Storage Reliability

Recently I’ve written about storage strategies designed to future-proof access to your files. Other than questions of whether future software can still play your files, the biggest issue is whether of not the media is playable at all in a number of years. Unfortunately, there are simply no guarantees. All media can and does fail. Let’s look at various answers.

Everyone touts “the cloud” as the ultimate solution. Although cloud-based storage space is relatively cheap, the cost and data charges for massive uploads and downloads along with local internet speeds pose the stumbling blocks. There’s very little in the near term to change that. Remember, too, that cloud storage is a subscription service than never ends if you want to keep that media in the cloud.

The LTO (Linear Tape Open) data tape format is considered the “gold standard” for physical back-up and retrieval, but it’s really a format designed for long-term industrial and financial data applications. In other words, back it up once and forget it unless you need to restore from a backup tape in the future.

While many studios require original camera footage for major feature films to be archived onto LTO, the format doesn’t fit well into the needs of most small-to-medium production companies and post houses. There are three reasons for this: 1) As file capacities grow, LTO barely keeps up in equivalent capacity and transfer speeds. 2) The LTO standards keep evolving with limited forward or backward version compatibility. 3) If you need to continually go back to your archive to revise and update older projects, the linear design of LTO isn’t very attractive. In addition, frequent shuttling back and forth on LTO tapes to retrieve materials from random sections of the tape will cause an LTO tape to prematurely fail before its rated life.

One alternative to LTO is Sony’s Optical Disc Archive. It’s essentially a videotape deck-sized unit that records on writeable optical media (like a Blu-ray disc). They offer a robotic juke-box type of system for automated retrieval with large library systems. It’s a robust solution, but is mainly relevant to large facilities, such as at broadcast networks.

Storing on a large, RAID-protected array is a good, short-term idea, but it won’t be very cost-effective as your storage needs mount. I don’t recommend small 2-drive or 4-drive RAID enclosures for extended storage. These are more likely to have the RAID structure (whether hardware or software) fail and leave you will nothing accessible on that array. In my experience, single, enterprise-grade drives are more reliable. I buy these as raw drives (so I’m not paying extra for a power supply and interface with every drive) and mount them in a drive dock when I need to use them.

Hard drives do carry a manufacturer’s warranty for a rated lifespan, but I will reiterate that there are no guarantees. A 3-year-warranted drive may last as long as a 5-year drive and either one could fail in one year or last 10 years or longer. I currently have some drives that are as old as that. With drive failure is always a looming possibility, the reasonable strategy is to maintain multiple copies of any media of value. Three duplicate copies is recommend.

Let’s address how to select the drive to buy. Most of these types of drives come in several speeds and warranty levels. 5400 or 7200 RPM are the normal speed offerings. Both are fine for archiving, but 7200 is preferred if you occasionally need to edit directly from them. Warranties are usually three or five years. As with any physical media, it covers the replacement of the product, but not the value of the data stored, which you may have permanently lost.

A warranty is like life insurance. A 3-year drive isn’t necessarily better than a 5-year drive. The company has developed actuarial tables that tell them statistically enough of the  5-year drives last to the 5-year mark, so they won’t lose too much money by replacing the few drives that do fail. Sometimes the difference between three and five years may simply be that drives tested with more minor errors end up in the 3-year pile, while the ones with fewer errors go into the 5-year pile. I haven’t looked into the manufacturing specifics too deeply, but that’s generally how product warranties work.

With those two criteria in mind, I usually purchase 7200 RPM enterprise-grade drives with 5-year warranties. These are drives intended to be used in servers and shared storage systems running 24/7/365. There has been a lot of consolidation in the hard drive business, so regardless of the brand name, there are really only a handful of companies manufacturing the media.

One source to track which drives to buy is Backblaze. They are a cloud provider that publishes their testing results, based on a current pool of over 100,000 drives that they have in operation. Right now the front-runners are ToshibaHGST (Hitachi enterprise) and Seagate. The HGST brand has been absorbed by Western Digital. All these are good options. I also hold back on the largest drives rather than be on the bleeding edge. For example, you can now purchase 14 TB drives, but I’ll tend to stick with 8 TB for a while.

Mechanical hard drives are meant to spin and not to sit on a shelf indefinitely. Periodically load each drive into a dock and spin it up. Make sure the contents are still retrievable and files can be opened. This process should happen no less than once a year. More frequent is even better. And yes, if you have 100 drives in your archive, don’t get lazy. This needs to be done. If a drive sounds odd, has difficulty spinning up or mounting, or has lot of vibration, then clone and replace it ASAP, because it’s likely to fail soon.

Many spinning drives and solid state drives employ S.M.A.R.T. technology. This is a prediction of drive failure. Diagnostics fail the S.M.A.R.T. test when they determine that enough sectors on drive are no longer writeable. Other drive issues, like excessive heat and slow spin-up can cause errors. The drive may outwardly act and seem fine, but it’s time to clone and replace the drive. Shared storage servers monitor for S.M.A.R.T. errors in their RAID drives, but you can also get some diagnostic applications to test individual drives.

The final level of security is to develop a plan to routinely transfer your entire library to the current format of the day. If you use hard drives, then plan on migrating your library to a replacement within five to ten years. Many feature film operations, like ILM, have done that for years, because they sit on a library of material with a ton of value. Your media files, might not be that, but this should be a strategy you follow to future-proof your production investment.

