The handwriting on the wall grows clearer all the time—the days of videotape acquisition are numbered. As the price of removable digital media spirals downward, the cost advantage of tape diminishes too, especially when compared to non-proprietary media like SDHC and compact flash.
Without a clear cost-advantage for tape, the pros of tapeless acquisition become compelling: ease and speed of importing images into NLEs, random access for field playback and basic editing in-camera and economy of space both in the field and in archiving.
Eschewing tape altogether, however, entails a major paradigm shift for boomers and others who came of age with this type of storage. That resulted in several manufacturers offering various hybrid capture and storage systems, with Panasonic including a tape drive in one of the first solid-state pro camcorders. Others (Sony and JVC) followed with optional dockable digital recorders that could be used concurrently with tape. However, these solutions are only designed to work with their cameras.
Convergent Designs Flash XDR ready for use So what about everyone else who is heavily invested in tape-based acquisition, yet needs a bridge to the tapeless/solid-state future?
Fortunately for them, there's now another option by Convergent Design. Their Flash XDR solution doesn't merely provide tapeless recording at the same quality level, but actually offers a big boost in capture quality for both lower end camcorders, as well as affordable, high quality, solid-state recording for high end models.
Until Flash XDR, there has been no commercial external solid-state field recorder that records HD at or beyond XDCAM HD 144 Mbps quality. This technology can now record XDCAM codec signals at up to 220 Mbps in I-frame-only mode, and can meet the recording specs needed by cameras ranging from Sony's PMW-EX1 to the Thomson Viper at a price point that doesn't break the bank.
Flash XDR is unique among stand-alone field recorders in utilizing Sony's XDCAM 4:2:2 @ HL codec to write native Quicktime or MXF (video/audio/timecode) files onto standard, and relatively affordable, CompactFlash media. Unlike many proprietary solid-state media and videotape formats, CompactFlash cards are available around the globe.
In terms of solid-state video recorders capable of higher data rates, Flash XDR is also quite compact—roughly comparable to a large cigar box. It's also surprisingly light, weighing in at 2.7 pounds. It's also well built and appears capable of withstanding the sort of intensive and occasional abuse that pro video gear is subjected to.
Its core shell is made of lightweight metal, with rubberized front and back panels. There are also removable rubber plates covering both sides to protect the CompactFlash cards and the XLR audio input connectors.
The bottom I/O panel is uncovered and accommodates all but audio I/Os: HD SDI, TC, plus an RS-422 control plug and headphone jack. Both remote and manual triggers can be readily accessed and used. Everything is neatly aligned in twin rows on both the top and bottom.
The layout resembles that of a DVR with familiar color-coded record, play and stop (pause) buttons. There's also a four-pointed menu navigation star. The menu is user-friendly and is designed for ease in finding what you need (and getting it done). There's also an LCD panel for displaying the menu contents, along with six keys numbered F1 through F6 for everything else.
The unit has two audio options—video embedded AES/EBU or analog audio via the dual XLR inputs. It accepts line/mic level audio sources, with or without phantom power. The mic gain ranges from 10-65 dB and can be adjusted while recording.
Flash XDR can record multiple video formats to two basic video file formats—MXF and Quicktime. These formats include 1080i @ 60, 59.94, 50 Hz; 1080p at 30, 29.97, 25, 24, 23.98 Hz; 1080 psf @30, 29.97, 25, 24, 23.98; and 720p @ 60, 59.94 and 50 Hz.
Flash XDR is designed for use with a variety of cameras, but is not dockable directly to them, so it must be powered independently. In addition to AC power, the unit may be powered from batteries. It draws only 13 to 16 watts, and provides more than three hours of operation from a single fully charged battery. The complete package fits easily and neatly on a supplied mounting bracket.
