Audio Plug-ins for Editors – Part 1

Audio mixers and audio editors who spend their time at the business end of a DAW certainly have a solid understanding of audio plug-ins. But often it’s something many video editors don’t know much about. Every NLE includes a useful complement of audio filter effects (plug-ins) that can also be augmented by a wide range of third party options. So it’s worth understanding what you have at your fingertips. After all, audio is at least 50% or more of most video projects. For this and the following three posts, I’ll focus on some thoughts pertaining to what video editors should know about commonly used audio filters.

Numerous audio effects have been highlighted in previous posts. I personally use various Accusonus and iZotope effects on my work, most often for audio clean-up. That’s been very important in this past year with restricted production activity. Quite a lot of my recent edit jobs worked with source material from Zoom calls and self-recorded smartphone video – all with marginal audio quality. So clean-up tools like iZotope RX have been quite important.

Since a lot of what I do is corporate in nature, the mixes are relatively simple – usually voice and music with a minimum of sound effects. Other than some clean-up processing (noise or reverb removal and so on), my most frequently used effects are equalization and compression. These tools let me shape the mix and control levels. 

All audio plug-ins are the same. Or are they?

Audio effects typically come in two flavors. One group could be described as “digital” and is intended to process audio in a transparent fashion without adding tonal color on its own. The other group is considered “analog,” because these filters are intended to emulate the sound of certain analog processing equipment. Naturally, since these are software plug-ins, the processing is actually digital. However, analog-style emulations are designed to mimic the tonal qualities of classic outboard gear or of channel strip circuits built into analog consoles like Neve and SSL.

Tonal color is often created by how the audio is processed, such as the slope of the attack and release characteristics when the filter begins to affect the sound. In theory, you should be able to take a digital-style EQ and boost a frequency by a given amount and Q value (the width of the effect around that frequency). Then, if you apply a second instance of the EQ and cut (lower) that same frequency by the same dB and Q values, the two should cancel each other out and the signal should sound unaffected. An analog-style filter that has been designed to emulate certain models of peripheral gear will not be transparent if you try this same experience.

If you buy two competing digital audio plug-ins that have the same controls and features, then the way each alters the sound will likely be more or less the same. The only difference is the “skin,” i.e. the user interface. However, when you buy an analog audio plug-in, you are looking for certain sound characteristics found in current or vintage analog hardware. A developer could go the route of licensing the exact signal path from the original company. They can then legally display a branded UI that is skeuomorphic and looks just like the physical version that it represents. Waves has an entire repertoire of such effects. So if you want an SSL 4000-series E-type channel strip, they’ve got a software version for you.

The other development approach is to reverse-engineer the sound of that physical gear and release a plug-in that emulates the sound. It might be dead-on or it might only be reminiscent. The skeuomorphic interface is designed to look and feel like that gear. If you know the real device, then you’ll know what that plug-in can be expected to sound like. Apple Logic Pro has a wealth of effects that are emulations. If you want to use a Vox or a Marshall guitar amp filter, simply pick the one that features a similar faceplate. Nowhere does Logic actually call it a Marshall or a Vox, because Apple hasn’t licensed the exact circuits from the original manufacturer. Instead, they classify these as “inspired by” certain musical eras or genres.

Native versus third party effects

Audio plug-ins are installed using one of several protocols, including AAX, AU, and VST/VST3. This means that you can use the same effect in multiple host applications. However, DAWs and NLEs also install their own native effects that are only available within that single application. This can mean better performance versus third-party effects, which is especially true with current versions of Final Cut Pro and macOS.

One of my favorite native filters is the Logic compressor found in both Logic Pro and Final Cut Pro. It features seven compressor styles built into a single plug-in. The choices start with Platinum Digital, which is the digital (clean or transparent) version of this filter. The next six panes are different analog models, which are emulations of such popular outboard gear as Focusrite and DBX. There are two choices each for VCA, FET, and opto-electrical circuit designs.

Set the exact same adjustments in any of the compressor’s panes and the tonal color will vary slightly as you toggle through them. If you are unfamiliar with these, then check out some of the YouTube tutorials that explain the Logic compressor’s operation and which of the actual gear each of these panes is intended to emulate. I personally like the Studio VCA pane, which is based on a Focusrite Red compressor.

In Part 2, I’ll take a deeper look at two of the most common filtering functions – compression and equalization.

