Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve Panels

I started my editing career in the era of linear editing suites, where dedicated control panels ruled. CMX keyboards, Grass Valley switchers, ADOs – you name it. These enabled operational speed and experienced editors could drive these rooms like a virtuoso pianist. Much of that dexterity has been lost, thanks to the ubiquity of software-based user interfaces for applications running on general purpose computers and controlled by a mouse. But Grant Petty and Blackmagic Design have set out to change that. At the beginning of March, he introduced two new color correction control panels as companion tools to the company’s DaVinci Resolve editing and grading solution. According to Petty more people are using Resolve to edit than to color correct. By introducing these new panels, he hopes to get more of these users involved in the color correction side of Resolve.

Blackmagic Design now offers three DaVinci Resolve panels: Advanced ($29,995), Mini ($2,995) and Micro ($995). Obviously, the Advanced panel is for serious, dedicated color correction facilities with the traffic to support that investment. It’s a large, three-module console with four trackball/ring controls in the center section. The Mini and Micro panels are designed to be more portable than the Advanced panel. The Mini is essentially a three-trackball subset of the center section of the larger panel. The Micro is the trackball section of the Mini, without the Mini’s tilted backplane. If you are an editor who uses Resolve for color correction, but that’s less than 50% of your workload, then the Micro is probably the right panel for you. If you color correct more than 50%, then the Mini is the better bet. However, these panels are designed for more than just editors. If you work as a DIT (digital imaging technician) in the field or on-set, you most likely use Resolve, making these panels the perfect addition to your toolkit.

Taking the Mini for a spin

Blackmagic Design loaned me a Resolve Mini panel for about two weeks for this review. I have to say, it was love at first sight. These panels continue with Blackmagic’s modern industrial design style. This has earned them an international Design Team of the Year award from the Red Dot Awards last year. The Mini panel is a well-constructed metal console with precision trackballs, rings, knobs and buttons. (The panel also uses some high-impact plastic in its construction.) With packaging, it weighs 24 pounds, thus it’s more “transportable” than portable. If you want something to toss into a gig bag, then the Micro would be the panel to buy. The Mini is better for facility use; however, it’s easy enough to move between rooms as needed.

The smaller Micro is bus-powered over USB, but the Mini includes several connection and power options. Communications can be over ethernet or USB/USB-C. Power options include standard AC wall power, 12 volt 4-pin, or ethernet PoE. Like other Blackmagic Design products, you have to supply your own power chord, but the Mini does include a USB-to-USB-C adapter chord. To run the panel, you need to install Resolve Studio (paid) or Resolve (free), version 12.5.5 or later. And yes, these panels only work with Resolve. Connection is drop-dead easy. Just power it up and plug in the USB cable to any available USB port on your computer (or looped off of a connected device, like a monitor). Then select the panel in Resolve’s preferences. This ease of installation is refreshing, without any of the finickiness of other protocols, like EUCON. The one downside for editors is that this panel only controls the color mode of Resolve. There are no dedicated controls for editing, importing or exporting. So you won’t be able to shed the keyboard and mouse completely.

Everything at your fingertips

The main section of the panel includes three trackballs for hue control and rings for luminance control. Generally these correspond to shadow, mids and highlight ranges of the image. Across the top of this flat section are twelve knobs for additional color controls. Push in the knobs to reset their adjusted values. On the right are buttons to move through nodes, clips and stills, along with play/stop buttons. The slanted backplane of the Mini panel features two five-inch, high-resolution LCD menu/control displays, fifteen buttons on either side, eight soft keys across the top, and eight knobs under the displays. The buttons on the left select the portion of the interface that you need to deal with, like primary correction, tracking, sizing, blurs, etc. The buttons on the right are to add nodes, copy and paste, move through stills and keyframes, and toggle the computer display to a full screen viewer.

Resolve’s primary color correction window is pretty deep, requiring paging through different sections of the control window, such as primary bars, primary wheels, log, raw and more. There’s actually a fourth control wheel for offset in addition to lows, mids and highs. Much of this is exposed to the panel. For example, you can use the knobs to adjust the primary bars, while also moving the trackballs, which would normally adjust the primary wheels. Across the bottom of Resolve’s primary window are additional controls for contrast, saturation and more, which spread across two pages of that interface window. These controls are all active on the Mini by using the twelve knobs located above the trackballs. In some cases, you’ll need to change the part of the interface that appears on the two LCDs. This is enabled by the two arrow keys in the upper left corner of the panel. However, switching pages on the panel is required less often than when you only use the mouse with the interface.

