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Avid Evolves Its Nonlinear Editor: Media Composer 7 Adds FrameFlex, Background Services

Avid continues to be the dominant force in television and film editing technology, despite being challenged by strong offerings from Apple, Adobe, Grass Valley and others. While it’s not always the flashiest product, Avid’s flagship Media Composer editing application delivers the toolset that professional editors rely on to be productive. Version 7.0 is no exception. Along with new features, it has been reduced in price to $999, and big brother Avid Symphony is now available as a $1,499 add-on. Other options include ScriptSync and PhraseFind.

Media Composer has traditionally ingested media and converted it into a native Avid format, but media handling has been undergoing big improvements. This workflow started to change with the introduction of Avid Media Access a few versions ago. AMA is an architecture to directly link to native camera formats without conversion. With Media Composer 7, AMA takes a big leap forward, with linked files becoming Avid-managed media just like Avid’s internal MXF files. When files are imported using AMA, a folder is created on the user’s hard drive with database information and small AAF files that point to the location of the actual media. Media Composer will track the AMA files just like it does its own MXF folders. This makes direct editing with AMA-linked files more solid than in earlier versions.

Depending on the installed AMA plug-ins, Media Composer 7 supports a wide variety of native camera formats, including media from RED, ARRI, Canon, Sony and Panasonic cameras. Media that already matches native codecs, including DNxHD, XDCAM, ProRes, AVC-Intra and others, will “fast import.” That means files are copied and rewrapped without alteration. Files that don’t match are transcoded on import, thus changing the video “essence,” such as the codec type. In short, there are three ways to bring in files: traditional import, AMA linking (direct access to the files) or transcoding AMA files into MXF media.

New Features: Background Services and High-Resolution Formats

One big new feature is the ability to transcode in the background, with the introduction of Background Services. When you opt to transcode AMA files, you can choose to do so in the background and set a priority level for these background services. This enables the editor to continue working without the transcoding operation holding up the system. Naturally the speed of transcoding will depend on what else the computer is tasked with at any given time and the priority level assigned. When the computer is engaged only in the transcode function, the conversion occurs in less than the total running time of the footage (as tested on my eight-core Mac Pro). Foreground transcoding is even faster, but you can’t do any other work at the same time.

Another background service is Dynamic Media Folders. This is a watch folder system that allows you to copy, transcode or consolidate media in the background. Depending on the rules you set up, the DMF service can run whether or not Media Composer is running. It can be set to perform several functions, once you copy files into a designated folder. This can be as small an action as setting up files for AMA linking or can include transcoding to a predetermined codec.

Until now, Media Composer was locked to SD and HD video frame sizes and didn’t offer any source-side editing capabilities. Media Composer 7 is the first version to change that. The FrameFlex feature enables the use of video sources that are larger than HD size without loss of resolution. These files are automatically resized when edited into an SD or HD sequence. Each clip can be opened as an effect, with the ability to control frame size and position within the SD or HD raster. These positions can be keyframed and animated, allowing new creative options, like zooming from a wide to a close-up within a 4K RED frame. Along with reformatting options, this new source capability includes added color management within Media Composer. This enables the application of LUTs (lookup tables) for camera sources using log-style gamma encoding.

User Enhancements, New Filters and More

There are a number of user enhancements throughout, including spanned markers (markers that have duration values), a master fader on the mixer, and mini-faders that pop up to adjust clip levels directly on the timeline. One thing that hasn’t been mentioned in many of the reviews is that Avid has added a “starter pack” of filters from NewBlueFX, as well as NewBlueFX’s titler (in addition to the venerable Title Tool and Marquee). NewBlueFX’s Titler Pro v1 is a more modern titler than anything Avid has offered in the past, but it’s curious that Avid didn’t include one of its own graphics products, like Deko.

