What is Avid Symphony?

Avid is currently (until June 15, 2012) running a special upgrade/crossgrade promo on Avid Symphony. You can crossgrade your Final Cut Pro (V7 or before) or upgrade your old Avid (Xpress Pro, Xpress DV or Media Composer) license to a brand new Symphony v6.0 license for a meagre US$995. That is a $5,000 discount on the full price, and $2,500 discount on the Avid Media Composer crossgrade price.

Only five or six years ago an Avid Symphony system would have cost nearly US$100,000. So, what is Symphony? Why was it so expensive? Why is it so much cheaper at the moment? What’s different? And, crucially, should you buy it?

Avid’s Media Composer product is kind of split in three. There is the main product, Media Composer – most people just call it Avid – this is the editing tool that we’re used to and what Avid promotes most heavily. It also has two cousins (actually more like fraternal twins), NewsCutter and Symphony.

These two products are developed from the same source code as Media Composer – when there’s a new version of Media Composer there is usually a new version of Symphony and NewsCutter too.

NewsCutter, as the name suggests, is mainly intended for use in a broadcast news environment, it has tight integration with Avid’s Interplay and iNews products to allow for more efficient editing within an Avid newsroom environment (you may not realise, but Avid makes a lot of products really targeted at TV news production).

Symphony is Media Composer’s big brother. Originally in the days of Offline/Online editing the Symphony was a very specific finishing tool. It had support for uncompressed media, better effects, colour correction and also had HD support before Media Composer. However over time many (all but one and a half, in fact) of Symphony’s features made it into Media Composer. But the one (and a half) features that truly set Symphony apart from Media Composer now are very significant for some users and continue to justify the differentiation in products.

Why was it so expensive?
Until very recently (v6.0 in fact) Symphony required very specific Avid hardware to function. The Avid Nitris box – while Media Composer has been available for sometime as software only (and with lower cost Mojo and Mojo SDI hardware before that) the Symphony continued to rely on the features of the specific Avid hardware. So the cost included that hardware, and because not many people needed all that it offered it was higher cost (also because it offered more, they could charge more).

Once Symphony became able to operate in software-only mode, as well as with third-party hardware then the cost no longer included specific hardware and in came down to reflect the changes. However Avid obviously feels that the few extra features in Symphony are significant enough to justify a higher price than Media Composer.

Why is it so much cheaper at the moment?
Only Avid knows the specific thinking behind their promotion, but there are a couple of theories I’ve seen – these are just theories, mind you. Idle guesses really.

It’s a fire sale! Avid are planning to kill Symphony and want to milk us for cash – In a previous version I suggested and shot down that it was inventory they wanted to get rid of.  Someone clarified for me that they felt it was more about juicing Symphony for all the money they could by getting people to buy it before it was killed. I don’t think this is true either – firstly I don’t think Avid are deceptive in that way, and secondly it would cause a backlash that would cause far more damage than whatever they managed to earn.

They are going to kill Media Composer and are giving people a step up – I don’t buy this either. Firstly Avid have spent ages branding Media Composer (to stop people saying, generically, Avid) and it’s by far their most well known video product.

They knew Smoke was coming – This is the one that sounds most likely to me. Autodesk have drastically rebuilt and repriced their NLE/finishing product Smoke (see: Have Autodesk Smoked the Competition) and are very clearly targeting it at professional editors who’re looking for the next step after Apple’s FCP re-invention. This is a promotion aimed at getting those FCP users on to Avid’s top end product, and it couldn’t be offered to FCP switchers without including existing Avid customers too.

What’s different?
Good question! I’m glad you asked. It’s fairly easy to answer… Colour Correction.

Not quite true, but that’s the main thing. And it’s only half different. The colour correction toolset in Media Composer is a subset of the Symphony colour correction tools. In Symphony there are more controls and, crucially,  a much more advanced way of applying colour correction.

The obvious difference is that Symphony’s colour correction tool has a lot more tabs, and the one people focus most on is the Secondaries one. In my opinion this is one of the least interesting aspects of Symphony advanced colour correction. The secondaries in Symphony are more accurately vectors (rather than RGB or HSL qualifiers like Resolve, Baselight, Colorista, etc) – they can be very useful, but also quite limited.

There are lots of good things about Symphony’s colour correction, including on of my favourites, the ability to modify Setup, Gamma and Gain separately for shadows, midtones and hightlights. It also has a master HSL colour control, full channel mixer and per-channel levels control.

But all that that is somewhat insignificant compared to the really good bit – the relational colour correction model. In Media Composer when you apply a correction you are applying an effect on a per-clip basis. If you’re grading a conversation scene between two people you usually end up apply grade A to one shot, grade B to the next shot, grade A to the next shot, etc etc etc. But then if there is another take used for some lines you might have to make a new grade for that, then figure out which of a few grades for Jim’s close single you need to apply each time you get to it.

With Symphony’s relational model you can correct based on source information… The tape name, or source clip name, or the Avid Master Clip, or sub clip. You can also apply a grade to an entire track (on top of the source grades) and you can still use the CC effect too.

The relational grading abilities can save a LOT of time. Often an entire scene can be graded in just one or two steps. Then in any cases where the source grade doesn’t apply you can either apply an additional master grade over the top of that clip, or switch it to a segment grade and make changes to the source grade it inherited from related clips.

So that’s the half difference, it’s by far the biggest and for anyone doing colour correction in Avid Media Composer currently it is a massive productivity boost.

The other difference is something called Universal Mastering. Essentially it allows you to make outputs in multiple formats from a single sequence, in realtime, to tape. Effectively you create a 24p master sequence. You can then choose to output that to tape as any normal video standard – it will speed up audio and vision to create a 25fps master, or add pulldown to create 29.97fps versions. This is a huge deal for people doing mastering of video for DVD film releases etc, but much less important for most other people. It’s also not available without Avid’s Nitris DX hardware, so isn’t relevant to most people looking to make the switch to Symphony.

Should I buy it?
YES. Or no. It depends…

There is one other point of difference I haven’t mentioned – it’s not about Symphony as such, but an inclusion with the Symphony purchase. As well as the Avid FX, Avid DVD and Sorenson Squeeze add-ons that come with Media Composer you also get the full Boris Continuum Compete 8 plugin package. That in itself is worth about US1,600 yet is included with this offer.

So there’s a few cases to consider…

If you’re currently using any version of Avid Media Composer to grade and finish video then it’s very possible that the improved control and the relational grading abilities in Symphony would make it worth the money.

If you’re already running the latest Media Composer but don’t have BCC8 and have been looking to buy it then this is a cheaper way to get it, and better colour correction.

If you’ve got an old (even Xpress DV from 2002) version of Avid sitting around and want a cheap way to get up to date then this is ideal.

If you’ve been using Final Cut Pro 7 (or earlier) up until now and are looking to get into Avid’s tools then this is a great deal.

If you’ve already got a full up-to-date Media Composer (or Symphony) system but also have an FCP license then this is a great way to get a second system up and going.

If you’ve got Media Composer 6, and BCC8 and don’t really do a lot of color correction, then this is probably not a useful offer for you.

Will it cost me more in the long run?
Given that Symphony is a more costly product usually, will the upgrades cost more also? No idea – we can only guess and look to the past. Previously the answer was “yes, absolutely” – the Symphony upgrade costs were much higher. However the most recent upgrade (to 6.0) was available at the same price as the Media Composer upgrade. So it could go either way, but I think Avid will be aware of the fact they are gaining new customers with this offer and will realise that they’ll react negatively if they’re looking at a more costly upgrade in the future.