Audio Plug-ins for the Holidays

You wanted to spruce up your audio toolkit, but already blew the budget on presents for the family and friends. Fear not, because here’s another list of free (or close to it) audio plug-ins that are worth getting excited about. Last year I wrote about excellent free tools from TBProAudio and Tokyo Dawn Records/Labs. These are still worth checking out and I use some of these on nearly every mix. However, since that post, I’ve run into a few more that are worth highlighting.

Focusrite Hitmaker Expansion bundle

OK, this first selection isn’t technically free on its own. It comes as a bonus offering if you purchased a Focusrite Scarlett, Clarett, or Red interface after Oct. 1, 2022. I don’t know whether the details will change or if this offer is time-sensitive. Nevertheless, if you need an audio interface, then it’s worth checking these out. (I personally use the Scarlett 2i2 interface with several different workstations.) This bundle includes some “free” plug-ins, some instrument packs, and some extended trials for subscription services. My personal favorite in this group is the Focusrite RED 2 & 3 Plug-in Suite.

Analog Obsession

If you want that vintage sound across a wide range of plug-in types, then Analog Obsession offers some of the best, regardless of price. These are free, however, a Patreon subscription is recommended, mainly to help further the development effort. New products are routinely added. These are AU/VST/VST3 plug-ins, but now AAX is also being added, starting with the newest Comper plug-in. The developer plans to make all of his existing plug-ins compatible with Pro Tools in soon-to-come updates.

There are two things I really find attractive about these tools. First, the developer builds in unique features that not even the most expensive competitors offer. For example, Comper is really two compressors, which can be used in series. Each offers VCA, FET, and Opto modeling that can be switched or blended. (Tip – on most Analog Obsession tools, click on the logo – it turns red – to enable oversampling.)

Second, there is no need for some separate licensing application. This is often the case with other companies, even when the plug-ins are free. You can quickly end up with half a dozen different licensing applications on your system, simply to manage a variety of plug-ins.

iZotope

Many other companies often include a handful of free plug-ins within their otherwise paid portfolio. You have to look, but they are out there. For instance, iZotope, which is known for RX, Ozone, and other high-end sets, also offers a few freebees. These include Vinyl, Ozone Imager, and Vocal Doubler. Vinyl is designed to purposefully degrade your mix with analog artifacts, like scratches, dust, warping, and more. The Stereo Imager module is part of Ozone, but is also offered for free as a separate plug-in. As the name implies, Vocal Doubler is there to enhance vocal recordings with a doubling effect.

KiiveAudio

Amongst Kiive’s range of plug-ins is the free Warmy EP1A Tube EQ. This is a 3-band equalizer modeled in a vintage fashion. The classic difference is that the low end has both a boost and an attenuation (cut) control. The allows you to simultaneously boost and cut low frequencies at slightly different points, enabling a punchier bottom end.

Klanghelm

Manley Labs introduced its legendary Variable Mu® Limiter-Compressor in 1994, which remains an analog mastering standard to this day. Klanghelm’s MJUC is a tip-of-the-hat to this hardware. But sticking with our free theme, you can also get the simplified MJUC jr. version. It’s designed as a master bus compressor for smooth leveling without pumping effects. Klanghelm offers two other freeware products: IVGI and DC1A. The first is designed for saturation and distortion. The latter is a compressor to use if you want a bit of analog color to your sound.

Klevgrand

I pointed out Klevgrand’s excellent noise reduction filter, Brusfri, in last year’s holiday post. However, Klevgrand also features a free plug-in tucked away on their site. FreeAmp is a free, stripped down version of their REAMP filter. Both are designed to model different instrument amps. FreeAMP combines all the profiles into a single universal profile so you can quickly dial in a desired amount of overdrive saturation.

Sonimus

Like Kiive, Sonimus offers a single free, vintage-style equalizer, the Sonimus SonEQ Free. It features similar controls to Warmy; however, with even a few more tricks. Given the two, I’d opt for SonEQ. An added benefit is the detailed manual from Sonimus, which spells out exactly how each control alters the sound.

VahallaDSP

Valhalla is one of the most-respected reverb/echo software developers. SuperMassive is their free plug-in for delays and reverbs. As the name implies, you can go from standard ambiences all the way up to very large and spacey effects.

So that’s a short list of free audio plug-ins that are great additions to your toolkit. Regardless of whether you mix music or cut videos, be sure to check out and see how these might enhance your workflow.

