Stocking Stuffers 2020

The end of the year is often  a good time to enhance your edit system with goodies. There are many cyber deals, plus the workload briefly slows enough to evaluate any changes that you need to make with your system. While not necessarily holiday specials, here are a few tools that caught my eye – or that I use regularly – and are worth checking out.

Boris FX Particle Illusion. This has been a component of the Continuum suite, but last summer Boris FX made Particle Illusion available as a free, standalone application for Mac and Windows systems. It’s a real-time, GPU-based, particle generator that comes with an emitter library of thousands of presets. These include a wide range of styles, including sci-fi effects, lightning, fireworks, sparkles, data streams, HUDs, and a ton more. Particle Illusion comes with its own layer-based composition window and timeline. Preset effects can be combined and modified to create unique effects, which may be exported as key-able elements. For example, I recently used it to create snowfall and snowflake animations in a virtual holiday performance video.

Yanobox Storm. Need some really cool animated backgrounds? Yanobox to the rescue with its new Storm generator. It’s available through the FxFactory platform for Final Cut Pro, Motion, Premiere Pro, and After Effects on Intel Macs. Like Particle Illusion, Storm features over 200 animated 3D presets and templates, including fire, organic fluid effects, fractals, and much more. Parameters are easily adjusted and performance is good even on older Macs. Storm is built around a self-contained rendering engine with beautiful shading, geometry, reflections, fractions, etc.

Color Finale LUTs. You’ve bought a bunch of LUTs, because you like the cool looks they offer. But it’s hard to deal with them across various LUT libraries and NLEs. The folks at Color Trix (makers of the Color Finale 2 grading solution for Final Cut Pro), have introduced Color Final LUTs. This is a standalone LUT management tool for the Mac. You can add and browse LUT collections within a single solution. The look of that LUT can be previewed using a default image or any reference images that’s you’ve added to the application. These can be manually added or via access to your Photos library. Color Finale LUTs integrates with Final Cut Pro, Premiere Pro, and DaVinci Resolve. Simply select the LUTs, designate the target NLE, and Color Finale LUTs will handle copying those LUTs into the proper folders.

BounceColor.  Speaking of LUTs, here’s a collection I recently became aware of. BounceColor offers a collection of creative and technical LUTs for a range of host applications in many looks and styles. Aside from the standard types of LUTs, BounceColor also offers cross-conversion LUTs. These include the usual camera log format to Rec 709, but also Blackmagic to ARRI Log-C. Finally, the BounceColor collections also include display LUTs, which are useful on location.

iZotope Holiday Bundle. Let’s not forget audio! All of the various audio filter plug-in developers offer cyber deals. Some, like Waves, seem to have perennial discounts on selected items. I’m a fan of iZotope’s products and have written about their tools, like Ozone and RX, in the past. Right now they are offering a Holiday Bundle, which is a collection of the Elements (“lite”) versions of four of their major bundles (Ozone, Nectar, Neutron, RX), plus some extras. Some of this won’t be useful for a video editor. The extras fall into what I would call “flash and trash” effects. Nectar can be useful for voice-overs, but Neutron is mainly geared around music instruments, not full mixes. However, editors will find that the RX effects (audio repair and clean-up), along with Ozone (mastering), may quickly because go-to items. Ozone Elements only includes three modules (EQ, imager, and maximizer), which is largely what you need on your master bus for some final mastering sweetness. Even though you might only use a few of the items in the bundle, the current price is still less than two of these products on their own, even at a discount. If the bundle is to your liking, I recommend going through an audio dealer, like Sweetwater, for a better online purchasing experience.

Enjoy!

©2020 Oliver Peters

Accusonus ERA5

The trend in audio plug-ins is simple-to-use effects with a minimal number of controls. Waves started this with their One Knob series – a set of equalization, reverb, and compression filters to make audio “brighter,” “phatter,” or “wetter.” In recent years, Accusonus was among the first to expand this concept to audio repair effects in order to de-ess, remove plosives, reduce noise, and so on. Last summer I reviewed their ERA4 bundle. These plug-ins have become part of my go-to toolkit when dealing with audio in Premiere Pro and/or Final Cut Pro X.

