Building a Professional Machine Room
COW Library : Adobe After Effects Techniques Tutorials : Bob Zelin : Building a Professional Machine Room
If you'd rather call it "a suite of suites," that's fine. You still have to answer the question, what are you going to do now?
You want to take what looks like the easy way out: one deck for multiple computers. But VTRs only have one set of inputs, and one set of outputs. How do you connect every edit controller, every graphics station, and every audio workstation to a single VTR? And what if you want to send video from one edit room to another without having to go back to the VTR every single time?
The answer is one that's been proven again and again as the easiest, cheapest way to combine multiple computers with a single set of decks: a machine room.
Isn't there another way, you ask? Sure there is! You can pick up your deck, and carry it from room to room, connecting it and disconnecting it every time you want to use it. Do you know the secret to doing this for long periods of time? Free interns. Other than that, build a machine room.
Seriously, even one HDCAM or Varicam deck, or an SD DigiBeta VTR, can cost more than all of your other equipment combined. You don't want to buy two of them, much less as many as you'd need to cover every station in even a few rooms. Build a machine room.
WHAT WON'T WORK
Some people will try to tell you that all you need is central storage. It's the 21st Century way to do things. You have one capture and output station, and everyone else has their nice little editing computer, or graphics computer, connected by one skinny little fibre optic cable. What a great idea!
Well, it ain't cheap. Once you add even simple management tools to your shared storage, a two seat Apple Xsan system is going to run you about $45,000, and an Avid LanShare system will run almost as much by the time you get done.
It's also not the whole answer. If you don't run those pesky audio and video wires to each computer, the only guy who'll be able to capture and output is that one lonely edit system that's actually hooked up to the VTR.
There are some cheaper approaches for super-small set-ups that can never, ever expand. "A/B" Boxes, like the Laird One-Two Punch let two editing computers share a single VTR. But what happens when you add the next VTR? You don't.
The same for small routing switchers. You buy a nice little 8x8 routing switcher, and before you know it, you've added a DVD recorder, a client monitor, and a graphics system to go with a couple of decks. All of a sudden that little 8x8 router is useless. Can you expand it? No. Can you upgrade it? No. Put it on eBay, and hope for the best.
Build a machine room. It's expandable, and over the long haul, you'll spend less.
If you don't run those pesky audio and video wires to each computer, the only guy who'll be able to capture and output is that one lonely edit system that's actually hooked up to the VTR.
How reliable is a CAT 5 patch panel? You tell me. How reliable is every computer network in the world? When broadcast engineers laugh at CAT 5 patch bays, I just smile.
PATCH BAYS: THE HEART OF THE MODERN MACHINE ROOM
Discussing patch bays is an article unto itself, and maybe I'll write one of these soon. Here's the overview.
A patch bay is also sometimes called a patch panel, because that's what it is: a rack-mounted panel with cable connections.
Permanent connections from computers and decks in multiple rooms are on the back. The front has shorter cables to send signals from those permanent connections to where they're needed. It's kind of a like a simple version of those old telephone switchboards you see in the movies.
Why bother? Because a patch bay lets you buy the fewest number of decks, and use them in the most places, with the least hassle. The only way it works is to get all the cables you need, from every deck, for every kind of I/O you might need.
Let's start simple. Take the video input and output of your edit controller (the computer doing the editing), and bring it to the back of your patch bay. Do this for both your edit rooms.
Now take the input and output of your one BetaSP VTR. Bring its video input and output cables up to the same patch bay. Now, stick a patch cord in the front to connect either room in or out of your single BetaSP VTR. That wasn't so bad, was it?
Well, wait a minute. That single BetaSP machine has a composite video input, but it also has an analog component video input -- 3 more wires. It has 2 video outputs (one normal video, one monitor output with time code window), but it also has analog component video outputs. That's another 3 wires. Blackburst reference input makes 4.
So a single BetaSP machine has a minimum of TEN video wires that need to come up to your patch bays.
Firewire connections only mean a few fewer connections -- one video cable and two audio cables. Hopefully a blackburst ref and maybe RS-422. You want to share it between rooms, so you'll still need a patch bay.
What about SDI? Same deal. There's only one cable for video with embedded audio, but there are lots of times you don't want embedded audio. Maybe you'd rather use AES/ EBU audio. So it's back to multiple cables going to multiple rooms.
But once you're at the "I need SDI" level of production, chances are that you've also got decks with other connections lying around. You have analog composite video, analog component video, both SD and HD SDI, maybe analog component HD video, analog audio, AES/EBU audio, time code, and RS422 VTR control data that you have to distribute.
