Despite some competition from Avid, the gap left by Adobe’s hiatus from video editing on the Mac platform has allowed Final Cut to flourish. Few would argue it is currently the dominant program for Mac-based video editing.

What started as a single video editing program: Final Cut Pro, is now part of one of the largest video production bundles available: Final Cut Studio.

The Final Cut Studio package offers an incredible bundle of applications for the asking price; able to take users of all aspirations from raw footage, all the way to delivery on literally any platform needed (film, HD, DVD, DV, web etc). However, that was already the case in version 1 of the suite. So what is version 2 bringing to the party? For starters, a very protracted install!

On Apple’s latest 17" MacBook Pro, to install all applications from scratch took an eye-watering four hours. There are three further issues. New Macs currently ship with QuickTime 7.1.5. Meanwhile, Final Cut Studio requires 7.1.6 and despite eight install DVDs a QuickTime upgrader was nowhere to be found.

Furthermore, after install, all the applications need upgrading to version 1.0 – another 200MB download. In summary, make sure you clear an afternoon before upgrading!

The final point of note regarding installation is that, unlike previous upgrades, the new program versions replace their older counterparts. We’ll take a look at each of suites applications in turn: Final Cut Pro 6, Motion 3, Soundtrack Pro 2, Color, Compressor 3 and DVD Studio Pro 4. We’ll give particular emphasis to the hub of the suite, Final Cut Pro 6.

Final Cut Pro 6

The program appears almost identical to version 5. There are no obvious interface changes. Given the advances in the other programs of the suite (detailed below) we feel this is a missed opportunity. Given the success of Final Cut Pro, it is easy to understand Apple’s reluctance to change the interface too radically.

However, simple features such as Premiere Pro’s adjustable interface brightness would be a welcome addition. There are more missed opportunities – the ability to automatically hide the Dock when Final Cut is launched and the ability to scrub through clips in the Browser using J, K and L keys rather than using the mouse. This last point being particularly annoying as we have highlighted that shortcoming since version 4!

Perhaps the biggest surprise in this version of Final Cut is the distinct lack of change. The ‘what’s new’ list is, to be brutally honest, a little uninspiring: Open Timeline, ProRes 422, SmoothCam, Improved Audio and Simplified Setups are, surprisingly, the biggest changes. The only other change of note is colour correction, now primarily handled in a new application, Color.

In practice, the new features are largely unremarkable. For example, the success of much-touted new features, such as the Open Format Timeline are largely system dependent. While true that you can drag and drop multi-format material to the timeline, for the most part, there is still some background rendering delay before it will play back smoothly.

Similarly, while Cinema Tools has received an update and Apple has introduced ProRes 422 for HD footage, these additions are of little interest to all but professionals. Sadly, SmoothCam, a welcome tool from Shake that minimises shaky camera work, requires hefty hardware to get anything other than a snail’s pace out of it.

Although undocumented, we presume that this version of Final Cut now uses Apple’s Core Video (as Motion does) to handle rendering. This would explain why machines with integrated video (eg Mac Minis) seem to fair so badly, performance-wise.

The initial feeling when examining Final Cut Pro 6 is one of disappointment. As previous new versions gave us jaw-dropping new features, such as real-time effects, this version is very pedestrian. It also fails to correct any of our long-standing interface niggles.

If you don’t have a powerful Mac and you primarily use Final Cut Pro (and few other programs in the suite) we would recommend you stick with version 5. There just aren’t any compelling features to command an upgrade. Thankfully, this isn’t the case with the rest of the suites applications…

Motion 3

The update of Motion is far more significant than that of Final Cut Pro. Where Final Cut Pro’s interface is starting to feel formulaic, Motion’s feels at once intuitive and cutting edge. The HUD, a semi-transparent interface, works contextually and varies its content based upon the currently selected object. It’s a great tool and should be implemented in more of the Studio applications.

Motion 3 is packed with new features – too many to cover in depth. Stand-out additions include the new Paint tool, which even allows the use of a Stylus to alter a strokes width and angle based upon input You need all the memory your Mac can holdto get the most of it.

Distinct advances have been made in this version. Motion 3 is an incredibly powerful application, thankfully kept as intuitive as possible. The workspace of Motion 3 is a real joy. It is at once conducive to experimentation, giving the user instant real-time results. This is a great application that is sure to improve further still in future versions.

Soundtrack Pro 2

Soundtrack Pro 2 is very similar, aesthetically, to DVD Studio Pro. With such a dynamic interface it further begs the question as to why some of the great interface tools of Soundtrack Pro 2 have failed to make an appearance in Final Cut Pro. Examples include the ability to open the tools at your current mouse point by pressing the tilde key. 

