Jun 22, 2010

Setting up your Computer for HD Video Editing


With the explosion of affordable desktop-based video non-linear editing (NLE) software ranging from Sony Vegas all the way to more affordably priced Avid packages the numbers of independent and up-and-coming film producers has also increased exponentially.

Unfortunately for all these "newbies" entering into the film and video industry there are very few affordable "boot camp" type seminars or training sessions available to teach the new filmmaker in all the key areas of information they need to get up and running without spending most of their time trying to figure out all the things they need to know rather than being productive.

And one of the most important aspects of using any NLE package is having a properly setup computer in which to create your masterpiece.  Indeed, most newcomers to video editing usually make the mistake of spending too much money on hardware they either don't need or don't understand or, are the victims of overhyped ad campaigns and spend money in areas that are completely non-beneficial to the editing process.

Unlike high-end gaming, photo or audio editing any pro-level NLE software will require the most effort and tax the resources of all the components on a computer to it's maximum capacity, from RAM, CPU clock-cycles, hard-drives and even the front-side bus on the main-board, all of it get's pushed to the limit while it moves, renders and allocates system resources to accomplish the task at hand.

In this page I'll cover the basics of how to setup any computer - be it a laptop, iMac-style or desktop tower - so that you're using the hardware you can afford to it's best ability and, give you a logical upgrade path so when the time comes, you know how and where to spend your hard-earned cash.

Before we get started there are a few terms and standards we need to cover first that are universal to any NLE software regardless if it's Mac or PC based.

THE PROJECT FILE:  This is a singular reference file that is created by the NLE software which is basically a large META-file giving the project it's name, list of assets and their locations and the format of the project.  The project file will be given a name that you specify such as "My Movie" etc.

CAPTURE SCRATCH:  This is the location where your video & audio is "captured" off the tape from your camera or tape-deck.  This file location doesn't apply to tapeless workflows where the capture process is eliminated by virtue of the drag-and-drop file workflow.  In most systems you can specify a different location for video and audio or have them go to the same folder.


MEDIA FILES:  These are everything that's used to create your movie which include:
    -  Video and Audio from tapeless systems such as P2, SxS or AVCHD cameras
    -  Audio files such as soundtracks, voice-overs and sound effects
    -  Still images
    -  Any stock video such as motion backgrounds
    -  Any other files to be included in your movie such as pre-rendered sequences from other applications.

RENDER FILES:  These are small reference-based data files that include references to the original media files but include the changes you've made to them such as filters, effects, transitions etc.  The files are relatively small but are constantly changing and are the source of most of hard-drive fragmentation.

WAVEFORM CACHE:  When the option is turned-on you can see the waveforms on the timeline where your audio tracks live.  These cache files are small but are generated to give you this visual image of your waveforms.  Most NLE's give you the option to *not* display waveforms to speed up display refresh times.

THUMBNAIL CACHE  The beginning of each video clip on a timeline is always associated with a thumbnail of that clip, giving you a quick visual reference of what that clip is.  Some NLE's allow you to turn off thumbnails again to speed up refresh display times.

AUTOSAVE:  A method for NLE to automatically save the project to a specified location at specified intervals.  This can aid in preventing losing all the recent changes to a project if a power failure occurs or human-error that would otherwise cause the project changes to be lost unless the editor manually "saves" the project on regular basis.

All current pro-level NLE packages including Sony Vegas, GrassValley Edius, Final Cut Pro, Premiere Pro, Media 100 and Avid all use these conventions in managing the per-project data.   (NOTE: Consumer-grade software such as "iMovie" do not have the ability to manage these files hence these instructions won't be of any help.)

Here's how to setup your hardware AND your media management for the various types of systems:

SINGLE-DRIVE SYSTEMS:  Often many who get a new computer or are using an existing one simply don't have the budget to be adding hard-drives or external devices.  No worries, you can still do your editing even HD, but with some important caveats and limitations especially for laptop users.

    -  Install as much RAM as possible.  If you're out of money and can't add more RAM then do the following (which is good advice for any system): 
    -  Disable or turn-off anything that's "auto" anything in the OS such as updates
    -  Disable UI extras such as bouncing opening icons, desktop shadows, menu fades, smooth scrolls, active or animated wallpaper (in fact turning off all wallpaper even static ones saves CPU clock cycles from having to refresh that background image all the time) etc.
    -  Turn off any type of drive indexing, shadow copies or in the case of Mac use an application called "Spotless" which will stop indexing on any drive connected to the system.  It doesn't turn off Spotlight searches, just the background indexing which steals system resources while you're working.
    -  After you've installed all your applications AND media files defrag your hard-drive *before* you start editing.  For the Mac use "iDefrag", for the PC use the built-in defrag utility or go all out and get a copy of "Diskeeper Pro".  The reason for this is that since you'll be taxing your sole HDD during use it's a good idea to make sure all of it's free-space is allocated together allowing the NLE and OS "breathing room" for all the temporary swap-file data that's going to be moved around during editing.


