Comparing Final Cut Pro X, Media Composer and Premiere Pro CC

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The editing world includes a number of software options, such as Autodesk Smoke, Grass Valley EDIUS, Lightworks, Media 100, Sony Vegas and Quantel. The lion’s share of editing is done on three platforms: Apple Final Cut Pro, Avid Media Composer or Adobe Premiere Pro. For the last two years many users have been holding onto legacy systems, wondering when the dust would settle and which editing tool would become dominant again. By the end of 2013, these three companies released significant updates that give users a good idea of their future direction and has many zeroing in on a selection.

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Differing business models

Adobe, Apple and Avid have three distinctly different approaches. Adobe and Avid offer cross-platform solutions, while Final Cut Pro X only works on Apple hardware. Adobe offers most of its content creation software only through a Creative Cloud subscription. Individual users have access to all creative applications for $49.99 a month (not including promotional deals), but when they quit subscribing, the applications cease to function after a grace period. Users may install the software on as many computers as they like (Mac or PC), but only two can be activated at any time.

Apple’s software sells through the Mac App Store. Final Cut Pro X is $299.99 with another $49.99 each for Motion and Compressor. Individual users may install and use these applications on any Mac computers they own, but enterprise users are supposed to purchase volume licenses to cover one installation per computer. With the release of FCP X 10.1, it appears that Apple is offering updates at no charge, meaning that once you buy Final Cut, you never pay for updates. Whether that continues as the official Apple policy from here on is unknown. FCP X uses a special version of XML for timeline interchange with other applications, so if you need to send material via EDL, OMF or AAF – or even interchange with previous versions of Final Cut Pro – you will need to augment FCP X with a variety of third-party utilities.

Avid Media Composer remains the only one of the three that follows a traditional software ownership model. You purchase, download and install the software and activate the license. You may install it on numerous Macs and PCs, but only one at a time can be activated. The software bundle runs $999 and includes Media Composer, several Avid utilities, Sorenson Squeeze, Avid FX from BorisFX and AvidDVD by Sonic. You can expand your system with three extra software options: Symphony (advanced color correction), ScriptSync (automated audio-to-script alignment) and PhraseFind (a dialogue search tool). The Symphony option also includes the Boris Continuum Complete filters.

Thanks to Avid’s installation and activation process, Media Composer is the most transportable of the three. Simply carry Mac and Windows installers on a USB key along with your activation codes. It’s as simple as installing the software and activating the license, as long as any other installations have been de-activated prior to that. While technically the FCP X application could be moved between machines, it requires that the new machine be authorized as part of a valid Apple ID account. This is often frowned upon in corporate environments. Similarly, you can activate a new machine as one of yours on a Creative Cloud account (as long as you’ve signed out on the other machines), but the software must be downloaded again to this local machine. No USB key installers here.

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Dealing with formats

All three applications are good at handling a variety of source media codecs, frame rates and sizes. In some cases, like RED camera files, plug-ins need to be installed and kept current. Both Apple and Avid will directly handle some camera formats without conversion, but each uses a preferred codec – ProRes for Final Cut Pro X and DNxHD for Media Composer. If you want the most fluid editing experience, then transcode to an optimized codec within the application.

Adobe hasn’t developed its own mezzanine codec. In fact, Premiere Pro CC has no built-in transcoding tools, leaving that instead to Adobe Prelude or Adobe Media Encoder. By design, the editor imports files in their native format without transcoding or rewrapping and works with those directly in the sequence. A mix of various formats, frame rates, codecs and sizes doesn’t always play as smoothly on a single timeline as would optimized media, like DNxHD or ProRes; but, my experience is that of these three, Premiere Pro CC handles such a mix the best.

Most of us work with HD (or even SD) deliverables, but higher resolutions (2K, UHD, 4K) are around the corner. All three NLEs handle bigger-than-HD formats as source media without much difficulty. I’ve tested the latest RED EPIC Dragon 6K camera files in all three applications and they handle the format well. Both Adobe and Apple can output bigger sequence sizes, too, such as 2K and 4K. For now, Avid Media Composer is still limited to HD (1920 x 1080 maximum) sequences and output sizes. Here are some key features of the most recent updates.

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Adobe Premiere Pro CC (version 7.2.1)

The current build of Premiere Pro CC was released towards the end of 2013. Adobe has been enhancing editing features with each new update, but two big selling points of this version are Adobe Anywhere integration and Direct Link between Premiere Pro CC and SpeedGrade CC. Anywhere requires a shared server for collaborative workflows and isn’t applicable to most users who don’t have an Anywhere infrastructure in place. Nevertheless, this adds the client-side application integration, so those who do, can connect, sign in and work.

df_nle_7_smOf more interest is Direct Link, which sends the complete Premiere Pro CC timeline into SpeedGrade CC for color correction. Since you are working directly with the Premiere Pro timeline, SpeedGrade functions with a subset of its usual controls. Operations, like conforming media to an EDL, are inactive. Direct Link facilitates the use of various compressed codecs that SpeedGrade wouldn’t normally handle by itself, since this is being taken care of by Premiere Pro’s media engine. When you’ve completed color correction, the saved timeline is sent back to Premiere Pro. Each clip has an applied Lumetri filter that contains grading information from SpeedGrade. The roundtrip is achieved without any intermediate rendering.

df_nle_6_smThis solution is a good first effort, but I find that the response of SpeedGrade’s controls via Direct Link are noticeably slower than working directly in a SpeedGrade project. That must be a result of Premiere Pro working in the background. Clips in Premiere Pro with applied Lumetri effects also require more resources to play well and rendering definitely helps. The color roundtrip results were good in my tests, with the exception of any clips that used a filter layer with a LUT. These displayed with bizarre colors back in Premiere Pro.

You can’t talk about Premiere Pro without addressing Creative Cloud. I still view this as a “work in progress”. For instance, you are supposed to be able to sync files between your local drive and the Cloud, much like DropBox. Even though everything is current on my Mac Pro, that tab in the Creative Cloud application still says “coming soon”. Others report that it’s working for them.

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Apple Final Cut Pro X (version 10.1)

This update is the tipping point for many FCP 7 users. Enough updates have been released in over two years to address many of the concerns professional editors have expressed. 10.1 requires an operating system update to Mavericks (10.9 or later) and has three marquee items – a revised media structure, optimization for 4K and overall better performance. It is clear that Apple is not about to change the inherent design of FCP X. This means no tracks and no changes to the magnetic timeline. As with any update, there are plenty of small tweaks, including enhanced retiming, audio fades on individual channels, improved split edits and a new InertiaCam stabilization algorithm.

df_nle_9_smThe most obvious change is the move from separate Events and Projects folders to unified Libraries, similar to Aperture. Think of a Library as the equivalent to a Final Cut Pro 7 or Premiere Pro CC project file, containing all data for clips and sequences associated with a production. An FCP X Library as viewed in the Finder is a bundled file, which can be opened using the “show package contents” Finder command. This reveals internal folders and files for Events, Projects and aliases linked to external media files. Imported files that are optionally copied into a Library are also contained there, as are rendered and transcoded files. The Libraries no longer need to live at the root of a hard drive and can be created for individual productions. Editors may open and close any or all of the Libraries needed for an edit session.

df_nle_8_smFCP X’s performance was optimized for Mavericks, the new Mac Pro and dual GPU processing. By design, this means improved 4K throughput, including native 4K support for ProRes, Sony XAVC and REDCODE camera raw media files. This performance boost has also filtered down to older machines. 10.1 brought better performance with 1080p ProRes and even 5K RED files to my 2009 Mac Pro. Clearly Apple wants FCP X to be a showcase for the power of the new Mac Pro, but you’ll get benefits from this update, even if you aren’t ready to leap to new hardware.

Along with Final Cut Pro X 10.1, Apple also released updates to Motion and Compressor. The Motion update was necessary to integrate the new FxPlug3 architecture, which enables developers to add custom interface controls. Compressor was the biggest change, with a complete overhaul of the interface in line with the look of FCP X.

