--August 1st, 2002:
AJA is a fairly new company to the
uncompressed capture card arena for Final Cut Pro (FCP). However, AJA has been
in the analog and digital conversion market for quite some time and are known
for their quality converters. Seeking the path to an uncompressed capture card
market seems like the right direction for them. In so doing, they created the
Kona SD (D1 Standard Definition) and Kona HD (High Definition).
I'm running somewhat of the "minimal" system requirements for the AJA Kona SD. However, slower G4 systems will probably work fine too, like a single processor G4 733, but have not been tested by AJA. My system is as follows:
- Apple Macintosh G4 dual 800 running OSX 10.1.5, 1-gig RAM
- *ATTO UL3D SCSI controller
- Two Seagate Cheetah 10,000 RPM SCSI-160 drives, striped with OSX RAID software
- *Gee-three Stealth serial card for RS-422 deck control
- Final Cut Pro 3.0.2
* Denotes that this specific hardware is recommended by AJA for use with Kona SD.
Since I'm not a Digital Betacam user with a 10-bit SDI interface, I needed analog converters to hook up my Sony BVW-70 Betacam SP deck and my component NTSC monitor to the Kona SD system. The following converters were used as part of the review process:
- AJA D10CE (SDI to analog component/RGB output and composite output)
- AJA D10A (Analog component/RGB input to SDI)
- Midiman Flying Cow 24-bit A/D and D/A audio converter
I decided to use the OSX RAID software to stripe my two Cheetah drives. The drives work without a hitch using the free Apple RAID software. ATTO UL3D users can also try ATTO's OSX RAID software to stripe your drives, which will allow you to mount your RAID array on either OSX or OS9. Either way you go, your hard drives shouldn't give you any problems under Kona SD.
Installing the AJA Kona SD PCI card is as easy as installing RAM. If you feel you need assistance or don't feel comfortable doing these procedures, then hire a specialist to do so. As always, don't forget to wear a grounding strap for static discharge if you decide to install the hardware yourself!
The Kona SD manual is actually quite nice with large pictures to guide you through the installation process. This is good as most editors are visually oriented kind of people! And yes, it's printed and bound... almost a rare find these days! The manual did seem to jump from one topic to another without notice, so this might be confusing for some users. Otherwise, the directions and examples are nice.
The Kona SD was so simple to install, that it actually took longer for me to configure the SDI to analog converters! The AJA D10CE analog output converter has eight little DIP switches on the back to exactly configure the type of conversion you need. Once configured though, you get a top quality converted signal.
Installing the Midiman Flying Cow was easy too. Unfortunately the first Flying Cow that got shipped to me had a bad D/A converter on the right channel's output, aka, "Bad Cow Disease". Midiman was prompt in exchanging the faulty unit with another unit. The next unit has worked without a single problem. Despite the initial faulty unit I received, I still highly recommend the Midiman Flying Cow for digital audio conversion, whether for video production or strictly for audio production. Read my full review on this unit at CreativeCow.net.
In reality, all these converters work in total transparency. Once hooked up, you leave them alone and do your business. And the quality of these converters are really top notch. It's worthy to note that the AJA converters have non-standard power adapter connections. This is good though. Instead of the typical female 12-volt plug that can slip out, AJA opted for better quality. Their power adapter actually screws and locks into the converter box. Like the BNC cables, the power cable will not cause havoc should someone kick out a cable by accident.
As a side note, I also use a simple 4-ouput black burst generator by Burst Electronics, labeled the SG-4. According to the AJA manual, a standard sync generator will also work. One black burst output goes to my BVW-70 Betacam SP deck and another output goes to the Kona's reference input (on the Kona PCI card itself). Make sure it's in fashion similar to this, as I had problems in the beginning by using the D10CE's sync output for reference (to the deck), which created a sync loop in capture mode (but worked in playback). This was a user error on my part.
I also thought it was cute that AJA ships the Kona SD with a properly pinned RS-422 serial cable. Question is, why isn't GeeThree shipping their Stealth serial card with a proper serial cable?!! At any rate, you will need to buy a GeeThree Stealth serial card if you want proper RS-422 deck control. My recommendation is to not buy a USB to serial converter. Keep in mind that the Stealth card replaces the G4's internal 56k modem card.
I actually started the review process running Final Cut Pro 3.0 and AJA Kona SD version 1.3. The system performed flawlessly under these conditions, so I then moved up to FCP 3.0.2 with the same stable results. Since I knew my system was rock solid, AJA had version 1.4 Beta, so I opted to try that out. Then the 1.4 Beta became the 2.0 Beta. I became one of only four beta testers in the world to preview the highly secret 2.0 Beta. Shortly after the public release of version 2.0, an even more secret beta version of 2.1 was created. Believe me, these were very tough secrets to keep, but this young grasshopper did well.
The AJA Kona capture cards use Blackmagic Design's codec technology. Since Blackmagic Design added the 10-bit Trillions technology to Kona's lineup, previous installers made you manually change the preference file in Adobe After Effects to take advantage of this feature. This has since changed with the installer application updating and installing all required files and preference file changes with no additional changes made manually by the end user. (Thank you!) Now without having to copy and paste code into a preference file, people can easily take full advantage of this codec, as this is possibly one of Kona's greatest strengths in its feature set.
