If you are an independent editor or the manager of a small to medium post facility, then you’ve likely wrestled with the WFH dilemma. Work-from-home, i.e. remote editing, has been on the minds of many. It’s been accelerated for sure by Covid-19, but that’s not the sole reason. There are numerous viable solutions and one size does not fit all. I take a closer look at various workflow options, along with a dive into the use of one popular and cost-effective solution – Jump Desktop. It’s all at Pro Video Coalition at the link below.
Apple’s innovative Final Cut Pro editing software has passed its tenth year and for many, the development pace has become far too slow. As a yardstick, users point to the intensity with which Blackmagic Design has advanced its flagship DaVinci Resolve application. Since acquiring DaVinci, Blackmagic has expanded the editing capabilities and melded in other acquisitions, such as EyeOn Fusion and Fairlight audio. They’ve even integrated a second, FCP-like editing model called the Cut page. This has some long-time Final Cut editors threatening to jump ship and switch to Resolve.
Let’s dig a bit deeper into some of the comparisons. While Resolve has a strong presence as a premier color correction tool, its actual adoption as the main editor within the post facility world hasn’t been very strong. On the other hand, if you look outside of the US to Europe and the rest of the world, you’ll find quite a few installations of Final Cut Pro within larger media operations and production companies. Clearly both products have found a home servicing professional workflows.
Editing versus finishing
When all production and post was done with film, the picture editor would make all of the creative editing decisions by cutting workprint and sound using a flatbed or upright editing machine. The edited workprint became the template for the optical house, negative cutter, film timer, and lab to produce the final film prints. There was a clear delineation between creative editing and the finishing stages of filmmaking.
Once post moved to videotape, the film workflow was translated into its offline (creative editing) and online (finishing) video counterparts. Offline editing rooms used low-res formats and were less expensive to equip and operate. Online rooms used high-res formats and often looked like the bridge of a starship. But it could also be the other way around, because the offline and online processes were defined by the outcome and not the technology. Offline = creative decisions. Online = finished masters. Of course, given proper preparation or a big budget, the offline edit stage could be skipped. Everything – creative edit and finishing – was all performed in the same online edit bay.
Early nonlinear editing supplemented videotape offline edit bays for a hybrid workflow. As computer technology advanced and NLE quality and capabilities improved, all post production shifted to workstation-based operations. But the offline/online – editing/finishing – workflows have persisted, in spite of the fact that most computers and editing applications are capable of meeting both needs. Why? It comes down to three things: personality, kit, and skillset.
Kit first. Although your software might do everything well, you may or may not have a capable computer, which is why proxy workflows exist today. Beyond that comes monitoring. Accurate color correction and sound mixing requires proper high-quality audio and video monitoring. A properly equipped finishing room should also have the right lighting environment and/or wall treatments for sound mixing. None of this is essential for basic editing tasks, even at the highest level. While having a tool like Resolve makes it possible to cover all of the technical aspects of editing and finishing, if you don’t have the proper room, high-quality finishing may still be a challenge.
Each of the finishing tasks requires its own specialized skillset. A topnotch re-recording mixer isn’t going to be a great colorist or an award-winning visual effects compositor. It’s not that they couldn’t, but for most of us, that’s not the way the mind works nor the opportunities presented to us. As we spend more time at a specialized skill – the “10,000 hour” rule – the better we are at it.
Finally, the issue of personality. Many creative editors don’t have a strong technical background and some aren’t all that precise in how they handle the software. As someone who works on both sides, I’ve encountered some of the most awful timelines on projects where I’ve handled the finishing tasks. The cut was great and very creative, but the timeline was a mess.
On the flipside, finishing editors (or online editors before them) tend to be very detail-oriented. They are often very creative in their own right, but they do tend to fit the “left-brained” description. Many prefer finishing tasks over the messy world of clients, directors, and so on. In short, a topnotch creative editor might not be a good finisher and vice versa.
The all-in-one application versus the product ecosystem
Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve is an all-in-one solution, combining editing, color, visual effects, and sound mixing. As such, it follows in the footsteps of other all-in-ones, like Avid|DS (discontinued) and Autodesk Flame (integrated with Smoke and Lustre). Historically, neither of these or any other all-in-ones have been very successful in the wider editing market. Cost coupled with complex user interfaces have kept them in more rarified areas of post.
Apple took the opposite approach with the interaction of Final Cut Pro X. They opted for a simpler, more approachable interface without many features editors had grown used to in the previous FCP 7/FCP Studio versions. This stripped-down application was augmented by other Apple and third-party applications, extensions, and plug-ins to fill the void.
