Nov 22, 2010

Blue Sky EXR 6.5 Active 2-Way Monitor review

If you've been reading my pro-audio studio monitor reviews you'll note that I'm a big fan and proponent for the 2.1 monitoring setup.  One major reason - if not the *only* reason - is because you simply cannot get a truly accurate sonic representation of your audio from a typical stereo setup, period.  End of story.

But here's the caveat with that standard:  Not everyone has the physical space to allow for a 2.1 system (which requires a correctly placed and sized subwoofer) and/or, has the technical expertise to set it up properly.  And, the some of the best 2.1 systems also command a higher price-point than the traditional 2-unit stereo pairs.  Well guess what, those knowledgable guys at Blue Sky understand all that and have given the market what it's been asking for:  An uber-high quality, sonically accurate stereo monitor, with some previously unheard-of features in a desktop near-field.

Enter the Blue Sky EXR 6.5 2-way near-field monitor.  As with anything I test and review I always start off with a completely non-biased and open mind and my B.S. filter is on high alert for anything that turns out to be over-hyped manufacturer claims rather than real-world performance results.  The need to be completely un-biased was even more important with this review because every other Blue Sky unit I've tested has always come out on top, so I had to be sure that I wasn't mentally preparing myself for another 5-Star review.

However despite the glowing reviews I've given Blue Sky's offerings previously I was a bit timid about reviewing a traditional stereo pair, in fact I was almost prepared to be under-whelmed if anything.  So in point of fact I was already biased *against* the EXR's for producing any sonic experience that would impress me.  I should have known better.

In fact, I did have to re-train my ears a bit to fully test the EXR's because for years I've been using the Blue Sky Pro Desk 2.1 system as my primary monitoring solution, so my ears have definitely become accustomed to the balanced sonic footprint of having a floor sub-woofer.  With the sub removed from the equation I had to not only reposition the monitors to accommodate the lack of a sub but I also had to use pink and white-noise generators along with scopes to make sure I had put them into their proper position.  Once I did that and started playing my standard audio test files (a varied selection of music tracks, foley and vocal tracks) then I was really in for a treat.

The EXR's really came to life in a significant way.  First off, the highs are typical Blue Sky fare:  Crisp & accurate without being harsh or abusive to the ear.  Imaging was also noticeably open and organic, something that was punctuated by the active and tuned porting in the cabinets.  And the lows were full-bodied, punchy and carried LFE moments easily without distortion.  However because this is a stereo pair and not a 2.1, the EXR's can't be pushed to the same decibel level as say the Pro Desk just for the simple reason that they can't move the same amount of air as a subwoofer can, so you have to be cautious with tracks that have lots of LFE or heavy bass mixes such as heavy-metal rock or even some soundtracks such as "Transformers" which carry tons of lower-than 60hz info in the mix, as you can easily introduce distortion with too much "bass".

But one of the amazing things about the EXR's isn't just their physical output, it's that they are TUNABLE.  That's right, these jewels actually contain DIP switches and to control tweeter output, a gain control and get this,  "Baffle Compensation" settings on the rear panel.  That's right, the porting on this unit can actually be actively controlled with the Baffle Compensation controls allowing for a highly tunable cabinet matched to room acoustics.  (This requires using an acoustic analyzer, but if you've got the hardware and knowledge this unit will do it!!)  I've only seen this high-end feature on monitors costing more than DOUBLE the price of the EXR's, so Blue Sky is giving you not only class-leading sound, but amazing control over that sound.

But it would be almost pointless to do a review of this type without some basis of comparison, and I was very fortunate to have been able to stack up the EXR's against the following competitors who are in the same relative price-point.

Below is the list as tested and notes of how they sounded in a head-to-head A-B test against the EXR's:

-  DynAudio BM6A MkII:  Anemic; lacked mid-range fullness and punch.  Did not image nearly as well.  Highs can be very harsh and too bright.  Overall output seemed too low as if the on-board power was not enough.

-  Tannoy Precision 8D:  Odd sounding overall.  Lots of low-end punch but dicey highs and lacked natural imaging.  Almost sounded as if they needed to be broken in first.  Floor noise to high for this price-point monitor.

-  JBL  R4326:  Overall good sonic reproduction.  Low-end extension not as deep or as controlled as EXR's; distorts easier than EXR's.  Imaging OK but the "sweet spot" is much narrower than EXR's requiring the user not move their head to much from side to side to keep imaging sounding proper.  Noticeably louder floor noise but not as bad as the Tannoy.

-  Genelec 8040A:  Very crispy highs that can translate into harsh when pushed; very flat and soft mid-range; too much low-end punchiness.  Sounds unbalanced and requires EQ controls to balance out the highs and lows.  Good for mixing heavy music tracks, poor with vocals and piano.

-  Behringer B3031A "Truth":  Very narrow sweet spot otherwise a decent sounding rig.  Low-end extension not as deep or as controllable as EXR's.  Fair mid-range but slightly anemic.  Does not have a good reputation for longevity.

-  Mackie HR624 MkII:  Unnaturally flat and lacking detail especially in highs. Lot's of mid-range but lows are unbalanced, imaging fair to poor compared to EXR's.

-  M-Audio DSM1:  High degree of floor noise, translates into noisy tweeters and distorted lows.  Imaging is poor across the board and mid-range suffers.  Worst of the bunch by far.

-  ADAM A8X:  The closest sounding competitor to the EXR's. Very open, natural tweeters, excellent imaging, controlled lows.  EXR's have more low-end balance and slightly better imaging especially for vocals, piano and instruments.  ADAM's seem to handle LFE equally as well as EXR's however EXR's seem to have deeper low-end extension.  In all a very, very tight competitor.

The only other model that I wanted add to this list but wasn't available - and is also at a higher price-point than the EXR's - is the Focal Solo6 Be 6.5.

 Highly Recommended

The list of tested monitors above represents what most pro-audio users and techs consider to be the "best of the best" in that price-point of speaker, which is from $650 to sub-$1000 per unit.  And it might be surprising to see how poorly some of the other models actually performed against the Blue Sky EXR's.  But if you read my other reviews of Blue Sky models you'll quickly learn that the guys at Blue Sky are something of modern-day wizards when it comes to accurate sonic reproduction

If the guys at SkyWalker Sound trust Blue Sky to create an entire system for their high-end, commercial monitoring solution, don't you think *you* should do the same?