©2022 Oliver Peters

NLE Tips – Audio Track FX

I’ve written quite a few blog posts and articles about audio mixing methods in Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro. But over time, methods evolve, change, or become more streamlined, so it’s time to revisit the subject. When you boil down most commercials and short-subject videos (excluding trailers), the essence of the soundtrack is just voice against a music bed with some sound effects. While I’ll be the first to say you’ll get the best results sending even a simple mix to a professional mixer, often budget and timeframe don’t allow for that. And so, like most editors, I do a lot of my own mixes.

My approach to these mixes is straightforward and rather systematic. I’m going to use Premiere Pro examples, but track-based mixing techniques can be universally applied to all NLEs. Even FCP works with track-based mixing if you properly use its audio roles function. I will almost never apply audio effects at the individual clip level, unless it something special, like simulated phone call voice processing.

All dialogue clips usually end up on A1 with crossfades between to smooth the edits. Add room tone between for consistency. This also helps the processing of the track effects, especially noise reduction. If I have more than one voice or character, then each goes onto a separate track. I will use clip volume adjustments in order to get the track to sound even across the length of the video. With this done, it’s time to move to the track mixer.

In this example from a recent product video, the reviewer’s voice is on A1. There’s a motor start-up sound that I’ve isolated and placed on A2. Music is on A3 and then the master mix bus. These audio plug-in effects are the ones I use on almost every video in a pretty systematic fashion. I have a nice collection of paid and free, third-party audio plug-ins, but I often stick to only the stock effects that come with a given NLE. That’s because I frequently work with other editors on the same project and I know that if I stick with the standard effects, then they won’t have any compatibility issues due to missing plug-ins. The best stock plug-in set can be found in Logic Pro and many of those are available in FCP. However, the stock audio effects available in Premiere are solid options for most projects.

Audio track 1 – Dialogue – Step 1 – noise reduction. Regardless of how clean the mic recording is, I will apply noise reduction to nearly every voice track recorded on location. My default is the light noise reduction preset, where I normally tweak only the percentage. If you have a really noisy recording, I suggest using Audition first (if you are a Creative Cloud subscriber). It includes several noise reduction routines and a spectral repair function. Process the audio, bounce out an export, and bring the cleaned-up track into your timeline. However, that’s going to be the exception. The new dialogue isolation feature in Resolve 18.1 (and later) as well as iZotope RX are also good options.

Step 2 – equalization. I apply a parametric EQ effect after the noise reduction stage. This is just to brighten the voice and cut any unnecessary low end. Adobe’s voice enhancer preset is fine for most male and female voices. EQ is very subjective, so feel free to tweak the settings to taste.

Step 3 – compressor. I prefer the tube-modeled compressor set to the voice leveling preset for this first compression stage. This squashes any of the loudest points. I typically adjust the threshold level. You can also use this filter to boost the gain of the voice as you see in the screenshot. You really need to listen to how the audio sounds and work interactively. Play this compressor off against the audio levels of the clip itself. Don’t just squash peaks using the filter. Duck any really loud sections and/or boost low areas within the clip for an even sound without it becoming overly compressed.

Audio track 2 – Sound FX – Step 1 – equalization. Many of my videos are just voice and music, but in this case, the reviewer powers up a boat motor and cruises off at the end of the piece. I wanted to emphasis the motor rumble, so I split that part of the clip’s audio and moved it down to A2. This let me apply different effects than the A1 track effects. Since I wanted a lot of bottom end, I used parametric EQ at full reset and boosted the low end to really get a roaring sound.

Step 2 – compressor. I once again applied the tube-modeled compressor in order to keep the level tame with the boosted EQ settings.

Audio track 3 – Music – Step 1 – equalization. Production music helps set the mood and provides a bed under the voice. But you don’t want it to compete. Before applying any effects, get the volume down to an acceptable level and adjust any really loud or quiet parts in the track. Then, apply a parametric equalizer in the track mixer panel. Pull down the level of the midrange in the frequencies closest to the voice. I will also adjust the Q (range and tightness of the bell curve at that frequency). In addition, I often boost the low and high ends. In this example, the track included a bright hi-hat, which I felt was a bit distracting. And so in this example, I also pulled down some of the high end.

