Final Cut Pro X versus Premiere Pro CS6

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The struggle within most shops that invested in Apple’s Final Cut Pro is whether to stay put a while longer, adopt Final Cut Pro X or cut the cord and move on. For many this means shifting to the Adobe Production Premium bundle – part of Creative Suite. Most of the editors and facilities in my sphere are doing just that. I’m one of only two local editors that I know of, who is actually using FCP X professionally. The rest are in the process of shifting to Premiere Pro, while maintaining some continued use of FCP “legacy”. This post is not intended as a “shoot out” or to say one is better than the other. Both are good tools and much of the choice gets down to personal preference. Instead, my goal is to lay out some random considerations in making the move.

Cross-platform / performance

Premiere Pro runs on Mac OS X and Windows workstations and laptops, while Final Cut Pro X is a Mac-only product. The biggest consideration is that by having the tool available to Windows, you open your access to the fastest machines and GPU cards. Premiere on a PC can tap into the faster NVIDIA CUDA-enabled cards, which is not an option for either Premiere or FCP X on the Mac. Although Premiere runs with both CUDA and non-CUDA cards on Macs, the selection is limited.

Adobe’s standalone software must be purchased with either a Mac or Windows license and switching platforms requires cross-grading the license. Unlike Avid, you cannot simply go from a PC workstation at a facility to a MacBook Pro at home with a simple de-activation/re-activation process. The exception is the Creative Cloud subscription, with permits access to both Mac and Windows licenses on up to two machines, as long as they aren’t used at the same time.

Naturally, if you opt for Final Cut Pro X, you have software that has been tweaked for the most current Apple hardware. We can argue the merits of CUDA, OpenGL and OpenCL acceleration, but it’s pretty clear that FCP X running on a decked-out iMac outperforms the application on a Mac Pro tower.

Suite versus “suite

Premiere Pro is generally purchased as part of the Production Premium or Master Collection software bundles – or as part of a Creative Cloud subscription. Final Cut Pro X is only available as standalone software through the Mac App Store. The beauty of the Adobe software is its integration, with direct links between Premiere Pro and After Effects, Prelude, Audition or SpeedGrade. These aren’t all fully developed yet, but it’s a key reason some editors prefer Premiere Pro.

On the other hand, there’s a large ecosystem growing up around Final Cut Pro X that constitutes much of the same. It’s not an official “suite” of software and interoperability is limited to translations of FCPXML. For similar dollars, you get similar capabilities – only with the added ability to pick and choose what’s right for your workflow.

Plug-ins

The plug-in architecture for Premiere Pro has historically been weak. Many of the third-party After Effects plug-ins show up and work within Premiere Pro, but some don’t. If you edit in Premiere, you are best off doing your effects in After Effects. Lately, developers have been tweaking their filters to make them work – or work better – inside Premiere.

To compare, Final Cut has no plug-in architecture. Instead third-party plug-ins use FxPlug through Motion and then show up inside FCP X as a Motion template, rather than a traditional plug-in. This allows developers to not only create updated plug-ins for Motion and FCP X, but also add new and unique effects and transitions built strictly as Motion projects. These in turn are published to FCP X as effects. Since this latter approach requires less programming skill, the market for low-cost (and even free) FCP X plug-ins has exploded. Not to mention, there are effects and transitions for FCP X that simply don’t exist – or can’t easily be re-created - for any other NLE.

Organizational tools

All NLEs are giant databases tracking information. Final Cut Pro X takes this to a new level and uses ratings, keywords and smart collections as a means for fast and automatic organization of your media. Plus a considerable amount of camera and textual metadata is tracked in the background. This doesn’t mean that Premiere Pro doesn’t track a lot of data, as well. Open the metadata display window and you find plenty of fields that are assignable to each clip. Bins can be filtered by a search field, which will reduce the amount of clips displayed according to the search criteria being typed in.

