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

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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

The 2019 Mac Pro Truck

In 2010 Steve Jobs famously provided us with the analogy that traditional computers are like trucks in the modern era. Not that trucks were going away, but simply were no longer a necessity for most of us, now that the majority of the populace wasn’t engaged in farming. While trucks would continue to be purchased and used, far fewer people actually needed them, because the car covered their needs. The same was true, he felt, of traditional computers.

Jobs is often characterized as being a consumer market-driven guy, but I believe the story is more nuanced. After all, he founded NeXT Computer, which clearly made high-end workstations. Job also became the major shareholder in Pixar Animation Studios – a company that not only needed advanced, niche computing power, but also developed some of its own specialized graphics hardware and software. So a mix of consumer and advanced computing DNA runs throughout Apple.

By the numbers

Unless you’ve been under a rock, you know that Apple revealed its new 2019 Mac Pro at the WWDC earlier this month. This year’s WWDC was an example of a stable, mature Apple firing on all cylinders. iPhone unit sales have not been growing. The revenue has, but that’s because the prices have been going up. Now it’s time to push all of the company’s businesses, including iPad, services, software, and the Mac. Numbers are hard to come by, although Apple has acknowledged that the Mac unit by itself is nearly a $25 billion business and that it would be close to being in the Fortune 100 on its own. There’s a ratio of 80/20 Mac laptops to desktops. For comparison to the rest of the PC world, Apple’s marketshare is around 7%, ranking fourth behind Lenovo, HP, and Dell, but just ahead of Acer. There are 100 million active macOS users (Oct 2018), although Windows 10 adoption alone runs eight times larger (Mar 2019).

We can surmise from this information that there are 20 million active Mac Pro, iMac, iMac Pro, and Mac mini users. It’s fair to assume that a percentage of those are in the market for a new Mac Pro. I would project that maybe 1% of all Mac users would be interested in upgrading to this machine – i.e. around 1 million prospective purchasers. I’m just spit-balling here, but at a starting price of $6,000, that’s a potential market of $6 billion in sales before factoring in any upgrade options or new macOS users!

A funny thing happened on the way to the WWDC

Apple went through a computing platform progression from the old Quadra 950 and 9600 towers to the first Intel Mac Pro towers over the course of the mid-1990s to 2006. The second generation of the older Mac Pro was released during 2009. So in a dozen-plus years, Apple customers saw seven major processor/platform changes and had come to expect a constant churn. In essence, plan on replacing your system every few years. However, from 2009 onward, customers that bought those Mac Pros had a machine that could easily last, be productive, and still be somewhat competitive ten years later. The byproduct of this was the ability to plan longer life expectancy for the hardware you buy. No longer an automatic two to three year replacement need.

Even the 2013 Mac Pro has lasted until now (six years later) and remains competitive with most machines. The miscalculation that Apple made with the 2013 Mac Pro was that pro customers would prefer external expandability versus internal hardware upgrades. Form over function. That turned out to be wrong. I’m probably one of the few who actually likes the 2013 Mac Pro under the right conditions. It’s an innovative design, but unfortunately one that can’t be readily upgraded.

The second major change in computing hardware is that now “lesser” machines are more than capable of doing the work required in media and entertainment. During those earlier days of the G3/G4/G5 PowerMacs and the early Intel Mac Pros, Apple didn’t make laptops and all-in-ones that had enough horsepower to handle video editing and the like. Remember the colorful, plastic iMacs and white eMacs? Or what about the toilet-seat-like iBook laptop? Good enough for e-mail, but not what you would want for editing.

Now, we have a wide range of both Mac and PC desktop computers and laptops that are up to the task. In the past, if you needed a performance machine, then you needed a workstation class computer. Nothing else would do. Today, a general purpose desktop PC that isn’t necessarily classed as a workstation is more than sufficient for designers, editors, and colorists. In the case of Apple, there’s a range of laptops and all-in-ones that cover those needs at many different price points.

The 2019 Mac Pro Reveal

Let me first say that I didn’t attend WWDC and I haven’t seen the new Mac Pro in person. I hope to be able to do a review at some point in the future. The bottom line is that this is purely an opinion piece for now.

There have certainly been a ton of internet comments about this machine – both positive and negative. Price is the biggest pain point. Clearly Apple intends this to be a premium product for the customer with demanding computing requirements. You can spin the numbers any way you like and people have. Various sites have speculated that a fully-loaded machines could drive the starting price from $6,000 to as high as $35K to $50K. The components that Apple defines in the early tech information do not perfectly match equivalent model numbers available on the suppliers’ websites. No one knows for sure how the specific Intel Xeon being used by Apple equates to other Xeons listed on Intel’s site. Therefore, exact price extrapolations are simply guesses for now.

In late 2009 I purchased an entry model 8-core Mac Pro. With some storage and memory upgrades, AppleCare, sales tax, and a small business discount, I paid around $4,000. The inflation difference over the decade is about 17%, so that same hardware should cost me $4,680 today. In fairness, Apple has a different design in this new machine and there are technologies not in my base 2009 machine, such as 10GigE, Thunderbolt 3, a better GPU, etc. Even though this new machine may be out of my particular budget right now, it’s still an acceptable value when compared with the older Mac Pros.

Likewise, if you compare the 2019 Mac Pro to comparable name brand workstations, like an HP Z8, you’ll quickly find that the HP will cost more. One clear difference, though is that HP also offers smaller, less costly workstation models, such as the Z2, Z4 and Z6. The PC world also offers many high quality custom solutions, such as Puget Systems, which I have reviewed.

One design decision that could have mitigated the cost a bit is the choice of CPU chips. Apple has opted to install Xeons chips in all of its Mac Pro designs. Same with the iMac Pro. However, Intel also offers very capable Core i9 CPUs. The i9 chips offer faster core speeds and high core counts. The Xeons are designed to be run flat out 24/7. However, in the case of video editing, After Effects, and so on, the Core i9 chip may well be the better solution. These apps really thrive on fast single-core speeds, so having a 12-core or 28-core CPU, where each core has a slower clock speed, may not give you the best results. Regardless of benefit, Xeons do add to Apple’s hard costs in building the machine. Xeons are more expensive that Core chips. In some direct comparisons, a Xeon can garner $1,000 over Intel’s retail price of the equivalent Core CPU.

