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In Search of HD for One Million Steelband Music Fans
at the 2010 PhotoPlus Expo

Sony HDR-AX2000 and NEX-VG10 Camcorders Shine

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“Keep recording... You never know when something magical might happen...”
Max Roach - legendary Jazz drummer

New York, USA - These words were said to me by Max Roach at a practice session I was engineering, for a future CD project Max was spearheading.  The artist Max Roach was eyeing during this practice session, was none other than the great panist Len “Boogsie” Sharpe, another legendary figure in his own right, who displayed Charlie “Bird” Parker-like qualities, according to Max. That was indeed the ultimate compliment and recognition of talent. Particularly since very few people impressed Max. But more importantly and germane to this article is that Max implicitly understood the importance of being able to capture that ‘special moment’ with the best technology available of the day.

Having partnered with some of the greatest musicians to have ever walked the planet - Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Clifford Brown, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Coleman Hawkins, Bud Powell and Miles Davis - to name a few - capturing ‘the moment’ whenever these musical legends were part of the mix was the ultimate, because it never repeats itself.  Max would reiterate this concept to me many times during my relationship with him as an engineer.  He had me make digital recordings everywhere and anytime he played or produced a project, at a time when folks were still immersed in the analog world.  And after a great performance he would always ask “did you get it?” and smile.  I was capturing both history and magic.  

Fast-forward >> If Max were still alive today, he would undoubtedly be shooting everything he did in HD (high definition).  He was an undercover techie and would ask, what was the best out there to get the job done.

Yes, HD is the new “new” or the only “only.”  And if you are not shooting it in HD you ain’t ready for prime time and you are bringing up the rear.  Well not exactly, but HD is where you need to be - what with UHDV (ultra high definition video) already being worked on.  We are not saying that you have to immediately produce DVDs that are of Basement Recordings or When Steel Talks-quality.  However, given the quality of the available HD equipment for capturing video and audio there is no excuse for the continued production of the awful recordings the art form has been subjected to over the years (just check some of the atrocities that are up on YouTube).  With the availability of high-level consumer to pro-level products, steelband music franchises and educational institutions can no longer be held hostage by incompetent techies and inadequate equipment.

The two main exhibitors we have seen at the 2010 PDN (Photo District News) PhotoPlus Expo for HD camcorders are Canon and Sony. Both manufacturers have excellent camcorders that cover both the consumer and professional dominion.  We are going to talk about reasonable expectations based on what we saw, heard and experienced.

As many are aware, because of our ties to Basement Recordings we have a long history of providing technical equipment evaluations; however today we are going to pass on the extreme technical aspects, and instead talk about what we liked from purely a ‘getting the job done’ perspective.  No heavy tech talk today.  I promise.  Well, maybe just a little bit.

Sony gets our nod this year.  Why?  The equipment works, price per performance ratio is excellent, upgrade ability is a ‘yes.’  The folks at the Sony booth were very engaging, the folks at Canon were not.  That was disappointing, but not a valid reason to deep-six Canon’s HD camcorders. They do make very good stuff.  And we are not saying that one million steelpan enthusiasts should only consider the Sony solution to digital video capturing of their performances. Hey, but having said that - you know what they say in the ’hood - “you slow, you blow.”  And if one company gives you that warm and fuzzy feeling over another - so be it.  It is your hard-earned money.

Look - HD is ideally suited to the steel orchestra.  High-energy performances that require a large audio dynamic range, the capturing of lots of motion from a visual perspective, coupled with the wide setup that most orchestras utilize when they perform - are clearly better served by the 16:9 ratio the HD cameras sport.  The world has moved on, HD has been ‘it’ for a while.

