News From The Woods - February, 2006


By Bob Ketchum

Originally Published February 19, 2006

"The Magic Box"

As many of you may know, back in 1992 I made the plunge into computer assisted video editing. The NewTek Video Toaster had just fired the first shot in what eventually became the "desktop video revolution". This four input switcher was completely software-based and came bundled with a titler (called a "character generator" or CG), a paint program (called "ToasterPaint") and a 3D modeling and animation package, the first version of the now-famous LightWave 3D animation tool. The entire system drive was 120-Megabytes. It had enough RAM to play back a 5-second, 150 frame animation in real time. It was truly revolutionary. I used it for a couple of years as a front end for my tape-based video editing, which was centered around the ¾" U-Matic broadcast video format. I could mix n' match two camera inputs or two line video sources (VTR's), as the Toaster came equipped with a time base corrector. My system had a WarpEngine accelerator which drove the Amiga computer that acted as a host for the system at the (then) insane clock speed of 75MHz! Imagine that!

In 1995 the first version of the NewTek Flyer, a non-linear computer editing system, was released to the public. I bought a 1-Gigabyte audio drive and two 4-Gigabyte video Flyer drives all installed into a tower case and connected up to the Amiga mainframe via a SCSI interface. I hesitate to reveal what those original drives cost me back in '95 because I am sure you would think I was lying. Suffice to say it was a L A R G E chuck of change. But for the opportunity… nay, the PRIVILEDGE to be at the forefront of a new technology, it was somehow deemed "affordable". I had to do some pretty fast talking to my banker because he did not share my enthusiasm for the importance or significance of this paradigm shift (to steal from NewTek's own early vernacular).

As anybody who has stood at the front of the cutting edge (we used to call it the "bleeding edge") of any technology, there are a lot of bugs, glitches, and dreaded software revisions that you must endure. Being on the cutting edge sometimes means you have become a Beta tester without realizing it. The main difference is a Beta tester gets the software free for evaluation purposes, while a user on the bleeding edge pays incredibly high prices for the privilege of crashes, lost data, and endless software revisions. It is truly a double-edged sword. While the Toaster itself was a model of simplistic technology, the Flyer and all it's inherent video-related timing and sync problems was an unwieldy beast at best in the very beginning. Many of the old-timers remember the dreaded "Version 0.9" of the Flyer OS. NewTek, fearing a backlash of detrimental press surrounding the vast number of problems with 0.9, was understandably reluctant to openly admit that this version was an embarrassment and would bring the computer to a grinding halt under certain circumstances. And they weren't talking about which circumstances those were.

During that period I was working on a very large project for Baxter Healthcare Corporation. We had literally thousands of dollars of production time invested in the project, and I could not finish it, thanks to 0.9. I had to re-digitize all my master footage no less than three times because the computer kept corrupting my footage and the project. This went on for two weeks over schedule before I finally got a NewTek tech support person to fess up (at gunpoint). It was like "Er, Bob, I can appreciate your problem with this version of the software. We are working on it. In the meantime you might NOT want to use the following digital transitions in your project……" I took out the offending transitions and the project played like a charm. Now WHY couldn't they just tell me that two weeks back??? To be honest, that was the only time I was prepared to chuck it all and go back to my trusty tape-based cuts only editing system. And it was the only time NewTek attempted to skirt the truth. To their credit they must have learned from that mistake, and in the following years their customer support was second to none.

As the Flyer matured, many software revisions and enhancements were added. During this period an Internet mailing list was formed, a magazine dedicated to the Video Toaster User was born, and several third-party developers began writing exciting new codes that would take advantage of the Amiga's unique computer architecture. For about five years the Toaster/Flyer user base flourished. Many of the users were mid-level Videographers like me. The Toaster-based studio was the perfect answer for a medium-sized market made up of customers with shallow pockets. The third-party software sort of "supercharged" the Flyers abilities, and for less than $20,000 you could compete with broadcasters for quality control and creative features. Keep in mind that half of that investment was in hard drives!!

As a Toaster/Flyer user, networking could save your life. The mailing list became a Repository of all things Amiga/Toaster/Flyer. More importantly, those same developers were also on the list and information was freely exchanged between user, developer, and manufacturer…. A truly unique situation at the time. The community was not just a happy place to talk shop, but the feedback NewTek and the developers got first-hand from the users helped speed up the timeline of the further development and/or enhancement of the system. With so many product users on line, bugs and glitches were openly discussed and notes were compared among the user base to see if the problem was a common one or perhaps something happening to a particular user. Feedback form letters became extinct and time-consuming because many problems were solved over the list sometimes within moments of occurring. Since an archive of the mailing list was available to all subscribers, newbies to the list could just be directed to that particular problem thread and the fix or work around was just a matter of reading the posts and fixing the bug in your own system.