User interface configurations

Final Cut Pro X’s interface design is based on panels and windows that can be opened and closed as needed. It is arranged well for single and dual-screen layouts, though you have very few options to move any of these windows around and create custom screen layouts. Premiere Pro uses a system of dockable tabs common across several of Adobe’s applications, including After Effects and Photoshop. Re-arrange these as you see fit and save custom workspace layouts.

Tracks versus trackless

Premiere Pro uses the “traditional” track-based timeline structure, where audio and video is separated into tracks and clips are positioned on the timeline based on a reference to absolute time. Final Cut Pro X’s timeline does not use tracks, but instead lays out clips according to storylines and connected clips. These are linked to each other in a parent-child relationship. This allows groups of clips to be moved, by simply moving the clip on the storyline to which the others are attached. There is no vertical hierarchy to audio and video content as tracks. Although video is displayed to the viewer from the top down, audio and video connected clips can be linked above or below the central primary storyline.

Project and clip management

Premiere Pro creates a single, self-contained data file for every edit project. This file contains the links to all media on your hard drives and the edited sequences created from these. Final Cut Pro X divides its structure into Events (source media) and Projects (edited sequences). These correspond to separate folders on your hard drive as well as divisions within the FCP X interface. Event folders can contain either actual source media content – or alias files pointing to other locations on your hard drives for that source media.

Media management

At the end of a production, many editors like to organize the final edited sequence and the clips used within it into a single “consolidated” project. This means the source clips have been trimmed to only the portions used, plus a few seconds of “handles” on the ends of the trimmed clips. Premiere Pro allows you to do this via its Project Manager tool. FCP X currently does not allow any clip trimming. You can copy a Project (edited sequence) with its used clips to a new Event, but then it requires a second step to organize the media. That step copies the media itself for all used clips into the new Event that was created.

Multiple editor interaction

Right now, neither tool is very good for collaborative editing. Final Cut Pro X works best to have all Event and Project folders at the root level of drives and only one editor can access those at a time. There is an “add SAN location” feature for shared storage environments, but it doesn’t appear to work with all SANs. The best method is to have media on a SAN, but keep the Event and Project files local to each system, with the media linked to these. If one or more editors is working on the same production, then each can have local, “mirrored” versions of the Event folders. To exchange edited sequences, simply copy and transfer the Project files that you’d like to share.

In the case of Premiere Pro, the current workflow is similar to that of FCP 7. It will likely change after NAB, where Adobe is expected to show Adobe Anywhere as a real product and its entry into collaborative editing. Currently, if multiple editors work on the same Premiere-based production, media can be on a SAN, but the project files should be on local drives. Unfortunately, you cannot open multiple project files at once. When you import another editor’s sequence into your project, it annoyingly imports all the associated master clips, even through they may already exist within your project. These cannot be removed, otherwise clips in your imported sequence will go offline.

[EDIT - My Premiere Pro import issues were challenged by a reader, so I went back and did some testing. It appears that if two editors create two unique projects, but using the same media (like in a shared storage facility), then duplicate master clips are created upon import. However, if the second project is created using a "save as" command, then sequences imported from it back into the original project do not create duplicate master clips.]

List interchange

Final Cut Pro X only interchanges data with external applications using the FCPXML data format. This is different than other versions of XML, which means you have to use translation to get from FCP X to FCP 7, for example. Premiere Pro supports XML, EDL, OMF and AAF (limited).

Tape handling (or not)

Neither application is great for videotape-based workflows. Premiere Pro has capture-from-tape and output modules, but it’s not as solid as FCP 7 and definitely not as good as Avid Media Composer. On the other hand, FCP X’s is non-existent. There is limited support for Firewire-enabled videotape decks, like HDV, but you really end up using the capture/output utilities of the third-party hardware cards (AJA, Blackmagic Design, Matrox, MOTU).