There's one last thing to note for dual screen display users. I initially had problems mixing my G4's main Nvidia AGP card with my second monitor's ATI PCI card. Under OSX, the ATI card was creating kernel errors because it was married to the Nvidia card. And since these were serious kernel errors, the entire computer froze leaving OSX's protected memory capability in the dust. If I pulled the ATI card out, everything was fine. ATI finally came out with two software updates for my family of Radeon cards that seem to have fixed the problem for users running OSX versions up to 10.1.5. So my advice is to check your hardware updates to make sure you're up-to-date and avoiding kernel error takeovers.
Since we're on the topic of dual monitor displays, I think it's worth mentioning the MPDD+ second display card offered by VillageTronic for about $100 USD. The VillageTronic PCI card is inexpensive and designed for Macs only. Unfortunately it only goes up to "Thousands of colors" (16-bit) on 1280x1024 displays. Lower resolutions will achieve "Millions of colors". For those interested in this card, AJA claims to have had absolutely no problems using the VillageTronic for a second monitor display card.
Those that are upgrading from version 1.3 to version 2.1 (which is free by the way) will see an instant gain in system responsiveness. While scrubbing in the FCP timeline, I instantly saw quicker NTSC refreshing. Everything simply felt zippier! OSX 10.2 (Jaguar) with its Quartz Extreme functionality makes things even more responsive.
The AJA Kona SD PCI card
The Kona card is a standard 7.5" size PCI card. One would think that these powerful PCI cards would need a full 12" length, but not so. Even the Kona HD uses the same size PCI card! The connections on the front of the card are simple. One BNC SDI output, one BNC SDI input, one BNC reference input and a 15-pin tether port for digital audio I/O. The digital audio tether port fans out to the multiple AES/EBU digital input and output XLR connections. There's also an RCA connector for word clock sync should you need it. The Midiman Flying Cow audio converter has the option to lock external sample rates via word clock sync, but I chose to simply select the Flying Cow's sample rate to 48kHz.
AJA Kona SD in production
It's very refreshing the first time you work in Final Cut Pro under OSX with an uncompressed system for the first time. Everything is quick, clean and oh so aqua! The biggest thing you'll probably notice is Kona's rock solid stability under OSX. And if you're wondering if the Kona systems run under OS9, "it ain't gonna happen!" The Kona cards were built from the ground-up under OSX, which is partially why it's so stable. Why go backwards in technology when everything is driving forward with OSX?
All right, so what can this puppy really do? Here's a list of the latest features AJA Kona SD version 2.1 can perform. Some of these are industry new to Final Cut Pro and the capture card manufacturers.
- Uncompressed 4:2:2 10-bit and 8-bit capture and playback.
- YUV render support in Final Cut Pro.
- 24p support (at true 23.976 FPS).
- Real-time DV playback to Kona SDI video output.
- Full frame high quality JPEG capture and playback for online and offline editing.
- Final Cut Pro OfflineRT JPEG output to tape support with new Blackmagic RGB output.
- SDI to OfflineRT JPEG mode. Edit on systems without hardware RT.
- 64-bit RGB rendering support in the Blackmagic Codec in Adobe After Effects.
- RGB output for use with Adobe After Effects for mirroring composition windows.
- Desktop view for Adobe Photoshop paint and design (SDI output acts as an additional computer monitor).
- Custom D1 frame sizing.
- 6 channels of 24-bit AES/EBU digital audio support, implemented in native OS X multi-channel sounds drivers.
- Full frame high quality update on Mac monitor during capture, (Mac OS X 10.2)
- Full compatibility with Mac OS X 10.2 (Jaguar), Apple's next system software update.
Real-time effects in 8-bit and 10-bit mode include the following dissolve transitions:
- Additive dissolve
- Non additive dissolve
- Cross dissolve
- Fade in fade out
- Dip to color dissolve
Real-time effects in 8-bit mode (soon for 10-bit also) include the following image controls:
- Gamma correction
- Brightness & contrast
- Proc amp
Let's look at some of these functions in detail:
Uncompressed 4:2:2 10-bit and 8-bit capture and playback
Some ask "why 8-bit"? Instead of forcing the user strictly to a 10-bit codec, AJA gives the user a choice. This is good. What if you're doing a long-form edit and you don't have enough hard drive space with the 10-bit codec? Use the 8-bit codec of course! Purchasing more hard drives is the obvious answer, but the 8-bit codec can be handy for those non-critical corporate type gigs.
YUV render support in Final Cut Pro
If you do need to render an effect in your FCP timeline, it can do so in YUV color space instead of RGB color space. This will ensure consistent color accuracy between clips and effects. In other words, you wont get any annoying luminance jumps or anything similar in fashion.
24p support (23.976 FPS)
Uh oh, Aurora Igniter finally has 24p competition for SD users! This in my opinion is one of the biggest features any capture card manufacturer can implement into its system. As an Aurora Igniter Film user myself, I can say that my animation workflow has become dependant on this feature. Without it, I would be doing a LOT of 3:2 pulldown rendering and reverse telecine rendering. I can strongly attest that having 24p in my arsenal is a major advantage to my workflow.
