Review: Media Composer 5.0

Avid’s newest version of their flagship NLE, Media Composer, hits the shelfs in June 10 and I’ve had the opportunity to give it a test drive over the last week or so. In some ways Media Composer 5 marks a very substantial change for Avid in how it deals with media, and some of it’s new features could be seen as very direct responses to long-standing criticisms by Final Cut Pro editors…

So, how does it stack up?

Given my fairly solid work committments I haven’t had the chance to use Media Composer 5 ‘in anger’ on the HP workstations I edit on daily, instead I’ve had it installed on my personal laptop, a somewhat underpowered Compaq sporting a dual Celeron 1.6GHz processor and 4GB of RAM, running Windows 7 64bit, so my review is somewhat limited in that I’ve not really been able to give MC5 the benefit of a decent workstation, but I’ve still be quite impressed by the results.

The Headline Features
When Avid announced MC5 and NAB in April the focus was really on two main features, AMA for Quicktime and R3D and The Smart Tool – these two features probably represent the most immediately noticable changes in MC5 from the last version, so what are they? How do they work? And are they worth it?

AMA for Quicktime and R3D
Avid’s AMA functionality was introduced a few versions ago, initially as a means to support MP4-wrapped XDCAM EX media. AMA, or Avid Media Access is a framework in which camera manufacturers (or Avid) can develop plugins that allow Media Composer to directly access the content of video files in a variety of formats. Rather than the traditional capture or import process creating Avid-friendly MXF-wrapped media in an Avid MediaFiles directory, AMA allows direct access to the files from wherever they are located, not unlike the file linking that will be familiar to Final Cut Pro and Premiere editors.

AMA in general is a fairly radical departure for Avid, which has been know for it’s very rigid (and very solid) media management. Linking to media directly in the file-system poses all sorts of media management nightmares (files renamed or moved for example). Those problems still exist in AMA but they are mitigated by Avid’s methodology – rather than just referencing a file by it’s filename and location, Avid will actually index all linked files and create unique identifiers for each clips based on content, not path or filename – so a file can be moved or renamed, and as long as you rescan the new location the media will be relinked reliably.

So with this AMA structure in place, there was a strong user demand to extend it into a broader range of files – and that’s exactly what Avid have done by extending it to Quicktime. Broadly speaking, any file you can play in Quicktime Player is also able to be edited within Avid as an AMA linked clip. It’s a simple as pointing Media Composer and the file or directory to link and within seconds the clips are linked and able to be edited within the bin.

It should be noted that AMA Quicktime files, at this stage, don’t support alpha channels – for alpha support you still need to import the files in the traditional manner.

Quicktime AMA was generally expected by a lot of Avid users, it seems like something that would have to happen in the not so distant future, but I think support for RED’s R3D raw format was a little more surprising. It works in exactly the same way, you point Media Composer to the files, and seconds later the clips are in the bin. But it’s more than that – by right clicking on a clip and selecting “Set Source Settings” you are able to completely control all the R3D processing settings. The bin also displays all the RED metadata.

But does it work? Yes it certainly seems to work pretty well. I tested it with a bunch of 2K 2:1 R3D media in a PAL timeline and was able to get fairly consistant realtime playback (again, this is on my laptop, not a decent workstation). Similarly, a variety of .MOV and .MP4 files I tried all linked perfectly and played in the timeline. A selection of H.264 files from a Canon 5D were clearly taxing the system somewhat, but I was usually able to achieve realtime playback in the timeline.

The Smart Tool
The Smart Tool is how Avid is referring to the ability to have a active cursor in the timeline. Traditional Media Composer has been a very modal system, if you want to be able to pick up and drag clips in the timeline you need to enter Segment Mode and if you want to trim then you enterTrim Mode – it’s something that a lot of new comers find frustrating. Avid’s answer is a context-sensitive cursor that allows direct manipulation of the timeline at all times.

What does that mean and how does it work? Well essentially you’ll now see a new set of buttons on the left of the timeline, these allow you to select what functions the cursor can perform – they are Overwrite SegmentSplice Segment,Overwrite Trim and Ripple Trim (there are also buttons for Link Selection andKeyframe Selection – more on them soon). Depending on which of these options are highlighted the cursor will perform certain functions when in the timeline. The segment mode options behave in the same way as traditional segment mode, you can select clips and shift them around, if you use Overwrite then the clips will just replace anything they intersect, if you use Splice then they will split any clip they intersect (a ripple in FCP terms). The trim tools are much the same (although the concept of Overwrite and Ripple trims is new in Avid) – anOverwrite Trim will trim one side of a clip (a single-roller trim) and replace trimmed frames with filler (not rippling or trimming surrounding clips), while a Ripple Trim is more traditional single-roller trim – trimming the end of a clip and rippling the timeline as a result.

