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Review: Sony Vegas+DVD Production Suite
Posted Jan 3, 2007 Print Version     Page 1of 1

Veteran users may remember Vegas debuting some seven years ago as little more than a video editing extension for audio editors. It was from the crack staff of midwestern software developers at Sonic Foundry that already claimed a large installed customer base from their hugely popular Sound Forge audio editor. Vegas might have been a roll of the dice, but video was a logical expansion for both the company and their user community.
Vegas quickly became a favorite for editing music videos along with Sound Forge, but also gained a following with event videographers and other independent producers. Now owned and developed by Sony, arguably the biggest name in the video industry, Vegas 7 continues to mature. It has amassed a feature set that rivals Adobe's Premiere Pro, Apple's Final Cut Pro, and Avid's Xpress Pro. Yet Vegas, while thriving among the cognoscenti, has remained something of an outsider in the video industry even though it's now a Sony brand.

Madison Media Software (www.sonymediasoftware.com), a subsidiary of Sony Corporation of America, is still a small development team that has yet to be fully adopted by the "big Sony." That may be changing with Vegas 7 ($559.96 for the Production Suite), although it's a mixed blessing for event videographers in this particular release. Vegas 7 boasts some workflow improvements and increased responsiveness working with HDV that will benefit all users, but most of this upgrade centers around support for Sony's higher-end XDCAM format. If you don't use XDCAM, Vegas 7 (with a $249.95 upgrade price) may feel a bit more like 6.5. Still, robust XDCAM support hints that Sony is paying attention to Vegas by cultivating its compatibility with Sony formats and gear, and that's good news, at least in the long run.

Changing Faces?
As much as anything, Vegas's success as a slightly out-of-the-mainstream editor comes from an intuitive interface—with effects, filters, motion tracking, and other features essentially built right into the Track window—that makes getting stuff done fairly obvious compared to the competition. It has some quirks and omissions—the lack of a professional trim mode, for example—that arguably limit its depth, but users like it because for 80% of what they need, there's not very much digging or mode-changing required.

One of the longtime quirks of the Vegas interface, at least relative to the rest of the NLE industry, has been the position of the Video Preview window below the timeline, or Track window. Not surprisingly, given its heritage, Vegas's layout feels a lot more like an audio editor than traditional NLEs where the video preview is at the top of the interface and the timeline below. Experienced Vegas users haven't seemed to mind much, but that oddity probably contributes to Vegas being overlooked by some serious editing pros.

figure 1Vegas 7 now gives users the ability to flip that interface layout to take on a more conventional workspace appearance, moving the video preview window to the top of the screen and the Track window to the bottom.

However, getting there is still quirky. In past revisions, Vegas has supported dragging and dropping some of the main interface sections and having them snap into other places within the interface, although not the Track window, and that remains the case in Vegas 7.

Awkwardly, the ability to move the Track window to the bottom now exists as a separate feature deep within the Preferences tabs in an unnecessarily obscure checkbox titled "Dock windows at top of main window" (left). Fortunately, once you find that preference or otherwise manipulate the interface to your liking, you can now save the variation of it as one of your "top 10" menu-accessible layouts. Vegas, like many NLEs, now allows you to save several user-defined layouts as easily accessible menu items and that includes the position of undocked windows spread out across multiple computer monitors. Still, it would be much simpler, smarter, and more welcoming to new users to add a Video-Preview-on-top layout as a pre-loaded layout option.

In addition to putting the Video Preview window on top, Vegas now offers better control of the video preview itself. The size of the video preview now automatically scales to best match the size you've allotted to the Preview window, whether or not you're also previewing the video on an external monitor. Of course, you can preview the video at different quality levels to either ensure smooth playback or scrutinize image quality.

figure 1Vegas 7 has a couple of other nice tidbits that could directly help event videographers. First, if you incorporate stills into, for example, a wedding video, Vegas now sports red-eye removal tools (left) for still images so you don't have to go out to a dedicated photo editor, and the still-image manipulation features also include full pan-and-zoom functions.

figure 1

And how about this idea from a bunch of old audio developers? Instead of setting audio levels in the Track window by playing the quasi-computer game of pulling and tugging on tiny rubberband points, you can now just draw a curve with your mouse and Vegas will plug in the points automatically (left). OK, so you'll probably have to pull and tug a bit to fine tune them, but roughing it out is much quicker.

More Than Just XDCAM Support
As mentioned above, the big news in Vegas 7 is XDCAM support, including all SD and HD variations of XDCAM, all frame rates and bit rates, and all aspect ratios. And although that may not seem all that compelling if you're not an XDCAM user, XDCAM support has forced other issues that will benefit Vegas in general. For example, XDCAM HD is a LongGOP MPEG-2 format, as is HDV, and being able to crunch through I-, P-, and B-Frames in a seamless and responsive way is critical for efficient editing, regardless of which MPEG-2 format you're using. Indeed, lack of LongGOP responsiveness in the days of lesser-powered CPUs is why many professional NLEs eschewed MPEG editing in favor of intermediate-codec workarounds for several years, although MPEG editing has now become standard fare in most high-end systems.