If you want the closest equivalent to Resolve’s toolkit in the Final Cut ecosystem, you’ll have to add Motion, Logic Pro, Xsend Motion, X2Pro Audio Convert, XtoCC, and SendToX at a very minimum. If you want to get close to the breadth of Adobe Creative Cloud offerings, also add Compressor, Pixelmator Pro (or Affinity, Photo, Publisher, and Designer), and a photo application. Resolve is built upon a world-class color correction engine, but Final Cut Pro does include high-quality grading tools, too. Want more? Then add Color Finale 2, Coremelt Chromatic, FilmConvert Nitrate, or one of several other color correction plug-ins.
Yes, the building block approach does seem messy, but it allows a user to tailor the software toolkit according to their own particular use case. The all-in-one approach might appear better, but that gets to personality and skillset. It’s highly unlikely that the vast majority of Resolve users will fully master its four core capabilities: edit, color, VFX (Fusion), and mixing (Fairlight). A good, full-time editor probably isn’t going to be as good at color correction as a full-time colorist. A great colorist won’t also be a good mixer.
In theory, if you have a team of specialists who have all centralized around Resolve, then the same tool and project files could bounce from edit to VFX, to color, and to the mix, without any need to roundtrip between disparate applications. In reality it’s likely that your go-to mograph/VFX artist/compositor is going to prefer After Effects or maybe Nuke. Your favorite audio post shop probably won’t abandon Pro Tools for Fairlight.
Even for the single editor who does it all, Resolve presents some issues with its predefined left-to-right, tabbed workflow. For example, grading performed in the Color tab can’t be tweaked in the Edit tab. The UI is based on modal tabs instead of fly-out panels within a single workspace.
If you boil it all down, Resolve is the very definition of a finishing application and appeals best to editors of that mindset and with the skills to effectively use the majority of its power. Final Cut Pro is geared to the creative approach with its innovative feature set, like metadata-based organization, skimming, and the magnetic timeline. It’s more approachable for less-experience editors, hiding the available technical complexity deeper down. However, just like offline and online editing suites, you can flip it around and do creative editing with Resolve and finishing with Final Cut Pro (plus the rest of the ecosystem).
The intangibles of editing
It’s easy to compare applications on paper and say that one product appears better and more feature-rich than another. That doesn’t account for how an application feels when you use it, which is something Apple has spent a lot of time thinking about. Sometimes small features can make all the difference in an editor’s preference. The average diner might opine that chef’s knives are the same, but don’t tell that to a real chef!
Avid Media Composer editors rave about the trim tool. Many Adobe Premiere Pro editors swear by Dynamic Link. Some Apple Final Cut Pro editors get frustrated when they have to return to a track-based, non-magnetic NLE. It’s puzzling to me that some FCP stalwarts are vocal about shifting to Resolve (a traditional track-based NLE) if Apple doesn’t add ‘xyz’ feature. That simply doesn’t make sense to me, unless a) you are equally comfortable in track-based versus trackless architectures, and/or b) you truly have the aptitude to make effective use out of an all-in-one application like Resolve. Of course, you can certainly use both side-by-side depending on the task at hand. Cost is no longer an impediment these days. Organize and cut in FCP, and then send an FCPXML of the final sequence to Resolve for the grade, visual effects, and the mix.
It’s horses for courses. I recently read where NFL Films edits in Media Composer, grades in DaVinci Resolve, and conforms/finishes projects in Premiere Pro. That might seem perplexing to some, but makes all the sense in the world to me, because of the different skillsets of the users at those three stages of post. In my day gig, Premiere Pro is also the best choice for our team of editors. Yet, when I have projects that are totally under my control, I’ll often use FCP.
Ultimately there is no single application that is great at each and every element in post production. While the majority of features might fit all of my needs, that may not be true for you or anyone else. The divide between creative editing and finishing is likely to continue – at least at the higher end of production. In that context, Final Cut Pro still makes more sense for a frictionless editing experience, but Resolve is hard to beat for finishing.
There is one final caveat to consider. The post world is changing and much is driven by the independent content creator, as well as the work-from-home transformation. That market segment is cost conscious and subscription business models are less appealing. So Resolve’s entry point at free is attractive. Coupling Resolve with Blackmagic’s low cost, high quality cameras is also a winning strategy for new users. While Resolve can be daunting in its breadth, a new user can start with just the tools needed to complete the project and then learn new aspects of the software over time. As I look down the road, it’s a toss up as to who will be dominant in another ten years.