Sony tech Dax Lin demonstrates the company's camcorder line
Sony tech Dax Lin demonstrates the company’s camcorder line

The two Sony cameras that impressed WST (When Steel Talks) were the Sony HDR-AX2000 High Definition Flash Memory Handycam Camcorder and the Sony NEX-VG10 Interchangeable Lens HD Handycam Camcorder.  The HDR-AX2000 is an arsenal piece boasting some ‘professional’ features that can take you into the film production domain.  It gets two thumbs up from us on every level.  The going street price for the HDR-AX2000 is just under $3,500.  There is no downside to owning a piece of equipment of this caliber.  It is good to go.  If your budget can handle this go with it.  It has everything, and since we promised not to get into any heavy, long-winded tech talk we will leave it at that.  If you take the time to learn the machine - you can do great things with it.

Sony HDR-AX2000 High Definition Flash Memory Handycam Camcorder

Sony NEX-VG10 Interchangeable Lens HD Handycam Camcorder

The NEX-VG10 is going for just under $2,000.  It provides you with a lot of capability.  It is not an ‘end-all’ or the greatest thing since sliced bread or the tenor pan.  But with a few additives and informed usage, it can get the job done on a very large scale. 

Sony's NEX-VG10 at the 2010 PhotoPlus Expo in New York
Sony’s NEX-VG10 at the 2010 PhotoPlus Expo in New York

This camcorder’s greatest strength is that it provides great flexibility. The NEX-VG10 allows for interchangeable lenses and puts together different configurations to suit your growing or ‘changing’ needs.   At our production wing, Basement Recordings looks for forward compatibility in all our equipment purchases, that is - the ability to interface seamlessly with future technologies.  The NEX-VG10 meets this requirement.

WST’s “Ole School” Sony DCR-TRV310 delivers

The NEX-VG10 reminds me of my old trusty Sony DCR-TRV310. Yes, don’t laugh.  I own one and use it all the time.  It has traveled all over the world and has captured/made some of the most important documentary, news clips and performance recordings the steelpan music genre has ever known.  Some twelve years later my DCR-TRV310 is still kicking.  And the NEX-VG10 is in its class.  Yes, the WST video team does laugh at me when the DCR-TRV310 is whipped out, as do many of the other professional videographers at main events.  But - it is still WST video footage that everyone talks about, because ‘the moment’ was captured by that Sony DCR-TRV310, and by someone who knows how to ‘work that baby to the max.’

We dare say WST has been able to produce better quality videos with the old DCR-TRV310, than some full production houses have of their national panoramas.  You need to take control of the performance situation.

WST's trusty Sony DCR-TRV310 - devoted to capturing the steelband art form
WST’s trusty Sony DCR-TRV310 - devoted to capturing the steelband art form, with XLR converter

The key to great video is great audio.  The Sony NEX-VG10 has its own Surround Sound microphone system on board which might be adequate in most scenarios.  But here is one of the shortcomings of the NEX-VG10:  it is not equipped with XLR inputs.  However, similar to the way WST dealt with this issue on the old DCR-TRV310 - you can attach your own XLR converter.  Plus the converter allows you to control the input volume which is critical given the large volume the steel orchestras produce.  At the street price of under $2,000 and the type of flexibility afforded by this NEX-VG10 camcorder - We Like!

Every steel orchestra should own their own HD camera outright.  No excuses!  All the major franchises and music institutions should own a high-end consumer or professional HD digital camcorder to record every practice session, and where permissible, performances.  Each organization should already have, or be in the process of developing, their own in-house multimedia production mechanisms maintained by their own personnel.  Some of the greatest performances around the globe delivered by internationally-renowned, world-class orchestras, were never captured.  Furthermore, the unconscionable Panorama DVDs that look like they were made to sneak past a visually-impaired audience, coupled with mono sound tracks - have to be retired!

At one of the PhotoPlus Expo 2010 seminars WST ducked in on, speaker Lester Lefkowitz said, during his delivery, “I didn’t do anything but show up.  I was just taking advantage of what’s there.”  Similarly, in terms of capturing the performances of the steel orchestras, if you have the proper tools, you too, can just show up and capture what is there - because they - the orchestras and musicians - “just bring it.”

Like Max Roach said, you never know when something magical will happen.  These two Sony camcorders - HDR-AX2000 and NEX-VG10 definitely allow for the capture of those ‘moments’ with a level of professionalism not normally found even on many Panorama DVDs released in recent years.

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