But with two different segment modes, and two trim modes (actually theres three, I’ll get to that) how doe you control which you use? Well the cursor is your guide here – it changes to indicate which tool will be used when you manipulate a clip – with the cursor close to an edit you’ll be presented with trim icons, with it more in the body of a clip you’ll get segment icons – and which one? Well that depends on which modes you have enabled from the toolbar on the left of the timeline. Assuming all the manipulation modes are enabled (both trim modes and both segment modes) then the tracks are split horizontally along the middle – if your cursor is over the top half of a clip you will get the Overwrite versions of the tools, while on the bottom half you will get theRipple/Splice version. If you only have one of the versions of a manipulation type, then the whole height of the track will work for that tool.

And the third trim mode I mentioned? Well with either of the Smart Tool trim modes enabled you can also get the traditional double-roller trim by positioning the cursor directly over the edit point (slightly to either side and it becomes of the of the single-roller types).

This is the bit where I’m not totally sold on the Smart Tool really. In fact in general I’m not a huge fan of direct manipulation (and I can continue in my old ways by simply not enabling any of the tools) – I have always liked in Avid that I can move around the timeline and click without risk of accidentally shifting a clip slightly (something that I’ve done fairly often on other systems), but maybe I’m just a little reckless with the mouse. However I do tend to have my tracks quite small, and that makes the top-half/bottom-half distinction for tool selection quite difficult, and I’m not the only one who thinks so, Shane Ross who has also been playing with MC5 for a little while found the same thing, and his suggestion (which I like a lot) was a modifer key to change the behaviour. So where you’d have the overwrite tools by default, but hold Alt (or Opt) to switch to the splice/ripple mode. I’d also like a modifier key that would allow me to temporarily disable all Smart Tool tools so that I could click in the timeline to move the playhead.

Overall the Smart Tool is solving a problem that I never really found to be a problem. So far I’m finding that it actually slows me down a little as I get used to it – clicking the the timeline to shift the playhead is pretty ingrained behaviour for me. However the ability to use the timeline in this way is a big plus for a lot of other editors who are more used to that functionality in Final Cut Pro and other applications, so I’m keen to see what they think about it.

The other two buttons in the left hand toolbox are Link Selection and Keyframe Selection – they are pretty straight-forward. With Link Selection enabled Avid will maintain a relationship between related audio and video tracks so that they are moved and trimmed together (there are some complexities, but that’s the basic idea). Keyframe Selection allows for simple direct manipulation of audio keyframes.

All of the enabling buttons in the Smart Tool can be mapped to the keyboard (and existing keyboard mapping to Insert and Overwrite segment modes will be modified to the new Smart Tool modes).

What Else?
Those two features were the big big headlines, but they are far from all that’s been added to Media Composer 5.

Audio Improvements
Media Composer’s audio tools have been somewhat lacking for a while. While there are reasonable levels controls in the form of the mixer and automation gain, as well as a reasonable basic EQ, everything else had to be done with the Audio Suite which provided Media Composer with the ability to use a selection of audio plugins – however only one Audio Suite effect could be added to any track which made it largely impossible to do any real audio finishing withou having to do endless audio mixdowns.

RTAS (Real Time AudioSuite) is Avid’s answer to this problem. It supports a range of RTAS plugins (which are also developed for ProTools systems) and allows for multiple ‘inserts’ on each track.

In general the RTAS plugins have a better interface and there are five ‘inserts’ (A to E) allowing up to five effects to be stacked on each audio track – however it is track-based, it applies to all clips on that track, across the entire sequence. It’s still not perfect, but it presents a much more usable system for audio sweetening within the NLE.

Also improved in the audio functionality is the addition of stereo audio channels. Helpful for editing with inherantly stereo audio. The introduction of stereo channels changes a few other things like audio mixdowns and audio output options, but overall it’s pretty straight-forward.

A range of extra buttons have also been added to the timeline to help manipulate audio tracks – they allow you to easily toggle on and off the various “rubber-banding” lines for clip gain, auto gain and pan, also toggling of audio waveforms, solo/mute buttons, track enable and a series of track insert indicators for RTAS audio effects.

As well as being able to toggle the waveform display track-by-track it also seems to generate audio waveforms quicker than previous versions (although that’s just my observation, I haven’t tested it and I don’t use waveforms often).

Automatic Reformatting
Media Composer now offers an automatic reformatting options, in the form of a clip heading called Reformat – it presents a few basic options for reformating footage to match sequence settings. If you import or capture footage while the project is set to 4:3 then the clips are tagged as such, switch to a 16:9 setting, change the Reformat setting on those clips to Pillarbox/Letterbox and those clips will be pillarboxed in the sequence automatically. Change the project aspect ratio to 4:3 and they’ll be fullscreen.