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Avid Media Composer (version 7.0.3)

The biggest feature of Media Composer 7.0.3 is optimization for new operating systems. It is qualified for Windows 8.1 and Mac OS X 10.8.5, 10.9 and 10.9.1. There are a number of interface changes, including separate audio and video effects palette tabs and changing the appearance of background processing indicator icons. 24fps sound timecode is now supported, the responsiveness with the Avid Artist Color Controller has been improved and the ability to export a simplified AAF file has been  added.

df_nle_10_smTranscode choices gain a set of H.264 proxy file codecs. These had been used in other Avid news and broadcast tools, but are now extended into Media Composer. Support for RED was updated to handle the RED Dragon format. With the earlier introduction of 7.0, Avid added background transcoding services and FrameFlex – Avid’s solution for bigger-than-HD files. FrameFlex enables resizing and pan/scan/zoom control within that file’s native resolution. Media Composer also accepts mixed frame rates within a single timeline, by applying Motion Adapters to any clip that doesn’t match the frame rate of the project. 7.0.3 improves control over the frame blending method to give the editor a better choice between temporal or spatial smoothness.

There is no clear winner among these three. If you are on Windows, then the choice is between Adobe and Avid. If you need 4K output today, Apple or Adobe are your best option. All three handle a wide range of popular camera formats well – especially RED. If you like tracks – go Avid or Adobe. If you want the best application for the new Mac Pro, that will clearly be Apple Final cut Pro X. These are all great tools, capable of any level of post production – be it commercial, corporate, web, broadcast entertainment or feature films. If you’ve been on the fence for two years, now is the time to switch, because there are no bad tools – only preferences.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2014 Oliver Peters

The NLE that wouldn’t die II

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With echoes of Monty Python in the background, two years on, Final Cut Pro 7 and Final Cut Studio are still widely in use. As I noted in my post from last November, I still see facilities with firmly entrenched and mature FCP “legacy” workflows that haven’t moved to another NLE yet. Some were ready to move to Adobe until they learned subscription was the only choice going forward. Others maintain a fanboy’s faith in Apple that the next version will somehow fix all the things they dislike about Final Cut Pro X. Others simply haven’t found the alternative solutions compelling enough to shift.

I’ve been cutting all manner of projects in FCP X since the beginning and am currently using it on a feature film. I augment it in lots of ways with plug-ins and utilities, so I’m about as deep into FCP X workflows as anyone out there. Yet, there are very few projects in which I don’t touch some aspect of Final Cut Studio to help get the job done. Some fueled by need, some by personal preference. Here are some ways that Studio can still work for you as a suite of applications to fill in the gaps.

DVD creation

There are no more version updates to Apple’s (or Adobe’s) DVD creation tools. FCP X and Compressor can author simple “one-off” discs using their export/share/batch functions. However, if you need a more advanced, authored DVD with branched menus and assets, DVD Studio Pro (as well is Adobe Encore CS6) is still a very viable tool, assuming you already own Final Cut Studio. For me, the need to do this has been reduced, but not completely gone.

Batch export

Final Cut Pro X has no batch export function for source clips. This is something I find immensely helpful. For example, many editorial houses specify that their production company client supply edit-friendly “dailies” – especially when final color correction and finishing will be done by another facility or artist/editor/colorist. This is a throwback to film workflows and is most often the case with RED and ALEXA productions. Certainly a lot of the same processes can be done with DaVinci Resolve, but it’s simply faster and easier with FCP 7.

In the case of ALEXA, a lot of editors prefer to do their offline edit with LUT-corrected, Rec 709 images, instead of the flat, Log-C ProRes 4444 files that come straight from the camera. With FCP 7, simply import the camera files, add a LUT filter like the one from Nick Shaw (Antler Post), enable TC burn-in if you like and run a batch export in the codec of your choice. When I do this, I usually end up with a set of Rec 709 color, ProResLT files with burn-in that I can use to edit with. Since the file name, reel ID and timecode are identical to the camera masters, I can easily edit with the “dailies” and then relink to the camera masters for color correction and finishing. This works well in Adobe Premiere Pro CC, Apple FCP 7 and even FCP X.

Timecode and reel IDs

When I work with files from the various HDSLRs, I prefer to convert them to ProRes (or DNxHD), add timecode and reel ID info. In my eyes, this makes the file professional video media that’s much more easily dealt with throughout the rest of the post pipeline. I have a specific routine for doing this, but when some of these steps fail, due to some file error, I find that FCP 7 is a good back-up utility. From inside FCP 7, you can easily add reel IDs and also modify or add timecode. This metadata is embedded into the actual media file and readable by other applications.

Log and Transfer

Yes, I know that you can import and optimize (transcode) camera files in FCP X. I just don’t like the way it does it. The FCP 7 Log and Transfer module allows the editor to set several naming preferences upon ingest. This includes custom names and reel IDs. That metadata is then embedded directly into the QuickTime movie created by the Log and Transfer module. FCP X doesn’t embed name and ID changes into the media file, but rather into its own database. Subsequently this information is not transportable by simply reading the media file within another application. As a result, when I work with media from a C300, for example, my first step is still Log and Transfer in FCP 7, before I start editing in FCP X.

Conform and reverse telecine

A lot of cameras offer the ability to shoot at higher frame rates with the intent of playing this at a slower frame rate for a slow motion effect – “overcranking” in film terms. Advanced cameras like the ALEXA, RED One, EPIC and Canon C300 write a timebase reference into the file that tells the NLE that a file recorded at 60fps is to be played at 23.98fps. This is not true of HDSLRs, like a Canon 5D, 7D or a GoPro. You have to tell the NLE what to do. FCP X only does this though its Retime effect, which means you are telling the file to be played as slomo, thus requiring a render.

I prefer to use Cinema Tools to “conform” the file. This alters the file header information of the QuickTime file, so that any application will play it at the conformed, rather than recorded frame rate. The process is nearly instant and when imported into FCP X, the application simply plays it at the slower speed – no rendering required. Just like with an ALEXA or RED.

Another function of Cinema Tools is reverse telecine. If a camera file was recorded with built-in “pulldown” – sometimes called 24-over-60 – additional redundant video fields are added to the file. You want to remove these if you are editing in a native 24p project. Cinema Tools will let you do this and in the process render a new, 24p-native file.

Color correction

I really like the built-in and third-party color correction tools for Final Cut Pro X. I also like Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve, but there are times when Apple Color is still the best tool for the job. I prefer its user interface to Resolve, especially when working with dual displays and if you use an AJA capture/monitoring product, Resolve is a non-starter. For me, Color is the best choice when I get a color correction project from outside where the editor used FCP 7 to cut. I’ve also done some jobs in X and then gone to Color via Xto7 and then FCP 7. It may sound a little convoluted, but is pretty painless and the results speak for themselves.

Audio mixing

I do minimal mixing in X. It’s fine for simple mixes, but for me, a track-based application is the only way to go. I do have X2Pro Audio Convert, but many of the out-of-house ProTools mixers I work with prefer to receive OMFs rather than AAFs. This means going to FCP 7 first and then generating an OMF from within FCP 7. This has the added advantage that I can proof the timeline for errors first. That’s something you can’t do if you are generating an AAF without any way to open and inspect it. FCP X has a tendency to include many clips that are muted and usually out of your way inside X. By going to FCP 7 first, you have a chance to clean up the timeline before the mixer gets it.

Any complex projects that I mix myself are done in Adobe Audition or Soundtrack Pro. I can get to Audition via the XML route – or I can go to Soundtrack Pro through XML and FCP 7 with its “send to” function. Either application works for me and most of my third-party plug-ins show up in each. Plus they both have a healthy set of their own built-in filters. When I’m done, simply export the mix (and/or stems) and import the track back into FCP X to marry it to the picture.

Project trimming

Final Cut Pro X has no media management function.  You can copy/move/aggregate all of the media from a single Project (timeline) into a new Event, but these files are the source clips at full length. There is no ability to create a new project with trimmed or consolidated media. That’s when source files from a timeline are shortened to only include the portion that was cut into the sequence, plus user-defined “handles” (an extra few frames or seconds at the beginning and end of the clip). Trimmed, media-managed projects are often required when sending your edited sequence to an outside color correction facility. It’s also a great way to archive the “unflattened” final sequence of your production, while still leaving some wiggle room for future trimming adjustments. The sequence is editable and you still have the ability to slip, slide or change cuts by a few frames.