Step 2 – stereo expander. This step is optional, but it helps many mixes. The stereo expander effect pushes the stereo image out to the left and right, leaving more of the center open for voice. However, don’t get carried away, because stereo expander plug-ins also alter the phase of the track. This can potentially throw some of the music out of phase when listened to in mono, which could cause your project to be rejected. If you are mixing for the web, then this is less of an issue, since most modern computers, tablets, smart phones, not to mention ear buds, etc are all set up for stereo. However, if you mix is for broadcast, then be sure to check your mix for proper phase correlation.

Mix bus – Step 1 – multi-band compression. The mix bus (aka master bus or output bus) is your chance to “glue” the mix together. There are different approaches, but for these types of projects, I like to use Adobe’s multi-band compressor set to the classical master preset. I adjust the threshold of the first three bands to -20 and a compression ratio of 4 across the board. This lightly knocks down any overshoots without being heavy-handed. The frequency ranges usually don’t need to be adjusted. Altering the output gain drives the volume hitting the limiter in the next step. You may of may not need to adjust this depending on your target level for the whole mix.

Step 2 – hard limiter. The limiter is the last plug-in that controls output volume. This is your control to absolutely stay below a certain level. I use the -3 or -6 preset (depending on the loudness level I’m trying achieve) and reduce the input boost back to 0. I also change it to read true peaks instead of only peak levels. 

Step 3 – loudness meter. The loudness meter keeps you honest. Don’t just go by the NLE’s default audio meters. If you have been mixing to a level of just below 0 on those, then frankly you are mixing the wrong way for this type of content. Really loud mixes close to 0 are fine for music production, but not OK for any video project.

The first step is to find out the target deliverable and use the preset for that. There are different presets for broadcast loudness standards versus web streaming, like YouTube. These presets don’t change the readout of the numbers, though. They change the color indicators slightly. Learn what those mean. 

Broadcast typically requires integrated loudness to be in the -23 to -24 area, whereas YouTube uses -14. I aim for a true peak target of -3 or -6. This tracks with the NLE audio meters at levels peaking in the -9 to -6 range. Adjusting the gain levels of the multi-band compressor and/or limiter help you get to those target levels.

©2022 Oliver Peters

Sonible smart:comp 2

Audio software plug-ins (effects and filters) come in two forms. On one hand, you have a wide range of products that emulate vintage analog hardware, often showcasing a skeuomorphic interface design. If you know how the original hardware version worked and sounded, then that will inform your expectations for the software equivalent. The other approach is to eschew the sonic and visual approach of analog emulation and build a plug-in with a modern look and sound. Increasingly this second group of plug-ins employ intelligent profiles and “assistants” to analyze your track and provide you with automatic settings that form a good starting point.

Austria has a long and proud musical history and heritage of developing leading audio products. There are many high-end Austrian audio manufacturers. One of those companies is Sonible, which develops both hardware and software products. The Sonible software falls into that second camp of plug-ins, with clean sonic qualities and a modern interface design. Of key interest is the “smart:” category, including smart:comp 2, smart:limit, smart:EQ 3, smart:reverb, and smart:EQ live. The first four of these are also available as the smart:bundle.

Taking a spin with Sonible’s spectro-dynamic compressor

I tested out smart:comp 2, which is billed as a spectro-dynamic compressor. It’s compatible with Windows and macOS and installs AU, VST, VST3, and AAX (Avid) versions. Licensing uses an iLok or is registered to your computer (up to two computers at a time). Let’s start with why these are “smart.” In a similar fashion to iZotope’s Ozone and others, smart:comp 2 can automatically analyze your track and assign compressor settings based on different profiles. The settings may be perfect out of the gate or form a starting point for additional adjustments. Of course, you can also just start by making manual adjustments.

Spectro-dynamic is a bit of a marketing term, but in essence, smart:comp 2 works like a highly sophisticated multiband compressor. The compression ranges are based on the sonic spectrum of the track. Instead of the four basic bands of most multiband compressors, smart:comp 2 carves up the signal into 2,000 slices to which compression is dynamically applied. As a compressor, this plug-in is equally useful on individual tracks or on the full mix as a mastering plug-in.

In addition, I would characterize the interface design as “discoverable.” When you first open the plug-in, you see a clean user interface with simple adjustments for level and ratio. However, you can click certain disclosure triangles to open other parts of the interface, such as control of attack and release timing, as well as side-chain filtering. There are three unique sound shaping controls at the bottom. Style controls the character of the compressor between “clean” (transparent) and “dirty” (warm and punchy). The Spectral Compression control dials in the amount of spectral (multiband) compression being applied. At zero, smart:comp 2 will act as an ordinary broadband compressor. The Color control lets you emphasis “darker” or “brighter” ranges within the spectral compression.

