Adobe Creative Suite 4 – A First Look

Hot on the heals of last year’s huge Adobe software release, the company has quickly turned around another batch of impressive updates in its new Creative Suite 4 line-up. Once again, these products can be purchased individually or as part of various collections for web, video and print. Plus the all-in-one Master Collection. All CS4 products will ship by the end of Q4 2008. The Creative Suite family constitutes major growth for Adobe, which expects to ship approximately 500,000 pieces of just the video portion of this software to over 300,000 customers by the end of 2008.


I’ll focus my comments on Adobe Creative Suite 4 Production Premium – the collection for video professionals. Its main applications include Premiere Pro, After Effects, Photoshop Extended, Illustrator, Flash Professional, Encore, OnLocation and Soundbooth. In addition, there are also other utilities designed to aid your workflow, such as Bridge, Device Central, Dynamic Link and Adobe Media Encoder.


Common feature enhancements


Going into depth on each application in the collection would require the entire magazine, so I’ll stick to the highlights. Across the board, Adobe has concentrated on several big improvements and additions between CS3 and CS4. These include user interface changes, searchable metadata based on XMP support and speech-to-text technology. The user interfaces of the various applications continue to move closer to a common Adobe layout. This tabbed workspace design is most completely implemented in Premiere Pro, After Effects and Soundbooth. Most of the applications have gained search fields that operate like Apple’s Spotlight. Typing information into the search field of a Premiere Pro bin will filter the displayed contents to match your criteria. In After Effects, for example, you can filter timeline layers to only display tracks where the object’s position has been altered, simply by typing “position” into the search field. Most of the applications have been metadata-enabled so meaningful descriptions, titles, keywords and copyright information can be captured and embedded into files using open source XMP technology.


Both Premiere Pro and Soundbooth have added a powerful, new speech recognition technology called Speech Search to automatically transcribe dialogue into searchable text. After the transcription process is complete, simply click on a word in the generated text (now part of the clip’s metadata) and the media file will instantly cue to the corresponding point. It’s a great technology, but I was less than satisfied with the accuracy of the automatic transcription. I picked one of Adobe’s demo clips (an interview with cinematographer Rob Legato) and had Soundbooth create a transcription. Legato speaks quickly but clearly, however the accuracy was only about 50% and turned such phrases as “a short shooting schedule” into “the court shaving scandal”. The latter might make for an interesting movie plot, but I wonder whether the time required to edit a transcription is too great of an offset to effectively use this feature on a real project. The accuracy was better on a different test file, but still at least 25% of the phrases were incorrect. In spite of that, Speech Search seems like a very useful tool for documentary editors. In fact, even some Avid editors have theorized that you could use Soundbooth CS4 to create transcriptions that in turn could be imported into Avid Media Composer for use with their

ScriptSync feature.


Aside from Speech Search, the biggest new product feature in Adobe Premiere Pro CS4 and After Effects CS4 is the native support for various tapeless camera formats. You can natively edit content from Panasonic P2 (DVCPRO, DVCPRO HD and AVC-Intra), Sony XDCAM-HD and XDCAM-EX media without transcoding or rewrapping. Premiere Pro can access the metadata for these clips and edit directly from the cards or use its built-in Media Browser to transfer the media to your local media drives for better performance. Running Premiere Pro CS4 on a dual-core 2.8 GHz iMac was a pleasure. Native 720p/23.98 DVCPROHD clips (imported from P2) played smoothly and JKL transport controls were very responsive even on media playing from the internal drive.


Although not technically part of this release, Adobe is currently working with RED Digital Cinema to develop a plug-in that would enable Premiere Pro and After Effects users to natively edit with RED’s .R3D camera raw files. You can see demos of how this will work at Dave Helmly’s blog. Adobe recognizes the potential of a raw workflow and plans to give editors access to debayering, gamma, ISO and white balance controls within their software.


The biggest changes


The most radical change in the Production Premium bundle is Adobe OnLocation CS4. The interface has been “Adobe-ized” and no longer sports the appearance of physical test gear installed in a rack. It now runs on both Macs and PCs and operates as the front-end, direct-to-disk recorder for an integrated end-to-end Adobe workflow. As before, it turns your desktop or laptop into a recording station, complete with monitor (your screen) and software scopes, but now features better clip management and the ability to add metadata to clips. DV and HDV cameras connected via FireWire work with OnLocation.


