Finally, my Avid review.

This has been a long time coming. Last year at NAB Avid invited me to look at the new version of Media Composer, 3.0. I got to see all the new features like mixed format editing, the great new time code burn window, faster response time on the timeline, additional native formats like P2 and AVCIntra, added support for Vista and Leopard, new hardware (MojoDX and NitrisDX)…the whole gambit. I was quite impressed.

BUT, I am not “the media” in a blogger sense. I don’t like to just announce things, when I can help it (I still do, when they are things I think are really cool!). I like to report on the stuff I experience. Plus there were plenty of other blogs out there announcing the new Avid Media Composer features (EditBlog, Splice Here. I didn’t want to be yet another blog that said “Hey, Avid has come out with a new product” and list of the same stuff that people have already seen 8 times.

So Avid sent me a copy of Avid Media Composer 3.0 to try and see what I thought. They even were nice enough to send along a MojoDX for me to be able to capture footage with. So I was able to capture DVCPRO HD as DVCPRO HD, and then at 15:1, then DNxHD 145. I captured some DV footage via firewire, and then imported footage via P2. And then I did what limited testing I could do. The formats all mixed well on the timeline (if they were the same frame rate…a couple clips were jumpy because they were 29.97 and most the rest were 23.98), and as a general rule you can mix formats but NOT mix frame rates. True for FCP, true for Avid.

I tested the multiformat workflow, and that cool AVX plugin that allowed for multiple timecode windows without rendering…I liked that. And the responsiveness of the timeline had significantly improved. Before on Meridian or Adrenaline, when you tried to scroll on the timeline it was like cutting mud with a spoon. The latest version is fast as fast can be. But, that’s all I could really test. I didn’t have a project to edit, I couldn’t run the software through day to day use. So I didn’t feel confident in giving a review of this software because all I really was doing was kicking the tires and testing the blinkers.

So 6 months passed with no review. But now that I have been working on an Avid Media Composer 3.0.5 for nearly three months, I feel more comfortable posting a “real world” review.

Let’s go back a bit. First off, before I made my leap to Final Cut Pro, the version of Avid I used most was Media Composer v11 Meridian system on a Mac running OS9. That was the best most stable system out there, so stable that many production companies still use them. They work, why change? But it had severe limitations when it came to editing high definition. We had huge issues onlining a show and went hugely over budget. So when it came time to edit a show shot on DVCPRO HD I made the leap to Final Cut Pro.

So I cut with Final Cut Pro for a year or so, then that project ended and I find myself on a job cutting with Avid Adrenaline. The system was the most unstable thing I have ever witnessed. Crashed 5-12 times a day, Unity also down about 25% of the time. I don’t know how we managed to get a show cut on schedule, we really only had about four productive hours a day. I do know that I got VERY much into the habit of pressing SAVE every 5 minutes. Pure nightmare. Because of this I savored my Final Cut Pro system and vowed not to take an Avid job again if the Adrenaline was in play. And because of the issues with Adrenaline, a lot of places I found work still used Meridian’s on OS9. Avid seemed to be going downhill, fast.

And don’t get me started on Avid Express Pro and Mojo. Given what I could do with FCP I wouldn’t go near that either.

Then they came out with the standalone software version of Media Composer that didn’t require all that expensive Avid hardware. They dropped the price to an affordable $5000 and came back to the Mac platform. OK, improvement, but still too expensive compared to the competition.

Then I was shown Avid 3.0. Price cut in half to $2500…more affordable and now more competitive with FCP. I was invited to a demo at hotel at NAB next door to the convention. They showed off all the new features and let me play with the timeline…and I was impressed. Finally Avid seemed to be back on track. I was actually liking the platform again.

OK, we are now to the point where I was sent MC and the MOJO and did all of my testing…September 2008. The following month I get hired by a company that I have a long history with. A company that held onto their Meridian systems like Linus holds onto his blanket. TIGHT man. Well lo and behold, I land in an edit bay with Avid 3.0. DUDE! They upgraded. They recognized the stability that the new Avid software added. And they had the whole nine yards, including NitrisDX.

