The software suite

The power of modern desktop editing solutions is often in the aggregate of the parts and not just the core editing application. Apple Final Cut Studio and Adobe CS5 Production Premium (or Master Collection) are certainly recognized as software suites, but this is also true of Avid Media Composer, especially when you add the Production Studio bundle of third party software. Dedicated, all-in-one editing/compositing tools are primarily the domain of more expensive tools, like Avid DS, Autodesk Smoke and Quantel eQ/iQ/Pablo.

When you dissect the three main desktop bundles, you find tools for editing, color grading, visual effects, motion graphics, encoding, DVD authoring and sound mixing. These break out in this fashion:

Avid – Media Composer (editing, color grading, sound mixing with RTAS plug-ins)

Avid FX and Boris BCC plug-ins (effects and compositing)

Marquee (motion graphics)

Sorenson Squeeze (encoding)

Avid DVD (Blu-ray, NTSC and PAL DVD authoring)

Extra: Avid “helper” applications, like EDL Manager, Film Scribe, MetaSync, etc.

Optional: ScriptSync and PhraseFind

Apple – Final Cut Pro (editing)

Color (color correction and grading)

Motion (effects and compositing/motion graphics)

Compressor (encoding and blu-ray authoring)

DVD Studio Pro (NTSC and PAL DVD authoring / HD-DVD authoring)

Soundtrack Pro (sound design, audio editing and mixing)

Extra: Cinema Tools, media content

Adobe – Premiere Pro (editing)

Synthetic Aperture Color Finesse (color correction and grading)

After Effects (effects and compositing/motion graphics)

Adobe Media Encoder (encoding)

Encore (Blu-ray, NTSC and PAL DVD authoring)

Soundbooth (sound design, audio editing and mixing)

Extra: Bridge, Dynamic Link, Device Central, Mocha tracker for AE, media content

I’m not going to argue the relative merits of one tool versus another. Suffice it to say that there are plenty of ways to complete a given job with great results using any of these toolkits. What’s more important is how well the collection works. How are the tools integrated and why does a manufacturer go down this route in the first place?

Marketing “the suite” versus “the brand”

If you look at the first issue, Adobe and Apple clearly market their packages as a studio suite, while Avid tends to position Media Composer as the main brand. This is a bit of a mistake, because it encourages a tendency to compare just the Media Composer editing application against the entire software collections of its competitors. As such, Media Composer – even at its current, vastly reduced price – is perceived as a lot more expensive than Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro. Customers forget about the other software you get with the Avid solution, but clearly know they get a lot of bang-for-the-buck with Apple and Adobe. In reality the comparison and cost differential is a lot closer than many believe. It’s a double-edged sword. Media Composer is clearly Avid’s marquee brand, so how does Avid best market the fact there’s more to it?

Host control versus “the roundtrip”

In addition to focusing on Media Composer as the core, there is also a more technical issue. Media Composer actually does run as the host application. Tools like the BCC filters, Avid FX, the RTAS audio plug-ins and Marquee primarily work from inside Media Composer. Although you can create templates, the applications themselves won’t work with other editing solutions. They are not inherently standalone applications in their own right, like Motion or After Effects. The plus side of this is that all project metadata is stored in the central Media Composer project. You don’t have to worry about saving all the component project files for Avid FX or Marquee in order for them to stay editable. As such, they function more as plug-in than anything else.

In the case of Adobe and Apple, they have tied together individual applications, which operate in tandem with the host NLE, as well as separate standalone applications. Although Apple’s “roundtripping” and Adobe’s Dynamic Link are ways to integrate projects files into the host editor, this isn’t a perfect solution. For example, Motion projects (as opposed to rendered exports) in an FCP timeline frequently crash Final Cut. Neither company has a good audio roundtrip approach. You can “send to” the audio application, but you can only return a mixed and exported, “flattened” soundtrack. Clearly all of these solutions are evolving.

Pros and cons of studio software development

The biggest reason a manufacturer uses the software collection is for reasons of marketing and development cost. Look at Color. Apple acquired the technology of Final Touch and reintroduced it as Color within Final Cut Studio. All of a sudden, FCP editors gained a $25,000 color grading solution “for free”. Even if users never opened the interface, the addition of Color clearly sold more seats of Final Cut Pro.

Using this approach, product managers can often shield lower-performing applications from the ax. It’s widely accepted that including the less-popular Premiere Pro with the more-popular After Effects and Photoshop has helped justify further Premiere Pro development. This has been paying off for Adobe in better customer reception of Premiere Pro as a viable editing alternative. It’s hard to break out the revenue from an individual application within a collection of software. But the opposite situation is also true. Apple felt that LiveType and Motion offered redundant motion graphics capabilities. Why develop two apps? So, Apple dropped LiveType in order to focus R&D on Motion.

By keeping components of a software suite separate, it’s easier to develop each application. There is less chance of inducing new problems that might cascade throughout a larger all-in-one application. Large, integrated solutions are subject to feature creep and often become “bloatware”, necessitating a periodic ground-up rewrite of the application. It’s also easier to add or remove components based on customer requests and market research when the individual applications stay separate within the collection.

Adobe’s Audition provides another example. Audition is a full-featured DAW geared towards audio pros and it used to be part of the Creative Suite with Premiere Pro. Adobe felt that the limited focus of Soundbooth better suited the needs of video and web professionals and so swapped Audition out for Soundbooth as the audio application in its suite collections. Audition continues as a Windows-based, standalone digital audio workstation application competing with Apple Logic and Avid Pro Tools. This year will see its return to the Mac platform (currently in public beta).

For all of these various reasons, most observers feel that it’s unlikely we’d ever see an all-inclusive “extreme” version of Final Cut Pro. Would we really want that? After all, finding a qualified Avid DS, Autodesk Smoke or Quantel iQ “artist” (editor) is pretty hard in most markets. Wishing for some massive end-all-be-all editing solution might sound good in principle, but be careful of what you wish for. It’s not necessarily the best idea in the real world. Not for the user and not for the developer.

©2011 Oliver Peters