Final Cut Studio full review

Final Cut Studio 1.0 was a big hit with Mac owners at every level of video experience, offering a unique combination of editing and authoring tools. But although the wow factor was considerable, corners were cut that made some professionals less than happy. Apple’s mission was to update Studio with fixes for all of the old shortcomings, and of course to add blisteringly cool new features, too.

Apple has mostly succeeded. Final Cut Studio 2.0 is a very creative and open-ended environment, with a superb mix of features that make it capable of editing anything from mobile clips up to 2K format scanned film. But this power comes at a price, and that’s one of the beefiest installers in recorded history – there are eight installer discs inside the box.

Once installed, Final Cut Pro 6 is the star of the package. HD and SD camcorder support is taken as read, but it includes one of the widest collections of pro and semi-pro capture formats available in any video application, making Final Cut Pro 6 an ideal choice for video professionals. One of the big new additions is multi-format editing, which means you can combine footage from different sources on a single timeline. This makes it easier to combine archive and stock footage with camcorder action.

Also new is ProRes 422, a lossless compression format that makes HD editing less disk-intensive. The cost here is processor power, and ideally you’ll want at least a dual-core Mac to make the most of it. Older G5 machines can cope, but they’re far from ideal.

Two DVDs offer content for LiveType – the application used for sophisticated titling effects. With LiveType there’s no need to settle for a couple of lines of Helvetica. You can import the canned content into Final Cut Pro without editing it, although it’s easier to install LiveType to view previews and to make simple changes. A stand-out feature is the ability to animate text and create fade templates. Similar effects are standard for mainstream TV production, and having them on hand so quickly gives anyone who uses LiveType a strong professional edge.

Motion 3, the effects tool, is now more tightly integrated with Final Cut Pro. New arrivals include 3D animation – think of the zooms and rotates in FrontRow, but completely programmable and flexible and using your own footage – and a tracking tool that’s much improved over the previous, rather half-hearted, version.

Smooth handling
You can now eliminate camcorder wobble while still tracking a smooth pan or zoom – impressive, and supremely useful for handheld work. There are also some clever animated paintbrush effects, edging into the kind of territory more usually occupied by the painting tools in Autodesk’s Maya.

Soundtrack Pro 2 has been updated with support for 5.1 surround and a new single-window interface. Surround uses a new visual panning tool, and includes a high-end convolution reverb which lets you put your sounds inside simulated spaces to give them some real-world ambience. If you’re familiar with audio you’ll be impressed, because some professional convolution tools cost more than Studio 2 does. Also included are three DVDs of audio content – mostly bland production music, with a good selection of sound effects. And there’s a new auto-conform feature that does its best to tell you where to edit the music after you’ve edited the video.

Compressor 3 is used for final rendered output. It transcodes between the final file – which should ideally be uncompressed – into a delivery format such as MPEG2 for DVD, and H.264 for iPod video. This isn’t the most exciting part of the suite, but it’s an important one, and support for new formats, including those used on Blu-ray and HD-DVD media, is welcome. Batching has been improved so it’s slightly easier to create processing templates. And the Qmaster tool makes simple distributed processing possible, so you can tie together any spare old Macs to make a render farm. If you want to buy a room full of new Macs, that will work too.

Color rounds off the new editing tools. Ads and films use a process called grading which defines colour balance and intensity. This is a creative tool as well as a corrective one – almost every ad, film and promo video you see will have a different ‘look’.

Color offers professional quality grading with 32-bit float resolution, working in 4:4:4 – video speak for ‘you won’t get better quality than this’. While Color can’t quite strip the digital edge off cheap DV camera footage, it can give it a professional shine. And it really comes alive with high quality source footage, creating instant cinematic moodiness.

Bringing up the rear is DV Studio Pro 4. While DV Studio Pro has always had many fans, it’s never been perfect, and that’s not changed here. It’s still possible to assemble complex DVD projects, add titles and menus, and burn or write to a variety of output formats. There’s a DVD’s worth of content, which includes the traditional mix of corporate, urban, artistic and lifestyle templates.

So what’s not to like? While Final Cut Studio 2.0 does a huge amount, and settles most of the criticisms levelled at Final Cut Pro and Studio 1.0, there are still some rough edges. For example, is it really asking too much of a professional editing application to be able to preview clips in the Finder before loading them?

Disc support blues
The relative lack of progress in DV Studio 4 is also disappointing, most obviously in HD support, which is patchy. In practical terms this means that while you can create impressive video projects with fantastic surround audio in Final Cut Studio, you can’t burn them onto Blu-ray media for use in a player. You can stream them to DLT tape for professional replication, but that’s not nearly as convenient as doing it yourself – especially if you only want one or two copies, not thousands. You can also burn HD projects to special 3x red-laser media, though we weren’t able to test this ourselves. In any case the disks won’t be as reliable as blue-laser ones.

Photoshop support could also be better – it’s still the menu creation tool of choice for many professionals. Adobe’s Encore DVD is a much less streamlined tool compared to DVD Studio Pro, but it does work seamlessly with Photoshop, while DVD Studio Pro struggles in comparison. More of a nitpick is the lack of support for non-Apple file formats in Compressor. WMA support might be unlikely, but RealMedia and Flash video formats are used widely enough that not being able to save to them directly may cause some users a few headaches – or some wasted time.

Overall though, there’s a huge amount to like. While the price may seem high by hobbyist standards, this is a fully professional application, and on that basis it could easily sell for half as much again.

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