Thursday, 18 December, 2008

An FCP system for Uncompressed HD

I was at a TV station a few days ago with a requirement to capture uncompressed HD at 4:4:4 dual link out of a telecine. The captures had to be a jumbo reel at a time which works out to about 22 mins in one go. Telecine was a Cintel with Stereo or Dolby audio coming from a Sondor sound follower in sync. 

The system was configured as a Dual Quad MacPro with 8 GB RAM. A Kona 3 card with a AJA embedder to embed analog audio into the HD-SDI stream. And disks were internal. Yes internal disks. I was skeptical. The disks were SAS disks RAIDed together as RAID 0 with the Apple internal RAID card. SAS drives are wicked fast. But the signal was HD 1080p24 at 4:4:4. 

I checked the AJA Control Panel to be sure. And I was still skeptical. I first ran the AJA disk test and it showed sufficient Read and Write speed. But only just. I've forgotten the actual numbers as we did a few combinations of cache on and off. 

So we threaded the film. And the sound film. Played pack to check sync and inputs. The colourist fussed over the colours a bit and was ready to go. He ran the film and I hit capture now. The 'Abort capture on dropped frames' warning was on. We went over the whole reel and the capture went through. 

The RAID drive wasn't empty, but wasn't full either. About 20% full from previous captures. The capture went off fine. Not a singe dropped frame. Just to be sure we did it one more time. And that went through as well. I'm not entirely sure this is going to work if the drives get full like about 80% full. And I have no way to check. 

A colleague will be running further tests over the next week or so. Maybe he'll fill up the drive and we'll find out that this works up to a point. Also, these drives are striped as RAID 0, so its not a secure RAID and one drive failure will result in total data loss. The whole telecine will then need to be repeated. 

But then, I guess their workflow will have to be to encode these to whatever their target format is and take it off the drives as soon as possible, so maybe that may not be such a problem. And SAS drives are seriously reliable. 

Finally, just to make sure that the same setup performed fine for compressed HD capture as well, I did one reel captured to Apple ProResHQ. The data rate of ProResHQ even at 1080p24 4:2:2 is well within the capabilities of even a single SATA drive so the SAS RAID wasn't going to sweat much over ProRes. But I wanted to be sure if the combination of an HD input and the extra processing that ProRes takes, would be handled by this configuration. It did. 

So, here it is. a simple system to capture HD Uncompressed all within one box. I went over to the Apple store to spec it out and check what it would cost. 
Here is the complete spec... 
# Two 2.8GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon 
# 8GB (4x2GB) 
# Mac Pro RAID Card 
# 320GB 7200-rpm Serial ATA 3Gb/s 
# 300GB 15,000-rpm SAS 
# 300GB 15,000-rpm SAS 
# 300GB 15,000-rpm SAS 
# ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT 256MB 
# One 16x SuperDrive 
# Apple Cinema HD Display (30" flat panel) 
# Apple Mighty Mouse 
# Apple Keyboard + User's Guide 
# AppleCare Protection Plan for Mac Pro (w/or w/o Display) - Auto-enroll 

And here's the cost. 
(US$, Customs duty extra) 
$ 9097 for the system - spec above 
$ 1300 for Final Cut Studio 2 
$ 2300 for the AJA Kona3 

With Indian Customs duty you're looking at About Rs 8 lakhs. The only saving I can see anyone making is to get a Blackmagic Multibrdge Pro in place of the Kona3 which can save you $ 700. 

But I haven't tested the Multibridge with this setup so can't say. I have used a Multibridge extensively and found it to work fine even with uncompressed HD. Either ways, the ability to capture and work in HD, as uncompressed 4:4:4 is now within reach. 

8 lakhs may seem a bit much, if you're in the market for a cheap DV only system. But if online quality video and even 2k is what you're getting into, then this is it. With an AJA Kona 3 you're going to get video quality indistinguishable from a Smoke/Flame or eQ for a fraction of the price. 

By the way, the new Smoke/Flame systems ship with an AJA Xena card which sources at Aja have told me is the same as the Kona in quality terms. Besides with Final cut Studio, you get Motion, Color, SoundTrack, LiveType. 

Add Shake, a 3D CG software, Adobe Video bundle, some DPX tools, Apple Color and a really imaginative editor, and you've got a mean system that can make you some big bucks. 

And, if you want to go further, add two iMacs, GigE network them, snag two enthu cutlets who can assist with capture and graphics and you've got some real great human throughput that one online machine just can't deliver.