When the first magazine came along there was a respectable user base, obviously enough to warrant killing trees for. Along the way, through contacts made on the mailing list, I was asked to submit an article on audio for the Flyer. My article was accepted, and as one thing led to another I was eventually enlisted into the staff of the magazine as the resident "audio guru" of Toasterworld and Flyerdom. All of a sudden I was getting paid for writing about something I loved! It was quite a gratifying experience. As my articles were digested by the readers, many of whom were on the mailing list, I began to get feedback on my subject material as well. If a particular glitch reared it ugly head I would write about it and include how I solved the problem - sometimes with the help of the on line developers - or by using a workaround suggested by the NewTek staff to achieve the same or similar results with the existing software limitations. This became an important and integral factor in the Toaster/Flyer users life, as audio was the real weak spot in the T/F OS. All users were aware that an audio glitch could cause the entire Flyer software to freak out. I wrote an entire article advising users to be particularly careful about over-modulating the volume when digitizing audio into the Flyer. I had to repeatedly remind people that audio reading over 0VU might be acceptable in the analog world, but in Digitaland, "overs" meant corrupt audio files, which meant an unstable Flyer project at best. Many a project was saved or recovered because the dreaded audio monster was beheaded.

As time wore on, and Video Toaster User Magazine gave way to NewTek Pro Magazine, I managed to stay on board and continue writing articles about Flyer audio and in general the care and feeding of the T/F system. As more and more problems were solved by NewTek and the developers, there was less and less to discuss that hadn't already been solved and documented. I wrote several articles that were basically product reviews of specific third-party software for the Amiga, and even was asked upon occasion to be a Beta Tester. Talk about the "bleeding edge" of technology! One such audio software release was for the PC, but I thought it was so instrumental in aiding the audio professional that I asked my editor if I could review it anyway. To my knowledge this was one of the first times that software for the PC was discussed in conjunction with the Amiga. However, as many users were now running both the Amiga and a PC in their operations, it was received very well by the readers. By this time most of us using dual platforms had figured out a way to move data back and forth. I was using two 100-Meg Zip drives. This was just before the USB protocol was introduced. Now you can buy a 2.2-Gig USB flash drive for under $50 in a bubble pack at the check out line in Wal Mart. We've sure come a long way, baby!

Some of you may remember SoundProbe, an audio editing package that was developed by Dave O'Reilly. Dave resides in England, and had many ties with the Amiga community, but saw the handwriting on the wall for the platform early on and decided to move into developing software for the PC. Soundprobe was an exciting audio software editor and I was a Beta tester for several years throughout the life of the product until Dave sold the patent rights to HiSoft. He and I built up a long email friendship that lasts to this day. During the course of using his software I offered a lot of input which he would sometimes incorporate into the code. In an email one day I asked him if he had ever considered developing a color scheme for the audio waveform. He immediately wrote back and told me a "funny story" about how he had developed just that thing for Soundprobe back when he was still developing it for the Amiga platform, but he couldn't figure out a use for it so he dropped the code as the software developed over to the PC. I told him that I did a lot of legal audio and video work here and that it would aid greatly in audio forensics. Most audio experts know that you can compare waveforms of audio voice recording and match up mouth sounds and certain words side by side for analysis, but I pointed out if you could assign colors to certain frequency bands it would make it much easier to match up specific voice patterns. In less than three days he sent me a new version of Soundprobe that had all that original code back in it. He called it "2D Color Time Graph" mode and I still use that and the software to this day.

I now have three computers here at Cedar Crest, all PC's. They are networked together using Ethernet connections. Two of them have dual screen set ups and the third is my notebook which is fully loaded for bear (audio/video). Although I have had Premiere Pro for three years, I still prefer to use good old Sony Vegas for my video editing chores. I have just moved up to Vegas 6 + DVD. Many of my friends who know what a "Toasterboaster" (with apologies to Paul Lara) I have always been were puzzled by my seemingly flagrant abandonment of NewTek by not buying into the new VT[4]. Let the records show that I have always been a supporter of all things NewTek. However, toward the end of The Reign of the Toaster/Flyer, as NewTek gravitated more towards the PC, I saw subtle changes taking place. I suppose it all started years ago when, like the Borg, NewTek began to "assimilate" many of those same third-party developers into the company's tech force. It was a good move on the one hand, but I believe (and this is my own personal opinion here) it started a trend towards developing a software NLE that was designed by developers, FOR developers. What I mean is that the mindset that was needed to grasp the many features and functions of the "new Toaster" was more tech oriented and less user oriented. So many independent Videographers out here in the real world come from a "hold the camera still" background instead of a "hand me the soldering iron" background. Of course when I mentioned this I was scoffed at through the "official" channels, and flatly told to "get with the Millennium" and adjust to the learning curve. "Those that will not grow will be left behind" I was told.