The ultimate justification for buying a Mac Pro tower isn’t necessarily performance alone, but rather longevity and expandability. As I outlined above, customers have now been conditioned to expect the system to last and be productive for at least a decade. That isn’t necessarily true of an all-in-one or a laptop. This means that if you amortize the investment in a 2019 Mac Pro over a ten-year period, it’s actually quite reasonable.

The shame – and this is where much of the internet ire is coming from – is that Apple didn’t offer any intermediate models, like HP’s Z4 or Z6. I presume that Apple is banking on those customers buying iMacs, iMac Pros, Mac minis, or MacBook Pros instead. Couple one of these models with an external GPU and fast external storage and you will have plenty of power for your needs today. It goes without saying that comparing this Mac Pro to a custom PC build (which may be cheaper) is a non-starter. A customer for this Mac Pro will buy one, pure and simple. There is built-in price elasticity to this niche of the market. Apple knows that and the customers know it.

Nuts and bolts

The small details haven’t been fully revealed, so we probably won’t know everything about these new Mac Pros until September (the rumored release). Apple once again adopted a signature case design, which like the earlier tower case has been dubbed a “cheese grater.” Unlike the previous model, where the holes were simply holes for ventilation, the updated model (or would that be the retro model?) uses a lattice system in the case to direct the airflow. The 2019 is about the same size as its “cheese grater” predecessor, but 20 pounds lighter.

There is very little rocket science in how you build a workstation, so items like Xeon CPUs, GPU cards, RAM, and SSD system drives are well understood and relatively standard for a modern PC system.

The short hardware overview consists of:

8, 12, 16, 24, and 28-core Xeon CPU options

Memory from 32GB to 1.5TB of DDR4 ECC RAM

Up to four AMD GPU cards

1.4 kW power supply

Eight PCIe expansion slots (one used for Apple i/o card)

System storage options from 256GB to 4TB

Four Thunderbolt 3 ports (2 top and 2 back) plus two USB 3 ports (back)

(Note – more ports available with the upgraded GPU options)

Two 10Gb Ethernet ports

WiFi, Bluetooth, built-in speakers, headphone jack

So far, so good. Any modern workstation would have similar choices. There are several key unknowns and that’s where the questions come in. First, the GPU cards appear to be custom-designed AMD cards installed into a new MPX (Mac Pro expansion) module. This is a mounting/connecting cage to install and connect the hardware. However, if you wanted to add your own GPU card, would it fit into such a module? Would you have to buy a blank module from Apple for your card? Would your card simply fit into the PCIe slot and screw in like on any other tower? The last question does appear to be possible, but will there be proper Nvidia support?

The second big question relates to internal storage. The old “cheese grater” had sleds to install four internal drives. Up to six could be installed if you used the optical drive bays. The 2019 Mac Pro appears to allow up to four drives within an MPX chassis. Promise has already announced two products specifically for the Mac Pro. One would include four RAIDed 8TB drives for a 32TB capacity. 14TB HDDs are already available, so presumably this internal capacity will go up. 

The unknown is whether or not you can add drives without purchasing an MPX module. The maximum internal GPU option seems to be four cards, which are mounted inside two MPX modules. This is also the space required for internal drives. Therefore, if you have both MPX modules populated with GPU cards, then I would imagine you can’t add internal storage. But I may be wrong. As with most things tech, I predict that if blank MPX modules are required, a number of vendors will quickly offer cheaper aftermarket MPX modules for GPUs, storage, etc.

One side issue that a few blogs have commented on is the power draw. Because of the size of the power supply, the general feeling is that the Mac Pro should be plugged into a standard electrical circuit by itself, plus maybe a monitor. In other words, not a circuit with a bunch of other electrical devices, otherwise you might start blowing breakers.

Afterburner

A new hardware item from Apple is the optional Afterburner ProRes and ProRes RAW accelerator card. This uses an FGPA (field programmable gate array), which is a chip that can be programmed for various specific functions. It can potentially be updated in the future. Anyone who has worked with the RED Rocket or RED Rocket-X card in the past will be quite familiar with what the Afterburner is.

The Afterburner will decode ProRes and ProRes RAW codecs on-the-fly when this media is played in Final Cut Pro X, QuickTime Player X, and any other application re-coded to support the card. This would be especially beneficial with camera raw codecs, because it debayers the raw sensor data via hardware acceleration at full resolution, instead of using the CPU. Other camera RAW manufacturers, like RED, ARRI, Canon, and Blackmagic Design, might add support for this card to accelerate their codecs, as well. What is not known is whether the Afterburner card can also be used to offload true background functions like background exports and transcoding within Final Cut Pro X.

An FPGA card offers the promise of being future-proofed, because you can always update its function later. However, in actual practice, the hardware capabilities of any card become outstripped as the technology changes. This happened with the RED Rocket card and others. We’ll see if Apple has any better luck over time.

Performance

Having lots of cores is great, but with most media and entertainment software the GPU can be key. Apple has been at a significant disadvantage with many applications, like After Effects, because of their stance with Nvidia and CUDA acceleration. Apple prefers that a manufacturer support Metal, which is their way of leveraging the combined power of all CPUs and GPUs in the system. This all sounds great, but the reality is that it’s one proprietary technology versus another. In the benchmark tests I ran with the Puget PC workstation, the CUDA performance in After Effects easily trounced any Mac that I scored it against.

Look at Apple’s website for a chart representing the relative GPU performance of a 2013 Mac Pro, an iMac Pro, and the new 2019 Mac Pro. Each was tested with their respective top-of-the-line GPU option. The iMac Pro is 1.5x faster than the 2013 Mac Pro. The 2019 Mac Pro is twice as fast as the iMac Pro and 3x faster than the 2013 Mac Pro. While that certainly looks impressive, that 2x improvement over the iMac Pro comes thanks to two upgraded GPU cards instead of one. Well, duh! Of course, at this time we have no idea what these cards and MPX units will cost. (Note – I am not totally sure as to whether this testing used two GPUs in one MPX module or a total of four GPUs in two modules.)

