Final Cut vs. Avid Redux

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People like competition for its own sake, so the NLE argument – just like other platform wars – never dies. In the past year, Apple and Avid have broken new ground with very solid updates to their flagship editor applications. Apple with its introduction of the “new” Final Cut Studio, featuring Final Cut Pro 7 – and Avid, first with Media Composer 3.5 and now 4.0. Although Final Cut is today my first choice when picking an NLE to use, I have years of experience with both systems. In this post, I’m trying to present a balanced (non-“fanboy”) look at the two.

A market share tally

Apple claims 1.3 million licensed Final Cut users, however, this figure includes all Final Cut Pro, Final Cut Express and Final Cut Studio licenses since day one, excluding upgrades. One research study pointed to 47% market share for Apple and 22% for Avid a couple of years ago. Recently Apple execs indicated to me that FCP has now passed the 50% mark for all new NLE sales. If the figure of 1.3M licensed users represents nearly 50% of the total market, then this means that Avid must have between 400,000 and 600,000 systems (all products) out in the field worldwide.

Although this would seem to give Apple the lead in the NLE wars, one must understand that the Final Cut world is heavily skewed with a wide range of amateur users – students, hobbyists and non-editing video professionals who occasionally do some of their own “hands on” cutting. I think that it’s fair to say that a greater percentage of Avid users are professional editors. It’s my observation that broadcast news and traditional (major studio) film and television show post is dominated by Avid NLEs. In contrast, the boutique editing world of small and medium markets has shifted in favor of Apple’s Final Cut. In all likelihood, the number of users who make a living with either Final Cut or Avid (Media Composer/NewsCutter/Symphony plus Avid DS) is probably fairly even.

Many perceptions of Apple’s and Avid’s products are based on outdated information. Both are robust enough to meet deadline-driven demands. Each comes with pros and cons, however, the choice often comes down to preference and background. Avid reacted late to market forces that have brought better hardware and lower cost, but they are by no means out of the game. Final Cut is no longer the young upstart. It still benefits from Apple’s “coolness” halo, but there’s no longer the “pirate radio” attitude among users that spawned the fledgling FCP user groups at the beginning. Lots of indie films and reality TV shows can be counted in the FCP camp, but the number of major broadcasters and feature film editors who continue to stay loyal to Avid hasn’t significantly changed. In spite of such notable editors as Walter Murch, the Coens, Angus Wall and Billy Fox being vocal proponents of Final Cut, the numbers really haven’t shifted since the release of Cold Mountain. Nevertheless, by every assessment, it seems clear that Apple’s Final Cut Pro market share is still growing in all sectors, while Avid’s isn’t – even in Hollywood.

Let’s take a look at how these two newest versions stack up against each other.

What comes in the box

The Final Cut Studio and Avid Media Composer bundles are both collections of several companion applications. It’s obvious with Final Cut, but often forgotten with Avid.  Both software packages include dedicated applications for editing, compression, DVD authoring, Blu-ray authoring, multi-layered compositing/effects and film database management. Final Cut includes a separate DAW (Soundtrack Pro) and color grading tool (Color). Avid doesn’t have these, but does offer the Boris Continuum Complete filters. BCC6 would double the price of Final Cut Studio if you purchased these for FCP.

Software updates are a touch-and-go issue. We see that once again with Snow Leopard and I’m sure we’ll see that with Windows 7 as well. Avid tends to hang back before their products are qualified for the latest OS updates, but when they are ready, it’s a fairly simple matter of a few updates and you are done. If you live in the Final Cut world, then you’re more likely to stay on top of Apple’s latest updates. This typically involves both the OS and QuickTime. Unfortunately this comes with an uncomfortable dance to make sure all your software, plug-ins and hardware drivers are compatible. Final Cut users simply have to be more vigilant anytime an update or upgrade rolls around.