I ran into this problem the other day, where I needed to take a production home for further work. It was a series of commercials cut in FCP X, from which I had recut four spots as director’s cuts. The edit was locked, but I wanted to finish the mix and grade at home. No problem, I thought. Simply duplicate the project with “used media”, create the new Event and “organize” (copies media into the new Event folder). I could live with the fact that the media was full length, but there was one rub. Since I had originally edited the series of commercials using Compound Clips for selected takes, the duping process brought over all of these Compounds – even though none was actually used in the edit of the four director’s cuts. This would have resulted in copying nearly two-thirds of the total source media. I could not remove the Compounds from the copied Event, without also removing them from the original, which I didn’t want to do.

The solution was to send the sequence of four spots to FCP 7 and then media manage that timeline into a trimmed project. The difference was 12GB of trimmed source clips instead of HUNDREDS of GB. At home, I then sent the audio to Soundtrack Pro for a mix and the picture back to FCP X for color correction. Connect the mix back to the primary storyline in FCP X and call it done!

I realize that some of this may sound a bit complex to some readers, but professional workflows are all about having a good toolkit and knowing how to use it. FCP X is a great tool for productions that can work within its walls, but if you still own Final Cut Studio, there are a lot more options at your disposal. Why not continue to use them?

©2013 Oliver Peters

Apple expands Final Cut Pro X

On the same day Apple launched the iPad mini, the fourth generation iPad, a refresh of the iMac line and the addition of a 13” MacBook Pro with Retina display, Apple also quietly released the 10.0.6 version of Final Cut Pro X. By the end of the day, the App Store lit up and the various online forums were buzzing. The Pro Apps engineers made good on the bullet points that were pre-announced at NAB – dual viewers, multichannel audio editing, MXF plug-in support and RED camera support. Plus, there were a number of feature and interface changes to round it out – many of which appear to be in direct response to user feedback.

The four bullet points

Dual viewers. The Unified Viewer was a huge shock when FCP X was first released. As you move between a source clip in the Event Browser and the project’s edited timeline, the Viewer display toggles between these two images. You now have the option to change this behavior by opening a second Event Viewer window. Source clips show in the Event Viewer while the main Viewer only displays the project timeline image. You cannot skim or scrub with the mouse directly from within this window. In a two-monitor configuration, you have to skim the thumbnail or filmstrip of the event clip on one display, but watch the viewer on the other screen. It’s a bit disconcerting for muscle memory and some editors, who initially clamored for it, have found it less useful than they’d hope. There is also no way to gang source clips and timelines together. Having this second viewer does add some cool new features, like the ability to have scopes with each viewer. These can be displayed in a horizontal or vertical arrangement. The good news is that you have the choice between single and dual viewers depending on your task.

Multi-channel audio editing. To prevent audio from slipping out-of-sync due to user error – and to reduce timeline clutter – FCP X keeps clips as combined a/v sources. Until this release, if you shot an interview and used two audio channels for individual microphones, you could not separately edit or mix levels on them, unless you broke the audio out as separate clips. Then you risked the possibility of accidentally slipping them out-of-sync. With this update, audio channels still stay attached to their source clips, but you can expand the clip in the timeline or inspector to reveal multiple audio channels. This enables renaming, editing, volume and pan control for each individual audio channel. Unfortunately, there’s still no global audio mixer panel as many had hoped for.

RED camera support. The RED user community has been very vocal about wanting native edit support for their REDCODE camera raw, compressed media format. Until now, Adobe offered one of the few native editing solutions. With 10.0.6, Apple has more than met that challenge. There’s native file support at up to 5K sizes, plus you can transcode to an optimized ProRes4444 or ProRes Proxy format for a more fluid editing experience. With FCP X’s unique architecture, transcoding happens in the background, so you can start with the native files, which in turn are automatically replaced by the optimized or proxy files when ready. Edit with proxies for a lightweight load on your system (like laptop editing) and then switch to the optimized or native files for the final output. Or simply stay with the native files throughout, if that’s your preference.

The RED Rocket card is supported for accelerated playback, transcoding and rendering with full resolution debayering. Software-based renders, exports and generating optimized media will also be at full resolution, but much slower. In order to enable RED support, you’ll need to install the latest RED plug-in. The RED Rocket card also requires a firmware update. Both may be downloaded for free from RED’s website.

The best part is that you now have direct access to the RED camera raw color settings from within FCP X. Click “Modify RED RAW Settings” in the Inspector window and a floating heads up display (HUD) pops up with adjustment sliders. Select one clip or a group of clips in the event browser and change the settings for a single clip or for all by adjusting one HUD panel. Native .r3d files in a 4K project played well on my Mac Pro, thanks to multicore playback. Performance seemed comparable to what I see with Premiere Pro on the same computer. Given Apple’s optimized/proxy media workflow and the ease of adjusting raw settings, I feel that now FCP X offers the best option for cutting a RED-originated production.

MXF plug-in support. Final Cut Pro X has now added native support for MXF camera files, like Panasonic P2, Sony XDCAM and other MXF formats. Previous FCP X versions rewrapped these files into QuickTime movie containers upon import. As with FCP “legacy” versions, the 10.0.6 update now lets you use plug-ins offered by Hamburg Pro Audio and Calibrated Software for direct access. This enables native use of MXF files and facilitates end-to-end MXF workflows, such as the DPP digital delivery standard in the UK, when Hamburg Pro Media ships their AS-11 Import and Export product.

A few surprises

There are a lot of other changes throughout the application. The engineers added more metadata (like a whole slew of ARRI ALEXA and RED camera metadata), changed a number of interface functions, updated the XML format and added 42 new effects, transitions, titles and generators, including a drop shadow filter and a one-step freeze frame.

Several of these changes are big for users. We now gain back the ability to copy and paste clip attributes. You may paste specific effects, individual filters, transforms and audio parameters to one or multiple clips on the timeline. There’s a new range selection function. Many editors had asked for “persistent in and out points” – basically that a source clip holds the last in/out marks made by the user. Instead, Apple opted to place multiple marked ranges in a fashion similar to range-based Favorites, which may take some getting used to. For instance, if you mark two ranges within a single event clip and then decide to reject the clip (with the event browser set to “Hide Rejected”) you are now left with three clips instead of one. Those three clips represent the leftover, unmarked sections of the one original clip. In order to prevent this, you first have to mark the whole clip (the X key) and then reject it (the delete key).

Connected clips have been a learning experience for many. The benefit is that you can move a group of linked clips simply by moving the one main clip on the primary storyline. Sometimes you don’t want this, such as, when you want to move a sound bite clip without moving the attached B-roll cutaway shots. Holding down the grave/tilde key as you move, slip or slide a primary storyline clip keeps any connected clips in their original place and prevents their movement.

Previously, the process for importing media files was different than the import module for camera media. This has been combined into a single-window interface. Media can be previewed in a filmstrip view from this window, regardless of whether it’s from a camera card or a file on your hard drive. If the file comes from a camera card or a mounted volume (such as a disc image made of a camera card), then you additionally have the ability to select ranges within the file for import. Once imports have started, the window may be closed, allowing you to continue editing, while the import happens in the background. Commonly used areas, like a shared folder, may be dragged to a Favorites area of the window.

Lastly, the Share menu has been moved and streamlined. This is where you export media. It may be used for master files, as well as batch processes, like DVD creation or Vimeo uploads. You may use the existing presets or set up your own, but now there’s also a Bundle function. This is a folder of presets designed as a job batch. For example, if you always need to create three versions for your client – a master file, an iPhone review copy and a YouTube upload – set up a bundle with these presets and you are ready to go. There are other enhancements to Compound Clips, Markers and Multicam, as well as faster rendering performance that I won’t go into. Suffice it to say that this update has a lot in it, so it’s well worth diving in to explore.

Things to know before you update

Final Cut Pro requires OS 10.6.8, 10.7.5 or 10.8.2. I was already on 10.7.4, so the bump to 10.7.5 was easy through Apple’s software update. If you opt to go with 10.8.2, then it’s an App Store purchase if you’re using an earlier OS or an App Store update if you are on an earlier version of Mountain Lion (10.8 or 10.8.1). Running this OS X update also enables an update of Safari and Aperture (if applicable). Once you are on either of these OS versions, then the App Store will let you update FCP X, Motion and Compressor, from earlier installations. These are free updates if you already own the applications and, like all App Store purchases, are valid for up to five personal computers on a single Apple ID.

