Minimalism versus Complexity in Post

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

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

What do we really need?

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does this apply to a post facility?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©2019 Oliver Peters

Advertisements

Are you ready for a custom PC?

Why would an editor, colorist, or animator purchase a workstation from a custom PC builder, instead of one of the brand name manufacturers? Puget Systems, a PC supplier in Washington state, loaned me a workstation to delve into this question. They pride themselves on assembling systems tailor-made for creative users. Not all component choices are equal, so Puget tests the same creative applications we use every day in order to optimize their systems. For instance, Premiere Pro benefits from more CPU cores, whereas with After Effects, faster core speeds are more important than the core count.

Puget Systems also offers a unique warranty. It’s one year on parts, but lifetime free labor. This means free tech and repair support for as long as you own the unit. Even better, it also includes free labor to install hardware upgrades at their facility at any point in the future – you only pay for parts and shipping.

Built for editing

The experience starts with a consultation, followed by progress reports, test results, and photos of your system during and after assembly. These include thermal scans showing your system under load. Puget’s phone advisers can recommend a system designed specifically for your needs, whether that’s CAD, gaming, After Effects, or editing. My target was Premiere Pro and Resolve with a bit of After Effects. I needed it to be capable of dealing with 4K media using native codecs (no transcodes or proxies). 

Puget’s configuration included an eight-core Intel i9 3.6GHz CPU, 64GB RAM, and an MSI GeForce RTX 2080 Ti Venus GPU (11GB). We put in two Samsung SSDs (a Samsung 860 Pro for OS/applications, plus a faster Samsung 970 Pro M.2 NVMe for cache) and a Western Digital Ultrastar 6TB SATA3 spinning drive for media. This PC has tons of connectivity with ports for video displays, Thunderbolt 3, USB-C, and USB 3. The rest was typical for any PC: sound card, ethernet, wifi, DVD-RW, etc. This unit without a display costs slightly over $5K USD, including shipping and a Windows 10 license. That price is in line with (or cheaper than) any other robust, high-performance workstation.

The three drives in this system deliver different speeds and are intended for different purposes. The fastest of these is the “D” drive, which is a blazingly fast NVMe drive that is mounted directly onto the motherboard. This one is intended for use with material requiring frequent and fast read/write cycles. So it’s ideal for Adobe’s cache files and previews. While you wouldn’t store the media for a large Premiere Pro project on it, it would be well-suited for complex After Effects jobs, which typically only deal with a smaller amount of media. While the 6TB HGST “E” drive dealt well with the 4K media for my test projects, in actual practice you would likely add more drives and build up an internal RAID, or connect to a fast external array or NAS.

If we follow Steve Jobs’ analogy that PCs are like trucks, then this is the Ford F-350 of workstations. The unit is a tad bigger and heavier than an older Mac Pro tower. It’s built into an all-metal Fractal Design case with sound dampening and efficient cooling, resulting in the quietest workstation I’ve ever used – even the few times when the fans revved up. There’s plenty of internal space for future expansion, such as additional hard drives, GPUs, i/o card, etc.

For anyone fretting about a shift from macOS to Windows, setting up this system couldn’t have been simpler. Puget installs a professional build of Windows 10 without all of the junk software most PC makers put there. After connecting my devices, I was up and running in less than an hour, including software installation for Adobe CC, Resolve, Chrome, MacDrive, etc. That’s a very ‘Apple-like’ experience and something you can’t touch if you built your own PC.

The proof is in the pudding

Professional users want hardware and software to fade away so they can fluidly concentrate on the creative process. I was working with 4K media and mixed codecs in Premiere Pro, After Effects, and Resolve. The Puget PC more than lived up to its reputation. It was quiet, media handling was smooth, and Premiere and Resolve timelines could play without hiccups. In short, you can stay in the zone without the system creating distractions.

I don’t work as often with RED camera raw files; however, I did load up original footage from an indie film onto the fastest SSD. This was 4K REDCODE media in a 4K timeline in Premiere Pro. Adobe gives you access to the raw settings, in addition to Premiere’s Lumetri color correction controls. The playback was smooth as silk at full timeline resolution. Even adding Lumetri creative LUTs, dissolves, and slow motion with optical flow processing did not impede real-time playback at full resolution. No dropped frames! Nvidia and RED Digital Camera have been working closely together lately, so if your future includes work with 6K/8K RED media, then a system like this requires serious consideration.

The second concern is rendering and exporting. The RTX 2080 Ti is an Nvidia card that offers CUDA processing, a proprietary Nvidia technology.  So, how fast is the system? There are many variables, of course, such as scaling, filters, color correction, and codecs. When I tested the export of a single 4K Alexa clip from a 1080p Premiere Pro timeline, the export times were nearly the same between this PC and an eight-core 2013 Mac Pro. But you can’t tell much from such a simple test.

To push Premiere Pro, I used a nine minute 1080p travelogue episode containing mostly 4K camera files. I compared export times for ProRes (new on Windows with Adobe CC apps) and Avid DNx between this PC and the Mac Pro (through Adobe Media Encoder). ProRes exports were faster than DNxHD and the PC exports were faster than on the Mac, although comparative times tended to be within a minute of each other. The picture was different when comparing H.264 exports using the Vimeo Full HD preset. In that test, the PC export was approximately 75% faster.

The biggest performance improvements were demonstrated in After Effects and Resolve. I used Puget Systems’ After Effects Benchmark, which includes a series of compositions that test effects, tracking, keys, caustics, 3D text, and more (based on Video Copilot’s tutorials). The Puget PC trounced the Mac Pro in this test. The PC scored a total of 969.5 points versus the Mac’s 535 out of a possible maximum score of 1,000. Resolve was even more dramatic with the graded nine-minute-long sequence sent from Premiere Pro. Export times bested the Mac Pro by more than 2.5x for DNxHD and 6x for H.264.

Aside from these benchmark tests, I also created a “witches brew” After Effects composition of my own. This one contains ten layers of 4K media in a one-minute-long 6K composition. The background layer was blown up and defocused, while all other layers were scaled down and enhanced with a lot of color and Cycore stylized effects. A 3D camera was added to create a group move for the layers. In addition, I was working from the slower drives and not the fast SSDs on either machine. Needless to say this one totally bogs any system down. The Mac Pro rendered a 1080 ProRes file in about 54 minutes, whereas the PC took 42 minutes. Not the same 2-to-1 advantage as in the benchmarks; however, that’s likely due to the fact that I heavily weighted the composition with the Cycore effects. These are not particularly efficient and probably introduce some bottlenecks in After Effects’ processing. Nevertheless, the Puget Systems PC still maintained a decided advantage.