One further consideration is that Media Composer is cross-platform and FCP only runs on Macs. This isn’t a big deal for FCP users, of course, but many professional editing environments are built on Windows workstations. Using either a dongle or software activation, the same Media Composer license may be legally installed on multiple computers – both Mac or PC. The activated system (or with dongle attached) is the one that may be used at any given time. This means that Avid editors enjoy the benefit of being able to use a PC workstation at work, then activate a Mac laptop and continue editing the project at home or on the road – all with the purchase of a single license. Final Cut Studio does work with multiple installs on different computers, but technically this is a violation of Apple’s EULA. Actually it’s OK to install FCP on 2 personal machines, like a laptop and a tower. Apple intends that you only run one copy at a time and they won’t run concurrently if they are on the same network.

The media backbone

A big item in FCP7 is the addition of more codecs within the ProRes family. This brings ProRes on par with Avid’s DNxHD and in fact, ups the ante with 4:4:4:4 and 2K support. At a casual glance, FCP would seem more open, because of QuickTime – FCP’s underlying media architecture. With the right codecs, QuickTime media files can be directly dragged into FCP – ready to edit without ingest, conversion or rendering. Avid requires an import or ingest phase to convert the media into Avid-compatible OMF or MXF files. That’s the perception at least. In fact, QuickTime is a media standard controlled only by Apple and media that doesn’t match the narrow specs of FCP optimization won’t play very well. Take, for example, H.264 files or RED’s Redcode files. Neither result in a fluid editing experience compared with DV25/50/100 or ProRes.

Yes, you do have to convert some files to DNxHD within Avid, but once you’ve done that, the media plays and scrubs much more responsively in Media Composer than inside FCP. In fact, it’s my experience that even lightweight files like DV25 media are somewhat more responsive in Media Composer than in FCP. Now we are confronted with the issue of native camera formats, like P2 (DVCPRO HD and AVC-Intra) and XDCAM. Avid has embarked on its AMA structure (Avid Media Access), which lets you edit directly from the camera files (or clones of them). Apple still requires these files to be copied and rewrapped as QuickTime movies. I’m all for copying the files before editing, but in a fast-breaking news environment, AMA would seem to give Avid an edge. Copying your files is safer, but native is faster, though at times riskier. In any case, working with native camera media without ANY backup somewhere can be a recipe for disaster.

Media management

FCP is often criticized for its media management. This has become considerably better over recent versions, but it could still stand to improve. I occasionally still run into problems going from offline to online in FCP – something that’s pretty bullet-proof in Avid. Seriously, if you get better results using an EDL than the app’s own Media Manager (as I have), then something is wrong.

The rub is that media linking in FCP is based on a match of name and QuickTime parameters (mainly length and number of tracks). Avid uses reel number and timecode. In addition, both applications track other metadata, but lately Apple has chosen to hide some of that data from the user. For example, when you roundtrip a sequence through Color, your FCP project contains two sequences – before and after Color. The corresponding clips in the two timelines will both carry the same name, but each sequence is linked to a different set of media files: the originals in the before sequence and the Color-rendered media in the after. Although FCP tracks this, that information is “under the hood” and not directly available to the editor.

Avid has always based its media management on two factors: rich metadata that’s embedded into the file wrapper of the media and a database file that cross-references media clips and projects. This results in a more robust media architecture, but one that’s less conducive to drag-and-drop media imports. On balance, both approaches do work well and in spite of occasional hiccups, the FCP approach offers some added versatility for the editor. Thanks to the use of XML, the Apple method has also opened to door to many developers who have created plenty of useful companion applications that let you manipulate media via XML round-tripping.

Collaborative editing

If you’ve ever worked on a feature, TV series or a newscast in which the editors rely on shared storage, then Avid’s Unity has set the standard for concurrent editing workflows. Numerous editors can work inside the exact same project at the same time and each has access to the timelines created by others. This workflow is uniquely Avid’s, although EditShare has created their own viable solution for a similar workflow using either Avid or FCP. If you use another shared storage environment for FCP, like Apple Xsan, you still can’t attain the style of sharing that Avid editors enjoy with Unity. Even though Avid, Quantel, Grass Valley and Facilis are among the companies who have embraced FCP support on their storage, sharing is limited to media, not projects.

