It’s great… Until it isn’t

No, that picture at the top isn’t a map of Covid-19 hotspots. It’s the map of US users affected by this week’s Adobe sign-in outage. This past Wednesday (May 27th) affected users across all of Adobe’s various cloud products were unable to sign into their accounts – locking them out of using any installed Adobe products. But not every user – only those who needed to sign in to enable their applications.

Adobe products, like Creative Cloud, are paid on a monthly or prorated annual basis. You sign in one time to activate the account on that device and you are good to go until renewal time, as long as you stay signed into the cloud license manager application. In theory, you don’t need to be continually connected to the internet for the applications to function. However, once a month Adobe’s servers are pinged and you may be prompted to sign in again. So if Wednesday was your machine’s day to “phone home,” you haven’t used the apps in a while, or if you were signing in after having previously signed out, then your Adobe cloud manager application was unable to connect to the server and activate (or reactive) your software product(s). Just like that, a day of billable time flushed away.

Before you grab the torches and pitchforks, it may be useful to revisit the pros and cons of the various software licensing models.

Subscription

Quite a few companies have adopted the subscription – aka software as a service or SaaS – model. The argument is that you never actually own any software, regardless of the company or the application (read any EULA). Rather, you pay for the right to use it over a specified period of time – monthly, annually, or perpetually. Adobe decided to go all-in on subscription plans, arguing that the upfront costs were cheaper for the user, the plans offered a better ROI with access to many more Adobe products, and that this provided a predictable revenue stream to fuel more frequent product updates.

Generally, these points have been realized and the system works rather well most of the time. Yes, you can argue that over time you pay more for your CC subscription than in the old CS days (assuming you skipped a few CS updates). But if you are an active facility, production company, or independent contractor, then it’s a small monthly business expense, just like your internet or electric bill, which is easily absorbed against the work you are bringing in. The software cost has shifted from cap-ex to op-ex.

That is all true, unless you have no revenue coming in or are merely working with media as a hobby. In addition, once you stop subscribing, all past project files – whether that’s Premiere Pro, Lightroom, Photoshop, In Design, etc – can no longer be opened until you renew.

Unfortunately, when you hit a day like Wednesday, all rational arguments go out the window.

The App Store model

If you are a Final Cut Pro X user, then Wednesday might have stirred the urge to say, “I told you so.” I get that. The App Store method of purchasing/installing/updating software works well. You only have to sign in for new purchases, new Mac installations, and occasionally for updates.

However, don’t be smug. Certain applications that Apple sees as a service, like News, occasionally prompt you to sign in with your Apple ID again before you can use that software. This is true even if you haven’t subscribed to any paid magazines or newspapers. In a scenario such as Adobe’s Wednesday outage, I can image that you would be just as locked out. Not necessarily from your creative apps, like FCPX, but rather certain software/services, such as News, iTunes, Music, etc. As someone who uses my iCloud e-mail account quite a lot through web browsers, I can’t count the number of times access has been hampered.

License managers

Similar to the App Store or Adobe Creative Cloud, some companies use license manager software that’s installed onto your machine. This is a common method for plug-in developers, such as FxFactory and Waves. It’s a way of centralizing the installation and authorization of that software.

FxFactory follows the App Store approach and includes purchasing and update features. Others, like Waves and Avid Link, are designed to activate and/or move licenses between machines, based on the company’s stored, online database of serial numbers. You typically do not need to stay online or be signed in unless making changes or updates, or your system has changed in some way, like a new OS installation. These work well, but aren’t bulletproof – as many Media Composer editors can attest.

Activation codes

One of the oldest methods is simply to provide the user with a serial number/activation code. Install the software and activate the license with the supplied code number. If you need to move the software to a different machine, then you will typically have to deactivate that application on the first machine and activate it again on the second machine. You only have to be connected to the company’s servers during these activation times. Some companies also offer offline methods for activation in the event you don’t have internet access.

Seems simple, right? Well, not necessarily. First of all, if you have a lot of software that uses this method, that’s a lot of serial numbers you will have to keep track of. Second, some companies only give you a limited number of times you can deactivate and reactivate the software. If that’s the case, you can’t really move the license back and forth between two machines every other week. If your motherboard dies with the software activated, you are likely going to have to jump through hoops to get the company to deactivate the number on their server in order to be able to activate it again on the repaired machine. That’s because the new motherboard IDs it as a completely different machine. Finally, even some of these companies require you to occasionally sign in or reactivate the software in order for you to continue being able to use it.

