Let's face it: if I didn't start with a title like that, there's no way you'd read a story about waveform monitors. They're boring! They're not creative! They're all the same! They're not sexy. They're not RED.
Scopes are important if you're doing real work that gets duplicated, broadcast or color corrected. They can be used "creatively." They can help you do better work. Without them, all that other cool gear is worthless.
So WHY are scopes the "Rodney Dangerfield" of the production and post production world? Some of it is probably fear of not understanding them. Some is probably that they don't really seem to DO anything other than cost a lot of money. Some is probably because they have a lot of unrealized potential.
If you've read either of my color correction books, you know that the basis for my approach to color correction is that you have to be able to analyze your image before you can grade your image. Scopes are a big part of that. And you don't need to understand ANYTHING about all that arcane terminology about blanking, sync pulses, burst, backporches, breezeways and millivolts.
I have preached often enough on the importance of scopes, so I'm going to leave that behind and do a little review of some of the choices out there for scopes. There are basically four types. There are all-inclusive scopes with built in displays. I've got a Tektronix WFM7120 that does standard and high def and displays waveforms, vectorscopes, jitter, gamut, audio phase and levels and more. There are also rasterizers. These are little 1 or 2 rack-unit-high instruments that get mounted in a rack and then display the data on a separate computer monitor. I also have one of these: an aging SD-only VideoTek VTM-300. There is also a new category of scopes that uses software, a spare computer and a video card to deliver an "external" scope. The data is displayed on the computer monitor of the computer on which the software is running, which is NOT the same computer as the "video feed" is coming from. I am running demos of two of these types of scopes: for the Mac - Scopebox - and for the PC - Hamlet's VidScope and Adobe's OnLocation. Finally there are the built-in scopes in the editing, color correction and compositing software you use.
Because I understand that most people don't want to spend 10 times as much for their scopes as they did for their editing software (FCP $1200 compared to good Tek scopes at $12,000), I wanted to compare some of the choices that are out there that purport to do the same thing for a LOT less money.
I suppose it shows my bias to hold the Tektronix scope up as the gold standard. (If I had a Leader or OmniTek scope or some other brand, I'm assuming that it would give me a similar result.) But, prior to my "scope shootout" I double-checked the accuracy of my Tek scopes at an on-line post-house I do work with, looking at color corrected footage from one of my favorite colorists that was bound for broadcast. The Tek scopes were very accurate with great, fine detail. One of the differences between the manufacturers of scopes is that some of them, especially Tektronix, have patented certain displays, like the Diamond and Lightning displays. No other manufacturer can offer these methods of analyzing your signal. So before you buy, find out what exclusive displays each manufacturer brings to the table.
Some other advantage to the Tek scopes (and for most other manufacturers of "standalone" scopes, for that matter), include a crucial ability to customize the way that the data is presented. That includes being able to adjust the gain and position of the waveform and vectorscope as well as to include NTSC set-up or not. These scopes can also present numerous displays simultaneously in either "parade" mode (next to each other) or overlaid (superimposed on each other). The Tek scope is also capable of logging errors and identifying the timecodes at which the errors occurred. The WFM 7120 can display multiple tools either full-frame or with four different displays in quadrants on its face. All of which are easily customizable with dedicated buttons and not too much "delving into menus" for the commands you need. Obviously it can also save these views as presets which can be quickly and easily called up.