Considerations for an Editing Workstation

If you believe the marketing hype, working with professional video today is as easy as plugging your DV camcorder into an off-the-shelf Mac or PC and running you favorite editing software.  This may work for “home movies”, but it certainly isn’t adequate for demanding uses, like editing video productions destined for broadcast television. There’s a bit more to setting up the right system than going to Best Buy or CompUSA and simply buying the best deal on a “media workstation”. In this article, I’d like to look at some of the various criteria and cost items associated with configuring a reliable workstation for the editing of professional projects.


The Computer


Let’s start with the computer itself. I’m going to stick with Windows-based PCs, because there are more concerns with which to deal; however, many of the same comments apply to your favorite Apple Macs. Many folks think that a custom-built computer is the way to go. That may be true if you purchase the unit from someone who knows what they are doing, but you can also get a lemon with little or no warranty. I tend to stick with the name brands: IBM, Dell, HP/Compaq, Sony, Gateway, etc. Frequently, these companies offer “small and medium business” packages which are configured for professional use, offer an extended warranty and don’t cost all that much more that the “do-it-yourself” system. As far as the operating system – your best bet is Windows XP Professional, not Windows 98, NT, 2000 or Linux. Most PC-based NLEs are coded for XP and that will be true for a number of years.


Processor (CPU) speed matters. 2.4GHz or higher is recommended for most editing applications and with more intense versions coming, get as fast a processor as you can afford. At this time there are plenty of 3GHz models, so I would highly recommend that as a starting point. Many professional workstations offer dual-processor configurations, but your editing software may not utilize this power, so check first. You might get more bang-for-the-buck in a single processor system, which is great if that’s all you can use anyway. I tend to stick with Intel Pentium 4 CPUs (or the Xeon versions). These are reliable and most of the current software is optimized for them. 64-bit computing for general PCs is just around the corner, but it will still be a while before applications are optimized for this additional power. Apple is shipping its 64-bit G5s, but Final Cut Pro is still geared for a 32-bit world. The speed at which data is fed to the CPU – called the front side bus speed – is also improving. Look for a unit with an 800MHz front side bus rating (PCs).


RAM is a critical component of your workstation. You can never have enough. I would recommend 512MB as the minimum, with 1GB or higher if you can afford it. Like the front side bus, RAM is also rated in speeds and types, so make sure you are getting the fastest.


Display System


The computer’s display system (along with the keyboard and mouse) is the part you interact with the most. This consists of a graphics card and the monitors in front of you. There has been a lot of competition among display card manufacturers and many editing software companies are taking advantage of the new horsepower these cards can offer. For instance, Avid is now using the OpenGL features of the display cards to perform 3D DVE moves, without using a dedicated DVE card. Again, stick with the name brands, like Matrox, nVidia or ATI.


Not all cards are equal. Some offer extra features that enhance 3D animation, CAD design or video game playback, but do nothing to improve functionality during video editing. Almost any medium to high-end card will give you good results (as long as specific OpenGL features aren’t required), but be sure to get a dual-display card. Editing apps require plenty of screen real estate and a single 4×3 aspect CRT simply isn’t enough for comfort. Some of the Matrox models even let you connect three screens. Most of these graphics cards include an S-Video connector. Generally this isn’t really useful for displaying video from an edit system – so don’t spend extra money on this. The exception is Matrox, whose 3-headed cards can be configured for two displays plus a TV monitor.


As far as the displays themselves, two monitors ranging from 17” to 22” (diag.) in size are ideal, but you might consider flat panel screens instead of CRTs. The prices have dropped and these now offer crisp, accurate images. If you select flat panels, be sure to get ones with small mullions surrounding the screen, so that you can get the screens as close together as possible with little separation in the middle of your desktop image. Flat panels have a native display size at which they look best. Unlike CRTs, which display nice images at several different screen resolutions, flat panels usually only look good at one, so be sure that the panels you choose look right at the resolution you intend to use.




The most important component of an editing workstation is the choice of hard drives. You will have to decide if you are going to use internal or external storage for your audio and video media. If you intend only to edit DV25 media (DV, DVCAM, DVCPro), then internal drives are sufficient. Anything with higher bandwidth, such as uncompressed video, will probably require an external drive array. When you purchase your initial computer configuration, you should plan on using ATA drives for any internal drives and SCSI drives for external arrays. There is no need for internal SCSI drives. Drives should be at least 7200 RPM in speed and it’s a good idea to get at least two internal drives – one for software and the other for media storage. Most applications create errors when trying to run software and play media from the same drive. A good configuration is 40GB (software) plus 80GB (media storage). Remember that DV25 media consumes storage at the rate of approximately 5 minutes per GB, and uncompressed video at about 1 minute per GB.