I’m running a three-year-old Mac Pro and five-year-old MacBook Pro and FCP X works fine on either. Obviously performance is better on the tower, but as most folks have noted, the newest MacBook Pro and iMac models are best overall, thanks to their i5 and i7 processors. On my Mac Pro, I tested two GPU cards – my own ATI 5870 and a Quadro 4000 on loan from NVIDIA for reviews. FCP X runs best with the ATI card, thanks to OpenCL support. I built a six-layer 1080p timeline with color correction and five 2D picture-in-picture transform effects. The timeline played in real-time (high quality) without dropping frames using the ATI 5870, but choked when I tried the Quadro 4000. It turns out that card is not on Apple’s compatibility list (the older FX4800 is), even though it’s the only NVIDIA card sold at Apple’s online store. That’s a shame, because the Quadro 4000 is the better card for DaVinci Resolve or the Adobe CS6 applications. In fact, Resolve 9 is unusable under Lion with an ATI card (but supposedly fixed with Mountain Lion), as it puts glitches into the highlights of the picture. For FCP X, the Quadro is fine, but the ATI is better.

Final Cut Pro X 10.0.6 seems to be a relatively benign update in how it interrelates with other hardware and software. Most of the AJA and Blackmagic Design products work well with it. The exception at launch is any of the Matrox MXO2 units. Expect driver updates from all of these companies. I’ve tested the update with a Decklink HD Extreme 3D card in a Mac Pro and an AJA T-Tap on a Thunderbolt-enabled iMac and MacBook Pro and they each worked well. This update also bumps up the XML version to 1.2 and exposes a lot more metadata. If your workflows use one of the XML utilities like Xto7 and 7toX or relies on a roundtrip to DaVinci Resolve, then make sure you have updated those applications. Resolve 9.0.3 supports the new XML format and FCP X 10.0.6.

Be aware that this update has changed a lot of under-the-hood items, most notably project audio channel configurations. When you first launch FCP X after the update, existing projects and events will be updated. Usually this will be fine, but it’s not without occasional anomalies, some of which affect performance. For example, I’ve found that the audio changes in one of my project timelines caused the response time to be slower between hitting the space bar to play and having it actually start. A brand new project was fine. I have one project where levels and panning change through copy-and-pasting. Very frustrating!

In addition, a number of fresh bugs have cropped up. Some users, myself included, have experienced render problems. In my case, I have seen several projects that randomly render or export with a number of corrupt frames. When I repeat the rendering, the place of corruption is often in a different location each time. To be safe, wait for a lull in your workload before updating. Also to be fair, users on the newest iMacs running 10.8.2 seem to be happiest and report the least issues.

Final Cut Pro X 10.0.6 is generally a solid upgrade that may be the turning point for many professionals. I’ve been editing most of my broadcast and corporate projects for months in FCP X. For the most part this has been a successful endeavor – these newest issues not withstanding. Yes, it’s different, but it’s also growing and evolving. Apple is addressing issues and concerns, so make sure you use their software feedback site. Changes in this version are a direct answer to the needs of professional editors. No software is perfect – and this update is not without its flaws – but it checks off many items that may have been objections before. At least now, folks who’ve been sitting on the fence can judge Apple’s commitment by the progress made in FCP X to date.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Networks

©2012 Oliver Peters

NAB 2012 – Adobe CS6, Smoke 2013, Thunderbolt and more

Get some coffee, sit back and take your time reading this post. I apologize for its length in advance, but there’s a lot of new hardware and software to talk about. I’m going to cover my impressions of NAB along with some “first looks” at Adobe Creative Suite 6, Smoke 2013 and Thunderbolt i/o devices. There’s even some FCP X news!

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Impressions of NAB 2012

I thought this year was going to be quiet and laid back. Boy, was I wrong! Once again Blackmagic Design stole the spotlight with democratized products. This year the buzz had to be the Blackmagic Cinema Camera. It delivers on the objective of the original RED Scarlet idea. It’s a $3K camera with 2.5K of resolution and 13 stops. I’ll leave the camera discussions to the camera guys, but suffice it to say that this camera was thought up with post in mind. That is – no new, proprietary codec. It uses ProRes, DNxHD or Cinema DNG (the Adobe raw format). It also includes a copy of Resolve and UltraScope with the purchase.

Along with that news was Blackmagic’s re-introduction of the Teranex processors. Prior to that company’s acquisition by Blackmagic Design, the top-of-the-line Teranex image processor loaded with options was around $90K. Now that Grant Petty’s wizards have had a go at it, the newest versions in a nicely re-designed form factor are $2K for 2D and $4K for 3D. Sweet. And if you think free (or close to it) stifles R&D, take a look at the new, cleaned-up DaVinci Resolve 9.0 interface. Great to see that the development continues.

You’ll note that there was a lot of buzz about 4K camera, but did you notice you need to record that image to something? Enter AJA – not with a camera – but, with the KiPro Mini Quad. That’s right – a 4K version of the Mini already designed with Canon’s C500 4K camera in mind. It records 4K ProRes 4444 files. AJA is also building its Thunderbolt portfolio with T-Tap, a monitoring-only Thunderbolt-to-SDI/HDMI output adapter under $250. More on Thunderbolt devices later in this post.

The NLE news was dominated by Adobe’s reveal of Creative Suite 6 (with Premiere Pro CS6) and Autodesk’s re-designed Smoke 2013. Avid’s news was mainly broadcast and storage-related, since Media Composer version 6 had been launched months before. Although that was old news to the post crowd, it was the first showing for the software at NAB. Nevertheless, to guarantee some buzz, Avid announced a short-term Symphony cross-grade deal that lasts into June. FCP (excluding X), Media Composer and Xpress Pro owners can move into Symphony for $999. If you are an Avid fan, this is a great deal and is probably the best bang-for-the-buck NLE available if you take advantage of the cross-grade.

An interesting sidebar is that both FilmLight and EyeOn are developing plug-in products for Avid software. FilmLight builds the Baselight color correction system, which was shown and recently released in plug-in form for FCP 7. Now they are expanding that to other hosts, including Nuke and Media Composer under the product name of Baselight Editions. EyeOn’s Fusion software is probably the best and fastest, feature film-grade compositor available on Windows. EyeOn is using Connection (a software bridge) to send Media Composer/Symphony or DS timeline clips to Fusion, which permits both applications to stay open. In theory, if you bought Symphony and added Baselight and Fusion, the combination becomes one of the most powerful NLEs on the market. All at under $5K with the current cross-grade!

Autodesk has been quite busy redesigning its Smoke NLE for the Mac platform. Smoke 2013 features a complete Mac-centric overhaul to turn it into an all-in-one “super editor” that still feels comfortable for editors coming from an FCP or Media Composer background. See my “first look” section below.

Quantel, who often gets lost in these desktop NLE discussions showed the software-only version of Pablo running on a tweaked PC. It uses four high-end NVIDIA cards for performance and there’s also a new, smaller Neo Nano control surface. Although pricing is lower, at $50K for the software alone, it’s still the premium brand.

There’s been plenty of talk about “editing in the cloud”, but in my opinion, there were three companies at the show with viable cloud solutions for post: Avid, Quantel and Aframe. In 2010 Avid presented a main stage technology preview that this year has started to come to fruition as Interplay Sphere. The user in the field is connected to his or her home base storage and servers over various public networks. The edit software is a version of the NewsCutter/Media Composer interface that can mix local full-res media with proxy media linked to full-res media at the remote site. When the edit is done, the sequence list is “published” to the server and local, full-res media uploaded back to the home base (trimmed clips only). The piece is conformed and rendered by the server at home. Seems like the branding line should be Replace your microwave truck with a Starbucks!

The company with a year of real experience “in the cloud” at the enterprise level is Quantel with Qtube. It’s a similar concept to Avid’s, but has the advantage of tying in multiple locations remotely. Media at the home base can also be searched and retrieved in formats that work for other NLEs, including Media Composer and Final Cut.

