Equipping Your Final Cut System

Posted on by Larry

[ This article was first published in the March 2007 issue of
Larry’s Monthly Newsletter. Click here to subscribe. ]


Brendan McCullough, of Cincinnati, Ohio, sent me an email which was the trigger for this article.

I graduated college two and a half years ago and have been doing freelance video editing and production for three and a half years. 2007 is my year to take the plunge and get some gear. My plan is to get a Mac Pro and Final Cut Studio, but the cost of entry is steep, especially living on the salary of a budding freelancer (i.e., limited, sporadic income).

I’ve built more than my share of PCs and am quite comfortable getting into the guts of the computer, so I ask you: does it make sense to buy a Mac Pro with the baseline hard drive and memory options and upgrade myself (paying careful attention to the Apple compatible hardware guidelines) in order to save money, or am I missing something coming from a DIY PC mindset?

What else would you suggest to someone putting together their first editing rig? I know I shouldn’t think too large to start, as I’ll be stuck in corporate video land and shouldn’t need too many bells and whistles.

Larry replies:

While entire catalogs are devoted to this subject, here are some general guidelines you can use. (To other readers, feel free to suggest products you like as well and I’ll add them to the next issue.)

The first big issue you need to address is what video format you intend to edit. DV and HDV have relatively few equipment requirements. Beta SP, DigiBeta and most flavors of HD are much more equipment intensive.


First, you need a Macintosh. Any Mac, except a Mac Mini, will handle DV. If you are working with HDV, an Intel-Mac will be better. If you are working with formats other than DV/HDV, a G-5 or Mac Pro that allows you to add PCI cards will be very useful.

Lots of people are very successfully editing DV and HDV on iMacs and MacBook laptops.


Final Cut is disk-based, more than RAM-based. Motion, on the other hand, is RAM-based. I’ve found that between 1.5 and 2.5 GB of RAM is fine for Final Cut. Don’t add more than 4 GB of RAM — Final Cut is not able to use it. Make sure you have at least 1 GB of RAM.

You can buy RAM on the open market and upgrade your system. However, and this is important, Macintosh systems are MUCH more finicky about RAM than PCs. For this reason, don’t buy on price, buy from a vendor that actually understands Mac RAM. Also, you need to specify the EXACT Macintosh system you have, as RAM specs vary by system.

A vendor I like, though certainly not the only one, is Crucial Technology.

Hard Disks
Final Cut requires at least two hard disks. While you can, in an emergency, edit to the internal drive of your laptop, this is neither recommended nor wise. Get two drives.

If you computer supports it, internal drives will be cheaper than external drives. An internal drive on a G-5 or Mac Pro will be faster than an external FireWire drive.

Adding an second internal drive is easy. Again, like RAM, make sure you are buying a hard drive specifically designed for the Mac it is going in. G-5 and MacPro systems require all internal drives to use SATA.

If you have a G-4, iMac, or MacBook, an external FireWire drive will be fine; iMacs and MacBooks don’t have room for a second internal drive.

If you have a G-5, MacBook Pro, or Mac Pro, you may be better off with a SATA external drive. SATA, however, requires a PCI card to attached the drive to your computer. (See my review below on the LaCie d2 Quadra drive. Or this article from last month’s newsletter on choosing between a FireWire or SATA hard drive.)

The benefit FireWire provides is portability — you can connect it to any Mac. The benefit SATA provides is much greater speed for about the same price — anywhere from 2 – 5 times faster than FireWire 400.

If you plan to work with HD, not HDV, you will probably be better off with a RAID, which provides greater storage and speed than a single hard drive. There are six kinds of RAIDS:

SATA speeds currently are about 30% slower on laptops than on towers due to how the SATA card communicates with the data bus on a laptop.

Computer Monitor
The most important thing to keep in mind about your computer monitor is that you can NOT make final decisions on color or interlacing by looking at it. The computer does not display video colors or interlacing accurately.

