Nonlinear video editing has come a long way since I started editing on Adobe Premiere in 2001. Version 6 was my first purchase. I remember the pain of having to render even the most basic of transitions, the cross-dissolve, before being able to see what the resulting video looked like. It wasn't until late 2002, when version 6.5 was released, that I was able to see real-time previews, although they were reduced-resolution and frame rate versions of the original. Things got better with Premiere Pro 1.0 and subsequent releases, thanks in part to improved source code and also to the evolution of computers from single core to single core with hyperthreading to dual core. Today, the growth is exponential with quad- and eight-core computers becoming standard in studios doing professional video.
I was fortunate enough to sidestep most of the processor growing pains by using a Matrox RT2500 hardware solution. I actually had two hardware cards for my two editing systems. I was enjoying the benefits of working in real time with transitions and effects, as well as a much faster export to MPEG-2, before authoring my DVDs using Sonic's ReelDVD. Then, in 2003, Premiere became Premiere Pro, the source code was completely rewritten, and my hardware solution was obsolete. It was nice editing in real time, but Premiere Pro did a much better job of generating previews than did earlier versions, so I went back to a software-only solution. For all its strengths in accelerating the editing process, I was quick to dump my hardware solution in place of newer software because I didn't like the fact that the video files were captured and stored in Matrox's proprietary AVI codec; it caused problems when I tried to work with my video files on another computer, such as my laptop or a client's computer, without the hardware card. Matrox fixed this problem. Its newer cards allow you to capture and work in real time with both standard AVI type-2 files and Matrox AVI files. Support is further extended with real-time editing of HDV, XDCAM EX MP4, Panasonic P2 MXF, and MPEG-2 I-Frame HD from analog component input.
Jump forward 5 years and I was happily editing away on Premiere Pro CS3, absolutely loving the multicam feature introduced in Premiere Pro 2.0 and starting to experiment with Blu-ray authoring in Encore CS3. Every year or so, I considered Matrox's current hardware offering for a fit within my workflow, but I found no compelling reason to use it with the types of projects I specialize in. Ultimately, I'd always decide to spend my upgrade budget on motherboard, CPU, RAM, and video card upgrades instead. Curious to see just how far Matrox had come since the RT2500, I contacted Matrox just prior to NAB. In July, I was sent the new RT.X2 LE card, which is a smaller version of the full-length RT.X2 PCI card. (It comes with the same effects as the larger card, which costs $400 more as stand-alone hardware, and has all the same features except for DVI-D preview.) I decided to put it through the paces of my two most time-consuming workflow areas to see how much better the RT.X2 LE would be over my existing software-only workflow.
The Workflow Challenges
My first need was to find a workflow that would allow me to capture my tapeless video acquisitions and to edit using a multicam monitor. I've owned a Firestore FS4 since 2005, and I added a Sony HVR-Z7U with the HVR-MRC1K Compact Flash recorder earlier this year, so having a seamless tapeless workflow is high on my list. Tapeless acquisition allows me to extend my record time beyond the 60 minutes on a MiniDV tape, and it turns capture time from a linear process that needs to be tended to every 60 minutes to a speedy file transfer. The most common events I use this workflow for are dance recitals, figure skating, and conferences-or pretty much anything that requires two or more camera angles.
My second need was to speed up the time it took to perform a simple VHS-to-DVD transfer. After making a small mention in my quarterly client newsletter that I had noticed an increase in VHS-to-DVD transfers since the beginning of the year, I was bombarded with 50 additional transfers over the next quarter. I wanted a quicker way to capture, trim the VHS preroll and postroll, and insert a menu with animated thumbnails and chapter markers.
Enter the RT.X2 LE
The primary benefit of the Matrox RT.X2 LE is that even after you add several effects and layers of video, your video preview is done in real time. In addition, once you're done editing, the subsequent export does not first require rendering time for the effects and layers before encoding. Because of the hardware, this is an accelerated process. For the average wedding video producer editing on Adobe Premiere Pro, real-time editing with a Matrox card is sure to increase the creativity of the editing process as you can experiment with more effects without having to wait to see the results. I don't do wedding videos, so a hardware solution benefits me the most in accelerated export times for longer, multilayer projects with lots of effects, such as conferences and dance recital DVDs. A hardware solution for me is not as beneficial on shorter projects such as sports profile videos and website promotional videos.
When I first installed my RT.X2 LE in July 2008 on a freshly upgraded dual-core AMD Athlon X2 6000+ (3.0GHz). I was presented with so many presets to choose from for my projects that I was confused at the apparent similarity between some of the presets. I finally picked one that looked right for my source and desired output and then went to work testing my workflows. I actually didn't expect any problems and thought that this would be an easy review about all the benefits of a hardware solution. But almost immediately, I ran into some workflow issues.
My first workflow challenge was to import two sets of AVI files and edit them using the multicam monitor. The first angle was recorded on a Sony HVR-S270 to a Firestore FS-4 hard drive, and the second involved my Sony HVR-Z7U recording straight to CF. Both were filmed in 720x480 60i with a widescreen pixel aspect ratio of 1:2. I quickly transferred 6 hours of footage to a 2TB RAID. The footage off of the FS-4 hard drive came into the project as a Standard 0.9 PAR, which made everything look tall and skinny. The footage from the CF card came in at the proper aspect ratio, but it stuttered and displayed a red render bar above the footage when I put it on the timeline.