When I first started reviewing the Kona SD, I made it clear to AJA that implementing 24p support would put their card on top. After some skilled moaning and whining on my part, they finally gave in and worked on this feature (prior to my initial moaning, they did tell me that they had played with some 24p in the Kona SD card). This is what you get:
Playback: Any clips that have a frame rate of 23.976 (the true frame rate for 24p work) can be played back on a 24p FCP timeline. The FCP timeline is in fact a true 23.976 progressive frame rate, whereas the SDI output from the Kona SD performs a real-time 3:2 pulldown conversion for 29.97 FPS monitors and decks.
Capture: The Kona SD also has the ability to perform inverse telecine (aka, "IVTS"). Kona SD can reverse the telecined footage from the video tape by removing the 3:2 pulldown in real-time, thus creating a 24p file, or more accurately, a 23.976 FPS file. You will need to know where your A-frame starts (the first full, progressive frame in the 3:2 pulldown sequence) on the video tape. However, industry standards suggest that all A-frames be placed on a 29.97 FPS video frame ending in the numbers zero and five, something your telecine house will know and let you know. Accurate timecode and deck control is essential in any inverse telecine process. Make sure to adjust your capture TC offset times if needed (some G4s with the GeeThree Stealth serial card need up to +/- 3 frame TC offset times with RS-422 deck control).
Result: WOW! The real-time 3:2 pulldown on my NTSC monitor looks great. Keep in mind too that Kona's 24p capability works in all the 8-bit, 10-bit and Photo-JPEG modes. Remember too that 24p video files will take about 30% LESS hard drive space than 29.97 video files. Instant gain!
How does the competition stack up against this new feature? With Blackmagic Design and AJA implementing 24p, this is proof that they're striving for both a powerful feature set, but at an amazingly low cost. All these new features that are being added to the $3295.00 Kona SD card are FREE to the user. Aurora sells the Igniter Film daughter card for the Igniter system at a list price of $4000.00 USD (this is an additional price above the Igniter system itself). The only other solution for 24p editing in FCP is Pinnacle's Cinewave HD system, which lists for about $20,000.00 USD when you combine the HD upgrade with the Cinewave RT system). Digital Voodoo does not offer 24p support with their D1 products at the time of this writing.
Understand too that you may or may not need Apple's Cinema Tools software for your 24p production needs. This in itself is an entire article topic. However, to quickly sum it up, you will need Cinema Tools if you're capturing telecined footage and you need to convert your 29.97 FPS timecode to a functional 24 FPS timecode. This is required if you need to create a "negative cut list". Since Kona SD can now perform inverse telecine capturing, you will not need Cinema Tools' function to render 29.97 clips with 3:2 pulldown to 24p clips. Those working on feature film work with shot footage will need Cinema Tools. My 24p production process is slightly different; since I'm creating 24p animation and visual effects clips from scratch, Cinema Tools is not required in my workflow.
Another note about Cinema Tools is that since Apple bought it from Focal Point Systems, Inc. (R.I.P., FilmLogic), it can now only been purchased for OSX. Before the new implementation of Kona's 24p functionality, the only other option was to use Aurora Igniter Film and switch between OS9 (Igniter Film) and OSX (Cinema Tools) to make the marriage work (unless you already owned a copy of FilmLogic for OS9). But since AJA Kona SD is OSX based and it now implements 24p editing, it will integrate perfectly with Cinema Tools. No more switching between operating systems.
To read about the merits 24p capabilities for animation purposes, read my article entitled "A Little Animated about 24p?". Although the article uses the Aurora Igniter Film card for the basis of its discussion, the Kona SD with 24p capability will perform all the functions discussed in this article.
Real-time (RT) DV playback to Kona SDI video output
I was really amazed the first time I used this feature. I didn't think it was possible! Simply put, the Kona SD is a built-in FireWire to DV bridge on SDI output. You can acquire your DV footage via FireWire, file sharing or disk transfer and then edit and output your DV timeline via the Kona's SDI output! Do you currently own an SDI to FireWire bridge for your DigiBeta deck? Sell it! If your FCP External Video mode is set to Kona's DV to SDI real-time output (marked as Blackmagic NTSC/PAL DV), then native DV RT effects will turn red. To make the native DV RT effects active, then simply turn the output mode to "None". Your red bars will now turn green like a normal FCP DV edit. You can also render DV RT effects (marked with a red bar) under an SDI real-time output for proper NTSC/PAL playback.
Furthermore, you can also use the Kona SD to capture SDI to the DV format! AJA doesn't fully support this capture feature yet, so it's something to try at your own risk. My testing showed positive results however. AJA says fast moving DV footage can cause the SDI to DV real-time transcode to drop frames. Again, my testing didn't drop frames, but I didn't test this feature for a long period of time. Play with it and see what kind of results you get. I'm sure as time goes on, AJA will solidify this feature with zero dropout rates. Who ever thought the Kona SD was a double-secret SDI to DV bridge!
