Thinking about the Tube

df_mp_1Desktop computers had been on a trajectory of faster performance based on Moore’s Law until they hit the wall just under the 4GHz mark. Then came a variety of ingenious technological workarounds, including hyper-threading, multiple processors (CPUs), multiple cores within a single processor and finally, offloading processing to one or more graphics display cards (GPUs). All of these solutions have benefitted content creation professionals running edit and graphics software. With all of that effort, no one seems to have taken the effort to re-imagine how the hardware should work, nor whether the hardware is really built for what software developers are doing. For example, few applications really make effective use of multiple CPUs in a computer.

Add to this the financial aspect, which points to the growth in laptops and tablets to the detriment of traditional desktop computer sales. Is there even a need for a desktop machine that caters to professional users? Into this uncertainty comes Apple with the new Mac Pro, which I’ve euphemistically called “the Tube” in my title. df_mp_6Apple is the king of re-imagining. After months and years of wondering whether Apple still cares about professional computer users, they blew away the audience at their annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) with an innovative new design for the next generation of Mac Pro desktop workstation. Like anything Apple does, a lot of legacy technology was dropped, which has drawn both praise and criticism. Those of us in the camp that predicted few or no slots and more use of Thunderbolt had largely guessed right. But the rest of this machine’s design is literally thinking “outside of the box”.df_mp_2

Right or wrong, the Mac Pro that Apple plans to ship represents design and engineering innovation that IBM, Lenovo, Sony, Dell, HP and others are clearly incapable of delivering. All of their products tend to follow the standard PC “box” formula, with the notable exception of HP’s Z1 – itself a copy of Apple’s iMac. Naturally the round design raises concerns about rack installation and so on, but very few desktop systems used by video pros have that need anymore. If you think round is odd, then take a look at the design of supercomputers like those from Cray.

df_mp_11The new Mac Pro is clearly intended to put the maximum horsepower literally on (or under) the desk of the working video editor, graphic designer, animator, scientist and others. As noted above, many applications don’t make efficient use of multiple CPU sockets, so the Mac Pro seems to be limited to a single CPU, but based on new Intel chips that have a maximum of 12 internal cores. Apple is banking on increased reliance on the GPU to deliver visual performance. Out of the gate, there are two built-in GPUs. Clearly this will benefit core Apple creative software, like Final Cut Pro X, but also others, including DaVinci Resolve and many of the Adobe products.

df_mp_3Look more closely at the video subsystem of this machine. Apple is designing a machine geared for 4K production and post. With multiple GPUs and built-in HDMI output using the 4K-ready spec, the new Mac Pro should be able to cut 4K content “like butter” and handle all monitoring tasks (computer monitoring plus video) without the need for external devices from AJA, Blackmagic Design and others, unless the user has a definite need for these. My guess is that’s why you’ll have the extra GPU horsepower, more so than accelerating FCP X effects.df_mp_5

Connectivity is now based on USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt 2.0. The latter is a 20Gb/s bi-directional data pipe and this Mac Pro has three such busses split over six ports. While there’s been a lot of discussion on the web about whether this is adequate compared with the current PCIe standard, I think it’s too early to say one way or the other. Firewire – once Apple’s darling – has been relegated to history’s dust bin, right next to SCSI, floppy diskettes and other older technologies. In any case, if you need more connections, then Thunderbolt adapters and/or an expansion chassis will be the way to go. Just like Apple’s philosophy with FCP X, this new Mac Pro is more of a “platform” than an all-inclusive solution for people who have every possible type of need. It’s the “hub” that will handle the majority of pro requirements and if you need more, you’ll have to augment the “hub” with third-party products and devices.

df_mp_9That brings us to cost. The internal pieces of this machine aren’t cheap. It’s anyone’s guess what the price will be. There is at least the potential for it to be relatively expensive. On the other hand, Apple has a lot of leverage with its supply chain and may have incentive to offer the machine at an artificially low price. They will be flying the “Made in the USA” banner with this Mac Pro and they also have added more in-house R&D centers across the US. So, in coming years, more of the internal guts could become Apple-manufactured, which could reduce production cost. My guess is that the retail price will be somewhere in line with current Mac Pro machines. After all, a fully-decked-out, current 12-core Mac Pro aluminum tower isn’t cheap either.df_mp_7

