CANOPUS Goes Turn-Key
As the buzz increases about the newly introduced AMD dual Athlon-based computers and the news of Windows 2000's stability spreads, users continue to discover the capabilities of Adobe Premiere 6.0 -- the reputation for second-to-none DV codec quality continues to grow for Canopus. As a longtime Mac user and someone who's been with Media 100 from nearly the very beginning, I wondered how in the world I was going to be able to digest all of this disparate information for evaluating the use of each or any of these things for my business.
Well, taking the new Canopus StormRack through its paces is satisfying my curiosity in all of these areas and then some.
The StormRack is unique in that it marks a very conspicuous step into the mid-level professional market for Canopus, whose products are most used and appreciated in North America by "Event" videographers. While Canopus is not as well known as some other video editor-manufacturers, they are the largest manufacturer of graphics boards and video editing computer peripherals in Japan.
The StormRack is powered by two 1.2 GHz AMD Athlon processors. It's a completely turn-key NLE that comes with 512 megabytes of RAM and a 40 gigabyte hard drive for internal system and two additional 40 gigabyte hard drives that form an 80 gig RAID for media. Behind the faceplate, there's a CD-R recorder/DVD player and, of course, a floppy drive. The breakout box for interfacing digital and analog video sources is completely integrated into the front of the machine. Firewire or IEEE-1394 I/O is accessible there, as well as Y/C and composite video and unbalanced audio.
Fully boxed, the system weighs 90 pounds and is covered with stickers of cave drawings of people who have apparently tried to lift this box solo, and were obviously impaled immediately from the back with lightning bolts. Luckily, one of our staff was able to assist the truck driver in conveying the box into our office, and I must say that once you liberate the StormRack from its box, you realize that surprisingly little of the box weight is packing and manuals. This thing is solid. For those of you who have been in the business for a while, picture something about the size of a second generation rack-mountable TBC. The unit is 4 rack units high and has a faceplate that reminds me just a bit of a '57 Chevy. It's refreshing to see someone who makes equipment that goes in a rack, care about what the thing looks like. I predict the red light integrated into the body contours will be popular with users just because it's 'cool.'
The Editing Software:
The unit comes configured and you can literally plug in the mouse, keyboard, speakers and monitors of your choice and launch the system. The system comes with both Canopus StormEdit and Adobe Premiere 6.0. For all you Premiere fans who think that any other editing environment would be second best to Premiere, I would say you might be surprised at some of the niceties included in StormEdit that aren't in Premiere....more on that later.
When it comes to video editing software, Premiere has been around the block and has proven itself. However, many long-time Canopus users still prefer StormEdit for everyday editing tasks. While StormEdit doesn't have the ability to utilize more than two video tracks, it does have multiple title tracks with a "Main AV" video track and an "Insert AV" video track. The insert track is for keyed video such as chroma key elements, etc, or it can be used like a "B" video track, although the video transitions are only available between clips on the Main AV track.
StormEdit has a few features that are uniquely available in its editing environment, but arent available from the Premiere interface. One is waveform/vectorscope available on the desktop during editing. Premiere can access the test displays in the Canopus video color correction filter while you make adjustments on a particular clip, but can't access it to monitor the timeline.
I was especially pleased with the capability to take video out of StormEdit with an on screen timecode burn in from the timeline. So many manufacturers of much more expensive NLE systems have left this feature out of their systems, despite the constant requests of users. On top of just having it, it doesn't have to render and can be switched on and off. It is possible to have it included in the picture if you export an AVI or other type of file from the timeline while Show Timecode is selected.
Once the system has booted and you start Premiere or StormEdit, it's quite obvious that there is something under the hood. The crispness of response to every mouse and keyboard input is striking.
Video digitizing is fairly straightforward and most people who have used any other version of Premiere on any platform will be functional in minutes in that software environment, and with the help of the dual-Athlons under the hood, might be a bit surprised at the snappy response they get when shuttling in the timeline, digitizing and just plain housekeeping like launching applications and opening files.
Canopus' software is divided into focused modules. Storm Video is the video capture environment, StormEdit is the editing environment, Xplode Professional is a collection of plug-ins for 3d digital effects, StormAudio for basic manipulation of audio, and StormNavi which is a very useful tape logging software module that works through the Firewire connection.
Realtime MPEG or Near to It!
I think my biggest surprise was the inclusion of the SoftMPEG Encoder. Ive been utilizing software MPEG compression for several years now, I can tell you that the sheer torque of the dual Athlon processors is evident when you can sit and watch your video clip compress to MPEG-1 or 2 in real time, or excruciatingly close to it. In our tests, you could sit and literally watch your video "playing back" on the NTSC monitor at 30fps while it was being compressed. I had several co-workers enter the room and wonder why I was watching a video clip without the sound turned up when I was actually watching it compress. There were times when the encoder ran slightly less than real time, but it was only evident in the occasional lagging of a frame on the screen. For videographers ultimately deploying material on video CD or DVD, the compression time savings on this feature alone could be very significant. With the CD-RW right in the case and the presets for VCD and SVCD in the SoftMPEG Encoder, video CDs are as easy to make as VHS edit proofs.
Logging: Another Nice Surprise:
StormNavi is one of the better kept secrets in this package. Comparable software can easily cost anywhere from $400 to $700.00 US if bought separately. For those of you who may not have experience with logging software, the computer seeks out major scene changes (like camera edits) and grabs a thumbnail and records the timecode for each point. The videographer ends up with a document that they can print out on paper, or in the case of StormNavi, can be used as data input direct to batch digitize. In our tests, the software worked quite well. If the possibility exists to install this particular module on another computer with a Firewire card...a videographer using a DV format wouldn't have to tie up their edit system for this purpose, but either way they may never have to log another field tape again. Bravo!
