Avid Media Composer 2009


Earlier this year Avid released the 3.5 version of Media Composer software, as well as the corresponding versions for NewsCutter and Symphony. Media Composer 3.5 included more change and innovation than a typical .5 software release. Besides many small improvements, there are three big features promoted with this release: software activation, 3D stereoscopic editing and Avid Media Architecture (AMA).

Dumping the dongle

For many years, Avid systems have been tied to a hardware license key, a.k.a. the dongle. This USB device enables licensed installations of Media Composer, Symphony or NewsCutter to work on any computer to which it is connected. Install Media Composer on a PC workstation in the office and a MacBook Pro for the road and simply change from one to the other by moving the dongle.

Media Composer 3.5 introduced an optional software activation similar to that used by Adobe. Opting for software activation disables the dongle and from then on the system is authorized over the internet. Like Adobe, you may install the software on as many computers as you want, but when you change from one to another, you have to deactivate the first computer and then reactivate the second computer.

You have the option with 3.5, but Avid has switched to only software activation with Media Composer 4.0, which became available during September. Existing customers who are upgrading to 4.0 and already possess a valid dongle, will be able to flash them and continue to use dongle authorization. One cool aspect that shouldn’t be overlooked is that you may now download and use a full version of Media Composer for a free 30-day trial without dongle or software activation. This try-and-buy offer is an excellent way for anyone new to Avid systems to get comfortable with Media Composer.

I’m seeing double

Avid Media Composer 3.5 became the first creative editing application to let editors work with – and display – 3D stereo content, without the need for a third party plug-in. Other NLEs, like Quantel iQ Pablo, have already offered 3D capabilities, but these systems are generally used for DI finishing and not creative cutting.

Footage recorded for 3D productions, using either side-by-side or over-under camera configurations, is stored in two sets of image sequence files. These correspond to the left and right eye views from each camera. Avid offers MetaFuze – a free Windows utility – to combine these files into a single Avid-ready MXF media file. The MXF file contains the muxed – or “fuzed” – images in a common stereo format. Media Composer’s 3D stereo preferences can be set to off (you’ll see an over-under image), left eye only, right eye only or checkerboard (an interlaced view of the left and right eye images).  Media Composer 4.0 also adds a side-by-side view. In addition to stereo image files, MetaFuze 2.0 will also transcode native .R3D files from the RED One camera.

During normal editing, the editor would set the system preferences to left or right eye only in order to display normal images for cutting. You wouldn’t want to cut with the over-under or checkerboard display. When it comes time to screen a rough cut with a director, the editor would switch the system to checkerboard, don 3D glasses and view the playback as a stereo image. Unfortunately, this comes with a few caveats. Viewing the image in 3D requires a 3D-compatible LCD screen, plasma screen or projector with active glasses and an emitter. You cannot use a software-only Media Composer and expect to switch to full screen playback and see proper 3D on your standard computer display.

There are no controls to correct or alter convergence. 3D finishing systems, like Quantel, offer such control, which can be used to enhance the stereo effects or lessen issues that might cause eye strain and headaches. Avid uses half-resolution images, meaning that a 1920 x 1080 left or right eye frame is only 1920 x 540. The two files are then interlaced to create a single, combined 1920 x 1080 frame. Finally, Avid offers no 3D finishing path within its own product line. You can’t take a Media Composer project to an Avid DS and create a 3D stereo digital cinema master. Such a master would require full-resolution left and right eye images in a 48fps format. Currently Avid recommends that you export an EDL, AAF or Filmscribe XML file for finishing in a DI system, such as Quantel iQ Pablo.

I haven’t cut a 3D project yet, so the whole stereoscopic buzz is lost on me. I understand the box office argument, but I feel that the size of the potential user market isn’t big enough for Avid to spend precious R&D resources on. But, if you are cutting a 3D film without Avid’s new stereoscopic features, any 3D test screenings during the course of locking the cut come with a lot more effort and cost. If you are working on such a project, Media Composer’s 3D stereoscopic solution will definitely save you money.

Native editing with camera file formats

Avid Media Architecture (AMA) is a new plug-in API, like Apple FCP’s Log and Transfer. AMA gives Media Composer the ability to take native media from a card, disk or volume and open it directly into Media Composer as a bin. No import or ingest required and it comes complete with all the camera-generated metadata. Avid must work with the camera manufacturers to write drivers for AMA. Right now Sony (XDCAM), Ikegami (GFcam,) and Panasonic (P2) are onboard, but there is hope that others, like RED, will join the party.

