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Edit Review—Avid Xpress DV and Free DV

The low-cost branch of the Avid family tree offers surprising functionality.

Today a DV editor can choose from many Avids: Xpress Pro for $1,395, Xpress DV for $695, or even Free DV for, yes, free. These Avid choices are paralleled by three Apple products. For free, or nearly free, you can get iMovie 4. At only $299, Apple offers Final Cut Express. And, at $999, Apple has Final Cut Pro. Over the past nine months, Video Systems has reviewed four of these six options (to read our reviews, see the web-expanded version of this article at www.videosystems.com). This month we consider the fifth and sixth — Avid’s mid-range Xpress DV and Avid’s Free DV.

Xpress DV offers 100 realtime effects, supports for realtime video streams, and provides 8 video and 8 audio tracks.

Before I compare Xpress DV and Free DV, it’s useful to consider Express DV in comparison to the higher end Xpress Pro. Xpress DV, as you might expect, provides a full range of realtime effects. These include titles, keys, transitions, audio mixing, and audio punch-in. While Xpress Pro offers 115 realtime effects, Xpress DV offers 100. Not much difference in this realm.

In comparing the number of realtime video streams, you will not find much difference. Xpress DV supports four streams while Xpress Pro supports five.

As for the number of tracks, there are significant differences. Xpress Pro provides 24 video and 24 audio tracks, while Xpress DV provides eight of each. When it comes to tracks, Apple is far more liberal with Final Cut Express — the program offers up to 99 video and 99 audio tracks.

When it comes to compositing and effects, you get very similar functions from both Avid Xpress DV and Xpress Pro. These functions include keyframeable filters and effects, YUV rendering, AVX support, realtime Pan and Zoom, PIP, and a set of 2D effects. To work with 3D effects, you will need to move up to Xpress Pro.

Both Xpress DV and Xpress Pro provide very complete realtime Color Correction suites. Tools include “3 Up” color correction windows; separate HSL controls, ChromaCurves, and ChromaGraphs. Supporting functions include range-checking, broadcast safe indicators, plus vectorscopes and waveform monitors. Moreover, both products support Avid’s NaturalMatch color correction as well as keyframeable color effects.

I found working with the three windows of Avid’s color corrector an easy way of color-matching two scenes. You can throw the previous scene on the left monitor, the current scene on the center monitor, and a waveform monitor on the right monitor. By feeding the waveform monitor with the corrected image, you can see the changes in the waveform at the same time as you adjust the image qualities. I found it helpful to see the signal changes as I altered the image.

Audio capabilities are also nearly identical between the two Avid editors. Capabilities include Digidesign AudioSuite support, realtime EQ, realtime cross-fade, and 24-bit audio support.

Likewise, Xpress DV and Xpress Pro have nearly identical interface functions as both support a fully customizable UI, drag-and-drop, insert, overwrite, superimpose, fit-to-fill, three-point editing, roll, ripple, blade, slip and slide, split edit, realtime VO punch-in, plus JKL trim/machine control. Avid’s decision to provide equality in this area makes it easy for editors to move back and forth between the products.

Naturally, Xpress Pro does offer several advanced functions such as Replace and Extend edit, MetaSync, plus clip grouping and ganging. And if you need Image Stabilization, IllusionFX, OpenGL 3D DVE, Boris FX LTD, Profound Effects’ Elastic Gasket, realtime Timewarp effects, or After Effects plug-in support — then you’ll need Xpress Pro.

Both Xpress DV and Xpress Pro provide a full set of DV25 input/output functions. These functions include RS-422 deck control, advanced logging, DV FireWire capture, batch capture, DV scene extraction, multi-layered Photoshop import, an EDL manager, plus OMF and AAF I/O. MXF I/O is planned. There are, however, a few product differences in the I/O area. Xpress Pro offers the valuable “expert RT analysis” function. And for filmmakers, its film-cut lists are a “must-have” feature.

Equally important for film work: the ability to open Avid Film Composer projects, Avid Log Exchange, Panasonic AG-DVX100 support, 35:1p and 28:1p capture, AutoSync, script-based editing, 24p film playback (HD offline), film effects, dupe detection, and negative cut list matchback.

There is one other critical reason to go with Xpress Pro — its support of Avid’s LANShare shared storage. I suspect, however, that Avid would sell many more LANShare boxes to colleges and university if it supported LANShare under Xpress DV. Most students will have no need for Xpress Pro — and a classroom of Xpress DV stations is a lot more cost-effective.

Looking at these product differences, there are not many that would concern DV editors. However, there are also not many differences between these products and their corresponding NLEs from Apple — yet the Apple products are significantly cheaper. Nevertheless, if you work in an Avid environment, or need to move projects to more powerful Avid systems, obviously you should go with Avid. Likewise, if you require a cross-platform NLE, you will need an Avid. If, however, you do not have these needs, you will probably be asking yourself just why you should spend more for an Avid.

There is one other Avid advantage that cannot be ignored — reliability. While there is no objective way of measuring reliability, my own personal observation watching FCP 4.1 users struggle through multiple problems indicates to me that Apple needs to make progress in this area. And, in my experience, I found Xpress DV to be rock-solid.

