Final Cut Studio 2 review

  • Expert Rating: We rate this 9 out of 10We rate this 9 out of 10We rate this 9 out of 10We rate this 9 out of 10We rate this 9 out of 10 Best Buy We rate this 9 out of 10

  • Price When Reviewed: 723 . 270 . 382

  • Pros: Open format timeline. Apple ProRES 422. Supports real-time rendering. Color colour-grading application. improved interface.

  • Cons: Suites need tighter integration. Lack of new features in core application.

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Once the underdog to video-editing applications from the likes of Adobe and Avid, Apple’s Final Cut Pro has since become the industry standard for desktop cut-&-correct work. Originally targeting the software at wedding videographers and corporate video producers, Apple now has its sights on all levels of production, from single editors with local clients to those cutting Hollywood movies.

Wherever you are in this broad spectrum of users, you’re certain to find a use for one or more of the new tools added to the six core applications that comprise Final Cut Studio 2 – Final Cut Pro 6, Color, Motion 3, Soundtrack Pro 2, Compressor 3, and DVD Studio Pro 4.

The suite’s core component, Final Cut Pro 6, has few new major additions. That said, neither the in-beta Premiere Pro CS3 nor recent upgrades to Xpress Pro have added groundbreaking features – so perhaps we’ve reached the limit of what’s possible from a traditional desktop NLE.

What Final Cut Pro 6 does offer is the ability to combine multiple types of video with different resolutions, frame rates and aspect ratios on the same timeline. Set your sequence to the format you want to use – usually the output format – and cut in the other clips, working with them running in real-time. While real-time performance is dependent on hardware, and whether you’re in Safe RT or Unlimited RT modes, each type of clip performed well. Layering or transitioning between different formats saw a big performance drop, especially when combining or mixing different frame rates.

You can set the sequence format automatically from the first clip you drop in, and there’s an option in Preferences to decide whether clips are automatically up- or downscaled to match the sequence or not.

ProRes 422 is Apple’s new compressed HD format, which it says offers SD performance with HD editing – claiming the footage to be indistinguishable from true HD. You can capture to ProRes 422 using a standard HD-SDI capture board or transcode within Final Cut Pro – both of which encode in software – or in hardware using AJA’s new IoHD external
capture hardware. We transcoded uncompressed 1080i footage on an 8-core Mac Pro with 4GB RAM connected to a 3ware Sidecar eSATA RAID storage system with a four-drive RAID 0 array, which was surprisingly quick.

Performance from the RAID was comparable to SD if we used the 145Mbps standard version of ProRes 422, but not with the 220Mbps HQ (High Quality) – though this is still acceptable for day-to-day editing. Conversely, the quality of HQ ProRes 422 1080i video can be compared to HD, with the standard version more obviously compressed. As such we can see the HQ version being used for both ‘online’ and ‘offline’ editing, while the standard version is for ‘offline’ use for later conforming.

One nifty trick in Final Cut Pro 6 is the ability to use ProRes 422 to render effects with better performance when editing complex compressed formats such as HDV and XDCAM HD.

Other new tools include a new SmoothCam feature (above) for removing camera shake. This isn’t real-time, but it can run in the background. It’s as effective as the 2d3 SteadyMove plug-in included with Premiere, but we’d prefer the control offered by real-time to avoid the frequent output blurs.

Officially, Final Cut Pro 6 doesn’t support AE-format plug-ins anymore, although developers, such as Boris FX, have found workarounds. Apple’s own FxPlug format – added to FCP in version 5.1 – allows plug-ins to work at a higher colour depth with a slicker interface. The downside to this is paying to upgrade your plug-ins.

The suite’s new Color application is an upgraded version of Silicon Color’s Final Touch desktop colour-grading application for film and broadcast. US-centric spelling aside, Color’s main drawback is that it’s a desktop film-&-broadcast grade colour-grading suite.

Color looks, and works, like nothing else in the Final Cut suite. Its interface resembles a cross between Shake and the controls for the Starship Enterprise. As with Shake, this is a specialized tool with a tailored GUI and controls – in this case focused on the intricacies of high-end colour correction.

The software is built of tabbed ‘rooms’, which you work through from left to right: Setup, Primary In, Secondaries, Color FX, Primary Out – plus Geometry for transformation operations, a Still Store for reference frames, and the Render Queue for output. The rest of the interface is given over to a monitor, a wide selection of scopes and a timeline. It works best across two HD monitors.

