HDV Editing with More Horsepower

You have to admit, there’s something compelling about Adobe Premiere. While there’s no drought of capable PC-based editing software, Premiere holds the singular distinction of being the only one to have third-party manufacturers building accelerator cards for it consistently. I edited for years with Premiere 6.5, using a Canopus DVStorm card with great success. At the same time, Matrox and Pinnacle were also in that market. After Canopus decided to drop support when Premiere Pro came out, it was time to make a choice. Happily, Matrox stepped up to the plate with not one, but two solutions: the previously reviewed Axio (November 2006) and its slightly little brother, the RT.X2.
So what separates the Axio and the RT.X2, now in version 2? Well, it basically boils down to support for uncompressed HD video. Like many of us in the editing business, RT.X2 tops out at HDV editing, a job it does without breathing hard. Given enough underlying computer and graphics-card horsepower, there isn’t much in the basic Premiere Pro toolkit that you can’t do in real time, in two layers at once in HDV, and many more in SD.
Go Gear
To make the RT.X2 run effectively you need to outfit it with one of a very small list of approved systems or components (see www.matrox.com/video/support/rtx2/rec/design.cfm for details.). The RT.X2 leverages processing power out of both the CPU and the graphics card. I built my system with a Dell XPS600 box (and an Intel 3.2GHz Pentium D chip), 2 gigs of RAM and an ATI X1900X graphics card.
Although I chose all my components from the Matrox-approved list, that didn’t guarantee I’d have a trouble-free installation. It didn’t build confidence when the plug on the breakout box wouldn’t fit into its jack without my having to trim it with a razor knife!
The actual RT.X2 card is a PCI Express unit, and it’s so long that when I first saw it, I doubted it would fit in the box. It did, however, slip in with a few scant millimeters to spare. The ATI video card fills the other PCI-E slot. Once both cards were installed, though, I noticed there was very little space between them- an invitation for overheating if ever I saw one. However, Matrox had the foresight to include a thermal sensor on the RT.X2, and in extensive use and long sessions the temperature never exceeded the bottom end of the allowable range. Consider that bullet dodged, but it could easily be a big problem in other systems, especially homebuilt units where enough attention may not have been paid to airflow and cooling.
Editing with RT.X2
Once I had the RT.X2 up and running, it was time to edit. I put it through its paces on several major projects, all in SD, and all quite unique. One was a set of wedding videos, with literally 20 hours of footage to boil down, and edited in the high-speed style of WE network’s Bridezillas program. As the first project on the box, I was expecting some problems- and I found them. On several occasions, audio clips inexplicably refused to play off the timeline. It’s not that they weren’t "there," and scrubbing through the missing audio always brought it back, but the effect was disconcerting, to say the least. Sad to say, while Matrox has built an online forum for the RT.X2, answers weren’t all that forthcoming in that format. However, once you take the effort to get a Matrox tech support engineer on the phone, they’re relentless in helping you find your problems and fix them. As it turned out, my audio problem was related to a Creative Labs X-Fi audio card; once I removed it and powered up the onboard audio, all was well.
I also tested out the RT.X2 on a multi-camera video shoot of a CD release party for a local rock band. As is my custom, I shoot events like this with as many cameras as I can muster, and this time I rolled out five. Once the footage (and separately recorded audio) were loaded into the RT.X2, it was a simple matter to sync up the takes (hint: If you watch for still-camera strobes, sync is a piece of cake), engage Premiere Pro’s multicamera module (sadly, limited to four cameras at a time) and click away as if you were sitting behind a video switcher. The RT.X2 proved invaluable in creating real-time color correction, even making it possible to transfer the look from the best-looking camera to the other shots. (I added the fifth camera as a second video track after the first four were cut.) One thing I noticed when making MPEG-2 files for DVD was the faster-than-real time encoding performance the RT.X2 provided. Another plus is the incredible functionality of WYSIWYG monitor output for not only Premiere Pro, but most of the rest of the Adobe Production Studio programs, including After Effects, Encore and Photoshop. No more guessing what that menu would look like on the DVD- I just checked it out on the monitor.
Challenges and Triumphs
By far the most challenging project was a six-minute, effects-laden package for broadcast on Wisconsin Public Television on the emerging science of nanotechnology. Producer Andy Soth and I shot the piece knowing we would likely chromakey all of the interviews. This was the first 16:9 project I cut on the RT.X2, and other than making sure I used the right preset, there was nothing to worry about. Chromakeying was a pure joy with the RT.X2, and pulling remarkably clean keys was a trivial affair. One of our subjects was a female physics professor at the University of Wisconsin, with shoulder-length hair. Amazingly, every strand of hair keyed perfectly with little muss or fuss. Another effect created a double chromakey, placing an iPod Nano over a synthetic background, then keying Soth into the iPod display- a stunt that was achieved without rendering.
Matrox includes a function that every edit system should have: a software switch that limits black video to the NTSC-standard 7.5 percent black level and clamps whites at 100 percent. That alone makes the quality control engineer’s life a lot easier.
This project wasn’t without frustrations, though. I ran into one particularly nasty bug while playing some effects off the timeline (such as two animated supers): The audio would break up severely; but only when playing off the timeline. It never was a problem on output. I even had the deja vu-inducing experience of a few "Premiere poofs" where the program just disappeared. Thankfully, those occurrences were few and far between, and not totally unexpected in a product that was essentially version 1.0 at the time.
The RT.X2 does enforce some odd operational processes, such as the inability to play video out the FireWire port in real time (believe me, the first time you print to tape and see the video on the deck running a second or two behind the video on the computer, it will get your attention). Also, the selection of Matrox-specific real-time transitions is OK, but still fairly limited. I sincerely hope software updates will add to that arsenal- I really miss real-time motion blur.
Capture/editing formats: HDV 1080i, HDV 720p, DV, DVCPRO, DVCAM, MPEG-2 4:2:2 I-frame SD (10-50 mbps), MPEG-2 4:2:2 I-frame HD at 1440 horizontal resolution (50′ 100 mbps), compressed HD for offline (editing only)
Real-time video effects: Includes three-way primary and secondary color correction, super smooth field- or frame-blended slow motion, advanced 3D DVE, chroma/luma keying, dissolves/wipes, shadow, blur/glow/soft focus
Video editing: Adobe Premiere Pro, real-time mixed-format timelines, EDL import and export, AAF export for interoperability with other systems, waveform and vectorscope monitors
Audio editing: Support for multi-channel 5.1 surround sound mixing and monitoring, sub-frame audio editing, sweetening with VST plug-in support
Video input and outputs: Real-time downscaling from HD to SD; DVI-D preview output; 1394, composite, Y/C, analog component (SD); 1394, analog YpbPr component (HD)
Supported editing resolutions: 720 p @ 23.98, 25, 29.97, 50, 59.94; HDV 1080i (1440 x 1080) @ 25, 29.97; NTSC; PAL; 486p @ 23.98