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Reviews: Sony Pictures Vegas+DVD Production Suite
Posted Jul 16, 2004 - January 1998 [Volume 7, Issue 1] Issue Print Version     Page 1of 1

Synopsis: If you're already using Vegas 4, version 5 is a no-brainer upgrade. If your video productions are music-intensive, and you're not already using Vegas, you should be. In addition, if you're itching to push the creative envelope with exotic multitrack, 3D motion effects, the trial version is definitely worth a look. Though Vegas can do virtually everything that Premiere Pro can do, and a whole lot more, you'll get there faster and easier in Premiere Pro. Though vastly improved and a solid adjunct to Vegas, DVD Architect still trails DVD Workshop and Encore in overall functionality.

Sony Vegas has always been a highly regarded video editor with a comparatively small, but near-cult following, and the last release of Vegas, version 4, with strong color correction and excellent chromakey capabilities, did nothing to reduce their ardor. When planning Vegas 5, Sony had two basic directions to pursue. First, Sony could have gone mainstream, adding ease-of-use enhancements that appealed to a broad base of video developers. Of course, this is the province dominated by Adobe Premiere Pro, partially on its own strengths, but also due to the power of the Adobe Video Collection, and Premiere suitemates Photoshop, After Effects, Encore, and Audition. Using tactics reminiscent of Microsoft's push with Office, Adobe's aggressively priced bundles present a value proposition that few other companies can match, especially with Photoshop as the anchor tenant.

So Sony eschewed the quixotic task of attempting to unseat Premiere Pro, and went Hollywood, focusing the bulk of their development efforts on higher-end features. The result is a powerful, exceptionally well-featured vehicle for ultra right-brain audio/video professionals. However, those who favor speed, ease of use, and accessibility over the most flexible creative palette are probably better off with Premiere Pro.

DVD Architect, the DVD authoring side of the bundle, has evolved quite nicely as well, though primarily as a mate for Vegas rather than a standalone tool.

What's Past is Prologue
Let's quickly refresh our most recent recollections of Vegas to set the table. In our last standalone review, we found Vegas 4 remarkably well-featured for color correction, chromakey, and other high-end functionality, but lacking thematic transitions and 3D effects. Usability was mixed, with an excellent working area for track and movie motion and great surround sound capabilities, but no real-time audio mixer, jerky preview, and a titling tool clearly less usable and functional than Premiere.

Then, after Premiere Pro and Pinnacle Edition 5 shipped, we did an article called "Take Five" [December 2003, pp. 36-42], which compared Vegas 4 to four other leading pro/prosumer tools: Adobe Premiere Pro, Apple Final Cut Pro, Avid Xpress Pro, and Pinnacle Edition. In this august company, we rated Vegas' quality best when it came to chromakeying, second when it came to color correction, and second in the ability to implement slow-motion effects. In both reviews, Vegas proved significantly slower than all other products, which we largely disregarded due to Vegas' superior output quality.

Not highlighted in the "Take Five" article, which focused solely on output quality, were some usability enhancements that became mainstream in 2003. Overall, Vegas held its own, with the primary deficit being the inability to open multiple projects simultaneously, a great organizational capability for complex projects. Also missing was an image stabilization filter for removing camera motion from video shot with a handheld camera, a feature available in Premiere Pro, Apple Final Cut Pro, and Pinnacle Liquid Edition.

With this as prologue, let's look at what's new in Vegas 5.

What's New
Vegas' interface has changed little, with timeline on the top and dockable windows on the bottom for preview, media, effect, and transitions libraries and associated controls. You can now configure and save different workspaces—a nice convenience—and customize keyboard shortcuts as well.

Vegas 5 doesn't uninstall Vegas 4 during setup, and both versions can coexist on the same machine. All of our Vegas 4 projects loaded into Vegas 5 with only one or two minor irregularities, though you can't load projects saved in Vegas 5 format in Vegas 4. After modifying a Vegas 4 project in Vegas 5 and attempting to save it, the newer program politely pointed out that we wouldn't be able to re-open it in Vegas 4.

Leading the list of new features are 3D motion capabilities. We've always liked Vegas' 2D motion controls, which include an exceptionally large workspace and the ability to apply motion effects to entire tracks, individual clips, or both. Not only did Sony add support for a third dimension, the company enhanced the interface with multiple window views similar to those provided in high-end 3D animation programs like discreet 3ds max.

