Which NLE System should you choose

Thank God for people like Chris Brumwell, that’s what I say. Because when it comes to choosing which edit system is going to be right for you, you need someone that A) knows the various solution options inside out, B) knows the landscape that will determine your constraints, and C) is capable of explaining what is now an amazingly complex subject in a way that mere mortals stand a chance of understanding. Chris is a key member of the sales team at CVP Group. His business card says he is an NLE Specialist – which is true, but in my opinion it undersells his level of expertise. Because what very quickly becomes apparent is that in order to be an NLE Specialist, you also need to know all there is to know about acquisition (and there are a myriad options available here) and post production, AND have sufficient real-world experience to be able to cut through the jargon-laden claims that cloud this whole area and translate features into a prioritised list of tangible benefits.
Avid, Apple & Adobe all make brilliant NLE systems… one of them will be exactly right for your specific needs.

My task in writing this article might, on the face of it, seem similar to the one that faces motoring journalists all the time. They choose three cars, compare them all under a number of categories (price, performance, comfort, economy, safety etc) with the aim of ranking the cars best, second-best and least good. The problem is that the results are far from scientific. Inevitably there is a huge amount of subjectivity (the BMW feels more planted – the Porsche is the better driver’s car – the Audi beautifully made but just a bit boring) which the cynics amongst us cannot help but feel is hugely influenced by the millions spent by manufacturers’ marketing departments on building their individual brands over many years. And they write their articles on the assumption that all their readers will have the same list of priorities when it comes to choosing cars, which of course they don’t.
But cars have become much more than just a practical, functional machine. They are a fashion statement – a status symbol – a reflection of who we are (or would like to be). Are any of these issues relevant when choosing an NLE system?
Like the petrol-heads, we have three subjects for this exercise, the three ‘A’s – Avid, Apple and Adobe. Of course there are other choices available, but these are unquestionably the biggest names in the NLE field. However, instead of trying to reach a conclusion about which one is definitively the best (an entirely futile goal), we’re going to concentrate on how to choose which one is best for you – today, and for as far ahead as we can see (which in this financially uncertain, new technology-worshipping world is probably not very far at all).
So, with Chris in the dock (as it were), let’s begin the interrogation!

OK Maestro, what are the main differences between the three offerings?

Before I start I need to issue a disclaimer! This whole subject is a complex one, and the best we can hope to do in an article like this is to provide a kind of heli-copter view. I will undoubtedly be over-simplifying certain things in the interests of clarity, and I am aware doing so could skew some people’s ideas inappropriately. It’s the same kind of problem a car salesman faces when trying to value a car over the phone. There needs to be a caveat that says (in his case) ‘subject to inspection’, and in mine ‘we recommend a personal consultation’.

OK, so you’ve got your ‘Get out of Jail’ card, so now tell us about the differences…

Look, they’re all brilliant systems; there’s no disputing they are all capable of producing programmes of exceptional quality, and I can virtually guarantee that one of them will be exactly right for your specific needs. As for getting to grips with their differences, it’s probably helpful to start by understanding something about the companies behind the products:
Avid is a specialist solutions provider to the broadcast, post production and media industries. It began by producing edit systems aimed at high-end users, and in the ensuing years has expanded it’s reach downwards. Apple is a consumer electronics company, and so their initial target was the consumer. Over the years they have expanded upwards into the broadcast and professional marketplace. Adobe has approached the NLE market sideways really, from their position as a dominant force within the graphic design industry..

So how do these different approaches translate in terms of product?

Let’s look at what’s included:-

Avid’s Media Composer:

  • Video Editing,
  • ‘Boris Contuinuum Complete’ and ‘Avid F/X’ (Effects plug-ins),
  • Basic DVD Authoring and Transcoding software

Apple’s Final Cut Studio:

  • ‘Final Cut Pro’ Video Editing,
  • ‘Motion’ Graphics and Effects, ‘Soundtrack Pro’ Multi-track Audio Creation and Restoration,
  • ‘‘DVD Studio’ DVD Authoring and ‘Colour’, an excellent but complex Colour Grading Suite.

Adobe’s Production Premium:

  • ‘Premiere’ Video Editing,
  • ‘After Effects’ Video Effects
  • ‘Sound Booth’ Audio Restoration (no multi-track facility)
  • ‘Encore’ DVD (SD), BluRay and Flash Authoring
  • ‘Photoshop’ and ‘Illustrator’ for Graphics and ‘Flash’ for Animation

Already Avid seems to be noticeably different from the other two…

Yes, Media Composer concerns itself with the video editing portion of post production, leaving grading, composition and audio to other specialist software. It was originally developed to meet the needs of long-form documentary, film and TV production. Bins and video files are organised and stored in a specific manner to enable media tools to search, find and share assets in a collaborative post production environment. Data storage and organisation is paramount here because there will usually be a number of different people wanting to access files for different processes.

Does this imply that Apple and Adobe are less good in this respect?

Final Cut and Premiere are hugely flexible – less regimented if you like – but this does mean that the way you organise and identify clips is up to you. This can be lead to confusion and even errors when data-sharing with co-workers if you don’t devise – and adhere to – a very strict system of file-naming and storing.

So are Apple and Adobe’s offerings very similar then?

Until very recently they have been quite similar, yes, but each has its particular strengths. Apple has a more complete offering in terms of audio and colouring, whereas Adobe has a much more comprehensive disc authoring suite including BluRay, and has the benefit of incorporating Photoshop, Illustrator and Flash,
all of which are industry standard applications. In my opinion Adobe has suffered from the perception that earlier versions of Premiere were perhaps not as reliable as they could have been – recent versions have no such problems – it really is an excellent product that competes with Apple on equal terms. Final Cut has been the more popular choice, but that could be because Apple’s marketing approach has been more aggressive than Adobe’s. But the landscape has recently changed with the announcement of Adobe’s new CS5 product.

