TV Timecard and Sound Report Writer apps

Thursday, May 19, 2011

TEST DRIVE: Sound Devices CL-WiFi

The Sound Devices 788T is a powerful tool for shows requiring multi-track recording. The biggest pitfall with the 788T, though, is the inability to edit metadata with ease and in a hurry. The menus aren't easily navigable to someone that's not incredibly familiar with it, and even if you are, there's more scrolling than a stock market ticker. So the next step for Sound Devices was to either create an add-on or redesign the units from the ground up. The CL-WiFi was released in February 2011 as a solution for this much needed feature. Everyone and their mama has an iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad, so it seems like a logical decision to use what's already out there. Or is it??


I was enthused by Gotham Sound's run through with the unit and decided to pick one up. The idea of being able to just type the stuff in and remote record capabilities was too much to pass up, even if it is more of a novelty. Bear in mind that all my work right now is reality, so consider that working environment before attempting to counter anything here. You can already use a keyboard via USB or other remote roll options, but in a bag it seems silly to carry around a keyboard, and adding an extra button for something that already works fine doesn't warrant a purchase, not even from me. I've just dealt with scrolling through the alphabet one character at a time, hopefully knowing all my cast at the beginning of the day and just adding them as we go. That system has worked well so far, so I wasn't really pressured into this being a do-or-die item.


Now...to the point of this review. I put this through some rigorous real world tests with the expectation that everything would work flawlessly. That was, in fact, not the case at all. I'll highlight each of the pros and cons below. For the record, I'm running version 2.14 on the 788T with a CL-8 and a 64GB iPad WiFi running version 4.3.2, and CL-WiFi app version 1.0.0. (UPDATE: v2.15 on the 788T and v1.0.1 on the CL-WiFi app is now available)


Why It's Nifty:


Remote Recording: This isn't a deal maker by any means, but how could it not be included? You can start and stop, mark a false take, and circle a take from the main Transport page, which also displays the meters. This feature came in handy most when setting the bag in the trunk of a car and waiting for the camera department to do their thing.  Once they were finally set, I just hit the big red button from my iPad and didn't have to waste any extra data than was necessary.


Editing the metadata is super easy on the Take List page. Access to 20 takes within a touch.
Metadata Editing: Ok, this is actually what sold me. My biggest problem thus far has been solved. The CL-WiFi app is laid out nicely and in an intuitive format. There are two ways to edit your data; either on the first page, called Transport or on the second page, called Take List. I tended to find myself using the Take List section most often. In this view, you're able to take a quick glance at the previous 18 takes, the current/last recorded take, and the next take. Just tap on a take in the list and all available info is there; scene name, take number, file name, notes, circle, and track names. Each can be edited before, during, or after it is recorded, with the exception being that you cannot circle the upcoming take before it's rolled. You can copy and paste, which I found especially useful in the notes section when post wants a scene description. Just copy and paste the same info for all the takes that are affected.  With all that said, it does take about anywhere from 5-10 seconds for all twenty takes to load.

Two quick refreshes updates your info.
Refreshing: All info is refreshed after you hit Save. You can edit the whole take and then save, or edit each line item and save after each edit. Either way, the info is automatically refreshed with two quick flashes of the screen (left). Just remember to save or else...you guessed it...it won't be saved. And when you change the upcoming scene name, the take number automatically resets to 1 (if you want it to) in the refresh.



Easily label your unit(s)
Foolproof LEDs: On the hardware side of things, the CL-WiFi is a rugged little box about the size of an engagement ring box, but a little thinner...and harder to open (for some more so than others). Two green LEDs let you know at a glance if the unit has power (driven from the C.Link connection) and if there is a connection.


Customizable IP: The configuration options in the 788T menu allow for an easily customizable IP address as well as an SSID. This works well when using multiple rigs in the same vicinity. For example, I changed the SSID from "CL-WIFI" on both rigs to "A-team" and "B-team," respectively, along with unique IPs.  UPDATE: Firmware v2.15 on the 788T changes the customizable IP address from read and write to read-only.  You can still change the SSID, and add WEP64 security, but you're at the mercy of the 788T-generated IP address, which according to SD, doesn't affect directing a CL-WiFi to a specific 788T. When using WEP64 security, you MUST have EXACTLY 10 characters.


Range: The range on this unit is stellar.  It performs as well as any wifi should.  Whether it was through walls or in a car, it was accessible in all the places it needed to be.  And if you do by chance get disconnected, the 788T keeps on chugging along with whatever the previous command was.


Car-to-Car: I had mixed results on my car-to-car usage.  On the show I've been testing it on for the past month now, we've done very few car scenes, and when we did there were always lipstick cams as well as other HDX900s with their Starlinx on (see below for more info) for exterior shots.  While using my unit mostly in our production vehicle, I did notice that the speed of the car doesn't affect the performance whatsoever.  This ability, combined with my range tests, leads me to believe it'll be just fine for car-to-car scenes.
Car-to-Car scenes worked out great!
UPDATE: I had a very successful day of car-to-car scenes. We only had one tracking camera in the lead vehicle, an H2 as the picture car, and myself and story in the follow vehicle. I had the lone camera turn off its Starlinx and I was able to go the whole scene with only one dropout, and that was when the whole caravan got separated.  I'd say we were mostly within 50 feet or so, with the bag in the floorboard of the back seat.  The only hiccup was some lagging on the meters and a slower-than-normal take load.  This works like a charm, just like I had hoped. But still, all you can do is monitor the info.  Granted, thats more than anything we've been able to do in the past.


