Telestream Switch 4

Once Apple pulled the plug on QuickTime Player Pro 7, the industry started to look elsewhere for an all-purpose media tool that could facilitate the proper playback, inspection, and encoding of media files. For many, that new multipurpose application has become Telestream’s Switch, now in version 4. Telestream offers a range of desktop and enterprise media solutions, including Vantage, ScreenFlow, Flip4Mac, Episode, and others. Switch fills the role of a media player with added post-production capabilities, going far beyond other players, such as QuickTime Player or VLC.

Switch is offered in three versions: the basic Switch Player ($9.99), Switch Plus ($199) and Switch Pro ($499). Pricing for Plus and Pro covers the first year of support, which includes upgrades and assistance. There is also a free demo version with watermarking. All versions are available for both macOS (10.11-13) and Windows (7-10).

Playback support

The first attraction to Switch is its wide support of “consumer”, broadcast, and professional media formats and codecs. For Mac users, some of these are supported in QuickTime Player, too, but require a conversion step before you can play them. Not so with Switch. Of particular importance to editors will be the MPEG-2 and MXF variations. Some formats do require an upgrade to at least the Plus version, so check Telestream’s tech specs for specifics.

One area where Switch shines is file inspection. This has made it to the go-to quality assurance tool at many facilities. File metadata is exposed, along with proper display and reporting of interlaced video. It supports JKL transport control and frame advance using the arrow keys. Since closed captioning is important for all terrestrial and set-top channel broadcasters, you must have a way to check embedded captions. In the case of QuickTime Player, it will only display a single track of embedded captions and then, only the lower track. So, for example, if you have a file with both English and Spanish captions on CC1 and CC3, QuickTime Player will only display the English captions and not even let you verify that more captions are present. With Switch Plus and Pro, the full range of embedded channels are presented and you have the ability to do a check on any of the caption tracks.

Switch Plus likely covers the needs of most users; but Pro adds additional functionality, such as metering for multi-channel audio and loudness compliance. Pro also lets you open up to sixteen different files for comparison. It is the only version that supports external monitoring through Blackmagic Design or AJA i/o hardware. Finally, Pro lets you QC DPP (Digital Production Partnership) files from the desktop and display AS-11 MXF metadata.

Content encoding

Beyond these powerful player and inspection functions, Switch Plus and Pro are also full-fledged media encoders. You can change metadata, reorder audio channels, and export a new media file in various formats. Files can be trimmed, cropped, and/or resized in the export. Do you have a ProRes master file and need to generate an MPEG-2 Transport Stream file for broadcast? No problem.

I had a situation where I received a closed caption master file of a commercial from the captioning facility. It needed to have the ends of the file (slate and black) trimmed to meet the delivery specs. Normally when you edit or convert a file with embedded captioning, it will break the captions on the new file. Not so with Switch. I simply set the in and out points, set my encode specs to video pass-through, and generated the new file. The encode (essentially a file copy in this case) was lightning fast and the captions stayed intact.

Switch Plus and Pro include publishing presets for Vimeo, YouTube, and Facebook. In addition, the Pro version also lets you create an iTunes Store package, necessary to be compliant when distributing via the iTunes Store. Switch is a cross-platform application, but ProRes encoding support is limited to the Mac version. However, the iTunes Store package feature is the exception. ProRes asset creation is available to Windows users when creating the .itms files used by the iTunes Store.

Although Switch Plus or Pro might seem pricy to some when they compare these to Apple Compressor or Adobe Media Encoder; however, the other encoders can’t do the precision media functions that Switch offers. Telestream has built Switch to be an industrial-grade media tool that covers a host of needs in a package that’s easy for anyone to understand. If you liked QuickTime Player Pro 7, then Switch has become its 21st century successor.

Originally written for RedShark News.

©2018 Oliver Peters

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What’s up with Final Cut’s Color Wheels?

Apple Final Cut Pro X 10.4 introduced new, advanced color correction tools to this editing application, including color wheels, curves, and hue vs. saturation curves. These are tools that users of other NLEs have enjoyed for some time – and, which were part of Final Cut Studio (FCP 7, Color). Like others, my first reaction was, “Super! They’ve added some nice advanced tools, which will improve the use of FCPX for higher-end users.” But, as I started to primarily use the Color Wheels with real correction work, I quickly realized that something wasn’t quite right in how they operated. Or at least, they didn’t work in a way that we’ve come to understand.

In trying to figure it out, I reached out to other industry pros and developers for their thoughts. Naturally this led to some spirited discussions at forums like those at Creative COW. However, other editors have noticed the same problems, so you can also find threads in the Facebook FCPX group and at FCP.co. It is certainly easy to characterize this as just another internet kerfuffle, surrounding Apple’s “think different” approaches to FCPX. But those arguments fall flat when you actually try to use the tools as intended.

The FCPX Color Wheels panel includes four wheels – Master, Shadows, Midtones, and Highlights. The puck in the center of each wheel is a hue offset control to push hues in the direction that you move the puck. The slider to the right of the wheel controls the brightness of that range. The left slider controls the saturation. One of the main issues is that when you adjust luminance using one of these controls, the affected range is too broad. Specifically, in the case of the Midtones control, as you adjust the luminance slider up or down, you are affecting most of the image and not just the midrange levels. This is not the way this type of control normally works in other tools, and in fact, it’s not how FCPX’s Color Board controls work either.

“What’s the big deal?” you might ask. Fair enough. I see two operational issues. The first is that to properly grade the image using the Color Wheels, you end up having to go back-and-forth a lot between wheels, to counteract the changes made by one control with another. The second is that using the Midtones slider tends to drive highlights above 100 IRE, where they will be clipped if any broadcast limiting is used. This doesn’t happen with other color tools, notably Apple’s own Color Board.

A lot of the discussion focuses on luma levels and specifically the Midtones slider, since it’s easy to see the issue there. However, other controls are also affected, but that’s too much to dissect in a single post. Throughout this post, be sure to click on the images to see the full view. I have presented various samples against each other and you will only get the full understanding if you open the thumbnail (which is small but also cropped) to the full image. I have compared the effect using five different tools – the Color Board, the Color Wheels, a color corrector plug-in that I built as a Motion template using Motion effects, Rubber Monkey Software FilmConvert (the wheels portion only), and finally, the Adobe Lumetri controls in Premiere Pro.

I am using three different test images – a black-to-white ramp, a test pattern, and a demo video image. The ramp without correction will appear as a diagonal line (0-100 IRE) on the scope, which makes it easy to analyze what’s happening. The video image has definite shadow and highlight areas, which lets us see how these controls work in the real world. For example, if you want to brighten the area of the shot where the man is in the shadows, but don’t want to make the highlights any brighter, this would normally be done using a Midtones control. Be aware that these various tools certainly aren’t calibrated the same way and some have a greater range of control than others. The weakest of these is FilmConvert’s wheels, since this plug-in has additional level controls in other parts of its interface.

