MacroSystem Casablanca AVIO DV-DVD PRO
Posted Jan 20, 2005

Macrosystem's AVIO DV-DVD PRO turnkey video editing system ($2,199, www.casablanca.tv) targets corporate and event videographers with a capable, stylish NLE that benefits mightily from its video-dedicated OS in its fleet, smooth, and stable performance. Its well-crafted editing environment makes it easy to move between windows and operations, from the main storyboard to effects configuration, audio mixing and envelope controls, and titling. DVD-Arabesk 2 is a functional DVD authoring environment that makes up for its rigidity with fine video output.

Even as mainstream PCs and Macs get faster and faster, and increasingly capable of editing video alongside other tasks, the decreasing cost of all that processing power is reason enough to devote your primary editing machine to video and video alone. Another approach is to purchase a workstation, like the Macrosystem Casablanca AVIO, that's video-dedicated by definition. Many dedicated video editors—such as Media 100's 844/x or Leitch's dpsVelocity Q—cost significantly more than the most expensive mainstream PCs and Macs, even those based on dual Xeon or G5 processors, but they offer more focused processing, customized interfaces, turnkey operation, and advanced video I/O. Macrosystem's Casablanca line features HD-capable $5,000-$6,000 Solitaire systems that reach (price-wise) into the lower regions of Leitch territory (VelocityQ NLE but not VelocityHD).

The lower-cost variation on the Casablanca theme is the AVIO, with configurations ranging from a rock-bottom $999 to a $2,199 model that targets independent and corporate/ departmental videographers. The top-end AVIO includes DV and analog video support plus a DVD recorder and the same proprietary Smart Edit NLE and Arabesk-DVD authoring tool found in Solitaire. Higher-end systems are also more likely to be found running specialized Macrosystem applications like the CBPaint graphics package or QuadCam, a multiple-camera syncing tool [see Lee Rickwood's review in the February issue], although you can purchase and add these to any Casablanca machine.

Macrosystem sent us the $2,199 AVIO DV-DVD system for review, with full Smart Edit 3 functionality as well as DVD-Arabesk 2, the latest version of the DVD tool, and a factory-installed Pioneer DVR-A07 8X DVD recorder. With VGA, component, and S-Video output (in addition to DV for writing finished productions to tape), the AVIO is equally at home being attached to a CRT or LCD monitor as to an ordinary television set (assuming it takes component or S-Video input). So you can also use it to record TV shows. But our interest here is strictly its video production capabilities, which are in fact quite remarkable—and not just because they get to do their thing without a multitasking OS getting in the way.

Steady Performer
If you're starting from scratch with a dedicated video editing system (and running the rest of your business on another computer), the $2,199 AVIO DV-DVD compares well to similarly priced Macs with Final Cut Express or PCs with Vegas Movie Studio or Ulead Media Studio Pro. Thus it's reasonable to comparison-shop based on which software you prefer. Without various Macrosystem add-on applications for enhanced PIP, 3D transitions, heightened color correction, and various effects packs, Smart Edit matches up best with those and other "Pre-Pro" tools discussed in the article "Pre-Pro NLEs" (http://www.eventdv.net/Articles/ReadArticle.aspx?ArticleID=9133). And as with those tools, there's plenty of room to grow, thanks to those many add-ons, effects packs, and plug-ins. Naturally, that growth comes at a price: $99-$119 for each additional software component.

Like most video editors in the prosumer class, AVIO/Smart Edit renders some effects in real time, while it has to pause to render others. Smart Edit gives you the option of rendering those more taxing effects during the Edit phase (by clicking Create after the effect is placed); all audio mixing and track placement require a pause for rendering, although this usually happens in a matter of a few seconds. Likewise for the more involved transitions (simple dissolves, for example, require no additional rendering time).

Rendering video effects (like color correction or various image filters) takes somewhat longer—as much as a few minutes, depending on the length of the clip to which the effect is applied. Activating Smart Render will get some effects rendered in the background, which isn't as intrusive on the AVIO as background rendering tends to be in some PC-based applications. Alternatively, if you don't need to see or hear a preview, you can have Smart Edit render the effects during the Finish phase. If there are any remaining unrendered effects when you reach this stage, Smart Edit will give you an accounting (for both audio and video) and render them automatically before advancing to the output stage.

