Ulead's MediaStudio Pro (MSP) has always been praised more for performance than polish, and has excelled at a few targeted operations rather than maintained a high bar throughout the spectrum of editing activities. MSP 8 ($399.99) continues in that tradition, with several standout features, but also some notable weaknesses.
Overall, there's clearly enough new and improved functionality to woo current MSP users into upgrading ($249.99), and editors who've reached the limits of the Pinnacle Studio/Adobe Premiere Elements/Ulead VideoStudio class of products may also want to have a look. However, those already settled on a prosumer editing program or suite at the Premiere Pro/Final Cut Pro/Vegas/Edition/Xpress level will find little to make them change their minds. That said, MSP's new Smart Compositor and power-efficient proxy HDV editing are well worth a look for producers whose particular needs play to those strengths.
Ulead has made multiple interface and functional changes to MSP's basic timeline in version 8, and most are for the better. The interface is now very flexible, with resizeable, dockable panels which resist clutter much more effectively than the floating windows used in previous versions. You design from the bottom up, with titles and overlays over the background tracks, which is much more intuitive than the previous top-down approach.
The preview window remains on the upper left, but also serves as the source window, with tabs on top for switching between the two views. A new effects manager lets you quickly see and adjust all effects inserted into a clip, with a much larger keyframe area enabling faster, more precise adjustments.
Ulead eliminated the Video A and Video B tracks in favor of single-track editing, where you insert transitions by overlapping two clips together on any track. Unfortunately, you can't use transitions at the beginning and end of clips, a convenience offered by most other programs that utilize this single-track approach. For example, with Premiere Pro, to add a fade-in to a title on track 4, you simply drag a fade-in transition to the front of the title. In MediaStudio, you have to create a one-second black "color clip" in the program, then drop that on the beginning of the target clip, and MSP will fade between the two automatically.
Most significantly, MSP now supports multiple open timelines, with the simplest and most elegant support for virtual clips we've seen in any program to date. This makes it easy to build and reuse standard opening and closing segments, and also to manage complex projects more effectively. Also new is a surround-sound panner that lets you place your audio tracks within the five-speaker surround-sound setup.
At times, the interface feels awkward, with windows opening partially, hiding critical controls or views. For example, when you open the audio mixing panel, MSP wedges it in between the preview window and production library, so you see only one or two tracks. You can avoid this by creating your own function-related interface presets in the new Layout manager, like creating an audio mixing view that minimizes the preview window, closes the production library, and maximizes the mixing panel.
Familiar complaints include media bins that contain Ulead-specific content as well as all other content you've previously inserted into any project. We'd prefer to start each project with fresh media bins, rather than having to delete the placeholder content manually each time we start a project. On the whole, however, most folks upgrading from prior MSP versions will instantly like the new interface, while those new to the program should quickly feel right at home.
The marquee new feature in MSP 8 is the Smart Compositor, which is a template-based tool for creating opening montages or segues. Ulead includes 22 templates in categories like romantic, music video, and documentary. Most templates include multiple clips and text and background, with some including masks, overlays, and motion effects. Ulead presents the templates with content included, making it easy to preview and choose among them.
Once you select a template, you substitute your own content, customize the text strings, and insert the template into the timeline. Once inserted, the complete template appears as a single audio and video track, but it's really a virtual clip you can open in a separate timeline by double-clicking either track. There, you can customize the template even further, for example, trimming the inserted videos to a different start or stopping point or adding key frames to a chromakey filter.
Operation is generally straightforward, though hindered by the lack of tool tips, a frustrating factor with many of MediaStudio's secondary screens. Though the Smart Compositor generally works as advertised, it's not quite as painless as it appears at first glance. For example, you'll need to customize many of your clips to work well within the new templates, which means additional editing. In some instances, it can even mean shooting specifically for the template. Still, if you're a left-brained, design-challenged editor (like me), this tool can raise the perceived value of your projects a very significant notch.
Ulead has released a utility that allows third-party vendors to create Smart Compositor templates, and the utility of this feature depends on how the user and plug-in communities respond. Offering 22 templates is a good starting point, but the tool needs many more options to remain useful over the long term.
HDV Proxy Editing
The burning question for many editors anticipating MediaStudio's release is how effectively it supports HDV. Besides being a hot topic throughout the videography world, HDV is particularly interesting for MSP users since Ulead was the first NLE vendor to build HDV support into its main application—even though HDV wasn't all that widely adopted at the time Ulead introduced HDV support. In testing, MediaStudio 8 handled HDV video well, as long as the video was captured in MediaStudio. Otherwise, it failed to import AVI files captured in Premiere and M2V files captured in Edition. Capturing HDV within MSP 8 itself was a touch complicated; in addition to selecting the HDV project preset, we had to select the Ulead HDV capture driver; most editors default to the appropriate driver automatically. You also have to opt manually to save capture files to the production folder, a funky default.
Once you drag an HDV clip into the timeline, MediaStudio creates a proxy file in the background, converting the HDV source into a lower-resolution file that you can define. During editing, you work with the proxy file, ensuring responsiveness on lower-end machines; and using a lower bitrate file enables project portability, so you can capture on your workstation, transfer the project and proxy files to your laptop, and edit there.