I tested AMA with both P2 and XDCAM-EX media. It works well if you stick with Avid’s recommended practices, but isn’t foolproof if you deviate. One of the P2 shooters I work with clones his cards to small USB drives. The result is a partition that mounts for each card. 13 cards means 13 hard drive partitions on my Mac desktop. The Media Composer “Link to AMA volume” command opens each partition as a bin, which is populated with clip data and is ready to edit. Unfortunately, Media Composer had trouble tracking this many different AMA volumes. After a few times opening the project, it would start to lose links to the media and more and more clips would show up as “media offline”.

Then I tested a different approach, which proved more successful. I took the same small drive and copied the contents of each partition to folders on my local drive, being careful to maintain the P2 folder structure. By doing this, it was possible to load any or all of these folders into Media Composer by designating them as AMA volumes. Avid further recommends to consolidate media that you intend to keep. Consolidation copies the native files into a standard Avid Media Files folder. In either case, my test project continued to work well with either AMA or consolidated media.

AMA offers various workflows. If you are cutting fast-breaking news, you’d probably just link to an AMA volume and cut directly from the native media. This could even be a P2 card or XDCAM disc pulled directly from the camera. A film editor would take a different approach. A digital feature project might start by linking to the AMA volume for each day’s dailies. Then transcode those clips to Avid’s DNxHD36 lightweight editing codec. Move the transcoded clips to a new bin and delete the AMA bin. When you are done with the rough cut and ready to finish at a higher resolution, simply link to one large AMA volume containing the native camera media. The files open into Media Composer as one or more AMA bins. Finally, relink your edited sequence to those files.

But wait, there’s more

The dongle, 3D images and AMA have received the most attention, but there are two additional new features worth noting in Media Composer 3.5. That’s the new FluidStabilizer and the SubCap generator effect. SubCap is a both an effect and a method to add open captioning to your sequence. You can import text files of the dialogue and set a look based on style sheets. Previously this function required everything to be built from scratch or to use one of the several plug-ins developed for captioning. Now you can do it within the basic feature set of Media Composer. SubCap will be welcomed by editors posting foreign language projects or other open captioned shows, such as museum presentations.

FluidStabilizer is a stabilization and tracking effect based on Avid’s FluidMotion technology. Instead of specifically adding a number of tracking points on the screen, simply use FluidStabilizer or FluidTracker. You can set one point on the image and the tracker will automatically set a number of surrounding tracking points related to that original point. It will then track this “cloud” of points to derive a motion path. If you are trying to stabilize a shaky image, then simply increase the scale to get rid of the frame edges. After the track has been analyzed, Media Composer will playback the stabilized shot in real-time.

The big news of Avid Media Composer 4.0 is to improve the openness of Avid’s “open timeline”. Prior to this release, you could only mix media with matching frame rates, so mixing 720p/59.94 content with 480i/29.97 and 1080i/29.97 wasn’t always practical. Those barriers are now gone, which means that Media Composer editors will finally be able to freely combine various video resolutions and frame-rates onto the same timeline.

As a whole, Media Composer 3.5 and now 4.0 are very healthy updates to this professional editing tool. It proves that even in challenging financial times, Avid is continuing to invest in its development effort. This gives experienced users a reason to stay with Media Composer and first time Avid editors a toolset that’s hard to resist.

©2009 Oliver Peters   Originally written for NewBay Media LLC and Videography Magazine

Edit Suite Design, Part III


Last year I wrote about designing a cost-effective HD edit suite and compared  three budget ranges for both an Avid and an FCP suite. This year I’ve put together one updated spreadsheet (download here). It’s interesting to see that over the course of this past year, some of the numbers have come down and you can assemble a very functional room for even less money.


About the numbers

What’s cost-effective to me might not be so to others. Let’s take a look at the bottom line. My total came in at about $70K for an FCP room. Bear in mind that this includes nearly everything: workstation, consoles, racks, storage, acoustic treatments, etc. Since I used a variety of online resources, actual prices will fluctuate. This is an FCP room using an AJA Kona LHi. This card covers most of your analog and digital i/o needs and is good for nearly all FCP jobs, short of 2K and 4:4:4 work. Add some room construction (or maybe none at all) and you are good to go.

