Improving Media Composer

As an editor, I’ve probably used a dozen different editing systems for billable gigs. If you add the other systems I’ve reviewed, but didn’t use on client projects, coupled with those I’ve had working exposure to, that’s easily twice as many. This experience gives one a keen awareness of the pros and cons of different product designs. When you spend eight, ten, twelve hours or more staring at a screen, the user interface becomes a key factor in whether the system helps or hinders your work.

Within the past year or so, Apple, Adobe and Avid have all released updates to their flagship editing products. Since I use and have reviewed them all, it gives me a unique opportunity to compare apples-to-apples, so to speak, with the same footage and same projects.

I started nonlinear editing almost 20 years ago with early Avid systems (around version 4.5). A lot of my work today is on Apple Final Cut Pro, but I still do a certain percentage of Media Composer jobs and have a soft spot for the product. Competition is good and the release of Media Composer 5 was a milestone for the company.

Unfortunately, Avid has a large installed customer base, many of whom are reticent to change. They have two decades of muscle memory based on how the user interface has traditionally worked, so even the slightest change is met with very polarized responses. Some of the occasionally negative reactions are justified, because certain changes didn’t seem very well thought-out. In fact, a number of Avid product designers have responded on various forums to clarify that a few of these are “works in projects” and are likely to be improved in subsequent releases.

In other cases, the changes are perfectly logical, but Avid might not have done the best job of re-educating its customers, so these changes came as a surprise. In fairness to Avid, I’ve also seen forum posts by editors who simply dived into a new project – using a freshly installed version of MC5 – only to flounder went hit with the unexpected, because they didn’t acquaint themselves first with the changes.

I’m an advocate for a serious overhaul of the Avid Media Composer user interface. The current model, even with the MC5 changes, is very long-in-the-tooth compared with the competition. Here are 25 suggestions to improve the interface and functions of Media Composer, as well as Symphony and NewsCutter.

1. Font size and smoothing. The interface text doesn’t take advantage of the way the OS renders text to the screen. In general, the interface stems from a time when 1024×768 was an extremely high-resolution display. On a 20” Apple Cinema (1680×1050), text is thin and wiry. Options to change the font or size look awful. Compare this to any other applications, like Word or FireFox and there’s a world of difference. This is more obvious on Macs than on PCs.

2. Interface colors and text brightness. In an effort to “clean up” the GUI in MC5, designers dropped the button shape, shading and color options for a more streamlined and limited approach. If you like MC5 with a dark UI (like Adobe or Magic Bullet applications), then you only get lighter letters with the darkest background color choice. That’s too much contrast. Adobe does a much better job with their simple interface brightness slider. It intelligently switches from dark to light text at a functional point. This can easily be fixed in MC5 with the addition a brightness slider for the text. Or just copy Adobe.

3. 1:1 pixel mapping. Media Composer started in the day when all on-screen video looked bad and you had to use an external broadcast monitor. Those days are all but gone for many editors, who frequently edit without an external video monitor. When you look at video in FCP’s Canvas or Premiere Pro at 100%, you get 1:1 pixel mapping and very crisp full-frame images. HD in Media Composer’s Record window looks pretty good, but SD is embarrassingly bad. Even more so with text and graphics.

4. Expanded luma range. Digital video uses a luma range with nominal black and white points mapped to values of 16 and 235 on a 0-255 scale. Avid systems display this accurately on RGB monitors (your computer screen) while FCP expands the scale, so that 16-235 looks like 0-255. Even though the two systems will output video at the same level, the result is that images look washed out on the Media Composer interface screen and more pleasing on an FCP screen. Avid offers the option to display an expanded range in their full screen mode, but it would also be nice to have this option for the source/record monitor windows.

5. Real-time scopes. Media Composer offers waveform/vector displays in the color correction mode only. It would be nice to have these available at all times and to update in real-time as the timeline plays. It would be even nicer if these were active for anything in the Source window, as well.

6. Logical submenu item placement. One frustrating issue for new editors is that not all items are in their appropriate place. For example, to set a custom bin color, you have to look in the Edit pulldown menu instead of the Bin menu or the dedicated “hamburger” menu at the bottom corner of each bin.

7. Docking, tabbed, unified windows. Take a look at how others do this and copy it. SuperBin is a weak attempt to get away from numerous floating windows. Time to revisit the paradigm.

8. XML import and export. XML interchange has been a huge development edge for Final Cut. For Media Composer to advance, there needs to be even more openness and XML is a great place to start.

9. FCP project import. Avid lives in a world shared with Apple’s Final Cut Pro. Although it may not be possible for Avid to directly open an FCP project file, there’s no reason that it shouldn’t be able to open an Apple FCP XML file. This is different than Item 8 above, because it means being able to translate the particular flavor of XML written by Apple. Seems like something Avid should develop or license from Boris or Automatic Duck.

