Apple expands Final Cut Pro X

On the same day Apple launched the iPad mini, the fourth generation iPad, a refresh of the iMac line and the addition of a 13” MacBook Pro with Retina display, Apple also quietly released the 10.0.6 version of Final Cut Pro X. By the end of the day, the App Store lit up and the various online forums were buzzing. The Pro Apps engineers made good on the bullet points that were pre-announced at NAB – dual viewers, multichannel audio editing, MXF plug-in support and RED camera support. Plus, there were a number of feature and interface changes to round it out – many of which appear to be in direct response to user feedback.

The four bullet points

Dual viewers. The Unified Viewer was a huge shock when FCP X was first released. As you move between a source clip in the Event Browser and the project’s edited timeline, the Viewer display toggles between these two images. You now have the option to change this behavior by opening a second Event Viewer window. Source clips show in the Event Viewer while the main Viewer only displays the project timeline image. You cannot skim or scrub with the mouse directly from within this window. In a two-monitor configuration, you have to skim the thumbnail or filmstrip of the event clip on one display, but watch the viewer on the other screen. It’s a bit disconcerting for muscle memory and some editors, who initially clamored for it, have found it less useful than they’d hope. There is also no way to gang source clips and timelines together. Having this second viewer does add some cool new features, like the ability to have scopes with each viewer. These can be displayed in a horizontal or vertical arrangement. The good news is that you have the choice between single and dual viewers depending on your task.

Multi-channel audio editing. To prevent audio from slipping out-of-sync due to user error – and to reduce timeline clutter – FCP X keeps clips as combined a/v sources. Until this release, if you shot an interview and used two audio channels for individual microphones, you could not separately edit or mix levels on them, unless you broke the audio out as separate clips. Then you risked the possibility of accidentally slipping them out-of-sync. With this update, audio channels still stay attached to their source clips, but you can expand the clip in the timeline or inspector to reveal multiple audio channels. This enables renaming, editing, volume and pan control for each individual audio channel. Unfortunately, there’s still no global audio mixer panel as many had hoped for.

RED camera support. The RED user community has been very vocal about wanting native edit support for their REDCODE camera raw, compressed media format. Until now, Adobe offered one of the few native editing solutions. With 10.0.6, Apple has more than met that challenge. There’s native file support at up to 5K sizes, plus you can transcode to an optimized ProRes4444 or ProRes Proxy format for a more fluid editing experience. With FCP X’s unique architecture, transcoding happens in the background, so you can start with the native files, which in turn are automatically replaced by the optimized or proxy files when ready. Edit with proxies for a lightweight load on your system (like laptop editing) and then switch to the optimized or native files for the final output. Or simply stay with the native files throughout, if that’s your preference.

The RED Rocket card is supported for accelerated playback, transcoding and rendering with full resolution debayering. Software-based renders, exports and generating optimized media will also be at full resolution, but much slower. In order to enable RED support, you’ll need to install the latest RED plug-in. The RED Rocket card also requires a firmware update. Both may be downloaded for free from RED’s website.

The best part is that you now have direct access to the RED camera raw color settings from within FCP X. Click “Modify RED RAW Settings” in the Inspector window and a floating heads up display (HUD) pops up with adjustment sliders. Select one clip or a group of clips in the event browser and change the settings for a single clip or for all by adjusting one HUD panel. Native .r3d files in a 4K project played well on my Mac Pro, thanks to multicore playback. Performance seemed comparable to what I see with Premiere Pro on the same computer. Given Apple’s optimized/proxy media workflow and the ease of adjusting raw settings, I feel that now FCP X offers the best option for cutting a RED-originated production.

MXF plug-in support. Final Cut Pro X has now added native support for MXF camera files, like Panasonic P2, Sony XDCAM and other MXF formats. Previous FCP X versions rewrapped these files into QuickTime movie containers upon import. As with FCP “legacy” versions, the 10.0.6 update now lets you use plug-ins offered by Hamburg Pro Audio and Calibrated Software for direct access. This enables native use of MXF files and facilitates end-to-end MXF workflows, such as the DPP digital delivery standard in the UK, when Hamburg Pro Media ships their AS-11 Import and Export product.

A few surprises

There are a lot of other changes throughout the application. The engineers added more metadata (like a whole slew of ARRI ALEXA and RED camera metadata), changed a number of interface functions, updated the XML format and added 42 new effects, transitions, titles and generators, including a drop shadow filter and a one-step freeze frame.

Several of these changes are big for users. We now gain back the ability to copy and paste clip attributes. You may paste specific effects, individual filters, transforms and audio parameters to one or multiple clips on the timeline. There’s a new range selection function. Many editors had asked for “persistent in and out points” – basically that a source clip holds the last in/out marks made by the user. Instead, Apple opted to place multiple marked ranges in a fashion similar to range-based Favorites, which may take some getting used to. For instance, if you mark two ranges within a single event clip and then decide to reject the clip (with the event browser set to “Hide Rejected”) you are now left with three clips instead of one. Those three clips represent the leftover, unmarked sections of the one original clip. In order to prevent this, you first have to mark the whole clip (the X key) and then reject it (the delete key).