My two cents is to capture via FireWire anyway. Why? FireWire is a perfect replication of the media from your DV tape. Conversely, an SDI based DV capture is the next best thing.
Keep in mind that you cannot "mix 'n match" formats. For example, you cannot add a DV clip to an 8-bit uncompressed timeline without the DV clip needing to be rendered to the 8-bit uncompressed format. You must pick a format and stick with it, or be forced to render a "non-native" clip to that particular format. Needless to say, you still have more format options here than any other FCP system.
Full frame high quality JPEG capture and playback for online and offline editing
The Aurora Igniter system used to be the only system to include a variable lossy compressed codec format for 4:2:2 offline and online editing. Where Aurora chose to use the Motion JPEG A (MJPEG-A) format, AJA Kona chose the Photo-JPEG format. Now Kona users can also take advantage of variable lossy compression for several advantages including the following:
- Online quality while maintaining small file sizes (between 4 and 6 MB/s).
- Best used for offline edits; great image quality at full D1 spec.
- Mix-and-match different clips of different compression ratios.
- Ability to use off-the-shelf IDE hard drives for Photo-JPEG capture and playback.
- Full D1 resolution (720x486 NTSC, 720x576 PAL, 4:2:2 color space).
- Photo-JPEG is a standard QuickTime codec that can be used on all Macs and QuickTime equipped Windows computers.
- Fully functional within the 24p editing capabilities (great for offline film editors).
Keep in mind that this is full D1 spec. This is not a blown up frame like the way Pinnacle Cinewave performs its offline function. This is the real deal. So what's the catch? You can only go up to 75% compression quality. Not a big deal since 99% of the Kona users will use this for offline editing anyway. And let me make it very clear that even at 75%, the quality looks really, really nice.
With Photo-JPEG mode, you can capture and playback to any compression quality, between 1% and the suggested and default preset of 75%. Throw clips of diverse compression on one timeline and edit away. This really is tops.
For now RT effects are render-only when working in the Photo-JPEG Mode. AJA wants to make sure that this format works solid before adding all the RT effects to it. In due time, we'll see RT effects in action with this format.
Final Cut Pro OfflineRT JPEG output to tape support with new Blackmagic RGB output
There are many benefits to the Kona's Blackmagic RGB output. This is one of them. Like Kona's new real-time DV to SDI output, an editor can edit in FCP utilizing the JPEG OfflineRT mode and output that offline edit to tape via Kona's SDI output... in real-time. Dump your offline project to your deck and slowly build your online segments over it. Create a window dub for your client, and you're set!
If you're used to working in OfflineRT mode in your stand-alone FCP DV system, then you might want to try this out. The benefit is that the file sizes are really small (35% quality compression at 320x240 frame size). You can apply RT effects to the clips like always, but only if your External Video is set to "None". If the External Video option is set to Blackmagic NTSC/PAL RGB for SDI output, you must render RT effects.
For giggles, you can actually output your OfflineRT edit when your External Video is set to "Kona JPEG". Although it will display the image at a half-size of 320x240 on your NTSC/PAL screen, it does look clean because it's not being blown up like the Kona RGB output mode. Not really useful for anything, but it's there and it's functional. You're probably best sticking to the Kona RGB output mode with OfflineRT edits.
The real benefit of OfflineRT JPEG mode is offline editing with file sizes smaller than DV. Careful though, since OfflineRT clips and edits are half-rez at 320x240, blowing them up for NTSC/PAL display looks pretty ugly. My two cents... use either D1 Photo-JPEG or DV mode for offline edits. And remember, all these modes can play back on Kona's SDI output.
SDI to OfflineRT JPEG mode. Edit on systems without hardware RT
What's slick is that you can capture from your SDI input directly to the Offline RT JPEG format. These files can then be shared across a LAN or removable disks and placed on "offline stations" that dont have built-in editing hardware. Once again though, I recommend either D1 Photo-JPEG or DV mode for offline edits.
64-bit RGB rendering support in the Blackmagic Codec in Adobe After Effects
For quite some time, Digital Voodoo held the greatest codec quality of any uncompressed system. Not only for Final Cut Pro, but others including Avid and other high priced systems. For the last couple of months, it was my premonition that Blackmagic Design would create a codec that would either be equal to or surpass the quality of Digital Voodoo. Without getting into boring details, my insight became reality. But far greater than what I envisioned.
Not only does the Blackmagic 10-bit codec in Trillions mode (16-bpc) render the highest quality codec I've ever tested, it does so by about twice the level of accuracy than the closest competition, that being the Digital Voodoo 10-bit codec (also in Trillions mode). This is truly amazing considering there are over 375 trillion RGB color combinations in a single 16-bpc NTSC D1 image. That's 375,723,739,054,080 combinations! To view my render test results, check out www.onerivermedia.com/codecs.
For CGI, animation and visual effects artists such as myself, this is by far the best codec and system you can work on in 4:2:2 video. Hands down, the competition has been beaten.
