Inside Avid Xpress Studio HD
Posted Aug 8, 2005

Avid Xpress Studio HD is far more expensive than the competition. That will and should dissuade some potential users, as will the somewhat steeper learning curve for most of the tools compared to Apple, Adobe, or Ulead. But consider what you're getting: three industry-standard, time-proven editing interfaces in Xpress Pro, Pro Tools LE, and Avid 3D, and solid DVD authoring technology from Sonic in Avid DVD, that are continuing to evolve and grab features from their high-end siblings.

When Avid introduced the Avid Xpress Studio a little more than a year ago, it solidified a commitment to Xpress and, by extension, the event videographer market. It's an audience with whom Avid has had, over the past decade anyway, something of a lukewarm relationship. After all, Avid is the clear market leader in premium editing systems for major motion pictures and television studios, and endowing affordable editing software with additional features is a potential risk to that higher-end business.

Yet Avid increasingly has struck a clever balance with Xpress, both as an adjutant editing station—off-lining, off-loading, or in-the-field laptop editing—for higher-end systems and as a very capable standalone editor for smaller studios. Although event videographers aren't likely often to "finish" on a Media Composer or Symphony, Xpress' innate tie to those higher-end products essentially guarantees professional performance and future advancement in a very affordable software editing application.

The just-released Avid Xpress Studio HD brings HD support to a bundle of five compelling tools that specifically target the smaller, single-station studio and event videographer. Make no mistake: Avid is still a premium brand and Xpress Studio HD carries a price more than twice that of competing bundles. For some, the tools here will be overkill for the work they do. Still, the Xpress Studio HD Complete bundle is a best-in-class solution that demands a closer look.

Avid Xpress Studio HD comes in two flavors, Avid Xpress Studio HD Essentials ($3,495) and Avid Xpress Studio HD Complete, ($5,995). Both include the same five software applications. The difference is that the Complete version adds two important pieces of hardware, the Mojo video I/O box and the Digi 002 digital audio mixer, that make it a very complete (appropriately enough) and portable personal editing system. Essentials augments the software suite with the far more modest, two-channel, balanced audio I/O Mbox.

The five Xpress Studio HD applications are as follows:
• Avid Xpress Pro HD, the new HD-capable version of the Xpress editing software
• Avid Pro Tools LE, a limited version of Avid's industry-standard Pro Tools audio production and post software
• Avid 3D, a limited version of Avid's Softimage 3D titling and animation solution
• Avid FX, an effects editing tool based on the popular Boris Red effects plug-in from Boris FX
• Avid DVD by Sonic, a DVD authoring application based on Sonic's Producer and DVDit!

Finally, it's worth noting that there are really six applications in Xpress Studio: although it's not well publicized, Avid also includes Sorenson's Squeeze 4 Compression Suite as the compression engine, which is used, for example, to encode to MPEG-2 for DVD or compress movies for Web distribution.

Hardware Components
Mojo is the modest-appearing hardware analog-to-digital converter that connects to your desktop (or laptop) by a single FireWire cable, offering real-time analog I/O via S-Video and RCA composite, as well as unbalanced audio I/O. Component video is possible, too, but you'll need an optional breakout splinter cable ($75), and that's not ideal because color accuracy suffers and it's just awkward. What gives Mojo its, well, mojo is that unlike similar devices, Avid's Field Programmable Gate Array and hardware DV Codec are simultaneously bi-directional, allowing Xpress Pro to off-load any DV compression work from the system CPU. Thus, the CPU can avoid, for example, decompressing multiple DV streams in the case of transitions and effects, leaving more CPU cycles available for effects processing.

The Digi 002 digital audio mixer (what a weak name for such a wonderful device!) is an 8x4x2 mixer panel that also connects to your computer by a single FireWire cable. Awkwardly, it cannot be daisychained with Mojo and actually needs a complete separate FireWire controller. It's physically larger than any modern laptop computer, but the combination of an Xpress-installed laptop, Mojo, and Digi 002 is the most professional, portable editing station available anywhere, hands-down. If you do a lot of same-day, on-location event edits, Complete is a bundle that's very tough to beat.

Digi 002 is actually a fine standalone audio mixer. However, when it's attached to Xpress it offers balanced audio in and out via the eight 1/4" input ports (four of which can be switched to the XLR ports, and one channel that can use an RCA unbalanced pair) and eight 1/4" output. There's also an obligatory unbalanced RCA stereo pair for speakers and a 1/4" headphone jack, as well as MIDI support and S/PDIF. Naturally, it has faders, EQ meters, Solo and Mute buttons, and effects controls for each channel, as well as Master controls, grouping, panning, and almost unlimited options. That's because the Digi 002 controls can be re-assigned to any audio editing function in Pro Tools or even any video editing function in Xpress.

