Color is Math

I know, I hate to break it to you. I’m not thrilled about it either – one of my favorite memories from high school is walking straight up to my Statistics teacher on the last day of senior year and proudly announcing that it was the last time I was ever going to be in a math class. (Yes, I do feel a bit guilty about the look of befuddled disappointment on his face, but by god I was right)

But it’s true: at least when it comes to video preservation, color is math. Everything else you thought you knew about color – that it’s light, that you get colors by mixing together other colors, that it’s pretty – is irrelevant.


Just now, you thought you were looking at color bars? Wrong. Numbers.


When I first started learning to digitize analog video, the concept of luminance and brightness made sense. Waveform monitors made sense. A bright spot in a frame of video shows up as a spike on the waveform in way that appeases visual logic. When digitizing, you wanted to keep images from becoming too bright or too dark, lest visual details at these extremes be lost in the digital realm. All told, pretty straightforward.

Vectorscopes and chrominance/color information made less sense. There were too many layers of abstraction, and not just in “reading” the vectorscope and translating it to what I was seeing on the screen – there was something about the vocabulary around color and color spaces, full of ill-explained and overlapping acronyms (as I have learned, the only people who love their acronyms more than moving image archivists and metadata specialists are video engineers).

I’d like to sift through some of the concepts, redundancies, and labeling/terminology that threw me off personally for a long time when it came to color.


Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins? Distinctly we see the difference of the colors, but where exactly does the one first blendingly enter into the other? So with sanity and insanity.

Herman Melville, Billy Budd

I think it might help if we start very very broad in thinking about color before narrowing in on interpreting color information in the specific context of video.

In the early 20th century, color scientists attempted to define quantitative links between the visible spectrum of electromagnetic wavelengths and the physiological perception of the human eye. In other words – in the name of science, they wanted to standardize the color “red” (and all the other ones too I guess)

Though we all know it’s the best one, right

Given the insanely subjective process of assigning names to colors, how do you make sure that what you and I (or more importantly, two electronics manufacturers) call “red” is the same? By assigning an objective system of numbers/values to define what is “red” – and orange, yellow, green, etc. etc. – based on how light hits and is interpreted by the human eye.

After a number of experiments in the 1920s, the International Commission on Illumination (abbreviated CIE from the French – like FIAF) developed in 1931 what is called the CIE XYZ color space: a mathematical definition of, in theory, all color visible to the human eye. The “X”, “Y” and “Z” stand for specific things that are not “colors” exactly, so I don’t even want to get into that here.

The important thing about the CIE XYZ color space – you can’t really “see” it. The limitations of image reproduction technology mean there will always be tangible limits standing between you and the full CIE XYZ gamut (outside of, maybe, a color scientist’s lab, but I’m not even convinced of that). Consider that graph above: even though it’s colored in for illustrative purposes, that’s not actually every color you can possibly see in there. The actual wavelengths of light produced, and therefore colors represented, by your computer’s LED screen encompasses a much much more limited range of values.

tl;dr your computer screen, compared to the mathematical limits of the natural world – sucks.

That’s to be expected though! Practical implementations of any standard will always be more limited than an abstract model.


So even if it basically only exists in theory (and in the unbounded natural world around us), the CIE XYZ color space and its definition of color values served as the foundation for most color spaces that followed it. A color space is the system for creating/reproducing color employed by any particular piece of technology. Modern color printers, for example, use the CMYK color space: a combination of four color primaries (cyan, magenta, yellow, and “key”/black) that when mixed together by certain, defined amounts, create other colors, until you have hard copies of your beautiful PowerPoint presentation ready to distribute.

Again, just like CIE XYZ, any color space you encounter is math – it’s just a method of saying this number means orange and this number means blue and this number means taupe. But, just like with all other kinds of math, color math rarely stays that straightforward. The way each color space works, the way its values are calculated, and the gamut it can cover largely depend on the vagaries and specific limitations of the piece of technology it’s being employed with/on. In the case of CIE XYZ, it’s the human eye – in the case of CMYK, it’s those shitty ink cartridges on your desktop laser printer that are somehow empty again even though you JUST replaced them.

More lying liars who lie

So what about analog video? What are the specific limitations there?

Peak TV: Color in Analog Video

Video signals and engineering are linked pretty inextricably with the history of television broadcasting, the first “mass-market” application of video recording.

So tune in to what you know of television history. Much like with film, it started with black-and-white images only, right? That’s because it’s not just budding moving image archivists who find brightness easier to understand and manipulate in their practical work – it was the same for the engineers figuring out how to create, record, and broadcast a composite video signal. It’s much easier for a video signal to tell the electron gun in a CRT television monitor what to do if frame-by-frame it’s only working with one variable: “OK, be kinda bright here, now REALLY BRIGHT here, now sorta bright, now not bright at all”, etc.

Compare that to: “OK, now display this calculated sum of three nonlinear tristumulus primary component values, now calculate it again, and again, and oh please do this just as fast when we just gave you the brightness information you needed”.

So in first rolling out their phenomenal, game-changing new technology, television engineers and companies were fine with “just” creating and sending out black-and-white signals. (Color film was only just starting to get commonplace anyway, so it’s not like moving image producers and consumers were clamoring for more – yet!)

Who needs color video when you have these two, said America

But as we moved into the early 1950s, video engineers and manufacturing companies needed to push their tech forward (capitalism, competition, spirit of progress, yadda yadda), with color signal. But consider this – now, not only did they need to figure out how to create a color video signal, they needed to do it while staying compatible with the entire system and market of black-and-white broadcasting. The broadcast companies and the showmakers and the government regulation bodies and the consumers who bought TVs and everyone else who JUST got this massive network of antennas and cables and frequencies and television sets in place were not going to be psyched to re-do the entire thing only a few years later to get color images. Color video signal needed to work on televisions that had been designed for black-and-white.

From the CIE research of the ’20s and ’30s, video engineers knew that both the most efficient and wide-ranging (in terms of gamut of colors covered) practical color spaces were composed by mixing values based on primaries of red, green, and blue (RGB).

No no no no notorious

But in a pure RGB color space, brightness values are not contained on just one component, like in composite black-and-white video – each of the three primary values is a combination of both chrominance and luminance (e.g. the R value is a sum of two other values that mean “how red is this” and “how bright is this”, respectively). If you used such a system for composite analog video, what would happen if you piped that signal into a black-and-white television monitor, designed to only see and interpret one component, luminance? You probably would’ve gotten a weirdly dim and distorted image, if you got anything at all, as the monitor tried to interpret numbers containing both brightness and color as just brightness.

This is where differential color systems came into play. What engineers found is that you could still create a color composite video signal from three component primaries – but instead of those being chrominance/luminance-mixed RGB values, you could keep the brightness value for each video frame isolated in its own Y′ component (which Charles Poynton would insist I now call luma, for reasons of…..math), while all the new chroma/color information could be contained in two channels instead of three: a blue-difference (B′-Y′) and a red-difference (R′-Y′) component. By knowing these three primaries, you can actually recreate four values: brightness (luma) plus three chroma values (R, G, and B). Even though there’s strictly speaking no “green” value specified in the signal, a color television monitor can figure out what this fourth value should be based on those differential calculations.