Color science models

In the various forum threads, the argument is made that Apple is simply using a different color science method or a different weighing of some existing models. That’s certainly possible, since not all color correctors are built the same way. The most common approaches are Lift/Gamma/Gain and Shadows/Mids/Highlights. Be careful with naming. Just because something uses the terminology of Shadows, Midtones, and Highlights, does not mean that it also uses the SMH color science model. Many tools use the Lift/Gamma/Gain model, but in fact, call the controls shadows (Lift), mids (Gamma), and highlights (Gain). Another term you may run across is Set-up in some correction tools. This is typically used for control of shadows (equal to Lift), but can also function is an offset control that raises the level of the entire image. Avid Symphony employs this solution. Finally, both Symphony and Adobe SpeedGrade use what has been dubbed a 12-way color corrector. Each range is further subdivided into its own subset of shadows, mids, and highlights controls.

An LGG model provides broad control of shadows and highlights, with the midtones control working like a curve that covers the whole range, but with the largest effect in the middle. An SMH model normally divides the levels into three distinct, precisely overlapping ranges. This is much like a three-band audio equalizing filter. A number of the color correctors add a luma range control, which gives the user the ability to change how much of the image a specific range will affect. In other words, how broad is the control of the shadows, mids, or highlights control? This is like a Q control in an audio equalizer, where you change the shape of the envelope at a certain frequency.

Red Giant’s Magic Bullet Looks offers both color correction models with two different tools – the 4-way color corrector (SMH) and the Colorista color corrector (LGG). When you adjust the midrange control of their 4-way, the result is a graceful S-shaped curve to the levels on the waveform.

To study the effect of an LGG-based corrector, test the ramp. The shadows control (Lift) will raise or lower the dark areas of the image without changing the absolute highlights. The diagonal line of the ramp on the waveform essentially pivots, hinged at the 100 IRE point. Conversely, change the highlights control (Gain) pivots the line pinned to 0 IRE (at black). When you adjust the midtones control (Gamma), you create a curve to the line, which stays pinned at 0 and 100 IRE at either end. In this way you are effectively “expanding” or “compressing” the levels in the middle portion of your image without changing the position of your black or white points.

How the various color correction tools react

Looking at the luma control for the Midtones, two things are clear. First, all of these tools are using the LGG color science model. It’s not clear what the Color Wheels are using, but it isn’t SMH, as there is no bulge or S-curve visible in the scope. Second, the Color Wheels quickly drive the image levels into clipping, while the other tools generally keep black and while levels in place. In essence, the Midtones control affects the image more like a master or offset control would, than a typical mids or Gamma control. Yet, clearly Apple’s Color Board controls adhere to the standard LGG model. The concern, of course, is clipping. In the test image of the man walking on the village street, the sunlit building walls on the opposite side of the street will become overexposed and risk being clipped when the Color Wheels are used.

What about color? As a simple test, I next shifted the Midtones puck to the yellow. Bear in mind that the range of each of these controls is different, so you will see varying degrees of yellow intensity. Nevertheless, the way the control should work is that some pure black and white should be preserved at the top and bottom of the video levels. All of these tools maintain that, except for the Color Wheels. There, the entire image is yellow, effectively making the hue offset puck function more like a tint control.

One other issue to note, is that the Color Wheels offer an extraordinarily control range. The hue offset control RGB intensity values go from 0 (center of the wheel) to 1023. However, the puck icon can only go to the rim of the wheel, which it hits at about 200. With a mouse (or numerical entry), you can keep going well past the stop of the wheel icon – five times farther, in fact. The image not only becomes very yellow in this case, but you can easily lose the location of your control, since the GUI position in no longer relevant.

The working theory

The big question is why don’t the Color Wheels conform to established principles, when in fact, the Color Board controls do? Until there is some further clarification from Apple, one possible explanation is with HDR. FCPX 10.4 introduced High Dynamic Range (HDR) features. One of the various HDR standards is Rec. 2020 PQ. In that color space, the 0-100 IRE limitations of Rec. 709 are expanded to 0-10,000 nits. 0-100 nits is roughly the same brightness as we are used to with Rec. 709.

Looking at this image of the man walking along the street – where I’ve attempted to get a pleasing look with all of the tools – you’ll see that the Color Wheels in Rec. 709 don’t react correctly and will drive the highlights into a range to be clipped. However, in the bottom pane, which is the same image in Rec. 2020 PQ color space, the grade looks pretty normal. And, in practice, the Color Wheels controls work more or less the way I would have expected them to work. Yes, the same controls work differently in the different color spaces – properly in 2020 PQ and not in 709.

But why is that the case? I have no answer, but I do have a wild guess. Maybe, just maybe, the Color Wheels were designed for – or intended to only be used for – HDR work. Or maybe there’s conversion or recalibration of the controls that hasn’t taken place yet in this version. If the tool is only calibrated for HDR, then its range and weighing will be completely wrong for Rec. 709 video. If you increase the Midtones luma of the ramp in both Rec. 709 and Rec. 2020 PQ, you’ll see a similar curve. In fact, if you overlay a screen shot of each waveform, placing the full Rec. 709 scope image over the bottom portion of the Rec. 2020 PQ scale, you’ll notice that these sort of align up to about 100 IRE and nits. It’s as if one is simply a slice out of the other.

Regardless of why, this is something where I would hope Apple will provide a white paper or other demonstration of what the best practices will be for using this tool effectively. If it isn’t intentional, and actually is a mistake, then I presume a fix will be forthcoming. In either case, put in your feedback comments to Apple.

A word about HDR

Over the course of testing this tool and this theory, I’ve done a bit of testing with the HDR color spaces in FCPX. If you want to know more about HDR, I would encourage you to check out these contrary blog posts by Stu Maschwitz and Alexis Van Hurkman. I tend to side with Stu’s point-of-view and am not a big fan of HDR.

The way Apple has implemented these features in Final Cut Pro X 10.4 is to allow the user to set and override color spaces. If you set up your project to be Rec. 2020 PQ (and set preferences to “show HDR as raw values”), then the viewer and a/v output (direct from the Mac, not through a hardware i/o device) are effectively dimmed through the Mac’s color profile system. When you grade the image based on the 0-10,000 nits scale, you’ll end up seeing an image that looks pleasing and essentially the same as if you were working in Rec. 709. However – and I cannot over-emphasize this – you are not going to be able to produce an image that’s truly compatible with Dolby Vision and actually look correct as HDR, unless you have the correct AJA i/o hardware and a proper display. And by display, I mean a top-end Dolby, Canon, or Sony unit, costing tens of thousands of dollars.

As I understand the PQ specs, the bulk of the higher range is for the highlights that are normally constrained or clipped in our current video systems. However, that 10,000 nits scale is weighed, so that about 50% of the image value is in the first 100 nits, making it of comparable brightness to the current 100 IRE. The rest of that range is for brighter information, like specular highlights. You don’t necessarily get more brightness in the shadow detail. Therefore, if you are grading a shot in FCPX in a 2020 PQ color space and you only have the computer display to go by, you’ll grade by eye as much as by scope. This means that to get a pleasing image, you will end up making the average appearance of the image brighter than it really should be. When this is viewed on a real HDR monitor, it will be painfully bright. Having a higher-nits computer display, like on the iMac Pro (up to 500 nits), won’t make much difference, unless maybe, you crank the display brightness to its maximum (ouch!).  “Mine goes the 11!”

Right now, HDR is the wild, wild west. If you are smart, you’ll realize that you don’t know what you don’t know. While it’s nice to have these new features in FCPX, they can be very dangerous in the wrong hands.

