Apple’s New Mac Pro

df_mp2013_4_smThe run of the brushed aluminum tower design that highlighted Apple’s PowerMac G5 and Intel Mac Pros ended with the introduction of a radical replacement in late 2013. No matter what the nickname – “the cylinder”, “the tube” or whatever - Apple’s new 2013 Mac Pro is a tour de force of industrial design. Few products have had such pent up demand. The long lead times for custom machines originally ran months, but by now, with accelerated production, has been reduced to 24 hours. Nevertheless, if you are happy with a stock configuration, then it’s possible to walk out with a new unit on the same day at some of the Apple Store or reseller retail locations.

Design

The 2013 Mac Pro features a cylindrical design. It’s about ten inches tall, six-and-a-half inches in diameter and, thanks to a very dense component construction, weighs about eleven pounds. The outer shell – it’s actually a sleeve that can be unlocked and lifted off – uses a dark (not black) reflective coating. Internally, the circuits are mounted onto a triangle-shaped core. There’s a central vent system that draws air in through the bottom and out through the top, much like a chimney. You can still mount the Mac Pro sideways without issue, as long as the vents are not blocked. This design keeps the unit quiet and cool most of the time. During my tests, the fan noise was quieter than my tower (generally a pretty quiet unit) and the fans never kicked into high.

Despite the small size, all components are workstation class and not mobile or desktop products, as used in the Apple laptops or iMacs. It employs the fastest memory and storage of any Mac and is designed to pick up where the top-of-the-line iMac leaves off. The processors are Intel Xeon instead of Core i5 or Core i7 CPUs and graphics cards are AMD FirePro GPUs. This Xeon model is a multicore, single CPU chip. Four processor options are offered (4, 6, 8 and 12-core), ranging in speed from 3.7GHz (4-core) to 2.7GHz (12-core). RAM can be maxed out to a full 64GB. It is the only component of the Mac Pro where a user-installed, third-party upgrade is an easy option.

The Mac Pro is optimized for dual graphics processors with three GPU choices: D300 (2GB VRAM each), D500 (3GB VRAM each) or D700 (6GB VRAM each) GPUs. Internal storage is PCIe-based flash memory in 256GB, 512GB or 1TB configurations. These are not solid state drives (SSDs), but rather flash storage like that used in the iPads. Storage is connected directly to the PCIe bus of the Mac Pro for the fastest possible data i/o. The stock models start at $2,999 (4-core) and $3,999 (6-core).

Apple shipped me a reviewer’s unit,  configured in a way that they feel is the “sweet spot” for high-end video. My Mac Pro was the 8-core model, with 32GB of RAM, dual D700 GPUs and 512GB of storage. This configuration with a keyboard, mouse and AppleCare extended warranty would retail at $7,166.

Connectivity

df_mp2013_5_smAll connectors are on the back – four USB 3.0, six Thunderbolt 2, two Gigabit Ethernet and one HDMI 1.4. There is also wireless, Bluetooth, headset and speaker support. The six Thunderbolt 2 ports are split out from three internal Thunderbolt 2 buses, with the bottom bus also taking care of the HDMI port.

You can have multiple Thunderbolt monitors connected, as well as a 4K display via the HDMI spigot, however you will want to separate these onto the different buses. For example, you wouldn’t be able to support two 27” Apple displays and a 4K HDMI-connected monitor all on one single Thunderbolt bus. However, you can support up to six non-4K displays if you distribute the load across all of the connections. Since the plug for Thunderbolt is the same as Mini Display Port, you can connect nearly any standard computer monitor to these ports if you have the proper plug. For example, I used my 20” Apple Cinema Display, which has a DVI plug, by simply adding a DVI-to-MDP adapter.

The change to Thunderbolt 2 enables faster throughput. The first version of Thunderbolt used two channels of 10Gb/s data and video, with each channel going in opposite directions. Thunderbolt 2 combines this for two channels going in the same direction, thus a total of 20Gb/s. You can daisy-chain Thunderbolt devices and it is possible to combine Thunderbolt 1 and Thunderbolt 2 devices in the same chain. First generation Thunderbolt devices (such as monitors) should be at the end of the chain, so as not to create a bottleneck.