The offset function (the fourth primary wheel and fourth trackball on the Advanced panel) can be accessed by selecting the offset key located above the middle trackball. In that mode, the left ring controls temperature, middle ring controls tint and right ring controls level. The right trackball controls color balance.

Resolve is built around controls that may or may not be present in other applications. For example, it is designed as a YRGB system, meaning you can gang level and color controls, but can also correct Y (luminance) lift/gamma/gain levels independent of color (RGB). In addition to standard three-wheel color corrections, you also have contrast/pivot control, as well as some photographic-style enhancements. These include color boost (like a vibrance control), mid detail (softens or sharpens the image), plus blurs. In you are using Resolve Studio, then temporal noise reduction is active. From what I can tell, this is the only control not active when using the panel with the free version of Resolve.

Resolve uses an elaborate curves system, which you would think would be difficult to implement with knobs and buttons. However, Blackmagic has done a wonderful job. The normal curve levels (ganged or independent channels) can be adjusted by six of the knobs under the LCD displays. These work at preset intervals of 0, 20, 40, 60, 80 and 100% along the curve path from dark to light. If you use hue curves, you start with one of six preset colors selected from the panel. Then an “input hue” knob lets you change the selected color left or right within its hue range, based on the last color knob selected. Custom curves also offer a YSFX tool. This is an adjustment to shrink and even invert the curve range. The extreme opposite setting results in a negative image.

There are plenty of other tools. Resolve has a powerful point-cloud tracker, which can also be accessed from the Mini. One handy feature is the ability to automatically add a node with a preset box or circle window. Once applied, then you adjust the window. Although you can step through keyframes, it still requires the mouse to add or delete keyframes. You also have to delete nodes via mouse and not from the panel. Some keys, like FX and User are available for future expansion.

In practice

I spent about a week with the panel, working on and off with some test projects. Needless to say, I enjoyed the process, but there are a few things I wish were different.  The Mini panel is really designed for full-time color grading. If you have a desk layout for editing, then there probably isn’t enough extra space to situate the Mini is an optimal location. For instance, if you wanted to place the panel between your keyboard and display, then the Micro would be a better option. There is no power switch, so the panel is always on. Fortunately, it’s fan-less and quiet, even when on. There are no illumination controls for the displays or the backlit keys. That’s fine in a normally lit room, but might be too bright for some, if you keep the light level very low in the suite.

I’d like to see more versatile transport control. Resolve supports faster-than-real-time playback and scrubbing, but the control panel only gives you 1X play in the forward or reverse directions. It would be nice to have better transport control from the panel. Resolve functions, like adding LUTs, can’t be handled from the panel. The controls to select HSL qualifiers for secondary color correction include eyedroppers, but you still need to use the mouse to graphically pick the right area of the screen. It would be nice if you could do this with the trackball. These are minor points and by no means deal breakers.

A dedicated color correction panel will not only make you a faster colorist – it will also make you a better one. More controls are front and center, which means you are likely to discover and use processes that you would otherwise miss if you simply relied on the mouse or a pen and tablet. You have two hands to control the panel. As with any other tactile task, such as audio mixing with a mixing board, your hands will soon know instinctively what to adjust without having to look at the panel. You can stay more focused on your video display and the scopes. Grading is not only faster, but it’s more intuitive.

Some are going to baulk at the price, no matter how reasonable these portable panels are. To place that into context, at $2,995, the Mini is still less expensive than a decked out Mac Pro or MacBook Pro, which might be your main editing/grading workstation. Plus they work with the free version of Resolve. So if color correction is part of your business model and Resolve is your color correction tool of choice, then either of these two DaVinci Resolve panels is easily justified. The more I’ve been using the Resolve Mini, the more I like it. It’s the Porsche of small grading control panels – solid, stylish and powerful.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters

CrumplePop and FxFactory

If you edit with Final Cut Pro – either the classic and/or new version – then you are familiar with two of its long-running plug-in developers. Namely, FxFactory (Noise Industries) and CrumplePop. Last year the two companies joined forced to bring the first audio plug-ins to the FxFactory plug-in platform. CrumplePop has since expanded its offerings through FxFactory to include a total of six audio and video products. These are AudioDenoise, EchoRemover, VideoDenoise, AutoWhiteBalance, EasyTracker, and BetterStabilizer.

