We sat down with Apple to get some questions answered and find out what we might be missing

You've no doubt been reading a lot about what's new, what's missing, what's inspired and what's still mystifying in the radically overhauled and rebuilt Final Cut Pro X. So have we. On Thursday I met with Apple and brought with me the litany of concerns voiced by current FCP 7 users in comments and in posts on our site, on Twitter, and in the great Web beyond. In two hours, I saw the specifics of a platform and environment with tremendous potential in action and got many of my questions answered. Apple's two product specialists also had plenty to say before the demo about the depth (54% of the NLE market in broadcast as Avid and Adobe battle it out for second place) and breadth (2 million paid users to date) of its use. I expected that, and it's all true. Then they rolled out the most recent customer feedback numbers. Ninety-four percent of Final Cut Pro 7 customers are satisfied with the software, the highest the company has ever had for its 12-year-old product.
Somehow I think those numbers would be very different if users were surveyed today.

But just as Apple is acutely aware that many of its pro customers are alarmed by what they can't see inside the new release – and therefore think are irretrievably and intentionally missing – Apple has a bigger story to tell, and in the longer, detailed telling, knows this too shall pass. The criticism is intensifying and the adjustment may take much longer than Apple would like, however. Just last night, Conan O'Brien's editors offered this amusing spot on what the release means to them:

Final Cut Pro X is indeed very different, and different always takes some getting used to. For busy editors, this shift is not well thought out and timed – but if not now, when? Apple's specialists reminded me that most NLEs in use today were built in the 1990s, as Final Cut originally was. Adding updates to an outdated platform, one intrinsically linked to physical media, is the easiest way out. Instead, Apple reckoned, an expanding file-based universe deserved a 64-bit, Cocoa-automated editing tool completely rebuilt for file-based media, no sticky tape strings attached.

I can hear some of you grumbling right now because that last sentence reminded you, if you've been reading up, that FCPX can't capture or output to tape. At install, that's true. File-centric Apple knows tape-based workflows will eventually disappear but I was assured the company wants to accommodate current users who still depend on tape during the transition. That's why Apple developers worked with AJA before the release to discuss the API and create a path. Beta drivers for AJA's KONA card are already out, and Apple says other tape capture and output cards and devices are definitely on the way. The lack of broadcast monitor support is another serious issue for editors like Conan's and all the rest using FCP at CNN, ABC, the BBC, Turner Studios, Walt Disney, and on and on. Again, I'm told that will come from third parties soon.

What you do get are features that go much deeper than you might think. Yes, there are many ideas in FCPX that have been percolating for some time in iMovie, in iPhoto and even in Apple Mail. But in the context of an editorial workflow, each of these new features can leapfrog cumbersome former tasks that you probably won't miss once you understand how much control over every aspect of your projects you still have.

  • The Magnetic Timeline never fixes anything to your timeline that can't be moved later. And when moving clips, the "dynamic lanes" mean that one set of clips and attached audio knows to move out of the way if another set is heading for it. This prevents you from ever colliding clips or worrying about sync again. It's a punchline in the Conan video above, but the feature was designed to let you connect clips and audio and additional audio effects and move them around without pushing elements out of sync. You can still break your compound clips and audio to see the their full complexity but collapsing them down to minimize the clutter and really see the flow of your edit has got to be an easier way to work.
  • Rendering, image stabilizing, face tagging, media reading, shot detecting, audio clean up, color matching and balancing and every other process that happens in the background while you work is a result of the new Auto Analysis tools and 64-bit OS. You don't have to fuss with gamma shifts, background noise, shaky footage, among so many other things that used to use up your time. But you also don't have to apply any of those decisions the analysis finds. You still have the option to go in and tweak before applying an automated fix.
  • Every piece of media from HD to 4K that comes into FCPX is resolution independent, so there's no need to convert files.
  • Organizing and searching through similar-looking clusters of footage is made simpler by layers of range-based keywords that you apply and makes sense to you. You really don't need to put footage and projects in bins where they can sometimes hide. Again, the bin idea is a concept related to physical media, and file-based means your metadata, like links found in a Google search, can be found as fast as you type in your related keywords. But did you know you could also label just portions of clip and assign any number of keywords to the same clip? You don't have to make copies of clips to do this as you did in the past. Very freeing. On top of all this, there is a constantly updating search filter called Smart Collections that keeps track of every ingredient in your metadata soup. FCPX automatically creates these collections but you can build them out manually as well to put more of your own logic into the mix.
  • The Inline Precision Editor is worth getting to know well. It lets you skim across clips more fluidly to make better edit decisions.
  • Auditions, used to preview clips, is also a huge leap, though it may confound those used to stacking their clips on the timeline edges for easy viewing. Apple thinks those cilps don't belong where you could accidentally insert them, so the new Audition feature pulls in any keyword-searched clip in a pop-up window and automatically sizes it and drops it in the timeline where you tell it to go. The rest of your clips ripple through to fill out the timeline without gaps.

