Here's a look at some of the technical distinctions of today's NLE systems.
These are heady days for high-end nonlinear editing system providers. But, we may have recently lost one of the biggest players in the game.
Despite the fact that Apple's Final Cut Pro 7 software is being used by 54.6 percent of the professional editing community, according to a report by market research firm SCRI International, in June Apple released a completely rewritten version called Final Cut Pro X. Much to the surprise of many, despite that this new incarnation is completely 64-bit, so many professional features were removed that it appears Apple may be switching its focus away from the high-end video editing market segment. Final Cut Pro X cannot import projects started in Final Cut Pro 7 or any other NLE. It cannot ingest from or output to tape and can't even be connected to a broadcast monitor. These noticable (and important) missing features have more than a few editors scratching their heads.
So this makes it an apt time to take a look at some of the technical distinctions under the hood of the still broad spectrum of NLE systems from the major manufacturers who still want to offer solutions in this space.
Avid Media Composer
Avid's Media Composer is still the most used NLE on prime-time TV productions, being employed on up to 90 percent of evening broadcast shows. One reason is its design philosophy, called Avid Intelligent Architecture, that Avid instigated back in 2008 with the release of Media Composer 3 and the DX hardware line. Avid Intelligent Architecture is a way of constructing software that constantly looks at the Mac or Windows computer being used, the graphics card installed and whatever hardware is attached, and selectively sending a given task to the component best suited to accomplish it.
For example, if an editor needs to do something that is CPU-intensive such as decoding a codec, those files get sent directly to the CPU. But effects work will be directed to the GPU, and DNxHD encoding (short for Avid's proprietary Digital Nonlinear Extensible High Definition compressed file format) or thin raster format expansion will go to Avid's DX hardware. That enables the Media Composer software to constantly evaluate the resource that can most efficiently get the job done.
Avid has also been successful implementing phonetic indexing into its systems starting with the 2007 introduction of its ScriptSync feature. ScriptSync analyzes the audio tracks on clips in the Media Composer source bin and links them to the written script that has been imported into the system. Clicking on a line of script gives access to all the takes containing that specific dialogue.
This year, Avid introduced Phrase-Find for unscripted productions such as documentaries or news packages. PhraseFind is a search engine plug-in that can find specific words or phrases in a production without reference to a script.
One of the most cost-effective and powerful nonlinear finishing systems is Autodesk's Smoke. Originally available only as a turnkey system on Linux, Smoke became available for the Macintosh in a software-only, 64-bit version in December 2009. The latest incarnation, Smoke for Mac 2012, is an online NLE with extensive graphics capabilities that can import EDLs in all major formats. Smoke gains its image quality by automatically converting every compressed incoming file to uncompressed RGB and performing all its graphics/effects work in 4:4:4:4 color space.
Smoke is also the only NLE that can use the platform-independent Autodesk FBX file format to load 3-D models and motion graphics in their original, unrendered native format. FBX, which originally stood for filmbox, is similar to a PDF format for 3-D graphic objects.
For stereoscopic, dual channel 3-D work, Smoke for Mac 2012 can also scan each video track to detect differences between the left- and right-eye clips.
Grass Valley EDIUS
Grass Valley has been adding some amazing capabilities to the latest 6.02 version of its EDIUS software, which expands its usefulness in broadcast applications. The company acquired the system from Canopus in 2005 and is marketing EDIUS as a software-codec edit system for Windows, highlighting the efficiency of its constantly upgrading codecs. In fact, in November 2007, EDIUS was the first to crack the challenge of decoding the computationally-demanding but low bit rate AVC Intra HD format.
Thanks to its robust codec technology, EDIUS can now edit 4K files (4096 × 2160) in 8- and 10-bit. To edit these files, the system automatically generates proxy files during capture that are easier for the CPU to handle. This lets EDIUS perform all its tasks in real time without ever needing to render, even on platforms of lesser capabilities.
The system's Source Browser puts the functionality needed for importing all files into a single viewer, supporting from P2 to Blu-ray applications. EDIUS can handle a wide range of output options, and can even export back to an AVCHD card or an iPad/iPod.
Boris FX Media 100
After being spun out of Data Translation in 1996, the Media 100 NLE was eventually acquired by Boris FX in October 2005. Always based on the Macintosh platform, Media 100's core engine, called HAL for Hardware Abstraction Layer, has never used Apple's QuickTime proprietary multimedia framework to play out its files.
Of course, the Media 100 system does use QuickTime for handling graphics formats and system-level codecs. But it does not use QuickTime's playback services because the Media 100 system was always intended for broadcast use and has become known for its ability to quickly play out its timeline without waiting for QuickTime intervention.
Although Media 100 can play out a sequence of shots directly from its timeline, it uses Adobe After Effects as its compositing system, and can access Apple's Color software for color correction. In fact, many editors use Media 100 and Apple's Final Cut Pro 7 software side-by-side. Media 100 can be faster when assembling a simple sequence thanks to its ability to use an A/B roll style of timeline, which gives the editor simple access to the pre- and post-roll handles of each shot. Even so, many editors may find that Final Cut Pro 7 provides greater effects and image manipulation capabilities.
Sony Creative Software Vegas Pro
The Vegas Pro NLE from Sony Creative Software boasts several firsts. It was the first editor to go 64-bit on Windows, and was the first NLE to incorporate a digital audio workstation within the NLE itself. With support for industry-standard VST plug-ins, Vegas Pro provides the ability to edit audio down to the sample level and perform 5.1 surround sound mixing.
The latest version, Vegas Pro 10, enables integrated stereoscopic 3-D editing and the ability to deliver 3-D projects either as two track files or single files with side-by-side, top/bottom or line-alternate encoding. It also provides ingest, preview and output of closed captioning data, supporting industry-standard closed-captioned file types for either broadcast or Web delivery.
Adobe Systems Premiere Pro
Many editors may suggest that Adobe Systems' Premiere Pro NLE benefits most from the presumed retreat of Final Cut Pro from the broadcast editing arena. As part of its Creative Suite 5.5 collection of software applications, Premiere Pro benefits from the development of the Mercury Playback Engine, which runs natively in 64-bit on both Windows and Mac platforms.
Adobe has optimized Premiere Pro for maximal use of a platform's GPU to enable it to handle file sizes up to 5K and beyond. It works with both the broadly accepted OpenCL processing language and also NVIDIA's proprietary Compute Unified Device Architecture (CUDA) parallel computing architecture. This design lets Premiere Pro offload many processing requirements from the CPU onto a qualified GPU.
The result is that Premiere Pro has sufficient power to handle multiple layers of Red Digital Cinema's 4K files complete with color correction. Adobe has pursued an aggressive release cycle of its Premiere Pro software upgrades. But unlike some other vendors, the company maintains a high priority to ensure each new version is completely backwards compatible with its predecessors.
L.T. Martin is a freelance writer and post-production consultant.