Selecting a set of components to build a multimedia/archiving station for a collaborative community space without spending some time getting to know the people who manage and make use of the space is a bit like selecting clothes for someone you don’t know. Selection of items depends extensively on personal preferences and past experiences. Further, as with fashion, technology is rapidly changing and so any such recommendation list will rapidly become out-of-date. Still, it can sometimes be useful to have a starting point, especially when you have little experience in making such selections.
The following recommendations are therefore primarily geared towards community spaces where most users have limited experience in creating and editing multimedia productions. They also lean towards the more budget-conscious settings. Finally, they assume a range of activities, from archiving old photographs to recording oral histories to producing video-based citizen journalist reports.
Computer (Approximately $700 plus anti-virus, office software)
I would begin with a Windows 7 desktop PC. While Mac OS X computers come with a full suite of software for multimedia production out of the box, fewer users are familiar with the operating system and the price still tends to be a bit higher. The desktop platform is more affordable, tends to provide greater flexibility for the number and type of inputs, and can be purchased with larger monitors, which can be very helpful when editing video and photographs. Look for the following features in the computer to assure it can meet all typical multimedia software requirements. It’s possible to find a computer matching these specifications for $700 to $1000.
- 2 GHz (gigahertz) or greater CPU (central processing unit). Look for a dual core processor for greater performance.
- 2 GB (gigabytes) or greater of system memory.
- 20″ or larger LCD monitor. Some computers also support more than one monitor which can be an advantage when composing text, browsing the Internet for research, and also editing images.
- DVD±RW. This will burn the widest range of CD and DVD media.
- Multi-card media reader. At a minimum a media card reader should be able to read a range of SD and MMC flash cards.
- Front access USB inputs in addition to the rear USB inputs typically used for keyboard and mouse connections. The front access USB allows for easy connections by users of flash drives, external hard drives, cameras, and other devices.
Any laptop that meets the above standards can be connected to a 20″ LCD monitor to provide a very good alternative that can also be taken into the field for remote work. However, a premium is paid for that flexibility, adding $500 to $1000 to the cost.
Netbooks provide added portability and can serve quite well as a portable typing and audio recording device in the field. However, most netbooks have limited memory and CPUs, and come standard with 1024×600 resolution displays, while video editing software is difficult to use on anything less than 1024×768 resolution. Also, netbooks do not include DVD burners and the small screens can be difficult to work with for extended periods. These are best reserved, then for secondary mobile devices.
Multimedia Software (Approximately $270)
Any multimedia software will have some learning curve to it. Often the biggest hurdle is the first hurdle — getting your particular microphone, camera, or camcorder to work with the selected software. But learning to import, cut, time-shift, add and manage transition effects, and blend video, photo, and voice will take time no matter what the software. Still, the following recommendations are based on numerous feedback and reviews indicating these selected software are relatively easy to learn by a novice.
A key to good storytelling is good audio. One of the best sound recording programs available today is Audacity. It is reasonably easy to begin using by a novice, but also provides a good range of features for more advanced editing. Don’t let the price (free) fool you into thinking this is a poor-quality product. Unless you need advanced sound effects, input options, or recording controls, this software should meet your sound recording needs.
Windows comes with software to do basic image (Microsoft Picture Manager) and video editing (Windows Movie Maker). But these are pretty basic applications that will quickly limit creativity. A decent step up is the Adobe Photoshop Elements/Premiere Elements software package. Available for around $120.00, these two software packages provide the photo and video editing options needed by all but the most advanced producers in a relatively easy to use format.
We have also used the Pinnacle Studio Moviebox Ultimate package for video import and editing ($150.00). This is also a relatively easy movie editing software, although slightly more complicated than Adobe Premiere Elements. But it includes a USB video capture card that accepts firewire, s-video, composite video, and analog audio inputs. With the capture card, it becomes possible to import your old VHS video, video from old analog camcorders (and even new firewire-only camcorders), and audio from old tape recorders.
Multimedia Hardware ($400 – $784)
Microphones: Good multimedia begins with high quality audio recordings. For personal recordings to a PC, we’ve had good luck with the Logitech Clearchat Comfort USB headset for around $29.00.
For a wireless option that works with any device that has a 3.5mm audio input jack, we’ve had great luck with the Audio-Technica ATR288W TwinMic system. This system includes both lavalier and dynamic hand-held microphones for about $134.00.