For television broadcasting, keeping the luma component isolated meant that you could still pipe a color composite video signal into a black-and-white TV, and it would still just display a correct black-and-white image: it  just used the values from the luma component and discarded the two color difference components. Meanwhile, new monitors designed to interpret all three components correctly would display a proper color image.

This basic model of using two color difference components for video was so wildly efficient and successful that we still use color spaces based on this model today! Even as we passed from analog video signals into digital.

Making it possible with adapters and converters, to, say, play Fallout 4 on a B&W TV

Lookup Table: “YUV”

…but you may have noticed that I just said “basic model” and “color spaces”, as in plural. Uh oh.

As if this wasn’t all complicated enough, video engineers still couldn’t all just agree on one way to implement the Y′, B′-Y′, R′-Y′ model. Engineers working within the NTSC video standard needed something different than those working with PAL, who needed something different than SECAM. The invention of component video signal, where these three primaries were each carried on their own signal/cable, rather than mixed together in a single, composite signal, also required new adjustments. And digital video introduced even more opportunities for sophisticated color display.

I mean just look at this gamut

So you got a whole ton of related color spaces, each using the same color difference model, but employing different math to get there. In each case, the “scale factors” of the two color difference signals are adjusted to optimize the color space for the particular recording technology or signal in question. Even though they *always* basically represent blue-difference and red-difference components, the letters change because the math behind them is slightly different.

So here is a quick guide to some common blue/red difference color spaces, and the specific video signal/context they have been employed with:

  • Y′UV = Composite analog PAL video
  • Y′IQ = Composite analog NTSC video
  • Y′DBDR = Composite analog SECAM video
  • Y′PBPR = Component analog video
  • Y′CBCR = Component digital video – intended as digital equivalent/conversion of YPBPR, and also sometimes called “YCC”
  • PhotoYCC (Y′C1C2) = Kodak-developed digital color space intended to replicate the gamut of film on CD; mostly for still images, but could be encountered with film scans (whereas most still image color spaces are fully RGB rather than color-difference!)
  • xvYCC = component digital video, intended to take advantage of post-CRT screens (still relatively rare compared to Y′CBCR, though), sometimes called “x.v. Color” or “Extended-gamut YCC”

And now a PSA for all those out there who use ffmpeg or anyone who’s heard/seen the phrase “uncompressed YUV” or similar when looking at recommendations for digitizing analog video. You might be confused at this point: according to the table above, why are we making a “YUV” file in a context where PAL video might not be involved at all???

As Charles Poynton again helpfully lays out in this really must-read piece – it literally comes down to sloppy naming conventions. For whatever reason, the phrase “YUV” has now loosely been applied, particularly in the realm of digital video and images, to pretty much any color space that uses the general B′-Y′ and R′-Y′ color difference model.

I don’t know the reasons for this. Is it because Y′UV came first? Is it because, as Poynton lays out, certain pieces of early digital video software used “.yuv” as a file extension? Is it a peculiar Euro-centric bias in the history of computing? The comments below are open for your best conspiracy theories.

By which I mean Kirov conspiracy theories or GTFO

I don’t know the answer, but I know that in the vast vast majority of cases where you see “YUV” in a digital context – ffmpeg, Blackmagic, any other kind of video capture software – that video/file almost certainly actually uses the Y′CBCR color space.

Gamma Correction, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Make a Keyboard Shortcut for “Prime”

Another thing that I must clarify at this point. As evidenced by this “YUV” debacle, some people are really picky about color space terminology and others are not. For the purposes of this piece, I have been really picky, because for backtracking through this history it’s easier to understand precise definitions and then enumerate the ways people have gotten sloppy. You have to learn to write longhand before shorthand.

So you may have noticed that I’ve been picky about using proper, capitalized subscripts in naming color spaces like Y′CBCR. In their rush to write hasty, mean-spirited posts on the Adobe forums, you may see people write things like “YCbCr” or “Y Cb Cr” or “YCC” or any other combination of things. They’re all trying to say the same thing, but they basically can’t be bothered to find or set the subscript shortcuts on their keyboard.

which, I mean, I don’t entirely blame ’em

In the same vein, you may have noticed these tiny tick marks (′) next to the various color space components I’ve described. That is not a mistake nor an error in your browser’s character rendering nor a spot on your screen (I hope). Nor is it any of the following things: an apostrophe, a single quotation mark, or an accent mark.

This little ′ is a prime. In this context it indicates that the luma or chroma value in question has been gamma-corrected. The issue is – you guessed it – math.

Curse you, Mathemagician

The human eye perceives brightness in a nonlinear fashion. Let’s say the number “0” is the darkest thing you can possibly see and “10” is the brightest. If you started stepping up from zero in precisely regular increments, e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4, etc., all the way up to ten, your eyes would weirdly not perceive these changes in brightness in a straight linear fashion – that is, you would *think* that some of the increases were more or less drastic than the others, even though mathemetically speaking they were all exactly the same. Your eyes are just more sensitive to certain parts of the spectrum.

Gamma correction adjusts for this discrepancy between nonlinear human perception and the kind of linear mathematical scale that technology like analog video cameras or computers tend to work best with. Don’t ask me how it does that – I took Statistics, not Calculus.

The point is, these color spaces adjust their luma values to account for this, and that’s what the symbol indicates. It’s pretty important – but then again, prime symbols are usually not a readily-accessible shortcut that people have figured out on their keyboards. So they just skip them and write things like… “YUV”. And I’m not just talking hasty forum posts at this point – I double-dare you to try and reconstruct everything I’ve just told you about color spaces from Wikipedia.

Which, come to think of it, the reason why “YUV” won out as a shorthand term for Y′CBCR may very well be just that it doesn’t involve any subscripts or primes. Never underestimate ways programmers will look to solve inefficiencies!

Reading a Vectorscope – Quick Tips

This is all phenomenal background information, but when it gets down to it, a lot of people digitizing video just want to know how to read a vectorscope so they can tell if the color in their video signal is “off”.

Here we have a standard SMPTE  NTSC color bars test pattern as it reads on a properly calibrated vectorscope. Each of the six color bars (our familiar red, green, and blue, as well as cyan, yellow, and magenta) are exactly as they should, as evidenced by the dots/points falling right into the little square boxes indicated for them (the white/gray bar should actually be the point smack in the center of the vectorscope, since it contains no chroma at all).

The saturation of the signal will be determined by how far away from the center of the vectorscope the dots for any given frame or pixel of video fall. For example, here is an oversaturated frame – the chroma values for this signal are too high, which you can tell because the dots are extending out way beyond the little labeled boxes.