Jul 30, 2010

Best Apple Compressor Settings for DVD Widescreen Downconversions

Ever since the first affordable handheld HD camcorder hit the market almost 6 years ago there has been a great deal of misinformation and outright myths about the realities of how to make a great-looking DVD from HD content.

Some people assumed that it simply wasn't possible to do and instead the HD camcorders should be put into mini-DV widescreen mode to shoot the original content, which would make for really good looking DVD's since it would all be in standard-definition anyway.  This also started the myth that since DVD's are SD that a movie shot in SD would simply transfer directly to a DVD, no problem.  Anyone who knows about the DVD/MPEG2 specification knows this is completely false, but to the uninitiated it seemed totally logical.

Before I delve into these "best" settings for use in Apple's Compressor let's first look at the realities of making a proper final encode for a DVD:

First, there are 2 basic DVD capacities, single-layer and dual-layer, at approximately 4GB and 8GB respectively.  A finished movie of any format being exported straight from an editor as a "self contained" movie, even in an SD format will be tens and most often hundreds of gigabytes in size.  Obviously too big to fit into even a dual-layer DVD.  In fact, not even a dual-layer Blu-Ray can take that much data since BR tops out at 50GB!  So what's a movie-maker to do?  You have to "compress" or squeeze your final movie file down to DVD-spec size.

Second, the process of creating a DVD is called, "authoring", and DVD Studio Pro and other pro authoring programs use a split-file architecture whereby the video and audio assets are completely separate files and become linked during the authoring process.  That means when making your final encode from your finished movie you'll always end up with two file types:  ".m2v" which will be the video component and ".ac3" or AAC for the audio half.  (There are other audio formats that will work for DVD authoring but AAC is the best choice because it takes up far less space without noticeable quality degradation.)

While DVD Studio Pro does have the ability to transcode your final movie files into DVD-compatible formats it absolutely is not optimized for the task and has very limited options for doing so.  Basically you DO NOT want to let DVD Studio Pro making your final encodes, you want to manually control the process using Compressor, period.

Another myth is that DVD's can playback at 60p or, 60 frames-per-second in progressive mode.  Unfortunately NTSC DVD's only have 2 playback frame-rates, either 23.98 (24p) or 29.97 (30p) either interlaced or progressive (progressive having much better per-frame quality and looks drastically better on newer HDTV sets).

While Compressor can give you commercial-grade results from your final encodes it is also very slow at doing it's job (creating a Virtual Cluster would greatly speed-up this process and will be discussed in another posting in the future).  So, I'm going to supply you with (2) versions of Compressor settings:  One that is the "Best of the Best" and give you stunning results - but will be painfully long in completing. The second I'll call "2nd Best", the results will be better than if you let DVDSP4 handle the encode - maybe even better than Apple's default "Best" droplet setting in Compressor but will take significantly less time to encode.

And by the way, the best thing to do when you're doing encoding tests is to export a 10 to 30-second sequence from your Final Cut timeline - hopefully one with a lot of motion or scene changes - and put it into Compressor with these various settings, and see what the end result looks like.  Then you'll know which one you want to use.  So onto these settings: (Note - these screenshots have been zoomed up because the default text size in Compressor is too damned small for normal humans to see clearly.  NOTE TO APPLE:  Give us UI FONT SIZE CONTROLS in all the FCS apps!)

First up:  Video Format which is found under the "Encoder" tab at the very top.  Notice the file format is MPEG-2 and the extension is m2v, that's the file you'll see when imported into DVDSP4.  (please disregard the "geometry" pop-up you see - that unfortunately was there when I made the screen-shot)

In each selection you'll notice the "star" button on the right; click it to highlight it which allows you to choose the options to the left.  Video format should be either NTSC or PAL (Yes, DVDSP4 can make either an NTSC or PAL disc image).  Manually select the frame-rate that matches what your timeline settings were in FCP.  If you shot at a frame-rate higher than 24p the select 29.97; aspect ratio should be set to 16:9 and let field dominance be "auto".

The next tab is under the upper Encoder tab is, "Quality":

Do NOT set a bitrate higher than what you see here, mainly because older DVD players would not be able to keep up with a max bitrate of 8Mbps.  Blu-Ray and newer DVD players can handle whatever you throw at them, but play it safe anyway.  Make Motion estimation "Best" here.

Forget about the GOP and Extras tab as they have nothing to do with quality settings and are for advanced use anyway.

Next up is Frame Controls tab up top which has just a single area of options (unlike Encoder which has 4 sub-tabs):

Again, you must manually hit the "star" button on the right to actually turn-on frame controls.  Set all the fields as noted above, make sure you use "Adaptive Details" and for the best all-around image clarity use no-more than a setting of "6" for anti-alias and "12" for details level.  More than that and you'll start seeing moire and macro-blocking from details being over-sharpened.  Rate conversion should be set to "best".

And that's it for the Video portion.  Audio is even simpler:

Set the File format to Dolby Digital (AC3/AAC) and make your settings exactly as above.  Do NOT make your data-rate any higher than 224 kbps as it will not make your audio sound any better it will just take up more space.  (We're only dealing with a stereo audio track here, not 5.1 or 7.1)

In the preprocessing tab uncheck everything; the only time you'll need to use things like a DC filter or low-pass is for very specialized audio which 98% of indie editors do not deal with, so don't bother.

But, remember I said that the "best of the best" might too painful to wait for it to finish it's job?  Take a look at these settings below  - which is video-based only.  Audio encoding takes very little time and reducing the quality there wouldn't be worthwhile.  These settings below will take much less time to encode but will not be nearly as gorgeous as what was listed above.

You'll notice that the bitrate has been lowered and, all the Frame Controls have been lowered to "Better" instead of "Best", and "Adaptive Details" has been unchecked as well as adding any anti-alias or details filtering.

Again, using 10 to 30-second test file encodes will tell you which of these settings best fits your needs.

Now this is far from being an exhaustive listing of what Compressor is actually capable of, in fact there are several other deeper controls that can alter image color, sharpness and a host of other attributes to your finals, but for overall image-quality for HD to SD-widescreen downconversion for DVD, this is what you need.

Jul 29, 2010

Apple discontinues 24 & 30" inch displays, leaves only glossy 27" inch

At first blush it would seem all Apple has done is remove monitors from their offerings that may or may not be their highest sellers in their monitor lineup.  Certainly the 27" inch iMac is one of their biggest sellers amongst both the general consumer and amateur visual creative people so it stands to reason that a stand-alone 27" inch monitor would also sell well.