We’ve just begun using and have been very pleased with the quality of the Blue Snowball, a USB microphone that allows for either directional (cartoid) or omnidirectional recordings of anything from a whisper to a loud garage band for around $64.00.
Cameras: A good basic point and shoot camera should include image stabilization, optical zoom, at least 10 MP, and provide selection between auto mode and some level of program control. The Canon A1100IS has all these features and also includes a few nice extras, including burst mode photography, a smile-detection self-timer, and the choice of using either AA batteries or Canon battery pack. The quality of images from this 12MP $180.00 camera are quite decent in most lighting conditions.
For a step up, the Canon SD4000IS (available for around $300.00) provides amazing low-light photographs for a point and shoot camera because of its f2.0 aperture, important when shooting indoors where flash photography is discouraged. It also provides improved continuous shooting, capturing almost 4 images per second. It includes a 28mm wide angle lens that can zoom in to 4x. It also includes decent quality high definition video capabilities, and a slow motion capture option, and as such promises to provide the first device that can do both high quality still images and good quality home video.
Camcorders: The Flip Ultra HD 8GB camcorder (around $200.00) is a very simple to use camcorder that records up to 2 hours of high definition video. The camcorder has a popup USB connector and pre-loaded software to make it easy to use with any computer. The camcorder only does digital zoom, so it’s mostly used when the objects to be video taped are nearby. I’ve only just begun testing the Canon SD4000IS, but at this point it promises to provide video quality similar to the Flip Ultra HD, with the added advantage of interchangeable SD storage cards and optical zoom.
The biggest problem we’ve had with the Flip camcorders in the past is poor audio quality. This particular model includes the new flipPort. A promising option just coming out on the market as of the writing of this post is the Blue Mikey for Flip (expected price $79), which adds enhanced stereo microphones and a microphone input jack to the Flip camcorder. This would provide a major selling point over the Canon SD4000IS.
For even greater flexibility of microphone input, and to gain optical zoom capabilities, the Canon FS200 has proven to be a great standard definition camcorder. It includes a 3.5mm input jack for external audio recording devices. Video is stored to an SDHC card, allowing especially easy transfer to computers that have an SD slot. Unfortunately the FS200 is no longer produced and the FS300 replacement does not include the 3.5mm audio input jack. Still, some refurbished models remain available on the market for around $180.00.
The Canon ZR960 ($250.00) is a miniDV standard definition camcorder. For the highest quality video available from a home camcorder, and to provide additional archiving options via miniDV tapes, this camcorder fits the bill. It includes a 3.5mm audio input jack, image stabilization, and 41x zoom. It’s essentially the miniDV version of the FS200.
Multimedia Hardware Summary: Ultimately, if on a budget consider purchasing the Logitech Clearchat headset and Blue Snowball microphones, and the Canon SD4000IS camera to provide the ability to capture both still images and HD video (about $400.00 for the package). If you’ll be capturing a wide range of video interviews, consider adding the Canon ZR960 and Audio-Technica ATR288W wireless microphone system (an additional $384.00). If high definition high quality video and high quality audio is needed, you’ll need to look further than any of the items we’ve used to date.
Peripherals ($549 – $1775)
Scanning: For high resolution scanning of flat images up to 8.5 x 11″, we’ve had great luck with the Canon 8800F. This scanner costs under $200.00 and includes trays to scan 35mm negatives and slides, and 22cm filmstrips. I recently wrote a blog post on the advantages of scanning negatives.
Printing: For multimedia production, color printing is a must. We’ve been purchasing the HP Color Laserjet CP2025dn printer ($349.00). This printer does duplex printing and can be connected straight to the network to be shared amongst multiple computers. It is designed to handle the load common in a lab of computers. It uses multiple cartridges for different colors, helping to reduce the overall cost of printing in color.
Projector: We’ve begun equipping sites with the ViewSonic PJD6211 LCD projector ($565.00). This bright (2300 lumens) projector does full 1024×768 resolution display. It provides a crisp display from a variety of inputs and can be used for gaming as well as computer displays.
External storage: In cases where multiple computers may be accessing files imported on one computer, a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device provides a convenient central file storage system. We’ve found the Synology DS209+ a good option at $660.00 with two 1TB drives. The two drives can be mirrored, so that data written on one is also written to the other drive. This assures that if one drive fails, the other one has a live backup of the data.