Meanwhile, an undersaturated image will just appear as a clump towards the center of the vectorscope, never spiking out very far (and a black-and-white image should in fact only do that!)

Besides saturation, a vectorscope can also help you see if there is an error in phase or hue (both words refer to the same concept). As hopefully demonstrated by our discussion of color spaces and primaries, colors generally relate to each other in set ways – and the circular, wheel-like design of the vectorscope reflects that. If the dots on a vectorscope appear rotated – that is, dots that should be spiking out towards the “R”/red box, are instead headed for the “Mg”/magenta box – that indicates a phase error. In such a case, any elephants you have on screen are probably going to start all looking like pink elephants.

The problem is, even with these “objective” measurements, color remains a stubbornly subjective thing. Video errors in saturation and phase may not be so wildly obvious as the examples above, making them a tricky thing to judge, especially against artistic intent or the possibility of an original recording being made with mis-calibrated equipment. Again, you can find plenty of tutorials and opinions on the subject of color correction online from angry men, but I always just tell everyone to use your best judgement. It’s as good as anyone else’s!

XKCD #1492

(If you do want or need to adjust the color in a video signal, you’ll need a processing amplifier.)

Pixel Perfect: Further Reading on Color

I’ve touched on digital video and color here but mostly focused on pre-digital color spaces and systems for audiovisual archivists and others who work with analog video signals. Really, that’s because all of this grew out of a desire to figure out what was going on with “uncompressed YUV” codecs and “-pix_fmt yuv420p” ffmpeg flags, and I worked backwards from there until I found my answers in analog engineering.

There’s so much more to get into with color in video, but for today I think I’m going to leave you with some links to explore further.

From the master of pixels, Charles Poynton:

On the subject of chroma subsampling:

On the subject of other color spaces beyond Y′CBCR

  • openYCoCg
    An experimental video codec from AV Preservation by Reto Kromer, based on the Y′COCG color space, which can convert to/from RGB values but isn’t based on human vision models (using orange-difference and green-difference instead of the usual blue/red)
  • Digital Photography School: sRGB versus Adobe RGB
XKCD #1882

Doing DigiPres with Windows

A couple of times at NYU, a new student would ask me what kind of laptop I would recommend for courses and professional use in video and digital preservation. Maybe their personal one had just died and they were shopping for something new. Often they’d used both Mac and Windows in the past so were generally comfortable with either.

I was and still am conflicted by this question. There are essentially three options here: 1) some flavor of MacBook, 2) a PC running Windows, or 3) a PC running some flavor of Linux. (There are Chromebooks as well, but given their focus on cloud applications and lack of a robust desktop environment, I wouldn’t particularly recommend them for archivists or students looking for flexibility in professional and personal use)

Each of these options have their drawbacks. MacBooks are and always have been prohibitively expensive for many people, and I’m generally on board with calling those “butterfly switch” keyboards on recent models a crime. Though a Linux distribution like Ubuntu or Linux Mint is my actual recommendation and personally preferred option, it remains unfamiliar to the vast majority of casual users (though Android and ChromeOS are maybe opening the window), and difficult to recommend without going full FOSS evangelist on someone who is largely just looking to make small talk (I’ll write this post another day).

So I never want to steer people away from the very real affordability benefits of PC/Windows – yet feel guilty knowing that’s angling them full tilt against the grain of Unix-like environments (Mac/Linux) that seem to dominate digital preservation tutorials and education. It makes them that student or that person in a workshop desperately trying in vain to follow along with Bash commands or muck around in /usr/local while the instructor guiltily confronts the trolley problem of spending their time saving the one or the many.

I also recognize that *nix education, while the generally preferred option for the #digipres crowd, leaves a gaping hole in many archivists’ understanding of computing environments. PC/Windows remains the norm in a large number of enterprise/institutional workplaces. Teaching ffmpeg is great, but do we leave students stranded when they step into a workplace and can’t install command line programs without Homebrew (or don’t have admin privileges to install new programs at all)?

This post is intended as a mea culpa for some of these oversights by providing an overview of some fundamental concepts of working with Windows beyond the desktop environment – with an eye towards echoing the Windows equivalents to usual digital preservation introductions (the command line, scripting, file system, etc.).

*nix vs NT

To start, let’s take a moment to consider how we got here – why are Mac/Linux systems so different from Windows, and why do they tend to dominate digital preservation conversations?

Every operating system (whether macOS, Windows, a Linux distribution, etc.) is actually a combination of various applications and a kernel. The kernel is the core part of the OS – it handles the critical task of translating all the requests you as a user make in software/applications to the hardware (CPU, RAM, drives, monitor, peripherals, etc.) that actually perform/execute the request.

“Applications” and “Kernel” together make up a complete operating system.

UNIX was a complete operating system created by Bell Labs in 1969 – but it was originally distributed with full source code, meaning others could see exactly how UNIX worked and develop their own modifications. There is a whole complex web of UNIX offshoots that emerged in the ’80s and early ’90s, but the upshot is that a lot of people took UNIX’s kernel and used it as the base for a number of other kernels and operating systems, including modern-day macOS and Linux distributions. (The modifications to the kernel mean that these operating systems, while originally derived in some way from UNIX, are not technically UNIX itself – hence you will see these systems referred to as “Unix-like” or “*nix”)

The result of this shared lineage is that Mac and Linux operating systems are similar to each other in many fundamental ways, which in turn makes cross-compatible software relatively easy to create. They share a basic file system structure and usually a default terminal and programming language (Bash) for doing command line work, for instance.

Meanwhile there was Microsoft, which, though it originally created its own (phenomenally popular!) variant of UNIX in the ’80s, switched over in the late ’80s/early ’90s into developing its own, proprietary kernel, entirely separate from UNIX. This was the NT kernel, which is at the heart of basically every Windows operating system ever made. These fundamental differences in architecture (affecting not just clearly visible characteristics like file systems/naming and command line work, but extremely low-level methods of how software communicates with hardware) make it more difficult to make software cross-compatible between both *nix and Windows operating systems without a bunch of time and effort from programmers.

So, given the choice between these two major branches in computing, why this appearance that Mac hardware and operating systems have won out for digital preservation tasks, despite being the more expensive option for constantly cash-strapped cultural institutions and employees?

It seems to me it has very little to do with an actual affinity for Macs/Apple and everything to do with Linux and GNU and open source software. Unlike either macOS or Windows, Linux systems are completely open source – meaning any software developer can look at the source code for Linux operating systems and thus both design and make available software that works really well for them without jumping through any proprietary hoops (like the App Store or Windows Store). It just so happens that Macs, because at their core they are also Unix-like, can run a lot of the same, extremely useful software, with minimal to no effort. So a lot of the software that makes digital preservation easier was created for Unix-like environments, and we wind up recommending/teaching on Macs because given the choice between the macOS/Windows monoliths, Macs give us Bash and GNU tools and other critical pieces that make our jobs less frustrating.