But that’s another matter. Right now, I just hope Apple (or one of the usual suspects, like Ripple Training, LumaForge, or Larry Jordan) will come out with more elaboration on the Color Wheels.

©2018 Oliver Peters

Putting Apple’s iMac Pro Through the Paces

At the end of December, Apple made good on the release of the new iMac Pro and started selling and shipping the new workstations. While this could be characterized as a stop-gap effort until the next generation of Mac Pro is produced, that doesn’t detract from the usefulness and power of this design in its own right. After all, the iMac line is the direct descendant in spirit and design of the original Macintosh. Underneath the sexy, all-in-one, space grey enclosure, the iMac Pro offers serious workstation performance.

I work mostly these days with a production company that produces and posts commercials, corporate videos, and entertainment programming. Our editing set-up consists of seven workstations, plus an auxiliary machine connected to a common QNAP shared storage network. These edit stations consisted of a mix of old and new Mac Pros and iMacs (connected via 10GigE), with a Mac Mini for the auxiliary (1GigE). It was time to upgrade the oldest machines, which led us to consider the iMac Pros. The company picked up three of them – replacing two Mac Pro towers and an older iMac. The new configuration is a mix of three, one-year-old Retina 5K iMacs (late 2015 model), a 2013 “trash can” Mac Pro, and three 2017 iMac Pros.

There are plenty of videos and articles on the web about how these machines perform; but, the testers often use artificial benchmarks or only Final Cut Pro X. This shop has a mix of NLEs (Adobe, Apple, Avid, Blackmagic Design), but our primary tool is Adobe Premiere Pro CC 2018. This gave me a chance to compare how these machines stacked up against each other in the kind of work we actually do. This comparison isn’t truly apples-to-apples, since the specs of the three different products are somewhat different from each other. Nevertheless, I feel that it’s a valid real-world assessment of the iMac Pros in a typical, modern post environment.

Why buy iMac Pros at all?

The question to address is why should someone purchase these machines? Let me say right off the bat, that if your main focus is 3D animation or heavy compositing using After Effects or other applications – and speed and performance are the most important factor – then don’t buy an Apple computer. Period. There are plenty of examples of Dell and HP workstations, along with high-end gaming PCs, that outperform any of the Macs. This is largely due to the availability of advanced NVidia GPUs for the PC, which simply aren’t an option for current Macs.

On the other hand, if you need a machine that’s solid and robust across a wide range of postproduction tasks – and you prefer the Mac operating ecosystem – then the iMac Pros are a good choice. Yes, the machine is pricy and you can buy cheaper gaming PCs and DIY workstations, but if you stick to the name brands, like Dell and HP, then the iMac Pros are competitively priced. In our case, a shift to PC would have also meant changing out all of the machines and not just three – therefore, even more expensive.

Naturally, the next thing is to compare price against the current 5K iMacs and 2013 Mac Pros. Apple’s base configuration of the iMac Pro uses an 8-core 3.2GHz Xeon W CPU, 32GB RAM, 1TB SSD, and the Radeon Pro Vega 56 GPU (8GB memory) for $4,999. A comparably configured 2013 Mac Pro is $5,207 (with mouse and keyboard), but no display. Of course, it also has the dual D-700 GPUs. The 5K iMac in a similar configuration is $3,729. Note that we require 10GigE connectivity, which is built into the iMac Pros. Therefore, in a direct comparison, you would need to bump up the iMac and Mac Pro prices by about $500 for a Thunderbolt2-to-10GigE converter.

Comparing these numbers for similar machines, you’d spend more for the Mac Pro and less for the iMac. Yet, the iMac Pro uses newer processors and faster RAM, so it could be argued that it’s already better out of the gate in the base configuration than Apple’s former top-of-the-line product. It has more horsepower than the tricked-out iMac, so then it becomes a question of whether the cost difference is important to you for what you are getting.

Build quality

Needless to say, Apple has a focus on the quality and fit-and-finish of its products. The iMac Pro is no exception. Except for the space grey color, it looks like the regular 27” iMacs and just as nicely built. However, let me quibble a bit with a few things. First, the edges of the case and foot tend to be a bit sharp. It’s not a huge issue, but compared with an iPhone, iPad, or 2013 Mac Pro, the edges just not as smooth and rounded. Secondly, you get a wireless mouse and extended keyboard. Both have to be plugged in to charge. In the case of the mouse, the cable plugs in at the bottom, rendering it useless during charging. Truly a bad design. The wireless keyboard is the newer, flatter style, so you lose two USB ports that were on the previous plug-in extended keyboard. Personally, I prefer the features and feel of the previous keyboard, not to mention any scroll wheel mouse over the Magic Mouse. Of course, those are strictly items of personal taste.

With the iMac Pro, Apple is transitioning its workstations to Thunderbolt 3, using USB-C connectors. Previous Thunderbolt 2 ports have been problematic, because the cables easily disconnect. In fact, on our existing iMacs, it’s very easy to disconnect the Thunderbolt 2 cable that connects us to the shared storage network, simply by moving the iMac around to get to the ports on the back. The USB-C connectors feel more snug, so hopefully we will find that to be an improvement. If you need to get to the back of the iMac or iMac Pro frequently, in order to plug in drives, dongles, etc., then I would highly recommend one of the docks from CalDigit or OWC as a valuable accessory.

5K screen

Apple spends a lot of marketing hype on promoting their 5K Retina screens. The 27” screens have a raw pixel resolution of 5120×2880 pixels, but that’s not what you see in terms of image and user interface dimensions. To start with, the 5K iMacs and iMac Pros use the same screen resolution and the default display setting (middle scaled option) is 2560×1440 pixels. The top choice is 3200×1800. Of course, if you use that setting, everything becomes extremely small on screen.  Conversely, our 2013 Mac Pro is connected to a 27” Apple LED Cinema Display (non Retina). It’s top scaled resolution is also 2560×1440 pixels. Therefore, at the most useable settings, all of our workstations are set to the same resolution. Even if you scale the resolution up (images and UI get smaller), you are going to end up adjusting the size of the application interface and viewer window. While you might see different viewer size percentage numbers between the machines, the effective size on screen will be the same.

Retina is Apple’s marketing name for high pixel density. This is the equivalent of DPI (dots per inch) in print resolutions. According to a Macworld article, iPhones from 4 to 5s had a pixel density of 326ppi (pixels per inch), while iMacs have 218ppi. Apple converts a device’s display to Retina by doubling the horizontal and vertical pixel count. More pixels are applied to any given area on the screen, resulting in smoother text, smoother diagonal lines, and so on. That’s assuming an application’s interface is optimized for it. At the distance that the editors sit from a 27” display, there is simply little or no difference between the look of the 27” LED display and the 27” iMac Retina screens.

Upgradeability

Future-proofing and upgrades are the biggest negatives thrown at all-in-ones, particularly the iMac Pros. While the user can upgrade RAM in the standard iMacs, that’s not the case with iMac Pros. You can upgrade RAM in the future, but that must be done at a service facility, such as the Apple Store’s Genius service. This means that in three years, when you want the latest, greatest CPU, GPU, storage, etc., you won’t be able to swap out components. But is this really an issue? I’m sure Apple has user research numbers to justify their decisions. Plus, the thermal design of the iMac would make user upgrades difficult, unlike older mac Pro towers.

