By Neil Bennett | on September 15, 2004
Price: 2599 . 1700 . 4499 . 3595
Pros: End-to-end creative studio for video. Offers wider scope and overall higher level of tools than competition. Unique 3D tool. Integrated audio hardware.
Cons: Expensive. Finickity. Integration not as seamless as competition. Lack of cohesive interface across products.
Workflow. It’s about as interesting as a lecture on train timetables by Steve Davis on a wet Wednesday afternoon in Slough. However, boring though it is, the smooth movement of media between the applications that you use is necessary to allow you to do the more fun and creative part of your job.
Both Adobe and Apple have been pushing the integration of their video, audio and DVD authoring tools with their respective Video Collection and Production Suite. They allow editors to move both projects and individual media backwards and forwards between applications without having to export and render repeatedly.
Avid has hit back with Xpress Studio, a series of tools that provide an end-to-end creative studio. Xpress Studio’s main advantages are its breadth and power. The main Xpress Pro NLE is supplemented by a 3D suite (Avid 3D), a DVD authoring package (Avid DVD by Sonic), a compositing tool (Avid FX), real-time hardware (Mojo), and audio software (Pro Tools LE) with a choice of two controllers (MBox or Digi 002). Mac users will have to do without the 3D and DVD parts though, as these are Windows-only.
Windows-based editors can also obtain two money-saving bundles. Essentials includes Xpress Pro, Avid 3D, DVD, FX, Pro Tools LE and the MBox controller. Complete adds the Mojo hardware and swaps the MBox for the more powerful Digi 002. We looked at a Xpress Studio Complete system.
A complete professional
As a whole, Xpress Studio is of a higher grade than its competitors. Adobe’s Video Collection includes pro-level editing and compositing software, but only basic DVD and audio tools. Apple’s Production Suite has pro-level editing and DVD applications, but basic compositing and very basic audio tools. Apple has top-notch compositing and audio software in Shake and Logic, but these are aimed at a different audience, and aren’t integrated fully into the Suite.
Every component of the Studio is fully pro-level, except Avid 3D – which has no equivalent in the other bundles (yet).
Rather than create these components from scratch, Avid has licenced other packages and tweaked them to integrate with the central Xpress Pro NLE, though you can buy them separately to mix-&-match if you wish. The £1,099 Avid FX is Boris Red 3GL. The £1,399 Avid DVD by Sonic is Sonic Solutions DVD Producer. Pro Tools LE is the same lightened version of the stalwart that ships with the £999 MBox and £2,299 Digi 002 for audio heads. The £999 Avid 3D is a slimmer version of Softimage|XSI, though with considerably-trimmed complexity.
Avid 3D is the revelation of Xpress Studio. Video editors can find 3D a little scary – it’s not the 3D space, it’s the innate complexity, the over-indulgence of mathematics and the confusing vocabulary of sub-surface scattering, subdivision surfaces and NURBs. Happily, Avid 3D is almost as easy to use as Bryce.
The application strips away many of the powerful tools that 3D pros love, but that editors just don’t have the time to use or even learn. It ships with a host of sample objects and textures that, though cheesy, will come in useful for learning, and in many corporate and TV projects.
Equally importantly, Avid 3D speaks to the user in the terms of an NLE or compositing tool rather than in traditional 3D-speak. This translates through to the manual and training videos, which get you up and running with a minimum of fuss.
On its own, Avid 3D is an exceptional application. However, much of its real purpose has been stolen by some of Boris FX’s toolset within Avid FX – and it’s integration is fiddly. If you follow the handy Xpress Studio Workflow Guide manual when you set the system up, and follow the standard arrangement of folders, then it’s as smooth as a fine whisky. However, even something as simple as having your media on another drive requires fiddling around in dialog boxes in both Xpress Pro and Avid 3D.
Boris Red 3GL’s reincarnation as Avid FX works well, and all of the bugs we found when we reviewed the standalone product in Digit 69 have been squished. Its plusses include the best motion graphics tools of the sub-£1,000 compositing packages – including automated, animated tools for extruded 3D text, video on 3D primitives and 3D graphs. Avid FX can do 90 per cent of the 3D an editor requires for corporate and TV projects – and faster too. The quality isn’t the same, but it’s good enough.