We used the default proxy settings (MPEG-2 at about 6Mbps) for our tests. The howling fans on our Dell Precision 670 Workstation testified that converting the HDV source into the MPEG-2 proxies took some serious processing, but editing remained responsive as we moved into our 2D pan-and-zoom tests, which revealed a number of familiar interface flaws.
First, when you apply a 2D effect to a clip, you have to choose a preset; you can't simply apply the filter. This is nice if you want to apply the same precise pan-and-zoom effects that the programmers back at Ulead thought you might, but that seldom occurs. In most instances, this forces you to spend a minute or so essentially zeroing out the pan-and-zoom effects, which is silly. Fortunately, you can create custom presets in MSP 8, so you can create and save a "null" effect without motion, then drag that onto your clips and start from scratch.
Beyond this, MSP's 2D tools are competent, but not exceptional. We like the ability to drag the frame around manually, but MSP doesn't offer sliders for modifying frame size, forcing you to enter numbers manually, which is slower and clunkier. The preview window lacks a safezone indicator which is absolutely essential when reframing HDV video. Each keyframe stores values for all three axess (X, Y, and Z), while most other programs let you keyframe each value separately, which is more precise.
On the plus side, the proxy image never got grainy, even when zoomed to 250% (or, as MSP would have it, 3,600 pixels wide), and there was never a lag when adjusting image size or location, a problem with several other editors. MSP produced our one-minute downsampled MPEG-2 file in 3:26 (min:sec), slower than Premiere Pro (1:58) but faster than Vegas (4:29), Final Cut Pro (4:58), and Pinnacle Liquid Edition (30:48).
Image quality was very good, well ahead of Premiere Pro but slightly behind Final Cut, Vegas, and Liquid Edition, though most viewers wouldn't notice the difference without side-by-side comparisons. Overall, if you're forced to edit HDV on an underpowered system like a laptop or home computer, or on older computers in corporations or educational institutions, MSP offers a power-efficient solution that delivers very good quality.
Other New Features
Ulead has also upgraded MSP's title tool, which is now WYSIWYG but still lacks design primitives that allow you to create background boxes to highlight text and make it more readable against varying backgrounds. You can create a background color bar for your text, but it's a full frame across, which is cumbersome.
MSP now periodically saves incremental copies of the project while you work. This not only helps prevent you from losing work due to crashes, it also provides convenient projects to return to if you decide to take a different direction with your editing. Also noteworthy is the addition of SmartSound background audio support, which lets you create custom-length background music for your video productions.
Overall, in terms of feature-repertoire comparisons, the only major missing capability is multiple-camera support, which is available in Liquid Edition, Avid Xpress, and Final Cut Pro (and via a cheap and popular VASST plug-in for Vegas), and rumored to be coming in the next version of Premiere Pro. That multicam is the only major omission is pretty impressive, given how far Ulead had fallen behind with version 7 and the lag-time before version 8.
Of course, as much as we like to look at highlights, that doesn't tell you very much about what you'll experience working with the software day-to-day. Most editing is nuts-and-bolts stuff: trimming, color correction, and the like. Let's go back to the basics and see how MSP performed on our standard editing test video.
The test video begins with two chromakey tests—one blue screen, the other green screen. Chromakey controls in MSP 8 are pretty standard, though the soft-edge control produced a blooming effect around the edges that made it unusable. Still, the image quality in the MSP-keyed test video is good, though edges are a bit rougher than those produced by other products.
Automatic color-correction tools are substandard, way behind even those offered by consumer programs like Pinnacle Studio and Adobe Premiere Elements. On the other hand, the auto-exposure filter did a nice job curing overexposed backlighted video, a depressingly common issue with many productions.
Ulead doesn't offer an image-stabilization filter, which is available on all prosumer programs save Liquid Edition. MSP does offer a variable-speed control for fast or slow motion, but the only technique for slow motion appears to be simple frame replication, which isn't as smooth as the interpolation techniques offered in other products. That said, though MSP's slow-motion clips exhibited a slight stuttering inherent to replication, they exhibited no shimmering or other artifacts.
Image pan-and-zoom controls are described in the HDV section, and are generally average in use. Pan-and-zoom output did exhibit some shimmer, which we eliminated by outputting progressive MPEG files. On the audio front, Ulead doesn't offer true noise-removal functions, but the audio mixer was easy to operate and delivered all adjustments to the rubber-band controls on each audio track, simplifying fine tuning.
For DVD authoring, Ulead bundles MovieFactory, a $49.99 authoring program with a $49.99 feature set. This means primarily template-based operation with virtually no navigational flexibility, sufficient for only the most basic of projects. Ulead obviously knows this, so they will be introducing an MSP 8/DVD Workshop 2 bundle for $499, which is killer pricing for the combination. Ulead also plans to continue the Studio Quartet bundle, which includes MediaStudio, the Editor's Choice-winning DVD Workshop 2, PhotoImpact 11, and Cool 3D Production Studio for $645.
In designing MediaStudio, Ulead obviously decided to pick their markets, not directly facing off against the 800-pound gorillas, but carving out unique pockets of utility, like proxy editing for those editing HDV on underpowered computers and the Smart Compositor for those needing some design assistance. Overall, the product is competent to above-average in most important features, and its friendly interface should be easy for editors navigating upwards from consumer programs, especially compared to the cryptic Pinnacle Liquid Edition and Avid Xpress DV.