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HDV/DV Rack by Serious Magic

COW Library : HDV Format : Tim Kolb : HDV/DV Rack by Serious Magic
HDV/DV Rack by Serious Magic

A CreativeCow.net Product Review

HDV/DV Rack by Serious Magic-- A Creativecow review by Tim Kolb
Tim Kolb

Tim Kolb
Kolb-Syverson Communications
Appleton, Wisconsin USA

©2005 by Tim Kolb and CreativeCow.net. All Rights Reserved.

Article Focus:
There are times when a piece of software or hardware comes along that changes your thinking about what tools are critical in your work. DV Rack was one of those pieces for Emmy® Award winner, Tim Kolb. The ability to have accurate and comprehensive image and audio quality measurement via FireWire anywhere you can power a laptop changed the way Tim thought about acquiring video. With the arrival of the HDV Power Pak upgrade module, the same technical control is now available for those of us shooting HDV. Read the rest of Tim's review...


There are times when a piece of software or hardware comes along that changes your thinking about what tools are critical in your work. DV Rack was one of those pieces for me. The ability to have accurate and comprehensive image and audio quality measurement via FireWire anywhere you can power a laptop changed the way I thought about acquiring video. With the arrival of the HDV Power Pak upgrade module, the same technical control is now available for those of us shooting HDV. If you’ve checked the prices on HD test instruments, or even simply adequate HD video monitors, HDV Rack starts looking like a piece of software an HDV videographer can’t afford NOT to have.

Serious Magic was founded in 2001. Visual Communicator was their first product and was a comprehensive presentation package, but not really a professional production tool and as really innovative as Visual Communicator is, some production professionals may have “pigeon-holed” the company as the developer of presentation software. I may have even been one of those people, however, after seeing DV Rack in action at a tradeshow, I decided to give it a try.

Not to give away the ending but I’m uncertain that any of this software is “magic,” but for a professional videographer, it’s definitely “serious.”

DV Rack is a collection of professional signal quality monitoring tools in software that is easily run in the field on a laptop. As if that’s not enough, it also captures that video to the harddrive as well. You can add the capability to do all this with HDV as well with the HDV Power Pak for DV Rack…while still not spending as much for the software as you would for one high quality AC/DC field monitor…and a standard definition one at that.


The Video Monitor

The video monitor on the DV Rack left me cold in theory. How could an overlay window on an RGB panel on a laptop be a reliable YUV colorspace shooting monitor? The answer is in the calibration. Anyone who has used a Sony Professional video monitor will recognize the face of the monitor in DV Rack. The controls on the monitor and the rest of the “devices” in DV Rack are designed after 3 dimensional gear you might find sitting in a rack in a studio. Buttons need to be clicked and dials need to be selected and the mouse dragged to “turn” them. The “power” button on each turns them “off” which makes them disappear…which I guess I’ve never seen an actual video monitor do when I turn it off unless I forget to lock the office door at night…

The monitor has a “blue only” button just like my Sony monitors do, and the calibration works exactly the way I’d do it in the office. I used the DV Rack in several shoots, with my PDX-10 and through a Canopus ADVC-100 analog<>digital converter with my JVC DV-500, which Windows XP doesn’t see in a direct FW connection for whatever reason (not a DV Rack issue)…and a recent shoot with a Sony HVR-Z1U HDV camera. I was pleasantly surprised, and maybe even shocked at how accurate the monitor in DV Rack/HDV Rack was. After calibration, I actually found it to be as good a visual guide for exposure and color balance as my CRT shooting monitor is, and my shooting monitor doesn’t have a safe window or multiple zebra displays. Depending on DV or HDV use, the user simply opens the proper monitor. When shooting HDV, I found myself trusting the camera LCD a bit too much when I realized from glancing over at the HDV Rack monitor window that I had a light stand in the edge of the shot that simply wasn’t visible in the camera LCD. Notably, I wasn’t even utilizing the underscan capability on the HDV Rack monitor at the time.

I haven’t used the DV Grabber module much yet, but what I have done is gotten stills for use in comparing shots from location to location to dial in lighting, etc. It’s quick (one click) and it saves a JPEG, BMP or a PNG to your harddrive or the Windows clipboard.

Waveform/Vectorscope

The most unusual quality I noticed in the test scopes were that they were…pretty usual for those of us who started in this industry bowing at the altar of our analog scopes to truly determine what our analog equipment was actually creating. These scopes have analog knob controls for the kinds of functions most of us already use everyday on our dedicated analog and digital scopes.

The scopes look at the video signal post-compression so they are a bit like attaching an analog scope to a VTR’s confidence head. While this review would get a little long if I decided to try to describe how you use these test instruments, there one especially useful feature I’d like to mention.

If you decide you’d like to look at a given video signal with two waveform settings on a traditional WF monitor, you would have to switch back and forth while looking at the display, or purchase another waveform monitor and loop through. If you’ve checked out the prices of field portable video test instruments lately you might be asking how a small producer can even afford one scope, much less two. Using one of my favorite features of DV Rack, simply open as many scopes as you like and set each one to display in different modes. Two or more waveform monitors simultaneously measuring the same input, each with different display settings.

There is a slight delay in the response of the waveform and vectorscope, but the transfer through FireWire takes a little time. I haven’t found the delay bothersome myself considering how much equipment I’d have to own to replace all the functions of DV Rack to eliminate that quarter or half-second of delay…


Quality Control

DV Rack has several modules designed to help you control the quality of your video and audio.