Simple, yet powerful functions

Start by selecting a profile (or leave on “Universal”). Play a louder section of your mix and let smart:comp 2 “learn” the track. Once learning is done and a profile established, you may be done. Or you may want to make further adjustments to taste. For example, the plug-in features automatic input riding along with automatic output (make-up gain). I found that for my mixes, input riding worked well, but I preferred a fixed output gain, which can be set manually.

There’s a “limit” function, which is always set to 0dBFS. When enabled, the limit option becomes a soft clipper. All peaks exceeding 0dBFS will be tamed to avoid hard clipping. It’s like a smooth limiter set to 0dBFS after the compression stage. However, if your intended use is broadcast production, rather than music mixes, you may still need to add a separate limiter plug-in (such as Sonible’s smart:limit) in the mastering chain after smart:comp 2. Especially if your target is lower, such as true peaks at -3dB or -6dB.

smart:comp2 did a wonderful job as a master bus compressor on my music mixes. I tested it against other built-in and third-party compressors within Logic Pro and DaVinci Resolve Fairlight. First, smart:comp 2 is very clean when you press it hard. There’s always a pleasing sound. However, the biggest characteristic is that the mixes sound more open with better clarity.

smart:comp 2 for mixing video projects

I’m a video editor and most of my mixes are more basic than multitrack music mixes with large track counts. Just a few dialogue, music, and sound effects tracks and that’s it. So the next test was applying smart:comp 2 on Premiere Pro’s mix bus. When I originally mixed this particular project, I used Adobe’s built-in tube-modeled compression on the dialogue tracks and then Adobe’s  multiband compressor and limiter of the mix buss. For this test, I stripped all of those out and only added smart:comp 2 to the mix output buss.

I noticed the same openness as in the music mixes, but input riding was even more evident. My sequence started with a 15 second musical lead-in. Then the music ducks under the dialogue as the presenter appears. I had mixed this level change manually for a good-sounding balance. When I applied smart:comp 2, I noticed that the opening music was louder than with the plug-in bypassed. Yet, this automatic loudness level change felt right and the transition to the ducked music was properly handled by smart:comp 2. Although the unprocessed mix initially sounded fine to me, I would have to say that using smart:comp 2 made it a better-sounding mix overall. It was also better than when I used the built-in options.

How you use plug-ins is a matter of taste and talent. Some pros may look at automatic functions as some sort of cheat. I think that’s wrong. Software analysis can give you a good starting point in less time, allowing more time for creativity. You aren’t getting bogged down twirling knobs. That’s a good thing. I realize vintage plug-ins often look cool, but if you don’t know the result you’ll get, they can be a waste of time and money. This is where plug-ins like the smart: series from Sonible will enhance to your daily mixing workflow, regardless of whether you are a seasoned recording engineer or a video editor.

©2022 Oliver Peters

New Plug-ins Bring More Spice to FCP

Continuum FCP Units, Hawaiki Keyer 5, XTheme Tech

All editing applications benefit from third-party video plug-ins. Two of my favorite developers are Boris FX and Noise Industries/FxFactory. Over the years Boris FX has evolved into a powerhouse plug-in developer offering the most comprehensive effects packages on the market. FxFactory takes a different route. They develop their own plug-ins, but also serve as a platform and marketplace for numerous partner/developers. The result is a product mix that’s both diverse and eclectic.

Boris FX Continuum FCP Units

Boris FX Continuum Complete has been their flagship product for decades. It runs in many of the popular post production applications, including Avid Media Composer, Adobe Premiere Pro and After Effects, Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve, and Apple Final Cut Pro and Motion. As I’ve previously noted, Continuum FCP differs from the other versions of Continuum and is sold as a separate product. Boris FX also breaks down some of the categories of Continuum effects into its Units products, which are subsets of the full version. These are packaged for editors and designers who don’t need or want all of what’s in the full version.

