Avid Media Composer 5

Avid is on a roll in 2010, highlighted by the purchase of Euphonix and the release of Media Composer version 5, its signature creative editing application. The company has been on an accelerated development pace for the Media Composer/NewsCutter/Symphony editing family, with recent releases adding such innovative features as AMA (Avid Media Access), Stereo 3D editing tools and Frame Rate Mix and Match. New features in version 5 (approximately the seventeenth generation of Media Composer) encompass expanded AMA support, the ability to work in RGB color space, in-context timeline editing tools and a redesigned audio framework. This is also the first Media Composer product to formally support third-party monitoring hardware.

AMA (Avid Media Access) expands

AMA is a plug-in API for camera manufacturers that lets Media Composer systems natively open and edit various acquisition formats, without the need to first transcode these files into MXF media. Earlier versions supported Panasonic P2, Sony XDCAM and Ikegami GFCAM media, but AMA in version 5 has become an even more open environment, supporting more native formats than most of the competition. New support has been added for Canon’s XF format and RED camera raw files. The biggest news, however, is that Avid has taken the initiative to natively support QuickTime media. This is vitally important, as Apple’s ProRes codec has been adopted for acquisition on several devices, including the AJA Ki Pro and the new ARRI Alexa digital camera. This openness extends to the H.264 files recorded by HD-capable DSLRs, like the Canon EOS 5D/7D/1D hybrid cameras.

ProRes, RED and H.264 editing was the first thing I tested. Avid’s recommended workflow is to use AMA as a way to cull selects before transcoding the media into the MXF format, however the performance and stability indicate that it may be viable to stay in AMA for an entire project. To access AMA, you must link to an AMA volume, which can be a drive, folder or subfolder on your system. Unlike simply dragging a folder to your project window, Media Composer’s AMA imports all the camera metadata, where available, into a full-fledged Avid bin. The key difference is that the media is linked outside of Avid’s normal media databases. AMA-linked files are highlighted with yellow in the bin.

RED files come in through the RED SDK, so editors can manipulate the raw color metadata. As with other implementations of this SDK, the data access isn’t as deep as with RED’s own software (for example, no curves). Avid fits these files to an HD frame size at fixed parameters, so there is no adjustable control to scale or crop RED’s 4K images. Avid has added a new source-side reformat setting, so you have the option to use RED’s 2:1 aspect files with either a letterboxed or a center-cut framing inside a 16:9 HD frame.

On my 8-core Mac Pro (12GB of RAM, stock GeForce card), RED files played adequately at a draft (yellow) or medium (yellow-green) video quality setting, but not well at full quality (full green).

My conclusion – as with other native RED implementations – is that you wouldn’t want to edit a complex project using the camera raw files. I still contend, RED projects are best handled in a traditional offline/online editing workflow. Part of the Avid/RED story, however, is support for the RED Rocket card, a custom accelerator board. I couldn’t test that without a card, but Media Composer 5 is supposed to access this hardware (if installed) to vastly speed up transcoding RED files into MXF media.

Other formats provided a more pleasing experience. H.264 Canon files edited and played well, but were a bit clunky when scrubbing through the media files. Far more impressive was working with Apple ProRes media. Scrubbing, playing and editing these files was nearly as fluid as with Avid DNxHD media. It really does mean that you could record with an AJA Ki Pro, open the drive in Media Composer and start editing.

Next, I performed a basic layer test (five tracks – one background and four PIP layers). This dropped frames with five layers of ProRes, but had no problems playing in real-time when I used DNxHD media. This same layer test in Apple Final Cut Pro using the ProRes files performed as well as DNxHD media in Media Composer. The bottom line is that Media Composer 5 now handles ProRes files quite well, but you’ll still get a performance edge with media that is native to Avid.

Timeline enhancements

The biggest changes for veteran Avid editors are a new Smart Tool mode with drag-and-drop capabilities and a new audio track framework. Smart Tool offers contextual timeline editing functionality, for behavior more like Final Cut, Vegas Pro or Premiere Pro. When you hover over portions of a timeline track, Media Composer automatically enables certain segment editing modes. When you get close to a cut, a trim tool is automatically enabled. It’s easier to perform direct edits within the timeline without first entering a special mode. This behavior is optional, controlled by a new Smart Tool palette, thus giving editors two styles of working.

The audio side of Media Composer 5 has gained significant features from its Pro Tools sibling. I’ve harped on this for years, so kudos to the Avid designers and engineers involved in this effort. Media Composer now has both stereo and mono audio tracks and adds real-time, track-based audio plug-ins.

