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. Unfortunately, it appears that the foreground source clip (the one you pin to the moving object in the background shot) can only be a static image, like a graphic. When I tried a motion clip, I only got a static first frame for that clip. This limits the usefulness to logos, text, and other static objects. Nevertheless, the tracking was good, fast, and includes a 3D feature. When 3D is enabled, the pinned object will scale in size as the tracked object gets larger in the frame.

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!

©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

AJA T-Tap

 

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The Thunderbolt protocol has ushered in a new era for easy connectivity of hardware peripherals. It allows users to deploy a single connection type to tie in networking, external storage, monitoring and broadcast audio and video input and output. Along with easy connections, it has also enabled peripheral devices to becomes smaller, lighter and more powerful. This is in part due to advances in the hardware and software, as well. AJA Video Systems is one of the popular video manufacturers that has taken advantage of these benefits.

In many modern editing environments, the actual editing system has become extremely streamlined. All it really takes is a Thunderbolt-enabled laptop, all-in-one (like an iMac) or desktop computer, fast external storage, and professional monitoring – and you are good to go. For many editors, live video output is strictly for monitoring, as deliverables are more often-than-not files and not tape. Professional monitoring is easy to achieve using SDI or HDMI connections. Any concern for analog is gone, unless you need to maintain analog audio monitoring. AJA makes a series of i/o products to address these various needs, ranging from full options down to simple monitoring devices. Blackmagic Design and AJA currently produce the lion’s share of these types of products, including PCIe cards for legacy installations and Thunderbolt devices for newer systems.

I recently tested the AJA T-Tap, which is a palm-sized video output device that connects to the computer using the Thunderbolt 2 protocol. It is bus-powered – meaning that no external power supply or “wall-wart” is needed to run it. I tested this on both a 2013 Mac Pro and a 2015 MacBook Pro. In each case, my main need was SDI and/or HDMI out of the unit to external monitors. Installation couldn’t be easier. Simply download the current control panel software and drivers from AJA’s website, install, and then connect the T-Tap. Hook up your monitors and you are ready. There’s very little else to do, except set your control panel configuration for the correct video/frame rate standard. Everything else is automatic in both Adobe Premiere Pro CC and Apple Final Cut Pro X. Although you’ll want to check your preference settings to make sure the device is detected and enabled.

One of the main reasons I wanted to test the T-Tap was as a direct comparison with the Blackmagic products on these same computers. For example, the current output device being used on the 2013 Mac Pro that I tested is a Blackmagic DesignUltraStudio Express. This contains a bit more processing and is comparable to AJA’s Io XT . I also tested the BMD MiniMonitor, which is a direct competitor to the T-Tap. The UltraStudio provides both input and output and offers an analog break-out cable harness, whereas the two smaller units are only output using SDI and HDMI. All three are bus-powered. In general, all performed well with Premiere Pro, except that the BMD MiniMonitor couldn’t provide output via HDMI. For unexplained reasons, that screen was blank. No such problem with either the T-Tap or the UltraStudio Express.

The real differences are with Final Cut Pro X on the Mac Pro. That computer has six Thunderbolt ports, which are shared across three buses – i.e. two connectors per bus. On the test machine, one bus feeds the two external displays, the second bus connects to external storage (not shared for maximum throughput), and the remaining bus connects to both the output device and a CalDigit dock. If the BMD UltraStudio Express is plugged into any connection shared with another peripheral, JKL high-speed playback and scrubbing in FCPX is useless. Not only does the video output stutter and freeze, but so does the image in the application’s viewer. So you end up wasting an available Thunderbolt port on the machine, if you want to use that device with FCPX. Therefore, using the UltraStudio with FCPX on this machine isn’t really functional, except for screening with a client. This means I end up disabling the device most of the time I use FCPX. In that respect, both the AJA T-Tap and the BMD MiniMonitor performed well. However, my subjective evaluation is that the T-Tap gave better performance in my critical JKL scrubbing test.

One difference that might not be a factor for most, is that the UltraStudio Express (which costs a bit more) has advanced processing. This yields a smooth image in pause when working with progressive and PsF media. When my sequence was stopped in either FCPX or Premiere, both the T-Tap and the UltraStudio yield a full-resolution, whole-frame image on the HDMI output. (HDMI didn’t appear to function on the MiniMonitor.) On the TV Logic broadcast display that was being fed vis SDI, the T-Tap and MiniMonitor only displayed a field in pause, so you get an image with “jaggies”. The UltraStudio Express generates a whole frame for a smooth image in pause. I didn’t test a unit like AJA’s Io XT, so I’m not sure if the more expensive AJA model offers similar processing. However, it should be noted that the Io XT is triple the cost of the UltraStudio Express.

The elephant in the room, of course, is Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve. That application is restricted to only work with Blackmagic’s own hardware devices. If you want to run Resolve – and you want professional monitoring out of it – then you can’t use any AJA product with it. However, these units are so inexpensive to begin with – compared with what they used to cost – it’s realistic to own both. In fact, some FCPX editors use a T-Tap while editing in FCPX and then switch over to a MiniMonitor or UltraStudio for Resolve work. The reason being the better performance between Final Cut and the AJA products.

Ultimately these are all wonderful devices. I like the robustness of AJA’s manufacturing and software tools. I’ve used their products over the years and never been disappointed with performance or service if needed. If you don’t need video output from Resolve, then the AJA T-Tap is a great choice for an inexpensive, simple, Thunderbolt video output solution. Laptop users who need to hook up to monitors while working at home or away will find it a great choice. Toss it into your laptop bag and you are ready to rock.

©2017 Oliver Peters