix this, so I pulled the SSDs and went back to spinning boot drives. I did notice no real improvement in speed with Final Cut, specifically opening projects and running autosave – 2 areas where I thought I would see an improvement using as SSD. So if you’re thinking about getting an SSD to make FCP faster, it doesn’t help.
Experience: I use them everyday
Hitachi has 2 Enterprise drives, the Deskstar E7K, which is also known as the Saturn, and the high-end Ultrastar. The Saturns are server quality drives that are designed to run 24/7 and come with a 5 year warranty. They have a vibration suppression system that allows them to run better alongside other drives in RAIDs and racks. They retain many of the features of the Ultrastar line, but are much easier on the wallet. They are priced in the middle between the regular Deskstar drives and the high-end Ultrastars, which makes them much cheaper than server level drives from other companies. I’ve had the unfortunate experience of a Hitachi drive failure. Then again, I’ve experienced drive failures from every major manufacturer. Some more than others. But Hitachi’s exchange and replacement process is the best hands down. After some painful experiences with Seagate earlier this year, Hitachi is the only brand I currently buy. Even with the external drives listed below, I make sure they are loaded with Hitachis before I place my order.
Edit: It looks like Hitachi has replaced the “Saturn” model with the “Jupiter”. I spoke with OWC and it looks like the Jupiter is a “green” drive, so it’s not what I would consider an equivalent replacement for the Saturn since I would not use the Jupiter in a RAID or server. Green drives use techniques to save energy that increase latency, and really mess with RAID controllers as the drives go on and offline (spinup and spindown). But it also looks like the price of the Ultrastars has come down, so losing the Saturn model maybe a non-issue.
Hard Drives (external/portable)
In this category, I only recommend RAID-1 drives. This is because I’ve had every brand of single drive and RAID-0 drive fail on me. Nothing sucks more than having a hard drive fail under deadline. I used to have single drive and RAID-0 recommendations up here, but I got tired of hearing from people – “Hey, a drive you recommended on your site failed on me. WTF?” All hard drives fail. It’s not a question of IF, but WHEN. Always have your work protected in some way.
With external/portable drives, make sure you don’t daisy chain endlessly. I’ve sat at a few editors desks that required 6+ daisy-chained Firewire drives to be fired up, just to open a project. Doing that introduces latency issues, loss of bandwidth, and just the fact that you’re using so many cables and connections with so many possible points of failure. If this is you, scroll down to the “Hard Drives (External/Stationary)” section.
Newer Tech Guardian Maximus for data protection (RAID-1)
Experience: I own it
CalDigit VR for data protection (RAID-1)
Experience: I’ve used it
The CalDigit VR and Newer Tech Guardian Maximus are both RAID-1, but the VR allows you to pull the drives without taking the case apart. You can buy additional drives too. This works great for creating multiple backups in the field. You can pop the drives out (the 2 drives are mirrors of each other) and ship them or travel with them as separate sets. So if something happens to your bag with all the “A” drive sleds in it, you don’t have to worry because you have all your “B” drive sleds in another bag. Right now I’m working on a production where the field producer is sending the “A” drive sleds to the production office via FedEx to start loading onto the SAN. While the “B” drive sleds stay with them. Since we have a CalDigit VR enclosure at the office, we just pop the “A” drive sleds in and start offloading. In case something happens in shipping, the “B” drives are still safe with the field production crew. Since they have extra drive sleds with them, then can put the “B” drive into the enclosure, along with a blank drive in slot 2, and create a new drive “C”, which is a mirror of drive “B”.
