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Understanding and Using Time Code

If you’re in the audio/visual industry, you probably already have a basic idea of what time code is, but are you using it to your full advantage? 

Thanks to advancements in technology, it seems far too easy nowadays for producers and editors to ignore time code or SMPTE codes in favor of other methods. But, having a time code not only makes the editing process easier, but it also makes it more precise. 

Simply put, time code helps you to define a precise moment in an audio or video clip, down to the millisecond. That allows for more accurate, cleaner editing that can be visualized, instead of just making guesses as to where something is. 

You can learn more about what time code is and what it looks like from a video editing standpoint by checking out the following video

While there are several software programs and even extensions and apps that allow you to use timecode, one of the best things you can do is to use a physical, tangible SMPTE video time code for greater accuracy. 


How to Read Time Code

For beginners, understanding how time code works and how to read it can be a little confusing. But, it just takes some getting used to before the numbers will become familiar to you. Basic time code is set up like this: 

Hours: Minutes: Seconds: Frames

Time code uses military time, so the hours will go up to 23 within the film or audio you’re editing. The ‘seconds’ are pretty self-explanatory, and the frames number refers to a single image (frame) within that time period that can be cut or edited in some way. 


There are two categories of time code that editors need to know about; LTC (Linear Time Code) and Vertical Interval Time Code. 

LTC refers to the data recorded on the master device. It is an audio signal, and the tape must be in motion in order for the data to be read. 

Vertical Interval Time Code, on the other hand, is data that is stored within the vertical interval between video frames. Therefore, you can read it even if the tape isn’t in motion. Both types of time code are necessary for accurate and clean editing. 


Audio Time Code

Having an accurate time code device to record audio is extremely important if you’re shooting video. Think about it this way; if you have a piece of video with sound and something happened during recording that you didn’t realize until editing, it’s important to be able to adjust that audio at the exact second you need. 

Someone could have clapped their hands too loudly, or a car or truck could have gone by. By using audio time code, you can make absolutely sure that you can cut the precise moment you want to, down to the frame. It also ensures that all of the audio is properly lined up with the video. The last thing you want is for someone’s speech to be a second or two off because the visual doesn’t line up.


Why a Time Code Device is Great for Beginners

If you’re just starting out as a filmmaker, you might not have the latest and greatest (or the most expensive) gear. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. After all, everyone needs to start somewhere!

But, if you are using a simple handheld camera, you likely aren’t getting an accurate timecode that will be very useful in editing. 

Not only do many standard handheld cameras not meet SMPTE standards, but they don’t pick up and leave off in the right spots. That means if you start recording, stop, and start again, the time code within the camera itself will start over rather than saving the spot where you had last ended things. 

When it comes time to edit, that makes for an overwhelming, confusing, and disorganized situation that can make putting your film together, a nightmare. 

Thankfully, you don’t have to invest in a fancy camera (yet) if you take the time to invest in an external, physical time code device. 


The Importance of Time Code for Audio and Video

As you can see, time code is incredibly important whether you’re shooting audio, video, or both. While it might not seem like a big deal if you’re just trying to create a quick recording, it is an imperative tool if you’re trying to be taken seriously as a professional. 

Not only will having a time code make your life so much easier, but it will greatly improve the quality of your video and audio. You wouldn’t want your perfect video sequence to be ruined by one frame, or your audio to be off by a fraction of a second. 


While it might seem like you’re investing in a lot of gear, you have to consider where you really want your editing career to go. There are some pieces of equipment that are nice to have but aren’t all that necessary when you’re starting out. A time code isn’t one of those. In fact, it should be a top priority when you start recording. While it might confuse you a bit at first, it will actually help you to get through the editing process faster. The more you get used to reading time code, the easier it will become, so you can produce more work faster. That’s a huge plus for filmmakers who do things like commercials, wedding videos, etc., where clients want their product delivered as quickly as possible. 


So, if you don’t already have a time code device, take the time to learn more about them and find one that fits your needs. Additionally, take the time to learn how to use it to your advantage. When you do, you’ll love editing that much more. 

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