©2021 Oliver Peters

Final Cut Pro at 10 and Other Musings

Recently Final Cut Pro (formerly Final Cut Pro X) hit its tenth anniversary.  Since I’ve been a bit quiet on this blog lately due to the workload, I thought it was a good time to reflect. I recently cut a set of involved commercials using FCP. While I’ve cut literally thousands of commercials in my career, my work in recent years tends to be corporate/branding/image content in the five to ten minute range. I work in a team and the tool of choice is Premiere Pro. It’s simply a better fit for us, since the bulk of staff and freelancers are very fluid in Adobe products and less so with Apple’s pro software. Sharing projects and elements also works better in the Adobe ecosystem.

Cutting the spots in Final Cut Pro

In the case of the four :60s, I originally budgeted about two days each, plus a few days for client revisions – eleven days in total. My objective was to complete the creative cut, but none of the finishing, since these spots involved extensive visual effects. I was covering for the client’s regular editor who had a scheduled vacation and would finish the project. The spots were shot with a Sony Venice, simultaneously recording 6K RAW and 4K XAVC (AVC-Intra) “proxy” files. The four spots totaled over 1200 clips with approximately an hour of footage per spot. My cutting options could be to work natively with the Sony RAW media in Premiere Pro or DaVinci Resolve, or to edit with the proxies in any NLE.

The Sony RAW files are large and don’t perform well playing from a shared storage system. I didn’t want to waste the time copying location drives to the NAS, partially for reasons of time. I also wanted to be able to access media to cut the spots whether at home or at the work facility. So I opted to use the proxies, which allowed me to cut the spots in FCP. Of course, if you think of proxies as low-res files, you’d be wrong. These Sony XAVC files are high-res, camera-original files on par with 4K ProRes HQ media. If it weren’t for VFX, these would actually be the high-quality source files used for the final edit.

I copied the proxy files to a 2TB Samsung T7 SSD portable drive. This gave me the freedom to edit wherever – either on my iMac at home or one of the iMac Pros at work. This is where Final Cut Pro comes in. When you wade through that much footage, it’s easy for an NLE to get bogged down by caching footage or for the editor to get lost in the volume of clips. Thanks to skimming and keyword collections, I was able to cut these spots far more quickly than using any of the other NLE options. I could go from copying proxy files to my first cut on a commercial within a single day. That’s half of the budgeted time.

The one wrinkle was that I had to turn over a Premiere Pro project linked to the RAW media files. There are various ways to do that, but automatic relinking is dicier with these RAW files, because each clip is within its own subfolder, similar to RED. This complicates Premiere’s ability to easily relink files. So rather than go through XtoCC, I opted to import the Sony RAW clips into Resolve, then import the FCPXML, which in turn automatically relinked to the RAW files in Resolve.

There are a few quirks in this method that you have to suss out, but once everything was correct in Resolve, I exported an XML for Premiere. In Premiere Pro, I imported that XML, made sure that Premiere linked to the RAW files, corrected any size and speed issues, removed any duplicate clips, and then the project was ready for turnover. While one could look at these steps and question the decision to not cut in Premiere in the first place, I can assure you that cutting with Final Cut was considerably faster and these roundtrip steps were minor.

Remote workflows

Over the past year, remote workflows and a general “work from home” movement has shifted how the industry moves forward. So much of what I do requires connection to shared storage, so totally working from home is impractical. These spots were the exception for me, but the client and director lived across the country. In years past, they used to fly in and work in supervised sessions with me. However, in more recent years, that work has been unattended using various review-and-approval solutions for client feedback and revisions. Lately that’s through Frame.io. In the case of these spots, my workflow wasn’t any different than it would have been two years ago.

On the other hand, since I have worked with these clients in supervised sessions, as well as remote projects, it’s easy to see what’s been lost in this shift. Remote workflows present two huge drawbacks. The first is turnaround time. It’s inherently an inefficient process. You’ll cut a new version, upload it for review, and then wait – often for hours or even the next day. Then make the tweaks, rinse, and repeat. This impacts not only the delivery schedule, but also your own ability to book sessions and determine fair billing.

Secondly, ideation takes a back seat. When a client is in the room, you can quickly go through options, show a rearranged cut, alternate takes, and so on. Final Cut’s audition function is great for this, but it’s a wasted feature in these modern workflows. During on-prem sessions, you could quickly show a client the options, evaluate, and move on. With remote workflows, that’s harder to show and is subject to the same latency of replying, so as a result, you have fewer options that can be properly vetted in the cut.