This summer Boris FX released the free BCC Looks package for Final Cut Pro editors. That was followed up recently with three new Continuum FCP Units collections: Stylize, Color Essentials, and Transitions. These are affordable collections sold with perpetual licenses. They include hundreds of presets plus Mocha masking with each effect. If you purchase all three, as well as pick up the free Looks plug-in, you’ll have a lot of what’s in the full Continuum for FCP bundle. However, you’ll need the full version for certain popular effects, like lens flares.

The installer you receive is for the complete Continuum suite. As you run it, you’ll be prompted for the activation code of each purchased Unit. You can opt to install only the licensed plug-ins or the full package, which means the non-licensed effects run in a watermarked trial mode. Adjust an effect’s parameters in the FCP inspector panel or open it in the FX Browser, where you can toggle through presets or customize the settings. Transition effects also use on-screen graphs for the effect’s velocity curves.

Boris FX has done a good job of curating the collections with plenty of useful effects. For example, Stylize features effects such as glitch, prism, gobo,  grunge, and more. Color Essentials includes many film effects, like film stocks, gels, bleach bypass, etc. Finally, the Transitions Unit offers a variety of zoom, glitch, glow, prism, and light leak dissolve effects. You certainly get a lot more with the full version of Continuum; however, the effects included within these Units collections are ones that you’ll use quite often. They complement Final Cut’s built-in effects palette, so you won’t feel like you’ve bought something that’s already in the native application.

FxFactory: Hawaiki Keyer 5

Virtual production has had all the buzz, but more often than not for budgetary reasons the fallback is green/blue-screen keying instead of a “volume” studio. To create a convincing composite, you need a top-notch keying plug-in. One of the best, just got better. The developers behind Hawaiki Keyer just upgraded version 4 to the new Hawaiki Keyer 5. This is offered through FxFactory and runs in Final Cut Pro, Motion, Premiere Pro, and After Effects.

The installation adds four plug-ins: HK5 (green), HK5 (blue), Comp Tools 5, and Slice 5. The first two are compositing effects specifically optimized for a green or blue-screen background. Comp Tools supplies all of the Hawaiki Keyer edge tools if you are using a different keyer. It will work as long as the keyer generates an alpha signal. Slice is an analysis tool. Green and blue-screen keying covers 99% of this type of compositing, but you can still use either keying effect if some non-standard background color was used. Hawaiki Keyer 5 offers a broad range of tools to adjust the key, edges, light wrap, and post-process color correction.

New features in version 5 are built-in cropping and shape masks with AI tracking. A common production situation is to shoot wide with the intent to isolate the subject on the green screen background. The shot often extends past the edge of the background cyc and may include crew or lighting or other elements that need to be removed. HK5 is optimized to even out the background for a cleaner key. It now includes tools to mask out all of the material other than what you are intending to key. No need to add additional masking and cropping effects, because these are built into the plug-in itself.

Shape masking uses AI tracking, which can be set to follow objects or faces (including multiple faces), using facial recognition. This is real-time and happens automatically without the need to first analyze the movement and generate a tracked path. As far as I know, it’s unique to have this function integrated directly into the plug-in. For my money, these new features along with the depth of the adjustments available make Hawaiki Keyer 5 the best green/blue-screen keyer plug-in on the market.

FxFactory: XTheme Tech

One major advantage to using Final Cut Pro and Motion is the ability to create your own effects and graphics templates based on the Motion Templates architecture. This has empowered a huge ecosystem of small developers to create free and paid graphics packages. Adobe’s Essential Graphics panel templates pale in comparison. There are many FCP templates, but few are designed with elements built to work together for a coherent look. The exception is idustrial revolution, whose XEffects plug-ins and tool kits are offered through FxFactory. These include professionally-designed social, sports, and news packages that are great for graphics-challenged editors like me.

idustrial’s newest is XTheme Tech, a set of titles, effects, and transitions. These matching elements are designed to be complementary and can be used as an elegant graphics package for any type of show. The tool kit is exclusive for Final Cut Pro and includes over 100 lower thirds, backgrounds, tracking callouts, panels, bars, transitions, and more. There’s also a demo project with examples of how to build looks. Elements from the demo timeline can also be copied-and-pasted into your own sequence.

The bundle includes 10 color swatch titles intended for inspiration. That’s pretty cool. Color accents and background colors can be easily modified in the inspector, which lets you experiment with your own color combinations. Copy-and-paste any of the colors from the swatches into the Mac color picker for use elsewhere. You can make parameter and text changes in the inspector panel, but also on-screen. That’s especially helpful when pinning control points for tracking callouts.