The Cold Mountain moment

Feature film editors’ use of specific NLEs does not amount to a large market segment for either of these manufacturers (nor Avid, for that matter, either). But the association with a Hollywood blockbuster fuels aspirational marketing in other sectors. It wasn’t until Walter Murch cut Cold Mountain – along with the Coen Brothers’ use of FCP – that Final Cut started to get noticed by a large portion of the professional editing community as a viable tool. Neither Apple nor Adobe have had that yet with Premiere Pro or FCP X. There has not been a major feature film cut with either.

Adobe is a bit closer in that many films have touched on Premiere Pro as a conduit to get into After Effects or handling some conforming tasks. Naturally, Adobe is more than happy to let the lines be blurred through omission between these roles and doing an actual creative edit of a film. That is likely to change this year. This is purely a guess, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a studio film being cut on FCP X or Premiere Pro at some point during 2013.

Pricing and openness

For now, when you compare cost, FCP X is the better deal. Even when you add more applications and utilities to fill in the gaps, the cost is lower than Premiere Pro. Add to that the fact that Mac App Store purchases can run on multiple machines under a single Apple ID, thus bringing the cost per machine even lower. Adobe is in the process of changing its sales and licensing structure through the Creative Cloud mechanism, but the limit is typically two machines. The beauty here is that you have access to the whole host of Adobe creative applications for video, photography, web and design as part of a monthly subscription model.

Over the course of the first year on one machine, cost is probably going to be similar for most users. If you use multiple machines, own the software for several years or use more than the average number of applications, then the scale will tip in favor of one company or the other. Both the Mac App Store and Creative Cloud models allow for more rapid updating of software than in previous years.

Openness and company response may also be a factor in your purchasing decisions. Apple is secretive about new product development. They do listen to customer feedback, but they don’t show it publicly. Adobe has tried to be very proactive in their outreach to the professional creative community. In the end, the net result may be the same in how it translates into new features that you can use.

Interesting tools

Both NLEs offer tools beyond just media organization and editing. For instance, both include stabilization, but Premiere Pro includes extra touches to fix rolling shutter artifacts. FCP X includes optical flow processing for high-quality variable speed effects. Final Cut features a number of non-destructive “automatics” for image and sound analysis on ingest and shape/shot recognition. Premiere Pro offers speech-to-text analysis. A lot of these tools fall into the “nice to have, but I never use it” category for me. Still, if these are worthwhile for you, then take a closer look.

Batch exports

Neither tool offers good batch export tools like I’m used to with FCP 7, however, each offers queued exporting functions of edited sequences. In Premiere Pro, if I want to export multiple sequences, or the same sequence as multiple deliverables, then all I need to do is set up a queue in Adobe Media Encoder. With Final Cut Pro X, I can use the Share menu to export straight from the timeline or send Projects to Compressor. Unfortunately neither one lets me export a QuickTime reference file that can be used in other encoders. You first have to export a self-contained master file if you intend to use it with other software.

Responsiveness

This is a big one for me and a good place to end this list. In its current form, FCP X feels a tad buggy to me. Response is generally better on an iMac. I’m mainly on Mac Pros, so playback often just doesn’t look smooth. It’s definitely not dropping frames, but looks like the graphics card (usually an ATI 5870) simply isn’t refreshing as well as it should. The interface also tends to feel “sticky” as I’m going between windows. It “forgets” where it is during skimming when switching between a clip in the Event browser and the timeline. Then it takes a bit of clicking around in the interface to get it to “wake up”.

There seems to be some type of RAM leak issue,too. The longer I work on it in a day with large Events (bins), the more sluggish it becomes. This requires me to close and relaunch the application to get peppier performance.

I don’t see any of this with Premiere Pro. I do miss the skimming features of FCP X (no, hover scrub is NOT the same), but otherwise, the Premiere Pro user interface interaction seems to be better for now. I’d say for me, this is an annoyance and not a deal-breaker, but it definitely needs to be addressed by Apple.

©2013 Oliver Peters

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