We won’t know how well these really perform until the first units get out into the wild. Especially how they compare against comparable PCs with high-powered Nvidia cards. I may be going out on a limb, but I would be willing to bet that many people who buy the base configuration for $6K – thinking that they will get a huge boost in performance – are going to be very disappointed. I don’t mean to trash the entry-level machine. It’s got solid specs, but in that configuration, isn’t the best performer. At $6K, you are buying a machine that will have longevity and which can be upgraded in the future. In short, the system can grow with you over time as the workload demands increase. That’s something which has not be available to Mac owners since the end of 2012.

Software

To take the most advantage of the capabilities of this new machine, software developers (both applications and plug-ins) will have to update their code. All of the major brands like Adobe, Avid, Blackmagic Design, and others seem to be on board with this. Obviously, so are the in-house developers at Apple who create the Pro Applications. Final Cut Pro X and Logic Pro X are obvious examples. Logic is increasing the track count and number of software instruments you can run. Updates have already been released.

Final Cut Pro X has a number of things that appear in need of change. Up until now, in spite of being based around Metal, Final Cut has not taken advantage of multiple GPUs when present. If you add an eGPU to a Mac today, you must toggle a preference setting to use one GPU or the other as the primary GPU (Mojave). Judging by the activity monitor, it appears to be an either-or thing, which means the other GPU is loafing. Clearly when you have four GPUs present, you will want to tap into the combined power of all four.

With the addition of the Afterburner option, FCPX (or any other NLE) has to know that the card is present and how to offload media to the card during playback (and render?). Finally, the color pipeline in Final Cut Pro X is being updated to work in 16-bit float math, as well as optimized for fast 8K workflows.

All of this requires new code and development work. With the industry now talking about 16K video, is 8K enough? Today, 4K delivery is still years away for many editors, so 8K is yet that much further. I suspect that if and when 16K gets serious traction, Apple will be ready with appropriate hardware and software technology. In the case of the new Mac Pro, this could simply mean a new Afterburner card instead of an entirely new computer.

The Apple Pro Display XDR

In tandem with the 2019 Mac Pro, Apple has also revealed the new Pro Display XDR – a 6K  32″ Retina display. It uses a similar design aesthetic to the Mac Pro, complete with a matching ventilation lattice. This display comes calibrated and is designed for HDR with 1,000 nits fullscreen, sustained brightness, and a 1,600 nit maximum. It will be interesting to see how this actually looks. Recent Final Cut Pro X updates have added HDR capabilities, but you can never get an accurate view of it on a UI display. Furthermore, the 500 nit, P3 displays used in the iMac Pros are some of the least color-accurate UI displays of any Mac that I work with. I really hope Apple gets this one right.

To sell the industry on this display, Apple is making the cost and feature comparison between this new display and actual HDR color reference displays costing in the $30K-40K range. Think Flanders Scientific or Sony. The dirty little HDR secret is that when you display an image at the maximum nit level across the entire screen, the display will dim in order to prevent damage. Only the most expensive displays are more tolerant of this. I would presume that the Pro Display XDR will also dim when presented with a fullscreen image of 1,600 nits, which is why their spec lists 1,000 nits fullscreen. That level is the minimum HDR spec. Of course, if you are grading real world images properly, then in my opinion, you rarely should have important picture elements at such high levels. Most of the image should be in a very similar range to SDR, with the extended range used to preserve highlight information, like a bright sky.

Some colorists are challenging the physics behind some of Apple’s claims. The concern is whether or not the display will result in bloomed highlights. Apple’s own marketing video points out that the design reduces blooming, but it doesn’t say that it completely eliminates it. We’ll see. I don’t quite see how this display fits as a reference display. It only has Thunderbolt connections – no SDI or HDMI – so it won’t connect in most standard color correction facilities without additional hardware. If, like all computer displays, the user can adjust the brightness, then that goes against the concept of an HDR reference display. At 32″, it’s much too small to be used as a client display to stick on the wall.

Why did Apple make the choice to introduce this as a user interface display? If they wanted to make a great HDR reference display, then that makes some sense. Even as a great specialty display, like you often find in photography or fine print work. I understand that it will likely display accurate, fullscreen video directly from Final Cut Pro X or maybe even Premiere Pro without the need and added cost of an AJA or BMD i/o device or card. But as a general purpose computer display? That feels like it simply misses the mark, no matter how good it is. Not to mention, at a brightness level of 1,000 to 1,600 nits, that’s way too bright for most edit suites. I even find that to be the case with the iMac Pro’s 500 nit displays, when you crank them up.

This display is listed as $5K without a stand. Add another $1k if you want a matte finish. Oh, and if you want the stand, add another $1K! I don’t care how seductively Jony Ive pronounces “all-u-minium,” that’s taxing the good will of your customer. Heck, make it $5,500 and toss in the stand at cost. Remember, the stand has an articulating arm, which will probably lose its tension in a few years. I hope that a number of companies will make high-quality knock-offs for a couple of hundred bucks.

If you compare the Apple Pro Display XDR to another UI display with a similar mission, then it’s worth comparing it to the HP Dreamcolor Z31x Studio Display. This is a 32″ 4K, calibrated display with an MSRP of right at $3,200. But it doesn’t offer HDR specs, Retina density, or 6K resolution. Factor in those features and Apple’s brand premium and then the entry price isn’t that far out of line – except for that stand.

I imagine that Apple’s thought process is that if you don’t want to buy this display, then there are plenty of cheaper choices, like an LG, HP, Asus, or Dell. And speaking of LG, where’s Apple’s innovative spirit to try something different with a UI display? Maybe something like an ultra wide. LG now has a high-resolution 49″ display for about $1,400. This size enables one large canvas across the width; or two views, like having two displays side-by-side. However, maybe a high-density display (Retina) isn’t possible with such a design, which could be Apple’s hang-up.

