Avid is the granddaddy of all computer-based nonlinear editing (NLE) systems. It was the first to market with its NLE in 1989. In the early days, you worked with offline resolutions of 320x240 and a 512MB hard drive, and it cost much more than $100,000. In those early years, only Hollywood studios, major post houses, and TV networks could afford those NLEs. Today, Avid remains tops in the big studios, TV networks, and post houses. But Apple Final Cut Pro (FCP), Adobe Premiere Pro, Grass Valley EDIUS, and Sony Vegas are the NLEs of choice for the vast majority of event video studios. That said, Avid has recently streamlined its product line and added a lot of requested features that previously fell on deaf ears. The latest edition of Avid’s flagship desktop system, Media Composer 5 (MC5) is said to be the company’s answer for people who said they went to FCP or Adobe Premiere Pro because “Avid didn’t listen.” Let’s take a look.
The first thing I noticed while installing MC5 was no more USB dongle. I hated the dongle. If you wanted to run it on a workstation and then a laptop while traveling and you forgot the dongle at home, you were pretty much out of business. Next, I noticed a healthy number of useful tutorials, programs, and plug-ins. The MC5 suite includes the AVX version of Boris Continuum Complete 6 (BCC 6; the current retail version is 7), Boris FX (cool transitions), SmartSound Sonicfire Pro 5.5 (soundtrack-building software), Avid DVD by Sonic (DVD authoring), Sorenson Squeeze 6 (multiformat transcoding), and a tutorial DVD from Lynda.com. I’m a big fan of BCC 6 and Sonicfire Pro. They are both essential tools that I use on a very regular basis. All in all, MC5 is a well-rounded package of essential software. The only thing you’ll need to add is an image editor such as Adobe Photoshop and an audio editor such as Avid Pro Tools (more on that later).
Installing the software on the HP z800 workstation (dual quad-core 3.2GHz Xeon, 12GB RAM, NVIDIA Quadro FX4800 GPU) proved pretty painless. Unlocking and registering it was another story. I got the “congratulations you are registered” message, but then upon running MC5, I was told I had “too many systems registered, number of systems: 1.” It took half an hour to get through that with tech support. I then found out there was a 5.03 update that required me to register again on the Avid website, then log in and download.
Upon running MC5 for the first time, I started a new project and imported some HDV files. This is a major improvement in itself. In the past, Avid systems would only work with footage captured into Avid directly using Avid’s own codecs. With Avid’s new open architecture, you can capture to an Avid file or you can import files you previously captured in another program. The basic rule of thumb is, “If Apple’s QuickTime can play it, so can Avid.”
HD Monitoring With Matrox MXO2 Mini
Another significant item of Avid’s open architecture is being able to use third-party hardware. Previously, MC5 by itself would allow you to edit and export. But unless you bought the Mojo I/O box for $7,500, you could only monitor your video on whatever computer screen you were using to edit. Avid has opened the MC5 software to work with Matrox’s MXO2 Mini for monitoring through its HDMI, component, composite, S-video, and RCA audio outs.
In FCP and Premiere Pro, you can use the MXO2 Mini for capture as well. There’s been no word on if Avid will work with the MXO2 Mini’s inputs in the future. That said, since most media will be ingested through FireWire or flash devices, this isn’t such a worry. If you do need to do analog or HDMI capture, there is a Matrox capture utility that will allow you to do so.
Those files can then be imported into MC5 with no problem. Matrox utilities also allow you to professionally calibrate whatever HDMI monitor you hook up to it.
The MC5 Interface
Now we’ll look at the most important item in MC5, the graphical user interface, or GUI for short. While there are some definite improvements over previous versions, I don’t think they’ll be enough to lure FCP or Premiere Pro users away from their current NLE of choice. The main thing I noticed right away was being able to trim in the timeline, without having to put the clip in a “trimming window.” That’s a huge improvement.