Fixing the FS-4 footage was simply a matter of selecting all the affected clips in the Project Panel, right-clicking and selecting Interpret Footage, and changing the pixel aspect ratio from 0.9 to 1.2, using the Conform To radial and drop-down menu selection. Within only a few mouse clicks, I made the clips usable in real time. Fixing the CF footage proved to be more difficult, leading me to conclude that AVI import from CF media is not supported. However, HDV from CF cards is supported, so the RT.X2 LE will benefit users working with HDV for DVD output. This will enhance my own workflow of the next few years, when I expect to be exporting HDV to Blu-ray Disc and DVD from the same project.
I continued my multicam editing by recapturing the second camera angle from tape (I recorded to both tape and a CF card on the Z7U); again, I encountered a problem. Another of Matrox's benefits is a WYSIWYG output via the supplied breakout box. This allows you to view, on an external TV monitor, your entire Program Monitor or Multicam Monitor output. This is especially important for multicam editing, and the breakout box supports component, S-video, or composite video cables.
Initially, I was excited about this feature-my LCD TV is much larger than my 22" computer monitor-but I encountered two issues with the display. I started editing with the display set to Show Preview Monitor, which displayed both the four Source Monitors and the Multicam Preview Monitor, but the images were all tall and skinny.
When I unchecked the Preview Monitor option, the aspect ratio problem went away. Then the breakout box output tried to display the Multicam Monitor on the entire overscan area, but my LCD HDTV only displays a much smaller underscan area (otherwise known as the action-safe area). This resulted in my four Source Monitors being cropped on the left or right sides, which made determining framing that much more difficult. This wouldn't be a problem with a proper broadcast HD monitor that displays the entire overscan area. But it is Matrox Axio users who are likely to have a broadcast monitor; RT.X2 LE users are more likely to have an HDTV.
It's also worth noting that I experienced the WYSIWYG aspect ratio problems only in the Multicam Monitor mode and that the breakout box output worked properly when displaying the program monitor off a traditional timeline.
VHS-to-DVD Transfer Performance
My second workflow, finding a faster VHS to DVD workflow, went much smoother. I still don't trust set-top DVD recorders to create a compatible DVD, and I need to manually insert chapter markers at specific spots, which isn't possible in set-top configurations (set-top recorders can do it only at regular timed intervals). I had been manually capturing VHS tapes to AVI using a Canopus Twinpact100 analog-to-digital converter. After capture I would trim the in and out points and insert chapter markers with chapter names.
Because I am most accustomed to creating DVDs from projects I shoot and edit myself, I find it faster and easier to insert and name chapters in Premiere Pro; I can benefit from being able to see the audio waveforms and titles that indicate the start of a new chapter and continue this workflow when transferring VHS tapes. I then export an MPEG-2 file to Encore, create my menus, and link the chapters to my menus. The entire process takes more than 4 hours using a software-only workflow.
Using the supplied Matrox breakout, I can capture an AVI straight to Premiere Pr. But Matrox does not support the export of chapter marks from Premiere Pro, so I had to wait until the file was in Encore to mark and name my chapter points. For a VHS transfer, this is a minor annoyance, but it becomes more annoying and time-consuming when working with a dance recital that has dozens of chapter points that all need to be manually found in Encore.
I did notice an accelerated export time using the Matrox Media Encoder, but the real benefit came when I altered my usual workflow and captured the VHS tape straight to MPEG-2 using the breakout box. In order to prevent having to rerender the captured MPEG-2, I go straight to Encore to trim the preroll and postroll, find the chapter points, and create the menus. Within a few minutes of completing my DVD navigation, I had a completed DVD and was starting the capture of the next one. The total capture time was reduced from 4 hours to 2 hours, 25 minutes. I predict the RT.X2 LE will save more than 25 hours of encoding time on one of my pending projects involving 17 VHS tapes.
After 6 months of testing the RT.X2 LE, despite the initial CF AVI issues, the card is becoming an important part of my workflow. I'm now phasing out the old SD-AVI workflow in favor of a dual-output, HDV-to-DVD and Blu-ray workflow. The RT.X2 LE will save countless hours in rendering and encoding for both formats.
The dramatic speed increase of VHS-to-DVD transfers is an added bonus too that only a real-time MPEG-2 capture can provide-no matter how fast your current eight-core, 64-bit operating system is. As far as I know, it's the only viable alternative to set-top DVD recorder transfer.
Although it's not perfect, I am happy to have the Matrox RT.X2 LE as part of my new workflow.
Shawn Lam, MPV (video at shawnlam.ca) runs Shawn Lam Video, a Vancouver video production studio. He specializes in stage event and corporate video production and has presented seminars at WEVA Expo 2005-7 and Video 07. He won a Silver Creative Excellence Award at WEVA Expo 2008 and an Emerald Artistic Achievement Award at Video 08.