My number also includes a 5% contingency, a 15% labor estimate (installation, wiring, integration), an extra $1,000 for last minute items (more connectors, cables, tools) and an extra $2,500 for miscellaneous software, like plug-ins. This means that if you are really frugal and are a total DIY-er, you might get the same room done for a bit over $55K.

On the other hand, I have not included shipping, sales tax, VTRs/decks/readers or any room construction costs. These will vary depending on state laws, vendors used and support needs, but suffice it to say that sales tax and shipping – plus room construction – could easily add $20K to this total. In other words, the realistic range for this same set of items is from $55K to under $100K, PLUS decks.


Software and systems

My estimate is for a fully-equipped Final Cut Studio room, but I have also included the Adobe Production Premium bundle. Although that package is centered around Premiere Pro, the reason I opted for the bundle is because Photoshop and After Effects are essential in many editorial workflows. These two apps alone justify the bundle, so you get the rest nearly for free. If you don’t see that working for you and just need basic graphic design and photo correction tools, then replace the bundle with something basic, like Adobe Photoshop Elements, Corel Paint Shop Pro or Pixelmator. Instead of $1,700, you would then only spend between $50 and $150.

I’m a fan of control surfaces and one big feature of the new Final Cut Studio update is support for the Euphonix EuCon protocol. I’ve loaded this estimate with three of their panels for mixing and color grading. Unfortunately these don’t work with Adobe or Avid NLE software. If you prefer to build an Adobe-centric room, then simply drop the Final Cut software and the Euphonix panels and save nearly $4,000.

Avid requires a little more mix-and-match. You’d make the same deletions as for Adobe, but also drop the AJA Kona LHi card and breakout box (another $2,000 deduction). You would replace this with either the Avid Media Composer Mojo DX or Nitris DX hardware/software bundle. Mojo DX is a digital unit. If you need analog i/o, then you would either have to pay the higher price for Nitris DX or augment the Mojo DX with external conversion. Options include the AJA FS1 or smaller AJA and/or Blackmagic Design converters. In any case, the uppermost number would be that of the Avid Media Composer Nitris DX bundle at approximately $15K.

To summarize, a Premiere Pro room, using all the same numbers would bring this total into the mid-$60K range and a Media Composer Nitris DX room would top out at about $80K. When you build a room like this, it is realistic to plan on a three-year initial investment before the next major upgrade (not counting routine software updates and support). The difference between a system costing $65K and one costing $80K isn’t that big for a productive business. In short, your choice of NLE will be based on personal preference more than the actual cost of just the software application itself.


Equipment selection

1. Monitors – CRTs are still important, but LCDs are catching up. You still need a CRT for checking interlacing issues, but I don’t think it really needs to be the prime monitor in the edit suite any longer. I put a CRT in the rack, but not in the suite to keep the clutter down. One big issue for an LCD or plasma in a suite is how well it displays standard definition video. Color/image reproduction is obviously important, but if you do a lot of SD work, it doesn’t matter how well the image looks in HD. Most of the professional LCDs work well, including Panasonic, JVC, FSI, TV Logic and others.

2. Scopes – This is an item that people are reluctant to spend money on – especially since many apps have built-in software scopes. I plugged in a Blackmagic Design UltraScope, because I think it fills a good niche at a relatively low cost. Remember that your built-in software scope won’t show the output of the i/o card nor the levels on a VTR. Avid doesn’t display software scopes outside of the color correction mode. FCP’s performance is often challenged when its scopes are active. These issues make an external scope desirable.

3. Audio – Edit suite audio signals are rarely passed through an analog mixer for any purpose other than simple monitoring. Unless you happen to have a personal preference for one brand or another, then go with a reasonable, inexpensive brand for speakers and mixers. Behringer is one such brand, but there are others. Make sure the preamps are decent if you record voice-overs through the mixer, but otherwise, nearly any low-cost mixer will do the job.