The elephant in the room is security. I know there are tons of solutions for “drilling” into your system from home that are supposed to be secure. In reality, the only true security is to have your system disconnected from the internet (but also not totally bulletproof). As Sony Pictures, QNAP owners, Colonial Pipeline, agencies of the US government, or multiple other corporations have found out, if a bad actor wants to get into your system, they can. No amount of encryption, firewalls, VPNs, multi-factor authentication, or anything else is going to be guaranteed to stop them. While remote access might have been a necessary evil due to COVID lockdowns, it’s not something that should be encouraged going forward.

However, I know that I’m swimming against the stream on this. Many editors/designers/colorists don’t seem to ever want to return to an office. This is at odds with surveys indicating the majority of producers and agencies are chomping to get back to working one-on-one. Real estate and commuting costs are factors that affect such decisions, so I suspect hybrids will evolve and the situation in the future may vary geographically.

Final Cut Pro’s future

I mention the WFH dilemma, because remote collaboration is one of the features that Apple has been encouraged to build into Final Cut Pro by some users. It’s clearly a direction Adobe has moved towards and where Avid already has a track record.

I’m not sure that’s in Apple’s best interest. For one thing, I don’t personally believe Apple does a good job of this. Access and synchronization performance of iCloud is terrible compared with Google’s solutions. Would a professional collaboration solution really be industry-leading and robust? I highly doubt it.

Naturally Apple wants to make money, but they are also interested in empowering the creative individual – be that a professional or an enthusiast. Define those terms in whatever way you like, but the emphasis is on the individual. That direction seems to be at odds with what “pro” users think should be the case for Apple ProApps software, based on their experiences in the late years of FCP 1-7/FCP Studio (pre-X).

I certainly have my own feature request list for Final Cut Pro, but ultimately the lack of these did not stop me from a rapid turnaround on the spots I just discussed. Nor on other projects when I turn to FCP as the tool of choice. I use all four major NLEs and probably never will settle on a single “best” NLE for all cases.

The term “YouTube content creator” or “influencer” is often used as a pejorative, but for many filmmakers and marketeers outlets like YouTube, facebook, and Instagram have become the new “broadcast.” I recently interviewed Alexander Fedorov for FCP.co. He’s a Russian photographer/filmmaker/vlogger who epitomizes the type of content creator for whom Apple is designing its professional products. I feel that Apple can indeed service multiple types of users, from the individual, self-taught filmmaker to the established broadcast pro. How Apple does that moving forward within a tool like Final Cut Pro is anyone’s guess. All I know is that using the measurements of what is and isn’t “pro” no longer works in so many different arenas.

©2021 Oliver Peters

May 2021 Links

It’s time to check out some more articles and reviews that I’ve written for other publications since January, but which I haven’t reposted here.

Understanding Premiere Pro’s Color Management 

I wrote about trusting Apple Displays. This is a follow-up article about color management and Premiere Pro (Pro Video Coalition).

Aviation and Final Cut Pro – Combining Passions for Compelling Videos 

YouTube influencers are a big part of the content creation landscape today. Their videos cover many, different niches and often have a surprisingly large base of followers. I take a look at YouTube, aviation, and the use of Final Cut Pro to post-produce these videos (FCP.co).

Is Your Audio Mix Too Loud?

Unless you’ve delivered master files for broadcast, you might not be as tuned into meeting delivery specs, especially when it comes to the perceived loudness levels of your mix. I discuss working with audio in Final Cut Pro to mix and master at optimal levels (FCP.co).

Color Finale Transcoder – BRAW, ARRIRAW, DNG and CinemaDNG in FCP

The folks at Color Trix have come up with an ingenious solution to augment Final Cut Pro’s camera raw support. The new Color Finale Transcoder adds additional camera raw formats, notably Blackmagic RAW. Check out my review of the software (FCP.co).

©2021 Oliver Peters

Simple Color Workflow in FCPX

Building on the heels of the previous post, I’d like to cover five simple steps to follow when performing basic color correction, aka “grading,” in Final Cut Pro X. Not every clip or project will use all of these, but apply the applicable steps when appropriate.

Step 1. LUTs (color look-up tables)

There are technical and creative LUTs. Here we are talking only about technical camera LUTs that are useful when your footage was recorded in a log color space. These LUTs convert the clip from log to a display color space (REC 709 or other) and turn the clip’s appearance from flat to colorful. Each manufacturer offers specific LUTs for the profile of their camera models.