Like much of the eclectic mix of products curated through FxFactory, the CrumplePop effects work on a mix of Apple and Adobe products (macOS only). You’ll have to check the info for each specific plug-in to make sure it works with your application needs. These are listed on the FxFactory site, however, this list isn’t always complete. For example, an effect that is listed for Premiere Pro may also work in After Effects or Audition (in the case of audio). While most are cross-application compatible, the EasyTracker effect only works in Final Cut Pro X. On the other hand, the audio filters work in the editing applications, but also Audition, Logic Pro X, and even GarageBand. As with all of the FxFactory effects, you can download a trial through the FxFactory application and see for yourself, whether or not to buy.

I’ve tested several of these effects and they are simple to apply and adjust. The controls are minimal, but simplicity doesn’t mean lack of power. Naturally, whenever you compare any given effect or filter from company A versus company B, you can never definitively say which is the best one. Some of these functions, like stabilization, are also available within the host application itself. Ultimately the best results are often dependent on the individual clip. In other words, results will be better with one tool or the other, depending on the challenges presented in any given clip. Regardless, the tools are easy to use and usually provide good results.

In my testing, a couple of the CrumplePop filters proved very useful to me. EchoRemover is a solid, go-to, “fix it” filter for location and studio interviews, voice overs, and other types of dialogue. Often those recordings have a touch of “boominess” to the sound, because of the room ambience. EchoRemover did the trick on my trouble clip. The default setting was a bit heavy-handed, but after a few tweaks, I had the clean track I was looking for.

EasyStabilizer is designed to tame shaky and handheld camera footage. There are several starting parameters to choose from, such as “handheld walking”, which determine the analysis to be done on the clip. One test shot had the camera operator with a DSLR moving around a group of people at a construction site in a semi-circle, which is a tough shot to stabilize. Comparing the results to the built-in tools didn’t leave any clear winner in my mind. Both results were good, but not without some, subtle motion artifacts.

I also tested EasyTracker, which is designed for only Final Cut Pro X. I presume that’s because Premiere Pro and After Effects already both offer good tracking. Or maybe there’s something in the apps that makes this effect harder to develop. In any case, EasyTracker gives you two methods: point and planar. Point tracking is ideal for when you want to pin an object to something that moves in the frame. Planar is designed for tracking flat objects, like inserting a screen into phone or monitor. When 3D is enabled, the pinned object will scale in size as the tracked object gets larger in the frame. UPDATE: I had posted earlier that the foreground video seemed to only work with static images, like graphic logos, but that was incorrect. The good folks at CrumplePop pointed me to one of their tutorials. The trick is that you first have to make a compound clip of the foreground clip and then it works fine with a moving foreground and background image.

Like other FxFactory effects, you only buy the filter you want, without a huge investment in a large plug-in package, where many of the options might go unused. It’s nice to see FxFactory add audio filters, which expands its versatility and usefulness within the greater Final Cut Pro X (and Premiere Pro) ecosystem.

©2017 Oliver Peters

Red Giant Magic Bullet Suite 13

The hallmark of Red Giant’s Magic Bullet software products are that they are designed to enhance or stylize images. As their banner states, they focus on “color correction, finishing and film looks for filmmakers.” You can purchase individual software products or a comprehensive suite of tools. I reviewed Magic Bullet Suite 12 a couple a years ago. A few months ago Red Giant released its Magic Bullet Suite 13 update. As in the past, you can purchase it outright or as an upgrade from a previous version. With each iteration of the suite, Red Giant shuffles the mix of products in the toolkit and this version is no different.

Magic Bullet Suite 13 is comprised of seven plug-in products, which include Looks 4.0, Colorista IV, Denoiser III, Cosmo II, Mojo II, Film, and the newly added Renoiser. The tools are cross-platform compatible (macOS or Windows), but depending on the editing or compositing software you use, not all of these plug-ins work in every possible host. All of the tools will work in Adobe Premiere Pro or After Effects, as well as Apple Final Cut Pro X. Magic Bullet Looks 4.0 provides the broadest host support, including some less common choices. Looks supports After Effects, Premiere Pro, Final Cut Pro X, Motion, Magix Vegas Pro, Avid Media Composer, DaVinci Resolve, EDIUS, and HitFilm Pro. Colorista only supports the Adobe and Apple hosts, while the other tools support the bulk of possible choices, with the exception Media Composer. Therefore, what you cut or composite with will determine what your best purchase will be – full suite or individual plug-ins.

