The State of the NLE 2019

It’s a new year, but the doesn’t mean that the editing software landscape will change drastically in the coming months. For all intents and purpose, professional editing options boil down to four choices: Avid Media Composer, Adobe Premiere Pro, Apple Final Cut Pro X, and Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve. Yes, I know Vegas, Lightworks, Edius, and others are still out there, but those are far off on the radar by comparison (no offense meant to any happy practitioners of these tools). Naturally, since blogs are mainly about opinions, everything I say from here on is purely conjecture. Although it’s informed by my own experiences with these tools and my knowing many of the players involved on the respective product design and management teams – past and present.

Avid continues to be the go-to NLE in the feature film and episodic television world. That’s certainly a niche, but it’s a niche that determines the tools developed by designers for the broader scope of video editing. Apple officially noted two million users for Final Cut Pro X last year and I’m sure it’s likely to be at least 2.5M by now. Adobe claims Premiere Pro to be the most widely used NLE by a large margin. I have no reason to doubt that statement, but I have also never seen any actual stats. I’m sure through the Creative Cloud subscription mechanism Adobe not only knows how many Premiere Pro installations have been downloaded, but probably has a good idea as to actual usage (as opposed to simply downloading the software). Bringing up the rear in this quartet is Resolve. While certainly a dominant color correction application, I don’t yet see it as a key player in the creative editing (as opposed to finishing) space. With the stage set, let’s take a closer look.

Avid Media Composer

Editors who have moved away from Media Composer or who have never used it, like to throw shade on Avid and its marquee product. But loyal users – who include some of the biggest names in film editing – stick by it due in part to familiarity, but also its collaborative features and overall stability. As a result, the development pace and rate of change is somewhat slow compared with the other three. In spite of that, Avid is currently on a schedule of a solid, incremental update nearly every month – each of which chips away at a long feature request list. The most recent one dropped on December 31st. Making significant changes without destroying the things that people love is a difficult task. Development pace is also hindered by the fact that each one of these developers is also chasing changes in the operating system, particularly Apple and macOS. Sometimes you get the feeling that it’s two steps forward, one step back.

As editors, we focus on Media Composer, but Avid is a much bigger company than just that, with its fingers in sound, broadcast, storage, cloud, and media management. If you are a Pro Tools user, you are just as concerned about Avid’s commitment to you, as editors are to them. Like any large company, Avid must advance not just a single core product, but its ecosystem of products. Yet it still must advance the features in these products, because that’s what gets users’ attention. In an effort to improve its attraction to new users, Avid has introduced subscription plans and free versions to make it easier to get started. They now cover editing and sound needs with a lower cost-of-entry than ever before.

I started nonlinear editing with Avid and it will always hold a spot in my heart. Truth be told, I use it much less these days. However, I still maintain current versions for the occasional project need plus compatibility with incoming projects. I often find that Media Composer is the single best NLE for certain tasks, mainly because of Avid’s legacy with broadcast. This includes issues like proper treatment of interlaced media and closed captioning. So for many reasons, I don’t see Avid going away any time soon, but whether or not they can grow their base remains an unknown. Fortunately many film and media schools emphasize Avid when they teach editing. If you know Media Composer, it’s an easy jump to any other editing tool.

Adobe Premiere Pro CC

The most widely used NLE? At least from what I can see around me, it’s the most used NLE in my market, including individual editors, corporate media departments, and broadcasters. Its attraction comes from a) the versatility in editing with a wide range of native media formats, and b) the similarity to – and viable replacement for – Final Cut Pro “legacy”. It picked up steam partly as a reaction to the Final Cut Pro X roll-out and users have generally been happy with that choice. While the shift by Adobe to a pure subscription model has been a roadblock for some (who stopped at CS6), it’s also been an advantage for others. I handle the software updates at a production company with nine edit systems and between the Adobe Creative Cloud and Apple Mac App Store applications, upgrades have never been easier.

A big criticism of Adobe has been Premiere’s stability. Of course, that’s based on forum reads, where people who have had problems will pipe up. Rarely does anyone ever post how uneventful their experience has been. I personally don’t find Premiere Pro to be any less stable than any other NLE or application. Nonetheless, working with a mix of oddball native media will certainly tax your system. Avid and Apple get around this by pushing optimized and proxy media. As such, editors reap the benefits of stability. And the same is true with Premiere. Working with consistent, optimized media formats (transcoded in advance) – or working with Adobe’s own proxies – results in a more stable project and a better editing experience.

