Adobe Premiere Pro CS6: Latest Release Supercharges Performance, Debuts SpeedGrade
Editors looking for an alternative to Apple Final Cut Pro view Adobe Premiere Pro CS6 as the logical choice, but there’s more to this release than just a hypothetical FCP 8. I’ve reviewed and used each version of Adobe’s Creative Suite for many years and can say that Premiere Pro is one of the few NLEs in which each new version exhibits tangible performance improvements. Creative Suite 6 follows that trend, with performance tweaks and expanded GPU usage in Photoshop, After Effects and Premiere Pro.
Adobe’s video bundle, CS6 Production Premium, is an end-to-end workflow solution covering ingest to distribution. Adobe Prelude (ingest, transcode and logging) becomes the substitute for OnLocation, which was geared toward the tape-based world. SpeedGrade adds film-style color grading to the package. Production Premium is a 6 GB file download, plus there’s an additional 21 GB of optional sound effects and music loops that Adobe customers may also download for free.
A Focus on Performance
With Premiere Pro CS6, Adobe focused on performance improvements and an overhaul of the user interface. There’s better use of screen real estate for functional tasks, less blank space, and you now have the ability to turn off buttons and displays. As folks say, “There’s less chrome.” The idea was to make Premiere Pro look and feel closer to the experience of NLEs like Apple FCP “legacy” and Avid Media Composer. Premiere Pro offers the most direct translation and shortest learning curve for editors moving over from Final Cut, but it is still different—mostly in good ways.
The changes in Premiere Pro are designed to get you editing faster and make the experience more direct. There’s “hover scrubbing,” which is Adobe’s answer to Apple’s “skimming” feature found in iMovie and Final Cut Pro X. Source clips in the Project panel, Media Browser and Adobe Prelude ingest dialog box can be quickly reviewed in icon view by moving the mouse over the image. Thumbnail icons can be expanded to be quite large, functioning almost like a separate viewer. Once you click the icon, use the standard JKL transport controls, mark a selection and edit it to the timeline. Trimming gains special attention in Premiere Pro CS6 with better contextual timeline control. This includes asymmetrical trimming akin to working in Media Composer’s trim mode and smart timeline trimming tools.
The Premiere Pro Approach
The differences between Premiere Pro CS6 and other NLEs come in three areas: native codecs, rendering and plug-in support. Premiere Pro is not based on a QuickTime or MXF media architecture, so timelines can mix various native codecs and maintain real-time playback. There is no need to transcode to a common format on import/ingest, so you can get to the task of editing more quickly. Many codecs and file wrappers are supported natively, including AVC-Intra, ProRes, HDV, H.264 and RED.
Premiere Pro generally maintains real-time playback without rendering, but processing-intensive filters can cause performance to drop. To mitigate this and to keep from dropping frames, there’s a playback resolution setting, which is adjustable from full to one-half or to one-quarter resolution (plus 1/8 and 1/16 with RED and other large formats). If the effects are still too taxing for the GPU/CPU of a given system, the timeline may be rendered for real-time playback.
Premiere Pro’s render files are intended for previewing and are ignored during export to maintain maximum quality. (You do have the option to use them as part of the export, to speed things up.) Every export from a Premiere Pro timeline uses the Adobe Media Encoder engine. Certain native media formats, like XDCAM HD or DVCPRO, will not be re-encoded in this process if exported back to the same format. Timelines that do require re-encoding or the rendering of effects will have somewhat longer output times when writing a master file to disk; however, AME also lets you queue up simultaneous encodes in various formats.
There is no free lunch, and you can pay the “render tax” on any system either at the beginning, middle or end of the process. Adobe has picked the end. If you decided to edit with native files like RED, Long GOP H.264 or HDV, then your export can take some time. For RED files specifically, this can mean that a sequence of several minutes will take quite a few hours to export if your target format is a 1920 x 1080 ProRes file. If you are editing native P2 media using the AVC-Intra codec and export to this same format, the export time will be significantly less.
It’s a different story for videotape users. If you output to tape through a capture card, anything that plays at full resolution without dropping frames, regardless of whether it’s rendered, will be mastered at full broadcast quality. The exception is RED editing. Premiere Pro easily supports real-time editing at a reduced resolution of 4K RED media on a native 4K timeline, but this image will not be output at converted SD and HD sizes using a hardware I/O card, like an AJA KONA or Blackmagic DeckLink. It can’t be monitored through such a card, either.
A number of Final Cut users have lamented the lack of an equivalent to FXScript filters. FXScript was a tool in FCP that allowed users without extensive programming knowledge to create their own custom effect filters and transitions and distribute them for free or at a low cost. Premiere Pro doesn’t have anything like that (nor does Avid, for that matter), although obviously there’s an SDK for both Premiere Pro and After Effects that’s available to professional developers. Many of the third-party filters purchased for After Effects will work natively in Premiere Pro. This list is expanding, and due to the changes in CS6, it’s important to update the filters you own. Red Giant Software, Noise Industries, Boris FX, GenArts, Digital Film Tools, Tiffen and others have released updates for CS6 compatibility. Thanks to the playback resolution throttle, many filters that would require rendering to play in another NLE will run in real time in Premiere Pro CS6.