In my own experience on personal machines, as well as clients’ machines that I’ve helped maintain, I have upgraded storage, GPU cards, and RAM, but never the CPU. Although I do know others who have upgraded Xeon models on their Mac Pro towers. Part of the dichotomy is buying what you can afford now and upgrading later, versus stretching a bit up front and then not needing to upgrade later. My gut feeling is that Apple is pushing the latter approach.

If I tally up the cost of the upgrades that I’ve made after about three years, I would already be part of the way towards a newer, better machine anyway. Plus, if you are cutting HD and even 4K today, then just about any advanced machine will do the trick, making it less likely that you’ll need to do that upgrade within the foreseeable life of the machine. An argument can be made for either approach, but I really think that the vast majority of users – even professional users – never actually upgrade any of the internal hardware from that of the configuration as originally purchased.

Performance testing

We ultimately purchased machines that were the 10-core bump-up from the base configuration, feeling that this is the sweet spot (and is currently available) within the iMac Pro product line.

The new machine specs within the facility now look like this:

2013 Mac Pro – 3GHz 8-core Xeon/64GB RAM/dual D-500 GPUs/1TB SSD (Sierra)

2015 iMac – 4GHz 4-core Core i7/32GB RAM/AMD R9/3TB Fusion drive (Sierra)

2017 iMac Pro – 3GHz 10-core Xeon W/64GB RAM/Radeon Vega 64/1TB SSD (High Sierra)

As you can see, the tech specs of the new iMac Pros more closely match the 2013 Mac Pro than the year-old 5K iMacs. Of course, it’s not a perfect match for optimal benchmark testing, but close enough for a good read on how well the iMac Pro delivers in a real working environment.

Test 1 – BruceX

The BruceX test uses a 5K Final Cut Pro X timeline made up only of built-in titles and generators. The timeline is then rendered out to a ProRes file. This tests the pure application without any media and codec variables. It’s a bit of an artificial test and only applicable to FCPX performance, but still useful. The faster the export time, the better. (I have bolded the best results.)

2013 Mac Pro – 26.8 sec.

2015 iMac – 28.3 sec.

2017 iMac Pro – 14.4 sec.

Test 2 – media encoding

In my next test, I took a 4½-minute-long 1080p ProRes file and rendered it to a 4K/UHD (3840×2160) H.264 (1-pass CBR 20Mbps) file. Not only was it being encoded, but also scaled up to 4K in this process. I rendered from and to the desktop, to eliminate any variables from the QNAP system. Finally, I conducted the test using both Adobe Media Encoder (using OpenCL processing) and Apple Compressor.

Two noteworthy issues. The Compressor test was surprisingly slow on the Mac Pro. (I actually ran the Compressor test twice, just to be certain about the slowness of the Mac Pro.) The AME version kicked in the fans on the iMac.

Adobe Media Encoder

2013 Mac Pro – 6:13 min.

2015 iMac – 7:14 min.

2017 iMac Pro – 4:48 min.

 Compressor

2013 Mac Pro – 11:02 min.

2015 iMac – 2:20 min.

2017 iMac Pro – 2:19 min.

 Test 3 – editing timeline playback – multi-layered sequence

This was a difficult test designed to break during unrendered playback. The 40-second 1080p/23.98 sequence include six layers of resized 4K source media.

Layer 1 – DJI clips with dissolves between the clips

Layers 2-5 – 2D PIP ARRI Alexa clips (no LUTs); layer 5 had a Gaussian blur effect added

Layer 6 – native REDCODE RAW with minor color correction

The sequence was created in both Final Cut Pro X and Premiere Pro. Playback was tested with the media located on the QNAP volumes, as well as from the desktop (this should provide the best possible playback).

Playing back this sequence in Final Cut Pro X from the QNAP resulted is the video output largely choking on all of the machines. Playing it back in Premiere Pro from the QNAP was slightly better than in FCPX, with the 2017 iMac Pro performing best of all. It played, but was still choppy.

When I tested playback from the desktop, all three machines performed reasonably well using both Final Cut Pro X (“best performance”) and Premiere Pro (“1/2 resolution”). There were some frames dropped, although the iMac Pro played back more smoothly than the other two. In fact, in Premiere Pro, I was able to set the sequence to “full resolution” and get visually smooth playback, although the indicator light still noted dropped frames. Typically, as each staggered layer kicked in, performance tended to hiccup.

Test 4 – editing timeline playback – single-layer sequence

 This was a simpler test using a standard workflow. The 30-second 1080p/23.98 sequence included three Alexa clips (no LUTs) with dissolves between the clips. Each source file was 4K/UHD and had a “punch-in” and reposition within the HD frame. Each also included a slight, basic color correction. Playback was tested in Final Cut Pro X and Premiere Pro, as well as from the QNAP system and the desktop. Quality settings were increased to “best quality” in FCPX and “full resolution” in Premiere Pro.

My complex timeline in Test 3 appeared to perform better in Premiere Pro. In Test 4, the edge was with Final Cut Pro X. No frames were dropped with any of the three machines playing back either from the QNAP or the desktop, when testing in FCPX. In Premiere Pro, the 2017 iMac Pro was solid in both situations. The 2015 iMac was mostly smooth at “full” and completely smooth at “1/2”. Unfortunately, the 2013 Mac Pro seemed to be the worst of the three, dropping frames even at “1/2 resolution” at each dissolve within the timeline.

Test 5 – timeline renders (multi-layered sequence)

In this test, I took the complex sequence from Test 3 and exported it to a ProRes master file. I used the QNAP-connected versions of the Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro X timelines and rendered the exports to the desktop. In FCPX, I used its default Share function. In Premiere Pro, I queued the export to Adobe Media Encoder set to process in OpenCL. This was one of the few tests in which the 2013 Mac Pro put in a faster time, although the iMac Pro was very close.

Rendering to ProRes – Premiere Pro (via Adobe Media Encoder)

2013 Mac Pro – 1:29 min.

2015 iMac – 2:29 min.

2017 iMac Pro – 1:45 min.

Rendering to ProRes – Final Cut Pro X

2013 Mac Pro – 1:21 min.

2015 iMac – 2:29 min.

2017 iMac Pro – 1:22 min.

Test 6 – Adobe After Effects – rendering composition

My final test was to see how well the iMac Pro performed in rendering out compositions from After Effects. This was a 1080p/23.98 15-second composition. The bottom layer was a JPEG still with a Color Finesse correction. On top of that were five 1080p ProResLT video clips that had been slomo’ed to fill the composition length. Each was scaled, cropped, and repositioned. Each was beveled with a layer style and had a stylized effect added to it. The topmost layer was a camera layer with all other layers set to 3D, so the clips could be repositioned in z-space. Using the camera, I added a slight rotation/perspective change over the life of the composition.

Rendering to ProRes – After Effects

2013 Mac Pro – 2:37 min.

2015 iMac – 2:15 min.

2017 iMac Pro – 2:03 min.

Conclusion

After all of this testing, one is left with the answer “it depends”. The 2013 Mac Pro has two GPUs, but not every application takes advantage of that. Some apps tax all the available cores, so more, but slower, cores are better. Others go for the maximum speed on fewer cores. All things considered, the iMac Pro performed at the top of these three machines. It was either the best or close/equal to the best. But, this is an incremental difference in the 10% to 30% range. But, of course some of these numbers will be meaningful and others won’t, depending on the apps used and a user’s storage situation.