Sony also expanded Vegas' nested-track capability, allowing you to group and control multiple video tracks for compositing, picture-in-picture, and other special effects. As before, all motion edits are keyframeable, though keyframes are universal, as opposed to the axis-specific key frames enabled by Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro. In addition, Sony added 3D capability to the track-motion controls, but not the clip-specific controls, which would have been useful.

Overall, it's hard to overstate the additional creative possibilities these features enable. However, unless you're implementing seriously creative motion effects, they're probably not going to add significant dazzle to your day to day productions.

Bezier Masking
Fortunately, this isn't the case with Vegas' new keyframeable masks that supports Bezier curves to produce soft and lifelike shapes. During our tests, we used this feature to mask out regions of video shot against a green screen, which noticeably improved low bit-rate quality. You can also produce sophisticated masks of any shape simply by tracing over a background image, or drawing freehand.

We also liked the ability to create subclips, which represent portions of actual clips captured on disk. From one long capture file, you can create multiple subclips that act just like real clips, even saving them from project to project.

Also new in Vegas 5 is recording automation for all track-assignable effects, which allows you to adjust filter parameters while playing your project in real time. At one level, this allows you to adjust audio volume for all tracks on-the-fly, duplicating the functionality of a real-time audio mixer.

However, the feature also goes much further, for example, allowing you to adjust brightness and contrast levels in real time, useful when shooting on a cloudy day or under other variable light conditions. You could vary the transparency value of a track, making the contents appear and disappear like Patrick Swayze in Ghost. While you could achieve the same effects in most other programs, none of the competing tools offers real-time adjustment, which is much more convenient.

One little-known feature of Vegas 4 was the ability to add subtitles to Windows Media Video files by inserting a command marker in the timeline with the inserted text. To this, Sony added the ability to create DVD subtitles on the timeline, which you can later import into DVD Architect 2.

Unfortunately, DVD subtitles use a different mechanism, so if you want subtitles in both your Windows Media file and DVD, you'll either have to enter them twice, or find some way to convert the text file generated by one method for the other. In addition, though this feature is undoubtedly convenient, both DVD Workshop and Adobe Encore offer much more comprehensive subtitle creation capabilities.

Sony also added transition-progress envelopes, which allow greater control over the application of a transition, though the core group of transitions hasn't been significantly enhanced. If you're looking for the cute thematic transition to add to a wedding video, Pinnacle Edition is still your best choice.

Output control and quality has long been one of Vegas' great unsung qualities, with very flexible control over parameters like de-interlacing and output resolution for a wide range of formats. Vegas now offers two-pass MPEG-2 encoding and the ability to output in both program (combined audio and video) and transport (separate audio and video) streams. As you would expect, there are presets for use when exporting for DVD Architect, and the new de rigueur HD output presets. Joking aside, Vegas has become a go-to program for encoding, and the software's flexible output capabilities represent a key competitive strength against tools like Pinnacle Edition.

Rendering performance is still glacial. For example, using our testbed HP xw4100 workstation with a 3.2 GHz processor running Windows XP, we created the same 12-minute project in Premiere and Vegas. Pre-rendering for sending the project back to tape took 15 minutes in Premiere Pro compared to 83 minutes for Vegas. However, Sony has added network rendering capabilities that allow you to render spread the rendering to two other computers on the network, and you can buy licenses for additional render stations. Note that we did not use network rendering in our tests, going mano a mano on the xw4100.

On the audio front, Vegas continues to shine with keyframeable access to DirectX audio filters, as well as the ability to send audio tracks to Sony's Sound Forge for noise reduction and other processing. For projects that involve narration, I also frequently use Vegas' time-stretching capabilities, which allow me to stretch or shorten an audio clip without changing the pitch.

Of course, Vegas' audio editing capabilities go much further. Most important for DVD producers is Vegas' updated 5.1 surround sound panning, which now offers a film-panning model that more closely corresponds to how speakers are placed in a theater. Vegas 5 also lets you import ACID loops, a long overdue feature for ACID developers, and control pitch via keyboard commands. If you're recording audio on your editing station, you'll also appreciate on-the-fly punch-in recording, with auto input monitoring that tunes out existing tracks and lets you listen only to the audio being recorded.

