I have no qualms about admitting that I got my PC—the "testbed" Dell used in many an EMedia review—from an ad in Sports Illustrated. Well, not exactly. I saw the Sports Illustrated ad, featuring a hot-rod Dell Pentium IV with plenty of muscle, monitor included, for $899, went to Dell's Web site the next day, and "customized" a near-identical system (I think I added a DVD-ROM drive and some better speakers) for about $100 more.
For most of the reviews I've done over the last eight months—lots of CD recorders, CD-R software, the occasional DVD recorder and recording software— it's met the challenge without even breaking a sweat. But what about when CD recorders and DVD recorders become—like the PC itself—just a link in the chain of the desktop digital studio? Can you really build a working digital studio, or a reasonable facsimile, around an "average" sub-$1000 PC? And will the average sub-$1000 PC buyer—and sub-sub-expert video editor—find tools matched to the task and his or her talents?
In mid-July, I joined the ranks of digital video solipsists who commit their personal memories to digital video and ultimately—if I could get there—DVD. Having just a week before jumped the broom before kith and kin, I returned home from my honeymoon determined to convert my wedding video to DVD. In for penny and pound already, I suppose I could have passed the job off to some respectable local video service. But this seemed a perfect opportunity to take the rudiments of the desktop digital studio that were scattered about my office and see what I could make of them.
The first step was to secure a digital video camera compatible with the Canon miniDV model an old pal had brought from Boston to capture the blessed event. EMedia contributing editor Jan Ozer generously volunteered his. I quickly made arrangements to augment my test PC (for the record: 1.5gHz P IV Dell, 256MB RAM, factory-installed Dell graphics card, Adaptec DuoConnect USB/FW card) with a 60GB USB 2 external HDD from a respected vendor to store the massive DV files. I also gathered a variety of software tools: Ulead Video Studio 5.0 SE DVD, Nova's Video Explosion Deluxe, medioStream neoDVD 3, and the "CapWiz" software that came with ADS USB Instant DVD in case the FireWire capture didn't work.
The camera and external HDD arrived and the capture seemed to work fine, first using Video Explosion Deluxe, although my attempt to favor the little guy failed since the version I had offered only VideoCD output. I then tried Video Studio 5, except the USB 2 hard drive started clicking and froze my system every time I tried to capture and store video to it. After two days of crashes, restarts, reinstallations, and tech support calls, I determined the drive was dysfunctional and moved on. I tried capturing some video as full-resolution DV files in AVI format using Video Studio 5, but the files were recorded without sound, and the program started corrupting its own metadata files. (I'll chalk up the no-sound issue to operator error.)
I cleared some extra space on my on-board hard drive and figured out I had enough room to capture the video directly to MPEG-2 using neoDVD, but the capture proved flawed. The video quality was excellent, as in the Video Studio capture, but the audio capture introduced annoying beeps throughout the clips. Typical of single-camera, on-camera microphone, amateur videos shot in variable settings on limited battery power, the source tapes had their share of audio dropouts, but none of the squeaks found in the medioStream capture. Second try, same thing. This isn't a huge knock on neoDVD—it's still an accessible and effective DVD assembly and recording tool. But I can't recommend this version for capture, at least audio-wise.
Essentially, my initial setup failed. I'm not inclined to blame the host system for this, but there's clearly a lesson to be learned about haphazard tool selection. I eventually did find the right tools, and all the pieces fell into place. I replaced the USB 2 HDD with a Que FireWire drive, which worked instantly and perfectly, and got my hands on Pinnacle Studio 8, the first consumer video editing tool to offer DVD authoring directly from the video timeline, and the two immediately combined for excellent capture and storage (not to mention a great editing environment).
All of which left me with this for a desktop digital studio setup: $999 Dell, $179 Adaptec FireWire card (you can certainly go cheaper on this), $99 Studio 8 software, $199 QPS FireWire HDD ($79-99 internal ATAPI), and $400 DVD-Recorder. I get about $1880 for all that. Of course, it's the stuff on the tapes that's really priceless, and getting it on the tapes is where things get pricey: while I'd argue you can accomplish things well-beyond the expectations of the typical amateur wedding videographer in creating DV and DVD projects with the above—and here, I'm speaking of "consumer" NLEs crossing over into the corporate world—you'll need better audio, which means investing in a pro-quality camcorder or at least a good external microphone.
That said, once Studio 8 came into the picture, I had a pretty solid digital studio on my desktop. But keep in mind, it wouldn't have happened if that software (in Gold Master form, no less) hadn't fallen into my lap, like almost all the tools at my disposal. And who can afford to buy that many tools to get to the right one? But Studio 8 did get the job done (once the 8.3 patch ironed out some kinks my project unearthed—see upcoming review), and I finally got to make some good burns on the DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW drives I had serendipitously on hand. But it took a lot of crashes to get to those burns.