|It was only a few years ago that Avid, trying to win back the hearts and minds of customers who were abandoning them and going to Final Cut and other systems, adopted the motto: “We’re Listening.” With the release of Media Composer 5, it’s obvious they did.
One of the most anticipated releases in years, Avid’s re-realized Media Composer 5 is among the most robust, feature-laden and dynamic packages from the company in over a decade. It’s taken that long (some say even longer) for Avid to step up to the plate against Final Cut Pro.
While many can say FCP’s had all along what MC5 is just now introducing, truth be told, in most cases Avid went several steps further — historically changing its almost two-decades-old modal editing model without throwing the baby out with the bathwater, adding some abilities that FCP, in its current iteration, doesn’t have.
Additionally, by opening up to inexpensive third-party hardware, Avid’s removed a major hurdle to wider acceptance. Most importantly though, Avid has put its software where its mouth is and changed its business paradigm and overall corporate philosophy. The ultimate question is: “Will it will be enough to reclaim lost users and territory?”
As this is being written, MC5 had just hit the streets. (Avid reports 500 downloads from their site the first day). Reviews are out; judgments are being made. This isn’t your typical review about the release, but also about the company behind it: Avid, who only a few years ago had been written off as a bureaucratic and technological dinosaur — expensive and unable to adopt to changing times and new paradigms. That was then, and this is a very different now.
With the monster release of 5.0, Avid just may have rebuked the critics, reinventing and renovating itself and its flagship program, and, according to many, redrawn and leveled the playing field. It did so against the odds and against one of the most commercially-savvy and powerful companies in the world — Apple.
MC5 marks historical departures for Avid as a company and its perception in the marketplace. For the first time, Avid has truly opened up Media Composer to the outside world...in many ways: both in hardware and software, MC5 allows tremendous flexibility in how it is used.
While not all is rosy, MC5’s feature set and newer, more open architecture; modified user interface; QuickTime, Red and other AMA implementations; inexpensive HD monitoring; and myriad other major and minor enhancements has created a buzz...and not just among Media Composer users, but die-hard FCP users as well — users who Avid has bent over backwards to accommodate after years of denying their existence.
In fact, some blog talk is placing Apple in the same place Avid was years ago — not responsive or innovative enough to its users. Part of this was due to Apple’s weak retooling of Final Cut Studio 7.0 last year, many considering it a minor upgrade.
Within this same time span, Media Composer’s last three version releases (with AMA, mix and matching multiple frame rates and resolutions on the timeline, and other major enhancements) have Final Cut is showing its age. When we contacted Apple for a comment about Final Cut 8, they would only point us to a quote from spokesman Bill Evans on CNET saying, “The next version of Final Cut is going to be awesome, and our pro customers are going to love it.”
In hardware, Avid, long known for its closed architecture and expensive hardware, has opened up by enabling the use of the Matrox MX02 Mini, a low-cost HD monitoring solution. (See my Matrox Review in this issue.) With users and facilities now having the flexibility of going the Matrox route rather than the pricey Mojo DX, one of the biggest complaints about Media Composer — cost — has been vanquished.
Avid has indicated this is only the beginning of its new thinking about hardware openness. However, the software is where MC5 may really outshine its nearest competitor.
RED AND QUICKTIME AMA
Recently, a demo allowed me to see Media Composer 5 strut its stuff, playing multiple codecs and native Red playback through AMA without transcoding.
On one timeline were QuickTime H.264, P2, Red, XDCAM HD and DNxHD media, all brought in natively through AMA and playing back flawlessly. Red files played back in scaled-down HD with no transcoding.
AMA (Avid Media Architecture) is what sets Media Composer free and democratizes formats, literally making transcoding a thing of the past, and playing virtually any QT codec back natively.
Media Composer 5’s AMA implementation is proving to be more robust and dynamic than anyone imagined, with Avid aggressively jumping on new codecs that are just now in development. But even with this, Avid still maintains much of its strong media-management methodology. It indexes and creates unique identifiers for linked files allowing them to be moved around easily.
According to Gary Bettan of retailer Videoguys.com, a whole new market is looking eagerly at AMA’s ability to playback Canon XF and other files. “There were millions of new DSLRs sold last year, and owners are looking at MC5 as the platform to edit their films,” says Bettan, “Media Composer 5 handles the files transparently. Avid is back in a big way, and people don’t have to drop their Final Cut; the two can work side-by-side.”
Another major development in MC5 — the ability to trim, ripple and roll now without being forced into trim mode. Final Cut users going to Media Composer especially found that inflexibility irritating.
According to Avid’s Angus Mackay, who heads up the product’s marketing team, “This feature is designed to give editors more choice and flexibility to work the way they like to work. This was a result of feedback from a number of customers who often work in both Final Cut Pro and Media Composer.”