New bells and whistles

The big selling point of this release is GPU acceleration across the board using OpenGL/OpenCL. This provides real-time color correction. There are plenty of refinements throughout, but if you are an Adobe user, you’ll note that Colorista IV has embraced Adobe’s panel technology. If you are comfortable with Premiere Pro’s Lumetri Color panel, you can now instead work with Colorista, in this exact same manner. I’ve dabbled a bit with all of these tools in various Avid, Apple, and Adobe hosts. While performance is good and certainly improved, you’ll have the best experience in Adobe After Effects and Premiere Pro. Another advantage you’ll have is Adobe’s built-in masking and tracking tools. Want to isolate someone’s face and track a Colorista correction to it during a moving shot? No problem, since the Adobe’s features augment any installed plug-in. As an editor, I like to do most of my work within the NLE, but honestly, if you want the best total experience, use these tools in After Effects. That’s where everything shines.

Looks

I won’t dive into each specific feature, since you can download a free trail version and see for yourself. Plus, you can reread my Magic Bullet Suite 12 review, as many of the main features are similar. But let me note a few items, starting with Looks. This is the grandaddy plug-in of the group, which actually runs as a mini sidebar application. Apply the plug-in, click the “edit” button, and your reference frame opens in the standalone Looks interface. It includes a wealth of tools that can be applied, reordered, and adjusted in near-infinite variations to get just the specific look you desire. There are three helpful features – grading head starts, the ability to save custom presets, and a looks browser. The browser offers a ton of custom presets with a small thumbnail for each. These are updated with the reference frame and as you hover over each, the main viewer window is updated to display that look, thanks to GPU acceleration. If you want to start from scratch, but not sure what the best tools are to use, that’s where the head starts come in. This section includes six starting points that include a series of correction tools in a preset order, but without any tweaks yet applied.

Colorista IV

Colorista IV is another tools that’s received a lot of attention in this build. I’ve already mentioned the panel, but something really unique is the built-in Guided Color Correction routine. This is designed to guide novice and even experienced editors and compositors through series of color correction steps in the right order. Colorista also gained temperature and tint controls, RGB point curves, log support, and LUTs. The addition of integrated LUTs fills a gap, because Red Giant’s separate LUT Buddy tool has been dropped from Suite 13.

Renoiser

The other tools have also gained added features, but let’s not forget the new Magic Bullet Renoiser 1.0. This is designed to give cinematic texture and grain to pristine video and CGI footage. It includes 16 stock presets ranging from 8mm to 35mm. These are labeled based on certain fanciful styles, like “Kung Fu Fighting” or “Classic 35mm”. Renoiser’s settings are completely customizable.

There’s a lot to like in this upgrade, but first and foremost for me was the overall zippier operation, thanks to GPU acceleration. If you use these tools a lot in your daily editing and compositing, then Magic Bullet Suite 13 will definitely be worth the update.

©2017 Oliver Peters

A quarter-century for Premiere Pro

I don’t normally plug a manufacturer’s promotional marketing events, but this one seems especially noteworthy. At the end of last year, Adobe Premiere Pro hit its 25th anniversary. It launched in November 1991 as simply Premiere and has gone through numerous iterations – from Premiere to Premiere Pro, CS and now CC. Premiere Pro in all of its versions has always been a popular piece of software by the number of units in the field. However, it’s only been in recent years that this NLE has attracted the attention and respect of top tier editors. And along with that, a legion of editors who now consider it their “go to” editing application. So, this event seems too good not to pass along.

To commemorate this quarter-century milestone, Adobe is kicking off Premiere Pro’s 25th Anniversary today. Adobe is celebrating through a special contest with the help of Imagine Dragons. The Grammy-winning band has teamed up with Adobe to give fans and aspiring producers the chance to co-create a music video. In an industry first, Imagine Dragons is offering total access to the raw footage shot from their music video of Believer, which was posted on YouTube March 7. At this writing, it’s already garnered over seven million views.

Integrating these video clips, fans can cut their own version using Premiere Pro (and Creative Cloud) to enter Adobe’s Make the Cut contest. Entries will be judged by a panel of industry pros, including Angus Wall (Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Kirk Baxter (The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonThe Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl), Bill Fox (Straight Outta Compton, Hustle & FlowBand of Brothers), Matt Eastin (director for Believer), Vinnie Hobbs, an award-winning music video editor who has worked with Kendrick Lamar and Britney Spears, Imagine Dragons and Ann Lewnes (Adobe CMO).