Some technical LUTs are already included with the default FCPX installation and can be accessed through the settings menu in the inspector. Others must be downloaded from the manufacturer or other sources and stored elsewhere on your system. If you don’t see an appropriate option in the inspector, then apply the Custom LUT effect and navigate to a matching LUT stored on your system.

Step 2. Balance Color

Next, apply the Balance Color effect for each clip. This will slightly expand the contrast of the clip and create an averaged color balance. This is useful for many, but not all clips. For instance, a clip shot during “golden hour” will have a warm, yellow-ish glow. You don’t want that to be balanced neutral. You have no control over the settings of the Balance Color process, other than to pick between Automatic and White Balance. Test and see when and where this works to your advantage.

Note that this works best for standard footage without a LUT or when the LUT was applied through the inspector menu. If the LUT was applied as a Custom LUT effect, then Balance Color will be applied ahead of the Custom LUT and may yield undesirable results.

Step 3. Color correction – color board, curves, or color wheels

This is where you do most of the correction to alter the appearance of the clip. Any or all of FCPX’s color correction tools are fine and the tool choice often depends on your own preference. For most clips it’s mainly a matter of brightening, expanding contrast, increasing or decreasing saturation, and shifting the hue offsets of lows (shadow area), midrange, and highlights. What you do here is entirely subjective, unless you are aiming for shot-matching, like two cameras in an interview. For most projects, subtlety is the key.

Step 4. Luma vs Sat

It’s easy to get carried away in Step 3. This is your chance to reign it back in. Apply the Hue/Sat Curves tool and select the Luma vs Sat Curve. I described this process in the previous post. The objective is to roll off the saturation of the shadows and highlights, so that you retain pure blacks and whites at the extreme ends of the luminance range.

Step 5. Broadcast Safe

If you deliver for broadcast TV or a streaming channel, your video must be legal. Different outlets have differing standards – some looser or stricter than others. To be safe, limit your luminance and chrominance levels by applying a Broadcast Safe effect. This is best applied to an adjustment layer added as a connected clip at the topmost level above the entire sequence. Final Cut Pro X does not come with an adjustment layer Motion template title, but there are plenty available for download.

Apply the Broadcast Safe effect to that adjustment layer clip. Make sure it’s set to the color space that matches your project (sequence) setting (typically Rec 709 for HD and 4K SDR videos). At its default, video will be clipped at 0 and 100 on the scopes. Move the amount slider to the right for more clipping when you need to meet more restrictive specs.

These five steps are not the end-all/be-all of color correction/grading. They are merely a beginning guide to achieve quick and attractive grading using Final Cut Pro X. Test them out on your footage and see how to use them with your own workflows.

©2020 Oliver Peters

5 Easy FCPX Color Tricks

Color correction plug-ins are certainly fun to use, but Final Cut Pro X has plenty of horsepower on its own. There are also a number of features and techniques that often get overlooked. Here are five simple tricks you can use to enhance the look of your videos. (Click any image to see an enlarged view.)

Balance Color / Match Color

Final Cut has offered the ability to auto balance the color of a shot and to match two shots to each other since the early days. Balance color analyzes a shot and corrects it to a neutral tonality. This is typically a “best guess,” based on either an automatic overall adjustment or one focusing on white balance.

You can select all of the clips in your timeline and balance them in a single command. Most of the time, automatic will result in a pleasing enhancement of the image. The exception is when there’s no clear white reference in the shot, like a close-up on fire. In that case, you’d want to retain the orange/yellow qualities of the shot. The balance color results are not adjustable (other than to select between automatic or white balance), so consider it a first step to be further enhanced by the other color correction tools.

Match color is different in that it corrects the tonality of a selected clip to match another clip in the timeline. Park on the clip, select match color, skim to the clip used for the match, click on that frame for a preview, and then click Apply Match if you like the preview results. A common application might be to match A and B cameras to each other.

Match color can be used creatively, as well. For example, let’s say you want your clips to match the tonality of shots from a particular movie. A great resource for film reference frames is the Shotdeck website (free if you register as a beta user). Find and download a reference frame. Import the image file and edit it to the end of your timeline. Now use match color for a selected clip and skim to that reference film image on your timeline.

Obviously it won’t make a sunny daytime shot look exactly like a moody night shot from Bladerunner, but it will adopt the overall tonality as closely as possible. Once you’ve completed the match, delete the reference image from your timeline.

Blend modes

Timeline clips include blend mode attributes. The default is the normal mode, which can easily be changed to screen, overlay, soft light, and so on. Blend modes (also called composite and transfer modes) are commonly used by graphic artists and designers, but they are also useful in creating special looks for video.