In any case, this will be a very low-volume machine. It’s the sports car that defines the brand. Apple may or may not decide to make it profitable. Another variable we don’t know is whether the technology used, such as dual internal GPUs, will be integrated into new iMac models. In that case, a small number of users will actually buy the Mac Pro. Many will drool over it and then end up buying a decked out iMac – no slouch, by any means. df_mp_4Thus, the “halo” effect. You’re attracted by the shiny, black Mac Pro, but purchase the iMac, which generates more bread-and-butter income for Apple. Unlike any other technology company, Apple assesses its bottom line using a holistic approach. If a product contributes to the total revenue of the company, then it’s deemed important to have and to develop, even if that product by itself is not profitable (though, that’s usually not the case with an Apple product). No one outside of Apple’s executive level really knows for sure.

As a video editor, I love what Apple is doing with this machine. Does it work for my needs and will I buy one? I don’t know yet. Depends on price and actual performance, but it’s certainly on the wish list at this point.

©2013 Oliver Peters

Edit suite floor plans

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My past articles on edit suite and facility design have focused on equipment and construction tips. For my last post of 2012, I’ll take a look at some layouts that might play into designing your next editing man (or woman) cave. In the linear days, suites used to follow the “bridge of the Enterprise” philosophy, with lots of lights, buttons, knobs, scopes and screens. Newer bays, centered around the nonlinear software world, are more homey and technologically minimalist. Here are six designs that might offer some inspiration.

These floor plans and renderings were generated in Autodesk Homestyler, a free, web-based, interior design application. You’ll have to excuse the fact that Homestyler is limited to generic sprites for furnishings, so I’ve used office desks for consoles and laptops for the editor’s station. Nevertheless, I think you’ll get the idea without too much imagining. (Click on the images for an expanded view.)

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Edit Suite Design 1

In most of my sessions, it’s a rarity for the client to supervise the entire process. When they do show up, it’s to review and offer notes, but typically no more than an hour or two at a time. This layout is based on placing the editor at the front of the room, with clients in a comfortable, living room-style seating area towards the back. All are viewing the same centered screen on the front wall. There’s a work space to the side for printers, coffee service and writing.

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Edit Suite Design 2

The second room is similar to the first, except that here, a producer’s desk replaces the sofa. This layout works in a smaller space, but is designed for projects where the client/producer is an active part of the editing session. So, the desk, rather than a sofa, is more appropriate.

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Edit Suite Design 3

One alternative approach is to move the client seating area into the front of the room with the editor behind them. All face forward towards the same central screen. This layout works best when the editor’s station is elevated or the seating area is lower in a pit-like portion of the room. (I couldn’t figure out how to show that in the software.) I first saw this idea at Videotape Associates (Atlanta) years ago and the idea stuck. You could further theme the room with such touches as a fireplace and other living room accessories.

This layout works well for facilities that do a lot of ad agency work. The clients are there for the whole session, but not actively involved in everything the editor is doing. They have their own space and then can focus on a cut when the editor is ready for them to do so.

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Edit Suite Design 4

This is similar to Design 3, except that the client seating is central, with the editor turned 90-degree to the side of the room. I’ve seen this layout a few times in film editing environments. The seating area functions as a mini-screening room for the director. Of course, the editor has to turn to view the screen. Most of the time during actual editing, the editor is watching the desktop monitors anyway, so this really isn’t much of a problem.

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Edit Suite Design 5

This room combines space for an actively involved producer with additional client seating in the rear. All face forward, but the editor and producer work side-by-side on an angled console. This provides working space for the producer without encroaching into the editor’s space. By angling the console, you also encourage more face-to-face communication. There’s no need for the editor to constantly turn around to get input nor for the producer to have to watch the back of someone’s head.

In addition, I’ve designed the floor plan with non-parallel walls. This adds a design touch, as well as provides for a better audio monitoring environment.

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Edit Suite Design 6

The last variation is an idea originally popularized by Optimus (Chicago). Back in the linear edit days, their suites featured consoles where the editor and producer sat on opposite sides for direct, face-to-face communication. Each had their own set of monitors, so it was possible for the producer to see what an editor might be referring to.

This floor plan is a take-off on that idea, with a larger seating area in the back. The screen is at the front – in the line-of-sight for the seated clients – but at 90-degrees for the editor and producer.