An exciting newcomer is Aframe. They are a British company founded by the former owner of Unit, one of Europe’s largest professional post facilities built around FCP and Xsan. Aframe is geared toward the needs of shows and production companies more so than broadcast infrastructures. The concept uses a “private cloud” (i.e. not Amazon servers) with an interface and user controls that feel a lot like a mash-up between Vimeo and Xprove. Full-res media can be uploaded in several ways, including via regional service centers located around the US. There’s full metadata support and the option to use Aframe’s contracted logging vendor if you don’t want to create metadata yourself. Editors cut with proxy media and then the full-res files are conformed via EDLs and downloaded when ready. Pricing plans are an attractive per-seat, monthly structure that start with a free, single seat account.

Apple doesn’t officially do trade shows anymore, but they were at NAB, flying under the radar. In a series of small, private meetings with professional customers and media, Apple was making their case for Final Cut Pro X. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the same can be said for re-building a dominant editing application from the ground up. Rather than simply put in the same features as the competition, Apple opted to take a fresh look, which has created much “Sturm und Drang” in the industry. Nevertheless, Apple was interested in pointing out the adoption by professional users and the fact that it has held an above-50% market share with new NLE seats sold to professional users during 2011. You can parse those numbers anyway you like, but they point to two facts: a) people aren’t changing systems as quickly as many vocal forum posts imply, and b) many users are buying FCP X and seeing if and how it might work in some or all of their operation.

FCP X has already enjoyed several quick updates in less than a year, thanks to the App Store mechanism. There’s a robust third-party developer community building around X. In fact, walking around the NAB floor, I saw at least a dozen or more booths that displayed FCP X in some fashion to demonstrate their own product or use it as an example of interoperability between their product and X. Off the top of my head, I saw or heard about FCP X at Autodesk, Quantel, AJA, Blackmagic Design, Matrox, MOTU, Tools On Air, Dashwood and SONY – not to mention others, like resellers and storage vendors. SONY has announced the new XDCAM plug-ins for X and compatibility of its XDCAM Browser software. Dashwood Cinema Solutions was showing the only stereo3D package that’s ready for Final Cut Pro X. And of course, we can’t live without EDLs, so developer XMiL Workflow Tools (who wasn’t exhibiting at NAB) has also announced EDL-X, an FCP XML-to-EDL translator, expected to be in the App Store by May.

On the Apple front, the biggest news was another peek behind the curtain at some of the features to be included in the next FCP X update, coming later this year. These include multichannel audio editing tools, dual viewers, MXF plug-in support and RED camera support. There are no details beyond these bullet points, but you can expect a lot of other minor enhancements as part of this update.

“Dual viewers” may be thought of as “source/record” monitors – added by Apple, thanks to user feedback. Apple was careful to point out to me that they intended to do a bit more than just that with the concept. “RED support” also wasn’t defined, but my guess would be that it’s based on the current Import From Camera routine. I would imagine something like FCP 7’s native support of RED media through Log and Transfer, except better options for bringing in camera raw color metadata. Of course, that’s purely speculation on my part.

Now, sit back and we’ll run through some “first looks”.

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Adobe Creative Suite 6 – A First Look

Adobe charged into 2012 with a tailwind of two solid years of growth on the Mac platform and heavy customer anticipation for what it plans to offer in Creative Suite 6. The release of CS5 and CS5.5 were each strong in their own right and introduced such technologies as the Mercury Playback Engine for better real-time performance, but in 2011 Adobe clearly ramped up its focus on video professionals. They acquired the IRIDAS SpeedGrade technology and brought the developers of Automatic Duck on board. There have been a few sneak peeks on the web including a popular video posted by Conan O’Brien’s Team Coco editors, but the wait for CS6 ended with this year’s NAB.

Production Premium

Adobe’s video content creation tools may be purchased individually, through a Creative Cloud subscription or as part of the Master Collection and Production Premium bundles. Most editors will be interested in CS6 Production Premium, which includes Prelude, Premiere Pro, After Effects, Photoshop Extended, SpeedGrade, Audition, Encore, Adobe Media Encoder, Illustrator, Bridge and Flash Professional. Each of these applications has received an impressive list of new features and it would be impossible to touch on every one here, so look for a more in-depth review at a future date. I’ll quickly cover some of the highlights.

Prelude

As part of CS6, Adobe is introducing Prelude, a brand new product designed for footage acquisition, ingest/transcode, organization, review and metadata tagging. It’s intended to be used by production assistants or producers as an application to prepare the footage for an editor. Both Prelude and Premiere Pro now feature “hover scrubbing”, which is the ability to scan through footage quickly by moving the mouse over the clip thumbnail, which can be expanded as large as a mini-viewer. Clips can be marked, metadata added and rough cuts assembled, which in turn are sent to Premiere Pro. There is a dynamic reading of metadata between Prelude and Premiere Pro. Clip metadata changes made in one application are updated in the other, since the information is embedded into the clip itself. Although Prelude is included with the software collection for single users, it can be separately purchased in volume by enterprise customers, such as broadcasters and news organizations.

Premiere Pro

A lot of effort was put into the redesign of Premiere Pro. The user interface has been streamlined and commands and icons were adjusted to be more consistent with both Apple Final Cut Pro (“legacy” versions) and Avid Media Composer. Adobe took input from users who have come from both backgrounds and wanted to alter the UI in a way that was reasonably familiar. The new CS6 keyboard shortcuts borrow from each, but there are also full FCP and full MC preset options. Workspaces have been redesigned, but an editor can still call up CS5.5 workspace layouts with existing projects to ease the transition. A dockable timecode window has been added and Adobe has integrated a dynamic trimming function similar to that of Media Composer.

The changes are definitely more than cosmetic, though, as Adobe has set out to design a UI that never forces you to stop. This means you can now do live updates to effects and even open other applications without the timeline playback ever stopping. They added Mercury Playback acceleration support for some OpenCL cards and there’s a new Mercury Transmit feature for better third-party hardware i/o support across all of the video applications. Many new tools have been added, including a new multi-camera editor with an unlimited number of camera angles. Some more features have been brought over from After Effects, including adjustment layers and the Warp Stabilizer that was introduced with CS5.5. This year they’ve broken out the rolling shutter repair function as a separate tool. Use it for quick HDSLR camera correction without the need to engage the full Warp Stabilizer.

SpeedGrade

By adding a highly-regarded and established color grading tool, Adobe has strengthened the position of Production Premium as the primary application suite for video professionals. The current level of integration is a starting point, given the short development time that was possible since last September. Expect this to expand in future versions.

SpeedGrade works as both a standalone grading application, as well as a companion to the other applications. There’s a new “Send to SpeedGrade” timeline export operation in Premiere Pro. When you go into SpeedGrade this way, an intermediate set of uncompressed DPX files is first rendered as the source media to be used by SpeedGrade. Both applications support a wide range of native formats, but they aren’t all the same, so this approach offers the fewest issues for now, when working with mixed formats in a Premiere sequence. In addition, SpeedGrade can also import EDLs and relink media, which offers a second path from Premiere Pro into SpeedGrade. Finished, rendered media returns to Premiere as a single, flattened file with baked-in corrections.

As a color correction tool, SpeedGrade presents an easy workflow – enabling you to stack layers of grading onto a single clip, as well as across the entire timeline. There are dozens of included LUTs and looks presets, which may be used for creative grading or to correct various camera profiles. An added bonus is that both After Effects and Photoshop now support SpeedGrade Look files.

Audition

With CS5.5, Adobe traded out Soundbooth for a cross-platform version of Audition, Adobe’s full-featured DAW software. In CS6, that integration has been greatly improved. Audition now sports an interface more consistent with After Effects and Premiere, newly added Mackie and Avid Eucon control surface protocol support and mixing automation. The biggest feature demoed in the sneak peeks has been the new Automatic Speech Alignment tool. You can take overdubbed ADR lines and automatically align them for near-perfect sync to replace the on-camera dialogue. All of this is thanks to the technology behind Audition’s new real-time, high-quality audio stretching engine.

Audition also gains a number of functions specific to audio professionals. Audio CD mastering has been added back into the program and there’s a new pitch control spectral display. This can be used to alter the pitch of a singer, as well as a new way to create custom sound design. Buying Production Premium gives you access to 20GB of downloadable audio media (sound effects and music scores) formerly available only via the online link to Adobe’s Resource Central.