The 64-bit Equation

None of these new features would mean much if it wasn't for the tightly optimized OS and computer processing power. The 64-bit engine and OS X-native interface driving this new release are impressive. So much of the rendering and clip analysis in FCPX goes on in the background while you work. Want to retime a clip? Go ahead. If you're working on a newer iMac, you won't have to wait for it to render before you get back to work. Apple rebuilt FCPX to take full advantage of the quad cores, RAM, and GPU performance its latest iMacs have to offer. A new feature called Grand Central Dispatch makes sure all cores get tapped to do the heaviest data crunching. Apple told me it's about simultaneously "optimizing OS X and all that our machines have to offer." (The company would also love to sell you a new computer to give FCPX its best run possible, but isn't that obvious by now?)

You don't, however, need a brand new computer to run FCPX. You do need OS X 10.6.7, the current OS iteration. If you're running an earlier version of Snow Leopard (10.6), a quick software update from the Apple icon drop-down menu will get you there. And what about Lion (10.7), which was just announced? Apple's already thought of that and pre-engineered FCPX to work with Lion, due in July.

Multicam, XML, OMF… MIA?

Aha, you'll add here, but Apple didn't think of everything when it created FCPX from scratch. Multicam editing went away, but so did XML, OMF and AAF support-the means to tag and send individual tracks out to Pro Tools or projects to a higher-end grading system. You also can't open Final Cut Pro 7 projects in Final Cut Pro X, so what's the point of upgrading if you regularly reuse media or are in the middle of a project? While Apple did tell me that "it's not impossible to bring FCP7 media into FCPX," the company understands that people who are still mid-project in the old version may not want to migrate immediately. That is, until their FCP7 projects wrap up.

So is it really impossible in FCPX to tag individual tracks for narration, score and audio effects and send each out to Pro Tools in this new version? While it's true the Magnetic Timeline collapses separate, assigned audio tracks into one movable feast, those tracks can still be accessed with plug-ins. Apple says it never wanted to shut pro editors off from the old way of working, which is why it invited Automatic Duck's founder and chief architect Wes Plate to help solve the AAF/OMF problem early on with a plug-in. Apple knows that Plate writes exceptionally good code and that many use and depend on his plug-ins. Plate was on a short list of pre-release collaborators along with ProRes devotees AJA, FXPlug propagators Noise Industries, and Sony. Right now, FCPX puts a QuickTime wrapper around Sony's XDCAM codec but Sony is apparently updating the codec to 64-bit for full integration. Native camera support is very good but may be stronger out of the gate for the mid-market cameras and not the very high end. Still, Apple has made its API available to many more third parties, who now have tremendous business opportunities to build and profit from those bridges.

The removal of multicam editing – a feature Apple brought with much fanfare to an earlier version – is harder to fathom. It makes more sense when you learn that Apple is building a new multicam feature and didn't want to "shoehorn the old version into the new app." But don't worry: You won't have to wait two years for the next box releases to see multicam again. It's likely coming much sooner than that. A file-based app means no more box releases, ever. More regular updates, from bug fixes to larger point releases, are just a click away through the Mac App Store, which Apple launched in January. Again, you need to upgrade to 10.6.6 to access the Mac App Store on your computer. Other key system recommendations for FCPX include 4GB RAM (2GB is required) and at least the Core 2 Duo processors found in MacBooks and older iMacs.

XML support is also coming, though it will be an "evolved" version of XML as we know it. Apple, again, said it didn't want to force fit something that would become outmoded as FCPX itself evolved.

Compressor 4 and Motion 5 are now separate programs and available for $49 each. Motion 5 takes advantage of the FCPX's dark Cocoa-based interface that lets graphics and images pop better on screen. You can also create Smart Motion Templates and use them immediately in FCPX. These templates let a motion designer publish the stylistic controls, or a limited set of controls, to let the editor grab them more quickly in FCPX. If you favor a "morning mist" style your designer creates, you can grab all of these with a keyword without starting up Motion in FCPX to view them. Compressor 4 similarly lets you share a settings file without opening Compressor itself. You can still send your FCP projects in X out to Compressor, as you've done in the past.

So Now What?

Final Cut Pro X only has a two-and-a-half-star rating in the Mac App Store. Clearly, many are taking a wait-and-see approach. If you aren't ready to abandon Final Cut Pro 7 just yet, don't do it. Keep an eye on updates, as they will be coming much more frequently, and watch to see when your plug-ins of choice make the leap to FCPX. But in the meantime, do take advantage of any serious hands-on FCPX training you can find so you can start letting go of some admirably hard-won habits and discover cleaner, swifter ways of working. Manhattan Edit Workshop today announced what sounds like the first in-person training offered in New York. Trainers and integrators are undoubtedly planning similar sessions in LA, Chicago, London and elsewhere as we speak. We'll post links to info and registration as we learn of them.