I will say that installing these three machines was the easiest I’ve ever done, including connecting them to the 10GigE storage network. The majority of our apps come from Adobe Create Cloud, the Mac App Store, or FxFactory (for plug-ins). Except for a few other installers, there was largely no need to track down installers, activation information, etc. for a zillion small apps and plug-ins. This made it a breeze and is certainly part of the attraction of the Mac ecosystem. The iMac Pro’s all-in-one design limits the required peripherals, which also contributes to a faster installation. Naturally, I can’t tell anyone if this is the right machine for them, but so far, the investment does look like the correct choice for this shop’s needs.

Here are two additional impressions by working editors: Thomas Grove Carter and Ben Balser. Also a very comprehensive review from AppleInsider.

©2018 Oliver Peters

Apple Final Cut Pro X 10.4

December finally delivered the much-anticipated simultaneous release of new versions of Apple Final Cut Pro X, Motion, and Compressor – all on the same day as the iMac Pro officially went on sale. In the broader ecosystem, we also saw updates for macOS High Sierra, Logic Pro X, Pixelmator Pro, and Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve.

Final Cut Pro X (“ten”), version 10.4 is the fifth major release of Apple’s professional NLE in a little over six years. There are changes under the hood tied to technologies in High Sierra (macOS 10.13), which won’t get much press, but are very important in the development and operation of an application. This version will still run on a wide range of recent and older Macs. The minimum OS requirement is 10.12.4, but 10.13 or later is recommended. There are four new, marquee features in this release: advanced color correction tools, 360° editing, HDR (wide gamut) color space support, and HEVC/H.265 codec support for editing and encoding.

New advanced color tools

Final Cut Pro X was first launched with a color correction tool called the color board. It substituted sliders on a color swatch for the standard curves and color wheel controls that editors had been used to. While the color board was and is effective, as well as a bit deceptive in what you can accomplish, it was an instant turn-off for many. The lack of a more advanced color correction interface opened the field for third party color correction plug-in developers who came up with some great tools. With the release of FCPX 10.4, it’s hard for me to see why FCPX diehards would still buy a color correction plug-in. Yet, I have heard from at least one plug-in developer that their color corrector plug-in sales are staying stable. Clearly users want choice and that’s a good thing.

With this update, you’ve gained three new, native color tools, including color wheels, curves, and hue vs. saturation curves. All are elegantly designed, operate quite fluidly, and generally mimic what you can do in DaVinci Resolve. However, the color board didn’t go away however. There’s a preference setting for which of these four color tools is the default effect when first applying color correction (CMD+6).

Once you start color correcting, you can add more instances of any of these four tools in any combination. Final Cut Pro X sports robust performance, so you can apply several layers of correction to a clip and still have real-time playback without rendering. There are also additional keyboard commands to quickly step through effects or clips on your timeline. While not quite as fluid of a grading workflow as you’d have in a true color correction application, like Resolve, you can get pretty close with some experience. My biggest beef is that you are limited to the controls being locked within the inspector pane. You can’t move the controls around and there is no special color correction workspace. So for me, the ergonomics are poor. In my testing, I’ve also hit some flaws in how the processing is done (more on that in a future post). Ironically the color board actually seems to achieve more accurate correction than the color wheels.

There are a few quirks. Previously created presets for the color board will be converted into color preset effects, which now appear in the effects browser. This enables you to preview a color preset applied to a clip by skimming over the effect thumbnail. Unfortunately, I found this conversion didn’t always work. On a Sierra machine (10.12), the older presets were automatically converted after waiting a few minutes; however, nothing happened on a High Sierra machine (10.13). I eventually resorted to copying my converted effects presets from the Sierra Mac over to the High Sierra Mac. I suspect, that because the High Sierra update automatically reformats the internal SSD drive to the new Apple File System (APFS), this conversion process is somehow impeded. Of course, if you don’t already have any existing custom presets, then it’s not an issue.

(You can check out my previously-created color presets for instructions and downloads here.)

There is no control surface support yet, although future support for third party color correction controllers has been alluded to. It would be nice to see support for Tangent or Avid panels at the very least. There’s a new FCPXML version (1.7) that includes this new color metadata; however, it doesn’t seem to be imported into the newest version of Resolve. It’s possible that color metadata in the FCPXML file is only intended for FCPX-to-FCPX transfers and not round tripping to other applications.

360° editing

Let me say up front that this doesn’t hit my hot button. It’s an area where Apple is playing catch-up to Adobe. Quite frankly, for both of these companies, it only appeals to a small percentage of users. Not all 360° formats are supported. Your footage must be equirectangular (stitched panorama), in order that FCPX can properly correct its display. Nevertheless, if you do work on 360° productions, then FCPX provides you a nice tool kit.

You can set up your timeline sequence for monoscopic or stereoscopic 360° editing. Once set up, simply open a separate 360° viewer, side-by-side to the normal viewer. When you do this, you’ll see the uncorrected image on the right and the adjusted point-of-view image on the left. What’s really cool, is that you can play the timeline and actively navigate your view of the content within of the 360° viewer, without ever stopping playback. Plus I’m talking about 4K material here! Clearly the engineers have tweaked the performance and not just integrated a plug-in.

There are also a set of custom effects designed for seamless use on 360° images. For example, if you apply a standard blur, there will be a visible seam where the left and right edges meet. If you apply a 360° blur effect, then the image and effect are properly blended. If you want to get the full effect, just attach an HTC Vive VR headset to view clips in full 360°. Want to test this, but don’t have any footage? A quick web search will provide a ton of downloadable, equirectangular clips to play with.

Wide gamut / high dynamic range (HDR)

Apple is trying to establish leadership with the integration of workflows to support HDR editing. I suspect that their ultimate goal is proper HDR support for Apple TV 4K and the iPhone X. The state of HDR today is very confusing without any real standards. There’s DolbyVision and HDR10, an open standard. The latter leaves the actual implementation up to manufacturers, while Dolby licenses its technology with tight specs. The theoretical DolbyVision brightness standard is 10,000 nits (cd/m2), but their current target is only 4,000 nits. HDR10 caps at 1,000 nits. Current consumer TV sets run in the 300 to 500 nit range with none exceeding 1,000 nits. Finally, projected brightness in movie theaters is even lower.

To work in HDR within Final Cut Pro X, first set up the FCPX Library as wide instead of standard gamut. Then set the Project (sequence) to one of four standards: Rec 709 (standard dynamic range), Rec 2020, Rec 2020 PQ, or Rec 2020 HLG. The first Rec 2020 mode simply preserves the full dynamic range of log-encoded camera files when FCPX applies its LUTs. The PQ and HLG options are designed for DolbyVision and/or HDR10 mastering. HDR tools are provided to go between color spaces, such as mastering in Rec 2020 PQ and delivering in Rec 709 (consult Apple’s workflow document). However, it is only in the Rec 2020 PQ color space that the FCPX scope will display in nits, rather than IRE. When set to nits, the scale is 0 to 10,000 nits instead of 0 to 120 IRE.