©2019 Oliver Peters

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DaVinci Resolve Editor Keyboard

Blackmagic Design doubled-down on advanced editing features in 2019 by introducing a new editing mode to DaVinci Resolve 16 called the cut page. They also added a dedicated editor’s keyboard – something that warms the heart of any editor who started their career in a linear edit suite. After some post-NAB feedback and adjustment, the keyboard is finally ready for prime time, running with DaVinci Resolve 16.1 (currently in public beta) or later.

Blackmagic Design’s Grant Petty comes from a broadcast engineering background and knows how fast tape editing was with the right controller. Speed is lost using a mouse-centric, drag-and-drop approach, so the DaVinci Resolve keyboard is designed to put speed back into modern edit workflows. Blackmagic Design was kind enough to loan me a keyboard for a couple of weeks of testing for this review.

Hardware design

The keyboard is very reminiscent of Sony’s BVE keyboards of the past. That’s not simply cosmetic – there are a number of plastic editing keyboards with a shuttle knob – it’s about precision engineering. The DaVinci Resolve search dial (job/shuttle/scroll wheel) truly feels like it has the same type of ballistics and tactile feedback that a Sony dial gave you. The DaVinci Resolve keyboard is built into a sturdy metal case with keycaps that are designed to take some pounding. They intend for the keyboard to last and will offer replacement parts as needed. In short, don’t think of this as a product you’ll have to toss out in a few years.

The keyboard connects via USB-C. But it also worked on the USB3.0 connection of a two-year old iMac and MacBook Pro by using a USB-A to USB-C cable. The back of the keyboard includes two additional USB-A ports for a thumb drive, mouse, or a DaVinci Resolve license key (“dongle”). The keyboard is wider than a standard extended keyboard due to dedicated edit keys on the left and the search dial on the right. It has a replaceable wrist rest on the front edge and adjustable feet to elevate the keyboard angle.

The Cut Page

The Editor Keyboard is optimized for the cut and edit pages. It does work as a standard keyboard in the color, Fairlight, and Fusion pages. However, I found the dial operation in those modes to be rather finicky. Outside of DaVinci Resolve, it’s a generic QWERTY keyboard, but the special edit keys and dial will not work with other editing software.

It’s hard to talk about the keyboard without delving into the cut page. While the keyboard works effectively and correctly in the edit page, you’ll still find yourself needing the mouse, which defeats the purpose. In short, the design motivation is fast editing where your hands never leave the keyboard. That ideal plays out best in the cut page and the two have been developed in tandem.

While the DaVinci Resolve cut page shares many similarities to Apple’s Final Cut Pro X, Blackmagic Design software engineers added a number of unique functions that improve editing speed. The best of these is the source tape view. The bin can be sorted by timecode, camera, duration, or name order using dedicated keys and then viewed as if from a single source – essentially a virtual string-out. Quickly scroll through the footage using the search dial as effortlessly as using the FCPX skimming function. Large, dedicated buttons for source and timeline, in and out, and sort methods make for easy navigation and quick assembly. Smart edit and special function buttons, such as the unique “close-up” button (automatically does a basic punch-in of high-res footage), round out the picture.

The cut page itself has a number of other unique features that are beyond the scope of this article. Nevertheless, one unique tool that is worth mentioning is the dual timeline view. The timeline pane is divided into a top mini-display of the full timeline, while the lower area always shows the zoomed-in section of the timeline at the current time indicator (cursor). You never have to zoom in and zoom out to navigate your timeline. The search dial makes it a breeze to quickly scroll through the full timeline (top) and then hit the jog key to zero in on the frame you want (bottom).

Trimming is where the dial shines. Dedicated keys quickly select in-point, out-point, roll, slip, or slide trimming. Simply hit the key and DaVinci Resolve automatically jumps to the nearest cut point. Then use the search dial for the rest. As you adjust the head or tail of a cut the rest of the timeline ripples accordingly. It’s one of the best trim models of any NLE.

Some additional thoughts

I do have a few quibbles. Trim functions in the cut and edit pages are inconsistent with each other. The cut page uses a similar model to FCPX, where audio and video from the clip are combined into a single timeline clip rather than on separate tracks. Unfortunately, Blackmagic Design has yet to implement a way to expand a/v clips and perform L-cut or J-cut trimming on the cut page. You’ll have to shift to the edit page to perform those.

This is a right-handed device, so left-handed editors will have the same dilemma that left-handed guitar players encounter. In addition, these are imprinted keycaps based on DaVinci Resolve’s default keyboard map. If you use a custom layout or one of the other keyboard maps that DaVinci Resolve offers, then the QWERTY command portion of the keyboard becomes less useful.

The search dial will not override the J-K-L or the space bar play commands. In order to jog once the sequence is playing, you must first hit the K key or the space bar to stop playback before you can properly jog through frames. Otherwise, playback continues the minute you let go of the dial.

Conclusion

This keyboard is addictive. But, is its $995 (USD) price tag justified? That’s steep, but many plastic gaming keyboards can run up to $200 and some even $500. That’s without any extra pointers, dials, or keys. I’ve also found precision metal keyboards with force-sensitive pointers as high as $3,000. Given that, Blackmagic Design may be in the right ballpark. Just like control surfaces for grading or mixing, this keyboard isn’t for everyone. If you are already a fast, keyboard-oriented editor, then the DaVinci Resolve Editor Keyboard may not make you faster. Likewise, a Final Cut Pro X editor who flies by skimming with a mouse is also going to have a hard time justifying the expense, not to mention a shift to a different application.

This keyboard is designed for DaVinci Resolve editors and not colorists. It’s for facilities that intend to deploy DaVinci Resolve as their full-time editing application. I could easily see DaVinci Resolve and this keyboard used in a fast turnaround edit environment, like broadcast news. Under that scenario, it will certainly enhance speed and workflow, especially for editors who want to make the most out of the new cut page.