But what, you may ask, about the well-established “professional” Avid interface? Apple, echoing language that I’ve used in my many Avid reviews, disposes of this marketing claim by promoting Apple’s “mode-free interface [that] lets you move seamlessly between editing, trimming, compositing, effects, and audio functions.” Nevertheless, except when mucking about in the Timeline, I greatly prefer every other aspect of Avid’s interface — especially when setting system, user, and project parameters or quickly altering window functions. Of course, my hope is that Avid eventually will enable new users to disable their old-fashioned model Timeline interface — think of WordStar’s use of Replace and Insert modes. (A vestige of Insert mode is the ins key on your keyboard.) Of course, that will happen when Apple ships a three-button mouse. All of this indicates that if you are trying to make a decision, you really need to spend time working with both interfaces to see which you prefer.

And Avid has made this possible. Whether you use a PC or Mac, you can download a copy of Free DV by clicking to www.avid.com/freedv. According to Avid, “Avid Free DV software is an easy, free way to join the Avid family and test-drive the industry-standard editing interface used by more professionals than any other video editing solution.”

Unfortunately, while Free DV certainly is free, it is not “easy.” It took multiple tries over a week to successfully receive the password necessary to activate Free DV — an experience shared by many others. Thankfully, Free DV ran perfectly on my iMac under Jaguar.

Also contributing to Free DV difficulties is its lack of documentation. Avid claims Free DV is “perfect for students, DV camera owners, video enthusiasts, or anyone exploring video editing.” These, of course, are the very folks who will need all the help they can get trying to learn to use Avid’s “professional” interface.

You might think Avid’s QuickTime tutorials would be valuable, but I didn’t find this to be the case. Avid notes they “are specific to Avid Xpress DV 3.5.” Ditto for the Free DV Help system, which, Avid warns, “includes many features that are not available with Avid Free DV. These features have been grayed out or do not appear in the application, but are available on the Avid Xpress Pro or Avid Xpress DV models.”

Creating an arty video is certainly a great way to learn a new NLE. Unfortunately, Avid’s Free DV has such limited features that creating a spectacular video is difficult. Any Mac user who wants to be expressive would find iMovie 4 (especially when used with iPhoto, iTunes, iDVD, and now GarageBand) much more kind to creativity — and significantly easier to learn and use.

Despite a flawed marketing strategy, I find Free DV has a combination of features that make it ideal for narrative, documentary, and training videos. These projects have specific requirements that are not met by other free solutions like iMovie. For example, because you will likely have lots of clips from many locations, a full-featured bin system is necessary. Free DV offers multiple bins and clip-sift functions, plus Script View that enables you to assign text to each clip.

Free DV’s JKL jog/shuttle-controlled playback, dual monitors, and Audio Scrub are all necessary for editing dialog. Even more important, Dynamic Trimming lets you trim by watching and listening to playback. I find this feature indispensable when I’m trying to get a real sense of a scene’s timing. You can easily match audio levels by using the Audio Mixer and VU meters.

Free DV’s two video tracks allow cutaways to be added non-destructively. Moreover, the realtime transitions (dissolve, dip-to-color, fade-to-color, fade-to-color) are a good match for long-form projects.

Although Free DV does not have Avid’s full color corrector, it does have a realtime color balance (brightness, contrast, RGB gain) filter. Moreover, because Free DV supports DV output, you can view color adjustments on an NTSC monitor.

DV inherently offers stereo audio, so I find it strange that Avid decided to restrict Free DV to only two mono channels. However, for those of us old enough to remember using Pro Tools to edit soundtracks — this limitation isn’t fatal. Simply export synch audio, import into your favorite multi-track editing application, create a multi-channel soundtrack, export, and re-import into Free DV where you replace the audio.

If you take on projects with Free DV, you need to be aware of one important limitation. You cannot export a project from Free DV to any other Avid application. This means if you get into a project and upgrade to Xpress DV, you lose all your work. This limitation prevents a Free DV user from doing exactly what Avid wants — gain a bit of experience and then pay for the more expensive version. (Although it does prevent a video producer from using Free DV to do a rough cut of a production and passing it onto her editor.) Another serious and seemingly counterproductive limitation: it is early March as I write this and Avid still has not released Free DV for Panther.

I really like both Xpress DV and Free DV. But what I would really like from Avid is a new product — Xpress DV Mojo. Mojo’s support for realtime DV editing would be a real benefit to DV editors who do not need all the extras that come with Xpress DV Pro. It would also be a more affordable solution.

Contributing editor Steve Mullen is owner of Digital Video Consulting, which provides consulting and conducts seminars on digital video technology. Mullen can be reached atd-v-c@mindspring.com. His website iswww.mindspring.com/~d-v-c.

BOTTOM LINE

Company: Avid
Tewksbury, Mass.; (978) 640-6789
www.avid.com

Product: Xpress DV and Free DV

Assets: Both offer multiple bins and access to Avid’s interface; DV editing functions of Xpress DV closely resemble those of Xpress Pro.

Caveats: No export from Free DV to other Avid NLEs.

Demographic: Editors on a budget not working with film.

Price: $695 for Xpress DV; Free DV is free.

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