Here we sit just a few short weeks from NAB, right after another upgrade to Avid Media Composer and possibly on the verge of what might be the biggest Final Cut Pro upgrade ever. Add to that what will probably be another NAB upgrade to Adobe Premiere Pro and I think it’s safe to say that the three A’s are all thinking hard about and working hard on improving that workhorse of post-production, the nonlinear editing application.

Still, I often wonder if it might be time to rethink the NLE. Not in terms of interface design, features or even basic operation but in the way it is packaged. The NLE is really the central hub for post-production of  a film/video project. Most everything you see onscreen comes through an NLE at some point or another. Today’s modern NLEs are such capable tools that often programs ONLY go through a single NLE and nothing else during their time in post-production.

But that’s not always the case. What if there was a tool available that was truly a modular post-production application that allowed the editor to only purchase the individual parts that he/she needed for a particular job? If we’re talking truly modular then these different parts could even be rented for a predefined block of time at a reasonable cost. A modular application would have to be reasonable in cost overall as something like Final Cut Studio (and the Adobe Creative Suite) has its own reasonable cost already and provides very different, very powerful applications for the different parts of the post process. But those parts of the creative software suite are applications that require a lot of time and training to master. There are a lot of editors who don’t ever touch Soundtrack Pro but they mix in Final Cut Pro; they also never send an edit to Color but instead color correct with the FCP Three-Way Color Corrector.

There are certain segments of the market that might benefit from a modular NLE. For a very reasonable price (maybe just a couple hundred dollars from the Mac App store) you might buy only the basic editing functionality. There are cuts and dissolves, basic level controls for audio, a simple titler and not much else. It’s a fast and efficient interface that allows for the most distraction-free and creative storytelling part of the edit. The ability to export EDLs, AAFs, XMLs and OMFs is important in this module, as most likely the job will be finished elsewhere. To keep the cost down, the many varied codecs modern NLEs have to support would be kept to a minimum. Maybe you buy a single codec of choice and then affordably add more as the need arises. This type of cheap, stripped-down editor, for example, could support a networked environment where you have a lot of storytelling stations and just a few finishing stations.

The other big pieces of a modular editing application would be the usual suspects: an audio module that added multitrack effects and keyframable levels; an effects module where all the flashy third-party plug-ins could live, where composting could take place and nesting would be allowed; a color module where advanced color correction and color grading was done near the end of the process; and maybe even an advanced output module that allows for laying back to tape.

As I thought about this idea I realized that we actually do have something like all this right now with the studio suites. But, as I mentioned above, these suites use totally different, totally formed applications with different interfaces, different in-and-out workflows and each require some very different learning curves. Many editors know how to use the audio tools of their NLE but don’t know Adobe Audition. Likewise, many know the basic three-way color correction but don’t know Apple Color. This more modular approach, I think, would encourage a more feature-rich audio module within the application while keeping the cost (and the learning curve) down for those that would never use a dedicated audio application.

My second thought, of course, was to acknowledge the existing “lite” versions of NLEs already on the market. Final Cut Express and Premiere Elements (as well as the now defunct Avid Xpress DV) already offer somewhat “dumbed-down” versions of their big brother applications at a cheaper price. The problem with this concept is these lite versions are often too dumbed down and editors must eventually upgrade to the bigger application or suite (which I’m sure the manufacturer intended) or scream for more features to be added to the lite version (which is what happened when Avid Xpress DV gave way to Avid Xpress Pro).

Offering a truly modular version of a full featured NLE would negate the need for an entry-level tool. If you need audio tools above basic-level controls, then you need full audio features like a good compressor, EQ and noise reduction. If you’re going to do more than just brighten a shot for the creatives to see, you probably need more advanced lift/gamma/gain controls to really dial a look in.

If you’re working in a basic, creative storytelling world, why pay for all these extra features and load a computer down with multiple gigs of music and effects if you’ll never need them? Why even have to wade through an interface that offers up many advanced tabs, windows and options when all you need to do is make basic cuts in a very efficient manor? And why should someone (or some company) have to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for full editing suite seats when what many of those seats simply need is the most basic storytelling ability?

Would a modular NLE have a limited niche? As we sit in a world where there are more and more places to watch content and more and more ways to acquire the raw footage, it stands to reason that more and more people will want and need to have access to basic video editing tools. Add to this our particular time in post-production when there are more options to simply rent some of the software tools we use in post. This rental idea is a new one for many. Maybe a modular, nonlinear editing application that could be tailored to your exact post-production need is a tool whose time has come. It’s an idea worth thinking about.