When talking software I think of new versions in two ways: updates and upgrades. Updates are more like the smaller “dot” releases that take a piece of software from version 2.0 to 2.0.1 or 2.1. Then there’s upgrades that move a full version from 2.0 to 3.0. Somewhere in between there’s upgradey-updates that move from, say, 5.0 to 5.5. Plus there’s the determining factor of what major features are added. The more and bigger they are, the more likely the release can be thought of as an upgrade. Finally there’s price. If you’re having to pay some good money for it, then it better be an upgrade.

This week saw an announcement from Avid that Media Composer was getting another upgrade to take what was the major release of 5.0 to 5.5. There’s a pretty big jump in the version number with quite a few features added as well as a cost to make that upgrade.

Here’s the feature list from the Avid website:

  • Capture, monitor, and output with AJA Io Express
  • Edit HDCAM SR Lite footage natively
  • Accelerate AVC-Intra workflows with Nitris DX AVC-Intra
  • Speed up editing and mixing with the Artist Series
  • Find the right clips fast with PhraseFind
  • Directly tweak transitions with the Smart Tool
  • Gain better search capabilities
  • Fuel your creativity with the Production Suite

There’s some really cool stuff in there but a few of the bullet points will require cash to be spent above the upgrade pricing.

It’s great to see AJA support for the Io Express. It costs a bit more than the base Matrox MXO2 Mini ($695 at B&H Photo) but it will allow both capture and output (as well as monitoring) for the first time ever using non-Avid hardware. This is quite the big deal for those of us who are longtime Avid users as there was a time when I don’t think anyone would have ever guessed this as possible. But it continues Avid’s commitment to openness. It’s no Kona support, but it is something. Too bad the Io Express isn’t a bit more of an attractive design — you might find yourself hiding it somewhere.

The other big piece of this upgrade is Avid’s new PhraseFind. This uses the phonetic indexing technology from Nexidia that Avid has used for quite a while in the very handy ScriptSync option. Instead of lining a script like ScriptSync does, PhraseFind “automatically analyzes clips and indexes all dialog in your project’s media phonetically, so you can quickly find clips by simply typing a word or phrase—right from within your software.” If this sounds like Get for Final Cut Pro then you’re on the right track as it is very similar. Get uses the same technology to work its magic. I’ve used Get quite a bit (and wrote a review of it here) and it is extremely handy on the right job. I haven’t used PhraseFind but it looks like it will be very similar. A plus of PhraseFind is that it will be integrated right into Media Composer as it’s not an external piece of software. But it will cost extra and according to the press release it will be a $495 add-on option.

That extra cost to get one of the biggest features of the 5.5 upgrade won’t sit well with some, but since Avid has to license the technology to make it work I guess those licensing fees have to come from somewhere (speaking of upgrade costs the only mention that I’ve seen is on this Avid forum post). There was a kerfuffle last summer when Avid began selling ScriptSync as a separate plug-in option for $995 when it had been included in the Media Composer price forever. Avid explained their position and while many of us were still disappointed (it has come in very handy on several jobs and Avid even asked to quote me from a blog post that I wrote about how it saved my bacon one day) I have to say it’s probably not the easiest thing in the world to negotiate licensing deals for things like that. Thankfully PhraseFind will cost half the price of ScriptSync and we’ll be able to add the addition of other language packs for $149. That’s comparable with Get which is $499. I think PhraseFind will be a more useful tool overall for many more editors than ScriptSync since it’s integrated into the software as an extension of “better search capabilities” in version 5.5. It could become a must-have feature for many editors once they use it. But that begs a question of how editors who are already using MC 5.0 will get a taste PhraseFind I haven’t seen if there will be some type of PhraseFind demo available for those editors but it would be nice if there was as just using this type of technology on a big project can really sell you on its usefulness. At least it did for me with Get.