4. Racks / terminal gear – The particular configuration I’ve spelled out includes a set of prewired racks that are designed to accommodate several VTRs of various formats. The world is going tapeless, so many people are skipping the purchase of a dedicated VTR. Many rent the deck they need based on each project. That’s fine, but you have to be ready to integrate it into your system, which means having an available location to put the rental deck (like an open shelf in the rack) and a wiring harness that is ready to go. Whether you own or rent a deck or a tapeless device like an XDCAM or P2 player, this estimate includes cables, connectors and patching to make any permanent or ad hoc installation totally plug-and-play.

It’s also worth noting that this rack estimate includes enough spare capacity for the addition of a second room. If you decide to add a second suite later for edit, graphics or audio, then that installation will cost less. There will be less rack and wiring to buy, not to mention a lower labor cost.


Room layout

There are plenty of ways to design rooms and obviously this is going to be based on the space available. Most people don’t have the luxury of a blank slate. A typical office arrangement of two adjacent 12’ x 15’ rooms is enough room to accommodate an edit console, a client desk, equipment racks and a small voice-over booth. More space is nice, of course, but if most of the time only one editor is present in this space, then it will be just right.

The idea behind the two adjacent rooms is that it permits the equipment to be located outside of the edit suite (keeps the noise down), but yet close enough for the editor to get to it when needed. Only a few longer cables are needed, so there is no major expense in removing the gear from the room. If the distance is greater than just the other side of a wall, Cat5-to-DVI extenders will let you place the computers some distance away from their displays.


Acoustics and power

You are building a functional edit suite – not a recording studio. If you have the bucks for the latter, then go for it, but that’s not the situation most are in. Modern edit suites are found in all sorts of home and general office environments. The installed power and HVAC is usually adequate; so, even though it’s not ideal, there’s no real reason to spend tons of money for new circuits, A/C units or other, just to install one basic edit suite. The common 15-amp and 20-amp circuits you run into will power the gear in this spreadsheet. I swear by beefy UPS systems, however. These condition the power by evening out frequency and voltage fluctuation, which adds life to your gear and reduces file corruption. UPS systems also give you sufficient time to properly save, exit and shutdown in the event of building power failure.

How you handle room acoustics depends on: a) whether you are trying to keep out exterior sounds (like traffic noise); b) whether you are trying to keep edit noise inside the suite (speaker volume and privacy); or c) trying to just reduce the natural reverberation within the room. I have included sound treatment kits in the estimate designed to cover the issue of room reverberation (item C), as well as provide some “deadness” for a vocal booth.

If you intend to do more construction, then here are some additional tips to deal with all three circumstances.

1. Parallel walls – Most studios are built with non-parallel surfaces. Check out some of the showcase rooms at Walters-Storyk Design Group and you’ll get some “wow!” ideas based on many of the premier studio facilities in the world. If you are building your own, modest room, then add a slight angle to the walls wherever possible. This reduces “slap echo” – sound that bounces back and forth between two opposite walls. Typically this means that the editor end of the room will be narrower than the client end of the room.


2. Soundproofing walls – Most principles for soundproofing walls are based on density. Check out some of these ideas from Acoustic Sciences Corporation.

Quick fixes for the DIY-er:

– Double the sheetrock on each side of the wall

–  (4 sheets of gypsum board or 2 + 2 sheets of sound board)

–  Caulk all sheetrock seams

–  Screw the sheetrock to the studs, don’t use nails

–  Add a plastic vapor barrier in the wall, adhered to the studs

–  Stuff the wall with insulation


3. Ceilings – Unless you can build an enclosed room-with-a-room, you will have to contend with drop ceilings in an office space. Sound will be transmitted over the walls through the ceiling. If you have no other option, then the best remedy is simply to load up the ceiling with very thick rolled insulation on top of the ceiling tiles. Make sure the drop ceiling will support this, since the weight adds up.

4. Windows – I like rooms with outside light, but these can be a sound issue. The best approach is double-paned glass. Recording studios tackle this by installing custom-designed windows using two thick, angled glass panes. In the case of an edit suite, upgraded commercial windows will do the trick.

5. Doors – If you’ve done all of the above, then the doors will be the remaining source of sound transmission. Recording studios install massive doors and even sound locks, but this isn’t practical or warranted for most edit suites. Two easy fixes are solid-core, hardwood doors and weather stripping. Solid doors provide mass to stop the sound. The weather-stripping trim around the door and along the bottom of the door will help to seal off sound passing through these air gaps.

© 2009 Oliver Peters