Conclusion

Mac vs. PC comparisons are inevitable when discussing creative workstations. Ultimately it gets down to preference – the OS, the ecosystem, and hardware options. But if you want the ultimate selection of performance hardware and to preserve future expandability, then a custom-built PC is currently the best solution. For straight-forward editing, both platforms will generally serve you well, but there are times when a top-of-the-line PC simply leaves any Mac in the dust. If you need to push performance in After Effects or Resolve, then Windows-based solutions offer the edge today. Custom systems, like those from Puget Systems, are designed with our needs in mind. That’s something you don’t necessarily get from a mainline PC maker. This workstation is a future-proof, no-compromise system that makes the switch from Mac to PC an easy and graceful transition – and with power to space.

Originally written for RedShark News.

©2019 Oliver Peters

Five Decades of Edit Suite Evolution

I spent last Friday setting up two new Apple iMac Pros as editing workstations. When I started as an editor in the 1970s, it was the early days of computer-assisted video editing. Edit suites (or bays) were intended for either “offline” editing with simple hardware, where creative cutting was the goal – or they were “online”, designed for finishing and used the most expensive gear. Sometimes the online bay would do double-duty for both creative and final post.

The minimum investment for such a linear edit suite would include three 2” videotape recorders, a video switcher (vision mixer), edit controller, audio mixer, and a small camera for titles and artwork. Suites were designed with creature comforts, since clients would often spend days at a time supervising the edit session. Before smart phones and the internet, clients welcomed the chance to get out of the office and go to the edit. Outfitting one of these edit suites would start at several hundred thousand dollars.

At my current edit gig, the company runs nine Mac workstations within a footprint that would have only supported three edit suites of the past, including a centralized machine room. Clients rarely come to supervise an edit, so the layout is more akin to the open office plan of a design studio. Editing can be self-contained on a Mac or PC and editors work in a more collegial, collaborative environment. There’s one “hero” room for when clients do decide to drop in.

In these five decades, computer-assisted editing has gone through four phases:

Phase 1 – Offline and online edit suites, primarily based on linear videotape technology.

Phase 2 – Nonlinear editing took hold with the introduction of Avid, EMC, Media 100, and Lightworks. The resolution was too poor for finishing, but the systems were ideal for the creative process. VTR-based linear rooms still handled finishing.

Phase 3 – As the quality improved, nonlinear systems could deliver finished masters. But camera acquisition and delivery was still centered on videotape. Nonlinear systems still had to be able to output to tape, which required specialized i/o hardware.

Phase 4 (current) – Editing is completely based around the computer. Most general-purpose desktop and even laptop computers are capable of the whole gamut of post services without the need for specialized hardware. That has become optional. The full shift to Phase 4 came when file-based acquisition and delivery became the norm.

This transition brought about a sea change in cost, workflow, facility design, and talent needs. It has been driven by technology, but also a number of socioeconomic factors.

1. Technology always advances. Computers get more powerful at a lower cost point. Moore’s Law and all that. Although our demands increase – SD, HD, 4K, 8K, and beyond – computers, so far, have not been outpaced. I can edit 4K today with an investment of under $10K, which was impossible in 1980, even with an investment of $500K or more. This cost reduction also applies to shared storage solutions (NAS and SAN systems). They are cheaper, easier to install, and more reliable than ever. Even the smallest production company can now afford to design editing around the collaboration of several editors and workstations.

2. The death of videotape came with the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan that disabled the Fukushima nuclear plant. A byproduct of this natural disaster was that it damaged the Sony videotape manufacturing plant, putting supplies of HDCAM-SR stock on indefinite backorder. This pointed to the vulnerability of videotape and hastened the acceptance of file-based delivery for masters by key networks and distributors.

3. Interactions with clients and human beings in general has changed – thanks to smartphones, personal computers, and the internet. While both good and bad, the result is a shift in our communication with clients. Most of the time, edit session review and approval is handled over internet services. Post your cut. Get feedback. Make your changes and post again. Repeat. Along with a smaller hardware footprint than in the past, this is one of the prime reasons that room designs have changed. You don’t need a big, comfortable edit suite designed for clients, if they aren’t going to come. A smaller room will do as long as your editors are happy and productive.

Such a transition isn’t new. It’s been mirrored in the worlds of publishing, graphic design, and recording studios. Nevertheless, it is interesting to look back at how far things have come. Naturally, some will view this evolution as a threat and others as filled with opportunities And, of course, where it goes from here is anyone’s guess.

All I know is that setting up two edit systems in a day would have been inconceivable in 1975!

Originally written for RedShark News

The hear a bit more about the changes and evolution of facilities, check out the Dec. 13th edition of the Digital Production Buzz. Click this link.

©2018 Oliver Peters

NLE as Post Production Hub

df2316_main_sm

As 2009 closed, I wrote a post about Final Cut Studio as the center of a boutique post production workflow. A lot has changed since then, but that approach is still valid and a number of companies can fill those shoes. In each case, rather than be the complete, self-contained tool, the editing application becomes the hub of the operation. Other applications surround it and the workflow tends to go from NLE to support tool and back for delivery. Here are a few solutions.

Adobe Premiere Pro CC

df2316_prproNo current editing package comes as close to the role of the old Final Cut Studio as does Adobe’s Creative Cloud. You get nearly all of the creative tools under a single subscription and facilities with a team account can equip every room with the full complement of applications. When designed correctly, workflows in any room can shift from edit to effects to sound to color correction – according to the load. In a shared storage operation, projects can stay in a single bay for everything or shift from bay to bay based on operator speciality and talent.

While there are many tools in the Creative Cloud kit, the primary editor-specific applications are Premiere Pro CC, After Effects CC and Audition CC. It goes without saying that for most, Photoshop CC and Adobe Media Encoder are also givens. On the other hand, I don’t know too many folks using Prelude CC, so I can’t say what the future for this tool will be. Especially since the next version of Premiere Pro includes built-in proxy transcoding. Also, as more of SpeedGrade CC’s color correction tools make it into Premiere Pro, it’s clear to see that SpeedGrade itself is getting very little love. The low-cost market for outboard color correction software has largely been lost to DaVinci Resolve (free). For now, SpeedGrade is really “dead man walking”. I’d be surprised if it’s still around by mid-2017. That might also be the case for Prelude.