Avid Media Composer is the dominant editing tool in major markets, but mainly in the long-form entertainment media space. Many of the top trailer and commercial edit shops in those same markets use Premiere Pro. Again, that goes back to the FCP7-to-Premiere Pro shift. Many of these companies had been using the old Final Cut rather than Media Composer. Since some of these top editors also cut features and documentaries, you’ll often see them use Premiere on the features that they cut, too. Once you get below the top tier of studio films and larger broadcast network TV shows, Premiere Pro has a much wider representation. That certainly is good news for Adobe and something for Avid to worry about.

Another criticism is that of Adobe’s development pace. Some users believed that moving to a subscription model would speed the development pace of new versions – independent of annual or semi-annual cycles. Yet cycles still persist – much to the disappointment of those users. This gets down to how software is actually developed, keeping up with OS changes, and to some degree, marketing cycles. For example, if there’s a big Photoshop update, then it’s possible that the marketing “wow” value of a large Premiere Pro update might be overshadowed and needs to wait. Not ideal, but that’s the way it is.

Just because it’s possible, doesn’t mean that users really want to constantly deal with automatic software updates that they have to keep track of. This is especially true with After Effects and Premiere Pro, where old project files often have to be updated once you update the application. And those updates are not backwards compatible. Personally, I’m happy to restrict that need to a couple of times a year.

Users have the fear that a manufacturer is going to end-of-life their favorite application at some point. For video users, this was made all too apparent by Apple and FCPX. Neither Apple nor Adobe has been exempt from killing off products that no longer fit their plans. Markets and user demands shift. Photography is an obvious example here. In recent years, smart phones have become the dominant photographic device, which has enabled cloud-syncing and storage of photos. Adobe and Apple have both shifted the focus for their photo products accordingly. If you follow any of the photo blogs, you’ll know there’s some concern that Adobe Lightroom Classic (the desktop version) will eventually give way completely to Lightroom CC (the cloud version). When a company names something as “classic”, you have to wonder how long it will be supported.

If we apply that logic to Premiere Pro, then the new Adobe Rush comes to mind. Rush is a simpler, nimbler, cross-platform/cross-device NLE targeted as users who produce video starting with their smart phone or tablet. Since there’s also a desktop version, one could certainly surmise that in the future Rush might replace Premiere Pro in the same way that FCPX replaced FCP7. Personally, I don’t think that will happen any time soon. Adobe treats certain software as core products. Photoshop, Illustrator, and After Effects are such products. Premiere Pro may or may not be viewed that way internally, but certainly more so now than ever in the past. Premiere Pro is being positioned as a “hub” application with connections to companion products, like Prelude and Audition. For now, Rush is simply an interesting offshoot to address a burgeoning market. It’s Adobe’s second NLE, not a replacement. But time will tell.

Apple Final Cut Pro X

Apple released Final Cut Pro X in the summer of 2011 – going on eight years now. It’s a versatile, professional tool that has improved greatly since that 2011 launch and gained a large and loyal fan base. Many FCPX users are also Premiere Pro users and the other way around. It can be used to cut nearly any type of project, but the interface design is different from the others, making it an acquired taste. Being a Mac-only product and developed within the same company that makes the hardware and OS, FCPX is optimized to run on Macs more so than any cross-platform product can be. For example, the fluidity of dealing with 4K ProRes media on even older Macs surpasses that of any other NLE.

Prognosticating Apple’s future plans is a fool’s errand. Some guesses have put the estimated lifespan of FCPX at 10 years, based in part on the lifespan of FCP “legacy”. I have no idea whether that’s true of not. Often when I read interviews with key Apple management (as well as off-the-record, casual discussions I’ve had with people I know on the inside), it seems like a company that actually has less of a concrete plan when it comes to “pro” users. Instead, it often appears to approach them with an attitude of “let’s throw something against the wall and see what sticks”. The 2013 Mac Pro is a striking example of this. It was clearly innovative and a stellar exhibit for Apple’s “think different” mantra. Yet it was a product that obviously was not designed by actually speaking with that product’s target user. Apple’s current “shunning” of Nvidia hardware seems like another example.

