Designing an online edit suite, Part 1: Can I Afford It?

This is the first in a series of posts I’m planning that will cover the budgeting, design, and possibly even construction of my own online editing suite. The whole plan could fall apart if the income doesn’t justify the cost, but my preliminary spreadsheet-fiddling has been promising.

I left a staff position in September to become a freelance editor, and while I’m happy I made the switch, there’s one big problem I have: I don’t have my own editing suite. All I have is a copy of Avid that I use to edit my reel, and for basic editing that works fine. But the work I get paid for is color correction and online editing, and a dinky laptop is not powerful enough to handle that type of work.

So far I’ve been able to work around the problem by using my clients’ equipment. I have a tablet and monitor calibrator that I bring to the gig, and I spend a few minutes getting everything set up. Even so, this means the color is inconsistent because I use a different monitor every time, and often the process is slowed down because the system I’m using isn’t fast enough. And frankly, I’m picky about ergonomics, so I get frustrated when the chair is uncomfortable or when the light isn’t right. To do this work properly, I really need my own edit suite.

First and foremost, a fully-equipped online editing system is expensive. Can I get enough work to afford it? If I buy the system, will that allow me to do more work, or will I have to raise my rates to pay for it and therefore price myself out of the market? Taking advice from my girlfriend, I’m not going to let the price of the system determine how much work I need to bring in. I will try first to figure out how much work I can get, then see if that’s enough to pay the expenses. If the numbers don’t work, then I can’t afford the system.

Tasks

To know what I need to buy, I need to know exactly what I’m going to be using the system for. Based on the past couple months, I will continue finishing and grading independent projects in Final Cut and Apple Color, possibly outputting to various tape formats. I do not foresee working with high-res 2K 4:4:4 images, so I don’t need a super-fast RAID or the highest-end Kona card. Similarly, I’m not doing audio mixing, so while I don’t want tiny computer speakers, they don’t need to be stellar.

Taking all of this into account, I specced out the following system1:

Hardware
Mac Pro tower (dual-quad 3.0GHZ w/ 8g 3rdparty RAM) $4,000.00
Samsung 22” monitor $260.00
HP DreamColor monitor $2,500.00
E-SATA external 1TB drive $120.00
E-SATA cable and bracket $30.00
AJA KonaLH I/O card $1,300.00
Blackmagic Sync Generator $300.00
Wacom Tablet $500.00
Mouse and pad2 $23.00
Blue Sky 2.1 speakers $350.00
Behringer Audio Mixer $60.00
Power strip / cables $20.00
Software
Final Cut Studio $1,130.00
Magic Bullet Looks $400.00
Already invested $900.00
Total Additional Necessary
$10,093.00

This is just a rough back-of-the-envelope calculation. It does not include tax and shipping, for instance. But it serves to get me in the ballpark — 10 grand. That 10 grand, spread out over the lifetime of the various parts, comes to about 3700$/year that this system needs to bring in to justify itself.

There are choices I’ve made that might be surprising: is a DreamColor really good enough for professional color grading work? Is 1TB of un-RAIDed storage a good idea? Should I get an Avid Mojo DX so I can finish in Avid as well? Or should I just get The Duck?

Based on my experience, the DreamColor is a big step forward for LCD reference monitoring. It’s no high-end CRT, but for the price range I’m targeting it’s great. For most indie projects, 1TB of storage will be fine. As long as I back up project files, I’ll be working on duplicated media anyway. If the drive should die, the client will still have their own files. As for Avid compatibility, that’s up to the work I can get. Right now everyone is using FCP. But if I have to turn away Avid customers, I’ll have to consider the Duck or a Mojo DX.

What if I want to take it to the next level, though? What if I want to do Avid work, and uncompressed HD work? I’m going to need to add equipment:

Hardware
Second Monitor $260.00
LifeZero 4TB RAID $2,000.00
Upgrade to Kona3 $1,200.00
Blackmagic SDI to HDMI converter3 $500.00
Avid Mojo DX $7,500.00
Additional Cost $11,460.00

Ouch, double the cost. Have I complained yet about the high cost of Avid equipment? It’s really tough to justify a Mojo DX unless I get a big contract or something.

Now that I have an idea of what the system looks like, what about where to put it? There’s more to a suite than the hardware and software. My next post will cover room design, desks, and other environmental considerations.

  1. I’ve added links for price reference, but I will probably buy the whole package through my local reseller []
  2. I love these mice. They feel great, are cheap, and last forever []
  3. So that, with the Mojo, I can use the DreamColor as a reference monitor []

4 thoughts on “Designing an online edit suite, Part 1: Can I Afford It?”

  1. I'm looking forward to the next instalment! This will be interesting to follow. (In other words, please follow through with continuing to blog this 🙂

  2. You should definitely check out and add any additional insurance required to cover the system. (Especially since you've blogged all the cost details now! You can never be too paranoid...)

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