Final thoughts

The new 2019 Mac Pro clearly demonstrates that Apple has not left the high-end user behind. I view relevant technology through the lens of my needs with video; however, this model will appeal to a wide range of design, scientific, and engineering users. It’s a big world out there. While it may not be the most cost-effective choice for the individual owner/editor, there are still plenty of editors, production companies, and facilities that will buy one.

There is a large gap between the Mac mini and this new Mac Pro. I still believe there’s a market for a machine similar to some of those concept designs for a Mac Pro. Or maybe a smaller version of this machine that starts at $3,000. But there isn’t such a model from Apple. If you like the 2013 “trash can” Mac Pro, then you can still get it – at least until the 2019 model is officially released. Naturally, iMacs and iMac Pros have been a superb option for that in-between user and will continue to be so.

If you are in the market for the 2019 Mac Pro, then don’t cut yourself short. Think of it as an investment for at least 10 years. Unless you are tight and can only afford the base model, then I would recommend budgeting in the $10K range. I don’t have an exact configuration in mind, but that will likely be a sweet spot for demanding work. Once I get a chance to properly review the 2019 Mac Pro, I’ll be more than happy come back with a real evaluation.

©2019 Oliver Peters

Minimalism versus Complexity in Post

The prevailing wisdom is that Apple might preview the next Mac Pro at its annual WWDC event coming in a couple of weeks. Then the real product would likely be available by the end of the year. It will be interesting to see what that brings, given that the current Mac Pro was released in 2013 with no refreshes in between. And older Mac Pro towers (mid-2009-2012) are still competitive (with upgrades) against the current run of Apple’s Mac product line.

Many professional users are hoping for a user-upgradeable/expandable machine, like the older towers. But that hasn’t been Apple’s design and engineering trend. MacBooks, MacBook Pros, iMacs, and iMac Pros are more sealed and non-upgradeable than their predecessors. The eGPU and eGPU Pro units manufactured by Blackmagic Design are, in fact, largely an Apple design with Apple engineering specifications intended to meet power, noise and heat parameters. As such, you can’t simply pop in a newer, faster GPU chip, as you can with GPU cards and the Sonnet eGPU devices.

What do we really need?

Setting emotions aside, the real question is whether such expandability is needed any longer. Over the years, I’ve designed, built, and worked in a number of linear edit suites, mixing rooms, and other environments that required a ton of outboard gear. The earliest nonlinear suites (even up until recently) were hardware-intensive. But is any of this needed any longer? My own home rig had been based on a mid-2009 Mac Pro tower. Over the years, I’ve increased RAM, swapped out three GPU cards, changed the stock hard drives for two SSDs and two 7200 RPM media drives (RAID-0), as well as added PCIe cards for eSATA/USB3 and Blackmagic Design monitor display. While at the time, each of those moves was justified, I do have to wonder whether that investment in money would have been better spent for computer model upgrades.

Today that same Mac Pro sits turned off next to my desk. While still current with most of the apps and the OS (not Mojave, though), it can’t accept Thunderbolt peripherals and a few apps, like Pixelmator Pro, won’t install, because they require Metal 2 (only available with newer hardware). So my home suite has shifted to a mid-2014 Mac Book Pro. In doing so, I have adopted the outboard modular solution over the cards-in-the-tower approach. This is largely possible today because small, compact computers – such as laptops – have become sufficiently powerful to deal with today’s video needs.

I like this solution because I can easily shift from location to home by simply plugging in one Thunderbolt cable linked to my OWC dock. The dock connects my audio interface, a few drives, and my primary 27″ Dell display. An additional plus is that I no longer have to sync my personal files and applications between my two machines (I prefer to avoid cloud services for personal documents). I bought a Rain Design laptop stand and a TwelveSouth BookArc, so that under normal use (with one display), the MBP tucks behind the Dell in clamshell mode sitting in the BookArc cradle. When I need a dual-display configuration, I simply bring out the Rain stand and open up the MBP next to the Dell.

Admittedly, this solution isn’t for everyone. If I never needed a mobile machine, I certainly wouldn’t buy a laptop. And if I needed heavy horsepower at home, such as for intensive After Effects work or grading 4K and 8K feature films, then I would probably go for a tower – maybe even one of the Puget Systems PCs that I reviewed. But most of what I do at home is standard editing with some grading, which nearly any machine can handle these days.

Frankly, if I were to start from scratch today, instead of the laptop, tower, and an iPad, I would be tempted to go with a fully-loaded 13″ MacBook Pro. For home, add the eGPU Pro, an LG 5K display, dock, audio i/o and speakers, and drives as needed. This makes for a lighter, yet capable editor in the field. When you get home, one Thunderbolt 3 cable from the eGPU Pro into the laptop would connect the whole system, including power to the MBP.

Of course, I like simple and sleek designs – Frank Lloyd Wright, Bauhaus, Dieter Rams, Scandinavian furniture, and so on. So the Jobs/Ive approach to industrial design does appeal to me. Fortunately, for the most part, my experience with Apple products has been a positive one. However, it’s often hard to make that work in a commercial post facility. After all, that’s where horsepower is needed. But does that necessarily mean lots of gear attached to our computers?

How does this apply to a post facility?

At the day job, I usually work in a suite with a 2013 Mac Pro. Since I do a lot of the Resolve work, along with editing, that Mac Pro cables up to two computer displays plus two grading displays (calibrated and client), a CalDigit dock, a Sonnet 10GigE adapter, a Promise RAID, a TimeMachine drive, the 1GigE house internet, and an audio interface. Needless to say, the intended simplicity of the Mac Pro design has resulted in a lot of spaghetti hanging off of the back. Clearly the wrong design for this type of installation.

Conversely, the same Mac Pro, in a mixing room might be a better fit – audio interface, video display, Thunderbolt RAID. Much less spaghetti. Our other edit stations are based around iMacs/iMac Pros with few additional peripherals. Since our clients do nearly all of their review-and-approval online, the need for a large, client-friendly suite has been eliminated. One room is all we need for that, along with giving the rest of the editors a good working environment.