The type of plug-ins and effects that an editor might need can certainly vary from one production to the next. However, these newest updates from Boris FX and FxFactory are definitely worth looking into. As a collection, they form a versatile tool kit for any Final Cut editor and can elevate the quality of any production.

©2022 Oliver Peters

Colourlab Ai

An artificial intelligence grading option for editors and colorists

There are many low-cost software options for color correction and grading, but getting a stunning look is still down to the skill of a colorist. Why can’t modern artificial intelligence tools improve the color grading process? Colorist and color scientist Dado Valentic developed Colourlab Ai as just that solution. It’s a macOS product that’s a combination of a standalone application and companion plug-ins for Resolve, Premiere Pro, Final Cut Pro, and Pomfort Live Grade.

Colourlab Ai is comprised of two main functions – grading and show look creation. Most Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro editors will be interested in either the basic Colourlab Ai Creator or the richer features of Colourlab Ai Pro. The Creator version offers all of the color matching and grading tools, plus links to Final Cut Pro and Premiere Pro. The Pro version adds advanced show look design, DaVinci Resolve and Pomfort Live Grade integration, SDI output, and Tangent panel support. These integrations differ slightly, due to the architecture of each host application.

Advanced color science and image processing

Colourlab Ai uses color management similar to Resolve or Baselight. The incoming clip is processed with an IDT (input device transform), color adjustments are applied within a working color space, and then it’s processed with an ODT (output device transform) – all in real-time. This enables support for a variety of cameras with different color science models (such as ARRI Log-C) and it allows for output based on different display color spaces, such as Rec 709, P3, or sRGB.

If you prefer to work directly with the Colourlab Ai application by itself – no problem. Import raw footage, color correct the clips, and then export rendered movie files with a baked in look. Or you can use the familiar roundtrip approach as you would with DaVinci Resolve. However, the difference in the Colourlab Ai roundtrip is that only color information moves back to the editing application without the need to render any new media.

The Colourlab Ai plug-in for Final Cut Pro or Premiere Pro reads the color information created by the Colourlab Ai application from an XML file used to transfer that data. A source effect is automatically applied to each clip with those color parameters. The settings are still editable inside Final Cut Pro (not Premiere Pro). If you want to modify any color parameter, simply uncheck the “Use Smart Match” button and adjust the sliders in the inspector. In fact, the Colourlab Ai plug-in for FCP is a full-featured grading effect and you could use it that way. Of course, that’s doing it the hard way!

The ability to hand off source clips to Final Cut Pro with color metadata attached is unique to Colourlab Ai. This is especially a game changer for DITs who deliver footage with a one-light grade to editors working in FCP. The fact that no media need be rendered also significantly speeds up the process.

A professional grading workflow with Final Cut Pro and Colourlab Ai

Thanks to Apple’s color science and media architecture, Final Cut Pro can be used as a professional color grading platform with the right third-party tools. CoreMelt (Chromatic) and Color Trix (Color Finale) are two examples of developers who have had success offering advanced tools, using floating panels within the Final Cut Pro interface. Colourlab Ai takes a different approach by offloading the grade to its own application, which has been designed specifically for this task.

My workflow test involved two passes – once for dailies (such as a one-light grade performed by a DIT on-set) and then again for the final grade of the locked cut. I could have simply sent the locked cut once to Colourlab Ai, but my intention was to test a workflow more common for feature films. Shot matching between different set-ups and camera types is the most time-consuming part of color grading. Colourlab Ai is intended to make that process more efficient by employing artificial intelligence.

Step one of the workflow is to assemble a stringout of all of your raw footage into a new FCP project (sequence). Then drag that project from FCP to the Colourlab Ai icon on the dock (Colourlab Ai has already been opened). The Colourlab Ai app will automatically determine some of the camera sources (like ARRI files) and apply the correct IDT. For any unknown camera, manually test the settings for different cameras or simply stick with a default Rec 709 IDT.

The Pro interface features three tabs – Grade, Timeline Intelligence, and Look Design. The top half of the Grade tab displays the viewer and reference images used for matching. Color wheels, printer light controls, scopes, and versions are in the bottom half. Scope choices include waveform, RGB parade, or vectorscope, but also EL Zones. Developed by Ed Lachman, ASC, the EL Zone System is a false color display with 15 colors to represent a 15-stop exposure range. The mid-point equates to the 18% grey standard.