Connected clips have been a learning experience for many. The benefit is that you can move a group of linked clips simply by moving the one main clip on the primary storyline. Sometimes you don’t want this, such as, when you want to move a sound bite clip without moving the attached B-roll cutaway shots. Holding down the grave/tilde key as you move, slip or slide a primary storyline clip keeps any connected clips in their original place and prevents their movement.

Previously, the process for importing media files was different than the import module for camera media. This has been combined into a single-window interface. Media can be previewed in a filmstrip view from this window, regardless of whether it’s from a camera card or a file on your hard drive. If the file comes from a camera card or a mounted volume (such as a disc image made of a camera card), then you additionally have the ability to select ranges within the file for import. Once imports have started, the window may be closed, allowing you to continue editing, while the import happens in the background. Commonly used areas, like a shared folder, may be dragged to a Favorites area of the window.

Lastly, the Share menu has been moved and streamlined. This is where you export media. It may be used for master files, as well as batch processes, like DVD creation or Vimeo uploads. You may use the existing presets or set up your own, but now there’s also a Bundle function. This is a folder of presets designed as a job batch. For example, if you always need to create three versions for your client – a master file, an iPhone review copy and a YouTube upload – set up a bundle with these presets and you are ready to go. There are other enhancements to Compound Clips, Markers and Multicam, as well as faster rendering performance that I won’t go into. Suffice it to say that this update has a lot in it, so it’s well worth diving in to explore.

Things to know before you update

Final Cut Pro requires OS 10.6.8, 10.7.5 or 10.8.2. I was already on 10.7.4, so the bump to 10.7.5 was easy through Apple’s software update. If you opt to go with 10.8.2, then it’s an App Store purchase if you’re using an earlier OS or an App Store update if you are on an earlier version of Mountain Lion (10.8 or 10.8.1). Running this OS X update also enables an update of Safari and Aperture (if applicable). Once you are on either of these OS versions, then the App Store will let you update FCP X, Motion and Compressor, from earlier installations. These are free updates if you already own the applications and, like all App Store purchases, are valid for up to five personal computers on a single Apple ID.

I’m running a three-year-old Mac Pro and five-year-old MacBook Pro and FCP X works fine on either. Obviously performance is better on the tower, but as most folks have noted, the newest MacBook Pro and iMac models are best overall, thanks to their i5 and i7 processors. On my Mac Pro, I tested two GPU cards – my own ATI 5870 and a Quadro 4000 on loan from NVIDIA for reviews. FCP X runs best with the ATI card, thanks to OpenCL support. I built a six-layer 1080p timeline with color correction and five 2D picture-in-picture transform effects. The timeline played in real-time (high quality) without dropping frames using the ATI 5870, but choked when I tried the Quadro 4000. It turns out that card is not on Apple’s compatibility list (the older FX4800 is), even though it’s the only NVIDIA card sold at Apple’s online store. That’s a shame, because the Quadro 4000 is the better card for DaVinci Resolve or the Adobe CS6 applications. In fact, Resolve 9 is unusable under Lion with an ATI card (but supposedly fixed with Mountain Lion), as it puts glitches into the highlights of the picture. For FCP X, the Quadro is fine, but the ATI is better.

Final Cut Pro X 10.0.6 seems to be a relatively benign update in how it interrelates with other hardware and software. Most of the AJA and Blackmagic Design products work well with it. The exception at launch is any of the Matrox MXO2 units. Expect driver updates from all of these companies. I’ve tested the update with a Decklink HD Extreme 3D card in a Mac Pro and an AJA T-Tap on a Thunderbolt-enabled iMac and MacBook Pro and they each worked well. This update also bumps up the XML version to 1.2 and exposes a lot more metadata. If your workflows use one of the XML utilities like Xto7 and 7toX or relies on a roundtrip to DaVinci Resolve, then make sure you have updated those applications. Resolve 9.0.3 supports the new XML format and FCP X 10.0.6.

Be aware that this update has changed a lot of under-the-hood items, most notably project audio channel configurations. When you first launch FCP X after the update, existing projects and events will be updated. Usually this will be fine, but it’s not without occasional anomalies, some of which affect performance. For example, I’ve found that the audio changes in one of my project timelines caused the response time to be slower between hitting the space bar to play and having it actually start. A brand new project was fine. I have one project where levels and panning change through copy-and-pasting. Very frustrating!

In addition, a number of fresh bugs have cropped up. Some users, myself included, have experienced render problems. In my case, I have seen several projects that randomly render or export with a number of corrupt frames. When I repeat the rendering, the place of corruption is often in a different location each time. To be safe, wait for a lull in your workload before updating. Also to be fair, users on the newest iMacs running 10.8.2 seem to be happiest and report the least issues.

Final Cut Pro X 10.0.6 is generally a solid upgrade that may be the turning point for many professionals. I’ve been editing most of my broadcast and corporate projects for months in FCP X. For the most part this has been a successful endeavor – these newest issues not withstanding. Yes, it’s different, but it’s also growing and evolving. Apple is addressing issues and concerns, so make sure you use their software feedback site. Changes in this version are a direct answer to the needs of professional editors. No software is perfect – and this update is not without its flaws – but it checks off many items that may have been objections before. At least now, folks who’ve been sitting on the fence can judge Apple’s commitment by the progress made in FCP X to date.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Networks

©2012 Oliver Peters