Hardware license key

Ah, the “dongle.” When Avid switched to software licensing, many Media Composer editors approached it with the attitude of “from my cold, dead hands.” And so, Avid still maintains hardware licensing for many Avid systems. Likewise, Blackmagic Design has also shipped dongles for DaVinci Resolve and Fusion. iLok devices, common among Pro Tools users, are another variant of this. Dongles, which are actually USB hardware keys, make it simple to move authorization between machines. That’s useful if you maintain a fleet of rental systems. No internet required. Just a USB port.

Unfortunately, dongles are subject to forgetfulness, loss, breakage, theft, and even counterfeiting. A friend reminded me that when Avid Symphony first came out and cost $100K for a system, dongle theft was a very real issue. That’s likely less the case now, because software is so cheap by comparison. I do know of film schools that extended their Media Composer dongles on a USB extension cable and then strung it to the inside of their Mac Pro. Lock the case for viable theft prevention.

Free

The Holy Grail – right? Or so many users believe. It’s the model Blackmagic uses for the standard versions of Resolve and Fusion. Many plug-in developers use the free model on a few plug-ins just to get you interested in their other paid products. Of course, the ease of making Motion Templates for Final Cut Pro X has create a homegrown hobbyist/developer market of free or extremely cheap effects and graphics templates.

Even though some commercial software is free, you are only granted the right to use it, not ownership. Often in exact for user data so that you can be marketed to in the future. As a business plan for a commercial developer, this model is only sustainable because of other revenue, like hardware sales. And in practice, even the Mac App Store model, with its “buy once” policy, is close to free when you own and personally control a number of Macs.

There are pros and cons to all of these models. They all work well until they don’t. When there’s a hiccup, roll with the punches, or contact support if it’s appropriate. With some luck, there will be a speedy resolution and you’ll be back up and running in no time.

©2020 Oliver Peters

SOUND FORGE Pro Revisited

I’ve reviewed SOUND FORGE a number of times over the years, most recently in 2017. Since its initial development, it has migrated from Sonic Foundry to Sony Creative Software and most recently Magix, a German software developer. Magix’s other products are PC-centric, but SOUND FORGE comes in both Mac and Windows versions.

The updated 3.0 version of SOUND FORGE Pro for the Mac was released in 2017. Although no 4.0 version has been released in the interim, 3.0 was developed as a 64-bit app. Current downloads are, of course, an updated build. Across the product line, there are several versions and bundles, including “lite” SOUND FORGE versions. However, Mac users can only choose between SOUND FORGE Pro Mac 3 or Audio Master Suite Mac. Both include SOUND FORGE Pro Mac, iZotope RX Elements, and iZotope Ozone Elements. The Audio Master Suite Mac adds the Steinberg SpectraLayers Pro 4 analysis/repair application. It’s not listed, but the download also includes the Convrt application, which is an MP3 batch conversion utility.

SOUND FORGE Pro is designed as a dedicated audio mastering application, that does precision audio editing. You can record, edit, and process multichannel audio files (up to 32 tracks) in maximum bit rates of 24-bit, 32-bit, and 64-bit float at up to 192kHz. In addition to the iZotope Elements packages, SOUND FORGE Pro comes with a variety of its own AU plug-ins. Any other AU and VST plug-ins already installed on your system will also show up and work within the application.

Even though SOUND FORGE Pro is essentially a single file editor (as compared with a multi-track DAW, like Pro Tools), you can work with multiple individual files. Multiple files are displayed within the interface as horizontal tabs or in a vertical stack. You can process multiple files at the same time and can copy and paste between them. You can also copy and paste between individual channels within a single multichannel file.

As an audio editor, it’s fast, tactile, and non-destructive, making it ideal for music editing, podcasts, radio interviews, and more. For audio producers, it complies with Red Book Standard CD authoring. The attraction for video editors is its mastering tools, especially loudness control for broadcast compliance. Both Magix’s Wave Hammer and iZotope Ozone Elements’ mastering tools are great for solving loudness issues. That’s aided by accurate LUFS metering. Other cool tools include AutoTrim, which automatically removes gaps of silence at the beginnings and ends of files or from regions within a file.

There is also élastique Timestretch, a processing tool to slow down or speed up audio, while maintaining the correct pitch. Timestretch can be applied to an entire file or simply a section within a file. Effects tools and plug-ins are divided into groups that require processing or those that can be played in real-time. For example, Timestretch is applied as a processing step, whereas a reverb filter would play in real time. Processing is typically fast on any modern desktop or laptop computer, thanks to the application’s 64-bit engine.