The Media Composer package still includes Avid FX 6.3 (an OEM’ed version of Boris RED from Boris FX), Sorenson Squeeze 8.5 and Avid DVD. All are cross-platform except Avid DVD, which is Windows-only. The Boris Continuum Complete filter set is included with the Symphony option, but many of these filters, as well as the Final Effects Complete filters, are installed with Avid FX and can be applied through its interface within Media Composer.

The Symphony option adds a few more color correction controls, along with relational grading (correction by source, tape or clip) and program-level grading (adding a second level of correction to all or part of a timeline). Although Symphony is still powerful for most TV show finishing needs, it does not offer the level of grading power of Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve Lite (free) or FilmLight’s Baselight Editions plug-in ($1,000). Its main selling point is an integrated workflow and the fact that the BCC filter set is included.

Media Composer in Actual Use

Boxed editions are gone in favor of software downloads, but a single purchase authorizes you for both PC and Mac versions. With the flak Adobe has been receiving over its Creative Cloud subscription model, software ownership of Media Composer may be a point of interest for many. Installation of Media Composer 7 is easy and straightforward. The license is activated and deactivated over the Internet, so users who need to move back and forth between different machines can do so with a single license (only one running at a time). Without activation, the software runs in a fully functioning 30-day trial mode. Avid has historically been good about backwards compatibility of projects and bins, but Media Composer 7 is backwards-compatible with only several earlier versions due to changes in the data structure of the bins. These include Media Composer maintenance release versions, 6.0.4 and 6.5.3.

A few persistent issues remain. A minority of installations (including several of the systems I operate) exhibit an unknown conflict with networking (usually for Internet access). In my case, the launch hangs for a long time on the “Initializing Avid Media Access Volume Manager” splash screen. Sometimes it takes several minutes for the application to respond and complete the launch. Once this process is complete, there are no problems with editing operations. This issue also affects the new background transcoding functionality on my Mac Pro, causing a clip that is a few seconds long to take several minutes to transcode. If you experience any of these hang-ups, one suggested workaround is to momentarily unplug your network Ethernet cable or turn off the wireless during launch or background transcoding.

Avid is compatible with third-party I/O cards from AJA, Blackmagic Design, Matrox, Bluefish444 and MOTU. General performance with these is fine, with the exception of the trim mode. If you have one of these cards, trimming clips in the trim mode is slow. Turn off your card and the response improves, but it’s still not as good as when you run in a software-only configuration. Likewise, when you work in the color correction mode, any parameter changes are relatively slow to update on screen. I have also had a few conflicts with third-party plug-ins, like Digital Film Tools’ Film Stocks.

With the introduction of Media Composer 7, Avid has taken an evolutionary, but not revolutionary, step. In a year when 4K is the buzz—and all of Avid’s competitors can edit with native 4K sequences—Avid has taken only the first step in dealing with bigger-than-HD sizes. In their defense, Avid is trying to solve the issues of today for its users and not the potential issues of tomorrow. The vast majority of Media Composer editors aren’t—and probably won’t—use this tool to finish 4K masters. Media Composer is designed for the broadcast and/or film editor who needs a workhorse editing application or a great offline editor for feature films. In high-pressure, collaborative environments, no other NLE is as proven as Media Composer. If you need an NLE that you can count on to deliver, Avid Media Composer 7 still fits the bill. As those infamous car analogies go, it might not be a sports car, but it’s a heck of a fine truck.   dv

Product: Avid Media Composer 7
Pros: Media Composer 7 handles video sources that are bigger than HD. Support for LUTs. Improved media handling and new background services.
Cons: Timelines are still limited to a maximum of HD output. Steep learning curve. The software is not that intuitive. Some features, including color correction, have received little development.
Bottom Line: Media Composer is still the “industrial strength” editing tool that can deliver results with nearly any type of post challenge. Improved AMA support, FrameFlex and the new Background Services provide modern features that keep this application in the game.
MSRP: Media Composer software $999, Symphony option $1,499 (additional)