After Effects

Needless to say, After Effects is the Swiss Army knife of video post. From motion graphics to visual effects to simple format conversation, there’s very little that After Effects isn’t called upon to do. Naturally there’s plenty new in CS6. The buzz feature is a new 3D camera tracker, which uses a point cloud to tightly track an object that exhibits size, position, rotation and perspective changes. These are often very hard for traditional 2D point trackers to follow. For example, the hood of a car moving towards the camera at an angle.

Now for the first time in After Effects, you can build extruded 3D text and vector shapes using built-in tools. This includes surface material options and a full 3D ray tracer. In general, performance has been greatly improved through a better hand-off between RAM cache and disk cache. As with Premiere Pro, rolling shutter repair is now also available as a separate tool in After Effects.

Photoshop

Photoshop has probably had the most online sneak peeks of any of the new Adobe apps. It has been available as a public beta since mid-March. Photoshop, too, sports a new interface, but that’s probably the least noteworthy of the new features. These include impressive new content-aware fill functions, 3D LUT support (including SpeedGrade Look files) and better auto-correction. There’s better use of GPU horsepower, which means common tasks like Liquefy are accelerated.

Photoshop has offered the ability to work with video as a single file for several versions. With CS6 it gains expanded video editing capabilities, enabled by a new layer structure akin to that used in After Effects. Although Premiere Pro or After Effects users probably won’t do much with it, Adobe is quite cognizant that many of its photography customers are increasingly asked to deal with video – thanks, of course, to the HD-video-enabled DSLRs, like the Canon EOS series. By integrating video editing and layering tools into Photoshop, it allows these customers to deliver a basic video project while working inside an application environment where they are the most comfortable. Video editors gain the benefit of having it there if they want to use it. Some may, in fact, develop their own innovative techniques once they investigate what it can do for them.

Adobe Creative Suite 6 offers a wealth of new features, expanded technologies and a set of brand new tools. It’s one of Adobe’s largest releases ever and promises to attract new interest from video professionals.

Click here for updated price and availability information.

Click here for videos that explain CS6 features.

Plus, a nice set of tutorial videos here.

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Autodesk Smoke 2013 – A First Look

Thanks to the common Unix underpinnings of Linux and Mac OS X, Autodesk Media & Entertainment was able to bring its advanced Smoke editor to the Mac platform in December of 2009 as an unbundled software product. The $15K price tag was a huge drop from that of their standard, turnkey Linux Smoke workstations, but still hefty for the casual user. Nevertheless, thanks to an aggressive trial and academic policy, Autodesk was very successful in getting plenty of potential new users to download and test the product. In the time since the launch on the Mac, Autodesk has had a chance to learn what Mac-oriented editors want and adjust to the feedback from these early adopters.

Taking that user input to heart, Autodesk introduced the new Smoke 2013 at NAB. This is an improved version that is much more “Mac-like”. Best of all it’s now available for $3,495 plus an optional annual subscription fee for support and software updates. Although this is an even bigger price reduction, it places Smoke in line with Autodesk’s animation product family (Maya, Softimage, etc.) and in keeping with what most Mac users feel is reasonable for a premium post production tool. Smoke 2013 will ship in fall, but the new price took effect at NAB. Any new and existing customers on subscription will receive the update as part of their support. Tutorials and trial versions of Smoke 2013 are expected to be available over the summer.

More Mac-like

Autodesk was successful in attracting a lot of trial downloads, but realized that the biggest hurdle was the steep learning curve even expert Final Cut and Media Composer editors encountered. Previous Mac versions of Smoke featured a user interface and commands inherited from the Linux versions of Smoke and Flame, which were completely different from any Mac editing application. Just getting media into the system baffled many. With Smoke 2013, Autodesk has specifically targeted editors who come from an Apple Final Cut Pro and/or Avid Media Composer background. The interface uses a standard, track-based editing workflow to maintain the NLE environment that editors are comfortable with. There’s a familiar Mac OS X menu bar at the top and the application has adopted most of the common OS commands. In short, it’s been redesigned – but not “re-imagined” – to act like a Mac application is supposed to.

Smoke now features a tab structure to quickly switch between modes, like media access, editing, etc. The biggest new tool is the Media Hub. This is an intelligent media browser that lets you easily access any compatible media on any of your hard drives. It recognizes native media formats, as opposed to simply browsing all files in the Finder. Media support includes RED, ARRIRAW, ProRes, DNxHD, H.264, XDCAM, image sequences, LUTs and more. Media Hub is the place to locate and import files, including the ability to drag-and-drop media directly into your Smoke library, as well as from the Finder into Smoke. Settings for formats like RED (debayer, color, etc.) are maintained even when you drag from the Finder. Since Smoke is designed as a finishing tool, you can also import AAF, XML (FCP 7, FCP X, Premiere Pro) and EDL lists generated by offline editors.

ConnectFX

Beyond familiar commands and the Media Hub, the editing interface has been redesigned to be more visually appealing and for the easier application of effects. ConnectFX is a method to quickly apply and modify effects right in the timeline. Tabbed buttons let you change between modes, such as resizing, time warps, Sparks filter effects and color correction. When you choose to edit effects parameters, the interface opens a ribbon above the timeline where you can alter numerical settings or enter a more advanced effects editing interface. If you need more sophistication, then move to nodes using ConnectFX. Smoke is the only editor with a node-based compositor that works in 3D space. You get many of the tools that have been the hallmark of the premium Autodesk system products, such as effects process nodes, the Colour Warper, relighting, 3D tracking and more.

Smoke 2013 is positioned as an integrated editing and effects tool. According to Autodesk’s research, editors who use a mixture of several different tools to get the job done – from editing to effects to grading – often use up to seven different software applications. Smoke is intended as a “super editor” that places all of these tools and tasks into a single, comprehensive application with a cohesive interface. The design is intended to maximize the workflow as an editor moves from editing into finishing.

Lighter system requirements

Apple is changing the technology landscape with more powerful personal workstations, like the iMac, which doesn’t fit the traditional tower design. Thunderbolt adds advanced, high-bandwidth connectivity for i/o and storage in a single cable connection.

To take advantage of these changes, Smoke 2013 has been designed to run on this new breed of system. For example, it will work on a newer MacBook Pro or iMac, connected to fast Thunderbolt storage, like a Promise Pegasus RAID array. A key change has been in the render format used by Smoke. Up until now, intermediate renders have been to uncompressed RGB 4:4:4 DPX image sequence files. While this maintains maximum quality, it quickly eats storage space and is taxing on less powerful machines. Rendering to an uncompressed RGB format is generally overkill if your camera originals started as some highly-compressed format like XDCAM or H.264. Now Smoke 2013 offers the option to render to compressed formats, such as one of the Apple ProRes codecs.

Another welcomed change is the ability to use some of the newer Thunderbolt i/o devices. Smoke on a Mac Pro tower has been able to work with AJA KONA 3G cards, but with Smoke 2013, AJA’s new Io XT has been added to the mix. The Io XT is an external unit with most of the features and power of the KONA card. It connects in the Thunderbolt chain with storage and/or a secondary display and is the only current Thunderbolt i/o device with a loop-through connection. Thus it isn’t limited to being at the end of the chain.

While at NAB, I took a few minutes to see how comfortable this new version felt. I’ve been testing Smoke 2012 at home and quite frankly had some of the same issues other FCP and Media Composer editors have had. It has been a very deep program that required a lot of relearning before you could feel comfortable. When I sat down in front of Smoke 2013 in the NAB pod, I was able to quickly work through some effects without any assistance, primarily based on what seemed logical to me in a “standard” NLE approach. I’m not going to kid you, though. To do advanced effects still requires a learning curve, but editors do plenty of in-timeline effects that never require extensive compositing. When I compare doing this type of work in Smoke 2013 versus 2012, I’d say that the learning requirements have been cut by 60% to 75% with this new version. That’s how much the redesign improves things for beginners.

You can start from scratch editing a project strictly on Smoke 2013, but in case you are wondering, this really shouldn’t be viewed as a complete replacement for FCP 7. Instead, it’s the advanced product used to add the polish. As such, it becomes an ideal companion for a fast application used for creative cutting, like Final Cut Pro, Premiere Pro or Media Composer.

Apple’s launch of Final Cut Pro X was a disruptive event that challenged conventional thinking. Autodesk Media & Entertainment’s launch of Smoke 2013 might not cause the same sort of uproar, but it brings a world-class finishing application to the Mac at a price that is attractive to many individual users and small boutiques.