Originally written for RedShark News.

Be sure to also check out Scott Simmons’ review at ProVideoCoalition.

©2019 Oliver Peters

Shared Storage Solutions

 

I’m certainly no IT whizz, but as an editor and all-around “workflow guy,” I’ve used and done basic management of a number of different shared storage solutions, going all the way back to Avid MediaShare SCSI. Shared storage solutions, aka storage area networks (SAN), have evolved from SCSI connectivity to Fibre Channel (both copper and fiber optic cables) and now to Ethernet. The latter set-ups are technically considered network attached storage (NAS); but to the user, there are only a few operational differences between SAN and NAS volumes.

A shared storage primer

In a nutshell, shared storage is a chassis of RAID-configured drives that can be simultaneously accessed by multiple workstations. Depending on the needs of the facility and the type of control software used, this storage can appear as one large volume to all users, or it can be parsed so that it shows up as several volumes with lower capacities per volume. Read/write permissions can be controlled in various ways. All users can have read/write access to everything or that can be selectively assigned by the system administrator.

The basic building block of a NAS is the main chassis, which contains storage, but also a small, on-board computer – the “brain” of the system. This is running its own operating system, which is usually a variation of Linux, CentOS, or Sun/ZFS. That internal OS is independent of whether the system is connected to Mac, Windows, or Linux workstations. That computer is the server portion of the NAS, which controls the drives, permissions, and the file structure. The server can be accessed from an external computer via the manufacturer’s installed applications – usually through a web browser. This is where the system administrator can adjust settings and handle general system maintenance, like installing firmware updates.

The volumes can be mounted by the workstations using a number of different network protocols, such as AFP, NFS, or SMB. Through these protocols, the files will look as you expect to see them from the Mac Finder or Windows File Explorer. However, it may not be perfectly compatible. For example, some file names using special characters that are valid in macOS, may not be properly read through one of these network protocols. So be very structured when using naming conventions for files that end up on a network volume. Numbers, letters, spaces, dashes, and underscores are fine. Avoid everything else and do not start or end a file name with a space.

The unformatted capacity of your system is based on the number and size of the installed drives. A 20-drive chassis populated with 8TB drives would tally 160TB. If you rebuilt that same chassis with newer 14TB drives you’d end up with a pool of 280TB. But, you cannot mix and match drive types or sizes within the chassis.

Most manufacturers offer the option to daisy-chain one or more expansion chassis onto this main server chassis. These are “dumb” rack units, meaning there’s no on-board computer in them – only drives with a power supply. Normally these don’t have to be the same capacity as the original chassis, if they are going to used as a separate volume. However, if you purchase and configure several matched units at the start, then they can be grouped together and used as a single volume.

The impact of RAID protection

NAS and SAN configurations are RAID-protected in various configurations. RAID-protection means that redundant data is spread across all of the drives in such a manner that one or more drives can go down without losing all of your media. However, that takes overhead, which means you must give up some of the total capacity to enable this data protection.

The standard set-up with a large rack unit allows you to lose up to two drives in a chassis without losing any data. If a drive is going bad or goes bad, the unit will continue to operate, but with reduced performance. In some cases that may not be noticed by the operator. When a drive goes bad, it can be replaced by a matching raw drive and the unit will rebuild the RAID data, which redistributes it across all of the drives again. This can take up to 24 hours to complete. While many manufacturers say you can operate during this rebuilding period, I have found that in actual practice, performance is so bad, that you don’t want to work during the rebuild.

RAID protection is a wonderful safety net, but at the cost of available storage. Different manufacturers have different ways of handling RAID configurations, so there is no rule-of-thumb as to what percentage you will lose with every NAS. For instance, 256TB of QNAP storage (gross) will yield 206TB of net storage. 480TB of LumaForge storage yields 316TB net. On top of this, the recommendation for all shared storage is to stay under 80-90% of the available net capacity for optimal performance. If you ignore that advice and decide to fill up your drives to something like 97%, your system will crawl and possibly not function at all.

Connecting the system

Most shared storage systems used in modern, small-to-medium post facilities will be Ethernet-based at either 1Gbps or 10Gbps (aka 1GigE or 10GigE). The topology of your network will impact the performance. Your server unit can be configured with individual Ethernet cards that would allow a direct run to each workstation. Or it may connect to an Ethernet network switch, which then distributes the signals to the workstations. Or a combination of the two.

The chassis and/or network switch(es) are connected to the workstations with Cat6 or Cat7 Ethernet cable. Cat6 is generally good up to 100′, while Cat7 is recommended for runs longer than 100′ or if the cable in routed through walls or in the ceiling close to other electrical wiring that can create interference. For a 10GigE storage network, the workstations will require 10GigE ports (like on an iMac Pro) or you will need to add a 10GigE-to-Thunderbolt adapter (Promise, Sonnet, Akitio) to the computer.

Storage racks are very sensitive to power fluctuations, so you’ll want a beefy uninterruptible power supply/battery back-up (UPS) unit. Since these chassis draw power, don’t expect to hook everything to a single UPS if you are putting in an entire equipment rack of gear. Small, desktop NAS units – no sweat. But a faculty with a larger system should plan on several UPS units for its installation. For example, at my day job, we have a large QNAP and a large Jellyfish system (more on that in a minute) – just under 3/4 PB total – plus other peripherals – all in a single equipment rack. Each NAS has its own dedicated UPS. The peripheral gear runs on a third. To make sure the gear also had plenty of juice, we had an electrician run additional dedicated circuits for each of the two UPS units used for the two NAS systems.

