Avid’s New Thinking and the DX Hardware

Right on schedule, Avid rolled out its new DX product line in June. This was previewed at customer events before and during NAB as the tangible part of the company’s “New Thinking” campaign. It is typified by new hardware, lower prices and a simplification of the core editing product line, including the end-of-life for most of its DNA (digital nonlinear accelerator) products, launched in 2003. With DX, Avid has abandoned the use of the FireWire bus and older PCI-X slots for the much wider data path offered by the PCI Express (PCIe) computing architecture favored by Apple and HP. The new editing family now consists of the Media Composer software, two hardware/software bundles (Mojo DX and Nitris DX) and the turnkey Symphony Nitris DX system.


In the box


Avid Media Composer 3.0 hit the street at a price of under $2500 – literally half off of the previous MSRP. As a software product, it begs direct comparison to the suites offered by Adobe and Apple. Media Composer previously shipped with some third party applications, but Media Composer 3.0 is a powerful collection that rivals the competing suites. Along with Avid’s own utilities like EDL Manager and FilmScribe, you get solutions for encoding (Sorenson Squeeze), standard-def and Blu-ray high-def DVD authoring (Avid DVD by Sonic), music scoring (SmartSound Sonicfire Pro with two library discs) and compositing (Avid FX and Boris Continuum Complete filters). Avid FX (originally offered as part of the optional Avid Toolkit) is the AVX plug-in version of Boris Red, so you get as much compositing horsepower as After Effects or Motion right inside the NLE host. Another important Avid application included is MetaFuze, which is designed to convert file-based media, such as DPX and TIFF image sequences, into Avid-compatible media. MetaFuze is a key application for editors using Media Composer in a DI environment.


Avid Media Composer 3.0 sports minor cosmetic changes to the interface and performance tweaks, along with two new effects – a real-time timecode generator and subtitle captioning. Neither of these counts as a big marketing bullet-point, but they will rate high with every editor, because they improve daily productivity. The most impressive change, however, is under the hood. The code to process the video effects pipeline has been rewritten and is now optimized for multi-core processing and the power of modern graphic display cards. Avid operates in four video quality modes identified at the bottom of the timeline by a green and/or yellow button: full 10-bit, full, draft or best performance. The two highest settings are full quality that you can use to master to tape, while the lower two are best when you need to preview a very complex effects composite and want to see maximum real-time playback, but with a softer image. It is important to understand that unlike other software NLEs, when a Media Composer real-time effect plays in the full quality mode, it is indeed just that and does not require rendering.


The DX hardware


The key new products are the Mojo DX and Nitris DX interfaces. Both use a 4-data-lane PCIe card installed into the workstation, which connects to the external break-out box with a tether cable. Avid offers an optional PCIe Express 34 slot laptop card, so both Mojo DX and Nitris DX can also be used in the field. Thanks to PCIe’s wider data path, Mojo DX and Nitris DX capture and playback most SD and HD formats over SDI/HD-SDI. Mojo DX offers digital I/O (plus analog audio monitoring) while Nitris DX sports a wider range of digital and analog connections. Both include an HDMI port for monitoring, freeing SDI/HD-SDI for VTRs or digital routers. A lot of attention was paid to the J-K-L transport ballistics and this new hardware feels as responsive as the old, reliable Meridien Avids. The FireWire latency of Adrenaline that drove many editors up a wall is a thing of the past. Nitris DX also includes an embedded DNxHD hardware codec, but on a fast machine both DX units will let you capture uncompressed or DNxHD-compressed high-def video. With a Mojo DX, the computer’s CPU has to carry the compression load for DNxHD, while Nitris DX offloads this function to its internal hardware.


Pick your raster


The most visible part of this new pipeline is the ability to select between standard and thin raster format settings. This toggle affects both the hardware and the software. For example, the standard display raster for 1080i is 1920×1080 pixels, but if you are shooting HDV, the actual recording is only 1440 pixels wide. In a project that exclusively uses native HDV footage – or for that matter XDCAM-HD or DVCPRO HD – you can choose to edit in the thin raster size of 1440×1080. When you do that, the entire video pipeline operates at that size, so no GPU or CPU cycles are wasted during real-time or rendered compositing, simply to expand 1440 pixels out to 1920 pixels and then back. Everything is done internally at the thin size and then sent to Mojo DX or Nitris DX, which employs hardware scaling to expand the outbound image back to a standard size of 1920×1080. This is most useful when all of your footage is predominantly one format. If you have a timeline mashing up different native formats and sizes, the hardware scaling offers less of an advantage, since then the scaling of any mixed-format composites has to be done in the software first.