Microsoft, at least in the ’90s and early aughts, didn’t make as much of an effort to appeal directly to developers (who, very very broadly speaking, value independence and the ability to do their own, unique thing to make themselves or their company stand out) – they made their rampant success on enterprise-level business, selling Windows as an operating system that could be managed en masse as the desktop environment for entire offices and institutions with less troubleshooting of individual machines/setups.

(Also key is that Microsoft kept their systems cheaper by never getting into the game of hardware manufacturing – unlike Mac operating systems, Windows is meant to run on third-party hardware made by companies like HP, Dell, IBM, etc. The competition between these manufacturers keeps prices down, unlike Apple’s all-in-one hardware + OS systems, making them the cheaper option for businesses opening up a new office to buy a lot of computers all at once. Capitalism!)

As I’ll get into soon, there have been some very intriguing reversals to this dynamic in recent years. But, in summary: the reason Macs have seemed to dominate digital preservation workshops and education is that there was software that made our jobs easier. It was never that you can’t do these things with Windows.

Windows File System

Beyond the superficial desktop design differences (dock vs. panel, icons), the first thing any user moving between macOS and Windows probably notices are the differences between Finder (Mac) and File Explorer (Windows) in navigating between files and folders.

In *nix systems, all data storage devices – hard disk drives, flash drives, external discs or floppies, or partitions on those devices – are mounted into the same, “root” file system as the operating system itself, in Windows every single storage device or partition is separated into its own “drive” (I use quotes because two partitions might exist on the same physical hard disk drive, but are identified by Windows as separate drives for the purpose of saving/working with files), identified by a letter – C:, D:, G:, etc. Usually, the Windows operating system itself, and probably most of a casual user’s files, are saved on to the default C: drive. (Why start at C? It harkens back to the days of floppy drives and disk operating systems, but that’s a story for another post). From that point, any additional drives, disks or partitions are assigned another letter (if for some reason you need more than 26 drives or partitions mounted, you’ll have to resort to some trickery!)

Also, file paths in Windows use backslashes (e.g. C:\Users\Ethan\Desktop) instead of forward slashes (/Users/Ethan/Desktop)

and if you’re doing command-line work, Bash (the default macOS CLI) is case-sensitive (meaning /Users/Ethan/Desktop/sample.txt and /Users/Ethan/Desktop/SAMPLE.txt are different files) while Windows’ DOS/PowerShell command line interfaces (more on these in a minute) are not (so SAMPLE.txt would overwrite sample.txt)


Fundamentally, I don’t think these minor differences affect the difficulty either way of performing common tasks like navigating directories in the command line or scripting from Macs – it’s just different, and an important thing to keep in mind to remember where your files live.

What DOES make things more difficult is when you start trying to move files between macOS and Windows file systems. You’ve probably encountered issues when trying to connect external hard drives formatted for one file system to a computer formatted for another. Though there’s a lot of programming differences between file systems that cause these issues (logic, security, file sizes, etc.), you can see the issue just with the minor, user-visible differences just mentioned: if a file lives at E:\DRIVE\file.txt on a Windows-formatted external drive, how would a computer running macOS even understand where to find that file?

Modern Windows systems/drives are formatted with a file system called NTFS (for many years Microsoft used FAT and its variants such as FAT16 and FAT32, so NTFS is backwards-compatible with these legacy file systems). Apple, meanwhile, is in a moment transitioning from its very longtime system HFS+ (which you may have also seen referred to in software as “Mac OS Extended”) to a new file system, APFS.

File system transitions tend to be a headache for users. NTFS and HFS+ have at least been around for long enough that quite a lot of software has been made to allow moving back and forth/between the two file systems (if you are on Windows, HFS Explorer is a great free program for exploring and extracting files on Mac-formatted drives; while on macOS, the NTFS-3G driver allows for similarly reading and writing from Windows-formatted storage). Since it is still pretty new, I am less aware of options for reading  APFS volumes on Windows, but will happily correct that if anyone has recommendations!

** I’ve got a lot of questions in the past about the exFAT file system, which is theoretically cross-compatible with both Mac and Windows systems. I personally have had great success with formatting external hard drives with exFAT, but have also heard a number of horror stories from those who have tried to use it and been unable to mount the drive into one or another OS. Anecdotally it seems that drives originally formatted exFAT on a Windows computer have better success than drives formatted exFAT on a Mac, but I don’t know enough to say why that might be the case. So: proceed, but with caution!

Executable Files

No matter what operating system you’re using, executable files are pieces of code that directly instruct the computer to perform a task (as opposed to any other kind of data file, whose information usually needs to be parsed/interpreted by executable software in some way to become in any way meaningful – like a word processing application opening a text file, where the application is the executable and the text file is the data file). As a common user, anytime you double-clicked on a file to open an application or run a script, whether a GUI or a command line program, you ran an executable.

Where executable files live and how they’re identified to you, the user, varies a bit from one operating system to the next. A MacOS user is accustomed to launching installed programs from the Applications folder, which are all actually .app files (.apps in turn are actually secret “bundles” that contain executables and other data files inside the .app, which you can view like a folder if you right-click and select “Open Package Contents” on an application).

Executable files (with or without a file extension) might also be automatically identified by macOS anywhere and labeled with this icon:

And finally, because executable files are also called binaries, you might find executables in a folder labeled “bin” (for instance, Homebrew puts the executable files for programs it installs into /usr/local/bin)

Windows-compatible executables are almost always identified with .exe file extensions. Applications that come with an installer (or, say, from the Windows Store) tend to put these in directories identified by the application name in the “Program Files” folder(s) by default. But some applications you just download off of GitHub or SourceForge or anywhere else on the internet might just put them in a “bin” folder or somewhere else.

(Note: script files, which are often identified by an extension according to the programming language they were written in – .py files for Python, .rb for Ruby, .sh for Bash, etc. – can usually be made automatically executable like an .exe but are not necessarily by default. If you download a script, whether working on Mac or Windows, you may need to check whether it’s automatically come to you as an executable or more steps need to be taken. They often don’t, because downloading executables is a big no-no from the perspective of malware protection.)

Command Prompt vs. PowerShell

On macOS, we usually do command line work (which offers powerful tools for automation, cool/flexible software, etc.) using the Terminal application and Bash shell/programming language.

Modern Windows operating systems are a little more confusing because they actually offer two command line interfaces by default: Command Prompt and PowerShell.

The Command Prompt application uses DOS commands and has essentially not changed since the days of MS-DOS, Microsoft’s pre-Windows operating system that was entirely accessed/used via command line (in fact, early Windows operating systems like Windows 3.1 and Windows 95 were to a large degree just graphic user interfaces built on top of MS-DOS).

The stagnation of Command Prompt/DOS was another reason developers started migrating over to Linux and Bash – to take advantage of more advanced/convenient features for CLI work and scripting. In 2006, Microsoft introduced PowerShell as a more contemporary, powerful command line interface and programming language aimed at developers in an attempt to win some of them back.

