Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Digital Production Studio

The Digital Production Studio these days finally is able to go portable. All of my previous production workstations had been desktop computers. I am now doing production on a MacBook Pro, and I love the flexibility of the new component approach.

I first started doing digital video producton with a Mac Quadra 840av, with a 8 MB RAID hard disk array and a Radius VideoVision video system. Then, I worked with various PowerPC desktops, the G3, G4 and G5. The Mac laptop G3 and G4 computers never seemed to have the horsepower to be a serious video production suite.

Then, the MacBook Pro and MacBook came along, and I wanted to see what was possible. The first generation MacBooks introduced the Intel Core Duo chip. The second generation of the MacBooks offered the Intel Core Duo 2, reputed to be 39% faster than the previous CPU, and other new options available.

That is when I decided the portable technology was ready to take the place in my studio of the desktop computer. I got the 15" MacBook Pro, with 2 GB RAM and 120 GB hard disk. I figured I could add other components to build my video production studio.

One of the specifications for digital video is to use 7200 rpm hard drives. The Apple laptops come with only 5400 rpm drives. You can special order other drives, with different hard disk speeds for your laptop. There is a Seagate 100 GB 2.5" SATA internal hard drive that has a 7200 rpm speed. The largest 2.5" hard drive is 200 GB, but only spins at 4200 rpm.

I figured that I could always add a larger capacity and faster hard disk later, as technology improved. In the meantime, I figured I could use my Firewire 400/USB 2.0 enclosures, and use various capacity Seagate Barracuda 7200 rpm drives for production. I have a Seagate 300 GB and a Seagate 500 GB installed in low profile aluminum Mobile Disk Firewire 400/USB 2.0 enclosures. This allowed me to migrate some of my older ATA 100 drives from my PowerPC production environment to my new world.

I waited for the second-generation MacBook Pro, partly because the first generation did not have a Firewire 800 port on the 15" model. Only the 17" MacBook Pro had the Firewire 800 port. I tried buying a refurbished 17" first-generation MacBook Pro, because it had both the Firewire 800 and Firewire 400 ports. But, I ended up returning it right away to the Apple online store, because the aluminum casing was so fragile, that it arrived with the case slightly bent. It seemed too large and unwieldy, so I resolved to buy the next generation 15" MacBook Pro.

The reason that a video production suite needs both the Firewire 800 and Firewire 400 ports, is that you need to have your digital video deck or camera plugged into a Firewire port, and your Firewire capture drive plugged into the other Firewire port. The new family of MacBook Pros now had the basic minimum number of Firewires ports needed.

Video Studio Configuration

In my video production suite, MacBook Pro boots off of a Maxtor 1.5 TB drive. The Maxtor III 1.5 TB drive system is actually two 750 GB hard drives RAIDed together in a nice compact brick with two Firewire 800 ports, a Firewire 400 port, and a USB 2.0 port. The drive array fits nicely under the MacBook Pro, which is lifted up to eye level using a Griffin laptop stand. The MacBook Pro DVI connector is hooked up to a DVIator interface that supports up to 23" Apple Cinema Display screens. The DVIator interface is needed to supply power and a USB connector to the Apple Cinema Display. A non-Apple monitor does not need this, as it has it's own power supply. A non-Apple display, like a 19" or larger Sharp or Sony LCD only requires a DVI to VGA adapter connector hooked up to the MacBook Pro right-side graphics port.

The entry level MacBook Pro offers only 128 MB VRAM, while the upgraded models offer 256 MB VRAM. The 128 MB VRAM system will support up to a 23" Apple Cinema Display. The 256 MB VRAM models will support the larger higher resolution displays. Either MacBook Pro VRAM version, or even the MacBook, with only shared memory, will support Final Cut Pro and video production. Any of the MacBooks or MacBook Pros can drive an LCD projector or eternal monitor.

More about Firewire standards. Firewire 400 started us off with digital video. Before Firewire, we had other ways to digiitize the media and control the video decks, but it was harder and more expensive to get the quality and workability that you want in a production environment. Digital video components made it much easier than the previous analog video component systems. Firewire 400 (1394a) was great at 400 mbps, and then Firewire 800 (1394b) came along, at 800 mbps.

Firewire 800 uses 9-pin connectors. Firewire 400 uses 6-pin connectors and 4-pin connectors. There are 9-pin to 6-pin cables that let you connect a Firewire 400 drive to a Firewire 800 port. A Firewire 6-pin connector plugs into the right side of a MacBook Pro and the the 4-pin end plugs into a DVCAM edit deck or miniDV camera. A Firewire 9-pin connector can be acquired that plugs into the Firewire 800 port of a MacBook Pro and the 4-pin end plugs into a DVCAM edit deck or miniDV camera. Camera to camera (or edit deck) cloning of digital tapes requires a 4-pin to 4-pin Firewire cable.

Word of caution. There are some new digital video cameras that are popping up that are hard disk recorder based, and use a USB connector. Cameras like the JVC hard disk recorder will not work with Final Cut Pro and a MacBook Pro. USB was not supported as a video digitizing and controlling connector with applications like Final Cut Pro, Final Cut Express or iMovie. You will see a message that it is not compatible with the system.

USB 2.0 now supports up to 480 mbps, so it is used for video digitization by some applications like El Gato's eyeTV.

One of the upgrades that I appreciate is the second-generation MacBook Pros have dual layer DVD recording. That means you can make a 4 hour DVD, instead of only a 2 hour DVD, like the first Mac Intel units. Using a video capture option, eyeTV is a USB TV channel receiver that makes your MacBook into a Tivo-like recorder. Then, you can record the programs on your internal DVD burner.

One of the deciding factors to jump into an Intel Mac was the ability to use Parallels as a Virtual Machine and install Windows XP and Windows applications. This allows me to run MacOS and run Parallels with Windows XP, and turn on a feature called Coherence. This allows me to have both Mac programs and PC programs open on the same computer.

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