Avid Media Composer integrates one of the best on-the-fly format conversions. You can freely intercut 480, 720 and 1080 formats (with compatible frame rates) on the same timeline and they will be scaled to a common target output – up, down or cross-converted – in real-time. You can even layer clips of different formats over each other with full quality playback! When you master to tape via HD-SDI or SDI out of Mojo DX or Nitris DX, the final scaling of a mixed-format timeline is handled by that hardware.


Real world performance


I ran a number of tests with various Symphony and Media Composer configurations on octo-core (3GHz) MacPro and HP workstations, as well as a custom quad-core (2.66GHz) GoFlex317HD laptop provided by 1 Beyond Systems. My tests included the typical layering benchmark, where you stack a bunch of tracks with 2D PIP effects and see when the system starts to drop frames. Most editors don’t spend a lot of time building flying boxes so other tests were more true to life – mixing formats, adding color correction, transitions and titles. The DX hardware does not accelerate effects – only output scaling and DNxHD encode/decode in the case of Nitris DX. Therefore, results were pretty similar between the two units and even in a software-only mode, which means that most of the horsepower comes from the new programming and optimization.


Most of the systems played back full quality 1080i or 1080p content during the layer tests up to about the fifth track of video before dropping frames. Simple 2D PIP effects are a “friendly” test for a system that optimizes GPU power, but as expected, the performance drops when you add 3D DVE rotation or a drop shadow. A more accurate real-world test was one of the mixed format tests. In one 1080i HDV sequence, the system was able to handle a single track with real-time color-correction, dissolves and titles without dropping frames. Even the laptop let me add two alternating tracks of 720p/23.98 content with 2D PIP effects over a background of 1080p/23.98 and never dropped frames in the full quality mode. These results exceed the performance of Avid Media Composer Adrenaline or an Apple Final Cut Pro system with an AJA or Blackmagic Design card.


Real-time performance is nice, but even better is vastly improved rendering. Most of my timelines involved eight or nine layers for 30 to 40 seconds. All of these machines (MacPro, HP or GoFlex317HD laptop) took between one and two minutes to render each test, although render times naturally increased when 2D effects were changed to 3D. As with real-time performance, Media Composer 3.0 won the speed test when compared with similar sequences using Final Cut Pro 6.0.3 running on a quad-core (3GHz) MacPro.


Is it enough?


Avid is slugging it out for the hearts and minds of professional editors. The Avid DX equipment is a big improvement over DNA, but most of the power is in the software. You could argue that makes DX a pricey alternative to AJA, Matrox or Blackmagic Design hardware, but the value is in the total package. If you want to run hardware with Media Composer 3.0, you have to buy Avid hardware. If you own any viable editorial business, then the difference in the comparative costs over a three year period is inconsequential. So, if you prefer editing on an Avid, then there’s really no financial reason not to.


I’m less enthused about Symphony Nitris DX. On the plus side, Symphony is back on the Mac; but, for the first time in Symphony’s existence, there is no hardware advantage for the product over Media Composer. It’s the exact same Nitris DX hardware. Symphony adds Universal Mastering (the ability to generate NTSC or PAL from 480p/23.98 or 1080p/25 from 1080p/23.98 media files) and advanced color-correction with source-based and secondary grading. Both are nice features, but it’s hard to justify the nearly $14,000 difference between turnkey versions of Media Composer Nitris DX and Symphony Nitris DX.


The Avid DX products are very solid and hopefully the start of more great things to come. Aside from focusing on real-time performance, remember that Media Composer continues to offer many advanced features, like ScriptSync, an integrated (and newly improved) 3D DVE and robust media management. The changes in Media Composer code have laid the groundwork for even more features to be added at a swifter pace. Avid Media Composer remains the most feature-laden, powerful NLE on the market – at the most affordable price ever.


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