Before using the Flash XDR, I checked the manufacturer's Web site for firmware updates, and found that there had been quite a few since the unit I reviewed was last updated in mid May. Among other things, it includes one feature that I really needed as a wildlife shooter—pre-record. With Flash XDR, this buffer captures action occurring four and a half seconds before the record button is triggered.
The updates download directly to the CF cards. However, I need to note that when installing updates on the Flash XDR—which can take several minutes or so—it's critical that the process not be interrupted for any reason. If there is an interruption, such as power failure or removal of the CF card, the system becomes corrupted and the unit must be sent back to the factory. It's well worth using a fresh battery or confirming a solid AC connection beforehand.
Similar caution is required when formatting new CF cards, as all cards loaded will be formatted simultaneously. Any partly recorded cards need to be removed while formatting. It's also a good idea to check the Web site for updates on cards qualified for use.
There are also several menu selections to make before recording, such as file format (Quicktime for Mac or MXF for PC), and several record trigger options.
I selected the Master Quality Long GOP bit-rate of 100. (In I-frame mode, you can record at 100 or 160 Mbps.) All recordings are full raster, 4:2:2, whether at 1920x1080 or 1280x720. The 1080p and 720p options require selecting the PSF (progressive segmented frame) mode for recording and playback.
With audio, the basic choices are embedded or using the Flash XDR's twin XLR audio inputs. While many shooters may feel more comfortable adjusting audio with on-camera controls, you can also do so directly on Flash XDR.
Convergent Design recommends the 100 Mbps Long GOP as the "sweet spot" that provides very high quality, but comes with a fairly small file size. The files fully support Intraframe compression with the "I-Frame Only" modes.
I compared the two modes on a few subjects in both close-ups and wider shots, concluding that there was no clear "better" Master Quality mode. Both provided remarkable detail and color.
EFP or ENG work
Works with a variety of formats and is compact and lightweight
Convergent Design | 866-654-0080 | www.convergent-design.com The degree and consistency of detail in the wider shots was most impressive, with the high detail level holding up even in dim light—I was quite impressed with the range of black stretch. I also noticed more shades of the same basic color than I ever had before when shooting in HDV. This was particularly striking when shooting flowers.
There seemed to be more shades of the dominant color on the screen than visible to my naked eye or than in the camera viewfinder.
I couldn't believe that the Canon XL H1 was capturing HD imagery this detailed and with such high color saturation. Even though it's a great HDV camcorder, I'd never captured images as sharp and richly colored before, as I'd never been able to store its uncompressed HD SDI output.
The quality of the stereo audio playback was also fairly impressive. I used an Audio Technica stereo shotgun mic connected directly to Flash XDR's pair of XLR mic inputs. Audio gain was set at 52 dB for both channels. This yielded fairly loud, but balanced and natural-sounding stereo signals.
Despite the considerable hype—and initial skepticism—Flash XDR easily exceeded my expectations. In fact, it blew them out of the water. Shooting 1080i/59.94 in Long GOP at 100 Mbps and in I-frame mode at 140 Mbps with a Canon XL H1, I got unparalleled performance from this camcorder. Everything was recorded in impressive detail and color in full-raster 1920x1080. This occurred in various lighting conditions ranging from dark overcast, to twilight to mid-day sunshine, all with natural lighting. Shooting with the aid of several seconds of pre-record I was able to capture short but complete sequences in stunning detail and color, along with rich, stereo audio. Moreover, its modest power requirements enabled operation for three to four hours with a 55 W lithium battery. This, coupled with its ability to record more than two hours of Master Quality HD on several 32 GB CompactFlash cards, makes it highly efficient and economical to operate in the field Flash XDR appears to be very suitable for recording with high-end digital cameras including Red One and Viper, as well as with HDV and other professional camcorders with HD SDI output.
Carl Mrozek operates Eagle Eye Media, based in Buffalo, N.Y., which specializes in wildlife and outdoor subjects. His work appears on the Discovery Channel, CBS, PBS and other networks. Contact him email@example.com.
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