Compared to the conventional effects workflow, the level of integration is impressive. You can pull a single clip into Avid FX, or bring up to three lower tracks with it. It’s a shame you can’t bring all layers, especially overlays such as lower thirds, but overall you can’t complain.
Avid FX’s interface is the same as Boris Red’s, except for a change of logo. The Boris FX?interface is much nearer to the Adobe GUI than Avid’s, though the proliferation of Boris FX’s products means there’s a good chance you’re already used to it – and anyone used to AE will pick it up quickly. It’s constructed of flexible windows, though covering your screen completely to stop Xpress Pro poking through is a good idea.
Avid DVD by Sonic is a software-only version of DVD Producer, which normally ships with one of Sonic’s MPEG-encoding boards. Instead, Avid has bundled Sorenson Squeeze, which isn’t as good or as powerful as a Sonic board and its associated encoding software, but it’s good enough for most editors. As Avid DVD/DVD Producer isn’t integrated into the board’s software, you can add a board in later if you wish.
Avid DVD is very much a traditional DVD authoring tool. For projects following the template of DVD movies – based around a central movie with a few ‘extras’ – Avid DVD produces clean, professional results with a minimum of fuss.
If you’re looking for a Windows-based counterpart to DVD Studio Pro 3, with Director-style multimedia tools and Dreamweaver/Scenarist’s organizational chart, this is the wrong application. Putting together a music ‘jukebox’ or ‘interactive encyclopedia’-style eductional title in Avid DVD would not be fun. It also uses a lot of right-click menu commands and/or keyboard shortcuts instead of buttons and palettes.
However, you do get a full set of pro-level disc tools for adding features such as region coding and copy protection, and output facilities for DVD±R, authoring disc burners and DLT/hard drive transfer to mastering and duplication facilities. The import tools are top notch too, covering everything from Photoshop files with their layers intact to a huge range of subtitle formats.
As part of the Studio, the fix on quality of output rather than interactivity works. If you want both, you’ll have to look to a £20,000 Scenarist system.
Got my mojo workin’
We didn’t receive the MBox audio hardware from the Essentials bundle, but instead the Mojo and Digi 002 that fill out Xpress Studio Complete. The Mojo was covered in depth in our initial review of Xpress Pro, but suffice it to say that it’s great and provides a welcome power boost to the NLE. The Digi 002 is a mixing console that can work with up to 18 input/output channels simultaneously. It can work directly within Xpress Pro or with the bundled Pro Tools LE – though due to this you can’t have both applications running at once.
The Digi 002 is a software-based audio editor’s dream, combining a responsive feel with flexible controls. It’s only downsides are a lack of support for surround sound and it’s high price – less expensive, though incompatible, devices are available from the likes of Tascam or Yamaha. Using the Mojo and Digi 002 together requires FireWire connection through separate buses. Avid sells the £55 ADS Pyro PCI FireWire card for use on systems with on-board FireWire, but this won’t work on all systems.
Xpress Studioships with version 4.5 of Xpress Pro, which adds support for progressive footage, the FluidFilm effect, and the MXF file format that enables projects to be moved between Studio and other applications. This will be freely available to Xpress Pro users soon.
As an integrated solution, Xpress Studio sets the bar high. The concept is unparalled but it falls down in the details. The transition between applications is nowhere near as smooth as that between Final Cut Pro, Soundtrack, LiveType,
DVD Studio and (we expect from the demos we’ve seen) Motion – though the Production Suite doesn’t attempt what Xpress Studio takes on.
Avid should be given full credit for what it has tried to achieve with Xpress Studio – a solution that’s worth £2,599
or £4,499 to the Video Collection’s £915/£1,335 and the Production Bundle’s £765. If Avid can smooth the workflow
a little more, it’ll certainly be a force in the video industry.
Avid Studio Components