They’ve teased us for two years, but now it’s finally out. Avid Technology has released its free nonlinear editing application, Media Composer | First. This is not dumbed-down, teaser software, but rather a partially-restricted version of the full-fledged Media Composer software and built upon the same code. With that comes an inherent level of complexity, which Avid has sought to minimize for new users; however, you really do want to go through the tutorials before diving in.
It’s important to understand who the target user is. Avid didn’t set out to simply add another free, professional editing tool to an increasingly crowded market. Media Composer | First is intended as a functional starter tool for users who want to get their feet wet in the Avid ecosystem, but then eventually convert to the full-fledged, paid software. That’s been successful for Avid with Pro Tools | First. To sweeten the pot, you’ll also get 350 sound effects from Pro Sound Effects and 50 royalty-free music tracks from Sound Ideas (both sets are also free).
To get Media Composer | First, you must set up an Avid master account, which is free. Existing customers can also get First, but the software cannot be co-installed on a computer with the full version. For example, I installed Media Composer | First on my laptop, because I have the full Media Composer application on my desktop. You must sign into the account and stay signed in for Media Composer | First to lunch and run. I did get it to work if I signed in, but then disconnected the internet. There was a disconnection prompt, but nevertheless, the application worked, saved, and exported properly. It doesn’t seem mandatory to be constantly connected to Avid over the internet. All project data is stored locally, so this is not a cloud application.
The managing of the account and future updates are handled through Application Manager, an Avid desktop utility. It’s not my favorite, as at times it’s unreliable, but it does work most of the time. Opening the installer .dmg file will take a long time to verify. This seems to be a general Avid quirk, so be patient. When you first open the application, you may get a disk drive write permissions error message. On macOS you normally set drive permissions for “system”, “wheel”, and “everyone”. Typically I have the last two set to “read only”, which works for every other application, except Avid’s. Therefore, if you want to store Avid media on your internal system hard drive, then “everyone” must be changed to “read & write”.
The guided tour
The Avid designers have tried to make the Media Composer | First interface easy to navigate for new users – especially those coming from other NLEs, where media and projects are managed differently than in Media Composer. Right at the launch screen you have the option to learn through online tutorials. These will be helpful even for experienced users who might try to “out-think” the software. The interface includes a number of text overlays to help you get started. For example, there is no place to set project settings. The first clip added to the first sequence sets the project settings from there on. So, don’t drop a 25fps clip onto the timeline as your first clip, if you intend to work in a 23.98fps project. These prompts are right in front of you, so if you follow their guidance, you’ll be OK.
The same holds true for importing media through the Source Browser. With Media Composer you either transcode a file, which turns it into Avid-managed media placed into the Avid MediaFiles folder, or simply link to the file. If you select link, then the file stays in place and it’s up to the user not to move or delete that file on the hard drive. Although the original Avid paradigm was to only manage media in its MediaFiles hard drive folders, the current versions handle linking just fine and act largely the same as other NLEs.
Options, restrictions, and limitations
Since this is a free application, a number of features have been restricted. There are three biggies. Tracks are limited to four video tracks and eight audio tracks. This is actually quite workable, however, I think a higher audio track count would have been advisable, because of how Avid handles stereo, mono, and multichannel files. On a side note, if you use the “collapse” function to nest video clips, it’s possible to vertically stack more than just four clips on the timeline.
The application is locked to a maximum project size of 1920×1080 (Rec. 709 color space only) and up to 59.94fps. Source files can be larger (such as 4K) and you can still use them on the timeline, but you’ll have to pan-and-scan, crop, or scale them. I hope future versions will permit at least UltraHD (4K) project sizes.
Finally, Media Composer | First projects cannot be interchanged with full fledged Media Composer projects. This means that you cannot start in Media Composer | First and then migrate your project to the paid version. Hopefully this gets fixed in a future update. If not, it will negatively impact students and indie producers using the application for any real work.
As expected, there are no 3D stereoscopic tools, ScriptSync (automatic speech-to-text/sync-to-script), PhraseFind (phonetic search engine), or Symphony (advanced color correction) options. One that surprised me, though, was the removable of the superior Spectramatte keyer. You are left with the truly terrible RGB keyer for blue/green-screen work.
Nevertheless, there’s plenty of horsepower left. For example, FrameFlex to handle resizing and Timewarps for retiming clips, which is how 4K and off-speed frame rates are handled. Color correction (including scopes), multicam, IllusionFX, source setting color LUTs, Audiosuite, and Pro Tools-style audio track effects are also there. Transcoding allows for the use of a wide range of codecs, including ProRes on a Mac. 4K camera clips will be transcoded to 1080. However, exports are limited to Avid DNxHD and H.264 QuickTime files at up to 1920×1080. The only DNxHD export flavor is the 100Mbps variant (at 29.97, 80Mbps for 23.98), which is comparable to ProResLT. It’s good quality, but not at the highest mastering levels.
This is a really good first effect, no pun intended. As you might expect, it’s a little buggy for a first version. For example, I experienced a number of crashes while testing source LUTs. However, it was well-behaved during standard editing tasks. If Media Composer | First files can become compatible with the paid systems and the 1080 limit can be increased to UHD/4K, then Avid has a winner on its hands. Think of the film student who starts on First at home, but then finishes on the full version in the college’s computer lab. Or the indie producer/director who starts his or her own rough cut on First, but then takes it to an editor or facility to complete the process. These are ideal scenarios for First. I’ve cut tons of short and long form projects, including a few feature films, using a variety of NLEs. Nearly all of those could have been done using Media Composer | First. Yes, it’s free, but there’s enough power to get the job done and done well.
©2017 Oliver Peters