Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Media Composer 2.5 Review Part 3

by Harry B. Miller III, A.C.E.

Of course now you might be wondering what went wrong during this shake down cruise of the Media Composer. Quite a number of things, actually. But in fairness to Avid, this computer system used for the test was setup specifically to run Final Cut Pro, with a fibre network and Blackmagic card. Any number of things previously installed could create problems with an Avid. What installing all this by myself shows is how important it is to have very solid technical people set up and support any high end editing system. All editing rooms need competent technical support. These are high-end systems, not tinker toys, that need to be set up right. Any of the problems I found could easily been because of my poor setup, not because of the Avid software or hardware.

That said, here are some problems I had.

Harkening back to a previous version of the software, it is now possible to have your work window (source, record, timeline) on one monitor then push a button to play full screen in the same monitor. The promise is you can play HD in this monitor - assuming the material and monitor are high enough resolution. The first few times I tried this the system hung up, and I had to force quit. Turns out there is a setting for configuring the correct monitor. So, my bad.

The video that I imported as Quicktime and the video I digitized through firewire never looked that great. The Quicktime seemed dark. Images looked the same no matter what resolution I used to digitize. And it had a digital tearing / smearing from the firewire imported material on occasion that didn’t look good. This might be improved with the correct setup.

I never managed to get the Mojo SDI box to work connected digitally, i.e. through firewire only. I spent a day adjusting plugs and settings. Avid tech support was very helpful in trying to get it to work, and even sent me a new Mojo box from Massachusetts by 9 AM the next morning. It still didn’t work. Ed Mangini in tech support at that point suggested there was something conflicting in the Mac OS because of the previous installation of FCP and its peripheral cards. I could only go so far with this test, as it wasn’t my system, and I really didn’t want to spend any more time on it.

However, Harry Jierjian, another editor on Eureka and much more technically savvy than me, managed to connect the Mojo with the analog component cables and an RS-422 serial controller. He digitized and displayed very high resolution video. So again, the correct setup is essential.

Although this Avid is capable for running software only, there are some hardware minimums depending on your work situation. If the assistant set up has the Avid and a Mojo box for digitizing in and out, then the editor on another system is going to need either a Mojo or a DV deck in order to play back through a client monitor (i.e. analog TV) - which most editors need to do. But it is certainly possible for an editor to work in the office, then take some material to cut on a laptop with no other hardware.

I was not very successful at playing video through firewire to a DV deck and to a client monitor. When I finally got it operating, I would get Flamethrower errors.

There were several other software packages bundled with this release, which also seemed very cool: Avid DVD by Sonic (authoring), Sorenson Squeeze (compression), Boris Continuum (VFX plugins), Noise Factory Tools (oddly named VFX plugins), and SonicFire Pro music creation software.

But additional software didn’t work out as I hoped. The Boris software is PC only - it is supposed to have a Mac version at some point. The Sorenson and Sonic software is also PC only. Finally, the SonicFire Pro disc would never boot. None of this, of course, is Avid’s fault. Just it wasn’t the bonus I thought. Boris working on the Mac would be a huge bonus. It is a $2,000 stand alone package.

The SpectraMatte wasn’t a feature that I could spend any time on. And it looks to need some time to learn. But any improvement on the Avid keying would be terrific, as I’ve always hated the raggedness of the keys I’ve tried in the past.

Perhaps this is the area where you’d want to digitize at a high resolution, just for key effects, to improve their look. That’s a test for another day. (Finally I’ve come up with a reason to have multiple resolutions in the same time line!)

The Avid Help system opens you into a browser. A known bug is that Safari will do one word search, but then fail to find anything on subsequent searches. The Safari cache has to be emptied to solve this. Not a huge problem. Use Firefox as your browser to eliminate the issue.

Avid documentation continues to be terrible at explaining what error messages mean. Several times I got the message “Exception: AND_DIO_ERROR_Occurred, DIOerr: Flamethrower timeout. Transmit request timed out 200.024000 milliseconds.” And that means what?