The winner of the contest will claim a Grand Prize of $25,000. Adobe will also award bonus prizes of $1,000 each and a year-long Creative Cloud subscription in four special categories:

Fan Favorite: The most liked video by fans on the Adobe Creative Cloud Channel on YouTube.

Most Unexpected: No specific criteria, but knock their socks off.

Best Young Creator: The best up and coming editor under 25 years old.

Best Short Form: The most impressive video that’s 30-60 seconds long.

Finally, one special bonus prize of $2,500, a year-long subscription to Creative Cloud, and 25 Adobe Stock credits, will go to the cut with the best use of supplied Adobe Stock clips.

If you’re up for the challenge, head over to Adobe’s Make the Cut contest website for more details and to enter.

From the site: “Download exclusive, uncut music video footage and work with Adobe Premiere Pro CC to create your own edit of the video for their new hit song Believer. You’ll have 25 days to make your cut and show the world your editing chops—deadline is April 8th.” Good luck!

EDIT: The contest has closed and you can vote for a fan favorite among the Top 25 Finalists here.

©2017 Oliver Peters

Digital Anarchy Samurai Sharpen

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Editors often face the dilemma of dealing with less-than-perfect footage. Focus is the bane of this challenge, where you have the ideal shot, but the operator missed the optimal focus, leaving a useable, albeit soft, image. Editing and compositing apps offer a number of built-in and third-party sharpen and unsharp mask filters that can be employed as a fix. While you can’t really fix the focus issue, you can sharpen the image so that it is perceived by the viewer as being better in focus. All of these filters work on the concept of localized contrast. This means that any dark-to-light edge transition within the image is enhanced and contrast in that area is increased. The dark area is darkened and the brighter part enhanced. This creates a halo effect, which can become quite visible as you increase the amount of sharpening, but also quite obnoxious when you push the amount to its full range. A little bit improves the image – a lot creates an electric, stylized effect.

One of the better sharpening filters on the market is Digital Anarchy’s Samurai Sharpen, which is available for Apple Final Cut Pro X, Adobe Premiere Pro CC and After Effects CC. (According to their website, Avid and OpenFX plug-ins are in development and coming soon.) What makes Samurai Sharpen different is that it includes sophisticated masking in order to restrict the part of the image to be sharpened. For example, on a facial close-up, you can enhance the sharpness of eyes without also pushing the skin texture by an unflattering amount. Yet, you still have plenty of control to push the image into a “look”. For example, the photographic trend these days seems to be photos with an obvious over-sharpened look for dramatic appeal. If you want subtle or if you want to stylize the image, both are achievable with Samurai Sharpen.df0717_sam_2_sm

Click any of the example images to see an enlarged view. In these comparisons, pay attention to not only the eyes, but also lips and strands of hair, as these are also affected by sharpening. (Image courtesy of Blackmagic Design.)

df0717_sam_4_smThe effect controls are divided into three groups – Sharpen, Mask and Blend. The top three sharpen controls are similar to most other filters. Amount is self-explanatory, radius adjusts the size of the localized contrast halo, and edge mask strength controls the mask that determines what is or isn’t sharpened. The edge mask strength range markings might seem counter-intuitive, though. All the way to the left (0) means that you haven’t increased the mask strength, therefore, more of the image is being sharpened. In our facial close-up example, more texture (like the skin) and noise (background) would be sharpened. If you crank the slider all the way to the right (50), you have increased the mask strength, thus less of the image is being sharpened. For the face, this means the eyes and eyelashes are sharpened, but the skin stays smooth. The handy “show sharpening” toggle renders a quick hi-con image (mask) of the area being sharpened.

df0717_sam_3_smThe real power of Samurai Sharpen is in the Mask Group. You have two controls each for shadow and highlights, as well as an on/off toggle to enable shadow and/or highlight masking. These four sliders function like a curves control, enabling you to broaden or restrict the range of dark or light portions of the image that will be affected by the sharpening. Enabling and adjusting the shadow mask controls lets you eliminate darker background portions of the image from being sharpened. You don’t want these areas sharpened, because it would result in a noisier appearance. The mask can also be blurred in order to feather the fall-off between sharpened and unprocessed portions of the image. Finally, there’s a layer mask control in this group, which shows up a bit differently between the Adobe apps and FCPX. Essentially it allows you to use another source to define your sharpening mask.

df0717_sam_5_smThe last section is the Blend Group. This offers slider adjustments for the opacity of the shadow and highlight masks created in the Mask Group section. GPU acceleration results in an effect that is quick to apply and adjust, along with good playback performance.