Even the Mac Pro room could be simplified, if it weren’t for the need to run Resolve and Media Composer on occasion. For example, Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro X both send real video to an externally connected desktop display. If you have a reasonably accurate display, like a high-end consumer LED or OLED flat panel, then all editing and even some grading and graphic design can be handled without an additional, professional video display and hardware interface. Any room configured this way can easily be augmented with a roving 17″-34″ calibrated display and a mini-monitor device (AJA or BMD) for those ad hoc needs, like more intense grading sessions.

An interesting approach has been discussed by British editor Thomas Grove Carter, who cuts at London’s Trim, a commercial editorial shop. Since they are primarily doing the creative edit and not the finishing work, the suites can be simplified. For the most part, they only need to work with proxy or lighter-weight ProRes files. Thus, there are no heavy media requirements, as might be required with camera RAW or DPX image sequences. As he has discussed in interviews and podcasts (generally related to his use of Final Cut Pro X), Trim has been able to design edit rooms with a light hardware footprint. Often Trim’s editors are called upon to start editing on-site and then move back to Trim to continue the edit. So mobility is essential, which means the editors are often cutting with laptops. Moving from location or home to an edit suite at Trim is as simple as hooking up the laptop to a few cables. A large display for interface or video, plus fast, portable SSDs with all of the project’s media.

An installation built with this philosophy in mind can be further simplified through the use of a shared storage solution. Unlike in the past, when shared storage systems were complex, hard to install, and confusing to manage – today’s systems are designed with average users in mind. If you are moderately tech savvy, you can get a 10GigE system up and running without the need for an IT staff.

At the day-job shop, we are running two systems – QNAP and LumaForge Jellyfish Rack. We use both for different reasons, but either system by itself is good for nearly any installation – especially Premiere Pro shops. If you are principally an FCPX shop, then Jellyfish will be the better option for you. A single ethernet cable to each workstation from a central server ‘closet’ is all that’s required for a massive amount of media storage available to every editor. No more shuffling hard drives, except to load location footage. Remember that shared storage allows for a distributed workflow. You can set up a simple Mac mini bay for assistant editors and general media management without the need to commandeer an edit suite for basic tasks.

You don’t have to look far to see that the assumptions of the past few decades in computer development and post-production facility design aren’t entirely valid any longer. Client interactions have changed and computer capabilities have improved. The need for all the extra add-ons and do-dads we thought we had to have is no longer essential. It’s no longer the driver for the way in which computers have to be built today.

©2019 Oliver Peters

It is time to reconsider Final Cut Pro X?

While Final Cut Pro X may have ultimately landed in the market sector that Apple envisioned, the industry widely acknowledged that the original launch could have been better managed. Many staunch Final Cut Pro (“legacy”) users were irrevocably alienated. That’s a shame, because FCPX wasn’t a bad design when released – merely incomplete. In the eight years that have followed, the user base has grown to more than 2.5 million (April 2018) and the application sports the widest third-party support of any editing software.

I have certainly gone back and forth in my own use of FCPX, depending on whether it was the right tool for a given job. I cut a feature film with it back in the pre-10.1 days when it was a bifurcated application with separate Event and Project files. Since then, I have also used it on plenty of spots and corporate videos. Although my daily workflow is largely Premiere Pro-based now, I regularly use Final Cut Pro X when appropriate, as well as Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve and Avid Media Composer. Modern editors need to be NLE-multilingual.

I realize that winning Oscars and cutting large-scale productions isn’t what the majority of editors do. Nevertheless, these types of productions give any product street cred. You are probably aware of Focus and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, but there are certainly others that have used FCPX. Hollywood studios films are dominated by films cut with Avid Media Composer; however, short films cut using FCPX have won the short film Oscar category for two years in a row. While largely invisible to many US viewers, major international productions, on par with Game of Thrones, have been edited using Final Cut Pro X.

If you were one of those FCP7 users who jumped ship to another tool, then maybe it’s time to revisit Final Cut Pro X. There are many reasons I say that. In the past eight years, Apple has added wide codec support, LUTs, HDR capabilities, vastly improved color correction tools, and an easy method of working with captioning. Final Cut is clearly the better tool in many situations and here’s a quick overview why I feel that way.

What productions are best with FCPX?

Final Cut Pro X is capable of handling all types of editing, but it’s more ideal for some than others. The biggest differentiator is turnaround time. If you have to get done quickly – from ingest to delivery – then FCPX is hard to beat. It handles media better than any other NLE without the need for the beefiest hardware. Want to cut 4K ProResHQ on a two-year-old MacBook Pro? Then FCPX shines. That makes it a natural in broadcast news, promos, and sports. It’s also perfect for non-broadcast event coverage. Frankly, I’m surprised that US broadcasters haven’t gravitated to it like various other broadcasters around the world – especially for cutting news stories. The workflow, interface, and low hardware requirements make it well-suited to the task.

Station promo production might be questionable for some, but stop and think about the use of Motion Templates and how that technology can be applied to broadcast design. Final Cut features the unique ability to use templates that any user can create and publish as an effect out of Apple Motion. Therefore, custom effects, animation, and graphics can easily be created specifically for a station’s bespoke look.

For example, a broadcast group or network that owns multiple stations in different cities could have one creative team develop a custom station graphics package for each outlet, simply by using Motion. Those templates could be deployed to each promo department and installed into the individual FCPX edit systems. This would allow each editor to modify or customize time and event information based on the published parameters without mistakenly deviating from the prescribed graphic look. That’s a broadcast creative director’s dream.

A simple hardware footprint

Obviously Final Cut requires Apple computers, but there’s easy connectivity to media from external Thunderbolt, USB, and ethernet-based storage. Some facilities certainly need elaborate shared storage systems for collaborative workflows, but others don’t. If you are a creative editorial boutique, all of a given project’s proxy editing files can be stored on a single SSD drive, allowing the editor to easily move from room to room, or home to work, simply by carrying the SSD with them. They can even be cutting on a laptop and then bring that in to work, connect to an external display for better monitoring, and keep rocking. With the advent of external GPU systems (eGPU), you can easily augment the horsepower of middle-level Macs when the need arises. 