Because I worked exclusively with DV video during the evaluation, I did not assess AVIO's ability to work with analog input or multiple streams of uncompressed or HD video. That's not really the aim of the product, although the fact that you can run QuadCam on an AVIO system suggests that it can handle multiple streams, at least in theory. Users doing that sort of heavy-duty video processing will probably find more to their liking in a higher-end Casablanca system like Prestige or Solitaire.

Stability is a key issue with AVIO/Smart Edit, as with any platform or application. I must admit I experienced fewer crashes evaluating the AVIO than I have during any previous video editing product review, although the process was not entirely crash-free. At no time during the editing process did the system crash (a first for me in a product review, all PC and Mac reviews included). I did experience a problem during DVD authoring (in the DVD-Arabesk 2 application) where the system cut off each time I tried to render an animated menu. According to Bruce Shafer, head of the Macrosystem tech support department, this is a bug in the latest Casablanca OS, and a fix should be available in early 2005. The great thing about these crashes, however, was that I didn't lose one iota of work in the process, and the system rebooted and returned me to my project in seconds. Whoever engineered that perpetual autosave feature, I salute you.

Opening Credits
One of the first things a PC or Mac editor will notice when working with the AVIO is the culture shock of its keyboard-free operation. If you're accustomed to doing most of your editing with an external control rather than a keyboard, you'll be more at home than I was, at first, with the Logitech trackball that ships with the AVIO. You'll do all your clip-trimming and navigation, as well as any text entry, with the trackball and its two buttons. Get familiar with it, and keep your wrists loose—carpal tunnel is not your friend.

Physically, there's not much else that's surprising about the system. It doesn't look much different from the various flat form-factor PCs on the market today in its modest sheet-metal chassis. There's an internal DVD-Recorder on the front, and besides that, most of the action happens on the I/O panel on the back. Because the LCD in my home office no longer recognizes video signals via its VGA connector, I did the majority of my testing with the AVIO hooked up to my garden-variety Sony color TV (which made for ugly screen shots in this review, but saved me from any TV-safe worries in preview). Rounding out the system is an 80GB IDE hard drive.

The first thing you'll see when you power up the AVIO is a Main Menu that gives you access to all the aspects of the AVIO production environment. It's divided into three sections: Settings, Video, and Audio. In Settings, top right, you can determine quality and project settings, as well as handy items like modulating trackball speed (a must for anyone with even slightly jittery hands). Choosing Project Settings opens a new screen where you can name your project, make quality choices for the specific project, and choose 4:3 or 16:9 (regardless of the aspect ratio of your video input). If you're working on multiple projects on the AVIO (most models support up to three working projects at a time; the PRO version supports 10), you can also select one and apply the settings to that one alone.

Naturally, most of the excitement happens in the middle section: Video. Select Record to capture video from an analog or digital source, and split the captured video into scenes. You can also adjust contrast, brightness, and saturation if you're working with analog video (these controls are disabled for DV). Everything went smoothly here between the AVIO and my Sony DCR-HC40 MiniDV camcorder (image quality was great and dropped frames almost unimaginable).

A couple of other problems came up, however. During testing, using the default capture settings, I found that capture stopped every 10 minutes. Even though Smart Edit does a good job of controlling the camera in most respects (syncing start capture and manual stop capture with tape playback), it doesn't stop the camera from rolling when it hits that 10-minute limit, so unattended capture is out. Once you see that 10-minute limit approaching, it's probably wise to find a good stopping point, or you may end up splitting an important scene and having to capture some of the same material twice. My initial assumption was that the AVIO was running the FAT32 filesystem, which limits filesizes to 2GB (roughly 10 minutes of DV); in fact, there's a slider control ("Time") that lets you extend capture time up to the amount of time corresponding to the available capacity of the hard drive.