HD, but Not HDV
Avid Xpress Studio HD is the first major revision of Studio, but rather than call it Xpress Studio 2, Avid has chosen to accentuate its HD capabilities. That's an extremely awkward choice for the event videographer—whose first ready access to HD production has come, for the most part, through HDV—because as yet there is no support for HDV in Xpress Studio HD. So, why focus on HD when the target audience's most likely HD format isn't supported?

The cynical answer is that Avid doesn't want to appear to fall behind Apple and Adobe, both of whom offer NLEs and suites that support HD and HDV. Announcing support for DVCPro HD and Avid's own DNxHD intermediate HD codec puts Avid Xpress on the HD bandwagon with the promise of full native HDV support (in all flavors, including 24p) by Q4 2005 as a free upgrade for registered users.

That may sound weak, but Avid offers one feature that may make the wait for HDV worthwhile. Avid's Xpress timeline is able to mix different resolutions and formats simultaneously, which means you can now mix HD and SD footage in the same project, working with each at its native resolution. That's particularly valuable if you're starting to shoot in HD but still use SD cameras for secondary material. Today, mixed resolution support also means that you don't need to render titles using DV's 4:1:1 compression (not ideal for titles and graphics)—even if all your footage is DV—unless you output specifically back to DV. The same will be true, Avid says, of HDV footage, which will enable their users to avoid potentially quality-stealing decompression and recompressions to MPEG.

Another less cynical answer to the "Why Studio HD sans HDV support?" question is that handling DVCPro HD maintains project and file compatibility with higher-end systems like Media Composer and Symphony—that other market for Xpress. Neither of those editing systems supports HDV yet either, which makes a little more sense since their target markets arguably don't match up as well with HDV as the independent videographers who would consider stretching their budgets to adopt Xpress Studio HD.

Finally, the most pragmatic answer to the "Why call it HD?" question may be that, while there are some nice advances in this release, there is not enough to claim a full-step upgrade.

So, What's New?
Most of the advancements in Avid Xpress Pro HD do ultimately deal with the HD support, particularly acquisition of DVCPro HD (and SD-resolution DVCPro 50) over FireWire. Mojo isn't needed for HD capture, but on output it can "scale" HD video on the timeline for real-time display on an NTSC monitor. That's really a subsampled image rather than a truly scaled down-conversion, but it's a nice facility nonetheless for both editing preview and quick output of project drafts, say, for client approval. And while not new, Mojo can go in the other direction, too, zooming draft-mode video from the timeline up to full screen NTSC with high image-quality results.

For those shooting in 24p, including with Panasonic's DVX100a, Avid now offers live capture of the normal pulldown over FireWire, as well as the native capture of the 24p advanced pulldown supported by other editors. The advanced pulldown is the more appropriate shooting option if your target output is going to be 24p, but if you've shot in the wrong mode with the DVX100 or have other standard pulldown material, Avid currently has the only solution.

New 10-bit media support is a great example of how Avid Xpress Pro HD benefits from its tie to the higher-end cousins because it matches the processing bit depth and quality of Media Composer Adrenaline, whether one needs to conform or not. Avid's improved AVX2 plug-in architecture for both Xpress and Adrenaline now supports both advanced keyframing and 16-bit rendering and, although no third-party developers have as yet released products, several 16-bit plug-ins are in development.

The same HD support exists for each of the other Studio applications, including Sorenson Squeeze, although not Avid DVD since the DVD specification does not support HD. In Xpress Studio HD, that means that any footage in the timeline can be moved into any of the other applications, for simple video preview in Pro Tools, for HD effects in Avid FX, and for using HD footage as a background or building high-resolution models in Avid 3D.

Sound Stage
If you do more than a little audio editing, the combination of Avid Pro Tools LE and the Digi 002 hardware is just about reason enough to choose the Xpress Studio HD bundle. Admittedly, the move to support HD doesn't affect Pro Tools LE very much, beyond HD-capable video preview in a window or to an SD monitor via Mojo.

Xpress can directly export (flattened) video and audio to Pro Tools LE quite easily by effectively preparing a Pro Tools session in advance, and that's a relatively easy process once you've set up a template. All you have to do is open that session in Pro Tools and you're ready to edit. Sending files back to Xpress effectively means exporting to a folder which will appear automatically in your Xpress bin, although it's up to you to integrate the new audio mix into your timeline sequence.