Basic editing is as simple as marking a section and hitting the delete key. You can also split a file into events and then trim, delete, move, or copy & paste event blocks. If you slide an event to overlap another, a crossfade is automatically created. You can adjust the fade-in/fade-out slopes of these crossfades.

Even if you already have Logic Pro X, Audition, or Pro Tools installed, SOUND FORGE Pro Mac may still be worth the investment for its simplicity and mastering focus.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Color Finale 2.1 Update

 

Color grading roundtrips are messy and prone to errors. Most editors want high-quality solutions that keep them within their favorite editing application. Color Trix launched the revamped Color Finale 2 this past December with the goal of building Final Cut Pro X into a competitive, professional grading environment. In keeping to that goal, Color Trix just released Color Finale 2.1 – the first major update since the December launch. Color Finale 2.1 is a free upgrade to Color Finale 2 owners and adds several new features, including inside/outside mask grading, an image mask, a new smoothness function, and the ability to copy and paste masks between layers. (Right-click images to see enlarged view.)

Grading with inside/outside masks

Color Finale 2 launched with trackable, spline masks that could be added to any group or layer. But in version 2.0, grading occurred either inside or outside of the mask, but not both. The new version 2.1 feature allows a mask to be applied to a group, which then becomes the parent mask. Grading would then be done within that mask. If you want to also grade the area outside of that mask, simply apply a new group inside the first group. Then add a new mask that is an invert of the parent mask. Now you can add new layers to grade the area outside of the same mask.

In the example image, I first applied a mask around the model at the beach and color corrected her. Then I applied a new group with an inverted mask to adjust for the sky. In that group I could add additional masking, such as an edge mask to create a gradient. The parent mask around the model maintains that the sky gradient is applied behind her rather than in the foreground. Once you get used to this grouping strategy with inside and outside masks, you can achieve some very complex results.

Image masks

The second major addition is that of image masks. This is a monochrome version of the image in which the dark-to-light contrast range acts as a qualifier or matte source to restrict the correction being applied to the image. The mask controls include black and white level sliders, blurring, and the ability to invert the mask. Wherever you see a light area in the mask is where that color correction will be applied. This enables a number of grading tricks that are also popular in photography, including split-toning and localized contrast control.

Simply put, split-toning divides the image according to darks and lights (based on the image mask) and enables you to apply a different correction to each. This can be as extreme as a duotone look or something a bit more normal, yet still stylized.

In the duotone example, I first removed saturation from the original clip to create a black-and-white image. Then, the boxer’s image mask divides the range so that I could apply red and blue tinting for the duotone look.

In the second example, the image mask enabled me to create glowing highlights on the model’s face, while pushing the mids and shadows back for a stylistic appearance.

Another use for an image mask can be for localized contrast control. This technique allows me to isolate regions of the image and grade them separately. For example, if I want to only correct the shadow areas of the image, I can apply an image mask, invert it (so that dark areas are light in the mask), and then apply grading within just the dark areas of the image – as determined by the mask.

Smoothness

Color Finale 2 included a sharpness slider. New in version 2.1 is the ability to go in the opposite direction to soften the image, simply by moving the slider left into negative values. This slider controls the high frequency detail of the overall image – positive values increase that detail, while negative values decrease it.

Since this is an overall effect, it can’t be masked within the layers panel. If you wanted to apply it just to a person’s face, like other “beauty” filters, then that can be achieved by using Final Cut Pro X’s built-in effects masks. This way a similar result can be reached while staying within the Color Finale workflow.

One last addition to version 2.1 is that Final Cut Pro X’s hotkeys now stay active while the Color Finale layers panel is open. Color Trix has stated that they plan more upgrades and options over the next nine months, so look for more ahead. Color finale 2.1 is already a powerful grading tool for nearly any level of user. Nevertheless, more features will certainly be music to the ears of advanced users who prefer to stay within Final Cut Pro X to finish and deliver their projects. Stay tuned.

Originally written for FCP.co.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Chasing the Elusive Film Look

Ever since we started shooting dramatic content on video, directors have pushed to achieve the cinematic qualities of film. Sometimes that’s through lens selection, lighting, or frame rate, but more often it falls on the shoulders of the editor or colorist to make that video look like film. Yet, many things contribute to how we perceive the “look of film.” It’s not a single effect, but rather the combination of careful set design, costuming, lighting, lenses, camera color science, and color correction in post.