Accusonus has now introduced their ERA5 bundles, along with a new pricing and licensing model (more on that later). As before, there’s a Standard and a Pro bundle. The Standard bundle includes the set of single-button filters, while the Pro bundle adds several more advanced, multi-band filters. I’ll skip the single-button filters, since I covered those in my ERA4 review. The Accusonus site features processed samples to hear how each works. However, these filters have been updated for ERA5 and to my ears, tend to sound better than before.

In addition to the single-button filters, both bundles include these new ERA5 effects: Voice AutoEQ, Room Tone Match (only available as an AudioSuite plug-in for Pro Tools), and Voice Deepener. The ERA5 Pro bundle adds Noise Remover Pro, Reverb Remover Pro, and De-Esser Pro.

Voice AutoEQ is an intelligent equalizer that analyzes your vocal track to set a base and then offers controls to adjust the EQ towards more air, clarity, or body. Moving the puck around within the triangle results in complex, multi-frequency equalization using a single control. This filter is designed for single voices in mono or stereo tracks. It won’t work with a multi-channel, broadcast wave file and isn’t effective on a mixed dialogue track with several speakers.

The Voice Deepener filter seems like a gimmick to me. The intent is to add more bottom to a voice and make it sound fuller. Accusonus promotes it as giving the voice that “movie-trailer” effect. While a small touch of it on male voices does work, pushing it to extremes errs on the side of sounding like you are disguising the voice. It sounds downright cartoonish on female voices. Of course, that means you could use it for just such an effect, rather than only enhancement.

The three Pro effects (Noise Remover Pro, Reverb Remover Pro, and De-Esser Pro) are more advanced or multi-band versions of their companion single-button filter. You get both in the Pro bundle, so if the simpler version doesn’t achieve the correct results, use the Pro version instead.

Both bundles now include the Audio Clean-Up Assistant. This is a container that is applied as a single plug-in effect. Within it are five slots to which you can add any combination of the ERA5 processing modules. In operation, that’s a lot like iZotope’s “mothership” approach. Choose from a range of preset configurations or start with an empty container and build up your own configuration. Maybe you have a standard set of effects that you apply to every voice recording. Simply create your own channel strip configuration and save it as a custom preset. Then apply it as a single Audio Clean-Up Assistant effect.

One huge change in this past year is pricing and licensing. In the past, ERA bundles were purchased as perpetual licenses with activation keys for each separate plug-in. Now you can opt for subscription, as well as perpetual. Unfortunately, if you look at the Accusonus website, all promotion points towards subscription. It’s only when you go to the “buy now” page that you see a pulldown revealing the perpetual option. You can also purchase ERA5 Standard or ERA5 Pro through the FxFactory site (perpetual only). However, in both cases, it now appears that you can only purchase or subscribe to the bundle and not individual filters.

If you go through Accusonus, licensing is now handled in a manner similar to Adobe Creative Cloud. You set up an account and sign-in from any of the plug-in panels. When you do so, all ERA5 plug-ins attached to that account are immediately activated. No need to enter individual activation codes. However, you should not sign out. Doing so de-activates the plug-ins until you sign-in again. This may be confusing, because it implies that you have to constantly be connected to the internet. I’ve already seen confusion online about this point and Accusonus does not make it clear in their installation instructions nor on the website.

In fact, as long as you sign-in (and were connected when you signed in) and stay signed in, your plug-ins work. Disconnect from the interact, lose your connection, whatever – the plug-ins are still activated. Adobe CC works in exactly the same manner. The advantage is that you can have the ERA5 bundle installed on multiple computers and easily move your activation around as you go from one machine to the other, simply through this sign-in/sign-out method.

If you already own ERA4, then the new tools may or may not entice you to upgrade. If you don’t own either, then it’s easy to start in a trial mode and decide. The Accusonus ERA5 filters are easy to use and augment the built-in effects bundles of most DAWs and NLEs. They are real-time and don’t require too much fiddling to dial in the sound. ERA5 is a useful set of audio repair tools for video editors, podcasters, and audio engineers alike.