You get the idea: all the cables from all the I/Os from all the gear to one place. From there, you can send them where they need to be.
Once you do, though, you can share a single VTR with all your edit rooms, audio rooms, DVD and duplication stations, and graphics systems. And you only bought ONE VTR. Or at least only one VTR of each format you need to use. The savings from even one deck could easily pay for your patch bay.
Chances are, we're talking lots of patch bays. With all these wires, you quickly run out of room on a single patch bay. No matter how many you need, it's still simple.
RACKS & RACK SHELVES
Start with a rack - maybe a few racks. Racks can go from $200 - $2000 a piece. My clients (surprise!) like the $200-$300 kind, and you know what? They work just fine.
You need rack shelves, which run between $20 and $70 each. I urge you to get one shelf per VTR. When you stack VTRs, the first one to break is the one on the bottom. If they're all on one shelf, then you have to uncable all the others to get just one of them out.
You need casters, too, so you can get behind your racks later. Racks get real heavy once those tape machines are in there.
Now comes the glamour part: put your VTRs into the rack. I also allow room for a "spare" or "rental" VTR, especially for one of those expensive VTRs that you would rather be dead than go out and purchase yourself.
It's starting to look great. You have all your VTRs racked. You have your blackburst generator on a little shelf. Now, let's mess it up by adding all the cables. You've got to run cables from every VTR to these patch bays. You've got to run cables from your AJA, your Blackmagic, your Avid, your TV monitors, your audio mixer, to these patch bays.
You'll discover one thing very quickly right now - cables are expensive. More than you ever dreamed. The cost of the cables will outweigh the cost of the patch bays and racks. Really. So you have to be careful to include this cost when pricing out your machine room.
Counting cables will drive you insane. There are no shortcuts. You must have cables for every I/O that you want, for every piece of gear.
The point of a patch bay is that you'll never need to connect these cables twice - but you only have to do it once if you do it right the first time. So count 'em again.
AN EASIER WAY?
I mentioned routing switchers before, and they really are easy. Simply push a button to send audio and video signals from a VTR into your different edit rooms. But you still have to run all those wires from every room, and from every VTR into your routing switcher. Unlike the little ones I mentioned before, pro-grade routing switchers are expensive.
"That's ridiculous," you say. "I see routers in catalogs for under $3000." Ah, true, but that's only for SD analog composite video with stereo analog audio. What are you going to do about your Firewire signals, your analog and digital HD signals, your SD and HD-SDI signals, your AES audio, and RS-422 VTR control signals?
"Don't they make routers that handle all this other stuff?" you ask. Sure they do! And they cost $40K to $60K - a little more money than I think you were planning to spend.
Now, Blackmagic Design has a great router for $4999. It has 12 inputs and 24 outputs - but they're SD or HD-SDI only. So unless you only have SDI machines, or an SDIto-analog converter that will also de-embed the analog audio from the SDI digital stream, this product won't be too useful to you in a small studio environment. Don't get me wrong, it's a great product with an unbeatable price point for sending signals from digital VTRs into several digital editing rooms - but you'll often need more than SDI.
Here's what's not a gamble: everything dies. Count on it. Here's what is a gamble with routing switchers: if yours dies, your entire facility shuts down. Most professional studios run everything to patch bays, and then run those connections into a router. That way, they have the convenience of using a router, but if the router dies, they don't go out of business. They can still use the patch bays. Patch bays aren't just simple, cheap and expandable. They're also reliable.
So what else goes into the machine room? Well, the most important thing is your central blackburst generator. Something like a little Horita BSG-50 box will tie together everything in your rooms.
Some people - actually a lot of people - put their computers and disk drives in the machine room, and run KVM extenders (keyboard, mouse, video monitor extenders) from there to the edit rooms.
In fact, most computers aimed at pro users are rack-mountable for exactly this reason. Everything is quieter, and the cable runs are now short between the edit controller computers and the patch bays. Companies like Gefen make KVM extenders, but you can find others, also.
The machine room is the ideal place for gear you don't want in your edit rooms. Gear like VHS duplication machines, that old 3/4" VTR that you use once a year, a DVD-R recorder, etc.
There's more to it, of course. We didn't discuss power requirements, air conditioning, electrical distribution, and proper distribution of black signals (if those 6 outputs on the Horita aren't enough).
All of this might seem complicated and expensive. Maybe you've even decided that you'd rather not grow your business than have to deal with this stuff. Don't worry. Machine rooms are a proven way to manage your growth with minimal pain. They'll actually make it easier for you to grow, and growing your business is why you come to The COW.
Bob Zelin's MONEY-SAVING TIPS SOME PROS WILL LAUGH AT, BUT THEY WORK...
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