It’s also worth noting what was missing out of this release. The thing everyone is still asking for is still more 3rd party hardware support, often for the AJA Kona cards. I was able to express my desire for Kona support directly to Avid myself so let’s hope that is in the plan for the future. I can’t imagine that it’s not and now supporting the Io Express means there is a relationship that has been established between Media Composer and AJA. The companies themselves have had a relationship for some time since AJA hardware powers the Avid DS. I don’t know if the lack of Kona support for Media Composer is technical, political or financial. But since Avid makes money off of their hardware sales I can’t imagine it’s easy to figure out how to transition that business model but that’s what MBAs are for I suppose. The easiest thing to say is they they’ll sell way more $2,500 Media Composer packages to make up for it but I bet that’s easier said than done to make it all work out in the bottom line.

I’ve also seen comments that some people expected another price drop for Media Composer. At the current $2,500 I don’t think it will come down any more. But is $2,500 really too expensive for a tool that you’ll be earning a living from? It is too much for the hobbiest and the starving-video-artist but I don’t think that’s the market Avid has ever been after with Media Composer. The announcement of the PC-only Avid Studio is meant to serve that market. But if you’re managing hundreds of hours of media and dozens of projects Avid can do that without batting an eye. And if you’re a student you can get Media Composer for $295 with a full four years of free upgrades. That’s probably the best kept secret that Avid currently has.

There was also no mention of some specific under-the-hood AMA improvements. There some AMA codec updates in the release and Michael Kammes does a good job going over that on his blog but I hope to see the ability to export AAF files from AMA linked media. My bet is that hasn’t happened or it would have been mentioned in the press materials.

There also doesn’t seem to be any update to Avid’s plug-in architecture. I firmly believe that if Avid wants to sell installs into the lower-end corporate-type market they need to have more 3rd party plug-in developers writing more affordable plug-ins for Media Composer. Some developers say they still see a limited market for Avid (compared to Final Cut Pro), some say they can’t easily port their tool to Media Composer due to technical limitations but whatever the reason I think more 3rd party plug-ins will help sell the product to new users, be they fancy effects or a better way to interchange with the application via developer friendly XML. Any improvement would be a step forward.

And what about Media Composer’s color-correction capabilities? Avid’s color-correction was once state-of-the-art, but when comparing with things like Apple Color, DaVinci Resolve and Magic Bullet Colorista II it really feels dated. Since Avid now owns the Euphonix MC Color it really seems like Media Composer’s color correction is in need of an overhaul. Sure, you can send your edit right over to Resolve, but that’s not possible for most. And we can’t even add Colorista II to Media Composer (though we could Colorista I) since Avid’s plug-in architecture doesn’t support Colorista II’s custom control interface.

I’ve probably said something like this before but, more than anything, the 5.5 upgrade shows that Avid is still working hard on keeping Media Composer at or near the top of the NLE heap and listening to customer feedback. This blog post on Avid’s website addresses just that. I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of an Avid customer advisory board for just over a year now and I agree that they are listening to that customer feedback. I mention this as a full disclaimer that I do know more about the workings of Avid overall than I do Apple or Adobe, but this board gets no compensation and it is strictly a volunteer-type basis (though I didn’t ask to be part of the group) and that I have to take time out from my work and family to be a part of it. There’s several of these type of advisory groups and it shows that Avid is actively listening to lots of different types of customers. I’ve also probably said this before as well but as an editor who feeds his family with these tools it’s this kind of commitment to the product that gives me confidence moving into the future. I like knowing my tools are continuing to be improved and updated. I like a tease and advanced product announcements so I can know what to expect and how to plan for upgrades. Avid and Adobe are both great at that. Apple isn’t. Before the Apple fanboys pounce, I don’t care about Apple’s corporate culture. All I care about is knowing the products I use to make a living will continue to be improved and updated. With Final Cut Pro we might see an upgrade at NAB, we might see one at NAB 2012 … we might see one next Thursday. It’s hard to put confidence in that. And it’s getting very tiresome to say oh the next FCP release is the one I’m waiting on, it’ll be awesome. Maybe, but what’s awesome for my work right now is Media Composer and I’m confident in its track record from version 3.0 to 5.0 that it’s going to continue getting better.  And it is with the upcoming 5.5.

Media Composer isn’t perfect (but neither is Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere Pro) but it really seems that Avid is listening to its users and addressing feedback like never before. With something like 5 Media Composer updates over the last few years, someone is working hard over there.