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Avid Beware...

by Craig Tollis

One of the main selling points of the Avid system used to be its robustness and reliability. Avid users were willing to pay a premium, and frequently use older, more extensively tested equipment, because of the importance of predictable performance in a professional environment. Recently, however, Avid has been dropping their virtual, software-based ball.

I won't go into details on some of the annoyances I've struck in professional situations with recent and current versions of both Avid's software and hardware systems like Media Composer, Xpress Pro and Mojo. I will, however, share my particular irritation this morning at capturing 43-minutes of footage from a mini-DV tape only to be told, at the end, "audio sample rate does not match project sample rate. Change project sample rate and recapture." Even assuming this is a valid technical problem (shouldn't we be able to handle mixed sample rates at this point?) what possible logic was there in having me wait through the entire 43-minute capture to tell me it was no good?

This kind of functional sloppiness was unheard of in Avid systems of a few years ago. Yes, there were always quirks and work-arounds to access the most recent or obscure features, but in general Avid's stability and reliability was legendary - it had to be, because the system competed head to head with expensive proprietary broadcast hardware that, plain and simple, just worked. Even though the main industry rival is now Apple's Final Cut Pro, bizarre time-wasting foul-ups still aren't justifiable.

Even before this morning's technical torment I'd planned to purchase Apple's Final Cut Studio 2 and give it a side-by-side run against Avid Xpress Pro 5.7. Problems like that capture error - which I consider unacceptable in any system with the word "pro" in the name - don't bode well for Avid's cause.

In any case, Final Cut Pro has really jumped ahead in its last couple of versions, while Avid has struggled to add features here and there and fix what bugs and problems it can. For example, take Live Type, FCP's bundled title and fonting tool. Live Type is just basically easy to use: you can whip up broadcast quality text animations in a few minutes, and tweak them to your liking. Avid's Marquee is theoretically more powerful, but Marquee is the most confusing and least user-friendly type tool I've ever encountered, including Adobe After Effects and the Boris FX product line.

Many of Avid's problems are the legacy of a design philosophy based in the old paradigm of hardware heavy broadcast facilities. For example, they're still married to the idea of a vertical product line where you pay to play at higher levels. As a result, there are too many different versions of Avid, with too many cosmetic, possibly arbitrary differences, and hefty jumps in price for additional features that only occasionally justify the expense.

And Avid's still stuck in their old feature/add-on work-around of bundled applications that don't quite integrate nicely. They're improving this, particularly in their higher-end "studio" packages, but shouldn't that be a part of good basic design rather than a luxury item? Possibly it will trickle down to cheaper versions at some point, but then will their be parity on Macintosh, or will these feature stay PC only?

The lack of unified interface is a growing problem for Avid any case: many of the recent features added to the system, like advanced keyframes and timewarp (which is actually very cool), have fundamentally different control schemes from the basic effects package. They're getting too deep into a complex nest of backwards compatibility that will eventually have to be rethought. Plus some of the system add-ons, like EDL Manager, are desperately in need of a modernized interface anyway.

All of which underscores Avid's real issue - how are they going to respond to the conceptual changes that Apple has pushed into the non-linear editing space? Despite the advances Avid has made with their new software-based focus, do they really get the industry momentum towards cheaper, easier to use, comprehensive, desktop based video post-production systems? At very least, can they stop trumpeting complex big-picture visions like "workflow" and actually get some of that flow back into the work by reducing the number of bizarre errors, complex processes, varied interfaces and awkward work-arounds that have become common place in their systems?

Personally, I'd like to see Avid get their act together. The competition helps everyone, on every system. I'm also a long time Avid user and basically like their system. The professional design focus is still there from the era when they were the people who cared most about what editors wanted.

It's just getting hard to argue Avid as a practical solution outside of a large facility or organization where price is less of an issue and both technical and engineering support are readily available. Gone too are the days when you could expect an aspiring editor to take days or weeks of expensive classes to learn some basic cutting. Things need to just work - simply and intuitively.

Avid needs to beware of these growing trends, if they aren't already. Unless they rethink more of their philosophy, and come out with a more customer-oriented product line , they may find the next generation of editors, directors, producers and shooters clamoring to bring their favorite competing system up to the professional level with them.