It took me a while to get used to the Avid again, and trim modes…being on FCP for so long. But it didn’t take long to get my Avid legs back. And let me tell you, the first thing I noticed was the fast reaction time of the timeline and the stability. That right there is huge. Well, it is something that should be EXPECTED with a system. But after working on unstable systems for a while, you get used to the instability, so when something is stable, it is heaven. Well, this Avid was stable, and more so than even the Meridians. And fast. I was whizzing on the timeline back and forth. No more step…step…step…step until I finally got to the end of the sequence. There lickity split. Nice.

So that job wrapped up and onto another company, and they too have 4 new edit bays sporting Avid Nitris DX. The other editors were jealous of me and my fellow editors on the shiny new systems. I have been on this system now for 2 months, and had the system at home where I edited with the footage I brought home from work (to test my home system and a workflow for transporting footage…and so that I could work on my sick days and still get paid). Here are my thoughts on the new features.

1) Timeline speed. I already told you…this is now fast and smooth. Pure joy to edit with. And a lot of that has to do with their “Improved real-time effects performace.” To quote Avid:

Avid’s advanced effect acceleration provides:
• High performance real-time HD FX processing pipeline making maximum use of host processor resources
• 6 streams of real-time full resolution Avid DNxHD 145 playback in raw performance test • Faster transcodes and renders with optimized multi-threading on multi-core CPUs

It’s noticeable.

2) Stability. In the last 3 months I have had two, count them TWO crashes.

3) Mixed Media timeline. Well, the big shock for me returning to Avid, other than getting used to the way to trim on Avid vs. FCP, is working in an offline resolution again (15:1). OH MY GOD the image is yucky. I can’t see anything. And they have this big 32″ HD monitor connected, and it’s even worse. Lordy, how can you see anything? I am used to working at full resolution. But we needed the offline resolution because we had 3 shows worth of material…600 hours, and it all fit on 1TB. Can’t imaging how many GB I’d need for full resolution. ANYWAY, we had to capture some footage at full DNxHD resolution to work around interference issues (aerial footage) and we had some stock footage come in at DV resolution. So I was mixing 15:1, DV and DNxHD145 resolutions on one timeline, without rendering, and without skipping a beat.

Now, we did have one minor odd issue with this. When we made our title media (Footage to come, CGI, Footage missing, that stuff) all of the editors did them at DV resolution. The system seemed to default to this and it was OK with us, because it made the title more legible. And the assistant could output a Quicktime file that played back fine…but when they encoded that as a WMV file for the network, something odd happened. The encoded file ONLY showed the DV title as a still frame. 20 min of the DV title, and the audio was fine. We went back, changed the titles to 15:1 and the issue went away. Odd.

4) Native support for more formats. P2, AVCintra, XDCAM…all native without the need to convert when importing. The footage appears in the Avid directly from the card…making the P2 workflow much Quicker. As Steve Hollyhead said at a Panasonic demo, “Getting P2 into Avid is simple…it doesn’t have any of the shinanigans that FCP uses to get the footage in. This really speeds up editing.

5) The AVX timecode plugin. Yes, I used this a lot for the rough cuts and assembly edits. This plugin allows Real-time burn-in tool to create up to three overlay windows displaying things like timeline and source timecode, footage counter, clip names, duration, time remaining, and a watermark so you can add something like “property of Shane Ross.” And I used this for the writer to note the interview tape names and timecode when the wrote the script. Very handy.

6) SELECT ALL Left or Right. This feature was something that Avid lifted right from Final Cut Pro and implemented in Avid 3.0.5…and is huge for me. Before when I needed to make a gap in my sequence to either build more story into or move a huge chunk of edited footage, I needed to add FILLER. And if I had overlapping audio (like I always do) then my overlapping footage would be broken up, as Avid cut a straight line down through my footage. Then I had to spend a few minutes cleaning that up. In FCP, all you needed to do to add a gap was press “T” a few times to activate the proper SELECT tool you needed. Then when you clicked on a clip on the timeline, that clip and everything to the RIGHT of that clip (or to the left if you had the other direction selected) highlighted and you could now move the clips out of the way, retaining the overlaps, and add what you needed to add.