To edit in one of these wide gamut color spaces, set your preferences to display HDR in raw values. Then Final Cut interacts with the color profile of the monitor through macOS to effectively dim the viewer image for this new color space. However, this technique is not applied to the filmstrips and thumbnail images in the browser, which will appear with blown out levels unless you manually override the colorspace setting for each clip. If your footage was shot with camera raw or log-encoding, using a RED, ARRI or similar camera, then you are ready to work in HDR today.

It’s critical to note that no current computer display or consumer flat panel will give you an accurate HDR image to grade by. This includes the new iMac Pro screens. You will need the proper AJA i/o hardware and a calibrated HDR display to see a proper HDR image. Even then, it’s still a question of which HDR levels you are trying to master to. For example, if you are using the scope in FCPX with a brightness level up to 10,000 nits, but your target display can only achieve 1,000 nits, then what good is the reading on the scope? We are still early in the HDR process, but I’m concerned that FCPX 10.4 will give users a false impression of what it really takes to do HDR properly.

HEVC / H.265

You can now import iMovie for iOS projects into FCPX 10.4.  Support for the H.265 (HEVC) codec has been added with this release, but you’ll need to be on High Sierra. If you shot video with an iPhone X and started organizing it in iMovie on the phone, then that video may have used the H.265 codec. Now you can bring that into FCPX to continue the job.

Going the other way will require Compressor encoding. HEVC is also the required format to send HDR material to the web. Apple is late to the game in H.265 support, as Sorenson and Adobe users have been able to do that for a while. I tested H.265 encoding of short clips in Compressor on my mid-2014 Retina MacBook Pro and it was extremely slow. There was no issue with H.264 encoding. The same H.265 test in Adobe Media Encoder – even when it was uprezzing a 1080p file to 4K – was significantly faster than Compressor.

Final thoughts

For current users. When you update to Final Cut Pro X 10.4, please remember that it will update each FCPX library file that you open afterwards. Although this has generally been harmless for most users, it’s best to follow some precautions. Zip your 10.3 (or earlier) version of the application and move that .zip file out of the applications folder before you update. Archive all of your existing Final Cut libraries. This way you can find your way back, in case of some type of failure.

Final Cut Pro X 10.4 is a solid upgrade that will have loyal FCPX users applauding. Overall, these new tools are useful and, as before, FCPX is a very fluid, enjoyable editing application. It slices through 4K content better than any other NLE on the Mac platform. If you like its editing paradigm, then nothing else comes close.

Unfortunately, Apple didn’t squash some long-standing bugs. For example, numerous users online are still complaining about the issue where browser text intermittently disappears. I do feel that there were missed opportunities. The functionality of audio lanes – a feature introduced in 10.3 as a way to get closer to track-style audio mixing – hasn’t been expanded. The hope for an enhanced, roles-based audio mixer has once again gone unanswered. On the other hand, the built-in audio plug-ins have been updated to those used by Logic Pro X and there’s a clean path to send your audio to Logic if you want to mix there.

I definitely welcome these updates. The new color tools make it a more powerful application to use for color grading, so I’m happy to see that Apple has been listening. Now, I hope that we’ll see some of the other needs addressed before another year passes us by.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017, 2018 Oliver Peters

Pixelmator Pro

Pixelmator made a big splash among Apple’s Mac App Store offerings when it was first launched. To close out 2017, the developers are back with Pixelmator Pro, a next generation version of the original. Although both products co-exist, future development is now directed to the Pixelmator Pro product with an iPad version to come. Like its predecessor, Pixelmator Pro is only for macOS and, in fact, this version requires High Sierra or newer.

Pixelmator Pro is intended to appeal to users who want the power of Adobe Photoshop, but without the subscription and at a more attractive price. By being designed only for the Mac platform, the Pixelmator developers can optimize their applications for Apple-specific technologies. Pixelmator Pro taps into some features available through macOS High Sierra (10.13), like Apple’s Metal 2 GPU image processing and machine learning via Core ML. This excludes legacy Mac Pro towers, because they aren’t capable of Metal 2, in spite of being able to install and run High Sierra.

Much like Apple’s own software, Pixelmator Pro features a pleasing user interface with a streamlined layout. The original Pixelmator interface was colorful with floating windows and tool palettes, but Pro takes on a more integrated and flatter design. You can quickly show/hide controls and bounce between a windowed and full screen display of the image to maintain the best focus on what you are doing. Layers are shown on the left edge of the interface with tools down the right edge. Additional tools and controls can be accessed from the main menu, as well as from a pulldown at the “+” sign in the upper left corner of the interface window. Whenever you select a tool like “Adjust Colors”, specific control parameters appear, along with thumbnails of your image using one of the built-in presets. Click “Add” at the top to expose more possible modifiers for that tool. This keeps the starting point simple, with an easy way to add more tools, much like Aperture did in the past.

Pixelmator Pro operation is very fluid. Little impedes your interaction with the interface. Camera raw images are processed in their native state, without the need for an image development step before you can work with them. Multiple raw files can be placed onto separate layers. Most camera raw formats, including DNG, can be imported; however, compressed raw formats aren’t recognized. For example, I was able to import images from a DJI image sequence, but not a Blackmagic Design URSA camera. With raw files, color adjustment tools continue to be available even as other manipulation is done.

Machine learning drives automatic layer naming. When you import a photo to a layer, Pixelmator Pro takes a best guess at what the image contains and names the layer accordingly. I imported an image of a large metal artwork and it was named “sculpture”. An image of the sanctuary in the Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal was named “stained glass”. Most of the time, the automatic naming was close enough, but you can always change it yourself. The background layer and layers with camera raw images are not renamed. Another tie into macOS is the integration with photo libraries from Photos and/or Aperture. When selecting an image for importing onto a new layer, one option is to pick from collections that you’ve curated in one of these two applications.

If you come from graphics applications like Photoshop, then Pixelmator Pro takes a bit of readjustment in your workflow. For instance, the hierarchical order of applied processes is fixed. I can adjust color and then apply an effect, like a Gaussian blur. But then I can’t add grain from the color menu on top, because that’s part of the color adjustment options. Instead, I have to apply a separate grain modifier from the effects menu. Likewise, there are no adjustment layers to apply non-destructive effects to all the layers below. However, I can group layers together and then apply effects to the entire group, which is a viable alternative. You can rotate on image on the z-axis, but there’s no x- or y-rotation. Instead, you have to use the “Perspective Transform” effect and corner-pin an image to produce the look that horizontal or vertical rotation would provide.

Pixelmator and Pixelmator Pro both use their own proprietary file formats. Pro will open Pixelmator’s PXM files, but Pro’s PXD files can’t be opened in the original Pixelmator application. Of course, you can export in various standard formats, like JPEG, TIFF, and Photoshop. Pixelmator Pro also utilizes Apple’s Share menu, in order to send an image to Mail, Airdrop, Flickr, and also to your Photos and/or Aperture libraries. Importing layered Photoshop files with effects is a mixed bag. Standard items come across, but some layer effects are merged. Other effects, like texture effects on text, are dropped. The competing Affinity Photo gave me a more complete translation of the effects when I imported these same Photoshop test files. Nevertheless, the Pixelmator development team is committed to improving Photoshop compatibility.