I’m previously written about the challenge of consistent gamma and saturation across multiple monitoring points. Getting an app’s viewer, QuickTime playback, and the SDI output to all look the same can be a fool’s errand. If you work on a Mac, then there are pros and cons to using Mac displays like an iMac. In general, Apple’s “secret sauce” works quite well for Final Cut Pro. However, if you edit or grade in Resolve, Premiere Pro, or Media Composer, then you aren’t quite as lucky. I’ve opined that you might actually need to generate separate files for broadcast and web deliverables.
The extra step of optimized file creation isn’t practical for most. In my case, the deliverables I create go to multiple platforms; however, few are actually destined for traditional broadcast or to be played in a theater. In most cases, my clients are creating content for the web or to be streamed in various venues. I predominantly edit in Premiere Pro and grade with Resolve. I’ve been tinkering with color management settings in each. The goal is a reasonably close match across both app viewers, the output I see to a Rec 709 display, and the look of the exported file when I view it in QuickTime Player on the computer.
Some of this advice might be a bit contrary to what I previously wrote. Both situations are still valid, depending on the projects you edit or grade. Granted, this is based on what I see on iMac and iMac Pro displays, so it may or may not be consistent with other display brands or when using PCs. And this applies to SDR, Rec 709, or sRGB outputs and not HDR grading. As a starting point, leave the Mac display profile alone. Don’t change its default profile. Yes, I know an iMac is P3, but that’s simply something you’ll have to live with.
Adobe Premiere Pro
Premiere Pro’s Rec 709 timelines are based on 2.4 gamma, which is the broadcast standard. However, an exported file is displayed with a QuickTime color profile of 1-1-1 (1.96 gamma). The challenge is to work with the Premiere Pro viewer and see an image that matches the exported file. I have changed to disabling (unchecking) the Display Color Management in General Preferences. This might seem counter-intuitive, but it results in a setting where the viewer, a Rec 709 output to a monitor, and the exported image all largely look the same.
If you enable Display Color Management, you’ll get an image in the viewer with a somewhat closer match for saturation, but gamma will be darker than the QuickTime or the video monitor. If you disable this setting, the gamma will be a better match (shadows aren’t crushed); however, the saturation of reds will be somewhat enhanced in the Premiere Pro viewer. It’s a bit of a trade-off, but I prefer the setting to be off.
Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve
Resolve has multiple places that can trip you up. But I’ve found that once you set them up, the viewer image will be a closer match to the exported file and to the Rec 709 image than is the case for Premiere Pro. There are three sections to change. The first is in the Project Settings pane (gear menu). This is the first place to start with every new Resolve project. Under Color Management, set the Timeline color space to Rec. 709 (Scene). I’ve experimented with various options, including ACES. Unfortunately the ongoing ACES issue with fluorescent color burned me on a project, so I’ll wait until I really have a need to use ACES again. Hopefully it will be less of a work-in-progress then. I’ve gone back to working in Rec. 709, but new for me is to use the Scene variant. I also turn on Broadcast Safe, but use the gentler restricted range of -10 to -110.
The next adjustment is in Resolve Preferences. Go to the General section and turn on: Use 10-bit precision in viewers, Use Mac display color profiles, and Automatically tag Rec. 709 Scene clips as Rec. 709-A. What this last setting does is make sure the exports are tagged with the 1-1-1 QuickTime color profile. If this is not checked, the file will be exported with a profile of 1-2-1 (2.4 gamma) and look darker when you play it to the desktop using QuickTime Player.
The last setting is on the Deliver page. Data levels can be set to Auto or Video. The important thing is to set the Color Space Tag and Gamma Tag to Same as Project. By doing so, the exported files will adhere to the settings described above.
Making these changes in Premiere Pro and Resolve gives me more faith in what I see in the viewer of each application. My exports are a closer match with fewer surprises. Is it a perfect match? Absolutely not. But it’s enough in the ballpark for most footage to be functional for editing purposes. Obviously you should still make critical image and color adjustments using your scopes and a calibrated reference display, but that’s not always an option. Going with these settings should mean that if you have to go by the computer screen alone, then what you see will be close to what you get!
Working with plug-ins is fun, but it gets complex when you want to be consistent across multiple hosts. The built-in effects can be quite good and if you only ever work in Media Composer, Resolve, Premiere Pro, or Final Cut Pro and are happy with what’s included, then nothing more is needed. But if you work in multiple applications, then what you like in one will be missing in the other. For example, the Logic compressor is available in FCP, but not Logic’s vintage EQ. If I use native effects in FCP, I have to use different effects to achieve the same results in Premiere Pro.