It’s important to understand that this does not mean you cannot collaboratively edit with FCP. Mark Raudonis of reality TV shop Bunim-Murray Productions has explained the workflow quite well in this article at Avid2FCP. The key is that Avid stores its metadata in the bins. When an Avid editor on Unity works within a bin, he or she is actually locking all other editors out of that bin. It becomes “read-only” for the others until it’s closed and updated.

FCP stores metadata at the project level. Through careful management, it is possible for FCP editors to enjoy a similar workflow as Avid editors do. Since multiple FCP projects can be open at once, editors can work on local copies of a project. In effect, projects in FCP are treated like bins in an Avid Unity workflow. Nevertheless, the key point is that Avid’s approach automatically takes care of some of the project organization issues. FCP is far more freeform and requires the editors to impose a structured approach of their own, in order to avoid trouble. I personally do some TV station work with both shared Avid+Unity and shared FCP+Xsan systems (in separate departments). I can attest that the “Avid is better because of Unity” argument is a bit of a red herring. Once you get used to the best workflow, both systems get the job done in a collaborative environment.

Tailor your system

An area in which Apple’s Final Cut Studio clearly has an edge is in the sheer number of vendors supplying hardware and software options to enhance the editing environment. I covered this in my “platform” blog post, but one glance at the two ecosystem pages at the top makes it clear that if you want options, FCP is clearly the path for you. In fact, there are a couple of hundred partner-developers who are tied into Apple’s Final Cut Studio structure, many of whom have elements that are integrated right into the FCP UI.

Having a variety of fancy plug-in filters is cool, but the true difference is the availability of third party hardware. This includes audio/video capture and output cards and units (AJA, Blackmagic Design, Matrox, MOTU, Telestream), audio interfaces (Apogee, Focusrite, Presonus) and control surfaces (JL Cooper, Tangent Devices, Euphonix, Mackie, Frontier Designs). If you are an Avid editor, then you are limited to primarily using Avid products.

You do get more choice in the Final Cut world, but at a cost of optimization and performance. AJA, Blackmagic Design and Matrox manufacture great hardware for Final Cut, but I feel that Avid’s hardware delivers more fluid playback, more robust performance and more real-time layers. Nevertheless, third party hardware does a pretty good job of giving this to Final Cut. You might not have quite as much performance, but it won’t cost you as much either. In addition, you may also gain many more options for built-in format/aspect conversions and other valuable features. The choice of third party hardware is one of the key reasons that editors and owners are turning to Final Cut over Avid solutions. That same choice is also high on the wish list of many Avid editors.

This shift toward Final Cut has not been lost on the broadcast server manufacturers, like Omneon, Grass Valley, Quantel and yes, even Avid. All have promoted the fact that you can integrate Final Cut Pro editing clients into their server environment. Media Composer isn’t automatically excluded, but obviously they see the value of promoting this feature to potential Final Cut users. Many broadcasters now work with mixed environments: Avid for hard news and Final Cut for creative services (spots, promos, specials).

Unique features

It’s hard to decide how unique features stack up when comparing Media Composer 4 to Final Cut Pro 7. Both companies are cognizant that their users have to make a living with these products and have been careful not to break things with new features. As much as I like FCP, I have to say that Apple at times tends to be a “refiner” rather than an innovator, when it comes to their Pro Apps software. Many of the products were acquired, although the very innovative Aperture, Motion and Soundtrack Pro are exceptions. More often than not, FCP has introduced new features that had been in Media Composer or other NLEs for quite some time. Apple frequently refines these features, making them easier to use and more efficient; but, the real talent is in their marketing. Apple creates the atmosphere that such “bells and whistles” were first introduced in Final Cut, when in fact they weren’t. Of course, all NLEs copy each other to some extent. Both companies integrate innovations first found in Premiere Pro or EDIUS or Quantel, as well as the other way around.