There are certainly pros and cons with any application. Pixelmator Pro’s strengths are in image adjustment/retouching/correction, tasteful graphic design, and digital painting. Thanks to tapping into GPU power, painting with various brushes or deforming an image is fast and responsive, even on standard Macs. Paired with a tablet, Pixelmator Pro feels like the best digital paint product available on the Mac to date. The interface tends to hide its complexity, so if you don’t think Pro does something, make sure to check out its online help offerings. Odds are that the function or capability is indeed there. If you are looking for an alternative to Photoshop that’s also a great Mac design and image application in its own right, then Pixelmator Pro hits a home run.

Originally written for RedShark News.

©2017 Oliver Peters

Stocking Stuffers 2017

It’s holiday time once again. For many editors that means it’s time to gift themselves with some new tools and toys to speed their workflows or just make the coming year more fun! Here are some products to consider.

Just like the tiny house craze, many editors are opting for their laptops as their main editing tool. I’ve done it for work that I cut when I’m not freelancing in other shops, simply because my MacBook Pro is a better machine than my old (but still reliable) 2009 Mac Pro tower. One less machine to deal with, which simplifies life. But to really make it feel like a desktop tool, you need some accessories along with an external display. For me, that boils down to a dock, a stand, and an audio interface. There are several stands for laptops. I bought both the Twelve South BookArc and the Rain Design mStand: the BookArc for when I just want to tuck the closed MacBook Pro out of the way in the clamshell mode and the mStand for when I need to use the laptop’s screen as a second display. Another option some editors like is the Vertical Dock from Henge Docks, which not only holds the MacBook Pro, but also offers some cable management.

The next hardware add-on for me is a USB audio interface. This is useful for any type of computer and may be used with or without other interfaces from Blackmagic Design or AJA. The simplest of these is the Mackie Onyx Blackjack, which combines interface and output monitor mixing into one package. This means no extra small mixer is required. USB input and analog audio output direct to a pair of powered speakers. But if you prefer a separate small mixer and only want a USB interface for input/output, then the PreSonus Audiobox USB or the Focusrite Scarlett series is the way to go.

Another ‘must have’ with any modern system is a Thunderbolt dock in order to expand the native port connectivity of your computer. There are several on the market but it’s hard to go wrong with either the CalDigit Thunderbolt Station 2 or the OWC Thunderbolt 2 Dock. Make sure you double-check which version fits for your needs, depending on whether you have a Thunderbolt 2 or 3 connection and/or USB-C ports. I routinely use each of the CalDigit and OWC products. The choice simply depends on which one has the right combination of ports to fit your needs.

Drives are another issue. With a small system, you want small portable drives. While LaCie Rugged and G-Technology portable drives are popular choices, SSDs are the way to go when you need true, fast performance. A number of editors I’ve spoken to are partial to the Samsung Portable SSD T5 drives. These USB3.0-compatible drives aren’t the cheapest, but they are ultraportable and offer amazing read/write speeds. Another popular solution is to use raw (uncased) drives in a drive caddy/dock for archiving purposes. Since they are raw, you don’t pack for the extra packaging, power supply, and interface electronics with each, just to have it sit on the shelf. My favorite of these is the HGST Deckstar NAS series.

For many editors the software world is changing with free applications, subscription models, and online services. The most common use of the latter is for review-and-approval, along with posting demo clips and short films. Kollaborate.tv, Frame.io, Wipster.io, and Vimeo are the best known. There are plenty of options and even Vimeo Pro and Business plans offer a Frame/Wipster-style review-and-approval and collaboration service. Plus, there’s some transfer ability between these. For example, you can publish to a Vimeo account from your Frame account. Another expansion of the online world is in team workgroups. A popular solution is Slack, which is a workgroup-based messaging/communication service.

As more resources become available online, the benefits of large-scale computing horsepower are available to even single editors. One of the first of these new resources is cloud-based, speech-to-text transcription. A number of online services provide this functionality to any NLE. Products to check out include Scribeomatic (Coremelt), Transcriptive (Digital Anarchy), and Speedscriber (Digital Heaven). They each offer different pricing models and speech analysis engines. Some are still in beta, but one that’s already out is Speedscriber, which I’ve used and am quite happy with. Processing is fast and reasonably accurate, given a solid audio recording.

Naturally free tools make every user happy and the king of the hill is Blackmagic Design with DaVinci Resolve and Fusion. How can you go wrong with something this powerful and free with ongoing company product development? Even the paid versions with some more advanced features are low cost. However, at the very least the free version of Resolve should be in every editor’s toolkit, because it’s such a Swiss Army Knife application.

On the other hand, editors who have the need to learn Avid Media Composer, need look no further than the free Media Composer | First. Avid has tried ‘dumbed-down’ free editing apps before, but First is actually built off of the same code base as the full Media Composer software. Thus, skills translate and most of the core functions are available for you to use.

Many users are quite happy with the advantages of Adobe’s Creative Cloud software subscription model. Others prefer to own their software. If you work in video, then it’s easy to put together alternative software kits for editing, effects, audio, and encoding that don’t touch an Adobe product. Yet for most, the stumbling block is Photoshop – until now. Both Affinity Photo (Serif) and Pixelmator Pro are full-fledged graphic design and creation tools that rival Photoshop in features and quality. Each of these has its own strong points. Affinity Photo offers Mac and Windows versions, while Pixelmator Pro is Mac only, but taps more tightly into macOS functions.

If you work in the Final Cut Pro X world, several utilities are essential. These include SendToX and XtoCC from Intelligent Assistance, along with X2Pro Audio Convert from Marquis Broadcast. Marquis’ newest is Worx4 X – a media management tool. It takes your final sequence and creates a new FCPX library with consolidated (trimmed) media. No transcoding is involved, so the process is lighting fast. Although in some cases media is copied without being trimmed. This can reduce the media to be archived from TBs down to GBs. They also offer Worx4 Pro, which is designed for Premiere Pro CC users. This tool serves as a media tracking application, to let editors find all of the media used in a Premiere Pro project across multiple volumes.

Most editors love to indulge in plug-in packages. If you can only invest in a single, large plug-in package, then BorisFX’s Boris Continuum Complete 11 and/or their Sapphire 11 bundles are the way to go. These are industry-leading tools with wide host and platform support. Both feature mocha tracking integration and Continuum also includes the Primatte Studio chromakey technology.

If you want to go for a build-it-up-as-you-need-it approach – and you are strictly on the Mac – then FxFactory will be more to your liking. You can start with the free, basic platform or buy the Pro version, which includes FxFactory’s own plug-ins. Either way, FxFactory functions as a plug-in management tool. FxFactory’s numerous partner/developers provide their products through the FxFactory platform, which functions like an app store for plug-ins. You can pick and choose the plug-ins that you need when the time is right to purchase them. There are plenty of plug-ins to recommend, but I would start with any of the Crumplepop group, because they work well and provide specific useful functions. They also include the few audio plug-ins available via FxFactory. Another plug-in to check out is the Hawaiki Keyer 4. It installs into both the Apple and Adobe applications and far surpasses the built-in keying tools within these applications.

The Crumplepop FxFactory plug-ins now includes Koji Advance, which is a powerful film look tool. I like Koji a lot, but prefer FilmConvert from Rubber Monkey Software. To my eyes, it creates one of the more pleasing and accurate film emulations around and even adds a very good three-way color corrector. This opens as a floating window inside of FCPX, which is less obtrusive than some of the other color correction plug-ins for FCPX. It’s not just for film emulation – you can actually use it as the primary color corrector for an entire project.