As I've said many times both publicly and privately, no visual-creative professional worth their salt would want - or need - a glossy screen throwing back reflections at them and creating annoying and often times impossible-to-remove glare which occludes the very details we're trying to look at during our work.  Anyone who's been forced to move their head around or, reposition a glossy-screened monitor to try and avoid this issue knows of the headaches this "pretty" type of screen creates.  And by the way, sometimes the headaches are literal, caused by eyestrain in dealing with these glaring reflections.

So thanks, Apple, for once again proving that "Beauty is more important than functionality.", and that if the device doesn't look like an iPhone, you won't make it.

If you're a creative pro then don't waste your money on Apple's "I wanna-be an iPhone when I grow up" monitor and get a Dell or Samsung instead.

Jul 27, 2010

Avid Media Composer 5 suite vs. Final Cut Studio: A Suite Comparison - Part One

Ever since posting the "coming  soon" notice for reviews of all the current NLE's (including the PC-only Edius 5) I've had countless questions about the age-old question of Avid vs. FCP "which is better" being asked incessantly.  Typically the "which is better" debate is totally pointless because it always comes down to both personal preferences and what the budget/production needs are.  However, this time things are a little bit different and not what most are expecting.

There are two ways to make this head to head comparison:

1. Comparing just the actual editor itself, Media Composer to Final Cut Pro and;

2. Comparing the entire suite offerings.

It will be a few weeks before I have time to drill down into the actual editing comparisons between these two however Avid has made sweeping changes both to interface handling, opening up the architecture to third-party offerings such as external monitoring with AJA or Matrox devices and making the software overhead more efficient (faster rendering). But I already have enough info to make a *suite* comparison, and it's still in the FCS favor.  Why?

First, Avid's DVD authoring program is nothing more than a re-branded Sonic DVD-it Pro HD offering; it's the exact same interface and features with the Avid name attached to it - and it's a PC-only program.  Yes, it does handle Blu-Ray but considering "real" BR authoring isn't ever going to be available on a Mac (according to the latest rants from Steve Jobs, who has said "no native Blu-Ray ever on a Mac..." in a recent interview scooped by Apple Insider) BR is a non-starter anyway.

Considering the plethora of DVD-based work for the indie market and that Avid does not offer a native Mac OS X DVD authoring option well... that's just damned silly.  Not to mention that Sonic DVD-it Pro HD is a pro-sumer application and does NOT have all the high-end features - especially for replication-standard mastering - that DVDSP4 has.  To wit, I know many Avid editors who cut on Media Composer and then export their MPEG-2 and AC3 files to then author in DVDSP4 simply because it's such a well-rounded application.

Speaking of exporting, Avid ships with the latest version of Sorenson Squeeze, which did not fair well in my head-to-head comparisons of Mac-based encoders (you can see that review posted here). For quality (not speed) it was last on the list with Compressor and Episode Desktop beating each other for tie-breaker.  Yes Sorenson is much faster than Compressor but it's quality of MPEG2 and H.264 encodes do not match Compressor's quality, period.  And these days MPEG2 and H.264 are just about the only 2 types of encodes being made; you're either going to make a DVD or post up to the web, rarely anything else.

And then there's price:  The MC5 suite is more than double the cost of FCS "3" at $2495 retail.  That's hundreds more than even Adobe Production Premium CS5.  Worse of it all, for all that money you're NOT getting a native Mac OS X end-to-end solution - no DVD authoring!  Really?

As I say, I've yet to make a direct comparo between Media Composer vs Final Cut Pro strictly as a stand-alone editor but if you're thinking that MC5 might be a viable Mac OS X replacement for the entire FCS suite the answer is a solid "no".

More coming soon...

Jul 21, 2010

Clip Wrap 2.1 for Mac Review: Fast Video Transcoding Wizardry for Mac OS X

With the advent of DSLR video and the newer consumer-grade cameras that use high-bitrate versions of the AVCHD codec the process of actually getting easy-to-view or better still, easy-to-edit footage from these new sources has been a bit of a pain in Mac-land of late.  Especially with cameras such as the new Panasonic TM700 (I've reviewed this camera recently) which shoots a native 1080/60p format FCP currently can't talk to that format *at all*.  That means you'd need something to transcode the footage into a file format FCP can recognize and drop to the timeline.

Enter ClipWrap.  What it does is very similar to what P2Log Pro would do for P2 users, it re-encodes the native camera files into a Quicktime wrapper that allows you to drag-n-drop to the FCP timeline.  However ClipWrap does not work with MXF-style data, only .m2t and .mts files created by HDV and AVCHD cameras.

ClipWrap has two basic modes of transcoding your footage:

1.  It simply re-wraps the camera masters into a Quicktime wrapper that allows FCP to recognize the clips to either be input into the Log & Transfer process or immediately dropped to the timeline.  Which one will depend on exactly what format you shot in-camera and whether or not it's a natively supported FCP format.  This simple re-wrap is blazingly fast and is much faster than real-time, up to 10x faster than real-time depending on your machine's speed and HDD available space.

2.  Or, ClipWrap can also transcode the camera masters into either ProRes, DVCPRO-HD or Avid DNxHD codecs to then be dropped into FCP, Premiere Pro, Avid or any other pro-NLE that can handle these formats.  Unfortunately the time it takes to transcode is very similar to how long it would take FCP's Log & Transfer to make the transcoding, and high-bitrate AVCHD files such as from the aforementioned TM700's 1080/60p format the process can take up to 6x longer than real-time.  And that's not a limitation of ClipWrap, that's all about the processing power available to the computer since the transcoding process is very much like final rendering in FCP:  It's very, very CPU/RAM/HDD dependent.

The real benefit of ClipWrap however is that it's a very small application and it's own overhead is extremely small, far less than having FCP running in the background during Log & Transfer allowing more computer-crunching assets to be allocated to the task hence, ClipWrap is definitely faster than using Log & Transfer for transcoding into ProRes, for example.

The user interface is also very simple and easy to understand; you simply point to the media you're going to have ClipWrap work on or, drag-n-drop those files directly into the UI, pick whether or not you're going to just re-wrap or transcode into another format, hit the "convert" button and watch as it crunches through your list of clips.  It's that easy.

For Mac-based editors ClipWrap is a godsend right now.  Many AVCHD cameras do not have native support in FCP requiring transcoding prior to editing and in some rare cases as with the TM700 there simply isn't any other application - that I'm aware of - that can even *handle* the transcoding process for it's footage!  That means depending on which camera you choose you may not even be able to look at the footage outside of the camera unless you've got ClipWrap to first take care of transcoding it.