While I recognize that PowerShell can do a lot more and make automation/scripting way easier, I still tend to stick with Command Prompt/DOS when doing or teaching command line work in Windows. Why? Because I’m lazy.

The Command Prompt/DOS interface and commands were written around the same time as the original Bash – so even though development continued on Bash while Command Prompt stayed the same, a lot of the most basic commands and syntax remained analogous. For instance, the command for making a directory is the same in both Terminal and Command Prompt (“mkdir”), even if the specific file paths are written out differently.

So for me, while learning Command Prompt is a matter of tweaking some commands and knowledge that I already know because of Bash, learning PowerShell is like learning a whole new language – making a directory in PowerShell, e.g., is done with the command shortcut “md”.* It’s sort of like saying I already know Castillian Spanish, so I can tweak that to figure out a regional dialect or accent – but learning Portuguese would be a whole other course.

Relevant? Maybe not.

But your mileage on which of those things is easier may vary! Perhaps it’s more clear to keep your *nix and Windows knowledge totally separate and take advantage of PowerShell scripting. But this is just to explain the Command Prompt examples I may use for the remaining of this post.

* ok, yes, “mkdir” will also work in PowerShell because it’s the cmdlet name – this comparison doesn’t work so well with the basic stuff, but it gets true for more advanced functions/commands and you know it, Mx. Know-It-All

The PATH Variable

The PATH system variable is a fun bit of computing knowledge that hopefully ties together all the three previous topics we’ve just covered!

Every modern operating system has a default PATH variable set when you start it up (system variables are basically configuration settings that, as their name implies, you can update or change). PATH determines where your command line interface looks for executable files/binaries to use as commands.

Here’s an example back on macOS. Many of the binaries you know and execute as commands (cd, mkdir, echo, rm) live in /bin or /usr/bin in the file system. By default, the PATH variable is set as a list that contains both “/bin” and “/usr/bin” – so that when you type

[cc lang=”Bash”]$ cd /my/home/directory[/cc]

into Terminal, the computer knows to look in /bin and /usr/bin to find the executable file that contains instructions for running the “cd” command.

Package managers, like Homebrew, usually put all the executables for the programs you install into one folder (in Homebrew’s case, /usr/local/bin) and ALSO automatically update the PATH variable so that /usr/local/bin is added to the PATH list. If Homebrew put, let’s say, ffmpeg’s executable file into the /usr/local/bin folder, but never updated the PATH variable, your Terminal wouldn’t know where to find ffmpeg (and would just return a “command not found” error if you ran any command starting with [cc lang=”Bash”]$ ffmpeg[/cc]), even though it *is* somewhere on your computer.

So let’s move over to Windows: because Command Prompt, by default, does not have a package manager, if you download a command line program like ffmpeg, Command Prompt will not automatically know where to find that command – unless a) you move the ffmpeg directory, executable file included, into somewhere already in your PATH list (maybe somewhere like “C:\Program Files\”), or b) update the PATH list to include where you’ve put the ffmpeg directory.

I personally work with Windows rarely enough that I tend to just add a command line program’s directory to the PATH variable when needed – which usually requires rebooting the computer. So I can see how if you were adding/installing command line programs for Windows more frequently, it would probably be convenient to just create/determine “here’s my folder of command line executables”, update the PATH variable once, and then just put new downloaded executables in that folder from then on.

*** I do NOT recommend putting your Downloads or Documents folder, or any user directory that you can access/change files in without admin privileges, into your PATH!!! It’s an easy trick for accidentally-downloaded malware to get into a commonly-accessed folder (and/or one that doesn’t require raised/administrative privileges) and then be able to run its executable files from there without you ever knowing because it’s in your PATH.

Updating the PATH variable was a pain in the ass in Windows 7 and 8 but is much less so now on Windows 10.

If you are in the command line and want to quickly troubleshoot what file paths/directories are and aren’t in your PATH, you can use the “echo” command, which is available on both *nix and Windows systems. In *nix/Bash, variables can be invoked in scripts or changed with $PATH, so

[cc lang=”Bash”]$ echo $PATH[/cc]

would return something like so, with the different file paths in the PATH list separated by colons:

While on Windows, variables are identified like %THIS%, so you would run

[cc lang=”DOS” escaped=”true”] > echo %PATH%[/cc]

Package Management

Now, as I said above, package managers like Homebrew on macOS can usually handle updating/maintaining the PATH variable so you don’t have to do it by hand. For some time, there wasn’t any equivalent command line package manager (at least that I was aware of) for Windows, so there wasn’t any choice in the matter.

That’s no longer true! Now there’s Chocolatey, a package manager that will work with either Command Prompt or PowerShell. (Note: Chocolatey *uses* PowerShell in the background to do its business, so even though you can install and use Chocolatey with Command Prompt, PowerShell still needs to be on your computer. As long as your computer/OS is newer than 2006, this shouldn’t be an issue).

Users of Homebrew will generally be right at home with Chocolatey: instead of [cc lang=”Bash”]$ brew install [package-name][/cc] you can just type [cc lang=”DOS” escaped=”true”] > choco install [package-name][/cc] and Chocolatey will do the work of downloading the program and putting the executable in your PATH, so you can get right back to command line work with your new program. It works whether you’re on Windows 7 or 10.

The drawback, at least if you’re coming over from using macOS and Homebrew, is that Chocolatey is much more limited in the number/type of packages it offers. That is, Chocolatey still needs Windows-compatible software to offer, and as we went over before, some *nix software has just never been ported over to supported Windows versions (or at least, into Chocolatey packages). But many of the apps/commands you probably know and love as a media archivist: ffmpeg, youtube-dl, mediainfo, exiftool, etc. – are there!


If you’ve been doing introductory digipres stuff, you’ve probably dipped your toes into Bash scripting – which is just the idea of writing some code written in Bash into a plain text file, containing instructions for the Terminal. Your computer can then run the instructions in the script without you needing to type out all the commands into Terminal by hand. This is obviously most useful for automating repetitive tasks, where you might want to run the same set of commands over and over again on different directories or sets of files, without constant supervising and re-typing/remembering commands. Scripts written in Bash and intended for Mac/Linux Terminals tend to be identified with “.sh” file extensions (though not exclusively).

Scripting is absolutely still possible with Windows, but we have to adjust for the fact that the Windows command line interface doesn’t speak Bash. Command Prompt scripts are written in DOS style, and their benefit for Windows systems (over, say, PowerShell scripts) is that they are extremely portable – it doesn’t much matter what version of Windows or PowerShell you’re using.

Command Prompt scripts are often called “batch files” and can usually be identified by two different file extensions: .bat or .cmd

(The difference between the two extensions/file formats is negligible on a modern operating system like Windows 7 or 10. Basically, BAT files were used with MS-DOS, and CMD files were introduced with Windows NT operating systems to account for the slight improvements from the MS-DOS command line to NT’s Command Prompt. But, NT/Command Prompt remained backwards-compatible with MS-DOS/BAT files, so you would only ever encounter issues if you tried to run a CMD file on MS-DOS, which, why are you doing that?)

