Timecode is the glue that helps bring all the video and audio pieces together in the video edit bay.
It’s a system of time keeping that assigns unique identification numbers to every frame of video and its associated audio. Video editors use timecode to manage and keep track of a massive amount of different production elements.
Timecode is made up a string of numbers generated at regular intervals by a timing synchronization system. It can show which parts of the video system require temporal coordination of recording or actions.
In 1967, timecode was developed by EECO, a video recorder manufacturer. It was first used to keep track of individual shots when multiple cameras were filming at the same time.
There are three types of timecode. Genlock is used to sync the field rates of multiple video sources, and ensures they are in phase with each other. It is used only for live broadcasts, where there is a need to combine two or more video sources.
Word clock is used to sync the sample rates of digital audio recorders. It is used only in high-end sound production, and is needed when more than one recorder needs to be completely in phase with another.
Timecode (TC) is the most commonly used in video production gigs. The standard was created by SMPTE (the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers). It is used to synchronize multiple devices and media — both audio and video — on a metadata level.
The method of how time code is generated has changed radically in recent years, especially with the arrival inexpensive Bluetooth devices. A major change occurred after Atomos purchased Time Code Systems, the world’s largest wireless timecode and synchronization company, in October, 2019.
Atomos used Time Code Systems’ patented technology to create a free SDK for third party camera and audio manufacturers. The deal has resulted in making multicamera shoots and audio sync simpler and more efficient for users of many prosumer, professional and digital cinema cameras.
“To truly shoot collaboratively, everything needs to work in perfect, frame-accurate sync – there has to be this robust wireless connection. The Timecode Systems RF protocol is this bullet-proof link,” said Jeromy Young, former CEO and founder of Atomos. “With the Timecode Systems standard, we now have the glue to create a truly connected multicamera solution.”
Since 2019, scripted productions, reality TV, news, sports and documentary productions around the world are using timecode technology by Time Code Systems.
Out of that merger came the Atomos Ultrasync Blue ($149), a tiny battery-operated device which uses wireless Bluetooth to sync up to six devices for timecode. It has the potential to synchronize any compatible camera or sound recording device with Bluetooth connectivity. There are no cables to worry about. It can even sync to iPhones.
Many manufacturers use the Time Code Systems standard. On iPhones, you’ll need apps like Apogee’s MetaRecorder ($9.99) and Mavis Pro Camera ($5.99), which are compatible with Ultrasync Blue. It can sync four devices over Bluetooth with a range of up to 32 feet.
Once connected, timecode is transmitted wirelessly from the Ultrasync Blue directly into the embedded media file for the cameras and audio recorders. The restrictions of a wired connection are completely removed.
Use a single Ultrasync Blue unit to sync up to six recording devices shooting in close range over Bluetooth. It can also connect to long-range RF timecode networks and sync to other camera and audio recorders using units on the same channel.
Another popular Bluetooth competitor is the Tentacle Sync E MKII Timecode Generator ($229), which can act as a master clock or jam-sync to any external device. Using LTC timecode at SMPTE standard, it runs 35 hours on batteries and is accurate to one frame within 24 hours.
If a digital cinema or DSLR-style camera has a timecode port, use it. Just plug the Tentacle in and jam it. It’s as simple as that. Leave it plugged in for a constant feed.
Use an audio channel to record timecode on cameras without a dedicated port. Plug the Tenacle into the 3.5mm jack. This method, of course, gives up the track for recording audio.
The Tenacle has a built-in mic, but the quality is poor and it isn’t usable for the final audio in the production. If you are doing double-system audio recording on a separate recorder, then this is not an issue.
Deity’s competing TC1 ($158.95) operates like the Tenacle. It can jam timecode to a camera that has a dedicated Timecode port or send the audio timecode to a camera using the 3.5mm audio input.
On cameras recording stereo sound, TC-1 has a built-in microphone and records scratch audio on the left channel and timecode on the right channel. Deity’s TC-1 retails for $169.99
For basic double system sound, many users don’t use timecode at all and rely instead on Red Giant’s PluralEyes or a video editor to sync sound with video in post.
PluralEyes does the job automatically and is very effective. However, it is being discontinued. The reason is Premiere Pro, Final Cut Pro X, DaVinci Resolve and Avid Media Composer all now natively include syncing sound by waveform.
Timecode is now easier to use than ever with very low-cost products never available before. It is simple to make about device compatible, especially if it uses Bluetooth.