To start, option-drag a clip above itself to create a duplicate as a connected clip. You now have two versions of that clip in perfect sync with each other. Adjust the blend mode of the connected clip. Let’s say you have a low-contrast clip. When you drag it above itself and change the top clip’s mode to soft light, it will instantly result in more contrast and saturation.

This same trick can be used to create stylish effects. For example, when you add a gaussian blur to the lower clip, the results are a dreamy image. Add a sharpening filter to the top clip and now you’ve added some localized contrast. Push it far enough and the results are almost cartoon-like.

You can use this trick on single clips or the entire sequence. Simply compound the sequence and then option-drag the compound up to create a duplicate, connected clip. Select the desired blend mode of the connected clip and tweak for your look.

Hue/Saturation Curves – Luma vs Sat

When you push color correction to an extreme, the black and white detail in the image becomes contaminated by the color shift introduced by your correction. You no longer have anything that’s true black or white in the frame. When a colorist is creatively adjusting a shot, they still want to end up with nearly pure black at the darkest part of the image and pure white at the brightest.

One way to achieve this is with the Luma vs Sat curve in the Hue/Saturation Curves tool. From left to right, the base line represents the brightness range from black to white. Pulling the curve up or down increases or decreases saturation at the brightness value corresponding to that point along the line. To reduce color saturation for black and white, add a control point inwards from each end of the line. Now drag the outer points down to decrease saturation. Drag the inner points more or less towards the center to adjust the roll-off from full saturation to zero saturation. The more gentle the slope of the curve, the smoother the roll-off with fewer potential artifacts. However, the trade-off is that you may lose too much saturation overall. So adjust to taste.

Orange and Teal

Filmmakers are enamored with the “orange-and-teal” look – skin tones tend to be warm (orange), while middle-range portions of the image take on a teal color cast. This is aided by proper lighting, costuming, and set design that is conducive to such a grade. For example, walls and furnishings that are neutral, black, gray, or dark in some way tend to be easier to swing towards the teal than a background of bright red walls.

Final Cut Pro X does include a color preset (Spring Sun) that mimics this look. You can also achieve it with any of Final Cut’s grading tools, such as the color wheels. First, use any color tool to establish a normal grade. Then apply color wheels for the look. The objective is to isolate skin tones from the rest of the image. Add an image mask for the wheels and use the HSL keyer. Use the color picker to select a skin tone. View the mask in black-and-white and adjust the HSL settings for a smooth key. It’s OK if the mask includes more than only the skin tones. The smoothness of the key is important.

Once you are happy with the key, go back to the image and grade inside of the mask. Push the midrange color wheel to the orange as needed. Or keep the skin tones neutral if you want to preserve a natural appearance. Change the mask toggle to outside and shift the midrange, shadows, and master towards teal. Finally, add the Luma vs Sat adjustment as described above to restore natural blacks and whites to the shadow and highlight areas.

LUTs

Color look-up tables – LUTs – are used to apply the proper color profile for cameras. Custom LUTs can also be used creatively to create and preserve preset looks such as stylized grades, film stock emulation, and more. Final Cut cannot export LUTs, however, it can import any LUT in the standard .cube format. The internet offers plenty of options to purchase custom, creative LUTs.

Let’s take a more DIY approach. Several third-party color correction plug-ins, including FilmConvert Nitrate and Color Finale 2 Pro, allow the user to export the grade done within that plug-in as a self-contained LUT. Maybe you want to preserve the grade for future use that doesn’t depend on having the plug-in. Or maybe you don’t own that plug-in, but can collaborate with an editor/colorist who does. In that example, send your selected shots or sequence to them for a grade. Then, instead of returning the files to you with the baked-in look, simply export the grades for these clips as LUTs.

Back on your system, apply the Custom LUT effect to each clip and import the corresponding LUT. Make sure the settings match your color space (Rec 709 across the board for Rec 709 libraries and projects). In the case of Color Finale 2 Pro and FilmConvert Nitrate, most aspects of the grade done within their panels will be reproduced. Certain non-grading features, such as film grain emulation will not be included in the LUT. Overall, if I’m looking for a perfect match (same shot to same shot), then I’ve had more accurate results using Color Finale 2 Pro. This method is a great way of creating and transferring custom looks in a non-destructive manner.

I hope these simple tips will give you some ideas on how you can get more out of Final Cut Pro X to create and apply your own special touches.

Originally written for FCP.co.

©2020 Oliver Peters