In the Studio: Working With AVCHD in Sony Vegas Pro 9
Posted Apr 6, 2010

A recent email blast for a new Sony camcorder loudly proclaims: "A new year. A new format." It sometimes feels that way, doesn't it? For prosumer video camera codecs, the current "belle of the ball" is AVCHD (Advanced Video Codec High Definition) in all its many flavors. The signature benefit of AVCHD is its compression efficiency as an MPEG-4-based codec, which means it can store more video information at lower bitrates than HDV. But as most of who have worked with it know, AVCHD can be a bear to edit, and the challenges vary based on which NLE you use to edit it. In this article, I'm going to illustrate how our studio dealt with footage from a multiday shoot using AVCHD cameras (along with a mix of HDV and DV), resulting in a long-form DVD for '80s pop legend and General Hospital alumnus Rick Springfield.

Won't You Let Me Take You on a Sea Cruise?
In November 2009, musicians Springfield and Richard Marx, along with actors Brandon Barash and Doug Davidson-and nearly 1,000 of their fans-set sail from Miami for the second annual Rick Springfield & Friends Cruise. The cruise comprised 4 days packed with concerts, Q&A sessions, meet and greets, and photo ops between the artists and the fans. My wife and partner, Christie, and I were tasked with capturing it all on video and producing a DVD to be sold via the Rick Springfield merchandise website and at concerts across the U.S., of which Rick performs 2-3 per week.

Having learned a lesson from shooting the cruise in 2008, this year we opted not to deliver 700 DVDs while still on board. That was a neat trick last year, but it was entirely too much work on our part. And because we got bogged down in DVD production, we missed out on shooting the final event of the cruise. This year we agreed not to edit on board and, instead, delivered an expanded two-disc set within a few weeks of the cruise.

Rick Springfield and Richard Marx

All Aboard!
We shot all the cruise's events with two AVCHD-based Panasonic AG-HMC150 cameras and one HDV-based Sony Z7. For some of the concerts, we also employed two Sony VX2000 DV cams aimed at the audience for crowd response. Typically, we captured audio with one or two digital recorders getting a direct feed from the house mixer and another recorder up high on a mic stand getting a crowd mix (these were Marantz PMD620, Tascam DR-07, and Sony MiniDisc recorders). All of the A/V syncing was done in Vegas, but luckily, none of the events were much longer than an hour. While more equipment and more personnel would have been nice, it wasn't feasible. We were not trying to create a product to compete with Rick's Live in Rockford DVD; our goal was just to make a relatively inexpensive product for the fans. Plus, did I mention this all took place on a boat in the middle of the ocean with no special consideration given to the video crew? We had to fly with and carry on the ship all the gear needed for the entire cruise.

This was our first big project with the Panasonic cams, and they performed flawlessly. We watched the reports and learned from Mark and Trisha Von Lanken about these cameras, and we were impressed enough to buy our own. File management is, of course, critical; we were outfitted with six 16GB SDHC cards (three for each cam) along with a few 4GB and 8GB cards for the audio recorders. We had two laptops (one was a spare) and three external 1TB drives on board. Two of the drives were backups. Hard drive crashes are rare, and even though one backup should have sufficed, the reality is that crashes do happen. It was cheap and easy enough to bring a second backup on board-it made us feel better.

The first step in our workflow was to identify the longer events on the cruise on which we'd have the HMC150 cameras recording continuously. These included most of the events, about eight all told, including concerts and Q&A-type sessions.

The HMC150 uses a standard FAT32 format for SDHC cards and this has an inherent filesize limitation of 4GB, regardless of the capacity of the card you're using. If you record past the 4GB limit, the camera will continue recording, but start writing a new file. This will continue until you either stop recording or fill up the card.

In Vegas and many other editing packages, when you bring these clips into the timeline and drop them in adjacent to one another, you'll see what appear to be dropped frames when the new clip starts. The information is, in fact, recorded on the card, but needs to be programmatically "joined together" for the NLE to decode it properly. There are a variety of tools for accomplishing this, but I opted to write simple DOS batch files to handle this processing for each instance. I created a Notepad text document named "combine.bat" and saved it in a directory that had files to combine. For example, if I had three files to combine for the Full Band Concert then the BAT file would contain the following text: copy 00001.mts /b + 00002.mts /b + 00003.mts /b FullBandConcert.mts.