Click here for videos and tutorials about Smoke.

Click here for Autodesk’s NAB videos.

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Thunderbolt I/O Devices – A First Look

Over the years media pros have seen data protocols come and go. Some, like Fibre Channel, are still current fixtures, while others, such as SCSI, have bitten the dust. The most exciting new technology is Thunderbolt, which is a merger of PCI Express and DisplayPort technologies co-developed by Intel and Apple. Started under the code name of Light Peak, the current implementation of Thunderbolt is a bi-directional protocol that passes power, video display signals and data transfer at up to 10Gbps of throughput in both directions. According to Apple, that’s up to twelve times faster than FireWire 800. It’s also faster than Fibre Channel, which tends to be the protocol of choice in larger facilities. Peripherals can access ten watts of power through Thunderbolt, too. Like SCSI and FireWire, Thunderbolt devices can be daisy-chained with special cables. Up to six devices can be connected in series, but certain devices have to be at the end of the chain. This is typically true when a PCIe-to-Thunderbolt adapter is used.

A single signal path can connect the computer to external storage, displays and capture devices, which provides editors with a powerful data protocol in a very small footprint. Thunderbolt technology is currently available in Apple iMac, MacBook Air, MacBook Pro and Mini computers and is starting to become available on some Windows systems. It is not currently available as a built-in technology on Mac Pros, but you can bet that if there’s a replacement tower, Thunderbolt will be a key part of the engineering design.

By its nature, Thunderbolt dictates that peripheral devices are external units. All of the processing horsepower of a PCIe card, such as a KONA or Decklink, is built into the circuitry of an external device, which is connected via the Thunderbolt cable to the host computer. I tested three Thunderbolt capture/output devices for this review: AJA Io XT, Blackmagic Design UltraStudio 3D and Matrox MXO2 LE MAX. AJA added the monitoring-only T-Tap at NAB to join the Io XT in AJA’s Thunderbolt line-up. Blackmagic Design has developed four Thunderbolt units at difference price tiers. For smaller installations or mobile environments, the UltraStudio Express, Intensity Shuttle Thunderbolt or Intensity Extreme are viable solutions.

Matrox has taken a different approach by using an adapter. Any of its four MXO2 products – the standard MXO2, Mini, LE or Rack – can be used with either Thunderbolt or non-Thunderbolt workstations. Simply purchase the unit with a Thunderbolt adapter, PCIe card and/or Express 34 slot laptop card. The MXO2 product is the same and only the connection method differs for maximum flexibility. The fourth company making Thunderbolt capture devices is MOTU. Their HDX-SDI was not available in time for this review, but I did have a chance to play with one briefly on the NAB show floor.

Differentiating features

All three of the tested units include up/down/cross-conversion between SD and HD formats and perform in the same fashion as their non-Thunderbolt siblings. Each has pros and cons that will appeal to various users with differing needs. For instance, the AJA Io XT is the only device with a Thunderbolt pass-through connector. The other units have to be placed at the end of a Thunderbolt path. They all support SDI and HDMI capture and output, as well as RS-422 VTR control. Both the AJA and Blackmagic units support dual-link SDI for RGB 4:4:4 image capture and output. The Matrox and AJA units use a power supply connected via a four-pin XLR, which makes it possible to operate them in the field on battery power.

The need to work with legacy analog formats or monitoring could determine your choice. This capability represents the biggest practical difference among the three. Both the MXO2 LE and UltraStudio 3D support analog capture and output, while there’s only analog output from the Io XT. The MXO2 LE uses standard BNC and XLR analog connectors (two audio channels on the LE, but more with the MXO2 or Rack), but the other two require a cable harness with a myriad of small connectors. That harness is included with the Blackmagic unit, but with AJA, you need to purchase an optional DB-25 Tascam-style cable snake for up to eight channels of balanced analog audio.

One unique benefit of the Matrox products is the optional MAX chip for accelerated H.264 processing. In my case, I tested the MXO2 LE MAX, which includes the embedded chip. When this unit is connected to a Mac computer, Apple Compressor, Adobe Media Encoder, Avid Media Composer, Telestream Episode and QuickTime perform hardware-accelerated encodes of H.264 files using the Matrox presets.

Fitting into your layout

I ran the Io XT, UltraStudio 3D and MXO2 LE through their paces connected to a friend’s new, top-of-the-line Apple iMac. All three deliver uncompressed SD or HD video over the Thunderbolt cable to the workstation. Processing to convert this signal to an encoded ProRes or DNxHD format will depend on the CPU. In short, recording a codec like ProRes4444 will require a fast machine and drives. I haven’t specifically tested it, but I presume this task would definitely challenge a Mac Mini using only internal drives!

The test-bed iMac workstation was configured with a Promise Pegasus 6-drive RAID array. The iMac includes two Thunderbolt ports and the Pegasus array offers a pass-through, so I was able to test these units both directly connected to the iMac, as well as daisy-chained onto the Promise array. This system would still allow the connection of more Thunderbolt storage and/or a secondary computer monitor, such as Apple’s 27″ Thunderbolt Display. Most peripheral manufacturers do not automatically supply cables, so plan on purchasing extra Thunderbolt cables ($49 for a six-foot cable from Apple).

These units work with most of the current crop of Mac OS X-based NLEs; however, you may need to choose a specific driver or software set to match the NLE you plan to operate. For instance, AJA requires a separate additional driver to be installed for Premiere Pro or Media Composer, which is provided for maximum functionality with those applications. The same is true for Matrox and Media Composer. I ran tests with Final Cut Pro 7, X and Premiere Pro CS 5.5, but not Media Composer 6, although they do work fine with that application. Only the Blackmagic Design products, like the UltraStudio 3D, will work with DaVinci Resolve. In addition to drivers, the software installation includes application presets and utility applications. Each build includes a capture/output application, which lets you ingest and lay off files through the device, independent of any editing application.

Broadcast monitoring and FCP X

The biggest wild card right now is performance with Final Cut Pro X. Broadcast monitoring was a beta feature added in the 10.0.3 update. With the release of 10.0.4 and compatible drivers, most performance issues have stabilized and this is no longer considered beta. Separate FCP X-specific drivers may need to be installed depending on the device.

If you intend to work mainly with Final Cut Pro “legacy” or Premiere Pro, then all of these units work well. On the other hand, if you’ve taken the plunge for FCP X, I would recommend the Io XT. I never got the MXO2 LE MAX to work with FCP X (10.0.3) during the testing period and initially the UltraStudio 3D wouldn’t work either, until the later version 9.2 drivers that Blackmagic posted mid-March. Subsequent re-testing with 10.0.4 and checking these units at NAB, indicate that both the Blackmagic and Matrox units work well enough. There are still some issues when you play at fast-forward speeds, where the viewer and external monitor don’t stay in sync with each other. I also checked the MOTU HDX-SDI device with FCP X in their NAB booth. Performance seemed similar to that of Matrox and Blackmagic Design.

The Io XT was very fluid and tracked FCP X quite well as I skimmed through footage. FCP X does not permit control over playback settings, so you have to set that in the control panel application (AJA) or system preference pane (Blackmagic Design and Matrox) and relaunch FCP X after any change. The broadcast monitoring feature in FCP X does not add any new VTR control or ingest capability and it’s unlikely that it ever will. To ingest videotape footage for FCP X using Io XT or UltraStudio, you will have to use the separate installed capture utility (VTR Xchange or Media Express, respectively) and then import those files from the hard drive into FCP X. Going the other direction requires that you export a self-contained movie file and use the same utility to record that file onto tape. The Matrox FCP X drivers and software currently do not include this feature.

Finally, the image to the Panasonic professional monitor I was using in this bay matched the FCP X viewer image on the iMac screen using either the Io XT or UltraStudio 3D. That attests to Apple’s accuracy claims for its ColorSync technology.

Performance with the mainstream NLEs

Ironically the best overall performance was using the end-of-life Final Cut Pro 7. In fact, all three units were incredibly responsive on this iMac/Promise combo. For example, when you use a Mac Pro with any FireWire or PCIe-connected card or device, energetic scrubbing or playing files at fast-forward speeds will result in the screen display and the external output going quickly out of sync with each other. When I performed the same functions on the iMac, the on-screen and external output stayed in sync with each of these three units. No amount of violent scrubbing caused it to lose sync. The faster data throughput and Thunderbolt technology had enabled a more pleasant editing experience.