It’s helpful and necessary with the ability to link to other media types like R3D, but a bit simple. For example, there’s no way to pan-and-scan the frame. Also once a clip is edited into the timeline there doesn’t seem to be a way to change the reformatting options, and changing the setting of the master clip in the bin makes no mistake.

In general I like this functionality, but I think it currently is a little inflexible and needs to be expanded a little (a way to directly manipulate the reformatting on the timeline would be a great start).

Email Notifications
There’s a whole new settings section devoted to email options – it’s pretty straight forward… Supply SMTP server details (including SSL auth if necessary), a name and email adress for the ‘From’ section of the email, and an address to send to. Then you select what events to email for and a master enable option.

At this stage the only event it will email for is render completion, but there’s plenty of space to add more in future versions (I hope). I can think of a bunch more events I’d like to be emailed about… Transcode finished, file import finished, capture halted, export finished… Pretty much any of the various events that take long enough for me to want to go off and do something else.

The email settings are a user setting, which is good, although I’d probably like to see it split up so that email server settings were a site setting, and the email notification options were a user setting so that not all editors have to worry about knowing mail server settings but can still use the notification features.

AVCHD Support
It’s not currently possible to AMA link to AVCHD Mpeg files (.MTS and .MPEG files) but they can now be imported with the traditional import method.

Previously it was only possible to capture and import to Avid formats – In Media Composer 5 it’s now possible to capture and import directly XDCAM HD422 (50Mb/s) and DVCPRO HD (100Mb/s) formats. You can also import as XDCAM EX (35Mb/s) as well, but I haven’t been able to test with DX hardware so I can’t test if that’s available as a capture codec also, the documentation only mentions XDHD422 and DVCPRO HD.

Transcode Mixed Rate Material
It’s been possible to use mixed rate footage in a Media Composer timeline since version 4, however it has been complicated later in the process with things like exporting Quicktime reference files. In version 5 it’s now possible transcode mixed-rate clips into the base project rate. I’d say this is a pretty necessary addition for the mixed-rate workflow which was quite difficult to move outside of Media Composer before.

The Stabilize is now automatic. As soon as you drop it on a clip it will track the shot and try to apply the optimal settings to stabilize the shot, and it now includes ‘Auto Zoom’ (which seemed like an omission in earlier versions). If the result isn’t what you want you can still modify all the parameters manually. And it’s quick.

Realtime Paint (and AniMatte!)
The Paint effect has been upgraded to a realtime/green-dot effect (along with a bunch of IllusionFX effects) which is great, but that’s not all – AniMatte is realtime now too, which is a big plus for me as I use it a lot!

And More!
There’s a whole lot more that has changed in Media Composer 5, including improvements in metadata handling, better support for ancillary data, hardware support for Matrox MXO2 Mini, dual-link RGB HD, easy tape substitution in batch capture and a whole lot more, but I simply haven’t had the opportunity to test all those things.

If you’re curious the What’s New for Avid Media Composer v5.0 document is 176 pages long (I know, I had it printed and bound) – so clearly there’s quite a lot that’s changed and already I’ve found a few things that haven’t been mentioned.

A Summary
This is probably the most substantially improved version of Media Composer I’ve used – it includes some very substantial changes that will be welcomed by a lot of people. If you’re currently involved in file-based workflows with cameras like the RED One or DSLRs then this could probably been seen as an essential upgrade.

All the big new features seem to have been well considered and integrated with care and thought, they integrate well within the overall “Avid experience” rather than feeling like a clunky add-on, however there is probably room for refinement in some respects – the option of modifier-key behaviour for Smart Tool, a better clip-based audio effects option, for example.

In my testing (which was far from exhaustive) the system was very solid – the only crashes I had were when trying to test Magic Bullet Looks 1.4, and I can’t determine if it was Media Composer 5 or 64bit Windows 7 that caused that crash. Hopefully a new version will be forth coming.

It seems like a very solid upgrade, and probably one that I’d be quite happy to deploy even at the point-zero release. Editors who’re very comfortable with Avid’s existing segment-based workflow will probably find the new Smart Tool a little daunting at first (I have) but otherwise it’s all pluses.

I’m Not Alone
I am not the only person who’s been reviewing Avid over the previous weeks, keep an eye out for reviews and thought from the following people:

It’s worth noting that Shane and Philip are both FCP users usually, and Scott also does a lot of FCP work, so I’m personally very interested to see what they have to say.

Stay tuned for some basic tutorials on the new features, as well as tests of RED workflow between Media Composer 5 and Avid DS 10.3