CalDigit VR mini for use in the field (bus-powered RAID-1)
Experience: I’ve read about it
A review of the Caldigit VR Mini from Creative Cow’s Jerry Hofmann
Hard Drives (external/stationary)
So these are the big dogs. Enclosures with 8 drives or more and SAS, Fibre Channel or direct PCIe connections. I’ve used setups from companies like Huge Systems (formerly Ciprico), CalDigit, Maxx Digital, Promise, Active Storage, ProAVIO/Enhance Technologies, etc. They probably won’t like me saying this, but at this level, things really start to even out. There’s basically 4 components at play:
1. Hard Drives – these are all pretty much the same in these RAIDs. The most popular is probably Hitachi Enterprise, but that can always change. Fairly often the builders will add their own custom firmware to the hard drives to enhance performance in their specific enclosure, add monitoring capabilities, etc. This is why you usually can’t just pop in your own extra drive when one fails. You need to use one of theirs.
2. The enclosure itself – this is where you will find the most discrepancy between builders at this level, and where paying more can result in a better product. Having a robust enclosure that can handle running 24/7 for years is very important. The ability to hot-swap failing components like fans and redundant power supplies is required, but not always standard.
3. The controller card and it’s interaction (software usually) with the enclosure – this is another area where all-in-one package systems shine. The monitoring and setup software is very tightly integrated. Companies like CalDigit are great at this. This is where building your own RAID will have shortcomings.
4. Tech Support – all of the companies listed above have excellent technical support. If you’re considering dropping thousands on a RAID, I suggest you do a fake call to support to see what their wait times and response is like. When spending this kind of money, you are fully justified in doing that. Support is everything. This is where building your own RAID has no match. If your DIY RAID is having troubles you have to deal with them yourself. Determine the level of downtime you can handle if you run into problems, and let that determine how robust an enclosure to get, and how much you value tech support. If you don’t have a technical person in-house, then you shouldn’t consider anything but an all-in-one solution.
Which is the best? Well, that’s hard for me to determine because as much as things here are very evenly matched, there are also many different uses for these systems. If you’re going with Xsan or any other fibre-based SAN, I would suggest Active Storage. I also like Promise and have had excellent experiences with their support, but I have heard stories from others to the contrary. If you’re looking for direct-attached, avoid Fibre Channel. You’re paying a lot extra for a technology that’s optimized for multiple target/initiator use, such as SANs. SAS and direct PCIe are much faster than Fibre Channel at this time.
Another thing you want to keep in mind is expandability. SAS allows daisy chaining of enclosures as long as they have expanders built in. I believe the ATTO R380 SAS card supports up to 128 drives. But an 8 drive unit with an expander built-in can cost quite a bit more than a standard 8 drive unit. CalDigit sells PCIe expanders for their HDPro RAIDs which are a direct PCIe connection.
RAID-5 or RAID-6. I used to be a champion of RAID-5 because I always thought 6 was overkill. The only time you need 6 is if you have a second drive fail in your volume before you get a chance to replace or rebuild the first failure. Well, that just happened to me. It freaked me out to say the least. What are the odds? I would suggest RAID-5 if you’re either the only one using the RAID, or if you’re a small shop and there’s always someone around to swap a failed drive. If a drive does fail, I do suggest not working while the rebuilding is taking place (technically you can still work and that’s the great thing about RAID-5, but the rebuild will take longer and the speed of the RAID will be reduced, so it might not be worth it). If you can afford this chance of downtime, go RAID-5. But if you’re a bigger shop, can’t afford any downtime at all, and you might not have a tech person around at all times to deal with drive failures, then go RAID-6. Either way, make sure the contents of your RAID are backed up elsewhere. Either a full backup of the RAID (which I don’t recommend) or copies of media on LTO-4 tape or other hard drives. Always make sure your media and projects are in 2 different places (at least), just in case. I’ll be posting an article on backup and archiving in the near future.
Pretty much at this level, if you’re going with a vendor offering an all-in-one solution (enclosure, drives, controller card, support) then you can’t go wrong. They are all awesome. You will only run into issues if you cheap out and start substituting cheaper components and doing it yourself.