It may be also worthy to note that the 8-bit codec fares very well too. It's safe to say there's virtually no banding in tough gradients, no "mosquito edges" around contrasting colors like pure reds and holds up very well in my color filter test. However, my testing shows that there's a very slight luminance shift (slightly darker) in the 8-bit encoded render as compared to the original source image. Because of this slight shift, it pretty much throws off all the pixels from trying to obtain replicated pixel accuracy. If you go to my codec page, you'll see the high white count value. This is due to the luminance shift. I've brought this to the attention of Blackmagic Design. They'll fix this for a future software update, but it's safe to say that using the 10-bit codec will give you all the accurate results you'll need.
RGB output for use with Adobe After Effects for mirroring composition windows
But it's not just the greatest codec ever developed (to date) that will appeal to CGI artists. With version 2.1, I'm able to mirror After Effects' comp window to the NTSC monitor in real-time. What's cool is that the mirrored NTSC/PAL preview strips away all the layer guides, paths, etc., and just shows the composite as a clean final render. Not only is the interaction in real-time, but also are the RAM previews. Upon looping a RAM preview about a dozen times, the NTSC preview (not AE's comp window) gave a slight hiccup, but refreshed after the next loop.
Note too that this mirrored method is much better than dragging the comp window to the D1 desktop output as used in older versions. Why? Because dragging the comp window to the D1 desktop for NTSC/PAL playback would strip out essential buttons on the comp window, like Safety guides, RGBA channels, 3D controls, etc. Mirroring allows you to continue using these comp window tools, while still retaining real-time NTSC/PAL output. It's basically like using After Effects in the same fashion you would with Final Cut Pro. Now that's trick!
You can also work in square pixels in your comp window and mirror the correct non-square pixels on your NTSC/PAL monitor. Doing this however will induce slight aliasing on the NTSC/PAL monitor (e.g. the frame getting squeezed down 54 pixel-rows for NTSC users) and will not perform RAM previews in real-time (it performs about half the full frame rate chosen). To take full advantage of Kona's RGB output in real-time, use standard D1 settings for your comp settings.
No other capture card system I've seen comes close to the RGB output power that Kona has. It was love at first sight! Literally!
Desktop view for Adobe Photoshop paint and design (SDI output acts as an additional computer monitor).
The AJA Kona SD can act as a true real-time paint box system thanks to its RGB output option (the same option used for After Effects). When I drag my Photoshop window to the NTSC/PAL monitor and click "Full Screen" (hitting "F" on your keyboard also works), I can work in real-time with broadcast accurate colors. Add a waveform vector scope to the video output chain and obtain real-time color accuracy down to the IRE level.
Keep in mind that you must stick to D1 resolution. If you're working in NTSC and you create a square-pixel frame of 720x540, the Kona RGB output will crop out the bottom 54 rows of pixels. In other words, it will not vertically squish the frame on RGB output (like it can otherwise do in After Effects). I've requested this feature to Kona, so maybe we'll see it in a later software update.
Since the SDI output acts as an additional computer monitor (when video isn't being played on it), you can use it for extra real estate. Even your screen saver will automatically function on it, which is nice so you don't ruin your expensive broadcast monitor with phosphor burn-in.
One problem with OSX versions prior to 10.2 (Jaguar) is that when you set up the monitor position in the System Preference settings, it will revert to the default setting upon re-boot. Some wise guy at Apple thought it would be a nifty idea to remove monitor position settings on monitors smaller than 800x600. They forgot about the ability to output "small" D1 size video via capture card output. No fear, OSX 10.2 (Jaguar) fixes this issue.
Custom D1 frame sizing
In my opinion, this is an important feature that unfortunately is not widely used. Granted it is easier to simply work in the true D1 specification of 720x486 for NTSC and 720x576 for PAL and add a mask. But if you want to work in a true widescreen format under SD conditions, this is the way to go! The Kona SD isn't limited to vertical frame sizing; it's also able to work in any horizontal frame sizes or a combination of the two. As James Brown wisely once said, "Get funky! Huh, Ooh-ah!"
So how about a letterbox effect? Animators will especially enjoy this because this can make your animation look cool and it WILL save you on render times too. Instead of simply adding a letterbox mask to create black bars on the top and bottom of the screen, simply change your frame size to the proper aspect ratio. For instance, let's say you want to create an animation with a 2:1 aspect ratio. Instead of rendering an NTSC D1-spec animation at 720x486 with a letterbox mask, simply render your animation at 720x328 non-square pixels (or 720x364 square pixels) without a mask. By doing so, you've potentially reduced your render time because there is less data to render in a 328-high frame than a 486-high frame.
If you work in 24p and include a vertically smaller frame, you will successfully create much smaller files sizes on your hard drives. There's also less bandwidth usage on the hard drive array. All of this is especially helpful for people using the uncompressed Blackmagic Design 10-bit codec. This is a prime example of a win-win-win situation!