No external i/o hardware is required for monitoring. While I recommend a simple audio i/o interface and external speakers as a minimum, there are plenty of fixed-location systems where the editors only use headphones. AJA or Blackmagic interfaces to play video out to an external display are optional. Simply connect a high-quality display to the Mac via HDMI or Thunderbolt and FCPX will feed real video to it full screen. Premiere Pro can also do this, but Media Composer and Resolve do not.

Third-party ecosystem

Some of Final Cut’s deficits have developed into a huge asset. It enjoys one of the best ecosystems of third-party tools that enhance the application. These range from translation tools from vendors like Intelligent Assistance and Marquis Broadcast, to a myriad of plug-ins, such as those from FxFactory and Coremelt. Final Cut already comes with a very solid set of built-in effects filters – probably the most useful variety of the various NLE options. Even better, if you also purchase Motion, you can easily create more effects by building your own as Motion Templates. This has resulted in a ton of small developers who create and sell their own variations using this core technology.

You certainly don’t have to purchase any additional effects to be productive with FCPX, but if you do, then one of the better options is FxFactory by Noise Industries. FxFactory is both a set of effects and a delivery platform for other developers. You can use the FxFactory interface to purchase, install, and manage plug-ins and even applications from a diverse catalogue of tools. Pick and choose what you need and grow the repertoire as you see fit. One of the first options to start with is idustrial revolution’s newly revamped XEffects Toolkit. This includes numerous effects and title templates to augment your daily work. Some of these employ built-in tracking technology that allows you to pin items to objects within a shot.

Apple’s latest feature addition is workflow extensions. Adobe introduced this technology first in its products. But Apple has built upon it through macOS integration with apps like Photos and now in Final Cut Pro X. In short, an extension allows direct FCPX integration with another application. Various extensions can be downloaded from the Mac App Store and installed into FCPX. An extension then adds a panel into Final Cut, which allows you to interact with that application from inside the FCPX interface. Initially some of the companies offering extensions include frame.io, Shutterstock, Simon Says, and others.

Subscription

A sore point for many Adobe customers was the shift to the subscription business model. While the monthly rates are reasonable if you are an ongoing business, they have caused some to stick with software as old as CS6 (yikes!). As more companies adopt subscriptions, you have to start wondering when enough is enough. I don’t think we are there yet and Creative Cloud is still a solid value. But if you are an individual who doesn’t make a living with these tools, then it’s a concern. Adobe recently raised eyebrows with the doubling of the monthly cost for its Photography plan. As it turns out this is an additional pricing plan with more storage and not a replacement, but that’s only evident after the website page appears to have been quickly fixed. Predictably this gives competitors like ON1 an avenue for counter-marketing.

Concerned with subscriptions? Then the Apple professional applications are an alternative. Final Cut Pro X, Compressor, Motion, and Logic ProX – coupled with photo and graphics tools from Affinity and/or Pixelmator – provide a viable competing package to Adobe Creative Cloud. Heck, augment that with Fusion and/or DaVinci Resolve – even the free versions – and the collection becomes a formidable toolkit.

The interface

Naturally, the elephant in the room is the FCPX interface. It’s what simultaneously excited and turned off so many FCP7 users. In the end, how you edit with Final Cut Pro X does not have to be all that different than your editing style with other NLEs. Certainly there are differences, but once you get used to the basics, there’s more that’s similar than is different.

Isn’t imitation the highest form of flattery? You only have to look at Adobe Premiere Rush or the new Cut Page in Resolve 16 to realize that just maybe, others are starting to see the value in Apple’s approach. On top of that, there are features touted in Resolve 16, like facial (actually shape) recognition or adjustment layers, that were there even in FCPX 10.0. Whether this all is blatant copying or simply a tip-of-the-hat doesn’t matter. Each company has come to the conclusion that some workflows and some newer editors need a faster and more direct user interface that is easily scalable to small and large screens and to single and dual-display systems.

I realize that many out there will read this post and scream Apple apologist. Whatever. If you’ve shifted to PC, then very little of what I’ve said applies to you. I make my daily living with Apple hardware. While I recognize you can often get superior performance with a PC, I don’t find the need to make a change yet. This means that Final Cut Pro X remains a great option for my workflows. It’s a tool I can use for nearly any job and one that is often times better than most. If you rejected it eight years ago, maybe it’s time to take a second look.

©2019 Oliver Peters

NAB Show 2019

This year the NAB Show seemed to emphasize its roots – the “B” in National Association of Broadcasters. Gone or barely visible were the fads of past years, such as stereoscopic 3D, 360-degree video, virtual/augmented reality, drones, etc. Not that these are gone – merely that they have refocused on the smaller segment of marketshare that reflects reality. There’s not much point in promoting stereo 3D at NAB if most of the industry goes ‘meh’.

Big exhibitors of the past, like Quantel, RED, Apple, and Autodesk, are gone from the floor. Quantel products remain as part of Grass Valley (now owned by Belden), which is the consolidation of Grass Valley Group, Quantel, Snell & Wilcox, and Philips. RED decided last year that small, camera-centric shows were better venues. Apple – well, they haven’t been on the main floor for years, but even this year, there was no off-site, Final Cut Pro X stealth presence in a hotel suite somewhere. Autodesk, which shifted to a subscription model a couple of years ago, had a demo suite in the nearby Renaissance Hotel, focusing on its hero product, Flame 2020. Smoke for Mac users – tough luck. It’s been over for years.

This was a nuts-and-bolts year, with many exhibits showing new infrastructure products. These appeal to larger customers, such as broadcasters and network facilities. Specifically the world is shifting to an IP-based infrastructure for signal routing, control, and transmission. This replaces copper and fiber wiring of the past, along with the devices (routers, video switchers, etc) at either end of the wire. Companies that might have appeared less relevant, like Grass Valley, are back in a strong sales position. Other companies, like Blackmagic Design, are being encouraged by their larger clients to fulfill those needs. And as ever, consolidation continues – this year VizRT acquired NewTek, who has been an early player in video-over-IP with their proprietary NDI protocol.