Just as when HDV first made it's debut into the pro-NLE market and it's associated headaches with not having direct compatibility with FCP so too is the domain of all the AVCHD-format cameras today.  At some point FCP will follow suit (we all hope) with Premiere Pro and Avid and make AVCHD a drag-n-drop native format for editing, but until then ClipWrap is your best friend for getting your hard-won footage into FCP to create your masterpiece.

Basically, if you shoot any AVCHD-format camera and you cut on FCP then you'd better have a copy of ClipWrap to make your editing life easier.

Now that I have a copy of Avid Media Composer v.5 I'll be testing output from ClipWrap using DNxHD into Avid timelines, so stay tuned!

Jul 17, 2010

MCE Optibay Review: A 2nd Internal HDD for Apple laptops!

Earlier this year Apple released their latest "updates " to the MacBook Pro lineup, and as before they are sorely lacking behind their PC-based brethren when it comes to connectivity and overall feature set.

One of the biggest complaints from creative professionals about Apple laptops is that none of them, not even the top-o-the-line 17" inch model, comes with or has an option for a second internal hard disk.  And it's not as if it's not possible, again many PC laptops have had second internal drives as an option for almost a decade, so why Apple doesn't follow suit is another one of those, "why, oh why doesn't Apple get on-board" issues.

But like so many other things Apple refuses to do leave it to third party companies to fill in the blanks, literally.  MCE Tech offers a second-internal drive solution for ALL Mac laptops, not just the "pro" versions.

Enter the MCE Optibay, a simple and highly effective DIY kit that removes the internal optical drive and replaces it with your choice of 2.5" inch laptop hard disk.  MCE makes a kit for every late and early model of Mac laptops including the older G4 Powerbooks and Mac Minis.  Nobody is left out in the cold with this kit.

(NOTE:  Although the kit itself is straight foward enough it does require physically opening up the case of your Mac laptop, and if you're not familiar with or comfortable working on the innards of your precious Apple computer MCE does offer an installation service, where for a small fee you send in your laptop and MCE does the kit install for you.)

There are various versions of the kit MCE supplies allowing you to choose from a simple USB-connected enclosure to install the optical drive you remove from your laptop all the way to high-quality external Firewire enclosures.  You pick the solution that best fits your needs and budget.

For this review I was able to test two different kits designed for the pre-unibody 15" inch MacBook Pro which used the now older style ATA/IDE connector for the Superdrive and, the newer unibody kit in which the Superdrive is SATA, hence the replacement kit for the second drive is also SATA.  I selected the "free" USB enclosure to insert the Superdrive being removed from the laptop - just one of many options available from the MCE website.

Admittedly I have master-grade knowledge of computer build and troubleshooting so installing these kits was a breeze, but as I mentioned before if you don't have competent knowledge of computer system building then I'd highly recommend having MCE do the installation for you.

Included in the both the kits I received from MCE was the new drive tray to install the second drive, the very thin profile and plastic USB external case to install the Superdrive being removed from the laptop and, they even supply an anti-static multi-tool with properly sized ultra-micro-sized phillips and flat-head screwdrivers.  Very, very useful - and unexpected!

My only complaint about the kit is that the free USB external enclosure for the Superdrive requires using (2) USB connectors to provide both power and data connectivity.  It's definitely not an elegant solution and I would strongly recommend getting a stand-alone Firewire DVD burner enclosure instead.

In some pre-unibody models you may have to power-off the machine, connect the USB enclosure and then power it back up before the system will recognize the external optical drive.  It doesn't happen always and it depends on the system status at the time, and it's not an issue directly related to the MCE kit at all, but for some reason the USB internal bus on the older Apple laptops sometimes get a little confused as to what's connected and what's not.  A fresh re-boot or even just a log-out/log-in will clear the issue.  (It may also be a sign you need to do some system-wide routine maintenance to give the system a tune-up.)  In the unibody version this isn't required for some reason and the USB drive was seen and usable right away once it was connected to the laptop.

Performance is as expected between the two connectivity types:  In the pre-unibody version where the second HDD is connected via ATA/IDE the IO speeds averaged about 50-60 MBps; in the SATA version in the unibody MacBook Pro the IO speeds hovered around 85-90 MBps.  These speeds however will vary greatly depending on the actual HDD used for your second internal.  (My second internal drive is the Seagate 7200.4 250GB; had it been the newer 500GB drive the IO speeds would be have been closer to 100 MBps!)

And yes, if you're using Boot Camp to run Windows - and you preconfigure your second HDD with an NTFS partition - then Windows can see and use it just like any other HDD in it's system, with all the same benefits and caveats.


The option of adding a second internal drive is significant since Apple has seen fit to limit and delete several possible external HDD connections, such as the ExpressCard 34 slot (now only available on the 17" inch) and only a single Firewire port connecting external drives has become an issue video, photo and audio pros haven't had to deal with until now.  But having a dedicated second internal drive can provide a place for either primary media assets to reside or, if an external Firewire drive is used the second internal can become the scratch-disk or "cache" drive.  Regardless of configuration having a second drive in a laptop is a boost to workflow efficiency and allows for greater options.

Now if you really wanted to go nuts and transform your MBP into a real powerhouse you could easily replace your standard HDD's with (2) SSD-type drives instead, the MCE kit does support SSD drives with no issues, but you still have to consider the ultra-high price-point of SSD's vs. the performance they deliver.  But hey, at least it's an option!

Jul 15, 2010

Panasonic TM700 Review

It wasn't that long ago that Panasonic put the indie filmmaking community on fire with the DVX100, the first SD-format handheld camcorder to shoot true 24p (24 frames per second in progressive mode, giving the video a more filmic look and feel).

They did it again in 2005 with the HVX200, the worlds first tapeless professional handheld HD camcorder.  And while it's not a professional or even pro-sumer model Panny looks to have launched yet another game-changing HD-camera, the TM700.

At first blush the little palm-sized camcorder looks to be no different than it's competitors; AVCHD format, ultra-small size, SDHC-card media with a built-in 32GB on-board and a flip-out touch-screen interface.  But that's where the similarity stops:  The TM700 is yet another Panasonic first:  It's the first conumer-grade camera that shoots a *native* 1080/60p format.  Currently only very high-end professional cameras are capable of such a feat and even then only a select few.

