July 2003|Mike McCabe was the kid in my high school who bought the '64 Chevy Nova, jacked up the back, and installed and tuned an 8-cylinder engine so shockingly fast that all the girls wanted a ride. Even the good girls. Once they got in, however, they learned that the high-performance suspension made driving harsh and bumpy and that Mike hadn't paid much attention to the interior, forcing them to avoid grease spots and exposed springs on the seats.
This drove most girls back to the star quarterback, who, when I last saw him at our 20th reunion, was dancing with three girls simultaneously. When you've got it, apparently, you've got it for life. The obvious lesson for Mr. McCabe is that if you want to get the girl, you need high performance and a smooth ride.
It's not just the scarily looming specter of my 30th reunion that leads to these ramblings, it's my experience reviewing Ulead's MediaStudio Pro 7 (MSP), $495 retail, which, like that Chevy Nova, is screamingly fast with other flashes of under-the-hood brilliance. Unfortunately, Ulead doesn't appear to have paid any more attention to ease of use than Mike McCabe did to easy riding.
Of course, once you know where the grease spots and exposed springs of the MSP interface are, you can avoid or work around them, and many users who prize speed over a cushy ride will choose this route. Certainly, MSP's 4X speed advantage in MPEG-2 encoding will drive many high-volume DVD producers in this direction. Still, MSP will just be a really fast car with an unnecessarily jarring ride until Ulead updates the interface, primarily the tiny secondary control screens that haven't been enlarged since the days of the 640x480 screen.
For the record, MediaStudio Pro includes six different modules: an audio editor, character generator, and capture, editing, and video paint tools. Rather than include a special edition of Ulead's excellent authoring program, DVD Workshop, Ulead includes DVD MovieFactory, a $49 consumer-oriented authoring program that lacks even true nested menus.
As with last month's review subject, Vegas Video, we tested on a Pentium 4 3.06gHz PC with Hyper-Threading Technology and 512MB RAM running Windows XP Professional, capturing to a freshly formatted 120GB 7200RPM Ultra ATA Seagate Barracuda drive. Our source camera was a Sony VX2000 camcorder, connected to an NTSC monitor to test MediaStudio Pro's preview out the FireWire port. Towards the end of the review, we also plugged in a Matrox Parhelia graphics card to test preview directly to an NTSC monitor. A surround sound-capable Sound Blaster Audigy rounded out the relevant equipment list.
Capture was a distinct strong point. In addition to support for MicroMV devices and the ability to capture in type-1 and type-2 DV format, you can now scan DV tapes for scene breaks at 10X speeds, and then select scenes for capture at normal speed. Like most batch capture programs, MSP struggled through tapes with multiple timecode starts and stops, but worked well with tapes with timecodes that ran from start to finish.
Or, you can capture your entire tape to disk and then use MSP's Split by Scene feature to locate scenes by time code or content (for MPEG files). MSP presents you with a list of scenes, identified by a thumbnail image that you can select to include on the timeline. You can even join contiguous clips in this dialog, simplifying clip management in the project.
The main editor is little changed from version 6.5, with source and preview windows, a timeline, and production library for project assets and effects. Like Premiere, MSP has a separate Storyboard window in the production library where you can sequence your assets and then drop them into the timeline with standard-length transition and automatic audio crossfades.
One new addition is the Summary Timeline, which displays all project clips in uniform length on the timeline, so you can see all production elements. MSP can now also input Flash animations and COOL 3D Studio projects with round trip editing in Cool 3D.
One new feature, Auto Slide Show, reveals some of MSP's interface and documentation deficits. Essentially, this feature allows you to listen to music, hit F5 to create cues, and then drop still images into the timeline that transition at each cue. It's a great feature, but in default mode, MSP doesn't maintain the image's native aspect ratio, rather it stretches it to fit the output resolution.
Check the manual, and there's no mention of still images, pans, or slide shows. Long story short, you have to select two very obscure settings in two different windows to cure the problem, something the tech support rep we spoke with didn't know without checking with others. In our tests, changing these settings after you loaded the images didn't restore the image to proper aspect ratio, so many users may have to start over to get the proper results. Interestingly, DVD Workshop, a newer Ulead product designed from scratch, takes the correct approach, and displays slide show images at their original aspect ratio.
These interface shortcomings hampered us through the nuts and bolts of our review. For example, in color correction, though MSP provides the ability to adjust highlights, midtones, and shadows, controls are very limited. In contrast, Sonic Foundry's Vegas, with features reminiscent of Apple's Final Cut Pro and Avid's Xpress DV, provides more controls and much better preview options, like split-screen NTSC display. To be fair, MSP is more functional than Premiere in this regard, but users who frequently need color correction capabilities will find both MSP and Premiere inadequate.
Like Premiere's, MSP's onscreen chromakey preview is impossibly small, and lacks Premiere's zoom capabilities, complicating operation. Most users will work around this problem by previewing through the camcorder or a dual-head card like Parhelia, but still must confront an icon-heavy display without Tool Tips, making them unnecessarily difficult to learn. Once we figured out the various buttons and controls, however, we produced absolutely fantastic results, a crisp, clear overlay superior to both Premiere and Vegas.
Adding motion to a video is another frustration: you can't start with a clean slate, you have to select and drag a template from the library to your video, then adjust the template to the desired values. Some templates, like picture-in-picture controls, ignore safe zones, hindering their use for DVD or other videos displayed on analog monitors. Like the chromakey functions, the control windows are impossibly tiny, leaving little working space. In contrast, Vegas allows you to drag similar controls to full screen, vastly improving usability.
Like many effects, the motion controls don't have a reset button or undo controls, so if you want to start over, you have to delete the effect, drag in another template, and start working. You can't even delete the motion controls from within the Moving Path Dialog, as you can with video effects, you have to exit the dialog, and use the Delete Attributes menu.
Ulead's titling utility is functional, and has some nice effects; but even factoring in the features of CG Infinity, Ulead trails Premiere in usability and the ability to quickly create professional-appearing titles.
On the audio front, Ulead added a real-time audio mixer to match Premiere's, as well as AC3 stereo encoding, a feature for DVD authors. MSP can also utilize DirectX effects, a nice time-saving feature for those previously applying effects in their audio editor. For serious audio work, however, our favorite remains Vegas, with the ability to key frame all audio effects, including DirectX, and surround sound AC3 encoding capabilities.