©2020 Oliver Peters

iZotope RX8 Audio Editor

Most digital audio and video editing applications come with a robust set of audio plug-ins, but many editors and mixers prefer to augment those with third-party effects. iZotope is the go-to brand for many who need best-in-class audio effects tools. The company offers a number of comprehensive audio products and software suites, but most video editors will primarily be interested in RX8. It’s the latest version of iZotope’s renowned audio repair product.

iZotope offers its products, including RX8, in Elements (“lite”), Standard, and Advanced versions, giving the user the option to pick the feature set that best fits their budget. Some video editing software also comes bundled with one or more of the iZotope Elements products. iZotope’s Neutron, Nectar, and Ozone each install as a single plug-in that iZotope likes to call a “mothership.” This means that you apply a single instance of Nectar to a track and it becomes a container. Then, configure the processing modules that you need within the Nectar interface. In concept, it functions like a channel strip or effects rack. The filters work in real-time within the framework of the DAW or NLE.

An audio editor plus plug-ins

RX8 is different in that it installs over a dozen individual AU, VST, and AAX plug-ins, instead of a single “mothership” plug-in. In addition, a standalone application – the RX8 Audio Editor – is also installed. That’s where the real power is.

If you are working in Audition or Premiere Pro, for example, and need to apply a De-clip or De-ess effect to a voice-over recording, then you can simply apply that individual iZotope filter to the track. However, when more extensive processing is required, then it’s time to use the RX8 Audio Editor application. Most of the time you’ll find that it’s best to process a track in this external application first and then import the processed track into your editing application.

You can use the RX Connect plug-in within some DAWs and NLEs to roundtrip the track between the host and the RX8 application, much like Adobe’s dynamic link function. Unfortunately, the RX Connect roundtrip doesn’t work in current versions of Adobe Premiere Pro and Apple Final Cut Pro X. Instead, use a “reveal in Finder” command to locate the track, open it in RX8, process it, and then bring it back into the host to replace the original clip.

What’s new in RX8

iZotope has been continually improving the RX technology from one version to the next and RX8 is no exception. Besides interface changes and improved performance, RX8 includes three new processing modules.

Guitar De-noise will be of more interest to recording engineers than video editors. It is used to remove recording issues, like string squeaks on acoustic guitars, pick attacks, and amp hum with electric guitars. Spectral Recovery is ideal for news and documentary editors. Need to deal with a lo-fi voice-over recorded on a phone? This module can be used to restore frequencies above 4kHz and render a fuller voice recording. The Wow & Flutter module can be used to correct speed and pitch variations in older soundtracks. Several of the existing processing effects have also been improved with better processing, more functionality, and/or improved module interfaces.

The real heavy lifting

The RX8 standalone editor is truly a Swiss Army Knife of processing effects and at first glance might seem a bit daunting. Tracks can be displayed as a waveform, spectrogram, or a mix of both. The right side of the interface presents the selection of effects modules. You can apply single effects or create a module chain containing a series of filters. Plus there are a ton of presets. If you have a question about how a module works, click on the question mark icon in the upper right corner of the module panel and that takes you to iZotope’s website for reference information. However, you can also just start with Repair Assistant, which automatically analyzes the track and offers suggested processing. The Assistant presents A, B, and C preview options – pick one and tweak the settings further, if needed.

Many of the RX8 modules are processor-intensive. Depending on the function, some can be previewed in real-time. Others need to be rendered first and then you can compare and evaluate the before and after versions. RX8 maintains a history, so it’s easy to reject any changes that you’ve made, return to the initial state of the file, and try something different.

One interesting effect is Music Rebalance. Let’s say you have a completely mixed track of voice with music. Now you want the voice to be more dominant in the mix; but, remixing the original isn’t an option. One way to get there is Music Rebalance, which isolates and separates the component parts of the mix. This enables you to change the relative levels of each in the mix. As a by-product, it will also generate separate, isolated tracks, such as just the voice track. While such isolation isn’t 100% perfect, it’s some of the best isolation that I’ve heard.

But wait… There’s more

RX8 offers a large toolkit that goes way beyond the scope of this review. Here are just a few more highlights. If you need to get in deep for more audio surgery, then you can use Spectral Repair. It’s much like working with Photoshop. Select and then remove, replace, or “heal” noises, clicks, and other artifacts visible in the spectrogram.