Finally, make sure you have adequate air conditioning, because excessive heat will damage electronics. Modern systems no longer require a meat locker environment, but an unventilated closet for a server/storage rack simply won’t do. Any room that falls into the cool to comfortable range for a human will be suitably cool for the gear. Staying on the cooler side of that range will be best for a room with a number of equipment racks.

Practical experience with shared storage in the real world

The creative content production company where I freelance as senior editor and “workflow guy” has had some history with shared storage. In the Final Cut Pro “legacy” days, we were running a sweet Fibre Channel SAN for four workstations. Media was managed through Final Cut Server software on an Apple Xserve computer, but with third-party storage hardware. Up until FCP7 everything ran well. Final Cut Pro X arrived and SAN usage with the early versions was to be avoided. Apple pulled the plug on FCP7, Final Cut Server, and Xserve. Then to make matters worse, the hardware reliability of our storage started to falter. As a result, the production company ended up back on local storage for a while.

Fast forward to about three years ago when we switched to a QNAP shared storage system. We quickly doubled the system capacity with an additional QNAP expansion chassis. Ultimately nine workstations were connected via a 10GigE network switch. General performance was good, but as we started to work steadily with 4K media, performance suffered, especially with nine editors banging away. For example, long-form Premiere Pro projects required a proxy workflow to avoid editor frustration. Certain tasks, like copying a multi-TB batch of files on one of the systems while editing proceeded on the others, slowed performance. Image sequence files really hurt overall system performance. You could not pull media from and render back to the same QNAP volume during Resolve render passes.

In looking for options to improve the system, we decided to shift to LumaForge and spec’ed a larger Jellyfish Rack installation. Other than system optimization (a biggie) the key difference in the two systems is architecture. Unlike our QNAP unit, which uses a network switch, we opted for enough on-board cards on the Jellyfish to enable a direct run to all nine workstations without a separate network switch. There’s also a small NVMe unit used as a dedicated Adobe cache volume.

We didn’t get rid of QNAP, though. It has been very robust and recent firmware updates have actually improved its performance compared to how editing “felt” with it before. We maintain it for some legacy projects (rather than move them to Jellyfish), as well as an additional back-up storage pool.

All workstations get Ethernet cable runs to both NAS systems, so any editor can access any media from any location – Jellyfish or QNAP. We configured Jellyfish with a tenth Ethernet direct port, which goes to a separate 1GigE switch. These Ethernet feeds are distributed to several staffers handling media management and file upload tasks, using MacBook Pro and Air laptops and a Mac Mini in the server room. The connection to Jellyfish gives them the ability to work with media files without tying up editing workstations.

The acquisition of the Jellyfish system has proven itself over time. Direct head-to-head performance between Jellyfish and QNAP with a small project or a few media files is not that dramatically different. But when we compare day-to-day workflow efficiency, the improvements add up. Long-form 4K edits can proceed with native media without the prerequisite of creating proxies. Sidebar tasks, like batch encodes and file copies on one or more stations, don’t impact performance of the other edit sessions. Image sequences are easier to deal with. I can render to and from Jellyfish when I work grading sessions on Resolve.

In general, both brands have worked well for us, but LumaForge has definitely provided an edge. However, I have no qualms about QNAP either for the right customer in the right situation. There are, of course, other shared storage brands that offer outstanding products, including Avid, OpenDrives, Facilis, Synology, and EditShare. If you want to build an all-Avid shop, then Avid storage is probably the best option for you. However, even though Avid storage works with other NLEs, shops that are focused on Premiere Pro, Final Cut Pro X, or Resolve are better served by the other options. In any case, deploying a NAS system is easier than it’s ever been. Heck, you can even buy and configure a smaller Jellyfish through Apple’s online store!

But do your homework, check your OS compatibility, and make sure you tap a workflow consultant who knows video post and not just IT. Plenty of NAS systems developed for the data world don’t perform up to par in the world of video post. And don’t go it alone, no matter how many YouTubers you’ve watched. Qualified systems specialists, like Bob Zelin (Rescue 1, Inc) or the teams at LumaForge or Avid or most of the other companies, can help you get your system up and running at peak performance.

©2019 Oliver Peters

Why editors prefer Adobe Premiere Pro CC

Over my career I’ve cut client jobs with well over a dozen different linear and nonlinear editing systems and/or brands. I’ve been involved with Adobe Premiere/Premiere Pro as a user on and off since Premiere 5.5 (yes kids – before, Pro, CS, and CC). But I seriously jumped into regular use at the start of the Creative Cloud era, thanks to many of my clients’ shift away from Final Cut Pro. Some seriously gave FCPX a go, yet could never warm up to it. Others bailed right away. In any case, the market I work in and the nature of my clients dictate a fluency in Premiere Pro. While I routinely bounce between Final Cut Pro X, Media Composer, DaVinci Resolve, and Premiere Pro, the latter is my main axe at the day job.

Before I proceed, let me stop and acknowledge those readers who are now screaming, “But Premiere always crashes!” I certainly don’t want to belittle anyone’s bad experiences with an app; however in my experience, Premiere Pro has been just as stable as the others. All software crashes on occasion and usually at the most inopportune time. Nevertheless, I currently manage about a dozen Mac workstations between home and work, which are exposed to our regular pool of freelance editors. Over the course of the past three to four years, Premiere Pro (as well as the other Creative Cloud applications) has performed solidly for us across a wide range of commercial, corporate, and entertainment projects. Realistically, if our experiences were as bad as many others proclaim, we would certainly have shifted to some other editing software!