Many editors I know that are heavy into graphics and visual effects do most of that work in After Effects. With CC and Dynamic Link, there’s a natural connection between the Premiere Pro timeline and After Effects. A similar tie can exist between Premiere Pro and Audition. I find the latter to be a superb audio post application and, from my experience, provides the best transfer of a Premiere Pro timeline into any audio application. This connection is being further enhanced by the updates coming from Adobe this year.

Rounding out the package is Photoshop CC, of course. While most editors are not big Photoshop artists, it’s worth noting that this application also enables animated motion graphics. For example, if you want to create an animated lower third banner, it can be done completely inside of Photoshop without ever needing to step into After Effects. Drop the file onto a Premiere Pro timeline and it’s complete with animation and proper transparency values. Update the text in Photoshop and hit “save” – voila the graphic is instantly updated within Premiere Pro.

Given the breadth and quality of tools in the Creative Cloud kit, it’s possible to stay entirely within these options for all of a facility’s post needs. Of course, roundtrips to Resolve, Baselight, ProTools, etc. are still possible, but not required. Nevertheless, in this scenario I typically see everything starting and ending in Premiere Pro (with exports via AME), making the Adobe solution my first vote for the modern hub concept.

Apple Final Cut Pro X

df2316_fcpxApple walked away from the market for an all-inclusive studio package. Instead, it opted to offer more self-contained solutions that don’t have the same interoperability as before, nor that of the comparable Adobe solutions. To build up a similar toolkit, you would need Final Cut Pro X, Motion, Compressor and Logic Pro X. An individual editor/owner would purchase these once and install these on as many machines as he or she owned. A business would have to buy each application for each separate machine. So a boutique facility would need a full set for each room or they would have to build rooms by specialty – edit, audio, graphics, etc.

Even with this combination, there are missing links when going from one application to another. These gaps have to be plugged by the various third-party productivity solutions, such as Clip Exporter, XtoCC, 7toX, Xsend Motion, X2Pro, EDL-X and others. These provide better conduits between Apple applications than Apple itself provides. For example, only through Automatic Duck Xsend Motion can you get an FCPX project (timeline) into Motion. Marquis Broadcast’s X2Pro Audio Convert provides a better path into Logic than the native route.

If you want the sort of color correction power available in Premiere Pro’s Lumetri Color panel, you’ll need more advanced color correction plug-ins, like Hawaiki Color or Color Finale. Since Apple doesn’t produce an equivalent to Photoshop, look to Pixelmator or Affinity Photo for a viable substitute. Although powerful, you still won’t get quite the same level of interoperability as between Photoshop and Premiere Pro.

Naturally, if your desire is to use non-Apple solutions for graphics and color correction, then similar rules apply as with Premiere Pro. For instance, roundtripping to Resolve for color correction is pretty solid using the FCPXML import/export function within Resolve. Prefer to use After Effects for your motion graphics instead of Motion? Then Automatic Duck Ximport AE on the After Effects side has your back.

Most of the tools are there for those users wishing to stay in an Apple-centric world, provided you add a lot of glue to patch over the missing elements. Since many of the plug-ins for FCPX (Motion templates) are superior to a lot of what’s out there, I do think that an FCPX-centric shop will likely choose to start and end in X (possibly with a Compressor export). Even when Resolve is used for color correction, I suspect the final touches will happen inside of Final Cut. It’s more of the Lego approach to the toolkit than the Adobe solution, yet I still see it functioning in much the same way.

Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve

df2316_resolveIt’s hard to say what Blackmagic’s end goal is with Resolve. Clearly the world of color correction is changing. Every NLE developer is integrating quality color correction modules right inside of their editing application. So it seems only natural that Blackmagic is making Resolve into an all-in-one tool for no other reason than self-preservation. And by golly, they are doing a darn good job of it! Each version is better than the last. If you want a highly functional editor with world-class color correction tools for free, look no further than Resolve. Ingest, transcoded and/or native media editing, color correction, mastering and delivery – all there in Resolve.

There are two weak links – graphics and audio. On the latter front, the internal audio tools are good enough for many editors. However, Blackmagic realizes that specialty audio post is still the domain of the sound engineering world, which is made up predominantly of Avid Pro Tools shops. To make this easy, Resolve has built-in audio export functions to send the timeline to Pro Tools via AAF. There’s no roundtrip back, but you’d typically get composite mixed tracks back from the engineer to lay into the timeline.

To build on the momentum it started, Blackmagic Design acquired the assets of EyeOn’s Fusion software, which gives then a node-based compositor, suitable for visual effects and some motion graphics. This requires a different mindset than After Effects with Premiere Pro or Motion with Final Cut Pro X (when using Xsend Motion). You aren’t going to send a full sequence from Resolve to Fusion. Instead, the Connect plug-in links a single shot to Fusion, where it can be effected through series of nodes. The Connect plug-in provides a similar “conduit” function to that of Adobe’s Dynamic Link between Premiere Pro and After Effects, except that the return is a rendered clip instead of a live project file. To take advantage of this interoperability between Resolve and Fusion, you need the paid versions.

Just as in Apple’s case, there really is no Blackmagic-owned substitute for Photoshop or an equivalent application. You’ll just have to buy what matches your need. While it’s quite possible to build a shop around Resolve and Fusion (plus maybe Pro Tools and Photoshop), it’s more likely that Resolve’s integrated approach will appeal mainly to those folks looking for free tools. I don’t see too many advanced pros doing their creative cutting on Resolve (at least not yet). However, that being said, it’s pretty close, so I don’t want to slight the capabilities.

Where I see it shine is as a finishing or “online” NLE. Let’s say you perform the creative or “offline” edit in Premiere Pro, FCPX or Media Composer. This could even be three editors working on separate segments of a larger show – each on a different NLE. Each’s sequence goes to Resolve, where the timelines are imported, combined and relinked to the high-res media. The audio has gone via a parallel path to a Pro Tools mixer and graphics come in as individual clips, shots or files. Then all is combined inside Resolve, color corrected and delivered straight from Resolve. For many shops, that scenario is starting to look like the best of all worlds.

I tend to see Resolve as less of a hub than either Premiere Pro or Final Cut Pro X. Instead, I think it may take several possible positions: a) color correction and transcoding at the front end, b) color correction in the middle – i.e. the standard roundtrip, and/or c) the new “online editor” for final assembly, color correction, mastering and delivery.