Another useful feature is EQ Match (only available in RX8 Advanced). Do you have two different VO recordings done by the same talent at different times and they don’t sound the same? Use EQ Match to correct one to closely match the other. Editors who need to deliver final shows that adhere to proper loudness specs will be happy with the improved Loudness Control to monitor and adjust levels that meet broadcast targets.

The RX8 Audio Editor can now have up to 32 tabs of individual files loaded at once. These can be combined into a single Composite tab that allows you to apply the same processing simultaneously to all. In addition, RX8 also offers batch processing of audio files. Simply set up a module chain with the desired effects and settings, load multiple files, and apply that module chain to the batch. From there, export in a range of file formats and bit depths.

iZotope’s complete product line forms a comprehensive audio toolkit. RX8 is the most relevant to video editors and audio post engineers. It’s a tool that will also benefit podcasters and vloggers. In short, anyone who deals with dialogue-heavy material. RX8 represents the latest version of a product that’s being constantly improved. There certainly are competing plug-in packages that offer some similar filters as individual plug-ins. However, nothing on the market is as all-encompassing within a single tool for cleaning, repairing, and restoring audio than iZotope RX8.

Originally written for Pro Video Coalition.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Color Finale Connect – Remote Grading for FCPX

Remote workflows didn’t start with COVID, but that certainly drove the need home for many. While editing collaboration at a distance can be a challenge, it’s a far simpler prospect than remote color grading. That’s often a very interactive process that happens on premises between a colorist and a client, director, or cinematographer. Established high-end post facilities, like Company3 with locations in the US, Canada, and England, have pioneered remote color grading sessions using advanced systems like Resolve and Baselight. This allows a director in Los Angeles and a colorist in London to conduct remote, real-time, interactive grading sessions. But the investment in workflow development, hardware, and grading environments to make this happen is not inconsequential.

High-end remote grading comes to Final Cut Pro X

The Color Finale team has been on a quest to bring advanced grading tools to the Final Cut Pro X ecosystem with last December’s release of Color Finale 2. Many editors are working from home these days, so the team decided to leverage the frameworks for macOS and FCPX to enable remote grading in a far simpler method than with other grading solutions.

The result is Color Finale Connect, which is a Final Cut Pro X workflow extension currently in free public beta. Connect enables two or more Final Cut Pro X users to collaborate in near-real-time in a color grading session, regardless of their location. This review is in the context of long distance sessions, but Connect can also be used within a single facility where the participants might be in other parts of the building or in different buildings.

Color Finale Connect requires each user in a session to be on macOS Catalina, running licensed copies of Final Cut Pro X (not trial) and Color Finale 2.2 Pro (or higher). Download and install Color Finale Connect, which shows up as a Final Cut workflow extension. You can work in a Connect session with or without local media on every participant’s system. In order to operate smoothly and keep the infrastructure lightweight, person-to-person communication is handled outside of Connect. For example, interact with your director via Skype or Zoom on an iPad while you separately control Final Cut on your iMac.

Getting started

To start a session, each participant launches the Color Finale Connect extension within Final Cut. Whoever starts a session is the “broadcaster” and others that join this session are “followers.” The session leader (who has the local media) drags the Project icon to the Connect panel and “publishes” it. This generates a session code, which can be sent to the other participants to join the session from within their Connect extension panels.

Once a session is joined, the participants drag the Project icon from the Connect panel into an open FCPX Event. This generates a timeline of clips. If they have the matching local media, the timeline will be populated with the initial graded clips. If they don’t have media, then the timeline is populated with placeholder clips. Everyone needs to keep their Connect panel open to stay in the session (it can be minimized).

Data transfer is very small, since it consists mainly of Color Finale instructions; therefore, crazy-fast internet speeds aren’t required. It is peer-to-peer and doesn’t live anywhere “in the cloud.” If a participant doesn’t have local media installed, then as the session leader makes a color correction change in Color Finale 2 Pro, an “in-place” full-resolution frame is sent for that clip on the timeline. As more changes are made, the frames are updated in near-real-time.

