It looks like it’s almost time for another round of updates for Avid and their Media Composer product. In addition to the MC these feature updates also apply to Avid Symphony (to v3.5) and NewsCutter (to v7.5). And it looks like these updates are going to be good ones. It was just last year at NAB 08, an NAB where they didn’t have a presence on the show floor but rather offsite, that Avid introduced what many of use who use Media Composer see as by far the best version of the product: version 3.0. It wasn’t full of flashy new fonts and eye candy and didn’t really add any revolutionary new things to Media Composer. Okay, Avid FX on the Mac was new and the realtime implementations of the timecode burn-in and the subcap tool are very nice but the real advancement in Media Composer 3.0 was speed and stability. I think what Avid delivered last year was an application that just worked. And it made editors more productive. What more could an editor ask for? Turns out, quite a lot …

Editors can never be satisfied. We are a picky and oftentimes bitchy bunch. We like footage to be well shot with good audio and tapes to be labeled. We want stuff on time and to be able to have our own time to create before being stuck with the agency or director who will just screw it all up! And man … do we ever complain about our software. A lot. It’s got to be fast and stable and has to continue to move forward and make our jobs easier and more efficient. In return we can be more creative. We look at upgrades and new versions of our main software suites with both excitement and trepidation. They better be good but they better not break things or slow us down. New versions of software isn’t nearly as glamorous as new cameras so we have to toil away, discussing amongst ourselves and deciding if these new versions get it right or wrong. Upgrades are often feature specific but that certain feature may make or break a particular version of software.

That brings us to Avid Media Composer 3.5. I haven’t played with this new version of Avid Media Composer 3.5. I’m just looking at the specs and press release and discussion on this update it but from that it appears that it will combine both the revolutionary new feature along with some big evolutionary steps forward.

The revolution comes in what is called the “Avid Media Access Architecture” or AMA for short. It’s a way of (better) supporting tapeless media. Imagine shooting on P2 or XDCAM media (they are the first ones supported), plugging that media directly into your Avid and having that media just pop-up right in an Avid bin with all metadata intact; no importing, transcoding, copying or thinking required. You can edit away with that media still in its original place or choose to move it to your media drive. In the case of XDCAM you can do all of this directly from the disc and then “render, mixdown, export sequences and clips with 8 audio tracks, and write back with sequence timecode.” This kind of looks to be similar to the already existing Import P2 > Clips to Bin functionality in MC but according to Avid you don’t even have to perform a menu command since the media just populates a bin without doing anything. And it seems to do all this without any transcoding to anything else. That would be the true “native” support. This type of speed has to be particularly compelling to news organizations. But what may make AMA really revolutionary is the fact that this is called a “plug-in” type of architecture. Avid doesn’t mention the term plug-in in the press release I saw but it has been described this way. To me, plug-in means someone can write something to plug in to the AMA architecture. Does this mean third parties can write a plug-in and have Avid support that media natively or does Avid have to add this support (RED .R3D and a number of QuickTime codecs comes to mind)? The answer to that question remains to be seen and Avid has been vague in their answers since they don’t comment on future product developments but the idea behind AMA is very promising. And the thought that you can have such easy access to footage for edit combined with Avid’s legendary media management capability makes this editor’s mouth water! It could revolutionize a lot of workflows.

The other revolution is that MC 3.5 adds support for stereoscopic 3D editing. While the majority of us probably don’t edit 3D movies the addition of this capability on the industry standard editor has to be welcome to those that do. From what I understand (and according to the press release), with this implementation of stereoscopic support you can actually monitor in 3D if you have the proper monitoring equipment without the need to conform an edit on another system. That sounds like it could be a real time and money saver!

Most everything else is evolutionary. First and foremost is the much maligned Avid hardware dongle! It’s evolving into nonexistence. That’s right, for the first time ever Avid Media Composer will be dongle free! No more worry about losing, breaking or having the little purple dangly thing stolen. But before you get wild eyed about installing MC Soft on every computer you can think of, it will require activation. That can happen via the Internet automatically or manually or by telephone if you don’t have an Internet connection. Yep, that’s a bit more involved than a Final Cut Pro install where you just type in a serial # but Avid doesn’t have Mac and iPhone sales to support their bottom line. They have to make money on this stuff. But another big upside to this dongle free Avid is there will now be a 14-day, fully functional,  downloadable demo of Media Composer available. Come to think about it that may actually be revolutionary. There will be no excuse for not giving Avid Media Composer a try. Yes there will be those Final Cut Pro only editors who download the MC Soft demo, are completely lost and then complain loudly that FCP is better and Avid is hobbled by its interface. We will just ignore those and focus on the new editors coming into the fold who will be able to give Media Composer a try for the first time. If a new editor can experience the Avid Trim Tool working in all its glory then they will see what they are missing when they are away.

Other evolutionary steps include keyframable color correction, effects improvements like GPU acceleration, advances in keyframing, and better audio controls. Pro Tools users will be happy to see that they can have Media Composer and Pro Tools existing happily on the same system with the added ability for Pro Tools to control a Media Composer timeline for a mixing reference. No more QuickTime exports to the same system. At least that’s the way I understood it … and it really seems cool.

What this really says to me is that Avid is listening to customers. It was nearly a year ago when Avid started its New Thinking and gave some good hope for its future. Avid’s CEO sent out an open letter to the community in July of last year and mentioned a few specific points:

Build competitive tools with differentiated performance, at the right price;

The price of Media Composer Software was reduced, student versions are as affordable as ever and soon there will be a downloadable demo. While there will always be complaints about Avid’s higher cost vs. Final Cut Pro (just looking at hardware costs still makes many potential buyers cringe) Avid has moved in the right direction, reducing costs for entry into the Avid world.

Translate customer feedback into flexible, reliable, high-quality solutions;

Customer feedback resulted in the stable and fast Media Composer version 3.0 and now in the elimination of the dongle and advancing the support for new tapeless workflows in version 3.5. Oh, and 3D editing!

Become more “open,” offering greater interoperability between Avid systems and third-party products;

This openness can be read a couple of ways. The company itself is more open and this can be seen on the Chat with Avid threads on the Avid community forums as well as quarterly Q&As. The Media Composer / Pro Tools integration certainly makes those systems way more interoperable. The AMA “plug-in” architecture seems to be new openness toward outside vendors. The third-party hardware support is a hotly debated topic so we will just have to see where that discussion takes us. And aren’t people doing a lot with this RED camera thingy?

Refresh our product lines more frequently; and

Last year around this time (read … NAB) we got Media Composer 3.0. Less than a year later we get the announcement of Media Composer 3.5 with some substantial upgrades to the package. If this ships before NAB 09 and with Avid being back on the NAB show floor maybe that means even more product updates. Hardware and Avid DS suggestions anyone?

Better leverage the innovation from all areas within the company to advance the market competitiveness of our offerings.

I’m not sure exactly what that one means but with Media Composer, Symphony, DS, Pro Tools and the Unity systems all working in tandem in a post-production pipeline then you have a reliable, solid path to get it all done. That’s why even in a world of cheap Final Cut Pro solutions you still have a hell-of-a-lot-of Avid installs out there getting your movies and television shows to the theatre and the air. Marketshare debate be damned!