Timecodes with the Sony FX3 and Zoom F6, Part 1
We wanted to use timecodes in our next project. It wasn't a simple journey.
Devices showing timecodes

Timecodes should be easier than this.

When Sony released version 3 of the firmware for the Sony FX3 (and FX30), support was added for timecodes. If you don’t know about timecodes, a timecode is a way of adding identical timestamps to video and audio files so that they can be easily synchronized in post production.

But Timecodes on the Sony FX3 and Zoom F6 are Challenging

The first problem is that the FX3 does not have a dedicated timecode port. Sony uses their “Multi-Terminal connection”, which is a fancy name for a microUSB port. Of course, that is a non-standard timecode connector so a special cable is needed to go from the timecode device into this specialized USB port. Sony, thankfully, released such a cable (VMC-BNCM1) and while it was expensive and hard to find initially, it’s readily available now for about $50.

The other end of the Sony cable is a BNC connector. That’s the original industry standard, so it connects directly to the UltraSync ONE from Atomos. But newer devices (specifically, the Deity TC-1 and Tentacle Sync E) have 3.5mm ports instead, which also makes sense, since timecode is really just an audio signal. Deity has released a cable for the FX3 (again, about $50) and Tentacle has announced one, expected to be released in early September 2023.

So far, we are just talking about getting a signal into the FX3, which, by the way, cannot output a timecode. The camera doesn’t have the hardware to generate a reliable timecode, so that’s understandable.

But I digress. We still need a timecode signal for the Zoom F6 audio recorder.

The $50 Solution

The Zoom F6 actually has a reliable timecode generator and a dedicated 3.5mm timecode in/out jack. In theory, the F6 could feed the timecode to the camera and we’d be done. In practice, there are two problems, starting with the cable. The Deity cable might work, but it has a locking 3.5mm connector whereas the F6’s connector is not locking, so it might not fit snugly. The Tentacle cable isn’t locking, so it should solve the problem… if/when it is available.

The second issue is the bigger problem: The FX3 may not reliably maintain the timecode on its own, so it’s recommended that the timecode signal is supplied constantly. That ties these two devices together.

That’s fine when everything is on a tripod. The FX3 and F6 weigh 6 ¾ pounds (3 kg) combined. That’s with a lightweight cage and top handle, but before adding an external monitor, timecode box, wireless receivers, a power bank, any cables to tie these things together, etc. That’s a lot of weight to hand-hold for very long. It could also overwhelm some gimbals, causing them to perform poorly or not be able to balance. And then some body-builder has to carry that weight plus the gimbal!

So, the $50 cable isn’t a great solution for a short film production. It also wouldn’t provide synchronization with any other devices, like an iPad with a slate application or an additional cameras. That would be a showstopper for larger productions.

Why Timecode Matters to Us

You may wonder why we are bothering with all this. Our next project is a 48-hour film race. When you have just two days to come up with a short film idea and then write, shoot and edit it, efficiency is paramount. When the audio and video are separate, it takes time to sync all of the files. If everything has an embedded timecode, the software handles the sync. We can just get down to the business of editing.

Note that most video editing software can sync files based on the audio, assuming the camera’s “scratch” audio has a strong enough recording to match the sound tracks. But as soon as something doesn’t line up, a lot of time can be wasted fixing it. Time we don’t have film race; time that costs money for anyone doing video as a business.

The Not-So-Cheap Solution

We decided to go with Atomos timecode hardware for two reasons. First, the Sony timecode cable for the FX3 connects directly to the UltraSync ONE, making for a clean solution for the camera. While it is possible to get a BNC-to-3.5mm cable to also hook up to the F6, we added an UltraSync BLUE, which will sync the Zoom F6 via Bluetooth. We can also use that same box to sync our Zoom F3, should we need to use it (the F3 can only be synced via Bluetooth). And we can connect an iPad using slate software that displays the timecode. The slate isn’t strictly necessary, but it couldn’t hurt. Okay, three reasons: We expect to eventually record to an Atomos inja for ProRes RAW. But that’s for another day.

How Everything Goes Together

We still have to figure out the best way to physically mount the UltraSync ONE to the FX3, but the cabling, using the VMC-BNCM1 cable is perfect. Once we adjusted the FX3’s timecode settings, it displayed the external timecode. Step 1, done.

Next, we set the UltraSync BLUE to be the master, adjusted the frame rate, and did basic setup. The UltraSync ONE was set as the slave and it detected the BLUE right way, picking up the signal from the UltraSync BLUE. The BLUE was then paired to the F6 and the iPad.

And just like that, we have three devices locked in sync… or should be, anyway.

How Does It All Work?

I’d love to say, “flawlessly”, but I can’t.

The Bluetooth Downside

It’s a money-saver that the UltraSync BLUE will connect to as many as four devices, but the devices don’t aways play ball.

The Zoom F6 and F3 each have apps that allow Bluetooth control. That’s handy for updating filenames to match scenes, which aids in keeping things organized. But since the Zoom devices only connect to one device at a time the iPhone app and timecode device can’t be connected simultaneously. It takes time (that we don’t have) to switch back and forth.

The Zoom F6 is syncing, but so far not accurately. If I take a picture (using my iPhone) of the four devices (camera, UltraSync BLUE, UltraSync ONE and the Zoom F6), they are all within a frame of accuracy, except the Zoom F6. It’s always 1.5 to 2 frames behind And this carries over to Final Cut, too. That means the separate audio is not synced with the camera footage which is the entire point of using timecodes. I blame Bluetooth . This needs to be fixed and I’m working on that.

Another bit of nuisance is the iPad. While it’s great that it can sync vai the UltraSync BLUE, the apps that can use the timecode are either very simplistic, in the case of the Atomos Blue Slate app, or pricey, as in the case of MovieSlate 8. However, I am testing MovieSlate, as it might just be the magic sauce we need to be faster in editing. More to come on that.

What’s Next?

First, I have to get the F6 to play ball with timecodes. After that, I need to define an easy-enough workflow that will net not only easily-synced files, but ones that are easy to identify in Final Cut Pro. That means being able to use naming conventions and the slate app to bring it all together. More on that in Part 2!

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