Disk saving space using the Blackmagic Design 10-bit uncompressed codec on a 5-second clip:
720 x 486 @ 29.97 FPS
720 x 328 @ 24 FPS
6 channels of 24-bit AES/EBU digital audio support
Although FCP 3 doesn't currently support more than two assignable audio I/O channels, the AJA Kona card and OSX do support this feature. The next major release of FCP (assumed to be FCP 4) will most likely support multi-channel audio I/O and if it does, the Kona SD card will integrate perfectly. This isn't a new feature, nor an AJA Kona specific feature, as Digital Voodoo and Pinnacle Cinewave are also ready for multi-channel audio I/O. It's pretty guaranteed Apple will implement this in the next version of FCP. The biggest reason is that 6 channels of 24-bit audio will allow editors to also work in 5.1 surround sound in their edits. Likewise, my BVW-70 Betacam SP deck has four audio channels, which I currently have to re-patch for channels 3 and 4. Many people, including myself, look forward to this being a thing of the past.
AJA also has future plans for implementing 8-channel embedded SDI audio. My guess is they wont work on it until FCP is multi-channel capable. For now, 6-channel I/O should be more than enough for many users.
Apple OSX 10.2, aka Jaguar
While the other capture cards are scrambling to get their OS9 built capture cards to simply work under OSX, the AJA Kona SD is ready and working under Jaguar, the next OSX update. It's always been safe to say that the Kona system has performed rock solid in OSX. With the latest update to 10.2, this should remain to be true. In fact, with the new Jaguar update comes added benefits to the Kona SD system. Quartz Extreme brings faster computer screen redraws, which means things like mirroring a full size computer preview while capturing is fluid and clean.
Real-time effects in Final Cut Pro
The early version of the Kona system lacked RT effects functionality. Slowly, AJA and Blackmagic Design have added RT effects to the system. Why the slow pace in RT additions? According to AJA, it's their principle that stability is priority one. Rather than adding a bunch of RT effects now with customer support nightmares, AJA says they will add one RT set at time to make sure each effect set is rock solid. So far, their theory is working out. Each update does show more RT, and each update is as rock solid as the last. Now this is how product development should always be!
All of Kona's RT effects are keyframable. And as many settings there are for a specific RT effect, all the keyframes will perform flawlessly during playback. At this time however, RT effects are not stackable. For example, you cannot place the RT Sepia filter on a clip with an RT dissolve. You will only need to render the portion where the overlapping RT effects occur.
The Kona SD system is a dual stream system. The August 2002 issue of DV Magazine states that the Kona SD system is single stream. This is simply not true. According to AJA, there's serious untapped horsepower on the Kona SD PCI card with enough bandwidth to add ample RT effects as time progresses. As with anything else, only time will tell. However, AJA's track record is picture perfect (pun intended).
With 10-bit RT effects, I'm able to perform a 1-second dissolve with my dual SCSI-160 set up. Anything longer than a 1-second dissolve will halt playback. Blackmagic Design is working to make these 10-bit RT effects run longer on "minimal" systems like mine. The basic rule for now; a two-disk array will work, a four-disk array is recommended and a 6-disk or higher array is required for total reliability. For users that want to really take advantage of 10-bit RT effects (and future 10-bit RT effects), it would be very wise to invest in a serious multi-disk RAID array system with the fastest throughput money can buy. An Apple dual 1-GHz G4 probably wont hurt either. As a side note, the release of Apple's Xserve and any more future G4 or G5 models with a 66 MHz PCI buss should help disk throughput even greater. The ATTO UL3D dual SCSI controller is a 66/33 MHz PCI card. This should allow disk arrays to really saturate the throughput of these systems, something HD users will especially appreciate. But again, my simple little DP 800 G4 with a dual Cheetah SCSI array has been working great, even in 10-bit mode.
There's a HUGE feature that leaves the other capture cards in the dust and amazingly, it's a feature often left unnoticed. When working with Kona RT effects, these RT effects do not need to be "Prepared for Video" for an insert edit or assemble edit when going to tape. No other system can do this. Aurora Igniter, Digital Voodoo and Pinnacle Cinewave all need to prepare their RT effects when performing an "Edit to Tape" function. This usually means lunchtime for long edits with a lot of RT effects. After all, what video professional out there doesn't start their program on a standard or specific in-point? For me, it's always at 1 hour (01:00:00:00); Begin tape at 00:58:30:00 with bars and tones for one minute, 7.5 IRE black for 30 seconds and at 1-hour timecode, the program begins. FCP's "Mastering to Tape" just doesn't cut it for me, and to be quite frank, neither does waiting for "RT" effects preparing for "Edit-to-Tape". Whether it's a Kona-specific feature, or a feature of FCP under OSX that enables this "non prepare video" ability for Kona SD, the fact of the matter is that it's possible with no time or quality wasted in the process. Halleluiah!
There is one limitation to RT effects when working with a minimal two-disk SCSI setup like mine, but there is an easy work-around. If you have a clip that has an RT effect, you will need to play the clip (with the RT effect) at least a few frames before the RT effect actually occurs in the timeline. It's as though the Kona system needs to prepare for the RT effect. If you don't do this, Kona tries to "catch up" and ends up displaying a still frame on the NTSC/PAL monitor for a while. The biggest time to watch out for this is when you perform an insert edit to your deck. If you need to insert one clip to tape that has an RT effect on it, you must start the in-point of the insert edit at least a few frames before the clip with the RT effect actually occurs. If you don't, the clip with the RT effect will pause in the beginning and end of the clip on playback. So for now as a work-around, give Kona a few pre-roll frames before the RT effect actually happens. The real solution is to get at least a four or six-disk SCSI array.