Adobe

The NAB season unofficially started with Adobe’s pre-NAB release of the CC2019 update. For editors and designers, the hallmarks of this update include a new, freeform bin window view and adjustable guides in Premiere Pro and content-aware, video fill in After Effects. These are solid additions in response to customer requests, which is something Adobe has focused on. A smaller, but no less important feature is Adobe’s ongoing effort to improve media performance on the Mac platform.

As in past years, their NAB booth was an opportunity to present these new features in-depth, as well as showcase speakers who use Adobe products for editing, sound, and design. Part of the editing team from the series Atlanta was on hand to discuss the team’s use of Premiere Pro and After Effects in their ‘editing crash pad’.

Avid

For many attendees, NAB actually kicked off on the weekend with Avid Connect, a gathering of Avid users (through the Avid Customer Association), featuring meet-and-greets, workshops, presentations, and ACA leadership committee meetings. While past product announcements at Connect have been subdued from the vantage of Media Composer editors, this year was a major surprise. Avid revealed its Media Composer 2019.5 update (scheduled for release the end of May). This came as part of a host of many updates. Most of these apply to companies that have invested in the full Avid ecosystem, including Nexis storage and Media Central asset management. While those are superb, they only apply to a small percentage of the market. Let’s not forget Avid’s huge presence in the audio world, thanks to the dominance of Pro Tools – now with Dolby ATMOS support. With the acquisition of Euphonix years back, Avid has become a significant player in the live and studio sound arena. Various examples of its S-series consoles in action were presented.

Since I focus on editing, let me discuss Media Composer a bit more. The 2019.5 refresh is the first major Media Composer overhaul in years. It started in secret last year. 2019.5 is the first iteration of the new UI, with more to be updated in coming releases. In short, the interface has been modernized and streamlined in ways to attract newer, younger users, without alienating established editors. Its panel design is similar to Adobe’s approach – i.e. interface panels can be docked, floated, stacked, or tabbed. Panels that you don’t want to see may be closed or simply slid to the side and hidden. Need to see a hidden panel again? Simply side it back open from the edge of the screen.

This isn’t just a new skin. Avid has overhauled the internal video pipeline, with 32-bit floating color and an uncompressed DNx codec. Project formats now support up to 16K. Avid is also compliant with the specs of the Netflix Post Alliance and the ACES logo program.

I found the new version very easy to use and a welcomed changed; however, it will require some adaptation if you’ve been using Media Composer for a long time. In a nod to the Media Composer heritage, the weightlifter (aka ‘liftman’) and scissors icons (for lift and extract edits) are back. Even though Media Composer 2019.5 is just in early beta testing, Avid felt good enough about it to use this version in its workshops, presentations, and stage demos.

One of the reasons to go to NAB is for the in-person presentations by top editors about their real-world experiences. No one can top Avid at this game, who can easily tap a host of Oscar, Emmy, BFTA, and Eddie award winners. The hallmark for many this year was the presentation at Avid Connect and/or at the show by the Oscar-winning picture and sound editing/mixing team for Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s hard not to gather a standing-room-only crowd when you close your talk with the Live Aid finale sequence played in kick-ass surround!

Blackmagic Design

Attendees and worldwide observers have come to expect a surprise NAB product announcement out of Grant Petty each year and he certainly didn’t disappoint this time. Before I get into that, there were quite a few products released, including for IP infrastructures, 8K production and post, and more. Blackmagic is a full spectrum video and audio manufacturer that long ago moved into the ‘big leagues’. This means that just like Avid or Grass Valley, they have to respond to pressure from large users to develop products designed around their specific workflow needs. In the BMD booth, many of those development fruits were on display, like the new Hyperdeck Extreme 8K HDR recorder and the ATEM Constellation 8K switcher.

The big reveal for editors was DaVinci Resolve 16. Blackmagic has steadily been moving into the editorial space with this all-in-one, edit/color/mix/effects/finishing application. If you have no business requirement for – or emotional attachment to – one of the other NLE brands, then Resolve (free) or Resolve Studio (paid) is an absolute no-brainer. Nothing can touch the combined power of Resolve’s feature set.

New for Resolve 16 is an additional editorial module called the Cut Page. At first blush, the design, layout, and operation are amazingly similar to Apple’s Final Cut Pro X. Blackmagic’s intent is to make a fast editor where you can start and end your project for a time-sensitive turnaround without the complexities of the Edit Page. However, it’s just another tool, so you could work entirely in the Cut Page, or start in the Cut Page and refine your timeline in the Edit Page, or skip the Cut Page all together. Resolve offers a buffet of post tools that are at your disposal.

While Resolve 16’s Cut Page does elicit a chuckle from experienced FCPX users, it offers some new twists. For example, there’s a two-level timeline view – the top section is the full-length timeline and the bottom section is the zoomed-in detail view. The intent is quick navigation without the need to constantly zoom in and out of long timelines. There’s also an automatic sync detection function. Let’s say you are cutting a two-camera show. Drop the A-camera clips onto the timeline and then go through your B-camera footage. Find a cut-away shot, mark in/out on the source, and edit. It will ‘automagically’ edit to the in-sync location on the timeline. I presume this is matched by either common sound or timecode. I’ll have to see how this works in practice, but it demos nicely. Changes to other aspects of Resolve were minor and evolutionary, except for one other notable feature. The Color Page added its own version of content-aware, video fill.

Another editorial product addition – tied to the theme of faster, more-efficient editing – was a new edit keyboard. Anyone who’s ever cut in the linear days – especially those who ran Sony BVE9000/9100 controllers – will feel very nostalgic. It’s a robust keyboard with a high-quality, integrated jog/shuttle knob. The feel is very much like controlling a tape deck in a linear system, with fast shuttle response and precise jogging. The precision is far better than any of the USB controllers, like a Contour Shuttle. Whether or not enough people will have interest in shelling out $1,025 for it awaits to be seen. It’s a great tool, but are you really faster with one, than with FCPX’s skimming and a standard keyboard and mouse?