10. Improved relinking. AMA is a nice feature, but using it to relink to other media requires some very arcane steps. I tried moving an FCP sequence into Media Composer and then used AMA and relinking to connect to the ProRes media files. It’s ultimately an easy process if there are no timecode issues, but the steps are akin to knowing the secret fraternity handshake. Compare AMA relinking to the ease of doing the same in FCP or Premiere Pro and you’ll see what I mean. I should just be able to point a clip to the right media file and be done.

11. Drag and drop using AMA. You can currently drag & drop clips from the Finder into a Media Composer bin. This activates an import process, which automatically transcodes the clip (based on your import settings) and creates new media. The drag & drop import method should also follow AMA rules, acting like the “Link to AMA file(s)” command. This would link to the file “in place”, without creating additional media files.

12. Smart Tool. In an effort to out-do FCP, Avid engaged in a classic case of “overthink”. The intent was to add in-context, timeline-based editing tools, but Smart Tool seems to have made matters worse. The biggest two complaints are that the tool palette itself cannot be removed from the timeline pane and there is no way to actually disable the tool. Even when it is toggled off, Smart Tool will occasionally activate itself based on its operating rules. The tool functions change based on the location of the cursor within a track, so mouse precision is critical – something that Avid editors haven’t had to deal with in past versions. This is one of those “works in progress”.

13. Slip-slide trim. As Avid editors have been trying to figure out Smart Tool, slip-slide trimming behavior seems to have confused many. You have to lasso the clip in the right direction and combine that with the right modifier key. Come on! FCP does this much easier. Tap the “S” key once or twice and move on. A simple 1-key tool would improve Media Composer efficiency.

14. Subframe audio editing. Moving some functionality from Pro Tools into MC5 was a nice first step, but how about adding subframe editing? I realize there’s perf-slipping in film projects, but it seems like it’s time to modernize the audio editing capabilities of the system.

15. Resolution-independence for graphics. If you can’t make the entire application completely resolution-independent yet, then how about doing it at least for stills, photos and graphics? Time to end being limited to a plug-in, just for dealing with high-res images.

16. External i/o hardware support. Matrox MXO2 Mini was step one. This needs to be expanded to the rest of the ecosystem, including the other Matrox units, AJA, Blackmagic Design and MOTU.

17. External control surface support. Avid now owns Euphonix, so clearly, it’s time to see Artist panels compatible with Media Composer for mixing and color correction. But don’t stop with the “in house” brands. Include others, like Tangent Devices, Mackie, Tascam, Behringer, Presonus and Frontier Designs.

18. Improved color correction tools. Symphony started it, but now seriously lags behind other available toolsets – notably Apple Color. The lack of a good secondary tool for shapes and vignettes is the most common complaint. Take a look at the Boris 3-way filter or Magic Bullet Colorista II for some ways to amp up Media Composer’s (and Symphony’s) color correction tools.

19. Improved text tools. You have your choice between the ancient Title Tool or Marquee – a vestige of Avid’s 1990s attempt at a dedicated OpenGL character generator. Why not dump these for something better? Avid owns Deko, but I’m not sure it’s all that editor-friendly. Seems like something closer to Adobe’s Premiere Pro titler is a better design target. Of course, Avid could simply get Boris to write a custom version of Graffiti for Media Composer or purchase LiveType from Apple (since they don’t seem to want it anymore). Any of these would be better.

20. Fix GUI corruption. It’s vexing that MC5 is still plagued with earlier bugs, like screen draw corruption. One of these is the persistently corrupt trim icon.

21. Custom filter interface in AVX. There are a number of popular plug-ins that can’t be used with Avid Media Composer, because the AVX architecture doesn’t allow custom filter interfaces. That’s why there’s no Colorista II for Avid. Audio plug-ins can have their own unique interfaces, but not video.

22. Multiple open sequences. The ability to have several sequences open at once and to be able to bounce from one to another is a popular FCP feature. It would be nice to see Media Composer offer this.

23. Interlace/de-interlace management. We live in a world with all mixes of progressive and interlaced media. Avid provides few if any provisions for dealing with interlace errors. Seems like some field shift, swap and blend and de-interlace tools are in order.

24. Copy & paste or remove attributes. One of the most useful FCP tools for me is the ability to copy & paste or remove attributes from a clip. This allows me to copy a set of filters from one clip and then apply these to the rest of the timeline or just to a handful of selected clips. All in one step without entering a special mode.

25. Improved effects mode. Media Composer’s effects controls need a huge overhaul. For example, an easy way to stack filters without nesting and then to be able to quickly enable/disable and re-arrange the filters. This is something quite common in just about every other application.

Well, there’s the list for now. I offer this as constructive criticism. These are suggestions that I feel would make a great product better and more efficient to use. Of course, that’s mainly based on my own personal world view, however, I also recognize that the Avid editor crowd is hard to please. So, product designers – good luck!

By the way – here are a few earlier perspectives. Some of these older issues have been addressed in newer application versions, so it’s good to know that product developers are responsive to user input.

Will CS5 and MC5 toast FCP?

Improving FCP and Media Composer

Final Cut vs. Avid Redux

©2010 Oliver Peters