Avid Media Composer

df2316_avidmcThis brings me to Avid Media Composer, the least integrated of the bunch. You can certainly build an operation based on Media Composer as the hub – as so many shops have. But there simply isn’t the silky smooth interoperability among tools like there is with Adobe or the dearly departed Final Cut Pro “classic”. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. You can add advanced color correction through the Symphony option, plus Avid Pro Tools in your mixing rooms. In an Avid-centric facility, rooms will definitely be task-oriented, rather than provide the ease of switching functions in the same suite based on load, as you can with Creative Cloud.

The best path right now is Media Composer to Pro Tools. Unfortunately it ends there. Like Blackmagic, Avid only offers two hero applications in the post space – Media Composer/Symphony and Pro Tools. They have graphics products, but those are designed and configured for news on-air operations. This means that effects and graphics are typically handled through After Effects, Boris RED or Fusion.

Boris RED runs as an integrated tool, which augments the Media Composer timeline. However, RED uses its own user interface. That operation is relatively seamless, since any “roundtrip” happens invisibly within Media Composer. Fusion can be integrated using the Connect plug-in, just like between Fusion and Resolve. Automatic Duck’s AAF import functions have been integrated directly into After Effects by Adobe. It’s easy to send a Media Composer timeline into After Effects as a one-way trip. In fact, that’s where this all started in the first place. Finally, there’s also a direct connection with Baselight Editions for Avid, if you add that as a “plug-in” within Media Composer. As with Boris RED, clips open up in the Baselight interface, which has now been enhanced with a smoother shot-to-shot workflow inside of Media Composer.

While a lot of shops still use Media Composer as the hub, this seems like a very old-school approach. Many editors still love this NLE for its creative editing prowess, but in today’s mixed-format, mixed-codec, file-based post world, Avid has struggled to keep Media Composer competitive with the other options. There’s certainly no reason Media Composer can’t be the center – with audio in Pro Tools, color correction in Resolve, and effects in After Effects. However, most newer editors simply don’t view it the same way as they do with Adobe or even Apple. Generally, it seems the best Avid path is to “offline” edit in Media Composer and then move to other tools for everything else.

So that’s post in 2016. Four good options with pros and cons to each. Sorry to slight the Lightworks, Vegas Pro, Smoke/Flame and Edius crowds, but I just don’t encounter them too often in my neck of the woods. In any case, there are plenty of options, even starting at free, which makes the editing world pretty exciting right now.

©2016 Oliver Peters

HP Z1 G2 Workstation

df_hpz1g2_heroHewlett-Packard is known for developing workstations that set a reliability and performance standard, characterized by the Z-series of workstation towers. HP has sought to extend what they call the “Z experience” to other designs, like mobile and all-in-one computers. The latest of these is the HP Z1 G2 Workstation – the second generation model of the Z1 series.

Most readers will associate the all-in-one concept with an Apple iMac. Like the iMac, the Z1 G2 is a self-contained unit housing all electronics and the display in one chassis. Whereas the top-end iMacs are targeted at advanced consumers and pros with less demanding computing needs, the HP Z1 G2 is strictly for the serious user who requires advanced horsepower. The iMac is a sealed unit, which cannot be upgraded by the user (except for RAM), and is largely configured with laptop-grade parts. In contrast, the HP Z1 G2 is a Rolls-Royce. The build is very solid and it exudes a sense of performance. The user has the option to configure their Z1 G2 from a wide range of components. The display lifts like a car hood for easy accept to the “engine”, making user upgrades nearly as easy as on a tower.

Configuration options

df_hpz1g2_hero_touchThe HP Z1 G2 offers processor choices that include Intel Core i3, Core i5 and three Xeon models. There are a variety of storage and graphics card choices and it supports up to 32GB of RAM. You may also choose between a Touch and non-Touch display. The Touch screen adds a glass overlay and offers finger or stylus interaction with the screen. Non-touch screens are a matte finish, while Touch screens are glossy. You have a choice of operating systems, including Windows 7, Windows 8 and Linux distributions.

I was able to specify the built-to-order configuration of the Z1 G2 for my review. This included a Xeon E3 (3.6GHz) quad-core, 16GB of RAM, optical drive and the NVIDIA K4100M graphics card. For storage, I selected one 256GB mSATA boot drive (“flash” storage), plus two 512GB SSDs that were set-up in a RAID-0 configuration. I also ordered the Touch option with 64-bit Windows 8.1 Pro. Z1 G2 models start at $1,999; however, as configured, this system would retail at over $6,100, including a 20% eCoupon promo discount.

An important, new feature is support for Thunderbolt 2 with an optional module. HP is one of the first PC manufacturers to support Thunderbolt. I didn’t order that, but reps from AJA, Avid and Blackmagic Design all confirmed to me that their Thunderbolt units should work fine with this workstation, as long as you install their Windows device drivers. One of these would be required for any external broadcast or grading monitor.

In addition to the custom options, the Z1 G2 includes wireless support, four USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports, Gigabit Ethernet, a DisplayPort connector for an secondary computer monitor, S/PDIF, analog audio connectors, a webcam and a media card reader.

Arrival and set-up

df_hpz1g2_openThe HP Z1 G2 ships as a single, 57 pound package, complete with a wireless mouse and keyboard. The display/electronics chassis is attached to an adjustable arm that connects to the base. This allows the system to be tilted at any angle, as well as completely flat for shipping and access to the electronics. It locks into place when it’s flat (as in shipping), so you have to push down lightly on the display in order to unlock the latch button.

The display features a 27” (diagonal) screen, but the chassis is actually 31” corner-to-corner. Because the stand has to support the unit and counter-balance the weight at various angles, it sticks out about 12” behind the back of the chassis. Some connectors (including the power cord) are at the bottom, center of the back of the chassis. Others are along the sides. The adjustable arm allows any angle from vertical to horizontal, so it would be feasible to operate in a standing or high-chair position looking down at the monitor – a bit like a drafting table. I liked the fact that the arm lets you drop the display completely down to the desk surface, which put the bottom of the screen lower than my stationary 20” Apple Cinemas.

First impressions

df_hpz1g2_win81I picked the Touch option in order to test the concept, but quite frankly I decided it wasn’t for me. In order to control items by touch, you have to be a bit closer than the full length of your arm. As a glasses-wearer, this distance is uncomfortable for me, as I prefer to be a little farther away from a screen of this size. Although the touch precision is good, it’s not as precise as you’d get with a mouse or pen and tablet – even if using an iPad stylus. Only menu and navigation operations, but no drawing tools, worked in Photoshop – an application that seems natural for Touch. While I found the Touch option not to be that interesting to me, I did like the screen that comes with it. It’s glossy, which gives you nice density to your images, but not so reflective as to be annoying in a room with ambient lighting.