©2012 Oliver Peters

Three choices

We now know where the four “A”s are headed. With the dust settling just a little, picking your favored approach to post is shaping up into three choices: the software suite, the all-in-one and the toolkit. That’s not to say you can’t mix these options up a bit, but let me outline each approach.  Before I start, let me clarify that these choices are designed for the needs of small shops that post the average types of projects, including corporate videos, commercials, reality TV shows and low budget indie films. If you only cut studio films or are a high-end VFX specialist, then your world view is likely to be quite a bit different. So, let’s start.

A. The Software Suite

If you wanted to build your facility around a complementary suite of applications as I outlined in this previous post, then Apple Final Cut Studio had been the dominant option. With Apple’s changes, Adobe becomes the logical successor. The new Creative Suite 6 offerings provide many of the advances that Final Cut users had expected in a hypothetical Final Cut Pro 8 or Final Cut Studio 4. If you are looking for a package that can cover all the bases – including logging/ingest, editing, audio mixing, color grading and encoding/authoring – then Adobe CS6 Production Premium is the place to go.

Most Adobe applications may be purchased as standalone applications, as part of a suite or through a Creative Cloud subscription. If you are buying a site license as a multi-seat user, then you’ll likely go with perpetual licenses (the software has no time limit) rather than the Creative Cloud. (Adobe does plan to offer “Team” subscriptions later in the year.) Understand that if you are purchasing Adobe software with the intent of running different applications on different workstations, you will still have to purchase the appropriate suite (or a Cloud subscription) for each workstation. You cannot buy one software bundle license and then pick and choose specific applications to install and authorize on numerous computers for simultaneous operation. For that, you’d need a volume, or multi-seat license. It allows you to deploy bundles like Production Premium onto multiple workstations, using a common license number.

Granted, any FCP/Color editor moving to Premiere Pro or SpeedGrade is probably going to miss a few of their favorite features, but once comfortable with the differences, will find a very comprehensive package. One that lets you do everything you need for creative cutting and finishing – all within the Adobe family. There are links between Premiere Pro and Audition or After Effects or SpeedGrade, so it’s pretty easy to start in Premiere Pro (or even Prelude for ingest/transcode/logging) and then move to After Effects for vfx/motion graphics, Audition for the mix and SpeedGrade for the final grading pass.

Right now, the least-integrated application is SpeedGrade, which was acquired by Adobe only last September. Only the “send to” half of the roundtrip with Premiere Pro is in place. You can’t monitor broadcast output on any card except an NVIDIA with SDI, which most video editors don’t own and which doesn’t work on the Mac. You can, however, view a full screen signal on a second display that’s connected via DVI or DisplayPort. This is likely to change pretty quickly under Adobe control, but if you can work within the current constraints, SpeedGrade is a powerful color correction tool on par with Color or Resolve.

The intent of this post is not to go into depth about the pros and cons of any individual software application, so I’ll leave a discussion of Premiere Pro’s strengths or weaknesses as an editor for another time. Suffice it to say that if you want a powerful and comprehensive set of tools from a single vendor, who has made interoperability a priority, then Adobe is the best option today.

B. The All-In-One Editor

The editor who prefers to have everything at his or her fingertips inside of a single application is going to have to stick with Avid. The best bang-for-the-buck until mid-June is the Avid Symphony cross-grade promotion for FCP “legacy” owners. For $999 you get Symphony, AvidFX (Boris RED integrated into Symphony), the Boris Continuum Complete filter set, Sorenson Squeeze and Avid DVD (PC only). The advantage of Symphony over Media Composer includes advanced color correction tools and the bundling of the BCC filters. Both are cross-platform and work with the full range of third-party i/o hardware.

Naturally Autodesk Smoke and Avid DS editors might consider their favored NLE as more deserving of the all-in-one label, but I see the strengths of these systems in finishing and not offline or creative editing tasks. DS does offer many of those tools (though is typically not considered the first choice for such tasks), but Smoke doesn’t. In other words, if you want a system that can tackle any task from film editing to finishing, Symphony and Media Composer definitely fit the bill. The weaknesses are that you are limited to a maximum of HD-sized frames, the effects modules need a lot of improvement and the color correction tools are also long-in-the-tooth. Nevertheless, in the hands of an experienced editor, 80-90% of all editing and finishing challenges can be tackled inside of Symphony. This includes creative cutting, mixing, finishing and color grading – all accomplished without ever leaving the Avid editing interface.