While there are many free sharpening tools on the market, Digital Anarchy’s Samurai Sharpen is worth the extra for the quality and control it offers. Along with Beauty Box and Flicker Free, they offer a nice repertoire of image enhancement tools.

©2017 Oliver Peters

Sonicfire Pro 6

df0517_sfp6_01Most editors have a pretty innate sense of rhythm, yet often finding and tailoring the right music to your video poses a challenge for even the most talented cutter. SmartSound has provided a solution to this dilemma for many years. Last year they updated their custom Sonicfire Pro audio mixing software to version 6. This update adds interesting new features and support for today’s crop of NLEs.

The starting point is SmartSound’s library of original music. You buy the tracks you like once, which includes easy licensing, and then tailor the song for the length needed, for as many productions as required. SmartSound’s offerings cover a wide range of genres, all of which have been quantized into beat blocks that the Sonicfire Pro application automatically uses for timing adjustments. While this might sound like all the music would need to be synthetically generated – it isn’t. These tracks are played by humans with real instruments, so if you want rock, electronic, symphonic, etc. – you’ve got it. Many selections have been mood-mapped – SmartSound’s term to identify music cues that are multi-layered with up to nine instrument layers. If you like the track, but want to lose the drums or lower the lead instrument’s volume within the mix, simply turn off that layer or adjust its volume envelope. Both multi-layer and single-layer tracks can all be adjusted for time within Sonicfire Pro.df0517_sfp6_02

Sonicfire Pro 6 brings with it a modern interface

The new Sonicfire Pro 6 application is a welcomed update. It’s more streamlined than version 5, with a clean, modern interface. This excellent mini-tutorial by Larry Jordan will give you a quick overview of how it works.

df0517_sfp6_08From within the application, you have immediate access to all of your owned titles, as well as any other SmartSound selection (when you are online). If you don’t already own it, find something from SmartSound that you like, buy and download it right from within Sonicfire Pro 6. In the upper browser pane, search for specific tracks, albums and style, or sort by tempo or intensity.

Naturally, Sonicfire Pro 6 supports video, since it’s intended to empower user-friendly music scoring to picture. To add a video clip, show the video window and from its pulldown, select “Add Video”. You can also resize the Sonicfire Pro 6 interface larger (it references your monitor size automatically) and at the right size it will allow you to have both the Video window and either the Inspector or Markers window open simultaneously, so you can actually reference your video when making adjustments in these panels. Now the video will run in sync with your timeline. You can also import audio from a video file, if you want to do the whole mix in Sonicfire – much like a traditional DAW. In addition, you can also export tracks, full mixes and/or complete audio/video files with completed mixes. However, this is optional, as you can run SFP6 as just an audio-only tool without ever involving video, should you decide to work that way.

df0517_sfp6_04df0517_sfp6_05When you initially pick a track, three settings will get you started. The first is duration. Enter the desired duration and Sonicfire Pro will change the song structure to fit the length. It does this without just repeating the same loop. Next, pick your variation. Each track has a set of variations, which are different arrangements of the same song. Finally, for mood-mapped (multi-layer) tracks, make a mood selection. Moods are different instrument arrangements within the song, going from a full mix to various combinations of dominant instruments used for that song. Finally, there’s a advanced tab for additional options, including adjusting the mix of multi-layer tracks and shifting the tempo. A really cool search function is “Tap”. Simply tap out the beats by clicking the Tap button a few times and Sonicfire Pro will subsequently sort the library selections based on the tempo you tapped out.

df0517_sfp6_06Working in the timeline

Once you’ve auditioned and (optionally) adjusted the duration, variation and mood, drag and drop the selection to the timeline at the bottom of the application window. If you need the track to be longer or shorter, just drag the edge of the clip to the desired length and Sonicfire Pro will automatically change the arrangement as needed, based on SmartSound’s proprietary beat block structure. Additional selections can be dragged to the timeline, so it’s easy to score an entire video using multiple track selections. Each added song dragged to the timeline creates its own, new track on the timeline. This enables you to still make volume, length and mood adjustments to a song without affecting other surrounding selections on that timeline.