That problem can be solved by purchasing a plug-in bundle that is consistent across multiple hosts. If you install audio effects that support AU, VST, VST3, and AAX, then you are covered for Macs and PCs, and nearly all DAW and NLE brands. However, such bundles and/or individual plug-ins are typically authorized for a single machine at a time, via an activation code, a licensing portal, or a USB license key, like an iLok. If you operate a multi-seat shop, then it’s complicated juggling plug-in licensing across several machines. Hence, you have to purchase a plug-in set for each workstation, which can be costly. So free options become quite attractive. Install them on all the machines and never deal with the “missing plug-in” error message again.
I’ve run across two companies with free products that I find to be quite useful. The first is TBProAudio. They offer a range of audio plug-ins, including a couple of free products. The first is the sTilt v2, which is a linear phase equalizer, also known as a spectral-tilt or tilt-shift equalizer. Think of the frequency spread as a playground teeter-totter. The audio spectrum is on a “slope” that pivots on a center frequency. As you move the dial to the right, audio frequencies above the center frequency are boosted and audio below is cut or reduced. The result is a brighter sound. Move the dial to the left and upper frequencies are cut, while lower frequencies are boosted for a warmer sound. Adjust the center frequency value to move the “fulcrum” of the tilt-shift processing.
Another one of their free plug-ins is the mvMeter 2. This classic, analog-style meter array features several metering models, including, VU, RMS, EBUR128, and PPM. I started in radio, so working with VU meters is second nature to me. Since finding this plug-in I’ve used it on nearly every mix. I find that my mixes are now more standard with more consistent levels than simply judging by the built-in full scale dB meters.
Tokyo Dawn Records/Labs
As I searched for more useful plug-ins, I also ran across Tokyo Dawn Labs, a software offshoot of Tokyo Dawn Records in Germany. They offer a number of plug-ins, including four free products. Each of the free products includes a paid GE (“gentlemen’s edition”) version with additional features. The free products are not severely limited “lite” versions, but in fact, include 80-90% of the functionality of the GE products. These include two equalizers and two compressors, which are amazingly good – free or not.
TDR VOS Slick EQ is a mixing/mastering equalizer with several emulation models – American, British, German, and Soviet. Each model mimics certain gear or console characteristics. The American model is the most transparent. Slick EQ’s general operation is like most classic, three-band EQs with hi/low pass filtering and shelving controls.
TDR Kotelnikov is a dynamics processor, i.e a compressor/limiter. It has a very smooth and transparent sound with processing that’s affected by a stereo density control. Its transparency makes this tool ideal to apply to the final stereo output or master mix bus of any mix.
TDR Nova is a bit harder to describe. TDR calls it a parallel dynamic equalizer. It looks and acts a bit like a four-band parametric equalizer, however it also includes compression. So you can use it simply as an EQ, or you can combine that with compression to create a multi-band compressor.
TDR Molotok is another dynamics processor. I haven’t tested this one, but it definitely has the most old-school UI of the bunch. TDR states it doesn’t emulate any specific vintage device, but has what they describe as eleven flavor nuances. For me personally, Kotelnikov fits the bill for video project mastering, But If I were a music producer, then Molotok would hold some appeal.
An interesting aspect to these plug-ins is that default processing is stereo, but it can also be put into a sum or difference mode. Effectively this enables mid or side signal processing. For example, if you want to only process the middle portion of the stereo signal, set the filter to the sum mode. In addition, the filter can be switched from Precise to ECO (economy) in case you are working with an underpowered computer.
In wrapping up this series of posts, I want to point out that not all application hosts treat audio plug-ins equally. Typically DAWs generally do the best job of working seamlessly with third-party audio products. That’s less the case with NLEs.
If you use a Mac, you can install both AU and one of several VST versions of a plug-in. PCs only use VST varieties. However, in some cases, the AU version may have slightly different UI properties that the VST flavor. If you use Avid products, make sure to verify that a plug-in offers AAX and/or AudioSuite versions.
Finally, if you are a Final Cut Pro editor, tread lightly with plug-ins. FCP has increasingly become touchy with third-party audio plug-ins (under Big Sur), including many that play well with Logic Pro. And, of course, not all third-party plug-ins are yet fully compatible with the new Apple Silicon-based Macs. So make sure you test a trial version before you commit to a purchase.
In the previous post I presented an overview of common plug-ins. Two types used in nearly every project are equalization and compression to tame volume levels and sculpt the sound. Let’s take a closer look into how each operates.