I ran these tests using both a direct run from the iMac’s second Thunderbolt port, as well as looped from the back of the Promise array. Neither connection seemed to make much difference in performance with ProRes and AVCHD footage. I believe that you get the most data throughput when you are not daisy-chaining devices, however, I doubt you’ll see much difference under standard editing operation.

The best experience with Premiere Pro was using the Matrox MXO2 LE MAX, although the experience with the AJA and Blackmagic Design devices was fine, too. This stands to reason, as Matrox has historically had a strong track record developing for Adobe systems with custom cards, such as the Axio board set. Matrox also installs a high-quality MPEG-2 I-frame codec for use as an intermediate preview codec. This is an alternative to the QuickTime codecs installed on the system.

Portions of this entry originally written for Digital Video Magazine.

©2012 Oliver Peters

RED post for My Fair Lidy

I’ve work on various RED projects, but a recent interesting example is My Fair Lidy, an independent film produced through the Valencia College Film Production Technology program. This was a full-blown feature shot entirely with RED One cameras. In this program, professional filmmakers with real projects in hand partner with a class of eager students seeking to learn the craft of film production. I’ve edited two of these films produced through the program and assisted in various aspects of post on many others. My Fair Lidy – a quirky comedy directed by program director Ralph Clemente – was shot in 17 days this summer at various central Florida locations. Two RED Ones were used – one handled by director of photography Ricardo Galé and the second by student cinematographers. My Fair Lidy was produced by SandWoman Films and stars Christopher Backus and Leigh Shannon.

There are many ways to handle the post production of native RED media and I’ve covered a number of them in these earlier posts. There is no single “best way” to handle these files, because each production is often best-served by a custom solution. Originally, I felt the way to tackle the dailies was to convert the .r3d camera files into ProRes 4444 files using the RedLogFilm profile. This gives you a very flat look, and a starting point very similar to ARRI ALEXA files shot with the Log-C profile. My intension would have been to finish and grade straight from the QuickTimes and never return to the .r3d files, unless I needed to fix some problems. Neutral images with a RedLogFilm gamma setting are very easy to grade and they let the colorist swing the image for different looks with ease. However, after my initial discussions with Ricardo, it was decided to do the final grade from the native camera raw files, so that we had the most control over the image, plus the ability to zoom in and reframe using the native 4K files as a source.

The dailies and editorial flow

My Fair Lidy was lensed with a 16 x 9 aspect ratio, with the REDs set to record 4096 x 2304 (at 23.98fps). In addition to a RED One and a healthy complement of grip, lighting and electrical gear, Valencia College owns several Final Cut Pro post systems and a Red Rocket accelerator card. With two REDs rolling most of the time, the latter was a godsend on this production.  We had two workstations set up – one as the editor’s station with a large Maxx Digital storage array and the other as the assistant’s station. That system housed the Red Rocket card. My two assistants (Kyle Prince and Frank Gould) handled all data back-up and conversion of 4K RED files to 1920 x 1080 ProResHQ for editorial media. Using ProResHQ was probably overkill for cutting the film (any of the lower ProRes codecs would have been fine for editorial decisions) but this gave us the best possible image for an potential screenings, trailers, etc.

Redcine-X was our tool for .r3d media organization and conversion. All in-camera settings were left alone, except the gamma adjustment. The Red Rocket card handles the full-resolution debayering of the raw files, so conversion time is close to real time. The two stations were networked via AFP (Apple’s file-sharing protocol), which permitted the assistant to handle his tasks without slowing down the editor. In addition, the assistant would sync and merge audio from the double-system sound, multi-track audio recordings and enter basic scene/take descriptions. Each shoot day had its own FCP project, so when done, project files and media (.r3d, ProRes and audio) were copied over to the editor’s Maxx array. Master clips from these daily FCP projects were then copied-and-pasted (and media relinked) into a single “master edit” FCP project.

For reasons of schedule and availability, I split the editing responsibilities with a second film editor, Patrick Tyler. My initial role was to bring the film to its first cut and then Patrick handled revisions with the producer and director. Once the picture was locked, I rejoined the project to cover final finishing and color grading. My Fair Lidy was on a very accelerated schedule, with sound design and music scoring running on a parallel track. In total, post took about 15 weeks from start to finish.

Finishing and grading

Since we didn’t use FCP’s Log and Transfer function nor the in-camera QuickTime reference files as edit proxies, there was no easy way to get Apple Color to automatically relink clips to the original .r3d files. You can manually redirect Color to link to RED files, but this must be done one shot at a time – not exactly desirable for the 1300 or so shots in the film.

The recommended workflow is to export an XML from FCP 7, which is then opened in Redcine-X. It will correctly reconnect to the .r3d files in place of the QuickTime movies. From there you export a new XML, which can be imported into Color. Voila! A Color timeline that matches the edit using the native camera files. Unfortunately for us, this is where reality came crashing in – literally. No matter what we did, using both  XMLs and EDLs, everything that we attempted to import into Color crashed the application. We also tried ClipFinder, another free application designed for RED media. It didn’t crash Color, but a significant number of shots were incorrectly linked. I suspect some internal confusion because of the A and B camera situation.

On to Plan B. Since Redcine-X correctly links to the media and includes not only controls for the raw settings, but also a healthy toolset for primary color correction, then why not use it for part of the grading process? Follow that up with a pass through Color to establish the stylistic “look”. This ended up working extremely well for us. Here are the basic steps I followed.

Step 1. We broke the film into ten reels and exported an XML file for each reel from FCP 7.

Step 2. Each reel’s XML was imported into Redcine-X as a timeline. I changed all the camera color metadata for each shot to create a neutral look and to match shots to each other. I used RedColor (slightly more saturated than RedColor2) and RedGamma2 (not quite as flat as RedLogFilm), plus adjusted the color temp, tint and ISO values to get a neutral white balance and match the A and B camera angles. The intent was to bring the image “within the goalposts” of the histogram. Occasionally I would make minor exposure and contrast adjustments, but for the most part, I didn’t touch any of the other color controls.

My objective was to end up with a timeline that looked consistent but preserved dynamic range. Essentially that’s the same thing I would do as the first step using the primary tab within Color. The nice part about this is that once I matched the settings of the shots, the A and B cameras looked very consistent.

Step 3. Each timeline was exported from Redcine-X as a single ProResHQ file with these new settings baked in. We had moved the Red Rocket card into the primary workstation, so these 1920 x 1080 clips were rendered with full resolution debayering. As with the dailies, rendering time was largely real-time or somewhat slower. In this case, approximately 10-20 minutes per reel.

Step 4. I imported each rendered clip back into FCP and placed it onto video track two over the corresponding clips for that reel to check the conforming accuracy and sync. Using the “next edit” keystroke, I quickly stepped through the timeline and “razored” each edit point on the clip from Redcine-X. This may sound cumbersome, but only took a couple of minutes for each reel. Now I had an FCP sequence from a single media clip, but with each cut split as an edit point. Doing this creates “notches” that are used by the color correction software for cuts between corrections. That’s been the basis for all “tape-to-tape” color correction since DaVinci started doing it and the new Resolve software still includes a similar automatic scene detection function today.

Step 5. I sent my newly “notched” timeline to Color and graded as I normally would. By using the Redcine-X step as a “pre-grade”, I had done the same thing to the image as I would have done using the RED tab within Color, thus keeping with the plan to grade from the native camera raw files. I do believe the approach I took was faster and better than trying to do it all inside Color, because of the inefficiency of bouncing in and out of the RED tab in Color for each clip. Not to mention that Color really bogs down when working with 4K files, even with a Red Rocket card in place.

Step 6. The exception to this process was any shot that required a blow-up or repositioning. For these, I sent the ProRes file from dailies in place of the rendered shot from Redcine-X. In Color, I would then manually reconnect to the .r3d file and resize the shot in Color’s geometry room, thus using the file’s full 4K size to preserve resolution at 1080 for the blow-up.

Step 7. The last step was to render in Color and then “Send to FCP” to complete the roundtrip. In FCP, the reel were assembled for the full movie and then married to the mixed soundtrack for a finished film.

© 2011 Oliver Peters