The USB 3.0 ports will support USB 1.0 and 2.0 devices, but of course, there is no increase in their speed. There is no legacy support for FireWire or eSATA, so if you want to connect older drives, you’ll need to invest in additional docks, adapters and/or expansion units. (Apple sells a $29 Thunderbolt-to-FireWire 800 adapter.) This might also include a USB hub. For example, I have more than four USB-connected devices on my current 2009 Mac Pro. The benefit of standardizing on Thunderbolt, is that all of the Thunderbolt peripherals will work with any of Apple’s other computers, including MacBook Pros, Minis and iMacs.

The tougher dilemma is if you need to accommodate current PCIe cards, such as a RED Rocket accelerator card, a FibreChannel adapter or a mini-SAS/eSATA card. In that case, a Thunderbolt 2 expansion unit will be required. One such solution is the Sonnet Technologies Echo Express III-D expansion chassis.

Mac Pro as your main edit system

df_mp2013_2_smI work in many facilities with various vintages of Mac Pro towers. There’s a wide range of connectivity needs, including drives, shared storage and peripherals. Although it’s very sexy to think about just a 2013 Mac Pro sitting on your desk with nothing else, other than a Thunderbolt monitor, that’s not the real world of post. If you are evaluating one of these as your next investment, consider what you must add. First and foremost is storage. Flash storage and SSDs are great for performance, but you’re never going to put a lot of video media on a 1TB (or smaller) drive. Then you’ll need monitors and most likely adapters or expansion products for any legacy connection.

I priced out the same unit I’m reviewing and then factored in an Apple 27” display, the Sharp 32” UHD monitor, a Promise Pegasus2 R6 12TB RAID, plus a few other peripherals, like speakers, audio i/o, docks and adapters. This bumps the total to over $15K. Granted, I’ve pretty much got a full system that will last me for years. The point is, that it’s important to look at all the ramifications when you compare the new Mac Pro over a loaded iMac or a MacBook Pro or simply upgrading a recently-purchased Mac Pro tower.

Real world performance

df_mp2013_6_smMost of the tests promoting the new Mac Pro have focused on 4K video editing. That’s coming and the system is certainly good for it, but that’s not what most people encounter today. Editors deal with a mix of media, formats, frame rates, frame sizes, etc. I ran a set of identical tests on the 2013 Mac Pro and on my own 2009 Mac Pro tower. That’s an eight-core (dual 4-core Xeons) 2.26GHz model with 28GB of RAM. The current video card is a single NVIDIA Quadro 4000 and my media is on an internal two-drive (7200RPM eSATA) RAID-0 array. Since I had no external drives connected to the 2013 Mac Pro, all media was playing from and writing to the internal flash storage. This means that performance would be about as good as you can get, but possibly better than with externally-connected drives.

I tested Apple Final Cut Pro X, Motion, Compressor, Adobe Premiere Pro CC and After Effects CC. Media included RED EPIC 5K camera raw, ARRI ALEXA 1080p ProRes 4444, Blackmagic Cinema Camera 2.5K ProResHQ and more. Most of the sequences included built-in effects and some of the new Red Giant Universe filters.

df_mp2013_3_smTo summarize the test results, performance – as measured in render or export times – was significantly better on the 2013 Mac Pro. Most of the tests showed a 2X to 3X bump in performance, even with the Adobe products. Naturally FCP X loves the GPU power of this machine. The “BruceX” test, developed as a benchmark by Alex Gollner for FCP X, consists of a 5K timeline with a series of generators. I exported this as a 5K ProRes 4444 file. The older tower accomplished this in 1:47, while the new Mac Pro smoked it in just :19. My After Effects timeline consisted of ProRes 4444 clips with a bunch of intensive Cycore filters. The old versus new renders were 23:26 and 12:53, respectively.  I also ran tests with DaVinci Resolve 10, another application that loves more than one GPU. These were RED EPIC 5K files in a 1080p timeline. Debayer resolution was set to full (no RED Rocket card used). The export times ran at 4-12fps (depending on the clip) on the tower versus 15-40fps on the new Mac Pro.