In fact, two Pro Tools plug-in formats are supported for the best of both worlds. Audiosuite filters can be applied to and rendered with individual clips (as before). Now real-time RTAS filters can also be applied to an entire audio track, as is common in DAW software, like Pro Tools. Up to five RTAS plug-ins can be applied per track. Real-time performance is based on the horsepower of your machine, so applying a handful of RTAS filters should be no problem, but if you had 16 tracks, each with five filters applied, it could be a different matter.

Avid currently only qualifies the RTAS filters that ship with Media Composer 5. It’s up to the third-party developers to qualify their own RTAS filters for Media Composer. I encountered existing RTAS versions of my BIAS plug-ins that had been installed as part of a past BIAS Peak Pro installation. These were in an existing plug-ins folder (in the application support files) and showed up in the Media Composer 5 effects palette. Unfortunately they didn’t work correctly. My point is that you might unknowingly have some existing RTAS plug-ins installed on your system from other unrelated audio software. These filters may not be fully compliant and should be removed.

Third-party hardware

Avid Media Composer editors have been screaming for I/O options outside of Avid’s proprietary hardware solutions. Media Composer 5 opens that door ever so slightly with the qualification of Matrox’s MXO2 Mini as a monitoring solution. You can still operate with Avid hardware, including Mojo, Mojo SDI, Adrenaline, Mojo DX and Nitris DX, but the Mini addresses the needs of file-based workflows, where tape ingest is of little importance. Naturally, users hope this will be broadened to include full support of all Matrox, Blackmagic Design, AJA and MOTU products – not to mention the newly acquired Euphonix Artist Series controllers. For now, the Mini is a good first step.

I tested Media Composer 5 on my MacBook Pro with a Matrox MXO2 Mini and the system worked as advertised. The same Matrox MXO2 Mac drivers (1.9.2 or higher) work for both Apple Final Cut Pro and Avid Media Composer 5. Be sure to install (or re-install) the MXO2 software after Media Composer has been installed. If done correctly, a button on the timeline toolbar toggles between 1394 and MXO2. Select MXO2 and video output passes through the Mini. The MXO2 Mini features HDMI and analog (composite, S or component) output in both SD and HD formats. It will also up-, down- and cross-convert the video, but Media Composer 5 presently doesn’t support ingest through the Mini.

Avid’s own solutions, like the Avid Nitris DX hardware, do provide some performance boosts, thanks to hardware scaling of thin raster formats, like HDV and DVCPRO HD, along with hardware decoding of the DNxHD codecs. You will need a Nitris DX to take full advantage of Media Composer 5’s support of the HD RGB color space. If you are working with HDCAM-SR 4:4:4, a dual-link SDI connection (available on Nitris DX) is required for ingest.

Final thoughts

Avid provides both Mac OS and Windows installers with the same purchase, but OS requirements have tightened. Media Composer 5 will run on Windows XP (SP3, 32-bit), Vista (SP2, 64-bit) or Windows 7 (64-bit). Mac users must upgrade to “Snow Leopard” Mac OS 10.6.3. The boxed, retail version of Media Composer 5 ($2495) includes Production Suite (Avid DVD, Avid FX, BCC filters, Sorenson Squeeze and SmartSound Sonicfire Pro), worth $3800 MSRP if purchased individually. The download version of Media Composer 5 is less ($2295), with the option to purchase Production Suite separately ($295). Avid doesn’t market Media Composer 5 as a “studio”, “suite” or “collection”, but the total package offers more than just an editing tool.

Media Composer 5 is a powerful upgrade to an industry-standard NLE, but I hope that new attention will be paid to the interface on the next revision cycle. The Smart Tool palette was placed into the timeline window with no ability to hide or move it. The custom color options have been streamlined, but you can no longer alter button colors, shapes or highlights. Avid has added a UI brightness slider (similar to Adobe’s applications), but you don’t get lighter text on a darker background until the darkest setting. A medium grey background leaves you with dark text that’s hard to read. Interface design is important to many editors and customization has been a high point for Avid, so I was a disappointed to see these changes.

There are plenty of other small and large improvements, that I haven’t included. For instance, film-based metadata enhancements, support for AVCHD import, capture to the DVCPRO HD or XDCAM HD50 codecs over HD-SDI and e-mail notification of completed renders, just for starters. It’s clear that Media Composer 5 is a milestone software release for Avid. From native camera formats to RED and QuickTime support through AMA to unique editing tools, like Stereo 3D – this is a powerhouse post production solution. Avid editors will love it, but even those using competing tools are bound to look at Media Composer 5 with renewed interest. There is simply no other NLE that packs in as many creative features as Avid Media Composer 5.

Written for Videography and DV magazines (NewBay Media LLC).

©2010 Oliver Peters