News From The Woods - January 2, 2011

NEWS FROM THE WOODS

By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published January 2, 2011


"Looking Back From 2011"

As I sit here with coffee in hand on the second day of a new year, I ponder the last two decades of my life. It's been an amazing journey. Technology has enabled so many new roads to pursue.

In 1993 I bought my first computer, which was primarily purchased for video production. The Internet was still a bright idea whose time hadn't quite come yet. The NewTek Video Toaster was the very first video production system (called "Non Linear Editing", or NLE) ever offered to the public. It was housed in a Commodore Amiga 4000 tower. Those of you who are computer savvy today will surely smile when I mention this machine ran at the blazingly fast clock speed of 75MHz. This was made possible because the Operating System used very little RAM resources in doing its job. The 4-Gig SCSI drives cost about $1,200 apiece. The graphic capabilities of this marvelous machine were nothing short of amazing at the time. (NOTE: To read more about the Toaster's auspicious beginnings, go here. Ironically, just as this technology was making big waves in the industry, the platform which it ran on died a slow and horribly messy death. Due to several factors I won't go into here the Amiga computer spiraled down into video history. Hardly anyone in the video business today even remembers that the Amiga started it all, and I was on the bleeding edge of technology for a while there.

After several false starts, NewTek moved their NLE over to the PC. But the OS was very cumbersome compared to the simple and yet elegant Amiga Toaster. It was an extremely rocky beginning and several other video systems were nipping at NewTek's heels. I had an opportunity to get a hands-on to their new PC NLE, called the "VT2". I thought the interface was clumsy and the internal handshaking between features was unnecessary. I did not buy into this new computer program and chose to keep using the Toaster until something better came along.

In the meantime, I purchased a 28.8 telephone modem and did some (V E R Y slow) web surfing. In the mid-90's the Internet was primarily text driven, as no one had the bandwidth to download images. Video Codecs were still experiencing birthing pains. Realaudio was created in 1995. Windows Media came aboard in 1998. Even the international standard of MPEG (Moving Picture Coding Experts Group) was created in 1998, so none of this video compression technology had even been invented when I first got into computers. "Surfing" consisted of finding a "BBS", which was a web-based bulletin board containing lists of files available on line. The BBS system allowed for users to log in to the system using a terminal program. Once logged in, I could access lists of data and upload or download files. In my case, I was looking for 3-D objects for my obsession with learning how to use NewTek's Lightwave 3-D modeling system. As interest grew, software programs were offered that allowed users to exchange electronic mail, although I didn't even know anyone on the net to write to at the time.

Although I saw the handwriting on the wall I continued using the Amiga for several more years while the PC and Apple Wars continued over who would get the lion's share of the NLE market. I bought a book on basic HTML scripting, and using my word processor software on the Amiga I created my own website in 1997. As the Internet grew I grew with it, finally purchasing a "proper" email program with which to communicate with my peers and others in the industry, making the world a much smaller place to live and work in. But the ill-fated Amiga was now popping up on eBay and less support for the Amiga from NewTek caused me to make the decision to move my operation over to the PC. I still was not enamored with the VT2 and researched everything I could find on the Internet about NLE's. There was simply nothing out there that was as user friendly as the Toaster. And then I ran across a company called Sonic Foundry. They had just introduced and NLE they called VEGAS, which was a sister product to their popular ACID audio program. As crude as those early versions were, the interface was much easier to maneuver around in. It was so user friendly I immediately ordered it. At first I only did half my production on VEGAS while I was learning it, and continued to use the Amiga Toaster for the more complex video projects. Eventually I learned enough of the OS to move all my business over to the PC. I eventually took the Amiga's (I had two by this time) offline and they have spent their "senior years" powered down in a corner of the studio. I still see a lot of Amiga hardware and software on eBay - selling for mere pennies on the dollar - but I cannot bring myself to part with those wonderful machines that started it all off for me. I have since gone through about four computers. Technology has moved so fast that hardware and software has a shelf life of about two years. At present I have three computers tied together on an Intranet and can access data from all three systems from a single workstation.

Camera and video technology has also grown in leaps and bounds since those early days. The system I used in 1980 was a JVC CR-4400U ¾" U-Matic video recorder. The ¾" video format was the standard of the broadcast industry at the time. The camera, A JVC G-71, was a single tube (yes… TUBE) consumer television camera. It connected up to the portable recorder with a 6-foot multi-pin cable, which also provided power from the recorder battery. The imaging feature set was very basic and crude and you did NOT want to aim it at the sun or a very bright light as it would literally burn a spot on the television tube. Replacing tubes was a very expensive venture. The 6X zoom was manual and had a short throw. There was only an iris button with which you could open or close by twisting the knob. White balance was still in the future.

