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Apple's New Final Cut Studio Offers Workflow, Output Improvements

Apple released the new Final Cut Studio today; what’s in it for streaming producers? Some nice workflow improvements, especially for producers of short-form content; for producers of long-form content, though, objects in the mirror may not be as close as they appear. More on that below. In terms of more mainstream uses, the big news includes Blu-ray output from within Final Cut Pro and Compressor, three new versions of ProRes, and general improvements to all suite components save DVD Studio Pro.

For the record, Apple dropped the price of the suite $300 to $999, and you can upgrade from any previous version of Final Cut Pro or Final Cut Studio for $299. As with the last version of Final Cut Studio, none of the programs are available standalone; it’s all or nothing.

Sharing from the Timeline
From an interface perspective, none of the applications changed all that much, including Compressor. The big workflow news is that you can now export directly from a Final Cut Pro sequence via a new Share command, taking Compressor out of the picture. Operationally, once you finish editing a sequence, you choose File > Share and the window shown in Figure 1 opens. There, you can choose from a number of device and output specific templates like those shown, plus Blu-ray, or any Compressor setting. Unlike when you export to Compressor, once you Share the files, Final Cut Pro is immediately free for additional editing. For many producers, this obviates the need for the QuickTime reference movies to Compressor workflow, which is definitely a nice convenience and potentially a significant time saver.

Final Cut Share Command
Figure 1. Final Cut Pro's new Share command.

So what up with my "objects in the mirror" comment? If you use the Share approach, you can’t send the job to a single computer QMaster cluster—you have to encode using a single core. While you can share encoding jobs among multiple computers on a network, if you have an eight core system configured into a Qmaster cluster, you’re still limited to a single CPU. Why?

As the Apple Final Cut Pro product manager explained, Qmaster works by opening up multiple instances of the program it’s accelerating, whether Compressor or Shake, and assigning cores to each instance. Unfortunately, Final Cut Pro, which performs the encoding when you execute via the Share command, doesn’t support multiple instances on the same computer. The interface is a bit confusing, since if you have a single system cluster set up on your system, you can choose it within the Share interface, as you can see on the bottom right in Figure 1. If you choose that cluster, however, most of your encodings will fail as mine did until I asked Apple about the problem and stopped trying.

How big a deal is this? Obviously, if you’re scratching your head and asking "what the heck is QMaster?" it’s not a big deal at all. If you produce lots of projects in the 1-3 minute range, it’s also probably not a big deal, since encoding is relatively fast irrespective of whether you involve single or multiple cores. On the other hand, if you rely on Qmaster for faster encoding of longer jobs, particularly to H.264, you may find the old QuickTime Reference file to Compressor workflow faster.

For the record, I should state the Apple’s acceptance of the importance of Blu-ray didn’t spill over to Windows Media or VP6; Compressor still doesn’t support either format, nor can it produce H.264 files with an F4V extension.

Other Enhancements
Qmaster issues aside, Apple’s new templates for YouTube and MobileMe are definite workflow improvements if you publish a lot of content to these services. As far as I know, Apple is the first professional editor to publish directly to YouTube and while many consumer editors support YouTube directly, virtually all create only the legacy, dog-ugly, lo-res version. The Apple version will scale with your video footage but supports up to 720p, which if you haven’t seen YouTube’s output at the format, is absolutely stunning. MobileMe is another nice bonus.

The new version also brings Job Actions to Compressor, or support for specific destinations of encoded files (Figure 2). Not surprisingly, these include many of the same actions as are in the Templates, but they’re easier to apply to specific jobs. For example, if you’d like to send a file to YouTube in less than 720p parameters, you can produce the file at the desired resolution, and then trigger the upload.

Compressor Job Actions
Figure 2. Compressor's new Job Actions.

Apple also beefed up Compressor’s Droplet functionality. As you may know, Droplets are desktop icons that start encoding any file drag and dropped upon them. In previous versions of Compressor, you couldn’t easily configure droplets once created; now you can open them up and choose any Compressor setting or template.

Finally, Apple added the convenient ability to auto-detect settings from a previously encoded file and convert that information into an encoding setting. For example, if a client sent you a previously encoded H.264 file and asked you to duplicate the parameters, you could simply drag it into the Custom folder in your Settings window. Compressor then analyzes the file and creates the setting. In my tests, Compressor did a nice job picking up most encoding settings like resolution, data rate, codec and the like, but didn’t accurately duplicate minutiae like key frame settings, and VBR vs. CBR bitrate control. The new template is a great starting point, but you should review the settings before rolling it into production.

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