By default your NLE will want to put all the above mentioned files into default locations.  However instead, make folders for each of the file types on your desktop and then go into your NLE software Preferences and manually point all the file types to each specific folder. 

When saving a Project, make sure you manually save to the new folder you've just created on the desktop.  If you accidentally let it save to the default location, no worries, just do a "save as" and re-save it to it's proper place and delete the "old" file location.

Premiere Pro, Media 100 and Avid all allow for the above file types to be separated by individual project.  Final Cut Pro does not unfortunately, with exception to the Project File.  However at the end of your finished project you can use Media Manager to migrate all your project files into a singular folder/location for archiving purposes.

The reason for putting these files on your desktop is simple:  If you only have one drive then it doesn't matter where these files live, they will occupy the same amount of space no matter where they are in your menu structure.  Better to have them easily accessible and viewable in case of project corruption or, when it's time to migrate them off to an archive you know exactly where to find everything at a glance, rather than having to dig around your OS and find all the stuff manually.

In the MEDIA FILES folder:  Make sub-folders of all the different file types and import them into their respective places.

If you edit everyday then make sure you defrag your system at least once every two weeks to keep free space optimized and, make sure to use disk maintenance routines for both PC and Mac at least once a week to keep the OS tuned-up.

LAPTOP USERS:  Although all high-end laptops these days are blistering fast compared to even 3 years ago, they will still be limited to a narrower front-side bus pipeline than a similarly configured single-drive tower.  That means for HD editing you may only be able to lay down 2-3 streams of HD video before the system is unable to keep up in real-time playback even after fully rendering.  In a single-drive system there's just nothing you can do to avoid this - other than investing in external drives and as much RAM as the system will hold.



The first and most beneficial upgrade you can make to a single-drive system is to add an external Firewire - not USB - drive.  Firewire is much more data-stable in the I/O transfer process and most laptops have more space allocated to the Firewire bus than USB even though they often share the same total pipeline space.  In PC systems Firewire IRQ's are given priority over USB.


Now that you've gotten an external connected it's time to let your OS and NLE software have it's breathing room.  Move ALL the NLE-specific files - EXCEPT THE PROJECT FILE - mentioned above onto the external drive and keep them separated by folder and sub-folder just as with the single-drive setup.

Keep the PROJECT FILE folder on your desktop.

Make no other changes to your OS environment and keep it optimized for editing.


Take the above path and add as much RAM as the system can hold.  If you just can't help yourself you can start turning on some of the UI niceties that you've been keeping turned off.  Just keep in mind all these feel-good interfaces do nothing but steal CPU processing power away from your primary task.


At least one company, MCE, is making a kit that allows for the installation of a second internal HDD in late-model MacBook Pro's by removing the Superdrive and replacing it with another 2.5" inch HDD of your choosing, while moving the Superdrive to an external Firewire enclosure.  Now you're got more of what a tower-based system would be like and here's how to set it up:


Keep your external Firewire drive connected as you'll be needing it.


Move all your MEDIA FILES & CAPTURE SCRATCH to the new, second internal HDD.  All your CACHE, AUTOSAVE and RENDER files on the external Firewire drive.  The internal drive will have much faster I/O speeds than any external drive so you want the large, MEDIA FILES to be on the fastest drive available.  Keep the PROJECT FILE on the desktop.



    -  Sonnet Tech eSATA Express card Pro adapter
    -  Any 2-drive external eSATA HDD enclosure that is setup as JBOD
Setup your 2-bay eSATA enclosure as RAID-0 which gives you a massive and fast external HDD.


If you do not have the MCE kit mentioned above then migrate all your MEDIA FILES to this ultra-fast external RAID array and keep everything else on the Firewire drive.

If you DO have the second-internal HDD kit then:
    -  Move MEDIA FILES to the RAID array
    -  AUTOSAVE, CACHE and RENDER files onto the second internal HDD.  You can now use your external Firewire drive for archiving or data migration.



Since all Mac Pro's and most PC towers allow for multiple HDD installations the best thing to do first is to add as many drives as possible to the system.


Setup your files accordingly:
    -  OS and applications/programs on a single drive
    -  MEDIA FILES on it's own dedicated drive
    -  AUTOSAVE AND CACHE on it's own dedicated drive
    -  RENDER FILES on it's own dedicated drive
    -  PROJECT FILE should stay with the OS drive/desktop


Add as much RAM as you can afford. No other changes.


Decide which external RAID type you can afford (eSATA, Fiber, SCSI etc) and make the following changes in SOFTWARE:

    -  Move all MEDIA FILES to the ultra-fast external RAID array
    -  Keep all other file locations as listed in Phase Three


If your HBA (RAID controller/host card) can accept more than one physical enclosure or, if you have enough JBOD eSATA connections to split up into (2) RAID enclosures then do the following:

RAID Enclosure 2:  RENDER FILES and other final output files.

Regardless of system type Hard-drive space is a premium and should always be the first thing to consider when upgrading any system.  More HDD space is more valuable than RAM and faster CPU's by far.

Are your eyes tired yet?


  1. Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
    thank you :)