If you are working with NTSC or PAL, any size monitor will be fine. If you are working with 720p HD, a 20-inch monitor is recommended. If you are working with 1080i HD, a 23-inch monitor is recommended. By using View > Video Playback > Digital Cinema Desktop Preview, you’ll be able to see your HD image at full-resolution on your computer monitor.

Whether you buy one or two computer monitors is up to your budget and style of working. Final Cut supports both.

Video Capture Card
If you are working with DV, or FireWire-based video, you probably don’t need a capture card.

However, if you are working with any analog format, such as Beta SP or VHS, digital formats, such as DigiBeta, or any HD format, especially including HDV, a capture card is probably in your future.

A capture card has three main functions:

If you are using HDV, something you might consider is converting it from HDV into DVCPROHD for editing. This can provide both an improvement in image quality as well as much faster editing and outputting. A capture card can handle this conversion during capture in real-time.

There are two leading brands of capture cards:

Each has a variety of products to work with the wide variety of video formats and connectors currently in industry use.

I’m also reading good things about Aurora Video Systems, which provides converter boxes that take VHS tape output and convert it to FireWire.

Video Monitor
In spite of all the industry hype about LCD and Plasma monitors, the problem is that they don’t display video color or interlacing correctly. Which means you can’t trust them to do what you most need a monitor for — to display your video images accurately so you can see what’s actually there.

In the past, I recommended the Sony PVM-14L2 monitor as an industry standard. However, Sony stopped making them a year or so ago. If you can buy a used one on E-bay, great.

If not, JVC makes a very nice video monitor – the TM-H150CGU. 15-inch, NTSC and PAL, 4:3 and 16:9. This is a great choice for anyone doing SD work. However, it is not the right choice for HD.

The problem with HD monitors is that they are desperately expensive. At this moment, for people that don’t have a champaign budget for monitoring HD, your computer monitor is your best choice. Just keep in mind that it will not properly display interlacing or color.

Audio monitor
First, don’t mix on headsets. They are too good, with too much separation between the channels. You need to use speakers.

Second, cheap multimedia speakers don’t let you hear the sound that is there.

You need to buy some decent audio monitors. However, this does not mean that you need to rob a bank to pay for them. Good monitor speakers will run around $400 – 500 a pair. Here are some brands to consider:

Audio Mixer
You have two options for audio mixers:

For the first option, I am a huge fan of Mackie mixers. The 1402-VLZ is perfect for DV and the 1604-VLZ is great for four-channel audio like DigiBeta or DVCPROHD. Virtually indestructible, pervasive, and easy-to-run.

These mixers allow you to easily monitor all the different audio sources in your edit bay — such as the computer, tape deck, DVD player and so on.

However, these mixers don’t allow you to control Final Cut or Soundtrack Pro. To do that, you need an “external control surface” that supports the Mackie Control Protocol.

These devices are much more expensive than a straight-forward mixer. Companies that make them include:

(As a note, I have had problems in the past connecting a Tascam FW-1082 mixer to work reliably with Soundtrack. Make sure you test any system for reliability before committing yourself to a deadline.)

Uninterruptible Power Supply
A UPS is, essentially, a large battery that will power your gear in the event of a power failure. I recommend them highly. Two good companies are:

Make sure you get a UPS that is designed for your gear. The ones often sold in stores are not sufficiently powerful to run a MacPro or G-5. And an underpowered UPS is worse than no UPS at all. Visit the manufacturer’s website and run their on-line sizing system. It will tell you what size UPS to buy.

Also, DON’T plug your AV gear into the UPS. You should connect your computer, computer monitor, hard disks and all network gear. These are what you want to stay on when the power goes off.

If the power fails, you may lose a capture, or an output. But what you want to be sure of is that your computer will be up and running so you can save all your work and, if necessary, still access the internet.

Noticeably missing from this list is all the software you can buy. That is a much bigger list – and, really, varies depending upon the kind of editing you are doing. I’ll save that for another time.

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