It isn't often we review software that's available only for the Mac, but Final Cut Studio demands that we make an exception. While most people choose their operating system first and applications second, anyone considering spending $1499 on video-editing software is likely to specify their hardware to meet the needs of the software.
As with any video-editing application, Final Cut Studio requires serious hardware and, fortunately, the Mac Pro range delivers it. Prices start at $4499 for a 2.66GHz quad-core Xeon system, while two 2.93GHz quad-core Xeon processors, 8GB of RAM and 2TB of storage costs from $11599, depending on your preferred graphics card and options.
Final Cut Studio comprises six applications. Final Cut Pro 7 handles non-linear editing duties and Motion 4 is a compositing tool. Soundtrack Pro 3 is a multitrack audio editor, Color 1.5 performs sophisticated colour grading, and Compressor 3.5 is a video-encoding utility.
DVD Studio Pro 4 handles DVD authoring, and remains largely unchanged since 2005. It's hard to criticise its DVD-authoring prowess, but the lack of comprehensive Blu-ray authoring in Final Cut Studio is worrying. Apple's reservations about Blu-ray are well documented, but it isn't Apple's place to snub this format on Final Cut Studio users' behalf.
Final Cut Pro
Final Cut Pro's interface has much in common with Adobe Premiere Pro CS4. It packs a lot of information onscreen, but it still looks elegant and friendly.
Most of the operational differences compared to Premiere Pro are subtle. There's little to choose between their video effects libraries, but Final Cut Pro presents its effects, keyframes and Bézier curves all in the same place.
Final Cut Pro already had excellent curve-based tools for precise varispeed playback, but with this latest version it's now possible to drag specific frames in a clip to a point on the timeline, whereupon the playback speed is adjusted as necessary either side of this point.
This level of precision makes Premiere Pro's speed controls seem unwieldy by comparison.
Arguably, the single most important feature in a non-linear editor is its real-time preview performance. Here, Final Cut Pro takes a decisive lead.
This is largely down to Apple's ProRes 422 codecs, which are optimised for Final Cut Pro running on multicore processors. Version 6 included two flavours of ProRes, running at 145Mbits/sec and 220Mbits/sec. While their quality and preview performance is excellent, they put quite a strain on the hard disk.
Version 7 introduces an extended set of ProRes codecs. 422 LT runs at 100Mbits/sec and is barely distinguishable from the 145Mbits/sec version. 422 Proxy drops the bit-rate to 45Mbits/sec and, although it displays some JPEG-like artefacts, it's a useful option.
Its name could be misleading, though, since Final Cut Pro has no provision for proxy editing (whereby the original files are recalled for export) without Final Cut Server, which costs another $1499. ProRes 4444 runs at 330Mbits/sec and delivers lossless HD video with alpha channel support and no chroma subsampling. It's ideal for exchanging sequences between Final Cut Pro and Motion.
422 LT is the codec we'd imagine using most often, and we were astounded by its real-time preview performance. We played back 14 simultaneous 1080p streams on a Mac Pro fitted with two 2.93GHz Xeon processors, with the footage split over two hard disks. Premiere Pro came nowhere near this on the same computer.
Only a few of Final Cut Pro's video filters are multithreaded, though, so applying a single effect created a bottleneck even on a top-spec Mac Pro.
Support for other video formats has its ups and downs. It's well equipped for professional standards such as DVCPRO HD and XDCAM EX, and for certain consumer formats such as AVCHD and HDV.
AVCHD isn't supported natively, but the Log and Transfer function made light work of capturing from an AVCHD camera and converting to ProRes. We weren't able to import AVCHD and HDV files previously captured to a Windows PC, though. This could make migrating from a PC-based editing system tricky.
It can stream the timeline preview to another Mac via iChat, providing an easy way to show works in progress to clients. A Share command lets users define multiple export destinations including YouTube, Apple TV and Blu-ray disc, albeit with limited control over disc menus.
Macs don't come with Blu-ray writer drives, but there's support for external drives plus an option to burn AVCHD discs, which writes Blu-ray-quality video to DVD media.
Motion is very similar to After Effects, specialising in compositing tasks involving multiple elements, such as title sequences. It can generate particle effects and create 3D animations, although only by arranging 2D laminate objects in a 3D space.
Version 4 adds support for shadows, reflections and depth-of-field effects, which make its 3D animations look considerably more convincing. Other new features include improved handling of credit rolls, plus parameter linking between animated objects.
Despite being much more affordable than After Effects, Motion is generally just as capable. It has a cleaner interface that allows users to work on a timeline or a Photoshop-style Layers palette.
Its Behaviours commands for treatments such as random motion or objects that repel one another are just as sophisticated as After Effects' Expressions, but easier to get to grips with.
Motion's keyframe animation tools aren't as elegant as those of After Effects, though. It's frustrating that animations along curved paths are separated into three discrete motion axes; as a result, adjusting the timing of an animation can also alter its path.
There's an excellent library of stock content, including realistic particle presets such as smoke, dust and fire, plus some fantastic animated text effects. There's also a substantial collection of elegant Motion animations available from within Final Cut Pro. These can be dropped directly onto the timeline or sent to Motion for full editing.
This colour-grading application hasn't changed much since Apple bought it in 2006. Before then it cost $5000 as a standalone application, which gives an idea of its sophistication. It isn't particularly inviting, and it's likely that users will prefer to stick with Final Cut Pro's built-in colour-correction tools.
Color goes much further, though, and excels not just at correction but also for creative treatments such as film emulation and day-for-night effects.
Behind the sombre interface, its tools are straightforward, although editing of parameters in the creative effects section is awkward.
Thankfully, there are some attractive presets to get users started, and more available for download. This latest version extends format support and adds the ability to open simple Final Cut Pro sequences. There's still room for improvement, particularly in its interface, but Adobe has nothing to match it.
This multitrack audio editor provides some useful functions beyond what's possible in Final Cut Pro, including a comprehensive mix architecture and a superior suite of audio effects. Its audio-cleaning tools are improved in this version, although its mains hum removal failed to impress.
It also has a new time-stretch tool for changing a clip's length, but not its pitch. It performed large-scale stretches before sound quality significantly deteriorated, but it's a shame this tool isn't available directly on the multitrack timeline.
Another new feature analyses a dialogue recording and matches its volume and spectral tone to other dialogue clips. Apple claims that it can analyse the dialogue while ignoring other sounds, but we found background noise sometimes rendered it useless. Still, there will be many occasions when this feature proves useful.
Most of this encoding utility's functions are accessible without leaving Final Cut Pro, but there are a few reasons to fire it up. One is for processing batches of files.
We found that Compressor's interface became quite lethargic when setting up a batch-conversion job, but it was quicker than processing files individually. It's also possible to create Droplets, which sit on the desktop and convert files dropped onto them based on a particular encoding template.
One really smart feature is the ability to drag QuickTime and various other types of video file to the Settings library, instantly generating an encoding template that matches the file.
Final Cut Studio offers remarkable value. Adobe Premiere Pro costs around $1615 and only covers editing, encoding and disc authoring. That said, Final Cut Studio also has CS4 Production Premium to compete with. For those who can't live without Photoshop or Encore's Blu-ray authoring features, CS4 Premium's $3635 price is reasonable for nine heavyweight applications.
However, professional applications are often chosen on merit rather than value. In this context, Final Cut Pro and Premiere Pro are mostly interchangeable; but for us, Final Cut Pro's superior preview performance is enough to clinch it. Switching operating systems is a big upheaval, but this software makes a convincing argument for doing so.