For folks interested in understanding the differences between Media Composer and Symphony, check out this video at Avid. Furthermore, you can search for “avid fx tutorial” at Google or YouTube to find numerous tutorials on how to use Avid FX within the Media Composer or Symphony interface.

C. The Toolkit

This is where I see Apple Final Cut X fitting. FCP X by itself is not a complete NLE for advanced work and needs to be augmented with many other tools. When I say this, I’m focusing on the small shop, multi-suite user, not the individual videographer or editor who needs to bang out spots and corporate videos on his home or portable system. The work that many editors do requires collaboration with other editors, mixers and colorists. FCP X lacks those tools internally and instead leans on third-party utilities. The mix that seems to work best is some combination of FCP X (creative editing), DaVinci Resolve (advanced color grading) and Autodesk Smoke (visual effects and finishing).

As I watch the rapid expansion of the FCP X-based ecosystem, it’s becoming clear that what appears to be a lack of features is, in fact, spawning innovation to complement FCP X. As a result, the application is becoming more of a platform than the previous version or other editing software. Final Cut Pro X becomes the editing hub that is augmented by other applications and utilities based on your individual workflow needs.

Naturally any purchase of FCP X would be incomplete without Motion 5 and Compressor 4, not to mention that essential media management and interchange tools include Event Manager X, Xto7 for Final Cut Pro, 7toX for Final Cut Pro and X2Pro Audio Convert. I also find that it’s very hard to get through most complex productions without some fallback to the “legacy” Final Cut Studio suite. For example, if you need to generate EDLs or OMF files or prefer Color to other grading tools, then FC Studio (assuming you already own a copy anyway) is the best choice. In fact, you can still buy a Final Cut Pro Studio license from Apple’s 800-number business sales operation. Adobe CS6 Production Premium can also fulfill many of these same functions and there’s no reason not to own both CS6 and FCP X. For the sake of this post, I’m presenting Choice C as a non-Avid, non-Adobe alternative.

Advanced post functions in the toolkit include grading, audio mixing and advanced finishing. There are plenty of options for audio, including Apple’s own Logic and Soundtrack Pro. There’s no clear path from FCP X to either of these, yet. You can export audio streams as Roles, but those are “flattened” tracks without handles. Best to bounce over to FCP 7 and then to STP or Logic. Other solutions include ProTools, Audition and Nuendo. Marquis Broadcast’s X2Pro is designed to send FCP X audio tracks to Pro Tools in the AAF format, but not OMF, so it’s not compatible with some of the other DAW software options, like Logic.

Blackmagic Design has done a good job of integrating FCP X’s XML into DaVinci Resolve, so even the free LITE version works well as a grading companion to FCP X. Resolve can easily be installed on any workstation in the facility and if you want a dedicated grading room, then it’s worth the investment in a proper monitor, scopes and a control surface. Likewise, if you invest in Autodesk Smoke, it is probably with the intent to make this a client-supervised “hero” room. Yes, all of these applications can reside on a single workstation, but that doesn’t make the best business sense.

Another thing to consider is i/o hardware. Final Cut Pro X works with most of the PCIe and Thunderbolt capture/output cards and devices, but Resolve only works with Blackmagic Design’s own hardware. Conversely, Smoke requires an AJA KONA 3G or IoXT. For a facility owner, having dedicated Smoke and Resolve suites makes sense and, therefore, it’s OK to have different cards in different workstations. This does mean you will have to do a bit of planning to best manage your configuration.

This also brings to mind shared storage. FCP X is still evolving in that regard and currently works with Xsan. You can use it with volume-level SANs, but the “Add SAN Location” feature may or may not work at your site. For instance, it doesn’t work with Command Soft FibreJet. You’ll be fine with shared media, as long as your Final Cut Events and Final Cut Projects folders are on locally-controlled volumes, where the FCP X workstation has write permission to that volume or drive.

Last but not least is Adobe Photoshop, which I find essential for all sessions. Other editors disagree and prefer to avoid Photoshop – either for reasons of need or cost. So, alternatives to Photoshop include Corel Painter, Photoshop Elements or Pixelmator.