df_mp2013_1_smIn general, all operations with applications were more responsive. This is, of course, true with any solid state storage. The computer boots faster and applications load and respond more quickly. Plus, more RAM, faster processors and other factors all help to optimize the 2013 Mac Pro for best performance. For example, the interaction between Adobe Premiere Pro CC and SpeedGrade CC using the Direct Link and Lumetri filters was noticeably better with the new machine. Certainly that’s true of Final Cut Pro X and Motion, which are ideally suited for it. I would add that using a single 20” monitor connected to the Mac Pro placed very little drag on one GPU, so the second could be totally devoted to processing power. Performance might vary if I had two 27” displays, plus a 4K monitor hooked to it.

I also tested Avid Media Composer. This software doesn’t particularly use a lot of GPU processing, so performance was about the same as with my 2009 Mac Pro. It also takes a trick to get it to work. The 2013 Mac Pro has no built-in audio device, which Media Composer needs to see in order to launch. If you have an audio device connected, such as an Mbox2 Mini or even just a headset with a microphone, then Media Composer detects a core audio device and will launch. I downloaded and installed the free Soundflower software. This acts as a virtual core audio device and can be set as the computer’s audio input in the System Preferences sound panel. Doing so enabled Media Composer to launch and operate normally.

Whether the new 2013 Mac Pro is the ideal tower replacement for you comes down to budget and many other variables. Rest assured that it’s the best machine Apple has to offer today. Analogies to powerful small packages (like the Mini Cooper or Bruce Lee) are quite apt. The build quality is superb and the performance is outstanding. If you are looking for a machine to service your needs for the next five years, then it’s the ideal choice.

(Note: This unit was tested prior to the release of 10.9.3, so I didn’t encounter any of the render issues that have been plaguing Adobe and DaVinci users.)

Originally written for Digital Video magazine/CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2014 Oliver Peters

Final Cut “Studio 2014″

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A few years ago I wrote some posts about Final Cut Pro as a platform and designing an FCP-centric facility. Those options have largely been replaced by an Adobe approach built around Creative Cloud. Not everyone has warmed up to Creative Cloud. Either they don’t like the software or they dislike the software rental model or they just don’t need much of the power offered by the various Adobe applications.

If you are looking for alternatives to a Creative Cloud-based production toolkit, then it’s easy to build your own combination with some very inexpensive solutions. Most of these are either Apple software or others that are sold through the Mac App Store. As with all App Store purchases, you buy the product once and get updates for free, so long as the product is still sold as the same. Individual users may install the apps onto as many Mac computers as they personally own and control, all for the one purchase price. With this in mind, it’s very easy for most editors to create a powerful bundle that’s equal to or better than the old Final Cut Studio bundle – at less than its full retail price back in the day.

The one caveat to all of this is how entrenched you may or may not be with Adobe products. If you need to open and alter complex Illustrator, Photoshop, After Effects or Premiere Pro project files, then you will absolutely need Adobe software to do it. In that case, maybe you can get by with an old version (CS6 or earlier) or maybe trial software will work. Lastly you could outsource to a colleague with Adobe software or simply pick up a Creative Cloud subscription on a month-by-month rental. On the other hand, if you don’t absolutely need to interact with Adobe project files, then these solutions may be all you need. I’m not trying to advocate for one over the other, but rather to add some ideas to think about.

