Open-Door Policy: Avid's Media Composer 6 and Symphony 6 Offer Editors 64-Bit Code and Open IO
Avid made the jump to 64-bit in November with its mainstream Media Composer 6, Symphony 6 and NewsCutter 10 software. This highly anticipated release includes 10 cornerstone features: 64-bit code, Open IO, ProRes integration (Mac only), Avid Marketplace, AMA support for AVCHD, a new DNxHD 444 codec, expanded stereo 3D tools, 5.1/7.1 surround mixing, Avid Artist Color control surface support and a modernized user interface. Avid has made significant architectural changes to the product without altering the behavior and interaction that veteran users rely on. A few hoped-for features, like resolution independence and background rendering, had to be left on the back burner, but they're still slated for a future release.
I installed Symphony 6 on my two-year-old Apple Mac Pro, along with a simultaneous upgrade to Lion (Mac OS X 10.7.2 recommended) and the installation of a Blackmagic Design DeckLink HD Extreme 3D card. Symphony is now available as software, so without Avid hardware, there's little functional difference between Media Composer and Symphony. Symphony offers a more complete color corrector (more on that later), but for the purpose of this review, the evaluation is the same.
Avid was swamped by the demand on day one of the launch. Traffic settled down after a few days, so my download was fast with no activation issues. Some older software may not be compatible with OS X Lion, including Avid Pro Tools 9 and all of the 32-bit Avid AVX filters. I had to reinstall the latest drivers for my Avid Mbox2 Mini, which I use as a core audio interface. The unit would work only if these drivers were installed last.
The software installers include all the third-party products (Avid FX, Sorenson Squeeze and Avid DVD), but the Boris Continuum Complete filters ship only with Symphony, not Media Composer. You'll need to update any third-party AVX effects when upgrading from previous Media Composer versions. Digital Film Tools and Tiffen offer free updates for their most recent versions, but Boris FX and GenArts require paid updates to BCC8 and Sapphire AVX v6, respectively. Red Giant Magic Bullet Looks is now compatible with the free 11.2 update to Looks 2 or Magic Bullet Suite 11. In addition, Avid supplies the AMA plug-in only for QuickTime. Plug-ins for the various native camera formats (Panasonic, Sony, RED, Canon, etc.) are downloadable directly from those manufacturers.
This is a brand new application, and as such it is remarkably stable, but not without a few bugs. I hope these will have been fixed by the time you read this review. For example, I run dual displays, with the top menu bar on the right-hand monitor. This configuration causes Symphony/Media Composer to open with all the interface windows off the screen and inaccessible. The short-term solution is to move the menu bar to the left-hand monitor (System Preferences – Displays) before launching the application.
The biggest new features for me are Open IO and native Apple ProRes integration. "Open IO" means that Avid hardware as well as solutions from AJA, Blackmagic Design, Bluefish444, Matrox and MOTU may be used. I tested with a loaner Blackmagic DeckLink card, and it couldn't have been simpler. If you've used this card with Apple Final Cut Pro, you'll be pleasantly surprised by the lack of a dizzying array of view options. Simply set your Avid format and the card knows what to do. Other editors running AJA cards have expressed a similar satisfaction. This same card will run Media Composer, Adobe After Effects, Final Cut Pro 7, Apple Color, Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve and other applications.
The DeckLink (or other) hardware is a full-featured analog and digital I/O solution, but Avid's Nitris DX hardware (reduced to $5,499) still offers a few advantages specific to Avid software. These include thin raster support, hardware codec support (DNxHD and AVC-Intra), stereo 3D and audio punch-in. When Avid detects the card, all I/O is routed through the card. In my case, this means audio goes through the DeckLink card while I'm in the Avid interface and not through my Mbox2 Mini. When I pull the card out and run in a software-only mode, then audio passes through the core audio system of the computer, using my Mbox2.
One known bug is the presence of digital interference on some of the channels of the DeckLink card. It supports 16 channels of audio I/O over SDI, and the internal meters of the Avid Audio Tool display some sort of pegged digital signal on channels 9 and 13. Since I can't monitor SDI audio on my system, I don't know if this is actually in the audio or merely a UI issue. Regardless, the analog stereo signal that I monitor sounds clean.
Avid has licensed the ProRes codec from Apple, so the editing applications can now read and write all flavors of ProRes media without transcoding (a Mac-only feature). This works perfectly if you use AMA linking or Fast Import. The latter means that when all codec settings match, media files are simply copied and rewrapped from MOV to MXF format. Exported files will also have proper levels. In my testing, a "round-tripped" file was completely transparent to the original. If for some reason you don't get a Fast Import (such as a 24 fps file into a 23.976 fps project), Avid has to decode it through QuickTime, which results in the dreaded QuickTime gamma shift. Normally this shouldn't be the case. ProRes support is huge for ARRI ALEXA projects and for shops that bounce between QuickTime-compliant applications like Final Cut and After Effects.
