Timecode doesn’t synchronise anything!!!

There seems to be a huge misunderstanding about what timecode is and what timecode can do. I lay most of the blame for this on manufactures that make claims such as “Our Timecode Gadget Will Keep Your Cameras in Sync” or “by connecting our wireless time code device to both your audio recorder and camera everything will remain in perfect sync”. These claims are almost never actually true.

What is “Sync”.

First we have to consider what we mean when we talk about “sync” or synchronisation.  A dictionary definition would be something like “the operation or activity of two or more things at the same time or rate.” For film and video applications if we are talking about 2 cameras they would be said to be in sync when both start recording each frame that they record at exactly the same moment in time and then over any period of time they record exactly the same number of frames, each frame starting and ending at precisely the same moment.

What is “Timecode”.

Next we have to consider what time code is. Timecode is a numerical value that is attached to each frame of a video or an audio recording in an audio device to give it a time value in hours, minutes, seconds, frames. It is used to identify individual frames and each frame must have a unique numerical value. Each individual successive frames timecode value MUST be “1” greater than the frame before (I’m ignoring drop frame for the sake of clarity here). A normal timecode stream does not feature any form of sync pulse or sync control, it is just a number value.

Controlling the “Frame Rate”.

And now we have to consider what controls the frame rate that a camera or recorder records at. The frame rate the camera records at is governed by the cameras internal sync or frame clock. This is normally a  circuit controlled by a crystal oscillator. It’s worth noting that these circuits can be affected by heat and at different temperatures there may be very slight variations in the frequency of the sync clock. Also this clock starts when you turn the camera on, so the exact starting moment of the sync clock depends on the exact moment the camera is switched on. If you were to randomly turn on a bunch of cameras their sync clocks would all be running out of sync. Even if you could press the record button on each camera at exactly the same moment, each would start recording the first frame at a very slightly different moment in time depending on where in the frame rate cycle the sync clock of each camera is. In higher end cameras there is often a way to externally control the sync clock via an input called “Genlock”.  Applying a synchronisation signal to the cameras Genlock input will pull the cameras sync clock into precise sync with the sync signal and then hold it in sync. 

And the issue is………..

Timecode doesn’t perform a sync function. To SYNCHRONISE two cameras or a camera and audio recorder you need a genlock sync signal and timecode isn’t a sync signal, timecode is just a frame count  number. So timecode cannot synchronise 2 devices. The camera’s sync/frame clock might be running at a very slightly different frame rate to the clock of the source of the time code. When feeding timecode to a camera the camera might already be part way through a frame when the timecode value for that frame arrives, making it too late to be added, so there will be an unavoidable offset. Across multiple cameras this offset will vary, so it is completely normal to have a +/- 2 frame (sometimes more) offset amongst several cameras at the start of each recording.

And once you start to record the problems can get even worse…

If the camera’s frame clock is running slightly faster than the clock of the TC source then perhaps the camera might record 500 frames but only receive 498 timecode values – So what happens for the 2 extra frames the camera records in this time? The answer is the camera will give each frame in the sequence a unique numerical value that increments by 1, so the extra frames will have the necessary 2 additional TC values. And as a result the TC in the camera at the end of the clip will be an additional 2 frames different to that of the TC source. The TC from the source and the TC from the camera won’t exactly match, they won’t be in sync or “two or more things at the same time or rate”, they will be different.

The longer the clip that you record, the greater these errors become as the camera and TC source drift further apart.

Before you press record on the camera, the cameras TC clock will follow the external TC input. But as soon as you press record, every recorded  frame MUST have a unique new numerical value 1 greater than the previous frame, regardless of what value is on the external TC input. So the cameras TC clock will count the frames recorded. And the number of frames recorded is governed by the camera sync/frame clock, NOT the external TC.  

So in reality the ONLY way to truly synchronise the timecode across multiple cameras or audio devices is to use a sync clock connected to the  GENLOCK input of each device.

Connecting an external TC source to a cameras TC input is likely to  result in much closer TC values for both the audio recorder and camera(s) than no connection at all. But don’t be surprised if you see small 1 or 2 frame errors at the start of clips due to the exact timing of when the TC number arrives at the camera relative to when the camera starts to record the first frame and then possibly much larger errors at the ends of clips, these errors are expected and normal. If you can’t genlock everything with a proper sync signal, a better way to do it is to use the camera as the TC source and feed the TC from the camera to the audio recorder. Audio recorders don’t record in frames, they just lay the TC values alongside the audio. As an audio recorder doesn’t need to count frames the TC values will always be in the right place in the audio file to match the cameras TC frame count. 

5 thoughts on “Timecode doesn’t synchronise anything!!!”

  1. On one hand, I’m surprised there is confusion about this subject but on the other hand, I’m not. From the perspective of a Broadcast TV trained video Pro, TC was and still is the ‘glue’ that tied together all aspects of video production. Trust me on this, when you were paying upward of $400/hour for On-Line post production services, you sure as better have your tapes correctly time coded, reel numbered and shot listed before you book your session. Even today, ‘off-line’ editing on your favourite software in the field with a later Conform and Grade using high end facilities still benefits from a good knowledge of timecode so I wonder whether ‘TC ignorance’ has crept in as DSLRs and ‘stills people’ have become increasingly involved in video production because they lack the skills & knowledge that ‘video guys’ take for granted?

  2. Hey alister!

    Thanks for the clarification! I’ve recently bought ambient Tinylockits for zoom f8n, and My two fx9s and fs7mk1.

    The two fx9’s and zoom f8n recorder run in perfekt Sync with timecode. But the fs7 runs with audio tc as I don’t iwn an xdca for My fs7 mk1. ?

    SO I get where you Come from! The sales person I talked to sold me on the “Sync” talk… But now, after reading your post… Im a little scared that I might have wasted My money… Because your explanation seems to point in the direction of: TC is overrated and doesnt do what it claims.

    Maybe I should just have kept using pluraleyes and saved My money…..

    What do you think?

    1. External TC will mean that the TC at the start of any clips should match across all your cameras. But from then on it may drift. The amount of drift will vary across different cameras. For shorter takes of 10 mins or less any drift is likely to be insignificant. But when filming a concert or something longer, then it may become significant.

      1. Thanks for getting back to me – I see now that I’ve been informed wrongly on the workings of timecode. That’s very frustrating. I for some reason thought that timecode would solve most of my syncing issues. But I see now that it isn’t possible to rely soly on timecode, it’s just an accurate clock that get all cameras on the same time of day. fuck sake 🙁

        Another question:
        So IF I purchase the XDCA for the fs7, it will not solve the horrendous drift the FS7 suffers from on long takes?

        I might just have to rely on Pluraleyes for all my syncing 🙁 Oh my…. I’m so angry right now 🙁

    2. It’s not overrated! you still need to have a common reference of time. you just need genlock to make that common reference a reality.

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