Images from the camera are nothing short of stunning.  Panasonic has always been known to have vibrant, color-rich imagers in it's cameras, both still and video, and the TM700 certainly follows that tradition.  It's noise characteristics are also extremely good, besting pro cams such as the HPX170, Z3 and other dedicated video cameras.  But it's nowhere near as good as say a Canon 5D MkII or the newer 7D; DSLR's are currently the king-of-the-hill with respect to low-noise characteristics and it will probably remain that way for some time until the camera manufacturers figure out a way of transferring this low-light capability into a CCD, global-shutter camera.  (If you haven't figured out by now, I absolutely abhor rolling-shutter technology.)

Currently the TM700 represents the top of the line in Panny's consumer line of AVCHD camcorders but when you're at the top of consumer that means some pro-level features have been included.

To wit, the little TM700 does in fact have manual controls over almost every aspect of image capture; focus, white-balance, iris and shutter speed.  In professional ENG cams Panny introduced "Dynamic Range Stetch" or DRS for short, in which the differences between light and dark areas are lessened allowing for greater slightly better dynamic range and latitude especially in shadow detail.  In the TM700 that feature has been transferred and split into two features, "Backlight Compensation" and "Intelligent Contrast".  When both are turned on imagery remains amazingly vibrant yet more detail is recovered both in shadows and highlight areas of the image.

The two-stage OIS or optical image stabilization is one of the best I've ever seen in any camera at any price.  I shot a sequence hand-held with OIS turned on and did a slow pan - you can't tell the camera wasn't on a tripod.  Now that's really saying something, not about my ability to make a smooth camera move, but more about the OIS doing an above-average job of keeping things steady.

But despite all the cool trimming the TM700 does have a few niggles and even some near deal-killer issues when pushed to commercial-grade shooting standards.

The touch-screen interface sounds like a neat convenience feature but in practical use it's actually an annoyance since the flip-out 3" inch screen is quite small and, when you've been busy making adjustments to all the features having your paw-prints all over the screen will eventually force you into cleaning it just so you don't have a blurred image for viewing.

Having manual controls is cool, but accessing them is a bit of a pain.  The actual and only interface into the manual controls is a small button on the left-front side of the camera right in front of the flip-out LCD; when the LCD is open it's near impossible to get to that button without moving the screen out of the way.  That wasn't very well thought-out by the engineers unfortunately.

You can only scroll through the 4 manual control options; focus/WB/shutter speed/iris.  Once you've made your settings if you have to go back and re-adjust something the camera - for some inexplicable reason - re-adjusts the other parameters in an attempt to give you an "optimal" setting first, then allowing you to change it to what you want.  This is very, very annoying since the last thing you want to do is have to re-adjust all 4 settings if you only need to change one of them.  I can only hope Panny addresses this goofy behavior in a firmware update soon.

The marketing hype about this camera is that it will shoot "24p", however that's a half-truth.  24p can only be accessed when "Digital Cinema" is turned on however it's not true progressive, it's simply frame-doubling an interlaced format.  This is very similar to the in-camera trickery that both Canon and Sony used in their pro-sumer HDV cameras to simulate a progressive format - but it's not true progressive and you can plainly see horizontal scan lines in post-production.

The only real progressive format available on the camera is when you use the dedicated 1080/60p button, and in that mode with "Auto slow shutter" turned on the slowest progressive frame-rate is 30p, not 24p.  However this really isn't a deal-killer per-se since over 90% of videos produced today are sent out to the web, and all web-based video hosts transcode their footage into 30p sequences anyway, so shooting in 30p - or 60p will produce the best looking results.

Speaking of which, images shot in the above mode produces far better results than  the interlaced modes by a large margin.  If you really want to get the best results out of this camera then ALWAYS shoot in 1080/60p, period.

Of course with any newer-tech, bleeding-edge technology comes the post-production caveats and the TM700 has it's hood-winking moments too.  For editing on the Mac you'll have to use Final Cut Pro, Premiere Pro or Avid to fully access the 1080/60p format.  Final Cut Express and other consumer-grade NLE's will NOT be able to use the format, period.

But just getting your 1080/60p footage INTO your NLE of choice is a bit of a pain too.  On the Mac side ClipWrap will be your best friend, and the best workflow is to have CW transcode the footage into either ProRes or, DVCPRO-HD.  (DVCPRO-HD or DV100 is actually much easier to work with than ProRes, despite Apple's claim otherwise.)  For the PC Panny has supplied Windows-only conversion software but it leaves much to be desired and you should seek out a ClipWrap-type of program to do that job instead.

Unfortunately the transcoding process of taking the 1080/60p camera masters into either DV100 or ProRes is a very time-consuming task; expect it to be 2-3x times longer than real-time depending on the length of the clip and the speed of your computer.  This is one reason that AVCHD and other long-GOP formats are not ideal for serious, professional productions, just because the time it takes to transcode the footage eliminates the time-saving benefit of a tapeless workflow!  (In the future I'll be posting more info about that)

Amongst the list of niggles and less-than-great features is the all important user interface and camera menu structure.  Quite frankly, it sucks!  The camera is chock-full of silly, almost nonsensical features that are really about trying to woo the general consumer into having this plethora of "features" but all that's really been accomplished is that accessing the most critical camera functions has become an exercise in trying to decipher exactly what any given setting is supposed to do.  I'm a professional camera operator and even I have been stymied by the TM700's list of options and the poorly laid out menu.

Not to mention that many of these so-called "features" aren't always available.  Depending which mode/s are selected in-camera you either will or won't be able to use other options in the menu, and there's no clear guideline that tells you ahead of time "this feature only works when THIS feature is also turned on - or off...".  Just when you think you'll be able to use "Intelligent Contrast" for example, the camera will tell you, "Not available in "X" mode turned on...".  Really?  Panny needs to either completely re-work their menu structure or, make it much more obvious when and why certain features become available - or not.

Although the TM700 shoots a very high bitrate version of AVCHD in it's highest quality setting of 1080/60p it still does not hold up to broadcast standards for color reproduction in post, and serious color grading will quickly fall apart visually even at the first stage.  That's mainly due to the 4:2:0 color space of AVCHD, so you while the imagery looks spectacularly clean on the LCD and even initially on a computer screen it will easily show it's weaknesses when pushed just a bit.


Despite all it's pro-sumer weaknesses the TM700 represents a true powerhouse of affordable, handheld HD videography.  It's imagery currently has no match in it's pricepoint and it's low-light capabilities start to rival that of DSLR's.  Add to that the manual controls, time-lapse options and superb OIS it's not only an excellent consumer-grade camera but it may also be a great 2nd camera for commercial productions where rolling shutter and color issues are not critical.