CUDA, Mercury Transmit and OpenCL
One aspect of the Mercury Playback Engine was hardware acceleration for some effects when using certain CUDA-enabled NVIDIA cards. This functionality has been expanded with CS6 to include two of the OpenCL cards used in the newest Apple MacBook Pros. Unfortunately, if you are running a Mac Pro with an ATI 5870, as I am, Mercury Playback acceleration still runs only in a software mode. Honestly, though, I didn’t find it to be much of an issue. I tested my Mac Pro with an NVIDIA Quadro 4000 and experienced numerous crashes when I applied taxing filters. To compare, a filter like Red Giant’s Magic Bullet Looks (not CUDA-accelerated) ran in real time at half-resolution using the ATI card. Better yet, no crashes!
New to CS6 is Mercury Transmit—a hardware abstraction layer for third-party I/O cards—to enable video output. This is a change from CS5.5, and all of the vendors, like AJA, Matrox and Blackmagic Design, are in the process of updating their drivers for compatibility with CS6. I tested Premiere Pro with a DeckLink HD Extreme 3D card and everything worked well. The few minor issues I had were resolved when the Premiere Pro 6.0.1 update was released. (Older cards may not work in some cases.)
The engineers have only had since September to integrate SpeedGrade, so it’s not fully “Adobe-ized” just yet. (IRIDAS technology including SpeedGrade was acquired by Adobe last year.) Nevertheless, it’s a powerful tool that can easily fit into any editor’s workflow once he learns the application. The design of the interface is focused on working quickly with a lot of real-time performance. It’s the only desktop grading application that enables multiple real-time timeline viewers for easy shot comparison and color correction matching.
The SpeedGrade design fits in well with other Adobe software—using a layer model for primaries and secondaries instead of Apple Color’s tabbed rooms or Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve’s nodes. Grading layers can be applied to individual clips or to the timeline track and can be used for full-screen, keyed or masked grading (with tracking). The number of layers is unlimited and each has visibility and opacity values, just like in Photoshop or After Effects. The grading parameters can be adjusted using color wheels, sliders or numerical entries. For primaries, offset/gamma/gain settings are applied in four ranges: overall, shadows, midtones and highlights. In addition, each of these four ranges has sliders for input and output saturation, contrast and pivot, plus temperature and tint (magenta). SpeedGrade also includes a healthy set of look presets and display LUTs for cinematic styles and camera profiles, such as correction for ARRI Alexa Log-C.
You can “send to” SpeedGrade from a Premiere Pro timeline, but there’s no round-trip (i.e., no Dynamic Link) back into Premiere Pro. Right now, SpeedGrade is ideally positioned to be the last step in the post workflow, although that will likely change in the future. Export your timeline to SpeedGrade and intermediate, uncompressed DPX files are rendered. These are approximately 8 MB per frame (1920 x 1080). That’s because a number of broadcast codecs, like AVC-Intra, are not yet natively supported by SpeedGrade. The alternative is to export an EDL and relink the media in SpeedGrade. This works well and is faster for ProRes or RED media than the DPX route.
SpeedGrade does not use Mercury Transmit to connect to third-party broadcast video cards. Instead, it uses only NVIDIA cards with SDI connections for that purpose, but you can display a full-screen image on a second computer monitor. There’s no user guide yet, so rely on the introductory web videos to get up and running. These are all minor, short-term issues. Don’t let them stop you from diving into a very powerful grading tool that’s right at your fingertips.
Premiere Pro CS6 has undergone significant improvements, but it’s still optimized for the single user instead of a team of editors working collaboratively. In order to truly make inroads into the space dominated by Avid Media Composer and Apple Final Cut Pro, Adobe must make sure that Premiere Pro plays well with the outside world. XML support for FCP 7 files is quite good. It was relatively painless to move timelines and projects into Premiere Pro. I ran into some issues importing 23.976 fps EDLs, related to a calculation difference when timecode was added to media files externally rather than generated in-camera. Fortunately Adobe had been working on this issue and the problem appears to have been corrected in the Premiere Pro 6.0.1 update.
Many team projects involve one or more editors working on duplicate copies of the same project, each with the same media and master clips. To share versions of their edits with each other, sequence files are exchanged, which seamlessly connect to the media. Media Composer, FCP 7 and FCP X editors simply save a bin or project file that contains only a sequence and pass that along to their colleague.
This same workflow needs improvement in Premiere Pro. Importing a sequence from one project into another also imports some associated master clips, even though they already exist in the project, which results in duplicate master clips in the project browser. If you delete the duplicates, the imported sequence is negatively affected. Going back and forth a few times like this would result in a lot of unnecessary extra clips and potentially some real problems.
The good news is that Adobe is listening. After all, Adobe’s stated goal is to make Premiere Pro the Photoshop of video. More than most other companies, Adobe is passionately and proactively soliciting input from professional customers to make its video products even better. That’s a refreshing approach that goes a long way toward overcoming any differences that users might encounter as they make the NLE transition. For now, Adobe is making a lot of folks happy with an update in Premiere Pro CS6 that lets them edit exactly how they want to.
Product: Adobe Premiere Pro CS6
Score: 4 out of 5
Pros: User interface overhaul, warp stabilization and rolling shutter correction added, hover scrubbing for a quick review of footage, and Mercury Transmit for better integration of third-party hardware cards.
Cons: Collaborative editing features still need improvement. No full round-trip from SpeedGrade.
Bottom Line: Adobe comes to bat with an upgrade targeted at professional editors. New features, plus the addition of two new applications (Prelude and SpeedGrade) with the Production Premium collection.
MSRP: Premiere Pro $799, Production Premium $1,899, Master Collection $2,599