In addition, the "Sony-fication" of Vegas has begun, with support for Sony's DSR-DU1 and newer DSR-DR1000 disk recorders, and for pulling down-converted DV from the J-H3 HDCAM player. Vegas 5 can also perform inverse telecine on film previously converted to video, converting the 29.97 frames per second down to the original 24fps.

Missing in Action
So far, Vegas looks mostly good, which means it's time to chime in on the disappointing aspects of the new program. Most significant is the continued inability to open multiple projects simultaneously. As before, you can open multiple instances of Vegas on the same computer, and copy and paste files between them, but this is less convenient than the multiple-project capabilities offered by Premiere Pro, Edition, and Final Cut Pro.

We have mixed feelings about Sony's bundling of Boris Graffiti. Though it's a highly capable titling utility, it's also very dense, with a 900-page PDF manual. There's no integration between the two programs, so you can't easily design your titles over the background video, and you have to render titles from Graffiti and then input them into Vegas.

At the very least, the new tools should function like a plug-in, and we prefer the seamless integration performed by Adobe when they licensed technology from Inscriber.

The ability to input Flash files as titles is a nice plus, but we'd rather have a comprehensive, easy-to-use title function within the program.

DVD Architect
Our previous look at DVD Architect found it a capable tool but lacking subtleties like control over end-actions, i.e. where the viewer goes after an asset finishes playing. The new version will be almost completely unrecognizable to those familiar with DVD Architect 1.0, with most changes for the better, though the program still lacks key features offered by Ulead's DVD Workshop and Adobe's Encore.

The new interface has five separate, dockable windows, including a large menu creation/preview window in the middle. An Explorer-like project window sits on the left, showing all menus and inserted content, while a timeline for still images and video and audio content sits on the bottom, alongside libraries of themes, buttons, backgrounds, and project assets. To the right is a properties window for controlling colors and navigational options.

You start with a blank menu, to which you can add sub-menus, or links to other menus, music compilations, slide shows, and videos. As you would expect, DVD Architect automatically provides navigation to and from all automatically generated menu pages, plus the ability to create your own custom menu navigation.

Like Encore and DVD Workshop, DVD Architect can now support multiple audio and subtitle tracks, though it doesn't support CSS, Macrovision, or dual-layer disc creation. At least for now, if you want to create dual-layer, copy-protected DVDs, you'll have to choose another program.

Usability is mixed, as if the product hasn't quite settled into its new user interface. Pluses include the project window, which is the best metaphor we've seen for tracking project menus and content. However, there are several glitches that need solving before DVD Architect can truly be called polished.

For example, during creation, menus sit on the video track of the timeline, which is confusing. Building scene-selection menus from chapter points is surprisingly cumbersome, and you can't add your own backgrounds or customized themes to the libraries, which is silly. Though the new end-action support is comprehensive, DVD Architect also lacks playlists, or the ability to create multiple sequences of content triggered from different buttons without duplicating the assets.

Finally, menu-design capabilities still trail DVD Workshop significantly, lacking, for example, the ability to apply image overlays or sprites to the menus, to auto-activate menus, or rotate menu elements. Though you can import Photoshop files, layers are not maintained, and there are no roundtrip capabilities back and forth to Photoshop—one of the premier features of Adobe Encore.

The Vegas/Architect Net/Net
So what's the net/net? If you're already using Vegas 4.0, the new version is a no-brainer upgrade. If your video productions are music-intensive, and you're not already using Vegas, you should be. In addition, if you're itching to push the creative envelope with exotic multi-track, 3D motion effects, the trial version is definitely worth a look.

On the other hand, though Vegas can do virtually everything that Premiere Pro can do, and a whole lot more, you'll get there faster and easier in Premiere Pro. So if your projects are oriented towards speed and editing throughput, and Premiere Pro's palette of tools is sufficient, you're better off sticking with Adobe.

In contrast, though vastly improved, and with loads of promise, DVD Architect still trails DVD Workshop and Encore in overall functionality. Buy it as an adjunct to Vegas, but only if the missing features—primarily playlists, Photoshop support, and copy protection—aren't absolute requirements for the work you need to do.

companies mentioned in this article
Adobe Systems, www.adobe.com
Pinnacle Systems, www.pinnaclesys.com
Apple Computer, www.apple.com
Ulead Systems, www.ulead.com

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