Another problem in capture is what happens when you reach a point on the tape where there's no video: in the absence of a signal, you get a rather perplexing dialog in which you have 10 seconds to stop the capture before the system cancels the capture and deletes any video recorded in that segment. But when the video is captured, you don't have to worry about where your files are going, or arranging them in an asset bin. They'll all be there waiting for you when you open the Storyboard, in sequential order.

Other options from the Video section of the initial screen include Edit, which takes you to the Storyboard and main editing interface, where you can preview scenes, trim them using the trackball to set In and Out points, place them in your desired sequence in the Storyboard, and add titles, transitions, effects, and more (see Editor Notes section).

From the Main Menu you can also access Image Processing, for adding a nice array of effects like Color Correction and Sharpening to your video clips and Titling, for adding titles to your video. Smart Edit includes a modest variety of fonts, styles, and motion options (like fading in and fading out, scrolling, etc.), though certainly fewer than you'd get in most prosumer NLEs—and far fewer than you'd have if you added some of Macrosystem's plug-in packs.

I found the titling features serviceable, and enjoyed the slate and brick-type backgrounds, as well as the handy color-setting controls. It's standard stuff, to be sure, but accessible and well applied. All titles must be "Created" to be previewed; another issue with adding titles to a storyboard crowded with transitions, effects, and audio samples is that if you go back and change something or apply items in the wrong sequence, you're likely to knock out whatever audio sample you previously applied. It's easy enough to fix—that is, all the components are very easy to re-apply and re-configure in the Smart Edit interface—but you have to be very careful about the sequence in which you do it.

The last element of the Video section of the Main Menu is Finish. Once you've assembled and edited your entire project in the Storyboard, you return to the Main Menu and click Finish to move on to final rendering and export to DVD, VHS, or back to your camcorder ("writing to tape," as it were). The Main Menu also gives you access to two audio windows: Audio Record, Edit and Audio Mix. In Audio Record, Edit you can import tracks from music CDs in the DVD drive. There's no GraceNote or MusicMatch system at work here so you don't get track names, just numbers and durations when you click to see CD Contents. "Play Intro" gives you only a few seconds of a track, but the software rips so quickly you might as well grab the whole thing. In Audio Record, Edit you can also select Samples from the tracks using the same In and Out-point controls as with video clips.

You can then add these samples to desired spots in the Storyboard, using envelope controls to fade or adjust volume and a timeline interface to pinpoint sample placement. These controls are available either through the Audio Mix button on the Main Menu or more organically through the editing interface (use the music note/wrench icon to get there). In the timeline interface, you can mute or lower the main audio track to make room for the music sample, or again use the envelope controls to fade each track in and out. You can't do envelope editing on multiple tracks simultaneously—a feature found even in a top consumer NLE like Pinnacle Studio—so you have to watch the timeline signatures carefully to make sure you're fading in the right spots. I still found the audio mixing features more than adequate and used them to great effect in my AVIO test projects for music video sections and audio transitions between scenes. You can augment or replace the video's original audio with two music tracks, one microphone/narration track, and one sound effects track.

Editor Notes
The real heart of Smart Edit and AVIO, of course, is the main video editing interface. Unlike most prosumer tools, Smart Edit is predominantly storyboard-based. Storyboards are great for arranging video elements, and they are arguably better than timelines for positioning scenes as your sense of a project evolves and sequences and durations shift.

In the main storyboard interface, all your captured scenes appear with their captured names—1, 2, 3, 4, etc. until you start splitting scenes manually or automatically, at which point they become 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, etc. By opening up the keyboard graphic and using the trackball to select the letters, you can name your scenes, which is rather tedious, but helpful nonetheless.

You trim your scenes as mentioned earlier by scrolling to In and Out points with the trackball. You then place them in the Storyboard and add transitions between them by clicking on the two-dot effects icon at the bottom right corner of the screen. Smart Edit offers a functional assortment of transition choices, a relatively short list that can be augmented (once again) by purchasing one or more effects pack add-ons. Some transitions have configuration options. Since I mostly stick to crossfades and the occasional page turn, I didn't feel like I was missing much here, but this list certainly won't live up to a lot of users' expectations.