Actually writing Windows batch scripts for Command Prompt is its own whole tutorial. Which – thankfully – I don’t have to write, because you can follow this terrific one instead!

Because Command Prompt batch scripts are still so heavily rooted in decades-old strategies (DOS) for talking to computers, they are pretty awkward to look at and understand.

I mean what

A lot of software developers skip right to a more advanced/human-readable programming language like Python or Ruby. Scripts in these languages do also have the benefit of being cross-platform, since Python, for example, can be installed on either Mac or Windows. But Windows OS will not understand them by default, so you have to go install them and set up a development environment rather than start scripting from scratch as you can with BAT/CMD files.

Windows Registry

The Windows Registry is fascinating (to me!). Whereas in a *nix operating system, critical system-wide configuration settings are contained as text in files (usually high up under the “root” level of your computer’s file system, where you need special elevated permissions to access and change them), in Windows these settings (beyond the usual, low-level user settings you can change in the Settings app or Control Panel) are stored in what’s called the Windows Registry.

The Windows Registry is a database where configuration settings are stored, not as text in files, but as “registry values” – pieces or strings of data that store instructions. These values are stored in “keys” (folders), which are themselves stored in “hives” (larger folders that categorize the keys within related subfolders).

Registry values can be a number of different things – text, a string of characters representing hex code, a boolean value, and more. Which kind of data they are, and what you can acceptably change them to, depends entirely on the specific setting they are meant to control. However, values and keys are also often super abstracted from the settings they change – meaning it can be very very hard to tell what exactly a registry value can change or control just by looking at it.

…, not at all!

For that reason, casual users are generally advised to stay out of the Windows Registry altogether, and those who are going to change something are advised to make a backup of their Registry before making edits, so they can restore it if anything goes wrong.

Just as you may never mess around in your “/etc” folder on a Mac, even as a digitally-minded archivist, you may or may not ever need to mess in the Windows Registry! I’ve only poked around in it to do things like removing that damn OneDrive tab from the side of my File Explorer windows so I stop accidentally clicking on it. But I thought I’d mention it since it’s a pretty big difference in how the Windows operating and file systems work.

Or disable Microsoft’s over-extensive telemetry! Which, along with the fact that you can’t fucking uninstall Candy Crush no matter how hard you try, is one of the big things holding back an actually pretty nifty OS.

How to Cheat: *nix on Windows

OK. So ALL OF THIS has been based on getting more familiar with Windows and working with it as-is, in its quirky not-Unix-like glory. I wanted to write these things out, because to me, understanding the differences between the major operating systems helped me get a better handle on how computers work in general.

But guess what? You could skip all that. Because there are totally ways to just follow along with *nix-based, Bash-centric digital preservation education on Windows, and get everyone on the same page.

On Windows 7, there were several programs that would port a Bash-like command line environment and a number of Linux/GNU utilities to work in Windows – Cygwin probaby being the most popular. Crucially, this was not a way to run Linux/Unix-like applications on Windows – it was just a way of doing the most basic tasks of navigating and manipulating files on your Windows computer in a *nix-like way, with Bash commands (the software essentially translated them into DOS/Windows commands behind-the-scenes).

But a way way more robust boon for cross-compatibility was the introduction of the Windows Subsystem for Linux in Windows 10. Microsoft, for many years the fiercest commercial opponent of open source software/systems, has in the last ten years or so increasingly been embracing the open source community (probably seeing how Linux took over the web and making a long-term bet to win back the business of software/web developers).


The WSL is a complete compatibility layer for, in essence, installing Linux operating systems like Ubuntu or or Kali or openSUSE *inside* a Windows operating system. Though it still has its own limitations, this basically means that you can run a Bash terminal, install Linux software, and navigate around your computer just as you would on a *nix-only system – from inside Windows.

The major drawback from a teaching perspective: it is still a Linux operating system Windows users will be working with (I’d personally recommend Ubuntu for digipres newbies) – meaning there may still be nagging differences from Mac users (command line package management using “apt” instead of Homebrew for instance, although this too can be smoothed over with the addition of Linuxbrew). This little tutorial covers some of those, like mounting external drives into the WSL file system and how to get to your Windows files in the WSL.

You can follow Microsoft’s instructions for installing Ubuntu on the WSL here (it may vary a bit depending on which update/version exactly of Windows 10 you’re running).

That’s it! To be absolutely clear at the end of things here, I’ve generally not worked with Windows for most digital/audiovisual preservation tasks, so I’m hardly an expert. But I hope this post can be used to get Windows users up to speed and on the same page as the Mac club when it comes to the basics of using their computers for digipres fun!

About Time: Sifting Through Analog Video Terminology

In case it’s ever unclear, writing these blog posts is as much for me as it is for you, dear reader. Technical audiovisual and digital concepts are hard to wrap your head around, and for a myriad of reasons technical writing is frequently no help. Writing things out, as clearly and simply as I can, is as much a way of self-checking that I actually understand what’s going on as it is a primer for others.

And it case this intro is unclear, this is a warning to cover my ass as I dive into a topic that still trips me up every time I try to walk through it out loud. I’ll provide references as I can at the end of the piece, but listen to me at your own risk.

When I first started learning about preserving analog video, *most* of what I was reading/talking about made a certain amount of sense, which is to say it at least translated into some direct sensory/observable phenomenon – luminance values made images brighter or darker, mapping audio channels clearly changed how and what I was hearing, using component video rather than composite meant mucking around with a bunch more cables. But when we talked about analog signal workflows, there always seemed to be three big components to keep track of: video (what I was seeing), audio (what I was hearing) and then this nebulous goddamn thing called “sync” that I didn’t understand at all but seemed very very important.

The same way I feel when anyone tells me “umami” is a thing WHAT ARE YOU

I do not know who to blame for the morass of analog video signal terms and concepts that all have to do in some form with “time” and/or “synchronization”. Most likely, it’s just an issue at the very heart of the technology, which is such a marvel of mechanical and mathematical precision that even as OLED screens become the consumer norm I’m going to be right here crowing about how incredible it is that CRTs ever are/were a thing. What I do know is that between the glut of almost-but-not-quite-the-same words and devices that do almost-but-not-quite-the-same-thing-except-when-they’re-combined-and-then-they-DO-do-the-same-thing, there’s a real hindrance to understanding how to put together or troubleshoot an analog video digitization setup. Much of both the equipment and the vocabulary that we’re working with came from the needs of production, and that has led to some redundancies that don’t always make sense coming from the angle of either preservation or casual use.

I once digitized an audio cassette from the ’70s on which an audio tech was testing levels (…I hope?) by just repeating “time time time time” about 100 times in a row and ever since that day I’ve feared that his unleashed soul now possesses me. Anyway.