SAN – Shared Storage
Small Tree have been the leaders of the Video Editing over Ethernet movement. All the ethernet SANs I’ve installed have used Small Tree components. Initially they just offered the networking components, but after fielding numerous calls from installers with storage problems, Small Tree decided to get into the storage game and built the GraniteSTOR. They’ve spent a lot of R&D designing an SAS storage unit that’s optimized for ProRes editing over Ethernet. There’s a lot of custom firmware in the enclosure and the SAS controller card. They’ve also spent a lot of time tweaking the networking settings. This has also allowed Small Tree to bring their support up to a new level since they can control all aspects of the SAN. I’ve installed a few systems that used different components from different manufacturers. They all work great, but now I only recommend a full setup from Small Tree. If you’re going with an Ethernet-based SAN, you can’t get anything better or faster than what Small Tree offers.
What about Xsan? I’ve installed 2 Xsan systems and I can say 2 things – they are bulletproof and they are expensive. In the last year, the only downtime that the 2 Xsans experienced was when I took them apart for cleaning. Right now, if you need a shared storage system with faster speeds than Ethernet, then going with Xsan or MetaSAN with Fibre Channel is a great idea. A lot of facilities are still installing them. This is especially true if you have more than 10 edit systems and need a LOT of storage. But at the same time, I would pause and look at 10Gb ethernet. It uses the same setup as regular ethernet (with no Xsan-type software needed) but speeds in excess of 350MB/s. The hitch is right now it’s still pretty expensive. 10Gb single port cards are about $1200. I’ve heard of some production companies installing the regular Ethernet-based SAN for their edit systems, but then a single 10Gb connection to the online edit system. At my most recent installation, we were going to hook up an 8 drive SAS RAID to the online system, but we might go with 10Gb ethernet instead. It can run over Cat 6 wiring, which is awesome. What we have to see is if the online system is drawing a lot of bandwidth, how does that affect the other edit systems? 2010 is going to be an amazing year for storage.
Dell Ultrasharp 2408WFP
Experience: I use it everyday
This monitor has been a Cnet.com’s Editors Choice for awhile now. I’ve owned and used quite a few HD-size computer monitors, including the 24″ Gateway FHD2400 , the LED-backlit 24″ Dell G2410, many Viewsonics, and of course the ubiquitous Apple 23″ Cinema Display. But my favorite far and away is the Dell Ultrasharp. It uses the same LCD display as the more expensive Apple, but throws in many more connections than the Apple’s single DVI connection. The HDMI In allows connection to a Blu-Ray player, upconverting DVD player, or capture card such as the BMD Intensity Pro, AJA Kona LHi or Matrox MXO2. Doing this with an Apple Cinema Display usually requires another converter box such as the BMD HDLink. The Ultrasharp may be more expensive than most of the saturated 1920×1200 monitor market, but the fact that you can run many things (computer monitor, HDMI out from edit system, component for DVD player, S-Video for, gasp, a VCR) with the same LCD panel as the venerable Apple Cinema Display make it a winner and huge value in my book.
Edit: The 2408WFP has been replaced by the U2410. It has a different bezel, buttons and GUI. From what I can tell, that’s the only difference in the new model.
Experience: I own a pair
Audio is the red-headed stepchild of video editing. I can’t tell you how many times I see JBL Soundsticks or Altec Lansing computer speakers used as audio “monitors” on a FCP editor’s desk. The default active monitor for most of my installations as been the M-Audio BX5a, which I think is good for video editors, but not great if you need to really dig into your mix. I ended up using the Reveals completely by accident. Through high school and college, they were just always around. The high-end suites I worked in had JBLs (around $2000 per speaker), but most of the midrange suites were stocked with Reveals. At TGR, the main edit suite had a pair of Active 6’s. I just became used to them because of the hundreds (thousands?) of hours I sat in front of them. When I hear a mix on them, I know exactly how that mix will sound on a variety of systems and speakers. Almost like the Yamaha NS-10M. Shortly after their initial release in the mid-90s, they came to define the near-field monitor category. Thus, they sold like crazy and are now very easy to find used. My current passive pair cost $180. I use them in conjunction with a high-powered Sony surround receiver.