Stability questions aside, why do so many professional editors prefer Adobe Premiere Pro given the choices available? The Final Cut Pro X fans will point to Premiere’s similarities with Final Cut Pro 7, thus providing a comfort zone. The less benevolent FCPX fanboys like to think these editors are set in their ways and resistant to change. Yet many Premiere Pro users have gone through several software or system changes in their careers and are no strangers to a learning curve. Some have even worked with Final Cut Pro X, but find Premiere Pro to be a better fit. Whatever the reason, the following is a short list (in no order of importance) of why Premiere Pro becomes such a good option for many editors, given the available alternatives.

Responsive interface – I find the Premiere Pro user interface to be the most responsive application of any of the NLEs. I’m not talking about media handling, but rather the time between clicking on something or commanding a function and having that action occur. For example, in my Final Cut Pro X experience – which is an otherwise fast application – it feels slower for this type of response time. When I click to select a clip in the timeline, it takes a fraction of a second to respond. The same action is nearly instant in Premiere Pro. The reason seems to be that FCPX is constantly writing each action to the Library in a “constant save” mode. I have seen such differences across multiple Macs and hard drive types over the eight years since its introduction with very little improvement. Not a deal-breaker, but meanwhile, Premiere Pro has continued to become more responsive in the same period.

Customizable user interface – Users first exposed to Premiere Pro’s interface may feel it’s very complex. The truth is that you can completely customize the look, style, and complexity of the interface by re-arranging the stacked, tabbed, or floating panels. Make it as minimalistic or complex as you need and save these as workspaces. It’s not just the ability to show/hide panels, but unlike other NLEs, it’s the complete control over their size and location.

Media Browser – Premiere Pro includes a built in Media Browser panel that enables the immediate review and import of clips external to your project. It’s not just a view of folders in a clip name or thumbnail format to be imported. Media Browser offers the same scrubbing capabilities as for clips in a bin. Furthermore, the editor can directly edit clips to the timeline from the Media Browser, which then automatically also imports that clip into the project in a one-step process. You could start with a completely blank project (no imported media clips) and work directly between the Media Browser and the timeline if you wanted to.

Bins – Editors rely on bins for the organization of raw media. It’s the first level of project organization. FCPX went deep down this hole with Events and Keywords. Premiere Pro uses a more traditional approach and features three primary modes – list, thumbnail, and freeform. List and thumbnail are obvious, but what needs to be reiterated is that the thumbnail view enables Adobe’s hover scrubbing. While not as fluid as FCPX’s skimming, it’s a quick way to see what a clip contains. But more importantly, the thumbnails are completely resizable. If you want to see a few very large thumbnails in the bin, simply crank up the slider. The newest is a freeform view – something Avid editors know well. This removes the grid arrangement of the bin view and allows the editor to rearrange the position of clips within the panel for that bin. This is how many editors like to work, because it gives them visual cues about how material is organized, much like a storyboard.

Versatile media and project locations – Since Premiere Pro treats all of your external storage as available media locations (without the need for a structured MediaFiles folder or Library file), this gives the editor a better handle on controlling where media should be located. Of course, this puts the responsibility for proper media management on the user, without the application playing nanny. The big plus is that projects can be organized within a siloed folder structure on your hard drive. One main folder for each job, with subfolders for associated video clips, graphics, audio, and Premiere Pro project files. Once you are done, simply archive the job folder and everything is there. Or… If a completely different organizational structure better fits your needs – no sweat. Premiere Pro makes it just as easy.

Multiple open sequences/timelines – One big feature that brings editors to Premiere Pro instead of Media Composer or Final Cut Pro X is the ability work with multiple, open sequences in the timeline panel and easily edit between them. Thanks to the UI structure of Premiere Pro, editors can also have multiple stacked timeline panels open in their workspace – the so-called “pancake timeline” mode. Open a “KEM roll” (selects sequence) in one panel and your working sequence in another. Then edit between the two timeline panels without ever needing to go back-and-forth between bins and the timeline.

Multiple open projects/collaboration – Premiere Pro’s collaboration capabilities (working with multiple editors on one job) are not as robust as with Avid Media Composer. That being said, Premiere’s structure does enable a level of versatility not possible in the Avid environment – so it’s a trade-off. With Premiere project locking, the first editor to open a project has read/write control, while additional editors to open one of those open projects can access the files in a read-only mode. Clips and sequences can be pulled (copied/imported) from a read-only project into your own active project. The two will then be independent of each other. This is further enhanced by the fact that Premiere offers standard “save as” computer functions. If Editor #1 wants to offload part of the work to Editor #2, simply saving the project as a new file permits Editor #2 to work in their own active version of the project with complete read/write control.

Mixed frame rates and sizes – Premiere Pro projects can freely mix media and timelines with different sizes, aspect ratios and frame rates. It’s not the only NLE to do that, but some applications still start by having the project file based on a specific sequence format. Everything in the project must conform or be modified to those settings. Both solutions are viable, but Premiere’s open approach is more versatile for editors working in the hodgepodge that is today’s media landscape.

Audio mixing – While all NLEs offer decent audio mixing capabilities, Premiere Pro offers more refined mixing functions, including track automation, submaster tracks, proper loudness measurement, and AU, VST, and VST3 plug-in support. FCPX attempts to offer a trackless mixing model using audio roles, but the mixing routine breaks done pretty quickly when you get to a complex scenario, often requiring multiple levels of compound clips (nested sequences). None of that is needed in Premiere Pro. In addition, Creative Cloud subscribers also have access to Adobe Audition, a full-fledged DAW application. Premiere Pro sequences can be sent directly to Audition for more advanced mixing, plus additional Audition-specific tools, like Loudness Match and Music Remix. Adobe markets these as powered by Adobe Sensei (Adobe’s banded artificial intelligence). Loudness Match analyzes an audio clip and intelligently rises the gain of the quieter sections. Traditional loudness controls raise or lower the entire clip by a fixed amount. Music Remix doesn’t actually remix a track. Instead, it automatically edits a track based on a target length. Set a desired duration and Audition will determine the correct music edit points to get close to that target. You can use the default or set it to favor shorter sections, which will result in more edit points.

