More Life for your Mac Pro

df_life_macproI work a lot with a local college’s film production technology program as an advisor, editing instructor and occasionally as an editor on some of their professional productions. It’s a unique program designed to teach hands-on, below-the-line filmmaking skills. The gear has to be current and competitive, because they frequently partner with outside producers to turn out actual (not student) products with a combination of professional and student crews. The department has five Mac Pros that are used for editing, which I’ve recently upgraded to current standards, as they get ready for a new incoming class. The process has given me some thoughts about how to get more life out of your aging Apple Mac Pro towers, which I’ll share here.

To upgrade or not

Most Apple fans drool at the new Mac Pro “tube” computers, but for many, such a purchase simply isn’t viable. Maybe it’s the cost or the need for existing peripherals or other concerns, but many editors are still opting to get as much life as possible out of their existing Mac Pro towers.

In the case of the department, four of the machines are fast 2010 quad-cores and the fifth is a late 2008 eight-core. As long as your machine is an Intel of late 2008 or newer vintage, then generally it’s upgradeable to the most current software. Early 2008 and older is really pushing it. Anything before 2009 probably shouldn’t be used as a primary workhorse system. At 2009, you are on the cusp of whether it’s worth upgrading or not. 2010 and newer would be definitely solid enough to get a few more productive years out of the machine.

The four 2010 Mac Pros are installed in rooms designated as cutting rooms. The 2008 Mac was actually set aside and largely unused, so it had the oldest configuration and software. I decided it needed an upgrade, too, although mainly as an overflow unit. This incoming class is larger than normal, so I felt that having a fifth machine might be useful, since it still could be upgraded.

Software

All five machines have largely been given the same complement of software, which means Mavericks (10.9.4) and various editing tools. The first trick is getting the OS updated, since the oldest machines were running on versions that cannot be updated via the Mac App Store. Secondly, this kind of update really works best when you do a clean install. To get the Mavericks installer, you have to download it to a machine that can access the App Store. Once you’ve done the download, but BEFORE you actually start the installation, quit out of the installer. This leaves you with the Install Mavericks application in your applications folder. This is a 4GB installer file that you can now copy to other drives.

In doing the updates, I found it best to move drives around in the drive bays, putting a blank drive in bay 1 and moving the existing boot drive to bay 2. Format the bay 1 drive and copy the Mavericks installer to it. Run the installer, but select the correct target drive, which should be your new, empty bay 1 drive and NOT the current boot drive that’s running. Once the installation is complete, set up a new user account and migrate your applications from the old boot drive to the new boot drive. I do this without the rest (no documents or preferences). Since these systems didn’t have purchased third-party plug-ins, there weren’t any authorization issues after the migration. My reason for migrating the existing apps was that some of the software, like volume-licensed versions of Microsoft Office and Apple Final Cut Studio were there and I didn’t want to track down the installers again from IT. Naturally before doing this I had already uninstalled junk, like old trial versions or other software a student might have installed in the past. Any needed documents had already been separately backed up.

Once I’m running 10.9.4 on the new boot drive, I access the App Store, sign in with the proper ID and install all the App Store purchases. Since the school has a new volume license for Adobe Creative Cloud, I also have an installer from IT to cover the Adobe apps. Once the software dance is done, my complement includes:

Apple Final Cut Pro Studio “legacy” (FCP 7, DVD Studio Pro, Cinema Tools, Soundtrack Pro, Compressor, Motion, Color)

Apple Final Cut Pro X  “new” applications and utilities (FCP X, Motion, Compressor, Xto7, 7toX, Sync-N-Link X, EDL-X, X2Pro)

Adobe Creative Cloud 2014 (Prelude, Premiere Pro, SpeedGrade, Adobe Media Encoder, Illustrator, Photoshop, After Effects, Audition)

Avid Media Composer and Sorenson Squeeze (2 machines only)

Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve 11

Miscellaneous applications (Titanium Toast, Handbrake, MPEG Streamclip, Pages, Numbers, Keynote, Word, Excel, Redcine-X Pro)

Internal hard drives

All Mac Pro towers support four internal drives. Last year I had upgraded two of these machines with 500GB Crucial SSDs as their boot drive. While these are nice and fast, I opted to stick with spinning drives for everything else. The performance demand on these systems is not such that there’s really a major advantage over a good mechanical drive. For the most part, all machines now have four internal 1TB Western Digital Black 7200 RPM drives. The exceptions are the two machines with 500GB SSD boot drives and the 2008 Mac, which has two 500GB drives that it came supplied with.

After rearranging the drives, the configuration is: bay 1 – boot drive, bay 2 – “Media A”, bay 3 – “Media B” and bay 4 – Time Machine back-up. The Media A and B drives are used for project files, short term media storage and stock sound effects and music. When these systems were first purchased, I had configured the three drives in the 2, 3 and 4 slots as a single 3TB volume by RAIDing them as a RAID-0 software stripe. This was used as a common drive for media on each of the computers. However, over this last year, one of the machines appeared to have an underperforming drive within the stripe, which was causing all sorts of media problems on this machine. Since this posed the risk of potentially losing 3TB worth of media in the future on any of the Macs, I decided to rethink the approach and split all the drives back to single volumes. I replaced the underperforming drive and changed all the machines to this four volume configuration, without any internal stripes.

