Adobe Premiere Pro and Apple Final Cut Pro dominate the enthusiast video-production market, but Sony Vegas Pro has become a credible alternative. It started life as an audio-only application and grew into an esoteric video editor with some unique strengths.
Audio editing remains a highlight
The volume is adjusted and audio effects are applied at three locations: per clip, per track, and at the master output. It's also possible to apply independent volume envelopes to tracks, and to fade clips in and out. This might seem like overkill, but it allows the user to tackle problems at source.
New to this version is a Mixing Console view that presents audio track parameters in a way that will feel familiar to musicians. Adobe and Apple offer separate audio-editing apps, but Vegas Pro has little need for one.
Another strength is its streamlined interface. The timeline is quick to navigate and key functions are rationalised to a small set of mouse clicks and keyboard commands. In response to user input taking priority, the preview window and timeline thumbnails refresh without delay.
Preview of footage
The preview monitor isn't so quick to respond. As with any editing software, Vegas Pro has its work cut out handling HD resolutions and demanding video codecs. It supports Vista 64-bit, which is a sensible option for anyone planning to manipulate multiple HD streams. The RAM limitations of 32-bit Windows meant that it ran out of memory when we tried to render complex timelines with multiple AVCHD clips, high-resolution images and lots of effects.
Other tweaks aim to improve preview performance, such as an option to automatically adjust preview quality for smooth playback. It's a smart idea, but we found the frequent switch in quality was just as distracting as the dropped frames it aims to avoid. A better solution for AVCHD footage is to convert it to a less demanding format, but a batch converter tool isn't included.
The Production Assistant plugin serves that purpose alongside other useful tricks, but at US$170 it isn't cheap.
There's a good helping of new creative features. Glint, Rays and Starburst are sophisticated lighting effects that work well in both subtle and more eye-catching roles. Defocus emulates soft focus of a lens, and can blow out highlights and adjust the shape of its virtual aperture blades. The Fill Light effect lifts the brightness of shadows to reveal hidden details.
And then there's Soft Contrast, which combines contrast manipulation with diffusion, colour tints, vignette and soft corner focus to produce excellent film-emulation effects. It can't match the dramatic results of the Magic Bullet Movie Looks HD plugin that was included with previous versions of Vegas Pro, but in return it jettisons Movie Looks' limitation to predefined templates, with full control over settings.
New features to Pro
Most of the remaining new features comprise compatibility and workflow improvements. Vegas Pro now supports video resolutions up to 4096 x 4096, gigapixel images and native editing of XDCAM EX and RED footage.
Get it straight to YouTube
Updated YouTube export templates take advantage of the site's recent move to 720p. The accompanying DVD Architect application is unchanged, but that's fair considering Vegas Pro 8 users recently received a free update to DVD Architect 5.
There are areas where Vegas Pro still needs some work. One is the lack of Beziér curves for keyframe automation. Vegas Pro's Event Pan/Crop tool moves only in straight lines and offers little control over velocity, so animations can look clunky. It's particularly frustrating because Beziér curves are available in the excellent ProType Titler editor.
The other missing feature is individual keyframe tracks for each parameter. Again, only the titles designer includes this feature. When animating an image or adjusting effects settings, adding keyframes to one parameter litters others with multiple static keyframe values, making further changes cumbersome.
We also experienced a bug whereby manipulating the Mask and Position settings of a clip in HD projects produced unpredictable results.
Despite these reservations, Vegas Pro is impressive. If complex animations aren't a priority and you don't have $3000 to take advantage of the tight integration of apps in Adobe CS4 Production Premium, Vegas Pro's audio-editing prowess, excellent titles, powerful effects and, above all, its swiftness of operation may be enough to clinch the deal.