Interoperability – Most professional editors do not work within a single software ecosystem. You often have to work with After Effects and Photoshop files. Needless to say, Premiere Pro features excellent interoperability with the other Adobe applications, whether or not you use the Dynamic Link function. In addition, there’s the outside world. You may send out to a Pro Tools mixer for a final mix. Or a Resolve colorist for grading. Built-in list/file export formats make this easy without the requirement for third-party applications to facilitate such roundtrips.

Built-in tools that enhance editing – This could be a rather long list, but I’ll limit myself to a few functions. The first one I use a lot is the Replace command. This appears to be the best and easiest to use of all the apps. I can easily replace clips on the timeline from the source clips loaded into the viewer or directly from any clip in a bin. No drag-and-drop required. The second very useful operation is built-in masking and tracking for nearly every video filter and color correction layer. This is right at your fingertips in the Effects Control panel without requiring any extra steps or added plug-ins. Need more? Bounce out to After Effects with its more advanced tools, including the bundled Mocha tracker.

Proxy workflow – Premiere Pro includes a built-in Proxy workflow, which permits low-res edit proxies to be created externally and attached, or created within the application itself. In addition, working with proxies in not an all-or-nothing feature. You can toggle between proxies and high-res master clips, but you can also work with a mixture of proxies and high-res files. In other words, not all of your clips have to be transcoded into proxies to gain the benefit of a proxy workflow. Premiere takes care of tracking the various clip sizes and making sure that the correct size is displayed. It also calculates the size shift between proxy frame sizes and larger high-res frame sizes to keep the toggle between these two seamless.

Relinking – Lastly,  Premiere Pro can work with media on any of the available attached drives; therefore, it’s got to be able to quickly relink these files if you move locations. I tend to work in a siloed folder structure, where everything I need for a project is contained within a job folder and its subfolders. These folders are often moved to other drives (for instance, if I need to travel with a project) or archived to an external drive and later restored. It’s critical that a project easily find and relink to the correct media files. Generally, as long as files stay in the same relative folder paths – in relation to the location of the project files on the drive – then Premiere can easily find all the necessary offline media files once a project is moved from its original location. This is true whether you move to a different drive with a different volume name or whether you move the entire job folder up or down a level within the drive’s folder hierarchy. Media relinking is either automatic or worst case, requires one dialogue box for the editor to point Premiere to the new path for the first file. From there, Premiere Pro will locate all of the other files. I find this process to be the fastest and least onerous relink operation of all the NLEs.

©2019 Oliver Peters

Affinity Publisher

The software market offers numerous alternatives to Adobe Photoshop, but few companies have taken on the challenge to go further and create a competitive suite of graphics tools – until now. Serif has completed the circle with the release of Affinity Publisher, a full-featured, desktop publishing application. This adds to the toolkit that already includes Affinity Photo (an image editor) and Affinity Designer (a vector-based illustration app). All three applications support Windows and macOS, but Photo and Designer are also available as full-fledged pro applications for the iPad. This graphic design toolkit collectively constitutes an alternative to Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign.

Personas and StudioLink

The core user interface feature of the Affinity applications is that various modules are presented as Personas, which are accessed by the icons in the upper left corner of the interface. For example, in Affinity Photo basic image manipulation happens in the Photo Persona, but for mesh deformations, you need to shift to the Liquify Persona.

Affinity Publisher starts with the Publisher Persona. That’s where you set up page layouts, import and arrange images, create text blocks, and handle print specs and soft proofs. However, with Publisher, Affinity has taken Personas a step further through a technology they call StudioLink. If you also have the Photo and Designer applications installed on the same machine, then a subset of these applications is directly accessible within Publisher as the Photo and/or Designer Persona. If you have both Photo and Designer installed, then the controls for both Personas are functional in Publisher; but, if you only have one of the others installed, then just that Persona offers additional controls.

Users of Adobe InDesign know that to edit an image within a document you have to “open in Photoshop,” which launches the full Photoshop application where you would make the changes and then roundtrip back to InDesign. However, with Affinity Publisher the process is more straightforward, because the Photo Persona is right there. Just select the image within the document and click on the Photo Persona button in the upper left, which then shifts the UI to display the image processing tools. Likewise, clicking on the Designer Persona will display vector-based drawing tools. Effectivity Serif has done with Affinity Publisher what Blackmagic Design has done with the various pages in DaVinci Resolve. Click a button and shift to the function specifically designed for the task at hand without the need to change to a completely different application.

Document handling

All of the Affinity apps are layer-based, so while you are working in any of the three Personas within Publisher, you can see the layer order on the right to let you know where you are in the document. Affinity Photo offers superb compatibility with layered Photoshop PSD files, which means that your interchange with outside designers – who may use Adobe Photoshop – will be quite good.

Affinity Publisher documents are based on Master Pages and Pages. This is similar to the approach taken by many website design applications. When you create a document, you can set up a Master Page to define a uniform style template for that document. From there you would build individual Pages. Any changes made to a Master Page will then change and update the altered design elements for all of the Pages in the rest of that document. Since Affinity Publisher is designed for desktop publishing, single and multi-page document creation and export settings are both web and print-friendly. Publisher also offers a split-view display, which presents your document in a vector view on the left and as a rasterized pixel view on the right.