What annoyed me the most was that you still couldn’t easily drag and drop from one part of the timeline to another. That one feature that is in every other NLE and not on MC5 almost made me want to throw my mouse at the beautiful HP3065 30" LCD, but I stopped myself. Upon further research and some help from Avid, I discovered that there is a way to do “drag and drop” editing. Is it as easy to do as in other NLE systems? No. You still have to do some other things to make it work, and you have to practice to get your desired edit, but it's a huge improvement.
It is a bit frustrating to have to follow extra steps, when it could be done more simply in other NLEs.
In the past when I brought this up to Avid representatives, they’d say something like, “We offer a professional editing system. The ones where you need to use a mouse are for consumers.” The mouse has been a regular part of the computing world for about 25 years. It seems that Avid is finally starting to embrace the mouse. Hopefully by Media Composer 6, “drag and drop” will be a bit smoother.
Pro Tools Compatibility
Another interesting tidbit is MC5’s compatibility with Avid Pro Tools. For those who aren’t familiar with the Pro Tools audio editing suite, it’s the undisputed king of the recording industry and of the film and TV audio postproduction industry, regardless of the NLE being used. A big step forward with MC5 is that the two programs can now exist on the same computer. Previously, this was impossible. But you can’t run MC5 with Pro Tools running in the background to pass things back and forth like you can with Adobe’s Premiere Pro and Audition or Soundbooth. You can only run MC5 or Pro Tools one at a time.
If you want to send audio from MC5 to Pro Tools, you need to export an AAF (advanced authoring format) file, shut down MC5, and then run Pro Tools, import the AAF, work with it, save it, quit Pro Tools, and then boot Media Composer. It’s not exactly as efficient as Adobe’s Dynamic Link, but at least you can have Media Composer and Pro Tools on the same computer now.
The Bottom Line
So what does MC5 offer the corporate and event video market that we can’t get from Premiere Pro, FCP, Vegas, or EDIUS? In my opinion, not much. While Avid has made some definite strides in flexibility regarding the file formats you are able to use, and the fact that working with Matrox’s MXO2 Mini is a great feature, in spite of some nice improvements to the GUI, overall, it remains too difficult to use for non-Avid users who plan to switch NLEs. I can picture my 10-year-old nephew in front of Premiere Pro, FCP, EDIUS, or Vegas, and I’m sure he could cut a sequence together with any of those applications. But if I have trouble with the Avid MC5 interface, so will my nephew.
Its lack of intuitive design is frustrating, and while I can easily switch between those other NLEs, I can’t boot up MC5 and “just cut.” I watched the entire instructional DVD from Lynda.com, but MC5 still didn’t flow for me.
There are two types of people for whom MC5 will be great. If you’re an experienced Avid editor and want the flexibility to have a powerful system without spending a ton of money, MC5 and the MXO2 Mini are a great combination. If you plan on following the path to Hollywood where Media Composer is deeply entrenched, even with inroads by FCP (and the recent Premiere Pro insurgency), Avid is a system worth knowing. An Avid “assistant editor” is a much-sought-after position in Hollywood. Knowing MC5 is the best way to learn Avid well enough to get your foot in the door there.
Media Composer 5 with the Matrox MXO 2 Mini is the most affordable system when you decide to get your first Avid system. But if you do not practice on it regularly, you will forget how to use it.
If you want to cut at a Hollywood post house or TV studio, buy Media Composer 5, master it, and jump into the Hollywood job pool. It’s a badge of honor in Hollywood, and since it’s not simple to learn, if you learn it, your chances for finding a job are much better. If you’re in event or corporate videography and are content using Adobe Premiere Pro, Apple Final Cut Pro, Sony Vegas, or Grass Valley EDIUS, you most likely aren’t going to want to switch. If you’re already an Avid editor looking for an affordable hardware/software suite, Media Composer 5 and the MXO2 Mini are a great combination.
Marc Franklin (marcfvp at yahoo.com) has been shooting video since 1982 and has run Franklin Video Productions since 1992. He has been featured in the Hollywood Reporter, Forbes, and TV Technology and has written for Studio Monthly, Student Filmmakers, and WEVA.