All equalizer plug-ins work with several common controls. Some EQ models have more features, but the general concepts are the same. An equalizer will boost (raise) or cut (lower) the volume of a specific frequency within the sound spectrum of the track. Some EQs feature only a single control point, while others include more – three, four, or even unlimited.
As you boost or cut volume, the audio frequencies around the control frequency are also progressively raised or lowered in what is presented as a bell-shaped curve on a frequency graph. The width of this bell is called the Q value. As you widen the curve – the Q value – more of the surrounding frequencies are also affected. A smaller Q – a tighter curve – results in a more surgical adjustment. An extremely tight Q value is often referred to as a notch, because you are only affecting that frequency and very little else. Notch settings and separate notch filters are often used to remove or reduce specific annoying background sounds in the audio.
Most multi-point EQs are designed so that the lowest and highest frequency control points are shelf controls. When you adjust the high frequency and it operates as a shelf, then everything above that frequency is rolled off. The same for a low shelf, except that the roll-off is in the other direction – lower frequencies. The slope of this roll-off can be gradual or sharp, depending on the features on the plug-in.
An extremely sharp slope at the low-end creates a high-pass filter (higher frequencies are allowed, lower frequencies are cut). An extremely sharp slope at the top is a low-pass filter. Depending on the equalizer model, a high-pass filter control may also be referred to as a low-cut control. High-pass versus low-cut is purely a semantics difference as the controls work the same. Some EQs allow the slope of the low-cut to be adjusted along with the frequency, while others leave the slope at a fixed amount.
Compressors come in more varieties and with a wider range of features than EQ plug-ins. For most, the core operation is the same. The intent is to squash audio peak levels to reduce the overall dynamic range of a track between low and high volume levels. The smoother a compressor works, the more natural and unobtrusive the compression effect is.
The threshold control determines the volume level at which the compressor starts to bite into the signal. As you lower the threshold, more of the signal is impacted. Some compressors also include an input gain control to raise the audio coming into the filter ahead of the threshold control.
The ratio control determines the amount of signal compression, i.e. gain reduction above the threshold. A 2:1 ratio means that 2dB of gain over the threshold would be reduced by half to 1dB. A 4:1 ratio would be a reduction from 4dB down to 1dB for any audio peaks that exceed the threshold.
The make-up gain control (when available) is often used to compensate for the gain reduction. When you apply a heavy amount of compression, affecting a larger range of the signal, the overall output will sound lower. Increasing the make-up gain compensates for this volume loss. However, this risks also bringing up the noise floor, since quiet portions of the tracks have been attenuated, too.
When you see the compressor settings displayed graphically, the adjustment appears as a hockey stick standing on its end. The threshold point is displayed on the graph as the point where the line bends. The angle of this bend is the ratio. The higher the ratio, the flatter the bent section of the line. A slightly curved bend is referred to as a soft knee, meaning that compression kicks in more gradually.
The response of the compressor to peaks is controlled by the attack and release adjustments. Set a fast attack time and the compressor will react quickly to peaks. A slow release time means that bite of the gain reduction holds on longer before the compressor returns to a neutral effect. The attack and release times determine the characteristics of how that compressor sounds. As an example, your adjustments would be different for speech than if you were recording drums. The impact of the compressor would sound different in each case.
The lookahead setting determines how far ahead the compressor plug-in is analyzing the track in order to respond to future peak levels. But, you are balancing performance versus precision. Long lookahead times require more processing power for the computer. A very short lookahead value means that some peaks will get through. Lookahead only works when you are working with a recorded track and isn’t applicable to compression on live sources, such as in a recording session.
Multi-band compressors and limiters
There are two special types of compressors. The multi-band compressor divides the sound spectrum into several frequency ranges. This enables the user to control the amount of compression applied to different parts of the signal, such as low versus mid versus high frequencies. As we will see in Part 4, some equalizers can be paired with compression controls to create a combo plug-in of EQ coupled with multi-band compression.
Another variation is the limiter. This is a compressor that’s designed to block all volume peaks above a determined threshold. Limiters are important if you have to deliver files for broadcast or streaming services in order to stay within loudness parameters. Some editors and mix engineers will place a multi-band compressor followed by a limiter on their stereo output mix bus for this reason.
Finally, some compressors include a built-in limiter, often referred to as a brick wall limiter. This is a second stage of compression with a tighter ratio. Graphically, the slope after the knee would appear flat. The limiter threshold is designed to fully compress all peaks that exceed the set level of the compressor. Typically the limiter values would be set somewhat higher than the compressor adjustments in order to allow for some dynamic range between the two.