Requiem for A Heavyweight

June 25, 2003
"Don't it always seem to go, That you don't know what you've got 'till it's gone...?" -- Joni Mitchell

Not every editor felt the earth rumble, but our universe changed at NAB2003 when Editware announced that it would no longer develop its DPE line of linear edit systems. Of course, the company will continue to support the DPE and VPE systems currently in the field and will periodically bring out maintenance patches and new device drivers for them, but the books are closing on the heroic epoch of linear edit systems. So, since you can't know where you're going if you don't know where you're from, walk with me for a while in the footsteps of giants.

THE STORY SO FAR...

New editors who cut their teeth on nonlinear, random-access systems spinning disks may not appreciate how miraculous the technological artform of video editing truly is or how far we have come from our tape-based heritage. I'm sure every school child remembers that the first linear magnetic recording device, the Telegraphone, was invented in 1896 by the Danish inventor Valdemar Poulsen. Trying to create a magnetic version of Edison's earliest phonograph, Poulsen spiraled piano wire around a brass cylinder and induced a signal onto the coils with a laterally moving magnetic pickup. You barely heard its playback, couldn't dream of making a duplicate and, of course, couldn't hope to edit it.

You could edit material recorded on the "Stahltonband Maschine" designed by Semi. J. Begun in Germany for the C. Lorenz company in the early '30s, but you needed solder and a welding torch to do it. Flash forward through the first magnetic tape audio recording of Bing Crosby's radio show in 1947 and RCA's 1955 video attempt, VERA (Vision Electronics Recording Apparatus), that spun tape at 300 feet per second, and we arrive at the breakthrough VRX-1000 from Ampex that used four transverse "quad" video heads spinning over two-inch tape to time-shift "Douglas Edwards and the News" on Nov. 30, 1956, for delayed West Coast broadcast.

So now you had linear tape recording, but how in the heck could you edit it? Although hard to believe, engineers found they could paint part of the tape with a developer called Edivue Diluent to make the sync pulses visible, then clamp the tape into a Smith guillotine splicer, make the cut and splice two pieces together with special 3M tape. If you combined sync pulses out of phase the picture rolled, but hey, it was a start. My research indicates that there is a good chance the last time a physically spliced edit was broadcast was when CBS engineers tacked the opening stand-up monologue onto the front of the already-edited body of "The Carol Burnett Show" (1967-78), but the dates are vague.

ENTER TIMECODE

Then in 1967, SMPTE standardized an 80-bit electronic signal called "timecode" that could, among other things, accurately identify each frame of video. Combined with rudimentary computers like the PDP-11 from Digital Equipment Corp., which actually contained several kilobytes of RAM, the era of computerized linear editing began. In 1971 a consortium called CMX (for "CBS + MemoreX") produced the first disk-based edit system, the CMX-600, whose lists could be assembled sequentially from linear tapes by the CMX-200 with EDLs imported on paper punch-tape from an ASR-33 Teletype machine. A year later the first true online linear edit controller, the CMX 300, came out on a Digital Equipment PDP-11 computer running the ancient RT-11 operating system (which stood for "Real Time on the PDP-11"), and the first milestone on the road that ended at NAB2003 was erected.

One of the first points that may not be obvious to nonlinear knaves is that back in those days, the accomplishment of actually making a stable edit was not a given. Among other parameters, each edit would have to be analyzed for sync phase accuracy. Then if you wanted to run two sources ("A" and "B") together to create a simple dissolve inside an outboard video switcher, you would have to verify that the "A" source hit its "in" point accurately at the start of the effect or you would suffer the embarrassment of a jump in the video. So every edit had to be tediously checked while producers waited and budget clocks ticked.

As early VTRs proliferated, each brand of linear edit system used different control protocols, as did switchers, effects devices and audio mixers. The CMX solution was "distributed intelligence" through custom control modules called "Intelligent Interfaces" or I2 (pronounced "eye squared," get it?) for each device. Then a real visionary, Dave Bargen, figured out a way to accomplish the same thing with software drivers and founded ISC ("Interactive Systems Corp.") in 1982 to produce CMX-style editors empowered with his Super Edit software. They sold for up to $70,000 per system back then, easily more than $200,000 in today's money.

ISC was acquired by Grass Valley Group in 1985 and redesigned Bargen's system so everything rested on a single board, which by 1990 cut the cost down to $15,000 for the VPE-131. By 1996, the parent company of Grass Valley Group, Tektronix, decided to get out of the editing game. A group of former GVG executives (Jay Coley, Bob Lefcovich, Gary Ware and Steve Miller) licensed the Super Edit software, acquired the technology and founded Editware, Inc. They have been supporting and further developing the VPE ("Video Production Editor") line of linear edit systems ever since.

To herald its evolution to digital, Editware added the DPE ("Digital Production Editor") series of controllers in June 1999 on the Windows platform and brought out Fastrack in 2001 to add hybrid capabilities by controlling the Thomson/Grass Valley Profile servers. Now, although Fastrack's current incarnation offers the choice of either a GUI nonlinear user interface or an EDL-style timecode method of determining edits, with its ability to control most of the popular servers as edit sources, these are mere echoes of the clarion call of linear editing now that the DPE family of controllers has reached its developmental end.

THE PHYSICAL ELEMENT

CMX dissolved through a series of purchases and faded away in the '90s. Sony's BVE-9100 system received its last major software upgrade, Version 3.0, in 1991. And now the DPE is a mere shadow on the wall. The finger of time has writ and having written, moves on.

But many of us will always value our linear editing heritage. Editware's VP of Sales and Customer Support, Bob Lefcovich, who in the golden heyday of sitcoms edited such classics as "All in the Family," "One Day at A Time," and "The Jeffersons," along with countless TV spots and specials, looks back in wonder.

"The touch and feel of physically controlling the individual components of an edit system was something I'll always appreciate about linear editing," Lefcovich reflects. "I miss the instant gratification of seeing edits appear on your monitor in an online bay without any rendering, and I liked the ability to interface to almost anyone's ancillary audio or video equipment. But then, we believe Fastrack gives you the best of both worlds so maybe everything old is new again."

Let's all pause briefly to honor the epitaph of a chapter in editing history already belonging to bygone days. A toast to those who have gone before, and a second cup to those who come after.

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