It takes a little getting used to, with some changes made to Avid's venerable interface. But new “smart tools” selectors allows users to pick and choose how much new and old methodology they want to use. This is generally the case throughout Media Composer 5. It does not force too much change on the Avid editor unless they want it. That said, some changes and omissions can be found, like a revamping of interface customization choices and “gasp!” ScriptSync in no longer a freebie, but a $995 add-on (for those not actively already using it in earlier versions).
A WAKE-UP CALL
Hundreds of system-wide changes, big and small, have been made throughout Media Composer 5’s code, things like: a “paging timeline” (once the timeline cursor goes off the right side, it automatically advances the timeline to the left side), dupe detection that works on all video tracks, keyboard selection of new timeline views, a new track for ancillary data, a slew of effects have been updated to realtime, and a ton more, including a timecode window built into the timeline. Another revamp involves audio: Thanks to RTAS (with direct timeline access), up to five realtime audio suite filters can be dropped on each track with realtime playback, a boon for audio editing.
Plus there are independent waveform track displays, new soloing and muting functions for all audio tracks, and you can link stereo pairs to show up as one track (saving screen space). With increased codec selections through AMA, a new “reformat” selection appears in bins, which allows you to select how you want the clip to be displayed, conforming it to the current frame size and aspect ratio — it’s modifiable per-clip.
In the “saving your sanity” column: renders are now more manageable. Avid engineers thoughtfully included render email notification... alerting you when renders are done. And it appears Avid engineers have left plenty of room for other notifiers in the future.
As interesting as the changes the Avid engineers chose to address, it is equally as interesting to see what was untouched: The decade’s-old Title Tool and outdated Marquee remain the same as always. There was no updating or introduction of suite-centric products paralleling Apple’s Motion, Color, Soundtrack Pro and DVD Studio Pro evident. Now with so many other things addressed, these omissions just could be Media Composer’s biggest Achilles heel — but one they might be able to survive if they keep things up.
Taking a long look at MC5, after years on Final Cut, editor and frequent blogger Tej Bebra doesn’t consider MC5 an upgrade: “It’s like they’ve rewritten the code. The ability to leave segment mode and drag and drop [like FCP] is fantastic.” He also sees MC5 a boon for older editors who were forced to leave Avid to go to FCP. "Older [Avid] editors who were displaced when Final Cut came onto the scene can now step back up to the plate."
WHAT ABOUT APPLE’s FCP?
The bottom line is this is a monumental release...but there’s a bigger picture: where does this leave Avid and Apple?
Though the in-the-trenches editor might know what these new changes mean to the marketplace, (and may woo FCP editors to Media Composer), Avid’s real work is still cut out for them in strategic marketing to post facilities, smaller boutiques and private corporations who have the bulk of Final Cut systems and the money. Avid must still aggressively challenge decades’ old perceptions and conceptions. Another area Avid must refocus is in reclaiming future editors and filmmakers — having lost years of ground to a younger and hipper Apple in schools.
To that end, says Avid COO Kirk Arnold, “In addition to offering curriculum designed to teach students the art of editing, we’ve made it easier for students and institutions to purchase our solutions with aggressive pricing.” (See our full interview with Arnold on our Website: www.postmagazine.com)
With the integration of QuickTime AMA, a collaborative workflow between competing systems could just make the perceived war between Media Composer and Final Cut moot. It now seems both MC5 and FCP could work side by side. People are excited at the prospects, and Avid has really raised the bar. Even more promising is that the incessant Internet bashing between the two camps seems to have been quelled...at least for now.
Who knows what’s going to happen when FCS 8 is released? Any speculation of Apple’s next move is just that...speculation. Apple’s not talking, but they probably aren’t losing any sleep over Media Composer 5 either. Terrence Curren, editor, industry observer and owner of Burbank’s AlphaDogs, thinks Apple has bigger fish to fry based on its primary focus of controlling the distribution pipeline of media to iPods, iPads and iPhones. “For Apple,” says Curren, “tape is dead, film is dead. For Apple, it’s all about files you post to the Internet.”
If that turns out to be the case, the broadcast game would be left primarily in Avid’s court... but somehow I don’t think you can count Final Cut out just yet. Neither can Adobe be ignored with a newly developed “Mercury Engine” in Premiere Pro, its presence in the market is garnering more and more attention. Apple typically never comments on new products until after their introduction, so we were disappointed, but not surprised with the response, or lack thereof. Stay tuned.
Jonathan Moser is an Emmy-winning editor. His infamous 2006 "Open Letter to Avid" can be found at www.jonathanmoser.net.