One has to ask whether a company so dominated by the iPhone is still agile enough to respond to the niche market of professional video editors. While Apple products (hardware and software) still appeal to creatives and video professionals, it seems like the focus with FCPX is towards the much broader sphere of pro video. Not TV shows and feature films (although that’s great when it comes) – or even high-end commercials and trailers – but rather the world of streaming channels, social media influencers, and traditional publishers who have shifted to an online media presence from a print legacy. These segments of the market have a broad range of needs. After all, so called “YouTube stars” shoot with everything from low-end cameras and smart phones all the way up to Alexas and REDs. Such users are equally professional in their need to deliver a quality product on a timetable and I believe that’s a part of the market that Apple seeks to address with FCPX.

If you are in the world of the more traditional post facility or production company, then those users listed above may be market segments that you don’t see or possibly even look down upon. I would theorize that among the more traditional sectors, FCPX may have largely made the inroads that it’s going to. Its use in films and TV shows (with the exception of certain high-profile, international examples) doesn’t seem to be growing, but I could be wrong. Maybe the marketing is just behind or it no longer has PR value. Regardless, I do see FCPX as continuing strong as a product. Even if it’s not your primary tool, it should be something in your toolkit. Apple’s moves to open up ProRes encoding and offering LumaForge and Blackmagic eGPU products in their online store are further examples that the pro customer (in whatever way you define “pro”) continues to have value to them. That’s a good thing for our industry.

Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve

No one seems to match the development pace of Blackmagic Design. DaVinci Resolve underwent a wholesale transformation from a tool that was mainly a high-end color corrector into an all-purpose editing application. Add to this the fact that Blackmagic has acquired and integrated a number of companies, whose tools have been modernized and integrated into Resolve. Blackmagic now offers a post-production solution with some similarities to FCPX while retaining a traditional, track-based interface. It includes modes for advanced audio post (Fairlight) and visual effects (Fusion) that have been adapted from those acquisitions. Unlike past all-in-one applications, Resolve’s modal pages retain the design and workflow specific to the task at hand, rather than making them fit into the editing application’s interface design. All of this in a very short order and across three operating systems, thus making their pace the envy of the industry.

But a fast development pace doesn’t always translate into a winning product. In my experience each version update has been relatively solid. There are four ways to get Resolve (free and paid, Mac App Store and reseller). That makes it a no-brainer for anyone starting out in video editing, but who doesn’t have the specific requirement for one application over another. I have to wonder though, how many new users go deep into the product. If you only edit, there’s no real need to tap into the Fusion, Fairlight, or color correction pages. Do Resolve editors want to finish audio in Fairlight or would they rather hand off the audio post and mix to a specialist who will probably be using Pro Tools? The nice thing about Resolve is that you can go as deep as you like – or not – depending on your mindset, capabilities, and needs.

On the other hand, is the all-in-one approach better than the alternatives: Media Composer/Pro Tools, Premiere Pro/After Effects/Audition, or Final Cut Pro X/Motion/Logic Pro X? I don’t mean for the user, but rather the developer. Does the all-in-one solution give you the best product? The standalone version of Fusion is more full-featured than the Fusion page in Resolve. Fusion users are rightly concerned that the standalone will go away, leaving them with a smaller subset of those tools. I would argue that there are already unnecessary overlaps in effects and features between the pages. So are you really getting the best editor or is it being compromised by the all-in-one approach? I don’t know the answer to these questions. Resolve for me is a good color correction/grading application that can also work for my finishing needs (although I still prefer to edit in something else and roundtrip to/from Resolve). It’s also a great option for the casual editor who wants a free tool. Yet in spite of all its benefits, I believe Resolve will still be a distant fourth in the NLE world, at least for the next year.

The good news is that there are four great editing options in the lead and even more coming from behind. There are no bad choices and with a lower cost than ever, there’s no reason to limit your knowledge to only one. After all, the products that are on top now may be gone in a decade. So broaden your knowledge and define your skills by your craft – not your tools!

©2019 Oliver Peters

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