In closing, remember this is just a simple way to present the options. There’s nothing that says you can’t mix and match After Effects and/or Pro Tools with EDIUS, Media Composer, Vegas, Media 100 or any other variation. My world is headed primarily to an Apple/Adobe witches brew of applications. I hope my little overview makes some sense out of the confusing NLE landscape. It’s still very fluid and will likely continue to change over the coming year. The key is to pick a direction and stick to it. You don’t have to know everything, but pick the right tools for your clients and workload. Learn to use them well and dive in!

© 2012 Oliver Peters

DIY Edit Suite Design Pointers

The lower cost of gear opens more opportunities for independent editors, so it’s time to look at some good practices for DIY edit facilities. The considerations in designing and constructing your own suite include power, HVAC, ergonomics, acoustics and equipment configuration. This article is intended for the small-to-medium post production user on a limited budget.

Power

Modern electronics don’t push power demands the way they did in the days of racks loaded with video gear. Most electrical circuits intended for standard office and even home use will be adequate to support the average nonlinear edit suite. If you have the ability to bring in an electrician and improve the service, then you will want a dedicated circuit (or two) for each editing room. These should be “home runs” direct from the outlets in the suite to the circuit breaker box.

Uninterrupted power supply (UPS) units are a “must have”. I recommend the larger (1200 series and up) APC units for each workstation, storage array and equipment rack. These not only supply short-term battery back-up in the event of power failure (long enough to safely close your project and power down), but also maintain a stable frequency for your electronics. Most units include outlets that are both back-up by battery and others that are merely controlled pass-throughs. Your computer, storage and the primary display should be on the battery back-up outlets, but peripherals, like video monitors, mixers and speakers may be plugged into the other outlets.

HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning)

You typically won’t have much control over HVAC in an existing building, but be sure your service is adequate for the needs. With modern editing workstations the biggest heat generators will be large storage arrays, as well as the monitors and displays. The computer itself doesn’t generate that much ambient heat. If you have the ability to relocate large storage arrays from the room into an adjacent room or a centralized location (in the case of a SAN), then it will be easier to control the airflow, temperature and comfort in the edit suite. Likewise, the more humans in the room, the warmer it gets, so suites designed for a single editor with the occasional client won’t demand as much cooling as one that routinely has half-a-dozen folks in there working. If you can specify the HVAC design and installation, then go for a system based on high volume and low velocity. Such units move a lot of air at slower speeds through the ducts and are better for sound-sensitive situations.

Ergonomics

Comfort is important when you’re in a room for hours on end. Make sure monitor position, desk height and the chair design are optimal. The proper height for the desk surface should be between 26” and 29” to the top. When you are seated, your eyeline should be at the top portion of the computer display. These guidelines actually mean that placing a computer monitor (with its own stand) on the raised bridge of a custom tech console forces the operator to look slightly upwards, resulting in shoulder strain. I prefer consoles with no bridges or if budget permits, adjustable ones, like those from Biomorph, with a bridge unit that can be put lower than the table surface. There are no hard and fast rules, but a large flat table surface is often preferable to many of the custom tech consoles. These can be purchased at most furniture outlets or custom-built by a local millwork shop.

Chairs are a subjective choice, but it could be the most critical piece of gear you buy. There’s a reason Herman Miller Aeron chairs decorate most tech companies and it’s not just the design. These (and similarly designed products) are durable and provide back comfort over long periods of work. If you are so inclined, there is some research that indicates working while standing up is healthier. Walter Murch is a huge advocate of editing at a stand-up console. You may wish to look into this as an alternative approach and modify these recommendations accordingly.

Acoustics

Controlling sound waves boils down to issues of transmission and treatment. We are talking about edit suites and not recording studio spaces, so the acoustics don’t have to be perfect. Clearly, you want the room to be as free of annoying equipment fan and air conditioner duct noise as possible. Moving storage arrays out of the suite and using a low velocity HVAC system will take care of the bulk of that. You are mainly concerned with keeping the noise from the suite from bothering neighboring offices, as well as keeping most exterior noise out while you are working. This means adopting some studio design concepts without going overboard.