Perhaps Avid will tighten integration in a future Studio 2.0 release and hopefully that will include allowing for complete round-trip editing, clip-level substitution, and automatic updates between the two applications. For now, however, there is one very awkward problem. A driver-sharing conflict means that Xpress Pro and Pro Tools LE can't be open at the same time. Choosing the Xpress File Menu to Launch Pro Tools literally prompts you to save your work, then closes Xpress before opening Pro Tools. That's not a problem if you always work linearly in one discipline at a time, but it's something that Avid needs to figure out.

FX, 3D
The integration with Avid FX, on the other hand, couldn't be tighter. Since it is a sibling of Boris Red, itself a plug-in, Avid FX operates completely within Xpress and appears as just another effects-editing option, albeit with substantial parameter controls. New Avid FX templates make it very easy to launch FX by simply dropping them onto your timeline; again, just like any other effects.

Simply including Avid 3D in the Xpress Studio bundle is intriguing since it introduces many video editors to a new creative discipline. Sure, most editing and effects applications—including Avid FX—now include 3D capabilities, yet true 3D modeling has primarily been left for much higher-end users. (The exception is Ulead, which has offered affordable 3D modeling for several years in COOL 3D.) However, since Avid owns Softimage, 3D is an asset it can't ignore.

Here, too, Avid has leveraged a very powerful, industry-standard look and feel when designing Avid 3D's interface, this time from Softimage. The Avid 3D interface features the same four-"Viewport" layout for displaying four different angles of the same model simultaneously, each of which can be toggled through pull-down menus to show any angle and display models as wireframes, shaded objects, textured objects, or any one of several other views.

If you've never worked with a 3D application, that professional-appearing interface might be a little intimidating, and perhaps rightly so. But one of the truly remarkable and ultimately very powerful philosophies with Avid, including in the video-editing interface, is that the company doesn't seem to mind making users learn a few things if the end result begets a more efficient way to work. That's the case with Avid 3D. It literally offers many of the tools professional 3D artists would use, but in an affordable package. Of course, Avid doesn't leave the new user stranded, including several sample models, animation, and design elements, as well as text- and object-creation tools to help novices get started.

There are several new modeling features in this version of Avid 3D, including more advanced control of geometry that allows you to edit, combine, subdivide, or simplify model polygon counts to match video resolution. There's also a new Hierarchy Tool that dramatically increases (or cuts) unified control of multiple parent/child object groups. And, while there is some overlap with the 2D/3D titler already built into Xpress, Avid 3D now offers greater control of text on paths, including customizable sample titles. It's a smart move, enabling Avid to match some of the primary 3D functions of Adobe After Effects and Apple Motion.

DVD by Sonic
Xpress' integration with Avid DVD has improved, although it has very little to do with HD. Interestingly, while Xpress does have a dedicated Menu option that says, "Export to DVD," it never exports directly to Avid DVD, but rather to Sorenson Squeeze for conversion to MPEG-2 for DVD, or any other format you choose. And since Sorenson Squeeze does quite handily support HD, Studio HD can now create files for any future Blu-ray or HD DVD disc format, as well as convert HD video to high-definition Windows Media 9 (SMPTE VC1) for burning to a DVD-ROM. That said, Avid DVD is a standard-definition product.

Once you've exported to Squeeze and finished transcoding, Xpress Studio can now automatically place the result into an Avid DVD palette so it's ready to be brought into a DVD project. Avid DVD can also use markers from the Xpress timeline to build chapter points automatically and the application is now smarter about automatically bringing audio with video if elementary streams have the same file name. At this time, integration between Xpress and Avid DVD is one-way, following the traditional "edit first, author second" approach to building DVDs, and that's fine. Hopefully, any future Studio 2.0 version should look for ways to create roundtrip clip-and-menu modification in Xpress, Avid 3D, and Pro Tools without re-importing assets.

Upgrade
If you already own Avid Xpress Studio, the upgrade to Studio HD is just $199 for either version. Whether that's worth it probably depends on whether you shoot in DVCPro 50 or HD, or if you have some other 24p-capable camera, like the Panasonic DVX100A. When HDV arrives, it will certainly be worth it to anyone shooting in that format.

If you're considering a new editing system and you're serious about your work, consider Avid Xpress Studio HD. It's far more expensive than the competition, and that will and should dissuade some potential users, as will the somewhat steeper learning curve for most of the tools compared to Apple, Adobe, or Ulead. What you're buying with Studio HD are three industry-standard, time-proven editing interfaces in Xpress Pro, Pro Tools LE, and Avid 3D, and solid DVD authoring technology from Sonic in Avid DVD, that are continuing to evolve and grab features from their respective high-end siblings.

Avid, of course, hopes you aspire to move higher end, but at the same time understands that the world of video postproduction is a lot broader than that. The breadth of Xpress Studio HD—especially the Complete version—reflects the requirements of most event videographers working at a single editing station and looking for a creativity and efficiency edge.