The second curiosity item for me was Windows 8.1. The Microsoft “metro” look has been maligned and many pros opt for Windows 7 instead. I actually found the operating system to function well and the “flat” design philosophy much like what Apple is doing with Mac OS X and iOS. The tiled Start screen that highlights this release can easily be avoided when you set-up your preferences. If you prefer to pin application shortcuts to the Windows task bar or on the Desktop, that’s easily done. Once you are in an application like Premiere Pro or Media Composer, the OS differences tend to disappear anyway.

df_hpz1g2_bmdtestSince I had configured this unit with an mSATA boot/applications drive and RAID-0 SSDs for media, the launch and operation of any application was very fast. Naturally the difference from a cold start on the Z1 G2, as compared to my 2009 Mac Pro with standard 7200RPM drives, was night and day. With most actual operations, the differences in application responsiveness were less dramatic.

One area that I think needs improvement is screen calibration. The display is not a DreamColor display, but color accuracy seems quite good and it’s very crisp at 2560 x 1440 pixels. Unfortunately, both the HP and NVIDIA calibration applications were weak, using consumer level nomenclature for settings. For instance, I found no way to accurately set a 6500-degree color temperature or a 2.2 gamma level, based on how the sliders were labelled. Some of the NVIDIA software controls didn’t appear to work at all.

Performance stress testing

I loaded up the Z1 G2 with a potpourri of media and applications, including Adobe CC 2014 (Photoshop, Premiere Pro, After Effects, SpeedGrade), Avid Media Composer 8, DaVinci Resolve 11 Lite (beta) and Sony Vegas Pro 13. Media included Sony XAVC 4K, Avid DNxHD175X, Apple ProRes 4444, REDCODE raw from an EPIC Dragon camera and more. This allowed me to make some direct comparisons with the same applications and media available on my 2009 eight-core Mac Pro. Its configuration included dual Xeon quad-core processors (2.26GHz), 28GB RAM, an ATI 5870 GPU card and a RAID-0 stripe of two internal 7200RPM spinning hard drives. No I/O devices were installed on either computer. While these two systems aren’t exactly “apples-to-apples”, it does provide a logical benchmark for the type of machine a new Z1 G2 customer might be upgrading from.

df_hpz1g2_4kIn typical, side-by-side testing with edited, single-layer timelines, most applications on both machines performed in a similar fashion, even with 4K media. It’s when I started layering sequences and comparing performance and render times that the differences became obvious.

My first test compared Premiere Pro CC 2014 with a 7-layer, 4K timeline. The V1 track was a full-screen, base layer of Sony XAVC. On top of that I layered six tracks of picture-in-picture (PIP) clips consisting of RED Dragon raw footage at various resolutions up to 5K. Some clips were recorded with in-camera slomo. I applied color correction, scaling/positioning and a drop shadow. The 24p timeline was one minute long and was exported as a 4K .mp4 file. The HP handled this task at just under 11 minutes, compared with almost two hours for the Mac Pro.

My second Premiere Pro test was a little more “real world” – a 48-second sequence of ARRI Alexa 1080p ProRes 4444 log-C clips. These were round-tripped through SpeedGrade to add a Rec 709 LUT, a primary grade and two vignettes to blur and darken the outer edge of the clips. This sequence was exported as a 720/24p .mp4 file. The Z1 G2 tackled this in about 14 minutes compared with 37 minutes for the Mac Pro.

df_hpz1g2_appsPremiere Pro CC 2014 uses GPU acceleration and the superior performance of the NVIDIA K4100M card in the HP versus the ATI 5870 in the Mac Pro is likely the reason for this drastic difference. The render times were closer in After Effects, which makes less use of the GPU for effects processing. My 6-layer After Effects stress test was an 8-second composition consisting of six layers of 1080p ProRes clips from the Blackmagic Cinema Camera. I applied various Cycore and color correction effects and then moved them in 3D space with motion blur enabled. These were rendered out using the QuickTime Animation codec. Times for the Z1 G2 and Mac Pro were 6.5 minutes versus 8.5 minutes respectively.

My last test for the HP Z1 G2 involved Avid Media Composer. My 10-layer test sequence included nine PIP video tracks (using the 3D warp effect) over a full-screen background layer on V1. All media was Avid DNxHD175X (1080p, 10-bit, 23.976fps). No frames were dropped in the medium display quality, but in full quality frames started to drop at V6. When I added a drop shadow to the PIP clips, frames were dropped starting at V4 for full quality and V9 for medium quality.

Conclusion

The HP Z1 G2 is an outstanding workstation. Like any alternative form factor, you have to weigh the options of legacy support for older storage systems and PCIe cards. Thunderbolt addresses many of those concerns as an increasing number of adapters and expansion units hits the market. Those interested in shifting from Mac to Windows – and looking for the best in what the PC side has to offer – won’t go wrong with HP products. The company also maintains close ties to Avid and other software vendors, to make sure the engineering of their workstations matches the future needs of the software.

Whether an all-in-one is right for you comes down to individual needs and preferences. I was very happy with the overall ease of installation, operation and performance of the Z1 G2. By adding MacDrive, QuickTime and ProRes software and codecs, I could easily move files between the Z1 and my Mac. The screen is gorgeous, it’s very quiet and the heat output feels less than from my Mac tower. In these various tests, I never heard any fans kick into high. Whether you are upgrading from an older PC or switching platforms, the HP Z1 G2 is definitely worth considering.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2014 Oliver Peters

More Life for your Mac Pro

df_life_macproI work a lot with a local college’s film production technology program as an advisor, editing instructor and occasionally as an editor on some of their professional productions. It’s a unique program designed to teach hands-on, below-the-line filmmaking skills. The gear has to be current and competitive, because they frequently partner with outside producers to turn out actual (not student) products with a combination of professional and student crews. The department has five Mac Pros that are used for editing, which I’ve recently upgraded to current standards, as they get ready for a new incoming class. The process has given me some thoughts about how to get more life out of your aging Apple Mac Pro towers, which I’ll share here.

To upgrade or not

Most Apple fans drool at the new Mac Pro “tube” computers, but for many, such a purchase simply isn’t viable. Maybe it’s the cost or the need for existing peripherals or other concerns, but many editors are still opting to get as much life as possible out of their existing Mac Pro towers.