Jun 30, 2010

Sony Movie Studio HD Platinum - Review

It's always been the impression by the casual observer or the uninitiated that in order to produce professional-looking imagery of any kind that you *have* to use professional tools to do the job.  Actually, nothing could be further from the truth; it's not the equipment that makes or breaks any shot or production it's the person using the equipment.  Give an amateur professional tools and you'll get amateur-ish results; give a pro anything and they'll make amazing imagery and maximize the capabilities of whatever they're using.

The perfect case in point is the advent and subsequent explosion of the use of DSLR's for pro filmmaking. Nobody, not even Canon saw or predicted how their digital still cameras would completely turn the video and filmmaking world upside down and sideways.  Now we have multi-million dollar productions being shot with cameras that cost less than $2000 dollars, where before they'd have either been shot on traditional film cameras, with their associated costs of film, processing and the telecine process or, "digital cinema" cameras like the Thomson Viper or Sony F35; both of which will set you back nearly $500k for just a single camera fully rigged for filmmaking.

So it stands to reason that the tools used in editing these films or videos would also eventually have their low-cost versions to handle the job.  Typically a pro editor in Hollywood would be using Avid or, in the indie film market it would be a competitive wash between Premiere Pro, Final Cut Pro or Sony Vegas Pro.  But all these NLE's (non-linear editors) have pro-level costs associated with them and, because of that the assumption that only a "pro level" edit platform can do a professional job.  To a certain degree that's usually true, since the aforementioned editing suites have capabilities that consumer-grade software just can't match.

Well, that was then and this is now.  Enter: Sony Movie Studio HD Platinum.

For exactly $100 USD you can have a well-rounded editing suite that does most of what those professional applications can do but at a fraction of the cost.  And, if that's not enough, you can even do some things they *can't* (not just yet anyway) without additional plug-ins or software being added - and for additional costs too.  So what's so great about this consumer-grade video editor?

For starters is does exactly what most editors need; it will cut up to 10 tracks of video (along with the associated audio), allows unlimited cuts, rolls and general edits along with hundreds of video and audio effects and transitions built-in.  Add to that some advanced tools such as chroma keying (green screen compositing), basic primary and secondary color correction, external AV monitoring and audio restoration tools.  It talks to HDV, AVCHD, standard DV/DVCAM formats and has a plethora of final output options including print-to-tape.  All those things and more encompass about 80% of what all video editors use on every project.

Now Movie Studio HD Platinum is of course a consumer editor, so it can't use professional camera formats such as XDCAM, DVCPRO-HD, HDCAM or others.  It also lacks advanced final color correction or mastering audio tools, but for $100 you wouldn't expect it to either.  And it does have it's limits when it comes to the amount of video and audio tracks it can handle, 10, total.

There are some features that make this $100 program really stand out.  One, it's fast, really fast when it comes to rendering.  I'd put it up against any pro-level NLE currently available, whether it's PC or Mac based for rendering speed.  Plus, it can take AVCHD files and immediately edit them, that equates to a "drag-and-drop" to the timeline scenario.  None of the pro NLE's can do this just yet; Final Cut requires transcoding into ProRes, Premiere Pro can drop directly to the timeline but you still have to render it for a full preview.  I haven't reviewed the latest Avid yet so I'm not sure how that compares.

But Sony "MSHDP" also has a few tricks up it's sleeve that are normally only found in a pro editor.  One, it has a built-in "rolling shutter correction" tool.  This is huge as every DSLR camera on the market today has a rolling shutter and it's subsequent image-skew issues that go along with it can really be a deal-killer for certain shots; that feature alone isn't even available in any pro-NLE - yet - without buying third-party software.  There's also software frame stabilizers (reduces shaky footage), the ability to time-remapp (stretch or compress time) and use keyframes for all effects and filters.  And because it's PC-based you can actually output a final movie as a Blu-Ray disc!  It's a simple track-only encode, similar to what Toast 10 does, but it's more than what you can do with iMovie!

In fact, I can't think of *any* video editing software regardless if it's PC or Mac that can do as much as MSHDP can for such a low price.  iMovie certainly can't pull off all these tricks, Windows Movie maker...what a joke, and the plethora of sub-$200 editors on the market today?  Not even close.


For $100 you absolutely can't go wrong with Sony Movie Studio HD Platinum.  Heck, if you pony up for just another $30 dollars you can get a lot more features and built-in effects plus add a stock sound library to the mix!  And all for less than $150!  Sony's got a real powerhouse here, and certainly a nice lower-cost compliment to Vegas Pro.

Why the SmartCar just isn't smart

Chances are you've seen one, this diminutive, cute, clown-car-sized auto buzzing around town or the inner-city freeways, the "Smart" car.  It looks barely big enough to hold 2 average sized humans - and not much else.

I remember the first time I saw one around 2006, I figured (as many probably did) that it was a european electric import.  In fact, Smart actually paid several people in many large US metro areas to simply drive around the Smart car in place of their regular vehicle, just to start the buzz about it's existence.  And it worked, people all over were gawking at it, asking questions and doing millions of web-searches trying to find out more about it.

Europeans have been used to these uber-small 4-wheelers for decades as several brands have and do make autos of the pint-sized variety for decades, and it wasn't just because fuel costs were higher than here in the US, but simply because most of europe is very tightly compacted, with narrow streets, limited road access in rural areas and overly congested cities with little wriggle-room for the typical US-style sedans to move around.

But the Smart Car isn't the first teeny-weeny-sized auto to hit US shores.  If you're older than 35 you might remember the Renault "Le Car" which was introduced in the late '70's to the US market or even the Yugo.  Neither of which went over very well, mostly due to quality and reliability issues, but also people here just couldn't get done what they thought they needed to with such minimal carrying capacity. It was great for students or that second kick-around car to do errands in but you'd never trust one on the highway - hopefully.

So here we are in 2010 and the Smart Car has not only gone from hard-to-find oddity to being a regular sighting in our daily commute.  But is the Smart Car really all it's cracked up to be, or is it just another example of glossy & cute marketing hype that people have bought into?  Let's break it down and find out:

First, if someone wants a Smart Car simply because it's cool looking, cute or just fun to drive around then you can't argue that "I want one" mentality.  But if you're thinking that it's a "smart" choice because of it's purported economy or low-cost of ownership you might be in for a surprise when you run the numbers.

Compare the mid-level Smart Car model they call the "ForTwo Coupe" to it's closest rival in size and price, the Toyota Yaris.