We have reached a time when NLE tools are pretty mature. It’s very hard to come up with new, earth-shattering tools that set one product apart from another. Still, I don’t want to take away from the advances in FCP 7. The new speed tools, Sharing, Blu-ray support and general editing refinements, like sequence markers that ripple, go a long way towards addressing the needs of working editors. Apple is big on the user experience and I personally find their approach in FCP makes for faster editing. Obviously, others are going to vehemently disagree. I value the in-context, in-timeline editing tools and find that my style on Media Composer has also changed based on how I now edit in FCP. In short, it’s made me a faster editor on both systems.

However, these are refinements and not truly unique items that aren’t offered directly or indirectly by other NLEs. My main beef with the FCP approach is that Apple chooses to add true finesse outside of the main editing application. If you want tracking, a 2.5D or 3D DVE, cleaner slomos and better text, you have to go into Motion. If you want elaborate color grading tools, you have to go to Color. While there are valid reasons for this, I dislike the fact that it’s one or more additional project types that I have to keep track of.

When you compare the same technologies in Media Composer to Final Cut Pro, the advantage is often with Avid. For instance, the FluidMotion and TimeWarp technologies (used for variable speed, tracking and stabilization) yield cleaner results than similar FCP functions. I say cleaner, because FCP blends fields and frames during variable speed functions. Avid’s FluidMotion creates new in-between frames based on motion vector analysis. When you compare individual frames between FCP and Media Composer, the difference is quite distinct. You get a very good chromakeyer in SpectraMatte and if you factor in 3D Warp, Marquee and Avid FX (Boris Red), then Media Composer offers a wealth of compositing, DVE and titling tools right inside the NLE.

Don’t get me wrong. It don’t see it as all rosy on the Media Composer side. The compositing model needs a serious overhaul and there are tons of limitations, but my point is that Media Composer offers the Avid editor some unique features that just aren’t directly inside FCP.

Now let’s look at really unique technologies, where Avid has led the way. Principally, this includes AMA, 3D Stereoscopic video and ScriptSync. I’ve already mentioned AMA, so no need to rehash; however, it can be argued that AMA is really just copying of FCP’s Log & Transfer. Avid wasn’t the first to incorporate 3D tools, but it’s the first NLE used in creative editing (the rough cut) to add Stereoscopic features. ScriptSync is another Avid-only tool. It’s both a feature and a workflow, because it allows film and documentary editors to work strictly with bins and media clips that are organized around a written script. I don’t use either of these two features in my work, but for those editors who do, Avid is the only option. Of course, the real question, is whether enough editors use these features to warrant the R&D investment. Avid tends to do this in-house, while Apple often leaves these niche fields open to 3rd party developers. For instance, Tim Dashwood’s 3D plug-in for FCP (via Noise Industries’ FxFactory).

I chided Apple as being less of an innovator when it comes to FCP, but I have to say that Avid isn’t immune to playing catch-up as well. This is especially true for Media Composer 4’s new Mix-and-Match feature. FCP has been able to mix media of different sizes and frame rates on the same timeline for several years now. Previous versions of Media Composer could mix 480i and 1080i, but you had to stick with compatible frame rates and scan systems. That barrier is now dropped, so in MC 4, feel free to mix NTSC with PAL, 720p with 1080i, 24fps media in a 29.97 timeline and so on. The initial feedback from early users seems to indicate that Avid does this a bit better and with less rendering than FCP does. Clearly its an update that has Avid editors cheering.

People like to argue about platform wars, but this is more silly than productive. The reality is that NLEs are a mature product and nearly every company that offers editing tools has introduced many of the same features. Competition between companies makes for better and more cost-effective products. There’s a loyal user base for each of these systems or they wouldn’t be on the market. Apple and Avid will continue to run in a dead heat among professional film and video editors. Use the tool that meets your needs and your budget and I’m sure you – and your clients – will be happy with result.

(Updated 12/7/09)

© 2009 Oliver Peters