In what way?

The new version of Premiere harnesses the processing power of your computer’s graphics card instead of just relying on its core processors. This dramatically enhances the capabilities of the system in terms of what you can achieve without rendering – in effect, Adobe have given editors a massive real-time performance hike simply by utilising an Nvidia graphics card in an innovative way. It’s being billed as a real game-changer, but it’s very early days yet. What’s more, Apple have a reputation for not resting on their laurels, so all we can do is wait and see!

There’s always a problem when discussing these issues in a printed medium isn’t there? The pace of change is so great that by the time this is being read, new products that we don’t know about yet may be available!

Yes – keep an eye on the website – we’ll have all the news as it breaks!

Nice plug Chris! But I want to take you back to our potential customer if I can. He or she wants to buy an edit system – how do you start the process?

I need to ask them three key questions. The very first is ‘Do you currently use a particular edit system?’ If they do, we know for a fact that they will have invested a huge amount of time familiarising themselves with the way it works – and time is money. Clearly it would be preferable to stick with that system if it can be made to meet their new requirements. The next question is about budget – how much is the customer prepared to spend?
This can narrow down the choices con-siderably. And the final question is about acquisition – what will be the format of the material being edited? Going back a few years this was not a question you needed to ask because there were only three options, but now there are so many different digital formats or codecs that it’s vital to know. Until recently, Avid would only support certain codecs, but this is about to change with the announcement of Media Composer Version 5 software. Apple and Adobe will cope with almost all available codecs, but in different ways.

What happens if the customer is just starting out and has not decided what cameras to use?

They should decide on the acquisition format first. That will probably be dictated by budget and what the material is going to be used for. Are they making feature films or wedding videos. Will their programme output be for broadcast on HD screens or for streaming on HD screens or for streaming on a small window on a website? We can help by talking the customer through all the different options and we’re fairly unique in being able to provide hands-on demos of the candidate solutions too…

Ever the salesman!

Sorry, but it is really important to get that part right!

Presumably most people have a pretty clear idea about what NLE system they want before they come to you?

Actually it’s about 50/50. The vast majority of our customers are up-grading or updating from an existing system – often because of a need to move from SD to HD working. But just because they might have had an Avid Xpress in the past, for example, doesn’t necessarily mean that their best option is to go for another Avid system, despite what I said earlier. Changing horses may mean a steep learning curve, but in certain circumstances it’s possible that the inconvenience could be out-weighed by significant cost benefits. It all depends on what features are going to be of most use to the customer – what he needs it to do not only today, but also what he might need it to do in six months or a year’s time. And, of course, it depends on how much money he is prepared to commit.

We haven’t touched on platforms yet – PC or Mac – does it matter?

Again, to a great extent it depends on your preference. Avid and Adobe are available for both platforms, but Final Cut Pro is
(understandably) only available for Mac. Unless you are currently a PC user that has decided Final Cut is the system that best suits your needs (in which case a platform change is inevitable), there is a school of thought that says if you’re used to PCs, stick with PCs – if you’re used to Macs, stick to Macs. Life’s complicated enough without having to learn new operating systems unnecessarily!

As part of my preparation for this interview, I did quite a lot of surfing around the web to assess what advice is out there, and there’s LOADS of it – and lots of conflicting arguments and points of view. Should we be swayed by any of that?

You’re welcome to look around, but the most likely outcome is a reaffirmation that the system you were leaning towards when you started looking was the right choice all along – that’s the way our brains tend to work, we’re more persuaded by arguments that support our preferences than contradict them. Look, on the one hand I have no reason to want you to choose one system over another – we sell them all. But on the other hand I do have a vested interest in helping you make the best decision you can – because I want you to be a customer for life.

Now of course, not everyone who’s buying an edit system is the person who’s going to use it.

That’s true. Production company owners are not necessarily editors themselves. They may have staff editors – they may use freelancers. Either way, it makes sense to get a system that the hands-on practitioners are familiar with. There’s a huge bank of professional Avid editors out there, and the number of editors who use Final Cut is growing all the time. Premiere editors are a rarer breed – but maybe that will change. My advice on the subject is ‘Overlook the needs and preferences of your talent pool at your peril!’

We can’t end this conversation without talking a bit about 3D…

Yes – will it be the next big thing? I don’t think anyone’s really sure yet. Stereoscopic hardware is still emerging and the first products that are affordable to those of us outside
Hollywood were recently show-cased at NAB. But the post production world is a little bit ahead of the game – Avid has been supporting stereoscopic 3D for film production for a year or more, and Final Cut has also begun supporting this emerging tech-nology with dedicated plug-ins. It’s early days, but very exciting….
So, to sum up, is there one piece of advice that’s more important than any other?
Yes, have a one-to-one dialogue with a multi-franchise reseller like ourselves. You can’t expect manufacturers to give impartial advice, whereas it’s very much in our interest to do so. The other thing that I’d want to talk through is the vital area of storage. There are a vast array of solutions available and it’s all too simple to choose one that just won’t work for you. You can have the best edit system in the world, but without the right storage system, it’ll be unusable.

Right, so storage needs to be the subject of a separate article in another issue of The Iris! Chris, thanks very much for your time, and for sharing your thoughts with us.

You’re welcome!