So I’m going to offer a guide here to some concepts and equipment that I’ve frequently seen either come up together or understandably get confused for each other. That includes in particular:

  • sync and sync generators
  • time base correction
  • genlock
  • timecode

…though other terms will inevitably rise as we go along. I’m going to assume a certain base level of knowledge with the characteristics and function of analog video signal – that is, I will write assuming the reader has been introduced to electron guns, lines, fields, frames, interlacing, and the basics of reading a classic/default analog video waveform. But I will try not to ever go right into the deep end.

Sync/Sync Generators

I know I just said I would assume some analog video knowledge, but let’s take a moment to contemplate the basics, because it helps me wrap my head around sync generators and why they can be necessary.

Consider the NTSC analog video standard (developed in the United States and employed in North, Central and parts of South America). According to NTSC, every frame of video has two fields, each consisting of 262.5 scan lines – so that’s 525 scan lines per frame. There are also 29.97 frames of video per second.

That means the electron gun in a television monitor has to fire off 15734.25 lines of video PER SECOND – and that includes not just actually tracing the lines themselves, but the time it takes to reset both horizontally (to start the next line) and vertically (to start the next field).

Now throw a recording device into the mix. At the same time that a camera is creating that signal and a monitor is playing it back, a VTR/VCR has to receive that signal and translate it into a magnetic field stored on a constantly-moving stretch of videotape via an insanely quick-spinning metal drum.

Even in the most basic of analog video signal flows, there are multiple devices (monitor, playback/recording device, camera, etc.) here that need to have an extremely precise sense of timing. The recording device, for instance, needs to have a very consistent internal sense of how long a second is, in order for all its tiny little metal and plastic pieces to spin and roll and pulse in sync (for a century, electronic devices, either analog OR digital, have used tiny pieces of vibrating crystal quartz to keep track of time – which is just a whole other insane tangent). But, in order to achieve the highest quality signal flow, it also needs to have the exact same sense of how long a second is as the camera and the monitor that it’s also hooked up to.

When you’re dealing with physical pieces of equipment, possibly manufactured by completely different companies at completely different times from completely different materials, that’s difficult to achieve. Enter in sync signal and sync generators.

Stay with me here

Sync generators essentially serve as a drumbeat for an analog video system, pumping out a trusted reference signal that all other devices in the signal chain can use to drive their work instead of their own internal sense of timing. There are two kinds of sync signals/pulses that sync generators have historically output:

Drive pulses were almost exclusively used to trigger certain circuits in tube cameras, and were never part of any broadcast/recorded video signal. So you’re almost certainly never going to need to use one in archival digitization work, but just in case you ever come across a sync generator with V. Drive and H. Drive outputs (vertical drive and horizontal drive pulses), that’s what those are for.

Blanking pulses cause the electron gun on a camera or monitor to go into its “blanking” period – which is the point at which the electron gun briefly shuts off and retraces back to the beginning of a new line (horizontal blanking) or of a new field (vertical blanking). These pulses are a part of every broadcast/recorded video signal, and they must be extremely consistent to maintain the whole 525-scan-lines-29.97-times-per-second deal.

Since blanking pulses are the vast majority of modern sync signals, you may also just see these referred to as “sync pulses”.

So the goal of sync generators is to output a constant video signal with precise blanking pulses that are trusted to be exactly where (or to be more accurate, when) they should be. Blanking pulses are contained in the “inactive” part of a video signal, meaning they are never meant to actually be visualized as image on a video camera or monitor (unless for troubleshooting purposes) – so it literally does not matter what the “active” part of a sync generator’s video signal is. It could just be field after field, frame after frame of black (often labeled “black burst”).  It could be some kind of test pattern – so you will often see test pattern generators that double as or are used as sync generators, even though these are separate functions/purposes, and thus could also be entirely separate devices in your setup.

Color bars – not *just* for geeky yet completely hard-to-use desktop wallpapers

(To belabor the point, test patterns, contained in the “active” part of the video signal, can be used to check the system, but they do not drive the system in the same way that the blanking pulses in the “inactive” part of a signal do. IMHO, this is an extremely misleading definition of “active” and “inactive”, since both parts are clearly serving crucial roles to the signal, and what is meant is just “seen” or “unseen”.)

Here’s the kicker – strictly speaking, sync generators aren’t absolutely necessary to a digitization station. It’s entirely possible that you’ll hook up all your components and all the individual pieces of equipment will work together acceptably – their sense of where and when blanking pulses should fall might already be the same, or close enough to be negligible.

But maybe you’re seeing some kind of  a wobbling or inconsistent image. That *could* be a sync issue, with one of your devices (the monitor, e.g.) losing its sense of proper timing, and resolvable by making sure all devices are working off the same, trusted sync generator.

You’ll see inputs for sync signal labeled in all sorts of inconsistent ways on analog video devices: “Sync In”, “Ext Sync”, “Ext Ref”, “Ref In”, etc. As far as I’m aware, these all mean the same thing, and references in manuals or labels to “sync signal” or “reference signal” should be treated interchangeably.

Time Base Correction

Sync generators can help line up devices with inconsistent timing in a system as a video signal is passed from one to another. Time Base Correctors (TBCs) perform an extremely similar but ever-so-confusingly-different task. TBCs can take an input video signal, strip out inconsistent sync/blanking pulses, and replace them entirely with new, steady ones.

This is largely necessary when dealing with pre-recorded signals. Consider a perfectly set up, synced recording system: using a CRT for the operator to monitor the image, a video camera passed a video signal along to a VTR, which recorded that signal on to magnetic tape. At the time, a sync generator made sure all these devices worked together seamlessly. But now, playing back that tape for digitization, we’ve introduced the vagaries of magnetic tape’s physical/chemical makeup into the mix. Perhaps it’s been years and the tape has stretched or bent, the metallic particles have expanded or compressed – not enough to prevent playback, but enough to muck with the sync pulses that rely on precision down to millionths of a second. As described with sync loss above, this usually manifests in the image looking wobbly, improperly framed or distorted on a monitor, etc.

TBCs can either use their own internal sense of time to replace/correct the timing of the sync pulses on the recorded video signal – or they can use the drumbeat of a sync generator as a reference, to ensure consistency within a whole system of devices.

(Addendum): A point I’m still not totally clear on is the separation (or lack thereof) between time base correction and frame synchronization. According to the following video I found, a stand-alone frame synchronizer could stabilize the vertical blanking pulses in a signal only, resulting in a solid image at the moment of transition from one frame to another (that is, the active video image remains properly centered vertically within a monitor), but did nothing for horizontal sync pulses, potentially resulting in line-by-line inconsistencies:

So time base correction would appear to incorporate frame synchronization, while adding the extra stabilization of consistent horizontal sync/blanking pulses.

While, as I said above, you can very often get away with digitizing video without a sync generator, TBCs are generally much more critical. It depends on what analog video format you’re working with exactly, but whereas the nature of analog devices meant there was ever so slight leeway to deal with those millionth-of-a-second inconsistencies (say, to display a signal on a CRT), the precise on-or-off, one-or-zero nature of digital signals means analog-to-digital converters usually need a very very steady signal input to do their job properly.

