The big question has been answered. Avid Xpress DV will be availableon the Mac. But whether Mac- or PC-based, the new version features newcapabilities. I was given an exclusive preview of version 3.0 by DougHansel, Avid’s Xpress product designer. Charlie Russell, XpressDV product marketing manager, assisted. Doug Hansel did not want torequire a hardware upgrade for the new Windows-based version of theproduct. He told his team he wanted the new software to perform well ona 750MHz Pentium III laptop platform with a minimum of 256MB of RAM. (Istrongly recommend at least doubling that.) “Performingwell” means creating an environment in which creative decisionsare made in realtime. Almost all video effects (with the exception ofplug-in effects), even motion effects, are previewed in realtime.
Please note that “realtime” means much more than asingle transition or effect – it could mean multiple layers.There are now eight video tracks, and I was surprised at theperformance levels for realtime compositing on the somewhat dated750MHz on which my demo was presented.
“I told my team that I wanted to get it right at this lowerspeed, because I wanted to keep current Xpress DV customers in the fold– not make them repurchase gear if it wasn’t absolutelynecessary,” explains Hansel, who adds that as the processingpower of the platform increases, the compositing and effectsperformance also increases.
Improved user interface
The big changes to the user interface, or UI, are some of the mostexciting things about this version release. The two goals for this UIappear to be to make it easier for those who have used Adobe Premiere,Final Cut Pro, and others; and to make the interface more like that ofMedia Composer.
Hansel explained the design goal. “We are really trying tobring Avid’s mindset into one UI without putting all the toolsfrom Composer into Xpress. You can have a one-screen Avid or atwo-screen Avid. That is this design team’s goal, as opposed toslicing the UI into products as we have in the past. We need to take asingle UI and get the maximum we can out of it. Actually change itbased upon how you use it instead of by product name.”
As Hansel talked, I watched him edit with the system. On his laptopscreen I saw a layout similar to what a single-screen Media Composermight look like. There were two monitor windows (Source andRecord/Timeline), and when he double-clicked a clip in a bin, it poppedinto the Source monitor. If he double-clicked a sequence, it poppedinto the Record/Timeline monitor — something that doesn’t happenon the Media Composers I work on, but should. Then he went to the toptoolbar and selected a new category, Toolset, which provided a pulldownwith several custom desktop layout settings including: Basic, RecordingLayout, Effects Layout, Audio Layout, Source/Record Layout, and others.He selected Basic, and the desktop appeared the way I expected theXpress interface to look. He chose Audio Layout and audio mixer andaudio tools replaced the old-style desktop. He went to Effects Layout,and an effects mode filled the desktop. Then he went back toSource/Record Layout and entered Trim Mode. A Big Trim window similarto Media Composer’s appeared.
Hansel then right mouse-clicked to access a large four-screenSlip/Slide Trim window. “We are trying to make things easier tofind without further cluttering the UI,” he explains. “Justtrying to use the UI the best way we can. Avid editors know how to finda Slip or a Slide mode. But for all the new people – how do youget them into Slip mode or Slide mode? Well, now you can right-clickand get into more stuff easily. We are using the right-click featuremore than ever!” He also demonstrated that Preferences are nowlocated under Edit on the top toolbar because that is where FCP andAdobe editors expect to find it.
Another improvement in the interface is the addition of tabs in theBin window and the Project window. The user interface now features whatAvid calls a Superbin mode. In addition to the tabbed structure, if youclick a bin in the Project window, the single bin visible changes tothe bin selected. If you double-click, you can open the bin separately.The concept behind this change and many of the others is to maximizethe limited desktop workspace, making it as efficient as possible.
In my opinion, one of the best added user interface features is anew advanced keyframe effects interface. You have your normal Avidinterface mode where a keyframe can be added for all parameters, butnow there is an expanded, more powerful and complex second-layerinterface where you can add keyframes to individual parameters. Inaddition, programming keyframes can be set in a number of ways with aright mouse-click. You can keyframe a single parameter, all parameters,all open parameters, or all enabled parameters. This concept will beavailable on all Avid Xpress, Media Composer, and Symphony systems.
If you have tried to view the camcorder or VCR output as a“full resolution client monitor” (as opposed to a scaledvideo overlay available on some platforms), you know there is a delayfor the digital-to-analog conversion process between the images visiblevia this device and the audio from the timeline/platform. This can be aproblem on several DV edit systems, including those with requiredhardware cards. Avid created a Desktop Play Delay setting that allowsyou to synchronize that video to the laptop audio and internalvideo.
Something else I found elegant is the way this version supports dualmonitors. There is an auto-sensing feature so that if you plug in adual monitor setup, it automatically reconfigures to maximize theincreased desktop space. There are far too many small UI improvementsto mention all of them in this column. The bottom line is that the newuser interface is easier to use, and the desktop is cleaner and moreefficient.
New DV codec
Avid has also designed a new DV codec. In past versions of Xpress DV,Avid used the Canopus codec, considered by many to be the best of thebreed. But considering the compositing features available in thisversion of Xpress, Avid started from scratch and created its own DVcodec to improve image quality and performance.