We also prefer the way Soundtrack allows the addition of fades on clips. Simply click and drag the top corners of the selected item to select a transition method. A transparent HUD, similar to the one used in Motion 3, then opens, allowing you to change the transition curve.

Another little touch worthy of praise is the Actions tab. It shows every action performed on a clip with a simple tick box by each.Un-ticking any action undoes it. Again, a tool that could arguably be implemented in other Studio applications.

Soundtrack Pro 2 ships with hundreds of royalty-free effects that can now be easily manipulated in 5.1 surround sound by using the HUD surround-sound window. Besides manually setting sound locations you can also change directions of effects on the fly, while Soundtrack records when and where you made the changes. Getting a sound effectto fade from one speaker to another can be accomplished in seconds. Another great application further refined in this release.

Compressor 3

Continuing the feel of refinement evident throughout Studio 2, Compressor 3 enjoys a more streamlined interface, which for the most part, is a success over its predecessor. However, as with Final Cut Pro, this version fails to implement a few simple, yet much needed tweaks. 

For example, when specifying an FTP address for file upload, there is no ‘test’ settings button to ensure the path and log-in details supplied are correct. The first a user knows of a problem is when the Batch window reports a failure – extremely irritating. 

Similarly frustrating is that when you click on a section of the interface when switching from another application, only part of the Compressor interface appears. You then have to navigate to the Compressor’s menu bar and choose Window>Bring All To Front, a glaring oversight. 

Despite this, Compressor remains an extremely efficient and powerful media encoder. It still doesn’t have the polish and simplicity of something like Sorenson’s Squeeze but it negates buying a separate media encoder application.

Color

Big news in Studio 2 is Color. This completely new application handles the process of colour correction with extreme sophistication. The interface is quite different from the other applications by looking intentionally sombre. It’s a resource-hungry program and can chug along on anything not up to specification. Not got 128MB of video memory? Time for an upgrade.

Workflow is relatively simple. Once a project is completed in FCP, use the Send To command to open it in Color. The entire project opens in Color and seven tabs (Rooms in Color terminology), representing stages within the correction process run along the top of the interface. Color allows correctionto be as straightforward or as detailed as necessary. 

For example, Bleach By-pass, Film Look, Film Grain are presets, which already exist within the Color FX Room to allow fast and functional transformations. These presets can be amended as new presets and used later. 

Color is also the only other application in the suite besides Final Cut Pro to benefit from a printed manual. There are some known issues with Color, documented on the Apple site, however we expect theseto be resolved shortly. 

It can also only handle resolutions of up to 2K, so anyone lucky enough to be working with such footage should look elsewhere. For everyone else,this is an excellent addition to the suite. Its capabilities make it worth the Suite’s asking price on its own.

DVD Studio Pro 4

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That seems to be Apple’s maxim for DVD Studio Pro 4. The interface and workflow is near identical to the previous version. While version 3 was short on problems, some shortfalls from that version have remained ignored by Apple, notably importing projects from iDVD and encoding support for DTS surround sound.

This time out, the package does have some provision for HD DVD creation. Realistically however, until a significant user base of consumer HD players exists, the necessity of this function is limited. However, quite usefully, you can create a project with HD content and encode to standard definition DVD in the interim and then have the project ready to burn to HD DVD when the need arises.

Encoding for DVD Studio Pro is taken care of with Compressor so if you are considering the program for your DVD production, ensure you are happy with Compressor 3 as thereis no direct support for third-party encoders.

Casual DVD creators won’t find any more simplicity or must have features here over version 3. However, version 4 does offer some interesting refinements, especially for the creation of interactive DVDs. It also provides some future proofing for users working with HD formats. Not a quantum leap over version 3, but it remains an exceptional DVD-authoring tool regardless.

Conclusion

As a complete package, Final Cut Studio 2 offers mind-blowing scope for creativity. Interestingly in this release, the associated applications, while not always reaching Final Cut Pro’s level of maturity, often supersede it, in terms of user interface. 

Using many of the other less familiar applications for prolonged periods raises the same question time and again, ‘Why haven’t they got that in Final Cut Pro?’ The versatility of the core application is unquestionable and it remains at the top of the NLE software pile, regardless of platform. 

However, we hope Apple invests a little more creativity in Final Cut Pro’s interface next time around. The transparent HUD of Motion and Soundtrack reveal potential for countless time-saving possibilities and as such it makes this upgrade of Final Cut Pro quite disappointing.

If we were reviewing Final Cut Pro alone, our advice for DV readers would be to save their money unless a specific feature of version 6 was essential. However, anyone who currently spends any time using the other applications or looking for a complete postproduction package should not hesitate in ordering Final Cut Studio 2.

It offers unrivalled power, scope and value and enjoys more industry support than ever before.