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Today’s Portable Video Recorders Do So Much More

Stream and record simultaneously with modern digital recorders

James Raymond of Napa Valley TV uses Blackmagic Design HyperDeck Studio Pro SSD recorders for recording sports productions.

Once upon a time, a portable video recorder was just that – a record-only videotape recorder that was battery-powered, and capable of being carried from site to site. (Speaking as a former cameraman, old heavy U-Matic 3/4-inch tape recorders were “portable” only in the broadest definition; especially when one was also toting an equally tank-like heavy 3/4-inch camera and tripod.)

Today, things have changed. Not only are portable video recorders extremely light and truly portable―thanks to their use of solid-state memory cards rather than 3/4-inch tape cassettes―but some can even stream live video while recording it at the same time. Not only that, but those old 3/4-inch recorders (and even VHS machines) were big and expensive for commercial-quality gear. Even worse, the quality of their recordings was poor by today’s standards.

Today’s gear is much smaller, records at much higher quality, and for the most part, is less expensive than the commercial VHS and U-Matic machines of yesteryear. Perhaps even better, they record on solid-state media that is lightweight and tiny in comparison to video cassettes. Prices for digital recording media―SD cards and solid-state drives―have been coming down for the past few years as well, and are now much less expensive than U-Matic cassettes.

This is why potable video recorders are finding a home in government video production departments, including those operations that also use camcorders.


Florence, Ariz., regularly broadcasts live meetings of its town and planning/zoning councils on the Web and on cable Channel 11. It also reruns those meetings on demand at, and as part of its regular broadcast schedule that goes from Sunday through Saturday, 2 p.m. to midnight.

“We used to record our meetings using a PC-based digital recorder, and use a second device to stream this video to Akamai, which serves it over the Web for us,” said Dan Bennington, Florence’s IT manager. “But then we got the Matrox Monarch HD video streaming and recording appliance: Now it does both jobs at once for us.”

Matrox Monarch HD recorder

About the size of a large paperback book, the Monarch HD is compatible with 720p and 1080i/p video inputs/outputs. Its onboard H.264/MPEG-4 video recorder can work with user-selected resolutions as low as 96 x 96 pixels, and as high as 1920 x1080 pixels.

The Monarch HD’s bitrates are also controllable; from 100 kbps to 30 Mbps in record-only mode, and 100 kbps to 20 Mbps in stream-only mode. When both functions are in use, the maximum combined bitrate tops out at 30 Mbps. The unit comes with two USB 2.0 ports, an SD card slot, HDMI and analog audio inputs/outputs, as well as a Gigabit Ethernet connection that lets the Monarch HD to be accessed, configured and controlled over a LAN.

“Our Matrox Monarch HD is a good choice for people who need a dual-role portable video device; namely whose live stream can be watched remotely, while at the same time being recorded for later uploading online,” said Daniel Maloney, Matrox’s technical marketing manager. “In the case of the town council meetings, the stream can be made available to the AV technician to who may not be in the room with the device, but wants to view the proceedings to know when they have finished. Alternatively, that stream can be made available to other senior officials privately, if they are not in attendance.”

As far as the Town of Florence is concerned, the Matrox Monarch HD has proven to be a reliable, flexible field unit.

“The Monarch HD is very simple to set up,” said Bennington. “It is also easy to control using a connected laptop computer, while the recorded and streamed video qualities are what we need.”


In a January 2014 posting to Government Video’s Web site, California community broadcaster Napa Valley TV (NVTV) detailed how it produces multi-camera sports broadcast live, using a range of Blackmagic Design digital production equipment and tools.

The Blackmagic Design HyperDeck Studio Pro SSD (solid-state drive) portable video recorder is part of NVTV’s mobile production unit; used both for live streaming and simultaneous on-site recording. Its big appeal: This unit has two removable SSD slots; when Drive A’s SSD is full, recording can be switched to Drive B’s SSD. Drive A can then be loaded with a new, empty SSD.