In the case of the department, four of the machines are fast 2010 quad-cores and the fifth is a late 2008 eight-core. As long as your machine is an Intel of late 2008 or newer vintage, then generally it’s upgradeable to the most current software. Early 2008 and older is really pushing it. Anything before 2009 probably shouldn’t be used as a primary workhorse system. At 2009, you are on the cusp of whether it’s worth upgrading or not. 2010 and newer would be definitely solid enough to get a few more productive years out of the machine.

The four 2010 Mac Pros are installed in rooms designated as cutting rooms. The 2008 Mac was actually set aside and largely unused, so it had the oldest configuration and software. I decided it needed an upgrade, too, although mainly as an overflow unit. This incoming class is larger than normal, so I felt that having a fifth machine might be useful, since it still could be upgraded.

Software

All five machines have largely been given the same complement of software, which means Mavericks (10.9.4) and various editing tools. The first trick is getting the OS updated, since the oldest machines were running on versions that cannot be updated via the Mac App Store. Secondly, this kind of update really works best when you do a clean install. To get the Mavericks installer, you have to download it to a machine that can access the App Store. Once you’ve done the download, but BEFORE you actually start the installation, quit out of the installer. This leaves you with the Install Mavericks application in your applications folder. This is a 4GB installer file that you can now copy to other drives.

In doing the updates, I found it best to move drives around in the drive bays, putting a blank drive in bay 1 and moving the existing boot drive to bay 2. Format the bay 1 drive and copy the Mavericks installer to it. Run the installer, but select the correct target drive, which should be your new, empty bay 1 drive and NOT the current boot drive that’s running. Once the installation is complete, set up a new user account and migrate your applications from the old boot drive to the new boot drive. I do this without the rest (no documents or preferences). Since these systems didn’t have purchased third-party plug-ins, there weren’t any authorization issues after the migration. My reason for migrating the existing apps was that some of the software, like volume-licensed versions of Microsoft Office and Apple Final Cut Studio were there and I didn’t want to track down the installers again from IT. Naturally before doing this I had already uninstalled junk, like old trial versions or other software a student might have installed in the past. Any needed documents had already been separately backed up.

Once I’m running 10.9.4 on the new boot drive, I access the App Store, sign in with the proper ID and install all the App Store purchases. Since the school has a new volume license for Adobe Creative Cloud, I also have an installer from IT to cover the Adobe apps. Once the software dance is done, my complement includes:

Apple Final Cut Pro Studio “legacy” (FCP 7, DVD Studio Pro, Cinema Tools, Soundtrack Pro, Compressor, Motion, Color)

Apple Final Cut Pro X  “new” applications and utilities (FCP X, Motion, Compressor, Xto7, 7toX, Sync-N-Link X, EDL-X, X2Pro)

Adobe Creative Cloud 2014 (Prelude, Premiere Pro, SpeedGrade, Adobe Media Encoder, Illustrator, Photoshop, After Effects, Audition)

Avid Media Composer and Sorenson Squeeze (2 machines only)

Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve 11

Miscellaneous applications (Titanium Toast, Handbrake, MPEG Streamclip, Pages, Numbers, Keynote, Word, Excel, Redcine-X Pro)

Internal hard drives

All Mac Pro towers support four internal drives. Last year I had upgraded two of these machines with 500GB Crucial SSDs as their boot drive. While these are nice and fast, I opted to stick with spinning drives for everything else. The performance demand on these systems is not such that there’s really a major advantage over a good mechanical drive. For the most part, all machines now have four internal 1TB Western Digital Black 7200 RPM drives. The exceptions are the two machines with 500GB SSD boot drives and the 2008 Mac, which has two 500GB drives that it came supplied with.

After rearranging the drives, the configuration is: bay 1 – boot drive, bay 2 – “Media A”, bay 3 – “Media B” and bay 4 – Time Machine back-up. The Media A and B drives are used for project files, short term media storage and stock sound effects and music. When these systems were first purchased, I had configured the three drives in the 2, 3 and 4 slots as a single 3TB volume by RAIDing them as a RAID-0 software stripe. This was used as a common drive for media on each of the computers. However, over this last year, one of the machines appeared to have an underperforming drive within the stripe, which was causing all sorts of media problems on this machine. Since this posed the risk of potentially losing 3TB worth of media in the future on any of the Macs, I decided to rethink the approach and split all the drives back to single volumes. I replaced the underperforming drive and changed all the machines to this four volume configuration, without any internal stripes.

RAM and video cards

The 2010 machines originally came with ATI 5870 video cards and the 2008 an older NVIDIA card. In the course of the past year, one of the 5870 cards died and was replaced with a Sapphire 7950. In revitalizing the 2008 Mac, I decided to put one of the other 5870s into it and then replace it in the 2010 machine with another Sapphire. While the NVIDIA GTX 680 card is also a highly-regarded option, I decided to stick with the ATI/AMD card family for consistency throughout the units. One unit also includes a RED Rocket card for accelerated transcoding of RED .r3d files.

The 2010 machines have all been bumped up to 32GB of RAM (Crucial or Other Word Computing). The 2008 uses an earlier vintage of RAM and originally only had 2GB installed. The App Store won’t even let you download FCP X with 2GB. It’s been bumped up the 16GB, which will be more than enough for an overflow unit.

Of these cutting rooms, only one is designed as “higher end” and that’s where most of the professional projects are cut, when the department is directly involved in post. It includes Panasonic HD plasma and Sony SD CRT monitors that are fed by an AJA KONA LHi card. This room was originally configured as an Avid Xpress Meridien-based room back in the SD days, so there are also Digibeta, DVCAM and DAT decks. These still work fine, but are largely unused, as most of the workflow now is file-based (usually RED or Canon).

In order to run Resolve on any external monitor, you need a Blackmagic Design Decklink card. I had temporarily installed a loaner in place of the KONA, but it died, so the KONA went back in. Unfortunately with the KONA and FCP X, I cannot see video on both the Panasonic and Sony at the same time with 1080p/23.98 projects. That’s because of the limitations of what the Panasonic will accept over HDMI, coupled with the secondary processing options of the KONA. The HDMI signal wants P and not PsF and this results in the conflict. In the future, we’ll probably revisit the Decklink card issue, budget permitting, possibly moving the KONA to another bay.