Final Cut Pro X / Motion / Compressor

df_fcpstudio_fcpx_smThe last Final Cut Studio bundle included FCP 7, Motion, Compressor, Cinema Tools, DVD Studio Pro, Soundtrack Pro and Color. The current Apple video tools of Final Cut Pro X, Motion and Compressor cover all of the video bases, including editing, compositing, encoding, transcoding and disc burning. The latter may be a bone of contention for many – since Apple has largely walked away from the optical disc world. Nevertheless, simple one-off DVDs and Blu-ray discs can still be created straight from FCP X or Compressor. Of course, FCP X has been a mixed bag for editors, with many evangelists and haters on all sides. If you square off Premiere Pro against Final Cut Pro X, then it really boils down to tracks versus trackless. Both tools get the job done. Which one do you prefer?

df_fcpstudio_motion_smMotion versus After Effects is a tougher call. If you are a power user of After Effects, then Motion may seem foreign and hard to use. If the focus is primarily on motion graphics, then you can certainly get the results you want in either. There is no direct “send to” from FCP X to Motion, but on the plus side, you can create effects and graphics templates using Motion that will appear and function within FCP X. Just like with After Effects, you can also buy stock Motion templates for graphics, show opens and other types of design themes and animations.

Logic Pro X

df_fcpstudio_lpx_smLogic Pro X is the DAW in our package. It becomes the replacement for Soundtrack Pro and the alternative to Adobe Audition or Avid Pro Tools. It’s a powerful music creation tool, but more importantly for editors, it’s a strong single file and multitrack audio production and post production application. You can get FCP X files to it via FCPXML or AAF (converted using X2Pro). There are a ton of plug-ins and mixing features that make Logic a solid DAW. I won’t dive deeply into this, but suffice it to say, that if your main interest in using Logic is to produce a better mix, then you can learn the essentials quickly and get up and running in short order.

DaVinci Resolve

df_fcpstudio_resolve_smEvery decent studio bundle needs a powerful color correction tool. Apple Color is gone, but Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve is a best-of-breed replacement. You can get the free Resolve Lite version through the App Store, as well as Blackmagic’s website. It does most of everything you need, so there’s little reason to buy the paid version for most editors who do some color correction.

Resolve 11 (due out soon) adds improved editing. There is a solid synergy with FCP X, making it not only a good companion color corrector, but also a finishing editorial tool. OFX plug-ins are supported, which adds a choice of industry standard creative effects if you need more than FCP X or Motion offer.

Pixelmator / Aperture

df_fcpstudio_pixelmator_smThis one’s tough. Of all the Adobe applications, Photoshop and Illustrator are hardest to replace. There are no perfect alternatives. On the other hand, most editors don’t need all that power. If direct feature compatibility isn’t a need, then you’ve got some choices. One of these is Pixelmator, a very lightweight image manipulation tool. It’s a little like Photoshop in the version 4-7 stages, with a mix of Illustrator tossed in. There are vector drawing and design tools and it’s optimized for core image, complete with a nice set of image filters. However, it does not include some of Photoshop CC’s power user features, like smart objects, smart filters, 3D, layer groups and video manipulation. But, if you just need to doctor some images, extract or modify logos or translate various image formats, Pixelmator might be the perfect fit. For more sophistication, another choice (not in the App Store) is Corel’s Painter, as well as Adobe Photoshop Elements (also available at the App Store).

df_fcpstudio_aperture_smAlthough Final Cut Studio never included a photo application, the Creative Cloud does include Lightroom. Since the beginning, Apple’s Aperture and Adobe’s Lightroom have been leapfrogging each other with features. Aperture hasn’t changed much in a few years and is likely the next pro app to get the “X” treatment from Apple’s engineers. Photographers have the same type of “Chevy vs. Ford” arguments about Aperture and Lightroom as editors do about NLEs. Nevertheless, editors deal a lot with supplied images and Aperture is a great tool to use for organization, clean up and image manipulation.

Other

The list I’ve outlined creates a nice set of tools, but if you need to interchange with other pros using a variety of different software, then you’ll need to invest in some “glue”. There are a number of utilities designed to go to and from FCP X. Many are available through the App Store. Examples include Xto7, 7toX, EDL-X, X2Pro, Shot Notes X, Lumberjack and many others.

For a freewheeling discussion about this topic and other matters, check out my conversation with Chris Fenwick at FCPX Grille.

©2014 Oliver Peters

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