Ironically, if you look around the Blackmagic Design booth there does seem to be a nostalgic homage to Sony hardware of the past. As I said, the edit keyboard is very close to a BVE9100 keyboard. Even the style of the control panel on the Hyperdecks – and the look of the name badges on those panels – is very much Sony’s style. As humans, this appeals to our desire for something other than the glass interfaces we’ve been dealing with for the past few years. Michael Cioni (Panavision, Light Iron) coined this as ‘tactile attraction’ in his excellent Faster Together Stage talk. It manifests itself not only in these type of control surfaces, but also in skeuomorphic designs applied to audio filter interfaces. Or in the emotion created in the viewer when a colorist adds film grain to digital footage.

Maybe Grant is right and these methods are really faster in a pressure-filled production environment. Or maybe this is simply an effort to appeal to emotion and nostalgia by Blackmagic’s designers. (Check out Grant Petty’s two-hour 2019 Product Overview for more in-depth information on Blackmagic Design’s new products.)

8K

I won’t spill a lot of words on 8K. Seems kind of silly when most delivery is HD and even SD in some places. A lot of today’s production is in 4K, but really only for future-proofing. But the industry has to sell newer and flashier items, so they’ve moved on to 8K pixel resolution (7680 x 4320). Much of this is driven by Japanese broadcast and manufacturer efforts, who are pushing into 8K. You can laugh or roll your eyes, but NAB had many examples of 8K production tools (cameras and recorders) and display systems. Of course, it’s NAB, making it hard to tell how many of these are only prototypes and not yet ready for actual production and delivery.

For now, it’s still a 4K game, with plenty of mainstream product. Not only cameras and NLEs, but items like AJA’s KiPro family. The KiPro Ultra Plus records up to four channels of HD or one channel of 4K in ProRes or DNx. The newest member of the family is the KiPro GO, which records up to four channels of HD (25Mbps H.264) onto removable USB media.

Of course, the industry never stops, so while we are working with HD and 4K, and looking at 8K, the developers are planning ahead for 16K. As I mentioned, Avid already has project presets built-in for 16K projects. Yikes!

HDR

HDR – or high dynamic range – is about where it was last year. There are basically four formats vying to become the final standard used in all production, post, and display systems. While there are several frontrunners and edicts from distributors to deliver HDR-compatible masters, there still is no clear path. In you shoot in log or camera raw with nearly any professional camera produced within the past decade, you have originated footage that is HDR-compatible. But none of the low-cost post solutions make this easy. Without the right monitoring environment, you are wasting your time. If anything, those waters are muddier this year. There were a number of HDR displays throughout the show, but there were also a few labelled as using HDR simulation. I saw a couple of those at TV Logic. Yes, they looked gorgeous and yes, they were receiving an HDR signal. I found out that the ‘simulation’ part of the description meant that the display was bright (up to 350 nits), but not bright enough to qualify as ‘true’ HDR (1,000 nits or higher).

As in past transitions, we are certainly going to have to rely on a some ‘glue’ products. For me, that’s AJA again. Through their relationship with Colorfront, AJA offers two FS-HDR products: the HDR Image Analyzer and the FS-HDR convertor. The latter was introduced last year as a real-time frame synchronizer and color convertor to go between SDR and HDR display standards.  The new Analyzer is designed to evaluate color space and gamut compliance. Just remember, no computer display can properly show you HDR, so if you need to post and delivery HDR, proper monitoring and analysis tools are essential.

Cameras

I’m not a cinematographer, but I do keep up with cameras. Nearly all of this year’s camera developments were evolutionary: new LF (large format sensor) cameras (ARRI), 4K camcorders (Sharp, JVC), a full-frame mirrorless DSLR from Nikon (with ProRes RAW recording coming in a future firmware update). Most of the developments were targeted towards live broadcast production, like sports and megachurches.  Ikegami had an 8K camera to show, but their real focus was on 4K and IP camera control.

RED, a big player in the cinema space, was only there in a smaller demo room, so you couldn’t easily compare their 8K imagery against others on the floor, but let’s not forget Sony and Panasonic. While ARRI has been a favorite, due to the ‘look’ of the Alexa, Sony (Venice) and Panasonic (Varicam and now EVA-1) are also well-respected digital cinema tools that create outstanding images. For example, Sony’s booth featured an amazing, theater-sized, LED 8K micro-pixel display system. Some of the sample material shown was of the Rio Carnival, shot with anamorphic lenses on a 6K full-frame Sony Venice camera. Simply stunning.

Finally, let’s not forget Canon’s line-up of cinema cameras, from the C100 to the C700FF. To complement these, Canon introduced their new line of Sumire Prime lenses at the show. The C300 has been a staple of documentary films, including the Oscar-winning film, Free Solo, which I had the pleasure of watching on the flight to Las Vegas. Sweaty palms the whole way. It must have looked awesome in IMAX!

(For more on RED, cameras, and lenses at NAB, check out this thread from DP Phil Holland.)

It’s a wrap

In short, NAB 2019 had plenty for everyone. This also included smaller markets, like products for education seminars. One of these that I ran across was Cinamaker. They were demonstrating a complete multi-camera set-up using four iPhones and an iPad. The iPhones are the cameras (additional iPhones can be used as isolated sound recorders) and the iPad is the ‘switcher/control room’. The set-up can be wired or wireless, but camera control, video switching, and recording is done at the iPad. This can generate the final product, or be transferred to a Mac (with the line cut and camera iso media, plus edit list) for re-editing/refinement in Final Cut Pro X. Not too shabby, given the market that Cinamaker is striving to address.

For those of us who like to use the NAB Show exhibit floor as a miniature yardstick for the industry, one of the trends to watch is what type of gear is used in the booths and press areas. Specifically, one NLE over another, or one hardware platform versus the other. On that front, I saw plenty of Premiere Pro, along with some Final Cut Pro X. Hardware-wise, it looked like Apple versus HP. Granted, PC vendors, like HP, often supply gear to use in the booths as a form of sponsorship, so take this with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, I would guess that I saw more iMac Pros than any other single computer. For PCs, it was a mix of HP Z4, Z6, and Z8 workstations. HP and AMD were partner-sponsors of Avid Connect and they demoed very compelling set-ups with these Z-series units configured with AMD Radeon cards. These are very powerful workstations for editing, grading, mixing, and graphics.

©2019 Oliver Peters