There's an abnormality I found interesting if you're working in an 8-bit project (this does not occur in a 10-bit project). If you need to force-render an RT effect (or any effect for that matter), you must set up two things in your FCP Sequence setting:
- Make sure YUV rendering is on (un-check the RGB render option if checked).
- Change the default Super-White setting to White
After several tests I performed, it appears that there is a slight luminance shift in rendered 8-bit effects in FCP. Basically, the rendered effect becomes slightly brighter when "Super-White" is selected as the YUV white space. By changing the setting to "White", the rendered luminance values will now be correct. But more interestingly is that it may be a fault of the 8-bit codec. Remember I explained how the 8-bit codec encodes the image with a very slight luminance shift? This would make sense because the "Super-White" setting needs to be changed to the "White" setting since the YUV render would need to compensate for the 8-bit codec's microscopically brighter encoding value! And since "Super-White" works fine in 10-bit, I have to believe it's the fault of the 8-bit codec. I've brought this to the attention of Blackmagic Design as well. Use the "White" setting and your rendered effects will look accurate.
According to AJA, we should see more RT functionality in the next software release. My hope is that they'll implement the RT 3-way color corrector. In my opinion, the 3-way color corrector and RT dissolves are the two biggest RT effects you can bring to FCP. AJA acknowledges this need and reports they will implement RT 3-way CC in a future release. Luckily they have the RT dissolve set taken care of. I fully expect to see more and more RT effects as newer updates come to pass.
Working with Unix, err, I mean OSX
If you double-click a captured or rendered Blackmagic file from your desktop (10-bit for example), it will play back in QuickTime Movie Player without dropping frames on your computer screen. This is actually really cool. However, if you drag the video over to the Kona RGB display output, or you "Present Movie" on the Kona RGB output, it will drop frames profusely. This is not an error of the hardware, but an inability of QuickTime Movie Player to offer different video outputs like FCP can. The Kona card is doing nothing wrong by trying to play back the uncompressed video in RGB mode. In reality, the output setting needs to be in Blackmagic 10-bit mode, but Movie Player has no option but RGB. My Aurora Igniter system has the ability to play back Aurora clips from Movie Player to NTSC/PAL in OS9. I'm hoping QuickTime Movie Player in OSX will someday have an option for selecting a video output type, as this is very handy for quick test render playback from desktop to NTSC/PAL.
Despite this minor setback of QuickTime Movie Player under OSX, this is the only OSX "glitch" I've found. In fact, OSX has been very solid and strong; with or without the AJA Kona SD board active. The more I work in OSX, the less I want to work in OS9. While reviewing the AJA Kona SD, I've only rebooted to OS9 a handful of times, and when I did, I quickly hurried back to OSX. Although it may be my opinion that working in OSX is a more pleasant experience, it is a fact that OSX runs solid on my G4 as compared to OS9. As explained earlier in this article, the only problems came about when my second monitor ATI Radeon card was installed. Once removed, everything was fine. It will be bright and sunny day when I realize I never have to reboot in OS9 ever again.
Digital converters and some guy named BOB
Have you noticed I haven't mentioned anything about break-out-boxes (BOB) yet? In my opinion, this actually isn't an inability of Kona, but since some people think it is, I decided to add it here and make it clear that it really isn't.
First, let's look at the cost of BOBs that are sold by Pinnacle for its Cinewave product and Aurora for its Igniter product. For Pinnacle Cinewave users, the basic analog BOB lists for $1295.00 USD, the SDI BOB also lists for $1295.00 and the Pro Digital/Analog BOB lists for $4995.00 USD. For Aurora users, the Analog BOB lists for $2999.00 USD and the SDI BOB lists for $3999.00 USD. Okay, keep these prices in your brain for a moment.
There are several solutions to bring video and audio, in and out of Kona SD via its SDI and AES/EBU digital I/O. Achieving analog I/O while maintaining an SDI pathway is always obtainable with any conversion solution you could choose. Some say, "the AJA Kona system doesn't offer an all-in-one BOB for multiple I/O". Although it's true that AJA doesn't manufacture an all-in-one BOB unit, this doesn't mean there aren't other companies that don't offer an all-in-one BOB for SDI applications.
ProMax manufactures and sells the popular DA-MAX+. Contrary to popular belief, the DA-Max+ isn't strictly limited to DV I/O. Any of the inputs can be assigned to any of the outputs. Conversely, all outputs are always active. For a list price of $1800.00 USD, this isn't a bad deal.
If you get two AJA SDI converters (one for analog input and one for analog output) and a Midiman Flying Cow for digital audio conversion, you can roughly spend about $2100.00 USD for top quality conversion. Please note that AJA has many digital converters to choose from, so the cost can vary. But remember that AJA has a strong history of quality converters.