Panasonic HMC150 ingestion into Vegas
When you double-click this file it opens a DOS box and executes the Copy command; this will take several minutes. The Copy command combines the three split files into one large file named FullBandConert.mts (in the same directory), with all missing frames restored.

When we finished shooting each event, we dumped the cards via USB to each drive as soon as possible. Sometimes we had to film two events before being able to dump the cards. One tip that Mark Von Lanken shared with us was to copy from the source card to each drive separately. This is important; I had originally written a simple xcopy BAT file in preparation for these tasks to be executed while we slept, but it's not the best way to do it—if your original dump to the hard drive has some type of file copy error, and you copy that over to another drive, you'll copy the error as well. We heeded Mark's advice: We copied from the source SDHC card to each hard drive. We had all three drives connected to the laptop and ran the file copies simultaneously. You don't need to wait for the file to finish copying before dragging and dropping it on the other two drives.

The AVCHD files that the Panasonic cameras write produce a very specific directory and file structure. If we had edited with anything other than Vegas, we might have kept this structure intact when we offloaded the files. It's a good practice to do this, but we didn't do it because Vegas makes use of only the main MTS file, so that's all we copied from the SDHC card. It took about 60 minutes to copy one SDHC 16GB card to all three hard drives. In all, we came back with 210GB of video from the two AVCHD cameras (doubly backed up), plus 20GB of audio files and about 20 HDV and DV tapes.

This project had us chasing Rick and his guests (and sometimes they chased us) all over the main concert hall; through the corridors to fan's staterooms; on the beach and in the water in Cozumel, Mexico; in the piano bar at midnight; on the lido deck after dinner-virtually every corner of Carnival's Destiny cruise ship. There's a lot more that can be written about the shooting side of this project, but it has little to do with ingestion or editing in Vegas, so we'll skip it for now. Dare I say, Vegas fans, what happens at sea stays at sea? On to the edit!

Preparing For the Edit
Some of the best things about Vegas are that it will run on almost any hardware, it does not require third-party accelerator nor high-end graphics cards to preview filters, and it has a format- and resolution-independent approach. You can throw (almost) any video or audio material on the Vegas timeline, and it will just work, including material recorded in the AVCHD codec. One problem we did find, though, is that the highly compressed AVCHD codec brought our 2.4GHz quad-core boxes to their knees when decoding (playing back) just two or more tracks. With our hardware, the option to edit native AVCHD is one case of just because you can, it doesn't mean you should.

I had two choices I wanted to explore. One was to do proxy editing, where lower-quality files are used during the edit and then replaced with the original HD files for the final renders; the second choice was to convert the original FullHD AVCHD files to another FullHD format that was less compressed and easier to edit. This is known as using an intermediate.

Users of some other editing software may not experience performance issues with native FullHD files because some NLEs (Final Cut Pro, EDIUS, Avid) require you to convert your source material into their proprietary format (effectively an intermediate) on ingest. While Vegas' format independence is usually a selling point, with highly compressed AVCHD and less-than-cutting-edge hardware, the point is probably moot (as Rick himself might say), and we had to do something about it.

Editing With Proxy Files
Both proxy files and intermediates require rendering or transcoding the source file to another format before editing. The time it takes to do this will be similar to ingesting your source file into one of the other NLEs previously mentioned. We initially chose the proxy route because it is something we'd done before. If rendering 210GB of footage into new files sounds like a daunting task, the scripting tools that are available for Vegas make it child's play. GEARSHIFT and Ultimate S Pro from VASST, AVCHD UpShift from NewBlueFX, and Vegas Pro Production Assistant from Sony Creative Software all provide tools for batch rendering and proxy editing. There's even a free script floating around the Vegas forum called Proxy Stream, though I haven't personally used it.

Ultimate S Pro

We chose NTSC DV Widescreen as the render template for our proxy files. In any of these tools I mentioned, you load up the MTS files that you want to batch render and let 'em fly. The tool will load each source file you have specified and render it to the template you have selected. Production Assistant will even do this when Vegas isn't running. This is a good time to do something else, such as sleep.