The Audio Spectrum Analyzer has 32 bands to visualize the relative audio spectrum being picked up by your microphone (stereo breaks it into two 16 band displays). I recently videotaped a South African choir at the last minute and I wasn’t sure how well I was going to pick up the sound, but the stereo display on the Spectrum analyzer showed me that the low frequencies that I wasn’t picking up on the shotgun was indeed reading from the PZM mic I placed closer to the stage.

The Video Analyzer monitors single pixels under the mouse cursor on the monitor. You can have it display in RGB, YUV, HSV, HSL, or even CMYK. I found this module particularly useful when we were setting up a green screen shot with a relatively reflective surface and we were struggling to remove as much of the green that was reflecting on the surface. I was able to test how much difference there was between the green screen wall and the surface by simply sliding the cursor over each area of the picture. We adjusted our lighting accordingly. When there was enough of a difference between the two areas to pull a relatively competent key, we rolled tape.

The Automated Quality Monitor detects and indicates video and audio clipping and audio pops based on the thresholds you set. When these events happen and you are capturing the clip in the Digital Video recorder, the clip in the DVR window has each event marked so you can immediately go back and check that area of the clip.

The Digital Video Recorder

On top of all these test capabilities, DV Rack also can capture your video as well. Like the rest of the software, the DVR-1000 recorder module is designed to mimic a studio VTR you might find in a rack in your studio.

The red LED style counter and the square VTR control buttons help to make the clip inventory list inside the windows seem less like a clip bin than a Betacam deck in operation and this is precisely the point. The controls of the recorder module are as familiar to its analog hardware roots as most of the rest of the modules are… The recorder module can be set to roll with the VTR button on your camera (my PDX-10 and HVR-Z1U worked perfectly with this feature). It also gives you the option of recording several different varieties of DV to your harddrive including Canopus AVI and QuickTime. The clips display with a thumbnail frame, an audio waveform and markers on the clip indicate trouble areas as marked by the “DV-QM” quality monitoring module.

One of the more interesting features of the DVR module is the capability to “buffer” video to prerecord material before you actually roll tape. This is user-controlled and can be set to buffer as much as 30 seconds of video prior to you hitting the recode button on your camera.

Sure Shot

The “Sure Shot” section of the display works with the charts that come included with DV Rack. Old timers like me will instantly recognize the “chip chart” grayscale card and the focus chart many of us have spent time with when the back focus on our camera has wandered. This section is designed to help those videographers who don’t have a broadcast background and/or haven’t had any formal training into reading a waveform monitor. The DV Rack has a “gas gauge” or “progress bar” type display that indicates peak focus quite plainly when the camera is on the focus chart…this is helpful when in an area where there is a lot of ambient light on your monitoring surface or simply to double check if your viewfinder is telling you the truth. A similar indicator bar shows the “peak” accuracy of the white balance and the exposure display indicates the general dynamic range of the shot. The charts come with a lanyard and they are sized to fit anywhere typing paper does in your kit.




All in all, there will probably be two sets of users for DV Rack. If you plan on using DV Rack as your recorder, you’ll need a laptop with the harddrive speed to do it and if you’re running all day you will most likely need a spare battery, or since you may require external harddrive space you may need external power anyway. If you choose to use DV Rack for signal monitoring only, I’m excited by the prospect of running this software on a very light and efficient, battery-preserving Centrino machine for a truly portable field operation. However, it does pay to remember that if you should decide to use a laptop as a shooting monitor, you’ll need all the extras that help your conventional shooting monitor work better, like a method to block glare from ambient light and make sure you’ve got a place to set the laptop without the familiar Porta-Brace blue enclosure most of us use to protect our field monitor.

There is a less expensive option called “DV Rack Express” which does record to disk with the DVR and has the field video monitor with one zebra and the DV Grabber still frame module. I’m sure this device will serve some users who have no critical need for the measurement tools, but for me the scopes and measurement tools of the full version of DV Rack is what makes the software what it is and I can’t imagine not having them.


In Summary

I have to say that every once in a while, you discover a piece of software or hardware that simply works for you the way it worked for the guy doing the demo at the tradeshow. While it doesn’t happen very often, HDV/DV Rack is an example of just such a product. All features worked equally well in DV or HDV mode in my tests.

The entire DV Rack suite of tools is an incredibly cost-effective digital replacement for bulky, expensive analog tools in the DV and HDV shooting environment. Hard-core signal measurement for the new generation of video producers who have never known video without DV…and comfortable, familiar controls and displays for those of us with a decade or two in the business under our belt before DV.

If you’ve not thought of a laptop as part of your field kit, but have yearned for the day you could afford field test instruments…it’s time to reconsider that laptop.

I give Serious Magic's DV Rack 5 Cows...I know a perfect score is rare, but I score products based on how they perform relative to what the manufacturer intends or presents it to be. HDV/DV Rack works...exactly as the brochures, websites, and tradeshow booth staff say it does.


Tim Kolb
Kolb Syverson Communications
2004, 2005 NAB Post Production Conference Premiere Pro Technical Chair
Author: Focal Easy Guide to Premiere Pro : For New Users and Professionals
"Premiere Pro Fast Track DVD Series" www.classondemand.net

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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: Adobe Premiere Pro, Art & Craft of the Edit, Business Practices & Procedures, Canopus, Cinematography & Video Pros, Corporate Video



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