The ForTwo Coupe price they list on SmartUSA is $14,700, not including tax, title or license fees; even though it is NOT the cheapest model Smart makes it does represent what most americans consider a "base model" with normal amenities that we expect from a new car.  That model has an EPA MPG rating of 33 city / 41 freeway.  It can only accommodate 2 people and just enough room behind the main seats for a few groceries and or smallish luggage such as a few laptop cases or the like.  No back seat at all, it's a 2-person ride, period.

The Yaris 5-Door Hatch lists for $12,605 not including TT&L.  It's EPA rating is 29 city / 36 highway.  It can hold 4 people plus small luggage/groceries in the rear or, the rear seats fold down allowing for more than double the cargo space.  Heck you could easily put a couple Pelican 1650 large cases back there and still have room for extras.

So the right off the bat the Yaris costs less money, can hold double the number of people and has 3 times the cargo capacity of the Smart TwoFor Coupe.  "Ah, but what of the superior gas mileage of the Smart Car?", you say?  OK, let's look at that then:

It's simple math:  According to the government site, , the Smart Car will cost you $1241 dollars in fuel annually to drive; the Yaris will cost you $1412 of fuel per year to drive.  That's with a fuel price of $2.73 per gallon and driving an average of 15,000 miles per year and, based on the EPA CITY ratings for both cars.

So let's make this comparison clearer:  The Smart Car TwoFor Coupe costs $2100 more than the Yaris, yet yields only a $171 dollar per-year savings on fuel.  That means you'd have to drive it 12 years to make up that cost difference!  Huh?  Is that what you'd call, "smart"?!?  C'mon now.

Oh but the fun doesn't stop there, you can still only hold 2 people in a Smart Car for that $2100 premium and, you've got virtually no cargo capacity at all.  Not to mention that it's 70-horsepower motor has virtually no get-up-and-go and can't go faster than 85-90 mph.  Granted, you really wouldn't want nor do you need to travel faster than 70mph on the freeway, but that also means you've got no power available to pass, drive up in the mountains or carry heavy loads - such as two of yours truly!  (laughs)

I have a Honda Reflex scooter than can out-accelerate the Smart Car, can hold two people and with the quick-release trunk on the back can hold just about the same amount of luggage and, gets about 60mpg.  All while costing about $11,000 less than the Smart Car.  Granted, it's only got 2 wheels and doesn't have a fully enclosed frame around it like a car does, but just exactly how safe is a Smart Car supposed to be at a 40mph head-on impact with less room in front of the driver than a Mini Cooper?

Exactly what is "smart" about the Smart Car?  From my perspective, absolutely nothing.  It's an over-priced motorcycle on 4 wheels.

If you want something that's small, has great fuel economy and can actually do more than a motorcycle on 4 wheels then either a Toyota Yaris or better still, a Honda Fit should be in your sights.  But a Smart Car?  I'd call that a stupid purchase, not a smart one.

Jun 25, 2010

The New Apple: "Mac" is out, "i-Product" is in

Apple's new 4G iPhone has just been released and already it's breaking sales records with the media quoting Apple's stats as the launch date being, "the most successful launch of any Apple product to date...".  How wonderful for the billion-dollar mega-computing giant.

But the apparent initial success of this new "i-Toy" not totally surprising; ever since the introduction of the iTunes and then the iPod Apple has been on a skyrocketing trajectory of popularity with consumers which recently went to fever pitch with the release of the iPad.  And now with the iPhone 4G consumer interest in Apple i-Products it's most likely reached critical mass:  How could Apple possibly out-do itself now with this much unfettered success?  One way would be to get back to what used to be the core of Apple's business, it's Macintosh-based hardware and software offerings.

To wit, several of Apple's products - which still sell well and are highly popular - have all but gone ignored by "Father Jobs" as he's clearly spent the lion-share of Apple's resources and attention with the iPad and iPhone development and marketing, leaving many of Apple's Macintosh line customers feeling left out in the cold and wondering if there's anything new on the horizon for them outside of the gooey, glossy world of i-Products.

Two cases in point, the iLife and iWork mini-suites.  Typically (albeit not *always*) Apple releases updates to those applications at least once a year.  We're now solidly through half of 2010 and both the those i-suites are still on their '09 versions with no hint of an update on the horizon.

For professionals things are even more bleak; the Final Cut Studio professional video editing suite is now  2.5 generations behind it's competitors, namely Adobe Premiere Pro and Avid, in it's feature set and competitive offerings.  And although FCP version 7 was released not too long ago it was merely a service pack rather than a suite-wide refresh of what's quickly becoming an aging application.  In fact, at the NAB convention in '07 Adobe and others took a giant leap forward in front of Final Cut by offering Blu-Ray authoring and a few other very cool features that to date Final Cut is still incapable of.

But the video pros aren't the only ones feeling the pain, Logic was supposed to have been given a refresh also only to find out that the "update" never happened and it too is lagging behind it's pro competitors.

Speaking of Blu-Ray, Apple remains the *only* company on the planet who still refuses to play nice with the only high-definition disc format available.  Those who are technically oriented will well remember the duel between HD-DVD and Blu-Ray with BR coming out the clear winner.  Yet 3 years later and Steve Jobs still considers  Blu-Ray "a bag of hurt" and refuses to adopt the format into Mac OS X.  PC's have been playing Blu-Ray discs ever since the first BR drives became available what... 5 years ago now?

Do you have a MacBook Pro and constantly get comments about how "gorgeous" it is.  And do those same people seem astounded that the most beautiful and "technologically advanced laptop ever made"... *can't* play a Blu-Ray disc?  Now doesn't that just seem ludicrous?  It does to me.

And about those uber-gorgeous, glossy-screened "pro" laptops Apple touts as being so technically advanced:  Do you know that they lack professional connections currently available on more than 80% percent of PC laptops and, that they still do not have a second internal hard-disk, not even in the most expensive 17" inch option?

And by the way, creative professionals especially who are in film, video or photography DO NOT want a glossy screen throwing glare and reflections back in their faces when trying to do critical VISUAL work.  No, we need matte or "anti-glare" screens, as Apple now calls it.  Before the unibody MacBook Pro that anti-glare screen was the default choice; now you have to PAY an additional fee to NOT have a glossy screen.  WTF??  Really?!  Why is that?

Well, it's all because Steve Jobs wants all Apple products to be "gorgeous".  How they look externally is far more important than actual functionality.  The laptops look more like iPhones or even iPads all the time and that's purposeful, not coincidence.