As editors, we have control over the last ingredient, which brings me to LUTs and plug-ins. A number of these claim to offer looks based on certain film emulsions. I’m not talking about stylized color presets, but the subtle characteristics of film’s color and texture. But what does that really mean? A projected theatrical film is the product of four different stocks within that chain – original camera negative, interpositive print, internegative, and the release print. Conversely, a digital project shot on film and then scanned to a file only involves one film stock. So it doesn’t really mean much to say you are copying the look of film emulsion, without really understanding the desired effect.

My favorite film plug-in is Koji Advance, which is distributed through the FxFactory platform. Koji was developed between Crumplepop and noted film timer, Dale Grahn. A film timer is the film lab’s equivalent to a digital colorist. Grahn selected several color and black-and-white film stocks as the basis for the Koji film looks and film grain emulation. Then Crumplepop’s developers expanded those options with neutral, saturated, and low contrast versions of each film stock and included camera-based conversions from log or Rec 709 color spaces. This is all wrapped into a versatile color correction plug-in with controls for temperature/tint, lift/gamma/gain/density (low, mid, high, master), saturation, and color correction sliders. (Click an image to see an expanded view.)

This post isn’t a review of the Koji Advance plug-in, but rather how to use such a filter effectively within an NLE like Final Cut Pro X (or Premiere Pro and After Effects, as well). In fact, these tips can also be used with other similar film look plug-ins. Koji can be used as your primary color correction tool, applying and adjusting it on each clip. But I really see it as icing on the cake and so will take a different approach.

1. Base grade/shot matching. The first thing you want to do in any color correction session is to match your shots within the sequence. It’s best to establish a base grade before you dive into certain stylized looks. Set the correct brightness and contrast and then adjust for proper balance and color tone. For these examples, I’ve edited a timeline consisting of a series of random FilmSupply stock footage clips. These clips cover a mix of cameras and color spaces. Before I do anything, I have to grade these to look consistent.

Since these are not all from the same set-up, there will naturally be some variances. A magic hour shot can never be corrected to be identical to a sunny exterior or an office shot. Variations are OK, as long as general levels are good and the tone feels right. Final Cut Pro X features a solid color correction tool set that is aided by the comparison view. That makes it easy to match a shot to the clip before and after it in the timeline.

2. Adding the film look. Once you have an evenly graded sequence of shots, add an adjustment layer. I will typically apply the Koji filter, an instance of Hue/Sat Curves, and a broadcast-safe limiter into that layer.

Within the Koji filter, select generic Rec 709 as the camera format and then the desired film stock. Each selection will have different effects on the color, brightness, and contrast of the clips. Pick the one closest to your intended effect. If you also want film grain, then select a stock choice for grain and adjust the saturation, contrast, and mix percentage for that grain. It’s best to view grain playing back at close to your target screen size with Final Cut set to Better Quality. Making grain judgements in a small viewer or in Better Performance mode can be deceiving. Grain should be subtle, unless you are going for a grunge look.

The addition of any of these film emulsion effects will impact the look of your base grade; therefore, you may need to tweak the color settings with the Koji controls. Remember, you are going for an overall look. In many cases, your primary grade might look nice and punchy – perfect for TV commercials. But that style may feel too saturated for a convincing film look of a drama. That’s where the Hue/Sat Curves tool comes in. Select LUMA vs SAT and bring down the low end to taste. You want to end up with pure blacks (at the darkest point) and a slight decrease in shadow-area saturation.

3. Readjust shots for your final grade. The application of a film effect is not transparent and the Koji filter will tend to affect the look of some clips more than others. This means that you’ll need to go back and make slight adjustments to some of the clips in your sequence. Tweak the clip color correction settings applied in the first step so that you optimize each clip’s final appearance through the Koji plug-in.

4. Other options. Remember that Koji or similar plug-ins offer different options – so don’t be afraid to experiment. Want film noir? Try a black-and-white film stock, but remember to also turn down the grain saturation.

You aren’t going for a stylized color correction treatment with these tips. What you are trying to achieve is a look that is more akin to that of a film print. The point of adding a film filter on top is to create a blend across all of your clips – a type of visual “glue.” Since filters like this and the adjustment layer as a whole have opacity settings, is easy to go full bore with the look or simply add a hint to taste. Subtlety is the key.

Originally written for FCP.co.

©2020 Oliver Peters