Sony Vegas Pro Production Assistant

The newly created proxy files will be duplicates of the original files, only they will be at a much lower quality. We used DV Widescreen proxy files of the AVCHD material for three of the events; the HDV footage edited just fine, though some users might want to use proxies for everything. The concept of proxy editing is that you can spend all the time you need in the easy-to-edit proxy. Then, when you are ready to render to a final file, you shift gears, and all the media is swapped in the project file for the high-quality MTS files in seconds. What if you need to fine-tune something and want to go back to the proxy? Switch gears again, and you're back in the land of proxy, yet everything about the project file-the tracks and the events, even the filters and effects on the events-remains the same.

Proxy File editing was first brought to my attention with the introduction of HDV cameras. But it is still a fantastic way to work with full-HD video of any codec, including the amazingly popular VDSLR files, on lesser hardware.

Using Intermediate Codecs

For several years, Vegas users have been using the CineForm codec to work with HDV and AVCHD video. They render these HD source files to a CineForm AVI file and use this new HD file through the rest of their editing workflow. Note that when rendering to the CineForm codec, the resulting file size will be larger because it isn't as compressed—unlike AVCHD and HDV, CineForm uses all complete frames instead of the occasional complete frame surrounded by reference frames. But it will be much easier to edit.

Other FullHD codecs exist within Vegas that can function as editable intermediates; the Sony MXF and Sony YUV, for instance (both included in Vegas Pro 9). I performed side-by-side tests using the MXF codec and the $129 CineForm Neo Scene product. On my hardware, video encoded with the CineForm codec played back on the timeline at a full 29.97 fps in Preview Auto mode, and I couldn't get the MXF video to go higher than 18. Your mileage, as they say, may vary. If you're looking to go the intermediate route, it's worth it to try the included MXF codec as your intermediate and see what kind of performance you get. For us, given our current hardware setup, the difference was substantial enough to warrant the purchase of Neo Scene, which I'm glad I did. Unlike proxy editing, once the MTS files were transcoded to the CineForm codec, I didn't use them any longer. All subsequent renders and encodes were done with the CineForm files functioning as the source files.

So you may be wondering, why did we use an intermediate at all when the proxy method had worked before? We were getting into projects that had to be rendered down to a new track before we could continue the edit. This would have meant rendering a proxy file, editing with it, shifting back to the source file, rendering that to a new HD file, rendering that new HD file to a new proxy file, continuing to edit the new proxy, shifting gears back to the new HD file, and, finally, creating the final DVD encode.

With an intermediate such as CineForm, once the original MTS files from the HMC150 were transcoded to a CineForm version, I could edit that file, render to a new track using the CineForm codec, and then continue editing the new CineForm file. For us, using CineForm made the editing experience feel just like editing DV.

Cineform NeoScene

Editing, Output, and Delivery
Whether we used the proxy method or the intermediate method, each cruise event was encoded to its own MPEG-2 and AC3 files for DVD delivery. We also took pieces from each of these project files to create multiple web clips for advertising and promotion purposes. At least one of these has been uploaded to Rick's website, and they will possibly put one or more on their merchandise Facebook page. We have continued to utilize all three drives to make sure the proxy, intermediate, and veg project files are all properly backed up. Rick's management team will want additional clips produced to promote subsequent appearances.

We delivered a two-disc dual-layer set completed in DVD Architect to Rick's merchandising team. In total it was more than 6 hours long, and it took us exactly 2 months to complete. They replicated the discs in Los Angeles to save time and shipping.

Final Thoughts and ... Haven't We Been Here Before?
You can go here to see sample clips from the DVD: If you're a Rick Springfield fan you can order the DVD on the merchandise page on Rick's site. The first wave of orders have gone out, and the reports from fans on the merchandise site, on the main message board, and on Facebook have been overwhelmingly positive-which probably says more about the content than to any of the technical hoo-ha that we've been discussing here. Editing this project reminded me of my first projects with DV on Pentium III machines (or was it Pentium II?), with all the struggles of having to apply workarounds just to get something done, the hardware not keeping up with the footage, and so forth. But as computer hardware progresses, it will get easier. I've seen users with Intel i7 chips have a much easier time with AVCHD that we did. Vegas, and all editing software packages, will continue to mature. This whole thing will get easier in time.

Just in time for 3D ...

David McKnight  (david at is half of McKnight Video of Houston. He is vice president of the Houston Professional Videographers Association (HPVA), has Sony Vegas and HDV certification, is the technical editor of Vegas Pro 9 Editing Workshop (Focal Press), and is a contributor to TheFullHD Book (VASST). He and his wife, Christie, are winners of multiple HPVA awards.