Mass is your friend. The easiest fix to cut down sound transmission is to double-up on the drywall. This means two layers on the inside and outside walls of the room. Use soundboard if you like for at least one of these. Insulate the space in the wall (spray-in foam is a good idea). Screw the drywall to the studs instead of nailing it, caulk all joints and offset the seams between the two layers. If you want even more isolation, then build a double-thick wall, with two set of studs and more insulation. Don’t forget the ceiling, since a simple, suspended ceiling won’t prevent sound from going up and over the wall. You can cap the ceiling with drywall as well, effectively creating a room within a room. Lastly, remember the doors. Use solid-core wooden doors and tight weather stripping around the jam and at the floor.

Sound treatment involves eliminating standing waves (reverberation or echo) caused by hard parallel surfaces and managing bass response (so the mix isn’t too thin or too boomy). If you have control over the room construction, then avoid true parallel walls by slightly slanting some of the walls as well as adding an angle to the drop ceiling. The more items in the room, such as furniture, bookshelves and wall hangings, the more natural interruption there is to the bounce of sound waves. Furthermore, you can purchase a variety of prefab sound treatment kits and ceiling tiles that will help to mitigate reflections and control bass. Auralex and Primacoustic are popular manufacturers. The good news is that many leading studio designers post examples of their rooms all over the Internet, complete with floor plans. Fifteen minutes of web searching will yield an entire library of studio design options for the ambitious.

Equipment configurations

Thanks to new technologies like Intel’s Core i5 and Core i7 processors and Apple’s Thunderbolt protocol, the footprint of modern editing workstations can be smaller than ever. A small shop’s post suite that doesn’t need to handle legacy hardware, can easily be powered by an Apple iMac, MacBook Pro or an HP EliteBook or Z-1. Personally I still prefer a workstation, like a Mac Pro or an HP Z-series machine, but it’s no longer a given that such a unit will provide the fastest performance.

If you are building a new room, it’s insane to even contemplate purchasing a VTR of any sort. So much acquisition and delivery is file-based, that it makes better business sense to utilize outside services like Digital Service Station or a similar local vendor for the few times a year when tape is a requirement. This means racks of terminal gear are reduced or even eliminated and the “747 Cockpit” staples of the edit bay, like scopes and banks of monitors are overkill. It doesn’t hurt to integrate a wiring harness and space for one VTR, though, in the event that you need to accommodate a rental deck.

The current trend in small suite design is to build a room that’s very client-friendly and not intimidating. Usually this involves a workstation with one or two displays, near field audio monitors, a small mixer (mainly for volume control) and one or two video monitors. I like to work with dual displays (like two Apple 20” LCDs), but a single, larger monitor, like a 27” or 30” is also quite functional. In fact, a lot of the newer software, like Smoke for Mac, Final Cut Pro X and DaVinci Resolve, is optimized for single displays. Just remember that smaller, but higher-resolution displays, mean that the type sizes are also smaller. For example, the 1920×1200 pixel display of a 17” Apple MacBook Pro yields tiny text on screen.

The topic of scopes and broadcast video monitors sparks lively debates among pro editors. I’ve been pretty happy with the results I get from internal software scopes in FCP, FCP X, Media Composer, Resolve and Color. A good option if you want more is Blackmagic Design’s Ultrascope. Naturally if you need external monitoring, you’ll need a capture card of some sort. That’s where Thunderbolt comes in, which allows you to daisy-chain storage (like the Promise Pegasus array) and monitoring. For instance, a single Thunderbolt port would let you connect storage, an AJA Io XT and an external Apple 27” display all in a single path. Then use the AJA unit to connect the Ultrascope and broadcast video monitors.

Color-accurate, broadcast display choices depend on your budget, need and tolerance. Sony’s OLED monitors are beautiful but pricey. I would suggest Panasonic, JVC, TV Logic or Flanders Scientific as good alternatives. If you want a large, wall-mounted screen to “wow” the client, then go with one of the Panasonic presentation-grade plasmas. Even their high-end consumer plasmas provide a wonderful image. A really nice layout – which still maintains that “bridge of the Enterprise” look – would place a 27” iMac (or 27” or 30” display) at the center of the console, with a 17” broadcast grade LCD (for video monitoring) to the left and another display with the Ultrascope signal on the right. This would be capped off with a 50” Panasonic plasma mounted on the wall.

Originally written for DV magazine/Creative Planet/NewBay Media, LLC

©2012 Oliver Peters

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