Review: Macrosystem Solitaire
Posted Feb 21, 2005

As the top-end product in Macrosystem's various lines of standalone video editing systems, Solitaire ($4,769 as reviewed) is an easy-to-learn, simple-to-operate non-linear editor, one without the complexity or hassle of PC-based systems.  While earlier versions of Macrosystem's patented OS/NLE, SmartEdit, may have seemed limiting to some pro users, Solitaire now comes with added power and flexibility, and is an alternative worth considering when shopping for video editing solutions around $5,000. Users can also choose among an array of add-on effects packs and utilities to extend Solitaire's capabilities; of special interest to videographers is QuadCam, an ingenious tool for synching footage from multicamera shoots.

Macrosystem's Solitaire is very aptly named.

It's a standalone video editinhg appliance: it works without a computer, doesn't need a dedicated display, and can even be used without a keyboard.

Solitaire is an easy-to-learn, simple-to-operate non-linear editor, one without the complexity or hassle of PC-based systems. It's the newest entry in the Casablanca family of standalone video devices from Macrosystem Digital Video AG.

Almost literally, you can be up and editing minutes after taking Solitaire out of the box. But this apparent simplicity is both its strength and its weakness.

For those new to video editing, Solitaire or one of its siblings is a great way to get started; company reps say you don't have to be an editor to edit with them. But earlier offersings from Macrosystem were almost toy-like in their simplicity to those with professional editing experience, especially on top computer-based NLEs.

While earlier versions may have seemed limiting, Solitaire now comes with added power and flexibility, and is an alternative worth considering when shopping for video solutions around $5,000.

It includes recently updated software, removable hard drives, a leading DVD burner, one-button backup, and more memory than previous models. More often than not, a trackball is all that's needed to navigate the user interface and initiate system functions, although Solitaire does ship with a keyboard and dedicated "shortcut" software.

A wide selection of software is available from Macrosystem, designed for Solitaire and other Casablanca family members Avio, Prestige, and Kron (see Stephen Nathans' review of Avio Pro at http://www.eventdv.net/Articles/PrintArticle.aspx?ArticleID=9287). At the core of these offerings is the current OS/editing program, SmartEdit 4. There are also new DVD authoring and burning utilities. CBPaint is the latest paint and graphics program, and PhotoStudio is a brand new release for photo manipulation, including pan and zoom. Perhaps most interesting to videographers is a new tool called QuadCam that's designed to facilitate multicamera editing with support for as many as four cameras.

In fact, dozens of software programs--effects and transitions, animated backgrounds, title motion, and 3D packs--are available extend and enhance the capabilities of the hardware. Solitaire comes with several on-board, but there are so many more from which to choose that, all in all, a big chunk of the investment in a Macrosystem video editing solution potentially lies in the software, the upgrades, and the learning curves.

Luckily, that is where the solitary nature of the Solitaire disappears.

Its growing user base is supported by a vibrant owner community and tech-support network, including online forums, chat boards, and a truly helpful and responsive corporate help desk. The company itself supports and benefits from this exchange of ideas, of course, and it integrates such feedback into its product support and development.

Take the Tour
Solitaire comes in a shiny, silvery cube. Its glassy cover (front and top) gives it a sleek, distinguished look, diminished somewhat by the flimsy plastic-hinged doors on the front.

Touch-sensitive buttons marked on the glass are kept to a minimum: Off, Open, and One Touch Back-up are all that are needed. A small LED display indicates the unit's operating status.

Behind the bottom door on the front of the Solitaire, ther are supplemental video connections (DV, S-Video, RCA/composite) and a SmartCard slot, used to load new operating software or special effects packages. The top flap opens to the DVD burner, Pioneer's DVR-A08, featuring the latest high-speed and dual-layer recording technology.

The back of the unit is where the main connections are found, including video and audio I/O as RCA composite, dedicated S-Video, or four-pin DV. Solitaire comes with a handy two-way adaptor for those who do not want double the cables running out the back of the unit--a simple switch changes one set of cables from input to output.

Suitable for analog editing, the product now uses what's called Direct DV--incoming digital video is no longer transcoded to MPEG-2 (as in previous products) bus is captured "as is" in raw DV files, maintaining pristine image quality.

Other important connections are for trackball, PowerKey keyboard, Ethernet/LAN, dedicated VGA monitor, or outboard USB devices.

Inside, the system includes (depending on the configuration purchased) a 3.2GHz Intel processor, up to 1GB RAM, a removable IDE (up to 300GB) and backup drive (also up to 300GB), and the built-in DVD burner, as well as video chipsets, codecs, and other dedicated processors (codecs from C-Cube and MainConcept).

Getting Started
Once plugged in, Solitaire rests in standby until one touch to the front sensor button fires it up. After about 15 seconds, the main page appears on any attached display (I used my ordinary 25" color TV). Basic set-up choices for project and system settings, including audio and video, are displayed and determined from this main screen.

System settings include operating language, display preferences, trackball speed, and more. Importantg functions like install software, system backup, and rendering are determined here. Settings for each editing project, such as name and format, are also stored here (Solitaire can have up to ten projects).

Video settings (used when capturing or importing video into the system) specify which inputs to use (front or back, analog or DV). Basic brightness, saturation, and contrast controls for analog capture are featured here as well.

Only a few key parameters must be set before editing, like video inputs.

The system is ready to go once a video device, like a camcorder, is connected and identified. Click Record from the main screen to bring up the capture display, where video source material is displayed. A small graphic overlay shows basic tape transport (Play, FFWD, RW, etc.) and capture controls.

Simply clicking on the large red button imports material played on the outboard device into Solitaire. A display indicates how long the current capture is, and a system space indicator shows overall storage availability.