I rely on this tool almost daily, and I guess that is because I am still used to the open timeline in FCP where I can drag things all over the place to move them. It is a great feature and I am glad Avid acquired it. There is much I would like FCP to steal from Avid…but that is another story.

7) The good old Avid media management. Man how I missed this. Sure, all the file names of the footage you find on the media drives are lengthy and seem to have no meaning (well, it does include some part of the clip name and if it is an audio or video file), but that name is how Avid tracks the footage. Even if you move it. Move a bunch of clips? No problem, Avid will notice they have been moved. Avid has databases in each capture folder and if that database doesn’t compare to what is on the drive, Avid scans the drive and rebuilds the list. Like a little guy at the door with a clipboard. Someone new? They write it down. Someone leaves, they write it down. Some people try to sneak in through the window? They see it and write it down. Avid has Media management licked.

That is one of the biggest differences I saw between Avid and Final Cut Pro. As complex as the controls are and as many tools you have to figure out, when it comes to capturing and editing, Avid gives you more time to concentrate on the creative part and less on the technical. It takes care of the technical stuff, you just edit. Well, having an assistant editor helps, but I had one on my last FCP show and I still had to watch what I was doing. When you capture, when you render, you just assign a drive that has the most free space and then tell it to capture and render there. And it will. And if space runs low, Avid will switch to the next drive with the most space left. Import something, and it defaults to the drives you specified for that project…always. When you change projects, Avid knows what drives are specified for that project. Avid just knows. So it gives you more time to think creatively.

ANYWAY, this has turned into Avid vs FCP and really I wanted to only mention that one aspect…because it is very freeing to an editor to not have to constantly be aware of what media is going where, and where you are rendering to.

8) Tech Support…I can’t do this article without mentioning tech support. Avid tech support was a thing of legend. Abysmally BAD. Arrogant techies, sluggish response times (you felt lucky if they called you back), hugely expensive. Calling tech support was the last thing you wanted to do when the Avid wasn’t working right. Dealing with them was worse than pulling teeth.

But now that has changed. Phone tech support is now friendly and easy (only had to rely on this once though), and their new Avid Communities of fellow Avid users and online Avid tech support helpers provides more help than you can ask for. And quick response times. Want tips and tricks and step-by-step instruction on how to use the Avid? Go to the Avid YouTube Community and you will keep yourself busy for quite some time.

CONS. Not everything was roses. Nope, I did have some issues, one in particular that really slowed me down.

I had the toughest time mixing the audio on the timeline:

When I cut a clip from the preview monitor into the sequence, then I adjust the audio using the Audio Tool, about 90% of the time the adjustments I make don’t stick. It is still loud. I could boost it all the way, or take it to nothing, and it sounds just like it did in the preview monitor. However, if I adjust the audio in the sequence, then click on the Preview monitor to make it active, then jiggle the audio with the audio tool…just a tad, THEN my changes take effect in the timeline. The really interesting thing about this is that it doesn’t happen at all on my system running without Avid hardware. This only occurs on systems with the Nitris DX. And I was not alone, three co-workers had the same issue, and a few people on the forums. And as of now there is no fix. Interesting thing to note is that this issue did NOT happen on Avid systems that did not have the Nitris DX hardware. My laptop, my MacPro, another edit system at another company all were without the DX hardware, and they did not have this issue.

The odd compression issue I mentioned earlier…with mixed formats when compressing to .wmv.

Composting with MC 3.0 is still bad. I am sure there are plugins that work with this, but I recently did a tutorial for ArtBeats on how to mix film effects with footage, and it requires more steps and tweaking on the Avid. In FCP you can use Composite or Blending modes that work very well.

I did not get to play with SCRIPT SYNC or the SUB CAP features….but I really wanted to.

OK…that’s all I encountered in this short time span. And since I started typing my notes for this review Avid has updated to version 3.1.1. Since it is still near impossible to get the production company to update the software on their machines (WISELY), I have installed it at home. So far so good.

In conclusion, this version of Avid Media makes editing on an Avid a pure joy again. I used to dread getting a job that utilized Avid, but now I look forward to it. And now it sports a price that makes it more affordable to the independant filmmakers and low budget productions. And if you are a student, then you can have it, the full version, for a song ($295).