Edit Suite Design 2011

It’s time to revisit an old subject for a new year – configuring a post production suite. Poke through these past articles and you’ll get plenty of ideas about how to build the room and what to put in it. Another great source for inspiration is just to scan through the “Rig of the Day” photos at FinalCutters. In this post, I’m going to concentrate on the system numbers based on early 2011 prices and options. This spreadsheet is the basis for my estimates (download here). Since I’ve covered construction and peripheral gear in the previous posts, I have limited the spreadsheet to only those items directly involved in the workstation. No furniture, no racks and no VTRs.

I’ve organized this as a cost comparison for people building a system for use with Avid Media Composer, Apple Final Cut Pro/Studio, Adobe Premiere Pro, Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve or Avid Pro Tools. This covers the options from editing to mixing to color grading. The rooms are designed to be purpose-driven, not one-size-fits all; therefore, the DaVinci configuration will have different items than the edit suites or the Pro Tools set-up. As before, this estimate is Mac-centric. Swapping out the Mac Pro numbers for a comparable HP (or similar) workstation is fine and really only an issue of personal preference (assuming that the application is PC-compatible). No tax, shipping, assembly or configuration costs have been included.

The Base System

Click on any of these summaries for an enlarged view

For a base system that will work with all of these rooms, I have selected a mid-speed 8-core Mac Pro from the Apple Store online. Quad, hex or 12-core systems are fine, too. I’ve populated it with 12GB of RAM and four internal 1TB drives. You can certainly get RAM and drives a bit cheaper through other suppliers, but in the end, it’s only a few hundred dollars. For ease, I’ve left this as an Apple, built-to-order product, including the upgraded graphics card.

I like dual monitor set-ups, but Apple now only sells 27” displays. Too big – hence, the dual 23” Dells. My personal preference is for 20” or 22” displays, but most folks are comfortable with 23” or 24” models. I’ve included a small audio monitoring set-up with near-field M-Audio speakers, an Avid Mbox Mini (for audio i/o) and a small Mackie mixer. The latter is mainly used for easy volume control, but also provides a place to plug in the occasional audio peripheral device.

The biggest single investment in this package is a CalDigit 16TB RAID storage array. There are plenty of suppliers and storage is cheaper than ever, so feel free to change it. This product will hold a lot of media and is well worth the investment for an active facility. Of course, you need power back-up systems (UPS), so I’ve plugged in two, just so the storage can run on its own.

Lastly, I’ve added “catch-all” line items for office and production software and cables. This is to cover you for extra goodies like iWork, MS Office and your favorite effects plug-ins. Not to mention the various cables and connectors that you’ll need to run out and get from Radio Shack or Guitar Center before it’s all said and done.

Edit Bays

The spreadsheet lays out three separate configurations – Avid Media Composer, Apple Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere Pro. These three applications don’t support the exact same combo of i/o cards and control surfaces. Since Avid Media Composer 5.5 now supports the AJA Io Express, I plugged that in rather than Avid’s own hardware, due to cost considerations. Since it’s only a digital product, I have augmented it with Blackmagic Design mini-converters for analog sources or analog output. The objective is to have a room that is ready for VTR ingest and output, should you need to do that. Plus, this has to be in formats from Beta-SP up to HD.

In order to keep functionality the same between these rooms, I have not included some of the optional software available to Avid editors. Specifically this means the ScriptSync and PhraseFind add-ons, which are extra cost options. These tools appeal to feature film, TV show and documentary editors. As such, some people swear by these tools and others never touch them. If that’s something you can’t live without, then dive into the production software allowance to cover those bases.

Apple Final Cut Studio supports more card options than Avid, so my configuration includes the full-featured AJA Kona 3G card with the K3 breakout box. FCP/FCS can also support all of the Avid Artist control surfaces, so Artist Color has been added here, but not in the Media Composer package. On the other hand, Adobe Premiere Pro can’t, so those panels have been left out of the Premiere Pro configuration.

One item worth noting is the graphics card choice. Premiere Pro benefits from the CUDA technology used in NVIDIA’s cards, such as the Quadro 4000. ATI/AMD cards are just fine, but certain Premiere Pro effects are accelerated by the CUDA hardware. Apple no longer sells workstations with NVIDIA cards pre-installed. This means that if you are going to buy a workstation from the Apple Store and want an NVIDIA card, select the ATI 5770 (an approximate $200 cost reduction from my base configuration) display card and plan on replacing it with the NVIDIA when you build up your workstation.

For these three rooms, I have specified a Panasonic professional 17” LCD for the editor and a larger 42” plasma for client viewing. And again, there’s another line item for last minute cable and connector needs.

Color Grading

You could build a room based on Apple Color or DaVinci Resolve, but the hardware configuration is more specific with Resolve. It’s also got the “buzz”. I frequently see the online interest from editors very interested in building a color grading room around this “name” product. Resolve takes advantage of multiple GPUs for accelerated, real-time processing performance. Therefore, this system uses BOTH the ATI (only for displays) and the NVIDIA card (GPU processing). It can actually use multiple GPUs, but you’d run out of slots, unless you want to expand the budget by adding a CUBIX expansion chassis. In this configuration all cards will fit, if you don’t use the Decklink’s HDMI bridge adapter.

Since it’s a grading room, I have beefed up the monitor selections and added a Blackmagic Design Ultrascope, which requires a separate host PC. In order to easily share one of the two Dell monitors between the Apple and HP computers, I have also included a KVM switch. Resolve works well with a single display screen, so in this configuration one display would be used for the Ultrascope patterns and the other the Resolve interface.

Resolve can use the Tangent Devices Wave, JL Cooper Eclipse CX or the Blackmagic Design panels. If you are on a modest budget, then Wave is going to be it. Have an extra $29K? Then splurge for the Blackmagic colorist panel.

Audio Editing/Mixing

Rounding out our spreadsheet is an audio post room based on Avid Pro Tools 9. This is a software-based version and not a Pro Tools HD system. Pro Tools 9 is full featured, so unless you have tons and tons of tracks, virtual instruments or plug-ins running, this configuration will work fine for general audio production and post.

I have upgraded some of the items again, like speakers and the mixer in order to be better suited for an audio room. There are two sets of speakers for critical listening and evaluation, but it’s a stereo room. If you need to build a room specifically designed for surround mixing, then that takes a bit more gear and specific room design. I have also not specifically included any Dolby metering, which might be critical for delivery to certain networks.

Avid Pro Tools is qualified to use Blackmagic Design Decklink cards to playback video. Most mixers I know these days are working with QuickTime movies for picture reference, so there’s little need to support specific Avid video formats in this room. There is also one client display – a 42” plasma.

This studio is intended to be a post production mixing studio and not a music tracking room, so I haven’t included specific recording gear. Of course, some recording, such as voice-overs, is going to take place from time to time. To cover those needs, I’ve added a modest allowance for basic tools, like microphones, mic stands, wind screens and headphones.

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As you can see, each of these rooms falls into a similar price spread – from the upper $20K to the lower $30K range. Of course, add to this tax, shipping, design and integration costs. Plus room construction, décor and furnishings. My intent here is to provide an update on the real-world cost of an average 2011 post production bay that can deliver a professional product and won’t embarrass you with a client. You can always add more if you have the budget, but be careful where you shave if you need to cut corners. After all, you are a professional. Right?

© 2011 Oliver Peters

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