All four 2010 units are equipped with two 27” Apple Cinema Displays, so the rooms without external monitoring simply use one of the screens to display a large viewer in most of the software. This is more than adequate in a small cutting room. The fifth 2008 Mac has dual 20” ACDs. Although my personal preference is to work with something smaller that dual 27” screens – as the lateral distance is too great – a lot of the modern software feels very crowded on smaller screens, such as the 20” ACDs. This is especially true of Resolve 11, which feels best with two 27” screens. Personally I would have opted for dual 23” or 24” HPs or Dells, but these systems were all purchased this way and there’s no real reason to change.

External storage

Storage on these units has always been local, so in addition to the internal drives, they are also equipped with external storage. Typically users are encouraged to supply their own external drives for short edits, but storage is made available for extended projects. The main room is equipped with a large MAXX Digital array connected via an ATTO card. All four 2010 rooms each gained a LaCie 4Big 12TB array last year. These were connected on one of the FireWire 800 ports and initially configured as RAID-1 (mirror), so only half the capacity was available.

This year I reconfigured/reformatted them as RAID-5, which nets a bit over 8TB of actual capacity. To increase the data throughput, I also added CalDigit FASTA-6GU3 cards to each. This is a PCIe combo host adapter card that provides two USB 3.0 and two SATA ports. By connecting the LaCie to each of the Macs via USB 3.0, it improves the read/write speeds compared to FireWire 800. While it’s not as fast Thunderbolt or even the MAXX array, the LaCies on USB 3.0 easily handle ProRes 1080p files and even limited use of native RED files within projects.

Other

A few other enhancements were made to round out the rooms as cutting bays. First audio. The main room uses the KONA’s analog audio outputs routed through a small Mackie mixer to supply volume to the speakers. To provide similar capabilities in the other rooms, I added a PreSonus AudioBox USB audio interface and a small Mackie mixer to each. The speakers are a mix of Behringer Truth, KRK Rokit 5 and Rokit 6 powered speaker pairs, mounted on speaker pedestals behind the Apple Cinema Displays. Signal flow is from the computer to the AudioBox via USB (or KONA in one room), the channel 1 and 2 analog outputs from the AudioBox (or KONA) into the Mackie and then the main mixer outputs to the left and right speakers. In this way, the master fader volume on the mixer is essentially the volume control for the system. This is used mainly for monitoring, but this combination does allow the connection of a microphone for input back into the Mac for scratch recordings. Of course, having a small mixer also lets you plug in another device just to preview audio.

The fifth Mac Pro isn’t installed in a room that’s designated as a cutting room, so it simply got the repurposed Roland powered near field speakers from an older Avid system. These were connected directly to the computer output.

Last, but not least, it’s the little things. When I started this upgrade round, one of the machines was considered a basket case, because it froze a lot and, therefore, was generally not used. That turned out to simply be a bad Apple Magic Mouse. The mouse would mess up, leaving the cursor frozen. Users assumed the Mac had frozen up, when in fact, it was fine. To fix this and any other potential future mouse issues, I dumped all the Apple Bluetooth mice and replaced them with Logitech wireless mice. Much better feel and the problem was solved!

©2014 Oliver Peters

Apple’s New Mac Pro

df_mp2013_4_smThe run of the brushed aluminum tower design that highlighted Apple’s PowerMac G5 and Intel Mac Pros ended with the introduction of a radical replacement in late 2013. No matter what the nickname – “the cylinder”, “the tube” or whatever – Apple’s new 2013 Mac Pro is a tour de force of industrial design. Few products have had such pent up demand. The long lead times for custom machines originally ran months, but by now, with accelerated production, has been reduced to 24 hours. Nevertheless, if you are happy with a stock configuration, then it’s possible to walk out with a new unit on the same day at some of the Apple Store or reseller retail locations.

Design

The 2013 Mac Pro features a cylindrical design. It’s about ten inches tall, six-and-a-half inches in diameter and, thanks to a very dense component construction, weighs about eleven pounds. The outer shell – it’s actually a sleeve that can be unlocked and lifted off – uses a dark (not black) reflective coating. Internally, the circuits are mounted onto a triangle-shaped core. There’s a central vent system that draws air in through the bottom and out through the top, much like a chimney. You can still mount the Mac Pro sideways without issue, as long as the vents are not blocked. This design keeps the unit quiet and cool most of the time. During my tests, the fan noise was quieter than my tower (generally a pretty quiet unit) and the fans never kicked into high.

Despite the small size, all components are workstation class and not mobile or desktop products, as used in the Apple laptops or iMacs. It employs the fastest memory and storage of any Mac and is designed to pick up where the top-of-the-line iMac leaves off. The processors are Intel Xeon instead of Core i5 or Core i7 CPUs and graphics cards are AMD FirePro GPUs. This Xeon model is a multicore, single CPU chip. Four processor options are offered (4, 6, 8 and 12-core), ranging in speed from 3.7GHz (4-core) to 2.7GHz (12-core). RAM can be maxed out to a full 64GB. It is the only component of the Mac Pro where a user-installed, third-party upgrade is an easy option.

The Mac Pro is optimized for dual graphics processors with three GPU choices: D300 (2GB VRAM each), D500 (3GB VRAM each) or D700 (6GB VRAM each) GPUs. Internal storage is PCIe-based flash memory in 256GB, 512GB or 1TB configurations. These are not solid state drives (SSDs), but rather flash storage like that used in the iPads. Storage is connected directly to the PCIe bus of the Mac Pro for the fastest possible data i/o. The stock models start at $2,999 (4-core) and $3,999 (6-core).

Apple shipped me a reviewer’s unit,  configured in a way that they feel is the “sweet spot” for high-end video. My Mac Pro was the 8-core model, with 32GB of RAM, dual D700 GPUs and 512GB of storage. This configuration with a keyboard, mouse and AppleCare extended warranty would retail at $7,166.

Connectivity

df_mp2013_5_smAll connectors are on the back – four USB 3.0, six Thunderbolt 2, two Gigabit Ethernet and one HDMI 1.4. There is also wireless, Bluetooth, headset and speaker support. The six Thunderbolt 2 ports are split out from three internal Thunderbolt 2 buses, with the bottom bus also taking care of the HDMI port.

You can have multiple Thunderbolt monitors connected, as well as a 4K display via the HDMI spigot, however you will want to separate these onto the different buses. For example, you wouldn’t be able to support two 27” Apple displays and a 4K HDMI-connected monitor all on one single Thunderbolt bus. However, you can support up to six non-4K displays if you distribute the load across all of the connections. Since the plug for Thunderbolt is the same as Mini Display Port, you can connect nearly any standard computer monitor to these ports if you have the proper plug. For example, I used my 20” Apple Cinema Display, which has a DVI plug, by simply adding a DVI-to-MDP adapter.