One thing I should add is that you should have a “crappy” speaker system to double-check your mixes on. This allows you to hear what your viewer most likely will hear in a less than ideal environment. It can also help with dialogue mixing if you think you’re burying the vocal too much. Personally, I use a 20″ SD TV from Kmart. Some sound mixers dispute this method. But using this technique has, I believe, made my audio for TV mixes better.
ADAM A5 ($400 each) and Sub7 ($550) – I guess this isn’t a runner up because I think it’s a superior speaker to the Reveal, but for budgetary reasons they are not currently on my desk. The A5 is probably what I’ll base an upcoming 5.1 system around. Very transparent. A few factors more expensive than used Reveals, but still a value for what they deliver. I’m looking for a physically smaller monitor than the Reveal and the A5 seems to fit the bill without any compromise, which is difficult when the woofer starts to get too small. For a normal sized installation, I would recommend a bigger monitor like the A7 ($550 each).
M-Audio BX5a ($300/pr)- A great small active monitor. Every editor should have a pair of these AT THE VERY LEAST, and not a pair of crappy computer speakers. I’ve noticed that Mackie has released a 5″ active monitor, the MR5, for only $300/pr. I’m gonna have to give em a spin…
KRK VXT6 ($450 each)- I’ve spent the last few weeks using these and I have to say I’m impressed. They have 6″ woofers, but the bass extends down much lower than I thought it would. They would work great in a movie-style 5.1 setup where the sub is only used for effects and not for carrying the bass that would normally play in a full range monitor. These can really hold their own in that respect. They also have a spaciousness that makes the audio seem to extend beyond the sides of the cabinets to widen the soundstage. Most near-fields are very directional, which some people like and some don’t. I prefer a big enveloping soundstage. I haven’t done a critical mix on them yet though, and I may turn out to hate them. So time will tell.
Experience: I own a pair
I’m not really going out on a limb here recommending the 7506s. They have been the industry standard in film and video production for quite awhile. I have tried many different headphones over the years (and currently own about 8 different pairs). Some are more transparent, some have better isolation, some have more bass, some have a flatter response; but at the end of the day, it’s nice to be listening to your sound the same way 80% of the other people in this industry are listening to your sound. Simple as that.
Noise Reduction Filter
Experience: I own it
Experience: I’ve used them
I like these because they are very simple to use with great feedback on their displays. Similar to the Sennheiser G2 in that regard. But the receiver is true-diversity, which is 2 receivers in one. It automatically switches between the 2 receivers to go with the one with the better signal. This translates to fewer dropouts. Normally, you have to spend a lot more money to get this feature. My overall favorite wireless system is the Lectrosonics 400 series with waterproof transmitter. But there’s a huge price jump between the Sony and the Lectro. I think the Sony is a very solid performer for the price.
I haven’t settled on a favorite lav mic yet though. The Tram TR-50 is a tough mainstay. But I’ve also heard great things about the Countryman B6 (it’s freaking small!) and the Sennheiser MKE-2 Gold
Field Audio Recorder
Experience: I own it
Why am I recommending a coffee maker on a video/film production site? Well, some would argue that having coffee is more important than having a video monitor. How would you get people to a 6am call time without coffee? But why a coffee press instead of a traditional coffee maker? It’s been my experience that if you have a 10 cup coffee maker, it will sit half full for most of the day. Coffee that sits that long is nasty. So someone pours it out, makes another batch, drinks one cup, and the rest gets poured out a few hours later. This waste has made me a fan of the single-serving coffee maker. But espresso machines can get complicated and expensive. Other single-serving options like Keurig, which uses a plastic cup with a single serving of coffee grounds, isn’t very environmental with all the single-use plastic that gets tossed. I found the AeroPress last year at a coffee shop and became an instant fan. I think it tastes better than coffee from a drip coffee maker, and the clean up is much easier. It uses a small paper filter, so it’s environmental impact is minimal. It’s also small enough to take on trips. Plus, I seems like it could last almost forever. Try to say that about any other $25 coffee maker.