Those who do not understand the role of a codec in native DV shouldknow that DV is a compressed digital video format (approximately 5:1compression), and every time you do something to an image (dissolve ortransition, color correction, DVE, key, title, etc.) you need touncompress the video, perform the change, and recompress the video.Such uncompress/recompress operations can result in a minimal digital“generational loss.” Repetitive generations of suchprocessing can become noticeable with an inferior codec. Avid says itsnew codec offers the ability to handle these “digitalgenerations” without noticeable image loss, among otherbenefits.
Please note that the 750MHz demonstration platform was capable ofrealtime transitions and effects, but all version 3.0 platforms requirea final render to do a Digital Cut (outputting to DV tape) if sucheffects are present. My personal view is that realtime decision-makingis far more important than the need to avoid a one-time render whenoutputting to tape. With Xpress DV 3.0, the more powerful theprocessor/platform, the more effects and layering can be previewedwithout any additional hardware required, and the faster any requiredrendering will take.
However, it is incredible how much performance Avid is able to getout of a 750MHz platform, and how it is able to “jeep” theperformance with a few sophisticated tricks that maximize thecapabilities of such a platform. There are several switches or settingsthat allow for better effects/compositing preview performance whilerequiring you to compromise on either image quality during preview orlag time with something like a RAM-preload.
When do you need these switches? One switch is called HighPerformance Mode. This allows you to continue realtime previews, butthe image muddies up a bit (scaled back to one-eighth resolution). Wedid this when we tried a three DVE window of moving video – all withvariable soft borders – over moving video. Our platform starteddropping frames as the third window appeared, but when we switched tothis mode it played back fine – albeit with a little softness ofimage.
Another switch was called a “spring buffer” by Hansel,but Avid named it Pre-filled Frames. The editor pre-loads a selectednumber of seconds of a composited segment into a RAM buffer. We setthis switch to 3 seconds, and every time we went to preview a build,there was a 3-second delay before playback. The buffer allowed a fullresolution preview when it would otherwise not have been able to.
There will always be times when you either want to or need torender. Expert Render allows rendered segments to be trimmed ormodified, and only the changed portions need re-rendering. Thiscapability is usually only found on high-end editing systems.
The timeline offers various indicators when you are reaching themaximum load capacity of your platform. A dotted single pixel-wide lineon the timeline over a composite warns that you are getting close toexceeding performance capabilities and the red version of this lineindicates you will most likely have a problem with real- time playback.A blue version indicates you have a storage issue. Whenever you seesuch an indicator on your timeline, you have a variety of choices fromrendering to throwing one of these performance or parameter switches tocontinue full playback capabilities.
While mentioning performance, it is important mention that Version3.0 now offers multi-processor support. If a second processor isdetected on Xpress DV, the software will attempt to move the codec workand RT effects work onto the second processor. Performance increases of40-50% may be attainable.
Version 3.0 also supports Avid’s Unity LANshare technology and iscompatible with Ethernet networking. With LANshare, it is possible touse DV media from a remote RAID source. This is true of both laptop anddesktop systems.
It is important to understand that the Avid metadata is fullyexchangeable with the Avid family of Xpress, Media Composer, andSymphony systems. The system is AAF-compliant as well. This metadatacompatibility makes Xpress DV an ideal low-cost workgroup component.You can download and convert to DV any media accessible from anotherMeridien-based Avid. This is a non-realtime transcoding process, andlike everything else associated with Xpress DV, the faster theplatform, the faster this transcoding process is.
Another nice new feature is a Scene Extraction tool for ingesting anentire tape at a time. It allows you to break the input into sub-clipson the fly as the tape is ingested. Also, there is a Head and TailFades button. This allows an editor to park on a clip and say, “Ireally want to fade from this point in the picture,” and insteadof the editor needing to calculate how many frames is required, theeditor can say, “I want the fade to end there, so figure it outfor me.”
Other bundled software includes Sonic DVD Recorder fullyintegrated and the Sonic DVDit! authoring package. A newhigher-performance Ligos MPEG-2 encoder comes with all systems. MediaCleaner does, too. The PowerPack option is still available, and I stillthink it is well worth the additional cost. (I would personally not ownan Xpress DV without it.) Avid has added 28 cool plug-in effects to thePowerPack that were derived from the Avid Illusion.
The Mac version
The Windows version is delivering today. The Mac version will beavailable in Q2. (There are Mac software engineers throughout ourindustry complaining about the lack of good development tools, but Avidwould not comment on the reasons for the delay.) The Mac version willstart with a comparable version 3.0. There will be minor differences sothat each product can take advantage of the specific benefits of the OSit resides on. More importantly, there is no classic modeinvolved with the Mac version. It is a fully “Carbonized”product — available only on an OS X platform. Because of that, Hanselbelieves the product will be fully compatible with a G5 platform whenit becomes available.
In closing, Avid’s Xpress DV 3.0 is an amazing versionupgrade. Realtime effects and other performance enhancements will bethe focus of a lot of the buzz about this product. The Mac version willbe much celebrated by those who have longed for this software on theirpersonal platform of choice. Still, the user interface and the improvedcodec are not to be overlooked. The UI is much more clean, efficient,and easy-to-use. Avid editors will appreciate the more “MediaComposer-like” feel. Finally, while these are the bigimprovements, there are many smaller ones that editors will be gratefulfor – so many that they cannot all fit into this article. If youare looking for a DV-based editing system, you really must take thisfor a test drive.