You can also add other types of effects like color correction and filters, and change playback speed—all effects that require a Create interlude before you can preview them. Effects not rendered in real-time are marked in red. You use the Range interface—a nice, clean approach—to apply an effect to a specific segment, or range, of a clip. Another interesting feature is Insert Scenes. Here Smart Edit partly makes up for its lack of a primary timeline interface and the lack of multiple video tracks within that timeline by automating the old lock-audio-track technique and allowing you to insert video clips (like cutaways or J- or L-cuts) over an ongoing audio track. Granted, that doesn't a full multitrack editor make by any means, but it's a nice way to add some non-storyboard capabilities to a storyboard-specific tool.

It's easy to jump back and forth between different windows (like Storyboard and Audio Mix or Audio Record, Storyboard and Titling or Transitions, etc.) by clicking simple and strategically placed icons. It's a smooth and seamless switch, and you can always jump back without having to interrupt or save out your work.

Write Stuff
Once you've got all your audio and video edited, assembled, effected, and processed to your liking, it's time to finish off your project by rendering any unrendered effects and preparing for output to VHS, DV, or DVD. I tested DV and DVD, first writing a complete 37-minute project culled from about 2.5 hours of captured video back to the camera from which it came using the operating panel that opened when I clicked the DV Recorder Controls button in the Finish menu. I then set about authoring a DVD, which included more steps, particularly in the DVD-Arabesk 2 interface.

Arabesk is definitely a Spartan DVD authoring environment, much like those I've seen in Sony Pictures' DVD Architect 1.0, Roxio's Creator 7, and Adobe's Premiere Elements. It makes it very easy to set chapter points if you named your scenes descriptively. The Edit Chapters tab presents a list of all the video clips in your project, which you scroll down to insert chapter points at the beginning of all scenes where you want chapters to start.

To increase the number of elements that actually appear as buttons (or "Stamps") in a menu, you need to define them as individual "Films." Within each Film with chapters, you can quickly navigate from one chapter mark to another during sequential playback, but you can't access the chapters directly from a menu or sub-menu. You have three options for the sequence in which the components of your project appear when the DVD is inserted: Menu (menu plays first), Trailer only (first-play video then menu, with first Film not shown in menu), Trailer + Menu (first Film, then menu, with first Film accessible from menu).

For the menus themselves, you can choose among various preset background options and determine text fonts and styles, as well as border colors for activated or selected menu stamps (a.k.a. buttons). Macrosystem's PIP Studio and Liquid Images ($119 add-ons) significantly enhance menu design options. As mentioned earlier, DVD-Arabesk also supports still and animated (motion-video) menu stamps, but due to a current bug in the new Casablanca OS, attempting to render the "animated" menu will cause the system to crash.

You can also set some encoding parameters here, and DVD-Arabesk will supply ample information on available disc space (as a percentage of total capacity) at various bitrates. For audio, your choices are uncompressed (PCM) or compressed (MPEG audio, not recommended). Video quality options are Maximum, High, Normal, and Reduced, with the amount of video you can squeeze on a disc increasing as capacity goes down. I chose High, which yielded beautiful video output in a remarkably short time, and burned reliably to Verbatim, Ridata, and Taiyo Yuden high-speed DVD media.

Given that my project was only 37 minutes, I did check out the Maximum option. This brings me to my favorite feature in DVD-Arabesk: if you select Maximum—which is probably 9 or 10Mbps—DVD-Arabesk responds with a warning screen that says, "Some DVD players may not be able to handle that quality." This, of course, is true—many DVD players, young and old, will choke on recordable discs encoded too high—although DVD-Arabesk is the first DVD authoring tool I've ever seen that gives you such a warning. It's not the most capable DVD authoring environment I've ever encountered, but in this respect it's the most honest. Of course, AVIO DV-DVD would be a fine choice for a video editing system with or without that warning—just as heeding that warning is an excellent choice whether you buy an AVIO or not.