If you intend to work with higher bandwidth codecs or even multiple real-time streams of DV25 media, then you’ll need an external drive array. A combination of 4, 8 or 10 SCSI drives running at speeds of 7200, 10,000 or even 15,000 RPM are your best bet. These drives are “striped” as a single unit, so they appear as one large drive to your software. They are connected to the computer through a SCSI adapter card plugged into PCI slot. Some computers include a built-in SCSI adapter, while with others, it must be purchased as an option from companies like ATTO or Adaptec. Most current “flavors” of SCSI are Ultra160 or Ultra320. Another pricier option is Fiber Channel instead of SCSI. Fiber has the advantage that you can run a longer wire between the drives and the computer, permitting you to remove noisy drives to another room.


Computer Peripherals

Your computer may or may not come standard with all the items you need. You will at least need to have a CD-ROM player and a 3.5” floppy drive (yes, they are still needed). Most computers come standard with a combo DVD/CD-ROM player and some even with DVD/CD-ROM players that also record CD-R/CD-RWs. If you intend to burn DVDs, you should also make sure you have a DVD-R drive. Because of drive speeds, it’s a good idea to have two drives – a DVD/CD-ROM player and a second DVD-R/CD-R/CD-RW recording drive. Generally Pioneer is the manufacturer of choice for DVD-R drives.


CD-Rs have largely replaced the use of Iomega Zip and Jaz drives, but if you still have clients working in these formats, you’ll need to purchase some anyway. External units using USB are still readily available at computer retail outlets.


In spite of all the use of IEEE-1394 (also called iLink and FireWire), not all computers include this port. You will need to make sure your system does, otherwise you won’t be able to connect your DV camera or deck. 1394 ports are not all equal, so make sure yours is appropriate for the task. For instance, make sure it is OHCI-compliant and made using Texas Instruments chips. Avid uses 1394 to connect its Mojo DNA unit to the computer, when used with Avid Xpress Pro software. Mojo requires a1394 port that is connected directly to the motherboard (not a PCI card) in order to get the accelerated performance promised for this system.


If you are planning to control a non-DV deck, such as a Betacam-SP VTR, you will also need a serial port on your computer. This will permit you to connect to the remote control port of the VTR, using an RS-232 to RS-422 adapter, like one of the Rosetta Stone products.


Video Peripherals


If you intend to turn your editing workstation into something more than a hobby and plan to work in DV or better, then you may want to consider some add-on hardware. The most obvious of these is some sort of video processing card, such as those made by Canopus, Pinnacle or Matrox. These are PCI cards, which often come bundled with an editing application, like Adobe Premiere Pro, Pinnacle Edition or Canopus Edius. They add real-time effects performance to software-only NLEs, as well as give you fulltime video output, without robbing performance from the computer itself. In addition, they also provide format conversion from analog video into DV media.


A new approach is Avid’s Mojo DNA for Avid Xpress Pro. As I mentioned before, Mojo connects though the 1394 port instead of the PCI bus and provides effects acceleration and conversion. If you simply want conversion, then Canopus makes a number of products, such as the ADVC-100 – which brings in analog audio and video or S-Video through the 1394 port – turning it into DV media. It also works in the opposite direction, providing conversion of DV back to video, so you can view it on a monitor or record it to an analog VTR.


Pro Video Extras


There are a few final things to consider for your “dream suite”. What about the VTR? You don’t really want to beat your camcorder to death digitizing tapes, do you? It’s a good idea to factor in a separate DV VTR. Sony, Panasonic and JVC each make a number of models that can deal with DV25 media, but not every model can play and/or record all forms of DV. Check before you buy.


If you intend to be a video professional, then purchase professional hardware – like a broadcast quality color monitor and a real waveform monitor and vectorscope. The software scopes in most NLEs are junk. Get the real thing to be sure your video is up to snuff.


Last, but not least – audio monitoring, a mixer and power back-up (UPS). Many NLE suites use Mackie or Behringer audio products for mixing and monitoring. With software-based mixing, these hardware mixers are really just for routing sound and not true audio mixing. As long as these are clean (and they are), you’ll be fine.


Get a big enough UPS to power your computer, drives and at least one display monitor. Usually one of the APC 1400 units (or larger) will be about right. You’re not looking to work through an outage – simply to have enough juice to safely shut down.


© 2003 Oliver Peters