The data communication is between Color Finale on one system and Color Finale on the others. All grading must happen within the Color Finale 2 Pro plug-in, not FCPX’s native color wheels or other plug-ins. The “in-place” frames support all native Final Cut media formats, such as H.264, ProRes, and ProRes RAW; however, formats that require a plug-in, like RED camera raw files, will not transmit “in-place” frames. In that case, the data applied to the placeholder frame is updated, but you won’t see a reference image.

This isn’t a one-way street. The session leader can enable any participant to also have control. Let’s say the session leader is the colorist and the director of photography is a participant. The colorist can enable remote control for the DP, which would permit them to make tweaks on their own system. This in turn would update back on the colorist’s system, as well as for all the other participants.

Color Finale Connect workflows

I’ve been testing a late-stage beta version of Connect and Color Finale 2.2 Pro and the system works well. The “in-place” concept is ingenious, but the workflow is best when each session member has local media. This has been improved with the enhanced proxy workflow updated in Final Cut Pro X 10.4.9. Let’s say the editor has the full-resolution, original media and generates smaller proxies – for example, 50% size H.264 files. These are small enough that you can easily send the Library and proxy media to all participants using services like WeTransfer, MASV, FileMail, or Frame.io.

One of the session members could be a favored colorist on the other side of the world. In this case, he or she would be working with the proxy media. If the editor and colorist are both able to control the session, then it becomes highly interactive. Formats like RED don’t pose a problem thanks to the proxy transcodes, as long as no local changes are made outside of the Color Finale plug-in. In other words, don’t change the RED raw source settings within this session. Once the colorist has completed the grade using proxy media, those grading settings would be updated through a Connect session on the editor’s system where the original media resides.

Color management

How do you know that your client sees the color in the same way as you do on a reference display? Remote color grading has always been hampered by color management and monitor calibration. It would, of course, be ideal for each participant in the session to have Blackmagic or AJA output hardware connected to a calibrated display. If there is an a/v output for FCPX, then the Connect session changes will also be seen on that screen. But that’s a luxury most clients don’t have.

This is where Apple hardware, macOS, and Final Cut Pro X’s color management come to the rescue and make Color Finale Connect a far simpler solution than other methods. If both you and your client are using Apple hardware (iMac, iMac Pro, Pro Display XDR) then color management is tightly controlled and accurate. First make sure that macOS display settings like True Tone and Night Shift are turned off on all systems. Then you are generally going to see the same image within the Final Cut viewer on your iMac screen as your client will see on theirs.

The one caveat is that users still have manual control of the screen brightness, which can affect the perception of the color correction. One tip is to include a grayscale or color chart that can be used to roughly calibrate the display’s brightness setting. Can everyone just barely see the darkest blocks on the chart? If not, brighten the display setting slightly. It’s not a perfect calibration, but it will definitely get you in the ballpark.

Color Finale 2 Pro turns Final Cut Pro X into an advanced finishing solution. Thanks to the ecosystem and extensions framework, Final Cut opens interesting approaches to collaboration, especially in the time of COVID. Tools like Frame.io and Postlab enable better long-distance collaboration in easier-to-use ways than previous technologies. Color Finale Connect brings that same ease-of-use and efficient remote collaboration to FCPX grading. Remember this is still a beta, albeit a stable one, so make sure you provide feedback should any issues crop up.

Originally written for FCP.co.

©2020 Oliver Peters

Improving your mix with iZotope

In classic analog mixing consoles like Neve or SSL, each fader includes a channel strip. This is a series of in-line processors that can be applied to each individual input and usually consists of some combination of an EQ, gate, and compressor. If a studio mixing engineer doesn’t use the built-in effects, then they may have a rack of outboard effects units that can be patched in and out of the mixing console. iZotope offers a number of processing products that are the software equivalent of the channel strip or effects rack.

I’ve written about iZotope products in the past, so I decided to take a look at their Mix & Master Bundle Plus, with is a collection of three of their top products – Neutron 3, Nectar 3, and Ozone 9. These products, along with RX, are typically what would be of interest to most video editors or audio post mixers. RX 8 is a bundle of repair effects, such as noise reduction, click repair, and so on.