Hogwash. I saw no need to have to start taking night classes in computer technology just so I can keep up with the Jones'. While for many that might ring true, for many more people like me….. We simply wanted something that acted like our old Toasters. Simple. Easy. Efficient. And it was becoming clear that this new version of the Toaster was supposed to be a "do all" for EVERYONE. Well, that's easier said than done and I am sure in retrospect many in the NewTek camp would be hard pressed not to agree. Creating an updated version of the Toaster, with similar feature sets and enhanced graphics capabilities, while still including a switcher probably proved to be a daunting task for the NewTek VT development team. When the fist version of the Toaster (VT[2]) was released, I was excited to get my hands on it. The magazine had folded and I was no longer writing articles for the soon-to-be-defunct Amiga Toaster/Flyer. A friend of mine who lived nearby had been following the progress of the PC Toaster - largely because he knew of my system here and figured the PC version would be that much better - bit the bullet and purchased a VT[2]. Admittedly this was in the early days and there were many, many bugs to be worked out. But after a month he broke down and gave me a call and asked if I could come over to his place and bring him up to speed. I jumped at the opportunity and went for a look-see. He had a very simple video project that he was putting together for his son, an avid motorcyclist. He had put together the basic timeline of the project and wanted to incorporate a LightWave 3D Flying Logo opening and some title pages. The Flying logo was easy as I was pretty familiar with LW and the new version wasn't too far removed from my 6.5 on my PC. It took maybe 30 minutes to navigate my way around and get his animation speedily rendered on his brand new high-powered PC. Then I began to delve into the CG and ran aground in shallow waters. To cut to the chase, it took me more than FOUR HOURS just to figure out how the thing worked! And another hour to create three simple title pages. I was dumbstruck! How could this be? How could they call this a "Toaster"??? There were so many keystrokes, menu pages, and import/export moves that I was thoroughly confused by the end of the day. He looked at me and said, "Why isn't this as easy as on your system?" It wasn't an easy question to answer. I tried to explain that this new Toaster would do so much more than the old Amiga version, but that meant the learning curve would be higher and he had to do more homework just to understand the operating system and workflow. His reply pretty much sums up what I had been implying for years…… "Well, I'm just a simple video guy. I don't NEED all those features. I just want to get this video project done in a reasonable amount of time".

Well, I am sure he has got a better grip on his system by now, and most assuredly the newer revisions of the VT have been streamlined a bit, but the problem is still there. And now, NewTek has launched the "Tricaster", essentially a stripped-down Toaster switcher without all the bells and whistles. It truly is a marvel of technology, created with the same brilliant insight that spawned the original Toaster. You can switch, you can stream, you can present…. And all live if you want to. It's great in its niche market. But now, what of the original VT? Only time will tell. It's too bad they couldn't have invented the Tricaster first, then spent time restructuring the VT into a more simple and intuitive NLE. More like the original Flyer. More user friendly to the "average Joe" videographer. Or maybe time will prove that the "average Joe" videographer is NOW a much more hip and savvy left-brainer type who actually understands the thing. I don't know. Maybe I'm just too old to be in this business anymore. I am not living my life that way, though, as I continue to do my indy video work here in the hills of Arkansas.

No, I chose Vegas for a few simple reasons: First, for my needs (and that is very important when choosing your own system), I prefer a simple and straightforward interface. For my money Vegas is as close as I have been able to get to the original Toaster. It is amazingly simple to use and I figured most of it out in a day - just as I had back in 1992 with my original Amiga Toaster. Second, I haven't had the need for a video switcher for the past 8-10 years as I no longer do live studio switching any more. So the ticket price for a VT[?] which includes a switcher is out of my economic grasp. If, at the time of my purchase, NewTek could have offered an NLE based on the old technology - only for a PC - at a fair and reasonable price (say, UNDER $1,000) I would have happily jumped at the chance. I simply do not make that much income in Arkansas to warrant spending thousands of dollars on new hardware, new software, and a new operating system with it's associated advanced learning curve. Vegas was there and it was ready and it was under $600 ! I have never regretted that decision. And it still amazes me that people use Premiere Pro or Final Cut Pro or even some Pinnacle NLE when there is a much simpler and easier to use NLE out there. But that's what makes the world go 'round. What's good for the goose is not necessarily good for the gander. VIVA LA' DIFFERENCE!

Now let me close this article with a few final thoughts: NewTek DID start the revolution in desktop video production. Let there be no mistake about that! As the computer audio world has opened up the door to musicians of all economic means to produce professional music tracks, the original Toaster enabled anyone with a camcorder and a computer to create the video project of their dreams. I have no doubt that the current mailing list for the Toaster has a great foundation of users who are networking and exchanging information much like the list of old. However, I cannot imagine ANY list today sharing the same simple camaraderie of that original list. Non-liner video editing has grown too large to contain. There are too many versions, too many developers, too many platforms, too many different and convergent concepts in the trade to enable one single person to grasp and absorb it all. I doubt if there will ever be a similar situation in ANY form of electronic media. Those of you who started out in it as I did will know what I am talking about. In the past, there were many discussion threads on the list about this, and many tried to pin the accolades on the fact that it was the "Amiga community" that started it all, and that it was the Amiga Users that could only share that special feeling amongst themselves. Well, in a way that is true. It was a different time and let's face it, at the time only the Amiga could do all that with video. But I personally do not believe it was the computer. The computer was only the enabler. It was the community of users that dictated how the future of their business would develop, and we all chose to freely share the information for the good of all. I have never considered myself an Amiga zealot. I chose the Amiga in the beginning because it was the ONLY computer platform that would allow the developers of the day to create such a wonderful "magic box".

Next month, "Saying goodbye to the list".

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