You may however not need an external TBC unit. Many video playback decks had them built in, though of varying quality and performance. If you can, check the manual for your model(s) to see if it has an internal TBC, and if so, if it’s possible to adjust or even turn it off if you have a more trustworthy external unit.

Professional-quality S-VHS deck with built-in TBC controls

Technically there are actually three kinds of TBCs: line, full frame and full field. Line TBCs can only sample, store and correct errors/blanking pulses for a few lines of video at a time. Full field TBCs can handle, as the name implies, a full 262.5 (NTSC) lines of video at a time, and full frame TBCs can take care a whole frame’s worth (525, NTSC) of lines at a time. “Modern”, late-period analog TBCs are pretty much always going to be full frame, or even capable of multiple frames’ worth of correction at a time (this is good for avoiding delay and sync issues in the system if working without a sync generator). This will likely only come into play with older TBC units.

And here’s one last thing that I found confusing about TBCs given the particular equipment I was trained on: this process of time base correction, and TBCs themselves, has nothing to do with adjusting the qualities of the active image itself. Brightness, saturation, hue – these visible characteristics of video image are adjusted using a device called a processing amplifier or proc amp.

Because the process of replacing or adjusting sync pulses is a natural moment in a signal flow to ALSO adjust active video signal levels (may as well do all your mucking at once, to limit troubleshooting if something’s going wrong), many external TBC units also contain proc amps, thus time base correction and video adjustments are made on the same device, such as the DPS TBC unit above. But there are two different parts/circuit boards of the unit that are doing these two tasks, and they can be housed in completely separate devices as well (i.e. you may have a proc amp that does no time base correction, or a TBC that offers no signal level adjustments).


“Genlock” is a phrase and label that you may see on various devices like TBCs, proc amps, special effects generators and more – often instead of or in the same general place you would see “Sync” or “Ref” inputs. What’s the deal here?

This term really grew out of the production world and was necessary for cases where editors or broadcasters were trying to mix two or more input video signals into one output. When mixing various signals, it was again good/recommended practice to choose one as the timing reference – all the other input signals, output, and special effects created (fades, added titles, wipes, etc. etc.) would be “locked” on to the timing of the chosen genlock input (which might be either a reference signal from a sync generator, or one of the actually-used video inputs). This prevented awkward “jumps” or other visual errors when switching between or mixing the multiple signals.

In the context of a more straightforward digitization workflow, where the goal is not to mix multiple signals together but just pass one steadily all the way through playback and time base correction to monitoring and digitization, “genlock” can be treated as essentially interchangeable with the sync signal we discussed in the “Sync/Sync Generators” section above. If the device you’re using has a genlock input, and you’re employing a sync generator to provide an external timing reference for your system, this is where you would connect the two.


The signals and devices that I’ve been describing have been all about driving machinery – time base is all about coordinating mechanical and electrical components that function down at the level of milliseconds.

Timecode, on the other hand, is for people. It’s about identifying frames of video for the purpose of editing, recording or otherwise manipulating content. Unlike film, where if absolutely need be a human could just look at and individually count frames to find and edit images on a reel, magnetic tape provides no external, human-readable sense of what image or content is located where. Timecode provides that. SMPTE timecode, probably the most commonly used standard, identified frames according to a clock-based system formatted “00:00:00:00”, which translated to “Hours:Minutes:Seconds:Frames”.

Timecode could be read, generated, and recorded by most playback/recording/editing devices (cameras or VTRs), but there were also stand-alone timecode reader/generator boxes created (such as in the photo above) for consistency and stability’s sake across multiple recording devices in a system.

There have been multiple systems of recording and deploying timecode throughout the history of video, depending on the format in question and other concerns. Timecode was sometimes recorded as its own signal/track on a videotape, entirely separate from the video signal, in the same location as one might record an audio track. This system was called Linear Timecode (LTC). The problem with LTC was, like with audio tracks, the tape had to be in constant motion to read the timecode track (like how you can not keep hearing an audio signal when you pause it, even though you *can* potentially keep seeing one frame of image when a video signal is paused on one line).

Vertical Interval Timecode (VITC) fixed this (and had the added benefit of freeing up more physical space on the tape itself) by incorporating timecode into video signal itself, in a portion of the inactive, blanking part of the signal. This allowed systems to read/identify frame numbers even when the tape was paused.

Other systems like CTL timecode (control track) and BITC (timecode burnt-in to the video image) were also developed, but we don’t need to go too far into that here.

As long as we’re at it, however, I’d also like to quickly clarify two more terms: drop-frame and non-drop-frame timecode. These came about from a particular problem with the NTSC video standard (as far as I’m aware, PAL and SECAM do not suffer the same, but please someone feel free to correct me). Since NTSC video plays back at the frustratingly non-round number of 29.97 frames per second (a number arrived at for mathematical reasons beyond my personal comprehension that have something to do with how the signal carries color information), the timecode identifying frame numbers will eventually drift away from “actual” clock time as perceived/used by humans. An “hour of timecode” which by necessity must count upwards at a 30 fps rate such as:


played back at 29.97 fps, will actually be 3.6 seconds longer than “wall-clock” time.

That’s already an issue at an hour, and proceeds to get worse the longer the content being recorded. So SMPTE developed “drop-frame” timecode, which confusingly does not drop actual frames of video!! Instead, it drops some of the timecode frame markers. Using drop-frame timecode, our sequence would actually proceed thus:


With the “:00” and “:01” frame markers removed entirely from the timecode; except for every tenth minute, when they are re-inserted to make the math check out:


Non-drop-frame timecode simply proceeds as normal, with the potential drift from clock time. Drop-frame timecode is often (but not necessarily – watch out) identified in video systems using semi-colons or single periods instead of colons between the second and frame counts, as I have done above. Semi-colons are common on digital devices, while periods are common on VTRs that didn’t have the ability to display semi-colons.

I hope this journey through the fourth dimension of analog video clarifies a few things. While each of these concepts is reasonable enough on their own, the way they relate to each other is not always clear, and the similarity in terms can send your brain down the wrong alley quickly. Happy digitizing!


Andre, Adam. “Time Base Corrector.” Written for NYU-MIAP course in Video Preservation I, Fall 2017. Accessed 6/9/2018.

“Genlock: What is it and why is it important?” Worship IMAG blog. Posted 6/11/2011. Accessed 6/8/2018.

Marsh, Ken. Independent Video. San Francisco, CA: Straight Arrow Books, 1974.

Poynton, Charles. Digital Video and HD: Algorithms and Interfaces. 2nd edition. Elsevier Science, 2012.

SMPTE timecode. Wikipedia. Accessed 6/8/2018.

Weise, Marcus and Diana Weynand. How Video Works: From Analog to High Definition. 2nd Edition. Burlington, MA: Focal Press, 2013.