Depending on the product, it may be available within a single plug-in effect, or several plug-ins, or both a plug-in and a standalone application. For instance, RX8 and Ozone 9 can be used within a DAW or an NLE, in addition to being a separate application. Most of the comprehensive iZotope products are available in three versions – Elements (a “lite” version), Standard, and Advanced. As the name implies, you get more features with the Advanced version; however, nearly everything an editor would want can be handled in the Standard product or for some, in an Elements version.

The mothership

Each of these products is an AU, VST, and/or AAX plug-in compatible with most DAWs and NLEs. It shows up as a single plug-in effect, which in iZotope’s parlance is the mothership for processing modules. Each product features its own variety of processing modules, such as EQ or compression. These modules can be stacked and arranged in any order within the mothership plug-in. Instead of having three individual effects applied to a track, you would only have one iZotope plug-in, which in turn contains the processing modules that you’d like to use. While each product might offer a similar module, like EQ, these modules do not function in exactly the same way from one product to the next. The range of control or type of function will differ. For example, only Ozone 9 includes mid/side EQ. In addition to new features, this newest series of iZotope updates includes faster processing with real-time performance and some machine learning functions.

If you can only buy one of these products and they perform somewhat similar tasks, how do you know what to use? First, there’s nothing to prevent you from applying Ozone, Nectar, or Neutron interchangeably to any individual track or a master bus. Or to a voice-over or a music mix. From the standpoint of a video editor using these plug-ins for the audio mix of my videos, I would simplify it down this way. Nectar 3 is designed for vocal processing. Neutron 3 is designed for music. Ozone 9 is designed for mastering. If I own all three, then in a simple mix of a dialogue track against music, I would apply Nectar 3 to the dialogue track, Neutron 3 to the music track, and Ozone 9 to the master bus.

Working with iZotope’s processing

Neutron, Nectar, and Ozone each include a wealth of presets that configure a series of modules depending on the style you want – from subtle to aggressive. You can add or remove modules or rearrange their order in the chain by dragging a module left or right within the plug-in’s interface. Or start from a blank shell and build an effects chain from the module selection available within that iZotope product. Neutron offers six basic modules, Nectar nine, and Ozone eleven. Many audiophiles love vintage processing to warm up the sound. In spite of iZotope’s sleek, modern approach, you’re covered here, too. Ozone 9 includes several dedicated vintage modules for tape saturation, limiting, EQ, and compression.

All three standard versions of these products include an Assistant function. If you opt to use the Assistant, then play your track and Nectar, Neutron, or Ozone will automatically calculate and apply the modules and settings needed, based on the parameters that you choose and the detected audio from the mix or track. You can then decide to accept or reject the recommendation. If you accept, then use that as a starting point and make adjustments to the settings or add/delete modules to customize the mix.

Neutron 3 Advanced includes Mix Assistant, an automated mix that uses machine learning. Let’s say you have a song mix with stems for vocals, bass, drums, guitars, and synths. Apply the Relay effect to each track and then iZotope’s Visual Mixer to the master bus. With the Standard version, you can use the Visual Mixer to control the levels, panning, and stereo width for each track from a single interface. The Relay plug-ins control those settings on each track based on what you’ve done using the Visual Mixer controls. If you have Neutron 3 Advanced, then this is augmented by Mix Assistant. Play the song through and let Mix Assistant set a relative balance based on your designated focus tracks. In other words, you can tell the algorithm whether vocals or guitars should be the focus and thereby dominant in the mix.

Note that iZotope regularly updates versions with new features, which may or may not be needed in your particular workflow. As an example, RX8 was just released with new features over RX7. But if you owned an earlier version, then it might still do everything you need. While new features are always welcome, don’t feel any pressure that you have to update. Just rest assured that iZotope is continually taking customer feedback and developing its products.

Be sure to check out iZotope’s wealth of tutorials and learning materials, including their “Are you listening?” YouTube series. Even if you don’t use any iZotope products, Grammy-nominated mastering engineer Jonathan Wyner offers plenty of great tips for getting the best out of your mixes.

©2020 Oliver Peters