Soundbooth CS4 has evolved from a two-track to multi-track audio tool. Adobe does not view Soundbooth as a DAW competitor. It offers Audition (only sold individually) for those customers. Instead, Soundbooth CS4 is designed as a “helper” application to be used with Premiere Pro by video editors or Flash Professional by web developers. Soundbooth is designed as a less complex, task-based application for audio recording, editing, clean-up, mixing and music production. Although you can drill down into the effect filters and make custom adjustments, Soundbooth groups its processes by tasks with default presets. There are a decent set of tools for two-track audio production, similar to what you might find in BIAS Peak Pro or Sony Sound Forge. These are augmented with music composition tools using Adobe’s royalty-free scores. You can purchase new scores from Adobe’s Resource Central website, as well as download a wealth of free sound effects. Score creation with Soundbooth CS4 is similar to using Smart Sound’s Sonic Fire Pro, letting you tailor the length and arrangement of the score to your video. Now with multi-track support, you can mix dialogue, music and effects within Soundbooth CS4. A video editor will find Soundbooth CS4 useful for its clean-up and music tools, but a web producer would potentially do 100% of the audio production for a Flash website or a podcast with Soundbooth CS4.


The rest of the collection


Changes in the other applications might seem less dramatic depending on your needs. Photoshop CS4 Extended has gained 3D layer support. For the first time, you can import 3D objects into Photoshop. These can be manipulated in 3D space, including the ability to add textures, paint and make color modification. After Effects CS4 supports these 3D layers and also gained numerous enhancements. It includes a new built-in cartoon effect and comes bundled with Imagineer Systems’ Mocha for After Effects 2.5D planar motion tracking application.


Video layers were added last year to Photoshop CS3 Extended, so CS4 makes Photoshop an even more powerful tool for motion graphics of all types. Even the basic version offers more power than most video editors use, so I wish Adobe would offer a cheaper version with features that fit between Photoshop Elements and Photoshop CS4. I’m also surprised that Adobe hasn’t developed natural media painting features in Photoshop. This still seems to be an area left solely to Corel Painter.


In the past, you had to access the Adobe Media Encoder through Premiere Pro, but it is now included as a standalone application. It includes presets for all the popular media options (MPEG2, H264, iPod, Flash, etc.) and is one of the cleanest encoders I’ve used. I think you’ll find it a worthy rival for Apple Compressor, Sorenson Squeeze or Telestream Episode.


Although Flash CS4 Professional is part of this video bundle, you can now generate a Flash project directly from After Effects. Flash CS4 Professional received a total makeover with a timeline more like After Effects, but if you’re still more comfortable working in After Effects, then start there and later export to Flash CS4 Professional for completion. Another Adobe application that works with Flash is Encore. As in CS3, the updated CS4 version lets you author standard DVDs, Flash projects and Blu-ray high-def DVDs from a single project file. The CS3 version limited the Flash projects to 640×480 window sizes, but this limitation has been lifted in CS4. Now interactive Flash projects created in Encore can be designed in up to HD window sizes. Speaking of interactivity, Adobe is touting better Blu-ray authoring in Encore, though no BD-J authoring. I had no way to test this, but Blu-ray authoring is not yet a mature process. There have been compatibility issues with early players and Adobe has posted a number of trouble-shooting suggestions online. Since Blu-ray is an evolving technology, do your research if the sole interest in this software is to create Blu-ray DVDs.


More tools for your tool chest


As in the past, this collection is one of the most comprehensive “studio” bundles with a price that bests the competition in value. If you’re an Adobe fan, CS4 is a worthy upgrade. If you rely on Apple Final Cut Pro or Avid Media Composer for editing, Adobe is betting that there are enough essential applications in the bundle to make it worth your while just to pick up the whole package. Photoshop and After Effects are integral tools for most editors and Encore continues as a powerful, yet low-cost DVD authoring tool, so right there in three applications, you have paid for all the rest.


Adobe is a company that’s neutral in many of the big platform debates. They sell software and don’t have a vested interest in selling hardware. As such, there’s plenty of third party hardware and plug-in support to make Premiere Pro attractive to first time NLE users or switchers from other systems. With integrated metadata support, native operation with the most popular tapeless cameras and the ability to export to just about every one of today’s popular media formats, Adobe Creative Suite 4 Production Premium is a package you’ll want to add to your system.


Written by Oliver Peters for Videography magazine and NewBay Media, LLC.