Recorded scenes are automatically numbered as S[cene]1, S2,S3, etc.; these notations can be changes to more useful and content-specific names afterwards. Each captured chunk of video is placed by the system into a corresponding project Scene Bin, where thumbnail images of the captured clips are displayed. Each scene in the bin can be played (now coming from the hard drive, not the outboard device) and renamed as needed. Audio comes with the video clips as in any FireWire DV capture; other audio elements--like tracks from CDs--can also be "ripped" to the hard drive with a slightly different process.

Once the video is recorded, one click on the trackball exits the Record screen, and another click on Edit brings up the actual screen where shots are arranged and programs assembled.

Arranging the Shots, Sequencing the Program
Solitaire works with a storyboard approach to editing. Working in SmartEdit on the Solitaire is much as Stephen Nathans described it in his Avio review (http://www.eventdv.net/Articles/PrintArticle.aspx?ArticleID=9287). A brief recap: video is represented by thumbnail images, displayed side by side on the screen and arranged left to right in the order they would play if you were watching the finished program. The Storyboard occupies the upper half of the Edit screen. To add a selected scene to the Storyboard, highlight (click) the scene in the Scene bin at the bottom of the screen. Then click Add to put that scene--and its corresponding audio--on the storyboard.

Split your clips into manageable chunks manually or using the Auto feature, which will automatically split up long chunks of captured video based on the start-stop command data laid down by the camcorder itself during videotaping. As well, there's the Trim function, used to clean up captured video scenes individually. With either the trackball or keyboard commands, new in or out points for a scene are set by moving through the video step by step, and then clicking the appropriate button on-screen. Using the Add function brings a new scene--with its corresponding audio--to the Storyboard. But sometimes you want only the new video, without audio.

In these cases, Solitaire offers the Insert function. Again, simply highlight a desired clip in the Scene Bin, but this time click Insert, not Add. The scene is moved to the Storyboard, covering over any existing video at the chosen point, but leaving the original audio intact.

Enhancing the Video with Special Effects
Having arranged the shots in a desired order, it's now time to add some transitions and effects to the program—as mentioned, Solitaire users have quite a selection from which to choose. The Transitions screen is accessed from the Start-up screen, or from the Transitions icon at the bottom of the Edit screen. Once selected, the display now shows video thumbnails between which a transition will be placed.

Along the left-hand side, a scrolling list of available transitions is shown. Other controls, such as Edge or Direction, are also in this interface. Some transitions are immediate; once applied correctly, they can be viewed in real time. Some transitions need to be built or "created"—a non-real-time process in which the effect must be rendered. Solitaire addresses this issue with its Preview function (the effect appears in a small window without rendering) or Batch Render command (which will do all needed processing after the fact).

What's more, the new SmartEdit 4.0c update with its Smart Rendering feature will do rendering in the back-ground, even while work on the project is going on in other areas. The idea is to eliminate waiting time at the end of an edit session.

Along with special effects and transitions between scenes, Solitaire lets you apply special Image Processing effects to individual scenes, or entire sequences.

From basic first aid filters (like white balance, color correction, brightness, or contrast) to more creative and sophisticated image adjustments (film look, mosaics, solarize/posterize,sepia, or B & W, etc.), such effects are added or created with a dedicated user interface screen, accessed from the main start-up page (or with Edit screen icons). Again, depending on the nature of the video and the type of processing involved, the effect may need to be previewed or rendered.

Solitaire's titling capabilities are also accessed through dedicated interface screens (including one with a small window to preview titles over video). Select Titling from the main screen, and the system presents several options for title style, shape, position, size, font, placement, color, edges, motion, and much more. Once the parameters are selected, titles are saved and loaded into working video projects. Titles are applied by Solitaire as image processing effects, and may be previewed in a similar fashion. The ability to customize available fonts is OK; you can purchase more fonts in order to expand creative options.

Macrosystem's audio editing features have been enhanced over the years. Soundtracks can be volume-corrected, manipulated with audio features, exported as 5.1 surround sound, and enhanced with improved audio import capabilities (such as from CD). A dedicated interface lets you mix, fade, adjust, and add effects among six audio tracks (captured audio with video is one track). Crossfades, audio envelopes, and waveforms can also be applied.

QuadCam for Live Event Editing
One of Solitaire's most intriguing new features is software (available for any compatible Macrosystem product) for editing multicamera shoots.

QuadCam syncs video material from 2-4 camcorders (without hand-claps or photo flashes, although those methods still have value). The footage from all four cameras is displayed in the user interface, and editing among them is a point-and-click matter in real time. The system exports a storyboard based on those edit decisions. Transitions or effects can be added, DVD output can be selected, and the work can be exported as .AVI files for use in other NLEs.

Under a patent-pending technology called Smart Sync, Solitaire uses a DV camcorder's built-in clock, and the data from that clock stored on tape, to set itself up.

The user connects each camera to the Solitaire via FireWire (before the shoot is recommended, but any time within 24 hours of the shoot is generally OK). Solitaire reads the time information from each camera and calculates the difference (in milliseconds) between camera time and its internal time (within a one-second resolution).

The early release of this new software is still a little quirky, and users will note some limitations. Not all DV camcorders are supported (that's where the handlcaps come in handy--you can still use QuadCam even if the cameras cannot be read precisely). The software determines that one camera (designated Background) supplies all the audio for a multicam edit. That is generally OK, but user-discovered workarounds for mixing other cameras' audio sources is a little cumbersome.

With a three-second handle available to tweak any edit decision, QuadCam and the new Solitaire provide a quick and easy way for the solitary videographer to cut a multiple-camera shoot.

www.casablanca.tv