Within the inspector you have additional controls, including the fade in and out handles for a clip, along with a new timing control feature. This was introduced in SFP5, but improved in version 6. As of this writing SmartSound has updated 110 albums for this feature, that’s over 1,100 tracks, and adds new albums regularly. For the tracks that have been updated, when you enable timing control, several markers appear on the clip in the timeline. These markers can be dragged to better adjust song changes to match key points in your video. When you drag a marker, SFP6 automatically shuffles the arrangement of that song. For example, if you want a big ending to happen at a better match for your video cut, sliding the marker will make this happen. In actual practice during my testing, this was a bit of trial and error. In one case, a change made too close to the end left me with an incomplete ending. I needed to also slide the track length a tad longer for SFP6 to come up with a good-sounding ending. But, this feature is designed to enable experimentation to produce a custom score, so, don’t be afraid to play with it.

df0517_sfp6_07Finally, as part of its integration with NLEs, Sonicfire offers a new feature called “Cut-Video-to-Music”. Final Cut Pro X, Premiere Pro CC, Avid Media Composer and Vegas Pro are all supported. This new feature lets you export a track along with a corresponding XML file, which in turn is imported into the designated project. Inside the NLE, the track shows up with markers identifying your choice of either beats, strong beats only, SmartSound blocks or music sections, making it easy to edit picture cuts accordingly.

Conclusion

Make sure you are running on the most recent version after you initially install the software. I did run into some minor issues with the initial 6.0.0 version, which were fixed with the df0517_sfp6_036.0.3 update. Updates may be downloaded from the SmartSound website. Overall, SmartSound’s Sonicfire Pro 6 is a welcomed refresh to a wonderful tool. To my knowledge, no other software developer offers anything to match it. Adobe briefly tried with its custom music features inside Soundbooth, but then dropped this function after a couple of years. Magix and Apple offer applications where you can create your own loop-based tunes; however, neither starts with finished compositions that can be modified both in length and arrangement with such ease.

While music choices are very subjective, I’ve personally built up a SmartSound library over the years, which lets me offer clients quality music alternatives without much fuss or cost. Just another service I can offer to a client. It allows you as an editor to be the hero to your client and accomplish the task expediently and on budget.

©2017 Oliver Peters

Final Cut Pro X – Reflecting on Six Years

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Some personal musings…

Apple’s Final Cut Pro X has passed its five-year mark – and by now nearly most of its sixth. Although it’s getting increasing respect from many corners of the professional editing community, there are still many that dismiss it, due to its deviation from standard editing software conventions. Like so many other things that are Apple, FCPX tends to be polarizing with a large cohort of both fanboys and haters.

For me software is a tool. I’ve been editing since the 70s and have used about 15 different linear and nonlinear systems on billable work during that time. More like 20 if you toss in color correction applications. Even more with tools where I’ve had a cursory exposure to (such as in product reviews), but haven’t used on real jobs. All of these tools are a love-hate relationship for me. I have to laugh when folks talk about FCPX bringing back fun to their editing experience. I hope that the projects I work on bring me fun. I don’t really care about the software itself. Software should just get out of the way and let me do my job.

These six years have been a bit of a personal journey with Final Cut Pro X after a number of years with the “classic” version. I’ve been using FCPX since it first came out on commercials, corporate videos, shorts and even an independent feature film. It’s not my primary NLE most of the time, because my clients have largely moved to Adobe Premiere Pro CC and ask me to be compatible with them. My FCPX work tends to be mixed in and around my Premiere Pro editing gigs. For instance, right now I’m simultaneously involved in two large corporate video jobs – one of which I’m cutting in Premiere Pro and the other in Final Cut Pro X. As these things go, it can be frustrating, because you always want some function, tool or effect that’s available in Application A while you’re working in Application B. However, it also provides a perspective on what’s good and bad about each and where real speed advantages exist.

I have to say that even after six years, Final Cut Pro X is still more of a crapshoot than any other editing tool that I’ve used. I love its organizing power and often start a job really liking it. However, the deeper I get into the job – and the larger the library becomes – and the more complex the sequences become – the more bogged down FCPX becomes. It’s also the most inconsistent across various Mac models. I’ve run it on older towers, new MacBook Pros, iMacs and 2013 Mac Pros. Of these experiences, the laptops seem to be the most optimized for FCPX.