The change to Thunderbolt 2 enables faster throughput. The first version of Thunderbolt used two channels of 10Gb/s data and video, with each channel going in opposite directions. Thunderbolt 2 combines this for two channels going in the same direction, thus a total of 20Gb/s. You can daisy-chain Thunderbolt devices and it is possible to combine Thunderbolt 1 and Thunderbolt 2 devices in the same chain. First generation Thunderbolt devices (such as monitors) should be at the end of the chain, so as not to create a bottleneck.

The USB 3.0 ports will support USB 1.0 and 2.0 devices, but of course, there is no increase in their speed. There is no legacy support for FireWire or eSATA, so if you want to connect older drives, you’ll need to invest in additional docks, adapters and/or expansion units. (Apple sells a $29 Thunderbolt-to-FireWire 800 adapter.) This might also include a USB hub. For example, I have more than four USB-connected devices on my current 2009 Mac Pro. The benefit of standardizing on Thunderbolt, is that all of the Thunderbolt peripherals will work with any of Apple’s other computers, including MacBook Pros, Minis and iMacs.

The tougher dilemma is if you need to accommodate current PCIe cards, such as a RED Rocket accelerator card, a FibreChannel adapter or a mini-SAS/eSATA card. In that case, a Thunderbolt 2 expansion unit will be required. One such solution is the Sonnet Technologies Echo Express III-D expansion chassis.

Mac Pro as your main edit system

df_mp2013_2_smI work in many facilities with various vintages of Mac Pro towers. There’s a wide range of connectivity needs, including drives, shared storage and peripherals. Although it’s very sexy to think about just a 2013 Mac Pro sitting on your desk with nothing else, other than a Thunderbolt monitor, that’s not the real world of post. If you are evaluating one of these as your next investment, consider what you must add. First and foremost is storage. Flash storage and SSDs are great for performance, but you’re never going to put a lot of video media on a 1TB (or smaller) drive. Then you’ll need monitors and most likely adapters or expansion products for any legacy connection.

I priced out the same unit I’m reviewing and then factored in an Apple 27” display, the Sharp 32” UHD monitor, a Promise Pegasus2 R6 12TB RAID, plus a few other peripherals, like speakers, audio i/o, docks and adapters. This bumps the total to over $15K. Granted, I’ve pretty much got a full system that will last me for years. The point is, that it’s important to look at all the ramifications when you compare the new Mac Pro over a loaded iMac or a MacBook Pro or simply upgrading a recently-purchased Mac Pro tower.

Real world performance

df_mp2013_6_smMost of the tests promoting the new Mac Pro have focused on 4K video editing. That’s coming and the system is certainly good for it, but that’s not what most people encounter today. Editors deal with a mix of media, formats, frame rates, frame sizes, etc. I ran a set of identical tests on the 2013 Mac Pro and on my own 2009 Mac Pro tower. That’s an eight-core (dual 4-core Xeons) 2.26GHz model with 28GB of RAM. The current video card is a single NVIDIA Quadro 4000 and my media is on an internal two-drive (7200RPM eSATA) RAID-0 array. Since I had no external drives connected to the 2013 Mac Pro, all media was playing from and writing to the internal flash storage. This means that performance would be about as good as you can get, but possibly better than with externally-connected drives.

I tested Apple Final Cut Pro X, Motion, Compressor, Adobe Premiere Pro CC and After Effects CC. Media included RED EPIC 5K camera raw, ARRI ALEXA 1080p ProRes 4444, Blackmagic Cinema Camera 2.5K ProResHQ and more. Most of the sequences included built-in effects and some of the new Red Giant Universe filters.

df_mp2013_3_smTo summarize the test results, performance – as measured in render or export times – was significantly better on the 2013 Mac Pro. Most of the tests showed a 2X to 3X bump in performance, even with the Adobe products. Naturally FCP X loves the GPU power of this machine. The “BruceX” test, developed as a benchmark by Alex Gollner for FCP X, consists of a 5K timeline with a series of generators. I exported this as a 5K ProRes 4444 file. The older tower accomplished this in 1:47, while the new Mac Pro smoked it in just :19. My After Effects timeline consisted of ProRes 4444 clips with a bunch of intensive Cycore filters. The old versus new renders were 23:26 and 12:53, respectively.  I also ran tests with DaVinci Resolve 10, another application that loves more than one GPU. These were RED EPIC 5K files in a 1080p timeline. Debayer resolution was set to full (no RED Rocket card used). The export times ran at 4-12fps (depending on the clip) on the tower versus 15-40fps on the new Mac Pro.

df_mp2013_1_smIn general, all operations with applications were more responsive. This is, of course, true with any solid state storage. The computer boots faster and applications load and respond more quickly. Plus, more RAM, faster processors and other factors all help to optimize the 2013 Mac Pro for best performance. For example, the interaction between Adobe Premiere Pro CC and SpeedGrade CC using the Direct Link and Lumetri filters was noticeably better with the new machine. Certainly that’s true of Final Cut Pro X and Motion, which are ideally suited for it. I would add that using a single 20” monitor connected to the Mac Pro placed very little drag on one GPU, so the second could be totally devoted to processing power. Performance might vary if I had two 27” displays, plus a 4K monitor hooked to it.

I also tested Avid Media Composer. This software doesn’t particularly use a lot of GPU processing, so performance was about the same as with my 2009 Mac Pro. It also takes a trick to get it to work. The 2013 Mac Pro has no built-in audio device, which Media Composer needs to see in order to launch. If you have an audio device connected, such as an Mbox2 Mini or even just a headset with a microphone, then Media Composer detects a core audio device and will launch. I downloaded and installed the free Soundflower software. This acts as a virtual core audio device and can be set as the computer’s audio input in the System Preferences sound panel. Doing so enabled Media Composer to launch and operate normally.

Whether the new 2013 Mac Pro is the ideal tower replacement for you comes down to budget and many other variables. Rest assured that it’s the best machine Apple has to offer today. Analogies to powerful small packages (like the Mini Cooper or Bruce Lee) are quite apt. The build quality is superb and the performance is outstanding. If you are looking for a machine to service your needs for the next five years, then it’s the ideal choice.

(Note: This unit was tested prior to the release of 10.9.3, so I didn’t encounter any of the render issues that have been plaguing Adobe and DaVinci users.)

Originally written for Digital Video magazine/CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2014 Oliver Peters