“Portable video recorders are essential in multi-camera productions,” said James Raymond, NVTV’s executive director. So why did he choose the HyperDeck Studio Pro SSD recorder? “With the right hard drives―we use Sandisk Extreme SSD 480GB drives―the unit is extremely reliable,” Raymond replied. “One multicam production filmed last year for a local county government meeting lasted approximately five hours. We had no issues with the device and that’s when I knew the reliability was there.”

Blackmagic Design HyperDeck Studio Pro recorder

Format flexibility is important, since different users have different requirements.

“HyperDeck Studio Pro records 4:2:2 SD/HD in full uncompressed quality, plus Ultra HD in ProRes,” explained Bob Caniglia, Blackmagic Design’s senior regional manager for eastern North America. “You can also use ProRes 422 (HQ) or DNxHD formats for high-quality HD video for five times longer recording than uncompressed. For even longer recording, use ProRes 422, ProRes 422 (LT) and ProRes 422 (Proxy) file formats.”

NVTV’s Raymond also likes the HyperDeck Studio Pro’s variety of inputs/outputs.

“HD-SDI is our primary, but we also hook up HDMI, just as a ‘go-to’ backup source,” he said. “Although we don’t use it, the analog inputs are a nice feature and I love the fact that they have professional XLR inputs if we ever did need to go the analog route.”

He also appreciates its self-closing video file feature: If the unit loses power, the most that will be lost is a few seconds of video; nothing more.

In the field, NVTV has found the HyperDeck Studio Pro SSD recorder to be fast to set-up and takedown.

“I think the biggest time saver is the ability to connect the drive via Thunderbolt and transfer to our internal hard drives,” said Raymond. “Now, if we are in a real hurry, then we end up taking the SSD media right out of the drive slot in the HyperDeck Studio Pro, and plug it into our external docking station. We can then edit right off the drive!”


Proxy files are low-resolution copies of high-resolution video files. Because proxy video files are small, they are easy and quick to transmit between a recording site and another location. Proxy files also are easier to edit; allowing an editor to put together a rough cut in low resolution, then use that rough cut to create a high-resolution final version.

Vitec Focus Proxy Recorders

Vitec’s Focus FS-H50/60/70 Proxy Recorders are a family of proxy units; each no larger than a deck of playing cards. They can be brought along during a shoot and connected to the HD video feed that is being recorded/switched, to create proxy files in addition to the master HD video files.

All three units offer resolutions up to 1080p30 and bit-rates up to 8 Mbps. The difference is that the Focus FS-H50 has composite/analog inputs, the Focus FS-H60 has an HDMI input, and the Focus FS-H70 has an HD/SD-SDI input.

“Our FS-H70 also supports time code, which can be extremely useful if you are doing a proxy edit first, and then mastering to a higher resolution,” said Mark D’Addio, Vitec’s vice president of business development and emerging markets. “The FS-H60 and FS-H70 have HDMI outputs to support monitors as well when in use.”

AJA Video Ki Pro Mini recorders

Another popular video recording solution is the Ki Pro series from AJA Video Systems. Available in both rackmount and portable varieties, Ki Pro units record digital video as ready-to-edit ProRes and DNxHD files.

The AJA Ki Pro Mini is a camera-back recorder that has both HD-SDI and HDMI connectors to work with virtually any camera. The small unit also has two audio XLR connectors, and does 10-bit 4:2:2 recording. The Ki Pro Mini records onto Compact Flash memory cards.


Based on the testimonials above, modern portable video recorders can be a welcome addition to any field production unit.

That said, video producers need to consider each vendor’s product carefully, to get the unit that is right for their production department. This means checking the specifications of each portable video recorder, and comparing them against the department’s existing video equipment, and video formats used. This evaluation then needs to be compared against each vendor’s prices, and the department’s available budget.

“I would have to say features and budget always play a role in a purchasing decision for government video producers,” observed Raymond. “I need it affordable, reliable and packed with features – multiple cable connection types, multiple inputs, loop through outputs, hot swappable recording capability; the list goes on.”