Version 6 completes the modernization of the user interface. It uses design elements reminiscent of Autodesk Smoke, Adobe Premiere Pro, Avid Pro Tools and others, and it sports simplified controls for the brightness of backgrounds and text. The user interaction features, like track-based audio filters and contextual timeline editing via Smart Tool, are all there. One welcome feature is the ability to organize bins as tabs within a single window. I do miss some of the eye candy of older versions and even Final Cut Pro X, but it's a clean design that evokes "professional" and "no nonsense."
Avid Marketplace is a web portal built into the Media Composer interface, not unlike Apple's App Store inside Mac OS. It's a resource to buy plug-ins and media, but there are plans to expand its scope. The first such use is the integration of Thought Equity, a stock video footage supplier.
Launch Avid Marketplace from Media Composer's top menu, set up a free Thought Equity account and then browse for stock footage. The search speed with broadband Internet access is very fast. Selected shots are placed into a shopping cart, and from there you can download watermarked, low-res comps for editing. These H.264 clips end up in an Avid DownloadFiles folder on your media drive and are automatically imported into a bin as linked AMA files. Once you've locked the cut and know which stock clips to buy, simply complete the purchase to download and replace the clips with high-res versions.
Symphony Versus Media Composer
Symphony is Avid's flagship finishing solution within the Media Composer family. Avid DS or Autodesk Smoke editors might balk at calling Symphony a finishing solution, but in the world of television program postproduction, Symphony systems continue to deliver hundreds of hours of content annually. It was originally introduced as Avid's uncompressed system. With the addition of a color correction mode, Symphony quickly became the ideal online editing companion for shows that were offline edited using Media Composer stations working with low-res, compressed media.
Over the past decade, most of the Symphony features have been added to Media Composer, so color correction and Universal Mastering are now the only differentiators. The latter means you can cut in a 23.976 project and deliver 59.94i and 50i masters for broadcast when Avid Nitris DX is used. Its color corrector includes a few more controls than Media Composer's, along with source-based correction, an additional program track layer of correction, and six-vector secondary color correction.
Over the past decade, however, more advanced desktop color correctors, such as Apple Color and Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve, have come to market. The only new color correction feature in the version 6 software is integration with the Avid Artist Color control surface. With Media Composer at $2,499 and Symphony at $5,999, will enough buyers find value in Symphony's more advanced color correction tools and the BCC8 filters? Integration in a single interface is a big selling point, but I just don't know if it's enough to warrant the bump in price. Nevertheless, it's less expensive than Avid DS or Autodesk Smoke and is a cross-platform solution.
Symphony version 6 performed well on my system. It's fast, efficient and completely natural to anyone who uses Avid applications. Don't expect blazingly faster speeds because of the 64-bit rewrite; the recode has largely removed some RAM roadblocks, but media handling functions and scrubbing on the timeline will feel about the same as with Media Composer 5.5. Performance and responsiveness were generally the same with and without the DeckLink card. Other functions, like imports, exports, transcodes and mix-downs, seem to be faster with the 64-bit rewrite.
Avid Media Composer 6, Symphony 6 and NewsCutter 10 are the real deal for professional editors who need a powerful application that can tackle every level of post. It's not an attempt to "re-imagine" 100 years of editing. It's a product designed to let you be instantly productive with a skill set honed through experience. Film and documentary editors will appreciate that the optional ScriptSync and PhraseFind modules can still be used. SAN support is still the best in the business, whether you are running stations on Avid ISIS or a third-party solution like Facilis Technology TerraBlock.
Avid systems are more open than ever before. The company made its Final Cut Pro cross-grade promotion (not including FCP X) permanent at $1,499 and hopes to grow with new, old and returning customers. With 6.0 as solid as it appears to be, I can't wait to see what new features will make it into the software in the coming years.
Avid Media Composer 6 / Symphony 6 / NewsCutter 10
PROS: Open IO support for third-party hardware, 64-bit rewrite, native ProRes support (Macs), modernized user interface, wide support for native camera formats including RED EPIC.
CONS: New AVX filters required, a few minor bugs in initial version, no direct XML support, no background rendering, limited to a maximum of HD frame sizes.
BOTTOM LINE: Avid's version 6 software is a powerful 64-bit update that retained users' preferred working model without reinventing the wheel. This NLE software is more open than ever before, supporting more native file types and hardware options than any other editing application.
MSRP: Avid Media Composer 6.0 $2,499, Avid NewsCutter 10.0 $2,499, Avid Symphony 6.0 $5,999, Avid Nitris DX (hardware) $5,499