Input Routing: I did like the convenience of having all the input routing options at my fingertips.  It's a solid, easy to understand layout that you really can't mess up.  Pre- and Post-fade buttons are accessible and intuitive, as is all the other track assignments.  This page isn't something that will get used very much, but it's useful to have when setting up for a show.  One thing I thought about doing, though never actually was brave enough to do, was to let a story producer take control of the Input Routing page to allow him/her select which tracks they'd like to hear out of the AUX1 track.  I have my track clearly labeled "IFB" and all the individual tracks have the cast members labeled as well, but I have a hard time trusting a producer with my IFBs, better yet my iPad with full control over my recorder.  I'd like a "Producer Mode" that would let you lock down all the major functions and give them limited control over certain functions.  If they want to isolate a character from an 8-person table scene with 3 different conversations, they could.  And I'd still be able to send a "correct" mix to camera.  I realize there are other ways around that, but this would just be a luxury feature.



Prepare for blackouts
What Sucks:

Inconsistent Login: You have to make sure you give the iDevice time to connect each time you wake it up, or else you get the "Please check WiFi network then restart the application" message. Essentially you just aren't going to receive the instant gratification we are all so used to.

Unusable Within Vicinity Of Starlinx: Ok, this one's a doozie. One possible oversight in this whole system is the technology being used. Truth be told, it took me nearly a full week to figure out what was going on. The biggest benefactor of this device is the reality sector, and I haven't been on many shows that don't use wireless video transmission. Have you shot shot in a house and knocked out the Internet with the Starlinx? Well guess what, the same thing happens with the CL-WiFi. The iDevice will show an established connection, but it'll be unable to communicate with the CL-WiFi. This can be a deal breaker for those with few locations where the cameras are always on. We had several company moves that allowed me to just throw the bag in the truck of our mini-van and prepare for the next scene and edit previous ones. Nevertheless, I wasn't able to use it how it was intended while rolling, so I came out very disappointed on this front. Maybe when everyone is using their iPad as a wifi video monitor, everything will be squared away.

After typing "bartender" out, I had (chose) to go back and edit it.
Limited Auto-Caps: On the opening "Transport" page, when editing scene and track names, the auto-caps feature is disabled. Nothing major, but I find the inconsistency interesting more than anything. It works just fine on the "Take List" page. This might be an issue for the OCD-types when labeling tracks.

Take Quantity: As far as I can tell, you are limited to just the 18 previous takes.  There's no option to Load More like there is on many apps containing older info.  You better make sure you edit it before you move on very far.


Take Duration Display: Of all the options available to display, I believe there's room on an iPad for the take duration in the Take List section.  It does display the duration while recording, but not in the Take List. Seldom used, but appreciated when needed.

Battery Display: it would be nice to see the battery level of the 788T within the app. Currently there is no such indication anywhere.

Playback Mode: A minor aspect that's missing is a playback mode. Currently, you can only control playback directly from the 788T. The meters will display on the CL-WiFi, but no other info will, including the scene names, take number, track names, and timecode. However, the run time is displayed. Selecting play from the "Take List" would be advantageous. I'd like to see all that info during playback, as well as a green background to indicate playback, much like the way it uses red for recording. Perhaps you could navigate through the next take and previous take as well from the "Transport" screen.

The main Transport page offers a lot, but not playback.
Output Routing: If there's gonna be input routing, I think there should be output routing.  I find myself changing up my outputs more often than my inputs.  If that's the standard with most mixers, or hell, even just some, then it's probably worth having on the board.


Sound Report: I've seen a lot of apps in my day and I know they are capable of pulling off some pretty cool things, including creating PDFs. I think the top priority for this app should be the ability to create a PDF sound report that can be e-mailed or saved to iBooks. Right now the lack of this feature means you MUST use an extra step somewhere, be it in a small spiral notebook or through Wave Agent on a laptop. Not a huge deal, but a relative inconvenience for now.

So it seems a better idea on paper than in reality. For the first version of these products, both the hardware and software are solid.  The hardware is as good as it can be, but I think there are some strides to be made on the app side of things. I'm not sure of the technological capabilities of Bluetooth, but I think it'd be something to consider in future applications. I'd gladly sacrifice a few dozen feet of range for pure functionality. This device is best suited on smaller shows, commercials, or other productions that don't use any powerful 2.4Ghz video transmitters. That, honestly, is my biggest gripe. Everything else seems like it can be fixed in a software update, so it still has a lot of value to a 788T user. You just need to know your surroundings. Hopefully either WiFi and/or Bluetooth will be built into future products to take advantage of the capabilities. A for effort, B- for execution. Now, back to work.



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