New and very thorough XDCAM support puts Vegas into a new class of very professional capabilities, which will likely endear it to Sony. More importantly to the event videographer, improved LongGOP support also puts Vegas at or near the top of the heap when it comes to working with MPEG, including HDV, and a wide variety of other video and audio formats. And that means it meets the event videographer's need to work with all those formats in the same project and timeline. Similarly, XDCAM support means Vegas has to be able to render video to a variety of different formats, including the ability to both up-convert and down-convert source material. I was impressed by Vegas's quality up and down-converting, whether or not the material is XDCAM.

XDCAM support has also begotten greater, and long overdue, hardware support. Admittedly, SDI may be overreaching for many event shooters, but Vegas can also capture from 1394, can support ethernet transfers, and can now import footage directly from a Sony DVD Handycam disc-based camcorder. In turn, that Handycam disc import capability now indirectly allows you to import footage directly from (unprotected) DVDs. Vegas works with hardware from leading manufacturers like AJA and Blackmagic Design.

SDI support helps with Vegas's already-excellent audio processing, too, because Vegas needs to be able to capture and process multichannel digital audio. New multithreaded audio processing does that, but also means that working with large numbers of tracks in different audio formats is much more responsive.

Finally, proxy editing and metadata support may not be at the top of the event videographer's wish list either, but they're certainly critical pieces of the puzzle for Vegas to be better integrated with other Sony tools. It's also a step in the right direction for better integration between Vegas and DVD Architect.

figure 1+DVD
Indeed, those Vegas Region Markers are metadata that can be leveraged in DVD Architect as chapter marks and for forcing I-Frames in the DVD elementary video streams. You can also use the text of region markers directly to create DVD Architect subtitles. Making subtitles is still a very tedious job, but doing it in Vegas as you edit makes a lot more sense than doing it while authoring in DVD Architect.

If you deliver on DVD a lot, the new revision of DVD Architect 4.0 may be as enticing an upgrade as Vegas itself. Two new features are particularly exciting, although they will likely appeal to different audiences (at least at first). The first, Scripting, gives DVD Architect some powerful new capabilities to create interactive games, kiosks, business and marketing collateral material, and the like. Scripting leverages the DVD format's GPRMs, or register memory settings, to perform basic "if/then" and other arguments and save interactive responses in a DVD player's modest memory. It's a powerful, if high-end, tool set.

Of more immediate interest to event videographers is the other key new feature: you can now spice up motion menus by adding keyframes and transformations directly to the video track of a DVD menu timeline (left). You've probably seen many professional DVD titles that include menus or buttons that slide or morph into place (as opposed to static buttons and menus). This keyframing ability allows you to build similar motion menus very easily using tools that are similar to those in Vegas instead of Scripting or building multiple menus that run into one another. You can have buttons move in from off the screen, fade in, crop, re-size, etc. and it's very empowering, if not powerful, and very intuitive.

Omissions and Inclusions
There are a couple of disappointments in the new package, stemming from features not found in Vegas 7. Vegas's Trimmer is functional enough, but lacks the precision of the two-window trim modes found in many other applications. While Vegas bundles the Boris Graffiti LTD titling plug-in, Vegas itself still lacks a serious built-in titler. Admittedly, Graffiti is more than capable of doing all sorts of fancy animated titles, but it's overkill and too many steps for basic titling. Vegas still lacks a multi-camera mode, and that could be a serious drawback for event videographers since that option in other applications can make rough-cutting multiple-camera shoots so much faster.

Also, the Vegas Production Suite includes DVD Architect 4.0 and that may be sufficient for taking most editing projects from start to finish. However, it's a surprise that Sony hasn't established a "Suite/Studio" bundle that includes Sound Forge, if not Acid, to compete with some of the bundles from other NLE manufacturers.

More importantly, Sony and Vegas users would benefit from pursuing the industry trend toward having all of those tools work together more seamlessly. Leveraging Vegas region markers for both subtitling and chapter points is a great start, but DVD Architect would benefit from integration with Vegas's compositing tools for building and editing motion menus or making minor edits to video assets. Such roundtrip editing is becoming common in competing suites and Sony needs to follow that trend, especially since it has the assets to do so. While Sony says Vegas 7 boasts seamless integration with Sony Cinescore, the video-scoring tool designed to take on SmartSound's Sonicfire Pro, the software doesn't currently ship with the Vegas+DVD package.

While the Production Suite lacks Sound Forge, Acid, and Cinescore, it does include a nice bundle of third-party software in addition to Boris Graffiti that's well suited to the event video community. Magic Bullet Movie Looks and the Sony Pictures Sound Effects Series sampler CD are quick, down and dirty tools for building, for example, same-day edit wedding videos for showing at the reception.

What's In It for You
There's a lot to like about the new Vegas+DVD Production Suite, particularly if you happen to shoot with XDCAM. But while that's the big news for Sony, it's not the whole story for Vegas users. Vegas 7's improved HDV support will appeal to a much broader audience, as will the faster audio processing, although traditional DV editors may find the $249.95 upgrade price a little steep.

Vegas remains quirky in places, but perhaps that's part of its charm. It's a deep editor with a lot of features, including very professional 3D effects capabilities, color correction, waveform/vectorscope, Bezier masking, and more. And most of those features are right at your fingertips in the main interface and that makes the learning curve a lot less steep than in some competing tools.

Jeff Sauer (jeff@dtvgroup.com) is the director of the DTVGroup, a research and test lab that regularly reviews tools and technology. He is an industry consultant, an independent producer, and a contributing editor to Video Systems and ProAV magazines.

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