For the really tricked out BOB, check this puppy out from Leitch. The DPS-575AV is a digital programmable BOB for the serious SDI user with NTSC and PAL support. There are several options you can add to this unit if your needs require it. The DPS-575AV lists for $8310.00 USD and the DPS-575 (video only version) lists for $6230.00 USD.
Realize that fishing analog cables to your computer (this includes an analog BOB) will be susceptible to 60Hz (cycle) hum or other nasty noise interferences. Additionally, any PCI card that converts the analog signal to digital on the PCI card itself is prone to the beehive of signal noises inside the computer. If you connect your digital converter close to your analog deck or monitor and run your digital SDI or AES/EBU cables to your computer, you've eliminated the threat of 60Hz hum invasion.
The added benefit of an external digital converter is that you can hook it up to use elsewhere in the facility. Also, should the converter ever fail for whatever reason, simply return/exchange it without bringing the entire edit system down. The final advantage is that you, the end user is choosing the exact converter and its quality for your needs, instead of the capture card manufacturer limiting you to their built-in analog to digital converter.
Remember that while the other guys (except Digital Voodoo) charge for SDI I/O, AJA Kona SD implements it directly on their PCI card... in essence, you're getting SDI I/O for free. In which case, it only cost extra money at that point to get analog I/O should you need it. And if you finally do get analog I/O, you have both analog and SDI for a fraction of the cost the other guys offer. Sweet deal.
One last thing...
The team at Blackmagic Design has really put a ton of effort into these updates. I've seen the stages from 1.4, to 2.0 and finally to 2.1. Particularly with the version 2.1 update, these guys were pulling all-nighters at some points just to add features outside of their scheduled agenda for other required work (e.g., working on Kona HD). These guys are truly dedicated to their creation. The only other company I've seen work like this is the team at Aurora. I guess that says a lot about companies whose products are Mac-based only and with a direct product lineup. Companies that have a vast array of products seem to lose sight of each singular product, in my opinion. You will not find "vaporware" with AJA.
Since AJA and Blackmagic Design only need to worry about two products (Kona SD and Kona HD), they can focus all their talent, energy and attention into these products. Typically when companies are in this position, the have incredible product development and customer service. With AJA Kona SD, I see no exception. These people are on top of their game.
Is this the system for you?
So is the AJA Kona SD finally the perfect standard definition capture card for Final Cut Pro? In my opinion... yes, it is. If the latest 2.1 software update didn't include 24p, D1 Photo-JPEG and variable D1 frame sizes, I would still be sitting on the fence. What would help win the hearts of every FCP user that wants the perfect uncompressed capture card system? Simply put, Kona SD needs more RT effects, namely RT 3-way color correction. The good news is that RT 3-way CC will be added to Kona's RT effects palette. The bad news is I don't know when this will come about. It's my guess that this is on the top of AJA's to-do list. It's not a question of capability, but rather a question of time and testing. It wouldn't surprise me if the Kona SD card will bring us RT effects like alpha channeling, chroma keying, titling, transforms (position, rotate, zoom, etc.) and maybe even just for me, an RT stripper-girl wipe effect. These guys have already impressed me with surprise features I didn't even think were possible, so what's to say they don't have more tricks up their sleeve? Watch out David Copperfield.
The quality is bar none. The price is the lowest of any uncompressed RT system. The support and product development is top notch. OSX stability is rock solid. No fee for a 3-year warrantee. You also have 30 days to return the system if it doesn't meet your needs... try that with any other capture card manufacturer! And best of all, AJA Kona only caters to us Mac users. Additionally, CreativeCow.net was quick to add an AJA Kona forum so people can now visit a community of fellow Kona users, curious visitors and freaks like me.
This is a damn good card. The Pros far outweigh the Cons. But due to the lack of some RT effects, I cannot give it a perfect 5-star rating. As soon as AJA and Blackmagic Design add more RT effects, this will undoubtedly be the ultimate capture card for Final Cut Pro by any user's standards. For many users including myself, it already is. By spreading the gamut from compositor to animator to editor, the AJA Kona SD will appeal to many high-end users and budget conscious consumers. I guess it's safe to say there actually is one major flaw to the system; I have to return these toys back to AJA and Midiman. Sigh.
Price as tested:
$3,295.00 - AJA Kona SD
$890.00 - AJA D10A (Analog component input to SDI converter)
$725.00 - AJA D10CE (SDI to analog component and composite output)
$40.00 - AJA DWP - (Power supply for each AJA converter. One for each converter)
$399.00 - Midiman Flying Cow (24-bit AES/EBU/SPDIF digital to analog audio converter)
AJA - www.aja.com
Blackmagic Design - www.blackmagic-design.com
Midiman / M-Audio - www.midiman.com
Marco Solorio is a multi-award winning digital media producer in the San Francisco bay area. He owns and operates OneRiver Media, which focuses on producing animated content for broadcast, as well as serving production needs for content developers. And of course, Dexter's Laboratory is his most favorite cartoon in the world.
Many thanks go to AJA and Midiman for their generosity in loaning these systems for evaluation.
Article and noted photos © 2002, Marco Solorio
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