Realtime Effects & Titling:
The StormRack is touted as having real-time effects. In either editing environment (StormEdit or Premiere), the Canopus filters and effects are the way to access this speed of video processing. I started with a base clip on the Premiere video A track, added that same clip on the B track, applied the "old movie" Canopus video filter to the clip on B and created a wipe that was about ten seconds long between the two, used TitleDeko (included with Premiere) to create a textured title, which I placed on a super track, assigning a blurred fade in to the title via the Canopus title motion filter. All these things were done the instant I clicked "OK." No render, no wait, no progress bar. Three layers of video with a transition and filters applied to two of the three tracks. In the cases of the Canopus filters and transitions, real time means real time.
Xplode Pro for 3D Effects:
Xplode professional is an extensive collection of 3d effects and alpha channel custom transitions. While these effects didn't render in real time, they did render very fast (about the duration of the effect in many cases) and looked very nice when completed. For those of us unaccustomed to working in the wedding and event industries, there are transitions that we may not use often, but there are gems in this package like a very nicely textured 3d globe that can be used as a wipe element or as an element in a graphic. With 50 transition groups and over 600 presets, this package is very flexible and powerful.
The Best Keying & Blurs in Its Class:
The Canopus video filter, which enables both software environments to apply effects in real time, includes a keying filter for luminance and chroma keying. The keying edges are very good. We tested it against an interview shot we took for a corporate client that was created to be blue-screened. The woman we interviewed had one of those hair styles that finds various strands sticking out in many directions, the biggest test of a keyer. Still, the edges in the key are smooth. Even with 4:1:1 DV video, the Canopus codec moves the clip to a 4:2:2 colorspace for keying and the "blockiness" that would foil most of our best efforts to create clean edges are not evident. This is a very useful and clean keyer. Now I can see why Canopus users always point to their keying ability as one of the best features in the system. It really is impressive.
There are a variety of useful filters in the Canopus video filter menu including possibly the best "high quality blur" filter I've seen in an NLE and a really tasty and fun "old movie" filter with adjustments for flicker, hair, and dirt. Again, all these filters are applied in real time and can be visualized while adjusting the settings on the NTSC monitor.
Overall video quality is very good. The highly recommended Canopus DV codec does indeed do a very good job at hanging on to image quality through the editing and keying/effects process. We digitized several different formats into the system to see how well the system encodes to DV as well as just "file transferring" it from a DV source via Firewire. I was very pleased with the quality we saw from Betacam SP and even some SVHS (all taken through the Y/C connector). Here at Kolb Communications, we did a few tests where we combined several types of footage onto a timeline and mastered out to Betacam SP through the Y/C connector. The results were solid with no appreciable artifacts, no dropped frames, no color shifts. We have assigned a series of 9 regional television spots to the system because of the quality of the output.
The Turn-Key Advantage:
The StormRack has a wealth of positive points. The main advantage to having a "turn-key" system is that you have one manufacturer to deal with on technical issues. It's one of the reasons many people choose Avid over some other system that requires an "integration" step, like a Media 100, which is my example of choice because we run two of them and we have some experience. I have gone on the tech support buck-passing journey caused by our company owning Media 100 boards in Apple Computers, with drives from yet a third party. Each party tells you the other company's equipment or software is at fault. It drives you crazy and can really take a lot of time.
Other than monitors and speakers, everything is assembled and configured at Canopus, and can be set up from a well-illustrated two-sided sheet of paper included in the box. This leaves one phone number to call for tech support, which is actually free other than the long-distance phone call.
The speed and stability of the system is liberating. The image quality and the flexibility of the software tools are very good, and the presence of Ultra 160 SCSI (x2), USB (x2), LAN (x2), MIDI, Com and printer ports create a variety of user configuration possibilities.
The breakout box is sturdy, however the RCA connectors used for the composite video I/O will require an adaptor from BNC in most pro shops. A limitation for this system is the lack of RS-422 deck control and analog component I/O. Anyone that is using a DV format really won't miss these features and won't miss paying for them either, but the pro and broadcast market still has plenty of analog content around. For the greater "pro" market, being backwards-compatible with legacy equipment is important. Canopus has said that there are plans for a "Rack" model with those features. How soon it will be available might be somewhat dependent on market interest.
The manual is standard across the Canopus product line. While all the Canopus software included with the system has names that start with "Storm-____", the manual only mentions software that has names that start with "Rex-____". It's the same software with the functions being consistent, however. The manual could also benefit from an index.
We found Inscriber Title Express (included with Premiere) to be unstable on this system, but with TitleDeko, the Adobe Premiere title tool, and the StormEdit title tool, you've got more text graphic options than most systems have right out of the box.
The StormRack is a very solid, fast and professional tool. At an MSRP (as tested) of $7,700.00 US, the system is also a very good value. Its image quality and speed surpasses that of systems that cost twice as much or more. Working with what may be the highest quality DV codec in the industry, the potential for high quality compositing and effects on DV may finally be here -- and it comes from a solid company that has a proven global track record.
Canopus' first step into the "mid-level" pro world looks like a very solid one.
For more information on the StormRack: Visit Canopus
Want to know more about Tim? Click here for his bio. You can also find Tim as a leader in the following CreativeCOW.net forums: Art and Craft of the Edit, Business Practices & Procedures, Canopus, Cinematography & Video Pros, Corporate Video, JVC DV, and Media 100.