Avid simply has no documentation that lists what error messages mean. And searches through the Knowledgebase is extremely hit and miss - mostly miss. One is left to search through the Forums, which means wading through many irrelevant messages, many from disgruntled users ragging on their system or software or other forum members. It does seem the Forums have gotten somewhat better, with more moderators and Avid techs contributing real technical answers.

One More Test

The final Media Composer test was done with the help of Harry Jiejrian. After he had digitized into a project on the assistant workstation, with the dailies on a partition of the fibre / shared storage, I was able to open up and edit from a bin in his project on an editor workstation, using his digitized footage. In other words, a shared working environment without Avid Unity. Very nice.

A Conversation with Avid

I had a long phone conversation with Matt Feury, Avid’s Senior Product Marketing Manager for Advanced Post. Avid, he said, is moving in the direction of the software only system, while external boxes will be needed only as I/O and real time acceleration. It has been the radical leap in technology that allows the computer CPU’s to handle what in the past has been done with added hardware. And now more video formats are firewire or file based, which cuts down on the need for analog connections and conversion of media. The Media Composer is designed to be a single platform that is in a sense scalable to the project, media, and available hardware.

Confirming my experience trying to connect the Mojo, Matt said that the computer firewire buss can be tricky, especially when other hardware may be installed. The Mojo is required to connect to analog devices, such as a TV monitor or to an analog video deck. Interestingly, the analog serial control can be more frame accurate used with firewire connections on the Mojo.

And for using HD, the addition of an Avid DNxcel card is required to capture real time HD. Otherwise firewire can be used to import HD media.

The quality of the media I was viewing is subject to the graphics drivers, cards, and monitor settings. As I suspected, there were more things involved in setting up my system correctly.

A function I’ve never tested is exporting a sequence to the AAF composition format. Most of the time my shows have output to OMFI for sound. The AAF allows for audio and video export. The audio will carry the audiosuite plugin information, and the video can be opened in Pro Tools and include each picture cut.

Purchase of the Media Composer software comes with ninety days of phone support and software updates (called CPR for customer patch release). Although no longer required, the purchase of Avid Assurance provides more support and a year of software updates.

The Next Release

Coming in November / December, the next release of the MC software has more intriguing changes. It will be compatible with the Mac Intel platform. With the additional processor speed and multiple processor capability, the speed increase could be astonishing. More of the Digidesign graphical audio plugins (a la 7-Band EQ) will be included (yippee). A new DNxHD codec will be available to allow projects to work in an off line HD format. And, most intriguing, Avid is integrating technology from Nexidia into the Script module. Nexidia will enable Media composer to read the audio waveform of your dailies, and attach that information to an imported shooting script.

Now, if I only had 4 computer screens to work with all this new stuff….


Some of the features in the Avid version 2.5 existed in previous Media Composer releases. But this package as a whole is a big evolutionary step above any off-line system, Avid or Final Cut Pro, that I’ve cut on. Rather than the ‘feature bloat’ I’ve found troubling in the past, most of this stuff is very useful.

Avid has gotten the message about the FCP being easy and cheap, and has delivered an editing software package that I would choose first. I’ve been cutting a science fiction series on FCP, and it won’t be much fun struggling with its limitations for another season.

Avid will soon have the software able to run on the latest Intel Macintosh G5’s. These machines are testing about 40% faster than the current G5 towers, and will be able to hold up to 8 processors. These systems will be blazingly fast and make Avid’s of the past seem like snails on a cold morning sidewalk.



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1:03 PM  
Anonymous Steve Cohen said...

Thanks for sharing all that good information. As I've mentioned on my blog, I've been using Xpress Pro on a Mac with Mojo for the last several months. I've grown to like this system a lot. It's super-stable, fast, and includes most of the Media Composer functionality. I do like having a full time client monitor, courtesy of the Mojo box, but, as you say, if you don't have Mojo you can hit the quote key and turn the right monitor into a client monitor. That's really helpful when working on a laptop and we all coped with it for years with our ABVB systems. I too am liking the new software-only Media Composer. Putting your show on a firewire drive and seeing everything come up on a portable system is wonderful. The only caveat is that a 1.5 Ghz G4 still feels pretty slow (with only 1.25 GB of RAM, which could be part of the problem).


1:05 PM  

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