Getting started

Any complex application can be daunting at first, but I find the Affinity applications offer a very logical layout that makes it easy to get up to speed. In addition, when you start any of these applications you will first see a launch page that offers a direct link to various tutorials, sample documents and/or layered images. A beginner can quickly download these samples in order to dissect the layers and see exactly how they were created. Aside from these links to the tutorials, you can simply go to the website where you’ll find extensive, detailed video tutorials for each step of the process for any of these three applications.

If you are seeking to shake off subscriptions or simply not bound to using Adobe’s design tools for work, then these Affinity applications offer a great alternative. Affinity Publisher, Photo, and Designer are standalone applications, but the combination of the three forms a comprehensive image and design collection. Whether you are a professional designer or just someone who needs to generate the occasional print document, Affinity Publisher is a solid addition to your software tools.

©2019 Oliver Peters

Mind your TCO

TCO = total cost of ownership.

When fans argue PCs versus Macs, the argument tends to only focus on the purchase price of the hardware. But owning a computer is also about the total operating cost or TCO over its lifespan. In the corporate world, IBM has already concluded Mac deployment has been cheaper for the IT Department. For video editors, a significant part of the equation is the software we run. Here, all things are not equal, since there are options for the Mac that aren’t available to PC users. Yes, I know that Avid, Adobe, and Blackmagic Design offer cross-platform tools, but this post is a thought exercise, so bear with me.

If you are a PC user, odds are that you will be using Adobe Creative Cloud software, which is only available in the form of a subscription. Sure, you could be using Media Composer or Edius, but likely it will be Premiere Pro and the rest of the Creative Cloud tools, such as Photoshop and After Effects. Avid offers both perpetual and subscription plans, but the perpetual licenses require an annual support renewal to stay current with the software. The operating cost between Avid and Adobe end up in a very similar place over time.

Mac users could use the same tools, of course, but they do have significant alternatives in non-subscription software, like Apple’s own Pro Applications. In addition, macOS includes additional productivity software that PC users would have to purchase at additional cost. The bottom line is that you have to factor in the cost of the subscription over the lifespan of the PC, which adds to its TCO*.

For this exercise, I selected two 15″ laptops – a Dell and a MacBook Pro. I configured each as close to the other as possible, with the exception that Dell only offers a 6-core CPU, whereas new MacBook Pros use 8-core chips. That comes to $2395 for the Dell and $3950 for the Apple – a pretty big difference. But now let’s add software tools.

For the PC’s suite of tools, I have included the full Adobe Creative Cloud bundle, along with a copy of Microsoft Office. Adobe’s current subscription rate for individuals comes to $636/year (when paid annually, up front). You would also have to add Microsoft Office to get Word, Excel, and Powerpoint. Even though Microsoft is moving to subscriptions, you can still buy Office outright. A home/small business license is $250.

You could, of course, make the same choices for the Mac, but that’s not the point of this exercise. I’m also not trying to make the argument that one set of tools is superior to the other. This post is strictly about comparing cost. If you decide to add alternative software to the Mac in order to parallel the Adobe Creative Cloud bundle, you would have to purchase Final Cut Pro X, Motion, Compressor, and Logic Pro X. To cover Photoshop/Illustrator/InDesign tasks, add Affinity Photo, Designer, and Publisher. You can decide for yourself whether or not macOS Photos is a viable substitute for Lightroom; but, for sake of argument, let’s add ON1 Photo RAW to our alternative software package. Some Adobe tools, like Character Animator, won’t have an equal, but that’s an application that most editors have probably never touched anyway. Of course, macOS comes with Pages, Numbers, and Keynote, so no requirement to add Microsoft Office for the MacBook Pro. Total all of this together and the ballpark sum comes to $820. But you have purchased perpetual licenses and do not require annual subscription payments.

In the first year of ownership, PC users clearly have the edge. In fact, up until year three, the TCO is cheaper for PC owners. Odds are you’ll own your laptop longer than three years. I’m typing this on a mid-2014 15″ MacBook Pro, which is also my primary editing machine for any work I do at home. Once you cross into the fourth year and longer, the Mac is cheaper to own and operate, purely because of the differences in software license models.

Remember this is a simple thought exercise and you can mix and match software combinations any way you would like. These are worthwhile considerations when comparing products. It’s just not as simple as saying one hardware product is cheaper than the other, which is why a TCO analysis can be very important.

*Totals shown have been rounded for simplicity.

©2019 Oliver Peters

Accusonus ERA4

It’s fair to say that most video editors, podcast producers, and audio enthusiasts don’t possess the level of intimate understanding of audio filters that a seasoned recording engineer does. Yet each still has the need to present the cleanest, most professional-sounding audio as part of their productions. Some software developers have sought to serve this market with plug-ins that combine the controls into a single knob or slider. The first of these was Waves Audio with their OneKnob series. Another company using the single-knob approach is a relative newcomer, Accusonus.

I first became aware of Accusonus through Avid. Media Composer license owners have been offered loyalty add-ons, such as plug-ins, which recently included the Accusonus ERA3 Voice Leveler plug-in. I found this to be a very useful tool and so when Accusonus offered to send the new ERA4 Bundle for my evaluation, I was more than happy to give the rest of the package a test run. ERA4 was released at the end of June in a Standard and Pro bundle along with discounted, introductory pricing, available until the end of July. You may also purchase each of these filters individually.