Quite frankly, working with the “trash can” Mac Pros, at times I wonder if Apple has lost its mojo. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a sweet machine, but its horsepower leaves me underwhelmed. Given the right upgrades, a 2010 Mac Pro tower is still quite competitive against it. Couple that with intermittent corrupt renders and exports on Adobe applications – due to the D-series AMD GPUs – one really has to question Apple’s design compromises. On the other hand, working with recent and new MacBook Pros, it seems pretty obvious that this is where Apple’s focus has been. And in fact, that’s where Final Cut really shines. Run a complex project on a MacBook Pro versus an older tower and it’s truly a night-and-day experience. By comparison, the performance with Adobe and Avid on the same range of machines results in a much more graduated performance curve. Best might not be quite as good, but worst isn’t nearly as awful.

A lot is made of new versus old code in these competing applications. The running argument is that FCPX uses a sleek, new codebase, whereas Premiere Pro and Media Composer run on creaky old software. Yet Final Cut has been out publicly for six years, which means development started a few years before that. Hmmm, no longer quite so new. Yet, if you look at the recent changes from 10.2 to 10.3, it seems pretty clear that a lot more was changed than just cosmetics. The truth of the matter is that all three of these major applications are written in a way that modules of software can be added, removed or changed, without the need to start from scratch. Therefore, from a coding standpoint, Final Cut doesn’t have nearly the type of advantages that many think it has.

The big advantage that FCPX does have, is that Apple can optimize its performance for the holistic hardware and macOS software architecture of their own machines. As such, performance, render speeds, etc. aren’t strictly tied to only the CPU or the GPU. It’s what enables the new MacBook Pro to offer top-end performance, while still staying locked to 16GB of RAM. It seems to me, that this is also why the Core-series processors appear to be better performers than are the Xeon-series chips, when it comes to Final Cut, Motion and Compressor.

If you compare this to Premiere Pro, Adobe hits the GPUs much harder than does Apple, which is the reason behind the occasional corruptions on the “trash can” Macs with Adobe renders. If you were running the Adobe suite on a top-level PC with high-end Nvidia cards, performance would definitely shine over that of the Macs. This is largely due to leveraging the CUDA architecture of these Nvidia GPUs. With Apple’s shift to using only AMD and Intel GPUs, CUDA acceleration isn’t available on newer Macs. Under the current software versions of Adobe CC (at the time of this writing) and Sierra, you are tied to OpenCL or software-only rendering and cannot even use Apple’s Metal acceleration. This is a driver issue still being sorted out between Apple and Adobe. Metal is something that Apple tools take advantage of and is a way that they leverage the combined hardware power, without focusing solely on CPU or GPU acceleration.

All of this leads me back to a position of love-hate with any of these tools. I suspect that my attitude is more common than most folks who frequent Internet forum debates want to admit. The fanboy backlash is generally large. When I look at how I work and what gets the results, I usually prefer track-based systems to the FCPX approach. I tend to like Final Cut as a good rough-cut editing application, but less as a fine-cut tool. Maybe that’s just me. That being said, I’ve had plenty of experiences where FCPX quite simply is the better tool under the circumstance. On a recent on-site edit gig at CES, I had to cut some 4K ARRI ALEXA material on my two-year-old Retina MacBook Pro. Premiere Pro couldn’t hack it without stuttering playback, while FCPX was buttery smooth. Thus FCPX was the axe for me throughout this gig.

Likewise, in the PC vs. Mac hardware debates,  I may criticize some of Apple’s moves and long to work on a fire-breathing platform. But if push came to shove and I had to buy a new machine today, it would be either a Mac Pro “trash can” or a tricked-out iMac. I don’t do heavy 3D renders or elaborate visual effects – I edit and color correct. Therefore, the overall workflow, performance and “feel” of the Apple ecosystem is a better fit for me, even though at times performance might be middling.

Wrapping up this rambling post – it’s all about personal preference. I applaud Apple for making the changes in Final Cut Pro X that they did; however, a lot of things are still in need of improvement. Hopefully these will get addressed soon. If you are looking to use FCPX professionally, then my suggestion is to stick with only the newest machines and keep your productions small and light. Keep effects and filters to a minimum and you’ll be happiest with the results and the performance. Given the journey thus far, let’s see what the next six years will bring.

©2017 Oliver Peters