You can transfer whole projects from Final Cut Pro – though some elements such as embedded Motion projects won’t be available – or import clips using the Shake-like non-standard import dialog. For each clip, you begin by balancing colours using the primary corrector and the scopes (mainly the RGB Parade) for a neutral look. You can then adjust individual colours using the Secondaries room, create and apply a wide selection of ‘looks’ in Color FX, or apply your own adjustments in the Primary Out ‘room’.

The Color FX ‘room’ (above) lets you build complex colour corrections using a node-based flowchart with a choice
of over 40 nodes, ranging from Add to Vignette. Color ships with 20 pre-built Color FX, from Bleach Bypass to Warm Glow – and Apple expects that users will share their own corrections online.

Learning Color isn’t as difficult as you first expect. Its workflow and tools are intuitive, and good enough even for the most high-end work. Although it has a real-time preview, the frame rate dropped substantially when complex Color FX were applied. When you’ve completed your corrections, effects have to be rendered. With projects, you have to send each corrected clip to render individually, or render the whole project – which bizarrely re-renders clips that haven’t been changed.

Even if this bug is fixed, for the majority of colour corrections, using Final Cut Pro’s own toolset is going to be faster than, and just as effective as, using Color. Color is best used for correcting badly screwed-up footage, or applying balancing and a style across a longer, high-end project.

Motion is swiftly turning itself into a serious competitor to After Effects for day-to-day motion graphics creation. The latest version adds a 3D workspace, vector paint tracking, stabilization, retiming and the ability to draw keyframes.

The 3D workspace is almost everything Boris FX’s Boris Blue was supposed to be. Motion 3 lets users create 3D motion graphics with easy-to-use and intuitive controls, and decent real-time preview performance. It works like a motion graphics application, and doesn’t bog you down with 3D terminology. And it has the Apple polish that makes you smile when, for example, you discover that changing camera view takes you on a fly-through from one view to the next – although this may soon irritate.

We were disappointed that, unlike Boris Blue, Motion 3 can’t import 3D models. It’s a shame as the only real downside to Motion’s 3D workspace – as with the application in general – is the slight cartoony feel to its output. This doesn’t work well with graphics that require a clean professional look.

The lack of a tracker was an enduring criticism of previous versions of Motion, so it’s great to see tracking and matchmoving finally added to Motion 3. While the application isn’t meant to be a visual-effects suite, most artists will benefit from the ability to tie objects to points (or to four corner pins).

Motion 3 also gains image stabilization tools and the same SmoothCam anti-shake function as in Final Cut Pro 6, along with retiming and the nifty ability to synchronize effects to audio.

The ability to draw bézier keyframe paths in the Keyframe Editor for swiftly mapping out parameter changes is impressive. You either draw precisely what you want, or sketch it and then correct points afterwards – with a level of control and speed that will be appreciated by motion graphics professionals.

DVD Studio Pro hasn’t been updated since the first Final Cut Studio, which is a shame, as support for Blu-ray Disc authoring would be a welcome addition.

Soundtrack Pro 2 introduces some interesting new features, including surround mixing and a lift-&-stamp tool, but it’s the interface and workflow changes that really impress. The Timeline and the Waveform Editor have been combined to speed up editing, the three-up video display makes synchronizing sound effects to video easier, while the MultiTake Editor offers a quick way to replace poor voiceovers from multiple takes

There’s also the Conform tool to help match audio projects to modified video projects, which gives you a choice of possible edits to choose from. These are shown visually and listed by Soundtrack’s ‘confidence’ in their accuracy – an innovative function.

Yet all the new features haven’t made Soundtrack Pro 2’s performance sluggish. The interface changes make Apple’s audio application quicker to use than its first incarnation. Final Cut Studio 2 also includes a new version of the Compressor encoding software, which boasts a redesigned interface, further controls – and the ability to encode over a network.

Compressor 3 is the best encoder currently available, outperforming the aging tools that many video professionals still use, such as Cleaner and the PC-only ProCoder.

Whatever level or market you work in, Final Cut Pro remains the best NLE on the market and Final Cut Studio 2
is a must-have upgrade. Many of the suite’s applications need further work – for example Color in particular, would be improved by tighter integration with FCP’s real-time engine to avoid the need for rendering, and Motion’s output could be of a much-higher quality. But overall, version 2 of the suite succeeds very well in allowing you to work faster and more creatively.

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