Audio plug-ins typically come in one of four formats: AU (Mac only), VST (Mac or Windows), VST3 (Mac or Windows), and AAX (for Avid Media Composer and Pro Tools). When you purchase audio filters, they don’t necessarily come in all flavors. Sometimes, plug-ins will be AU and VST/VST3, but leave out AAX. Or will only be for AAX. Or only AU. Accusonic plug-ins are installed as all four types on a Mac, which means that a single purchase covers most common DAWs and NLEs (check their site for supported hosts). For example, my Macs include Final Cut Pro X, Logic Pro X, Audition, Premiere Pro, and Media Composer. The ERA4 plug-ins work in all of these.

I ran into some issues with Resolve. The plug-ins worked fine on the Fairlight page of Resolve 16 Studio Beta. That’s on my home machine. However, the Macs at work are running the Mac App Store version of Resolve 15 Studio. There, only the VST versions could be applied and I had to re-enter each filter’s activation code and relaunch. I would conclude from this that Resolve is fine as a host, although there may be some conflicts in the Mac App Store version. That’s likely due to some differences between it and the software you download directly from Blackmagic Design.

Another benefit is that Accusonus permits each license key to be used on up to three machines. If a user has both a laptop and a desktop computer, the plug-in can be installed and activated on each without the need to swap authorizations through an online license server or move an iLok dongle between machines. The ERA4 installers include all of the tools in the bundle, even if you only purchased one. You can ignore the others, uninstall them, or test them out in a trial mode. The complete bundle is available and fully functional for a 14-day free trial.

ERA4 Bundles

I mentioned the Waves One Knob filters at the top, but there’s actually little overlap between these two offerings. The One Knob series is focused on EQ and compression tasks, whereas the ERA4 effects are designed for audio repair. As such, they fill a similar need as the iZotope’s RX series.

The ERA4 Standard bundle includes six audio plug-ins: Noise, Reverb, and Plosive Removers, De-Esser, De-Clipper, and the Voice Leveler. The Pro bundle adds two more: the more comprehensive De-Esser Pro and ERA-D, which is a combined noise and reverb filter for more advanced processing than the two individual filters. If you primarily work with well-recorded studio voice-overs or location dialogue, then most likely the Standard bundle will be all you need. However, the two extra filters in the Pro bundle come in handy with more problematic audio. Even productions with high values occasionally get stuck with recordings done in challenging environments and last-minute VOs done on iPhones. It’s certainly worth checking out the full package as a trial.

While Accusonus does use a single-control approach, but it’s a bit simplistic to say that you are tied to only one control knob. Some of the plug-ins do offer more depth so you can tailor your settings.  For instance, the Noise Remover filter offers five preset curves to determine the frequencies that are affected. Each filter includes additional controls for the task at hand.

In use

Accusonus ERA4 filters are designed to be easy to use and work well in real-time. When all I need to do is improve audio that isn’t a basket case, then the ERA filters at their default settings do a wonderful job. For example, a VO recording might require a combination of Voice Leveler (smooth out dynamics), De-Esser (reduce sibilance), and Plosive Remover (clean up popping “p” sounds). Using the default control level (40%) or even backing off a little improved the sound.

It was the more problematic audio where ERA4 was good, but not necessarily always the best tool. In one case I tested a very, heavily clipped VO recording. When I used ERA4 De-Clipper in Final Cut Pro X, I was able to get similar results to the same tool from iZotope RX6. However, doing the same comparison in Audition yielded different results. Audition is designed to preview an effect and then apply it. The RX plug-in at its extreme setting crackled in real-time playback, but yielded superior results compared with the ERA4 De-Clipper after the effect was applied (rendered). Unfortunately FCPX has no equivalent “apply,” “render and replace,” or audio bounce function, so audio has to stay real-time, which gives Accusonus a performance edge in FCPX. For most standard audio repair tasks, Accusonus’ plug-ins were equal or better than most other options, especially those built into the host application.

I started out talking about the Voice Leveler plug-in, because that’s an audio function I perform often, especially with voice-overs. It helps to make the VO stand out in the mix against music and sound effects. This is an intelligent compressor, which means it tries to bring up all audio and then compress peaks over a threshold. But learn the controls before diving in. For example, it includes a breath control. Engaging this will prevent the audio from pumping up in volume each time the announcer takes a breath. As with all of the ERA4 filters, there is a small, scrolling waveform in the plug-in’s control panel. Areas that were adjusted by the filter are highlighted, so you can see when it is active.

Voice Leveler is a good VO tool, but that type is one of the more subjective audio filters. Some editors or audio engineers compress, some limit, and others prefer to adjust levels only manually. My all-time favorite is Wave’s Vocal Rider. Unlike a compressor, it dynamically raises and lowers audio levels between two target points. To my ears, this method yields a more open sound than heavy compression. But when its normal MSRP is pretty expensive. I also like the Logic Pro X Compressor, which is available in Final Cut Pro X. It mimics various vintage compressors, like Focusrite Red or the DBX 160X. I feel that it’s one of the nicest sounding compressors, but is only available in the Apple pro apps. Adobe users – you are out of luck on that one.

From my point-of-view, the more tools the better. You never know when you might need one. The Accusonus ERA4 bundle offers a great toolset for anyone who has to turn around a good-sounding mix quickly. Each bundle is easy to install and activate and even easier to use. Operation is real-time, even when you stack several together. Accusonus’ current introductory price for the bundles is about what some individual plug-ins cost from competing companies, plus the 14-day trial is a great way to check them out. If you need to build up your audio toolbox, this is a solid set to start out with.

Check out Accusonus’ blog for tips on using the ERA plug-ins.

©2019 Oliver Peters