AI-based shot matching forms the core

Colourlab Ai focuses on smart shot matching, either through its Auto-Color feature or by matching to a reference image. The application includes a variety of reference images, but you can also import your own, such as from Shotdeck. The big advance Colourlab Ai offers over other matching solutions is Color Tune. A small panel of thumbnails can be opened for any clip. Adjust correction parameters – brightness, contrast, density, etc – simply by stepping through incremental value changes. Click on a thumbnail to preview it in the viewer.

The truly unique aspect is that Color Tune lets you choose from eleven matching options. Maybe instead of a Smart model, you’d prefer to match based only on Balance or RGB or a Perceptual model. Step through the thumbnails and pick the look that’s right for the shot. Therefore, matching isn’t an opaque process. It can be optimized in a style more akin to adjusting photos than traditional video color correction.

Timeline Intelligence allows you to rearrange the sequence to group similar set-ups together. Once you do this, use matching to set a pleasing look for one shot. Select that shot as a “fingerprint.” Then select the rest of the shots in a group and match those to the fingerprinted reference shot. This automatically applies that grade to the rest. But, it’s not like adding a simple LUT to a clip or copy-and-pasting settings. Each shot is separately analyzed and matched based on the differences within each shot.

When you’re done going through all of the shots, right-click any clip and “push” the scene (the timeline) back to Final Cut Pro. This action uses FCPXML data to send the dailies clips back to Final Cut, now with the added Colourlab Ai effect containing the color parameters on each source clip.

Remember that Final Cut Pro automatically adds a LUT to certain camera clips, such as ARRI Alexa files recorded in Log-C. When your clips comes back in from Colourlab Ai, FCP may add a LUT on top of some camera files. You don’t want this, because Colourlab Ai has already made this adjustment with its IDT. If that happens, simply change the inspector LUT setting for that source file to “none.”

Lock the edit and create your final look

At this point you can edit with native camera clips that have a primary grade applied to them. No proxy media rendered by a DIT, hence a much faster turnaround and no extra media to take up drive space. Once you’ve locked the edit, it’s time for step two – the show look design for the final edit.

Drag the edited FCP project (new sequence with the graded clips) to the Colourlab Ai icon on the dock to send the edited sequence back to Colourlab Ai. All of the clips retain the color settings created earlier in the dailies grading session. However, this primary grade is just color metadata and can be altered. After any additional color tweaks, it’s time to move to Show Looks. Click through the show look examples and apply the one that fits best.

If you have multiple shots with the same look, apply a show look to the first one, copy it, and then apply that look to the rest of the selected clips. In most cases, you’ll have a different show look for various scenes within a film, but it’s also possible that a single show look would work through the entire film. So, experiment!

To modify a look or create your own, step into the Look Design tab (Pro version). Here you’ll find the Filmlab and Primary panels. Filmlab uses film stock emulation models and film’s subtractive color (CMY instead of RGB) for adjustments. Their film emulation is among the most convincing I’ve seen. You can select from a wide range of branded negative and print film stocks and then make contrast, saturation, and CMY color adjustments. The Primary panel gives you even more control over RGBCMY for the lift, gamma, and gain regions. Custom adjustments may be saved to create your own show looks. Once you’ve set a show look for all of your shots, push the sequence back to Final Cut Pro. Voila – a fully graded show and no superfluous media created in the process.

Some observations

Colourlab Ai is a revolutionary tool based on a film-style approach to grading. Artificial intelligence models speed up the process, but you are always in control. Thanks to the ease of operation, you can get great results without Resolve’s complex node structure. You can always augment a shot with FCP’s own color tools for a power window or a vignette.

The application currently lacks a traditional undo/redo stack. Therefore, use the version history to experiment with settings and looks. Each time you generate a new match, such as with Auto-Color or using a reference image, a new version is automatically stored. If you want to iterate, then manually add a version at any waypoint if a new match isn’t involved – for example, when making color wheels adjustments. The version history displays a thumbnail for each version. Step through them to pick the one that suits you best.

If you are new to color correction, then Colourlab Ai might look daunting at first glance. Nevertheless, it’s deceptively easy to use. There are numerous tutorials available on the website, as well as directly accessible from the launch window. A 7-day free trial can be downloaded for you to dip your toes in the water. The artificial intelligence at the heart of Colourlab Ai will enable any editor to deliver professional grades.

©2022 Oliver Peters