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Review: AJA Ki Pro

If you believe there are already more than enough tapeless recording devices on the market from companies such as Focus Enhancements, Edirol and Convergent Design, you are only partially right. The AJA Ki Pro sparked a lot of enthusiasm at NAB 2009. While it clearly offers cameramen many benefits, it also provides some opportunities in the world of postproduction.

The Ki Pro was developed by AJA, but like the Io and the Io HD before it, the internal software was co-developed with Apple. Ki Pro approaches tapeless field production from an NLE-friendly, rather than camera-native, design. It records QuickTime movies using embedded versions of Apple’s ProRes 422 and ProRes 422HQ codecs. As a result, you can open these files directly from the hard drive using any QuickTime-compliant application as long as the ProRes codecs are installed on your computer.

The AJA Ki Pro uses a small, lightweight form factor. It’s about the size of a very large paperback book and can be attached in the field to various camera rigs. The standard package (MSRP $3,995) includes the Ki Pro device, a 250GB removable hard drive and AC power adapters for the Ki Pro and the drive, for when it is detached. Optional accessories include larger capacity drives, solid-state storage and a cage and rail system called the Exoskeleton. The latter is a bracket and mount to install the Ki Pro onto a camera rig or tripod and then to attach a small camera to that Exoskeleton system.

Think of the Ki Pro as a recording device that’s built around a version of the AJA FS1 format converter. This means that you not only record in native 525i, 625i, 720p, 1080i or 1080PsF, but you can also up/down/cross-convert a signal to one of these formats on input or output. The front panel gives you access to transport controls, menu functions and mix levels for the analog inputs. The back panel holds a series of input and output connectors for HDMI, SDI, component analog and composite video. There are also unbalanced RCA and balanced analog audio XLR connectors with a mic, line and phantom power switch. Finally, there are other interface connections, including timecode in/out, a 9-pin serial port, 1394a, 1394b and Ethernet.

The Ki Pro includes a removable, Mac-formatted 250GB hard drive, which docks to the Ki Pro and connects over a custom multi-pin connector. It can also be connected externally to any computer with a FireWire 800 port (1394b). The Ki Pro front panel sports two ExpressCard|34 memory slots for optional future recording to a card-based medium.

In the Field
I found the Ki Pro to be extremely well thought out. You can run it in the field off of battery, or the AC adapter if you have shore power. The system can be controlled from the front panel, a LAN or wirelessly through an access point like an Airport base station. This means you can control it remotely from a laptop or even an iPhone or iPod touch via a Web browser. The latter might come in handy if you have a Ki Pro mounted at the end of a camera crane.

The record settings—such as format, clip name, conversion, timecode values, etc.—are set by an operator using the front panel controls or one of the remote methods. The menu is easy to navigate once you get the hang of it, but it’s easier to do from the Web interface. I tested it through my home router without any issues. Plug in the IP address as the URL and you have access to all the Ki Pro settings (and operational control) using Firefox, Safari or another standard browser.

As an editor, I appreciate the thought put into naming conventions. Unlike the cryptic methods used by camera manufacturers, the Ki Pro lets you assign reel IDs and clip or scene numbers in an EDL and script-compatible manner. Typically, all recordings on one drive would have the same reel number, from 001 to 999. Recordings can be designated as clips or scenes with appended alphabetical values and take numbers. Once you assign the initial values, subsequent recordings automatically increment the take number until the operator makes a change. Your first recorded file might be labeled as SC12ATK1, the next would be SC12ATK2 and so on. When you mount the drive on your computer, it shows up with the name of 001 (or another assigned reel number) on the desktop.

Actual Use
At the time of this review, shipping units like my evaluation Ki Pro have 1.0 software. Not all functions are yet enabled. For example, I couldn’t start/stop recording from a camera. AJA is planning an October firmware update that will enable such automatic recording. You will be able to roll the camera and if it provides SDI embedded timecode or has LTC timecode output, then the Ki Pro starts recording when it sees the timecode value change and stops when the value stops changing.