RAM and video cards

The 2010 machines originally came with ATI 5870 video cards and the 2008 an older NVIDIA card. In the course of the past year, one of the 5870 cards died and was replaced with a Sapphire 7950. In revitalizing the 2008 Mac, I decided to put one of the other 5870s into it and then replace it in the 2010 machine with another Sapphire. While the NVIDIA GTX 680 card is also a highly-regarded option, I decided to stick with the ATI/AMD card family for consistency throughout the units. One unit also includes a RED Rocket card for accelerated transcoding of RED .r3d files.

The 2010 machines have all been bumped up to 32GB of RAM (Crucial or Other Word Computing). The 2008 uses an earlier vintage of RAM and originally only had 2GB installed. The App Store won’t even let you download FCP X with 2GB. It’s been bumped up the 16GB, which will be more than enough for an overflow unit.

Of these cutting rooms, only one is designed as “higher end” and that’s where most of the professional projects are cut, when the department is directly involved in post. It includes Panasonic HD plasma and Sony SD CRT monitors that are fed by an AJA KONA LHi card. This room was originally configured as an Avid Xpress Meridien-based room back in the SD days, so there are also Digibeta, DVCAM and DAT decks. These still work fine, but are largely unused, as most of the workflow now is file-based (usually RED or Canon).

In order to run Resolve on any external monitor, you need a Blackmagic Design Decklink card. I had temporarily installed a loaner in place of the KONA, but it died, so the KONA went back in. Unfortunately with the KONA and FCP X, I cannot see video on both the Panasonic and Sony at the same time with 1080p/23.98 projects. That’s because of the limitations of what the Panasonic will accept over HDMI, coupled with the secondary processing options of the KONA. The HDMI signal wants P and not PsF and this results in the conflict. In the future, we’ll probably revisit the Decklink card issue, budget permitting, possibly moving the KONA to another bay.

All four 2010 units are equipped with two 27” Apple Cinema Displays, so the rooms without external monitoring simply use one of the screens to display a large viewer in most of the software. This is more than adequate in a small cutting room. The fifth 2008 Mac has dual 20” ACDs. Although my personal preference is to work with something smaller that dual 27” screens – as the lateral distance is too great – a lot of the modern software feels very crowded on smaller screens, such as the 20” ACDs. This is especially true of Resolve 11, which feels best with two 27” screens. Personally I would have opted for dual 23” or 24” HPs or Dells, but these systems were all purchased this way and there’s no real reason to change.

External storage

Storage on these units has always been local, so in addition to the internal drives, they are also equipped with external storage. Typically users are encouraged to supply their own external drives for short edits, but storage is made available for extended projects. The main room is equipped with a large MAXX Digital array connected via an ATTO card. All four 2010 rooms each gained a LaCie 4Big 12TB array last year. These were connected on one of the FireWire 800 ports and initially configured as RAID-1 (mirror), so only half the capacity was available.

This year I reconfigured/reformatted them as RAID-5, which nets a bit over 8TB of actual capacity. To increase the data throughput, I also added CalDigit FASTA-6GU3 cards to each. This is a PCIe combo host adapter card that provides two USB 3.0 and two SATA ports. By connecting the LaCie to each of the Macs via USB 3.0, it improves the read/write speeds compared to FireWire 800. While it’s not as fast Thunderbolt or even the MAXX array, the LaCies on USB 3.0 easily handle ProRes 1080p files and even limited use of native RED files within projects.

Other

A few other enhancements were made to round out the rooms as cutting bays. First audio. The main room uses the KONA’s analog audio outputs routed through a small Mackie mixer to supply volume to the speakers. To provide similar capabilities in the other rooms, I added a PreSonus AudioBox USB audio interface and a small Mackie mixer to each. The speakers are a mix of Behringer Truth, KRK Rokit 5 and Rokit 6 powered speaker pairs, mounted on speaker pedestals behind the Apple Cinema Displays. Signal flow is from the computer to the AudioBox via USB (or KONA in one room), the channel 1 and 2 analog outputs from the AudioBox (or KONA) into the Mackie and then the main mixer outputs to the left and right speakers. In this way, the master fader volume on the mixer is essentially the volume control for the system. This is used mainly for monitoring, but this combination does allow the connection of a microphone for input back into the Mac for scratch recordings. Of course, having a small mixer also lets you plug in another device just to preview audio.

The fifth Mac Pro isn’t installed in a room that’s designated as a cutting room, so it simply got the repurposed Roland powered near field speakers from an older Avid system. These were connected directly to the computer output.

Last, but not least, it’s the little things. When I started this upgrade round, one of the machines was considered a basket case, because it froze a lot and, therefore, was generally not used. That turned out to simply be a bad Apple Magic Mouse. The mouse would mess up, leaving the cursor frozen. Users assumed the Mac had frozen up, when in fact, it was fine. To fix this and any other potential future mouse issues, I dumped all the Apple Bluetooth mice and replaced them with Logitech wireless mice. Much better feel and the problem was solved!

©2014 Oliver Peters