I don’t want to forget audio plug-ins in this end-of-the-year roundup. Most editors don’t feel too comfortable with a ton of surgical audio filters, so let me stick to suggestions that are easy-to-use and very affordable. iZotope is a well-known audio developer and several of its products are perfect for video editors. These fall into repair, mixing, and mastering needs. These include the Nectar, Ozone, and RX bundles, along with the RX Loudness Control. The first three groups are designed to cover a wide range of needs and, like the BCC video plug-ins, are somewhat of an all-encompassing product offering. But if that’s a bit rich for the blood, then check out iZotope’s various Elements versions.

The iZotope RX Loudness Control is great for accurate loudness compliance, and best used with Avid or Adobe products. However, it is not real-time, because it uses analysis and adaptive processing. If you want something more straightforward and real-time, then check out the LUFS Meter from Klangfreund. It can be used for loudness control on individual tracks or the master output. It works with most of the NLEs and DAWs. A similar tool to this is Loudness Change from Videotoolshed.

Finally, let’s not forget the iOS world, which is increasingly becoming a viable production platform. For example, I’ve used my iPad in the last year to do location interview recordings. This is a market that audio powerhouse Apogee has also recognized. If you need a studio-quality hardware interface for an iPhone or iPad, then check out the Apogee ONE. In my case, I tapped the Apogee MetaRecorder iOS application for my iPad, which works with both Apogee products and the iPad’s built-in mic. It can be used in conjunction with FCPX workflows through the integration of metadata tagging for Keywords, Favorites, and Markers.

Have a great holiday season and happy editing in the coming year!

©2017 Oliver Peters

Avid Media Composer | First

They’ve teased us for two years, but now it’s finally out. Avid Technology has released its free nonlinear editing application, Media Composer | First. This is not dumbed-down, teaser software, but rather a partially-restricted version of the full-fledged Media Composer software and built upon the same code. With that comes an inherent level of complexity, which Avid has sought to minimize for new users; however, you really do want to go through the tutorials before diving in.

It’s important to understand who the target user is. Avid didn’t set out to simply add another free, professional editing tool to an increasingly crowded market. Media Composer | First is intended as a functional starter tool for users who want to get their feet wet in the Avid ecosystem, but then eventually convert to the full-fledged, paid software. That’s been successful for Avid with Pro Tools | First. To sweeten the pot, you’ll also get 350 sound effects from Pro Sound Effects and 50 royalty-free music tracks from Sound Ideas (both sets are also free).

Diving in

To get Media Composer | First, you must set up an Avid master account, which is free. Existing customers can also get First, but the software cannot be co-installed on a computer with the full version. For example, I installed Media Composer | First on my laptop, because I have the full Media Composer application on my desktop. You must sign into the account and stay signed in for Media Composer | First to lunch and run. I did get it to work if I signed in, but then disconnected the internet. There was a disconnection prompt, but nevertheless, the application worked, saved, and exported properly. It doesn’t seem mandatory to be constantly connected to Avid over the internet. All project data is stored locally, so this is not a cloud application.

The managing of the account and future updates are handled through Application Manager, an Avid desktop utility. It’s not my favorite, as at times it’s unreliable, but it does work most of the time. Opening the installer .dmg file will take a long time to verify. This seems to be a general Avid quirk, so be patient. When you first open the application, you may get a disk drive write permissions error message. On macOS you normally set drive permissions for “system”, “wheel”, and “everyone”. Typically I have the last two set to “read only”, which works for every other application, except Avid’s. Therefore, if you want to store Avid media on your internal system hard drive, then “everyone” must be changed to “read & write”.

The guided tour

The Avid designers have tried to make the Media Composer | First interface easy to navigate for new users – especially those coming from other NLEs, where media and projects are managed differently than in Media Composer. Right at the launch screen you have the option to learn through online tutorials. These will be helpful even for experienced users who might try to “out-think” the software. The interface includes a number of text overlays to help you get started. For example, there is no place to set project settings. The first clip added to the first sequence sets the project settings from there on. So, don’t drop a 25fps clip onto the timeline as your first clip, if you intend to work in a 23.98fps project. These prompts are right in front of you, so if you follow their guidance, you’ll be OK.

The same holds true for importing media through the Source Browser. With Media Composer you either transcode a file, which turns it into Avid-managed media placed into the Avid MediaFiles folder, or simply link to the file. If you select link, then the file stays in place and it’s up to the user not to move or delete that file on the hard drive. Although the original Avid paradigm was to only manage media in its MediaFiles hard drive folders, the current versions handle linking just fine and act largely the same as other NLEs.

Options, restrictions, and limitations

Since this is a free application, a number of features have been restricted. There are three biggies. Tracks are limited to four video tracks and eight audio tracks. This is actually quite workable, however, I think a higher audio track count would have been advisable, because of how Avid handles stereo, mono, and multichannel files. On a side note, if you use the “collapse” function to nest video clips, it’s possible to vertically stack more than just four clips on the timeline.

The application is locked to a maximum project size of 1920×1080 (Rec. 709 color space only) and up to 59.94fps. Source files can be larger (such as 4K) and you can still use them on the timeline, but you’ll have to pan-and-scan, crop, or scale them. I hope future versions will permit at least UltraHD (4K) project sizes.

Finally, Media Composer | First projects cannot be interchanged with full fledged Media Composer projects. This means that you cannot start in Media Composer | First and then migrate your project to the paid version. Hopefully this gets fixed in a future update. If not, it will negatively impact students and indie producers using the application for any real work.

As expected, there are no 3D stereoscopic tools, ScriptSync (automatic speech-to-text/sync-to-script), PhraseFind (phonetic search engine), or Symphony (advanced color correction) options. One that surprised me, though, was the removable of the superior Spectramatte keyer. You are left with the truly terrible RGB keyer for blue/green-screen work.

Nevertheless, there’s plenty of horsepower left. For example, FrameFlex to handle resizing and Timewarps for retiming clips, which is how 4K and off-speed frame rates are handled. Color correction (including scopes), multicam, IllusionFX, source setting color LUTs, Audiosuite, and Pro Tools-style audio track effects are also there. Transcoding allows for the use of a wide range of codecs, including ProRes on a Mac. 4K camera clips will be transcoded to 1080. However, exports are limited to Avid DNxHD and H.264 QuickTime files at up to 1920×1080. The only DNxHD export flavor is the 100Mbps variant (at 29.97, 80Mbps for 23.98), which is comparable to ProResLT. It’s good quality, but not at the highest mastering levels.

Conclusion

This is a really good first effect, no pun intended. As you might expect, it’s a little buggy for a first version. For example, I experienced a number of crashes while testing source LUTs. However, it was well-behaved during standard editing tasks. If Media Composer | First files can become compatible with the paid systems and the 1080 limit can be increased to UHD/4K, then Avid has a winner on its hands. Think of the film student who starts on First at home, but then finishes on the full version in the college’s computer lab. Or the indie producer/director who starts his or her own rough cut on First, but then takes it to an editor or facility to complete the process. These are ideal scenarios for First. I’ve cut tons of short and long form projects, including a few feature films, using a variety of NLEs. Nearly all of those could have been done using Media Composer | First. Yes, it’s free, but there’s enough power to get the job done and done well.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / Creative Planet Network

©2017 Oliver Peters