Another function I like is auto-format-sensing. Whatever is coming into Ki Pro will automatically be the native format recorded, unless up/down/cross-conversion is assigned. The exception is 23.98PsF media. To properly record these files, the operator must change the Record Type from Normal to PsF. I was able to test this with SDI from a Sony EX3 and it worked as advertised. In a future update, AJA plans to provide VFR support as in its KONA and Io HD products. This means you would be able to record the output of a Panasonic VariCam and the Ki Pro would record and recognize the variable speed flags.

AJA started development of Ki Pro long before Apple released the new Final Cut Studio, which includes additional ProRes codecs. It is likely that AJA will eventually expand the recording options to include other ProRes codecs; however, the Ki Pro is a single-stream 4:2:2 SDI device. This makes it unlikely that the current Ki Pro model will support the new high-end ProRes 4444 codec. Personally, I have no problem with this because Ki Pro is intended to be a mastering device on par with high-quality videotape. ProRes 422 equates to the data rate of HDCAM at 147Mb/s, while ProRes 422HQ is close to HD-D5 at 220Mb/s. In its present form, Ki Pro delivers outstanding visual quality already matching or surpassing all other HD camcorder recordings.

One of the big benefits of Ki Pro is that it extends the life of cameras that have good image technology but weak recording systems. Many Panasonic VariCam owners aren’t keen to change to newer P2 cameras, since their tape-based VariCams still create very compelling images. Adding a Ki Pro and recording the full-raster, uncompressed HD-SDI output from the camera as native 720p or converted 1080i means that there’s a lot of life left in those VariCams. Another example is Canon’s XL H1, which is a great camera burdened with a 25Mb/s HDV recording mechanism. Ki Pro adds a superior recording system to that camera.

All of the above makes Ki Pro a great recording product, but the real beauty is for Final Cut editors. Simply eject the 250GB drive, connect it to your computer via FW800 and it mounts on the desktop. All files are contained within a single AJA folder. You can copy those files to your local drive or edit directly from the Ki Pro drive. If you want to edit directly, simply import the AJA folder into the FCP browser and the clips are immediately available. I received a “media not optimized” prompt on my MacBook Pro, but I didn’t see that same message with a Mac Pro tower. This is a result of how FCP’s Dynamic RT technology indexes performance on these two different computers. Nevertheless, various HD clips in both ProRes 422 and ProRes 422HQ played fine from the Ki Pro’s removable drive on both the laptop and the workstation.

The AJA Ki Pro offers other advantages away from the field. Since up/down/cross-conversion is built in, simply cable the Ki Pro to nearly any monitor and you can play out audio and video. I was even able to connect HDMI to my living room flat panel and see the high-def video from the Ki Pro. Since the drive uses standard Mac formatting, you can also copy compatible QuickTime ProRes files from the computer back into the AJA folder on the drive. Once the drive is docked back into the Ki Pro, these files can be played out through the video spigots as if they were recorded by the Ki Pro. In addition, the front panel will display the file name, even if it doesn’t conform to the clip/scene naming convention used by the Ki Pro.

(Note: According to AJA, this functionality is not yet officially supported due to some remaining audio work, but it will be fully implemented in a future update. Also in the future will be support for the I/O of up to eight channels of audio over embedded SDI and HDMI.)

This last situation brings up some interesting possibilities. Many small shops are resisting the need to purchase HD VTRs, which can potentially cost more than their entire edit system. If you need to deliver a high-definition videotape master (HDCAM, HDCAM SR, HD-D5, etc.), Ki Pro could be used as an intermediate source. Copy the show to the Ki Pro drive and then take the complete unit to a facility that owns the necessary deck. Connect the Ki Pro to the VTR using SDI and dub from the Ki Pro to the videotape. Granted it’s two steps, but the cost of the Ki Pro, the service and tape stock is a lot less than owning a high-end VTR for only infrequent use. Several days’ rental alone of an HDCAM SR deck would pay for the Ki Pro.

On the whole, AJA’s Ki Pro is a versatile product that has quite a few useful applications in the field, the studio and in post. AJA has earned a stellar support reputation, which goes a long way toward pushing the Ki Pro ahead of the competition. If you’ve been looking for a tapeless acquisition device that is designed with post in mind, then look no further. The AJA Ki Pro is it.