I quickly moved through technology. I replaced the JVC with a Sony HVC 2800. It was still a single tube camera but had more refined features and a more advanced television tube. With that camera I also bought a Sony ½" SL-2000 portable VCR. By 1984 I added a new Sony camera with a charge-coupled device (CCD). This was brand new technology for the time. The camera used a single color chip to get video information. The reduced size made it easy to get in and out of tight places with the camera. But a year later Sony replaced the camera cable completely and released the very first Betamovie camera. The viewfinder was optical, like a 35mm SLR camera, so there was no way to play back the footage without hooking it up to a television. Still, the freedom of movement completely changed the way I shot video at a concert for instance. I could get right down into the orchestra pit and rapidly move around without being encumbered by that pesky cable.

After that, technology moved at such a rapid pace it was hard to keep up. Sony lost a major battle when the VHS format pushed them out of the American marketplace. Then, even before the smoke had completely settled, Sony introduced the 8mm video format. While this format miniaturized camera technology, the images produced were not up to broadcast standards, so I kept shooting my professional jobs with the portable ¾" VCR hooked up to the Sony CCD camera. Eventually I got a used Sony M3 to hook up to the ¾". This was a broadcast camera. It had 3 tubes and was as heavy as a boat anchor, and about as handy. The first prosumer Hi8mm camcorder for me was the Sony VX-3. It was a 3-chip camcorder and the images were amazing compared to everything else. It also had an S-Video connector that offered an improved image using the Hi8mm format.

It wasn't long before the digital revolution sounded the death knell for analog video. My very first digital camcorder was a Sony VX-1000. It uses the MiniDV format and was based on the popular VX3 camera. By 2004 the Sony PD170 MiniDV camcorder was the studio's main camcorder. A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to come across the flagship analog camcorder of the day, a Sony UVW-100, which records in the Beta SP format. It now serves as my main studio camera, but it's weight and size is a distinct disadvantage in location shooting assignments. I added a second PD170 last year to the studio's growing camcorder arsenal. I can record in Beta SP, MiniDV or DVCAM, or direct to hard drive in .AVI (uncompressed) format.

The audio studio has seen a complete overhaul in whole operation since the late 90's. I went from 8-track in the KROKUS days to 16 track by 1988. In another ten years I moved up to a complete 24-track studio, with a new Soundcraft mixing console of British design. The big news was automated computer mixing. Although it was not "moving faders", it's VCA system allowed me to make drastic and subtle changes to the mix while monitoring the changes on a computer monitor. Data was saved on a 3.5 floppy disk. Entire mixes could be called up in mere moments.

The year 2005 was a huge year for the recording studio, for that was when I went completely digital. I sold the Soundcraft and the 24 track recorder and bought the latest technology, a Mackie 1640 digital mixing console. This mixer allows me to record 16 tracks simultaneously to computer AND/OR to the 16 track recorder that I saved from the old analog days. My mixing is now done "In The Box" (ITB). The three racks of audio gear I have been collecting since the 70's sits over in a corner have been replaced by software, but like the old Toaster, I cannot bring myself to part with my beloved vintage gear on eBay for mere pennies. Someday I'm going to have to open a museum of antiquated audio/video technology!

So now… my coffee cup is empty and morning has given way to a cold but sunny January day. As I reflect on all the changes to my life and career in the past 20 years I am amazed at how technology has been such an important part or it. The other changes, all personal and some social, don't seem to be as drastic as the technical side of things. However, I also have realized that twenty years ago our country was in better shape, our people were more satisfied, and our politicians were (possibly) more honest. I was also a lot younger and did not have the health "distractions" I endure today. I recall that I had a lot more ambition than I do today. Most of that is due to the lack of attention I have received from the industry that I call mine. I blame most of that on my remote location, and some of it on the ever-changing technology that drives our culture today. As a professional recording engineer, I was taught to get the best possible recording of my client's projects. We did whatever it took to get the very best quality of sound. The selection of microphones and where to place them was crucial to getting the "right" sound. And while that is still important today, I question the need for spending large amounts of time recording a song just to have it encoded and compressed into an MP3 file when it can be downloaded for free on the Internet.

And people wonder why much of the music today sucks…….

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