So what's happening in Apple-land?  Why are Mac-based products becoming so goofy and software suites going without updates for such a long period of time?  It's all because Apple has transformed itself away from computers, indeed they changed the company name from "Apple Computer" to simply "Apple", and instead are now nearly 100% focused on it's iProduct offerings.

Indeed, why shouldn't Apple become tunnel-visioned on it's i-Toys?  It is in point of fact where their billions of dollars are being made and with each new i-Product release their market-share in consumer electronics grows by leaps and bounds.  The downside unfortunately is that many of their Macintosh based products are now either aging and behind the curve or, as in the case with laptop design, are so overly aesthetic-centric that functionality and usability suffers.

So what's a Mac-user to do?  Not much unfortunately.  Unless there's a massive migration away from Macintosh hardware/software back to Windows platforms Steve Jobs simply won't have an incentive to refocus his attention to the Mac platform.

But then again, maybe personal computers and professional software are just no longer part of the Apple business model.  I mean, you can email, take photos, shoot and edit video and browse the web all on the new iPhone.  So who needs a computer and pro-level software anyway.  I mean, according to Steve Jobs, YouTube plays HD videos so nobody really wants or needs a Blu-Ray player either.

Right?  Ugh.

Jun 22, 2010

Setting up your Computer for HD Video Editing


With the explosion of affordable desktop-based video non-linear editing (NLE) software ranging from Sony Vegas all the way to more affordably priced Avid packages the numbers of independent and up-and-coming film producers has also increased exponentially.

Unfortunately for all these "newbies" entering into the film and video industry there are very few affordable "boot camp" type seminars or training sessions available to teach the new filmmaker in all the key areas of information they need to get up and running without spending most of their time trying to figure out all the things they need to know rather than being productive.

And one of the most important aspects of using any NLE package is having a properly setup computer in which to create your masterpiece.  Indeed, most newcomers to video editing usually make the mistake of spending too much money on hardware they either don't need or don't understand or, are the victims of overhyped ad campaigns and spend money in areas that are completely non-beneficial to the editing process.

Unlike high-end gaming, photo or audio editing any pro-level NLE software will require the most effort and tax the resources of all the components on a computer to it's maximum capacity, from RAM, CPU clock-cycles, hard-drives and even the front-side bus on the main-board, all of it get's pushed to the limit while it moves, renders and allocates system resources to accomplish the task at hand.

In this page I'll cover the basics of how to setup any computer - be it a laptop, iMac-style or desktop tower - so that you're using the hardware you can afford to it's best ability and, give you a logical upgrade path so when the time comes, you know how and where to spend your hard-earned cash.

Before we get started there are a few terms and standards we need to cover first that are universal to any NLE software regardless if it's Mac or PC based.

THE PROJECT FILE:  This is a singular reference file that is created by the NLE software which is basically a large META-file giving the project it's name, list of assets and their locations and the format of the project.  The project file will be given a name that you specify such as "My Movie" etc.

CAPTURE SCRATCH:  This is the location where your video & audio is "captured" off the tape from your camera or tape-deck.  This file location doesn't apply to tapeless workflows where the capture process is eliminated by virtue of the drag-and-drop file workflow.  In most systems you can specify a different location for video and audio or have them go to the same folder.


MEDIA FILES:  These are everything that's used to create your movie which include:
    -  Video and Audio from tapeless systems such as P2, SxS or AVCHD cameras
    -  Audio files such as soundtracks, voice-overs and sound effects
    -  Still images
    -  Any stock video such as motion backgrounds
    -  Any other files to be included in your movie such as pre-rendered sequences from other applications.

RENDER FILES:  These are small reference-based data files that include references to the original media files but include the changes you've made to them such as filters, effects, transitions etc.  The files are relatively small but are constantly changing and are the source of most of hard-drive fragmentation.

WAVEFORM CACHE:  When the option is turned-on you can see the waveforms on the timeline where your audio tracks live.  These cache files are small but are generated to give you this visual image of your waveforms.  Most NLE's give you the option to *not* display waveforms to speed up display refresh times.

THUMBNAIL CACHE  The beginning of each video clip on a timeline is always associated with a thumbnail of that clip, giving you a quick visual reference of what that clip is.  Some NLE's allow you to turn off thumbnails again to speed up refresh display times.

AUTOSAVE:  A method for NLE to automatically save the project to a specified location at specified intervals.  This can aid in preventing losing all the recent changes to a project if a power failure occurs or human-error that would otherwise cause the project changes to be lost unless the editor manually "saves" the project on regular basis.

All current pro-level NLE packages including Sony Vegas, GrassValley Edius, Final Cut Pro, Premiere Pro, Media 100 and Avid all use these conventions in managing the per-project data.   (NOTE: Consumer-grade software such as "iMovie" do not have the ability to manage these files hence these instructions won't be of any help.)

Here's how to setup your hardware AND your media management for the various types of systems:

SINGLE-DRIVE SYSTEMS:  Often many who get a new computer or are using an existing one simply don't have the budget to be adding hard-drives or external devices.  No worries, you can still do your editing even HD, but with some important caveats and limitations especially for laptop users.

    -  Install as much RAM as possible.  If you're out of money and can't add more RAM then do the following (which is good advice for any system): 
    -  Disable or turn-off anything that's "auto" anything in the OS such as updates
    -  Disable UI extras such as bouncing opening icons, desktop shadows, menu fades, smooth scrolls, active or animated wallpaper (in fact turning off all wallpaper even static ones saves CPU clock cycles from having to refresh that background image all the time) etc.
    -  Turn off any type of drive indexing, shadow copies or in the case of Mac use an application called "Spotless" which will stop indexing on any drive connected to the system.  It doesn't turn off Spotlight searches, just the background indexing which steals system resources while you're working.
    -  After you've installed all your applications AND media files defrag your hard-drive *before* you start editing.  For the Mac use "iDefrag", for the PC use the built-in defrag utility or go all out and get a copy of "Diskeeper Pro".  The reason for this is that since you'll be taxing your sole HDD during use it's a good idea to make sure all of it's free-space is allocated together allowing the NLE and OS "breathing room" for all the temporary swap-file data that's going to be moved around during editing.


By default your NLE will want to put all the above mentioned files into default locations.  However instead, make folders for each of the file types on your desktop and then go into your NLE software Preferences and manually point all the file types to each specific folder. 

When saving a Project, make sure you manually save to the new folder you've just created on the desktop.  If you accidentally let it save to the default location, no worries, just do a "save as" and re-save it to it's proper place and delete the "old" file location.

Premiere Pro, Media 100 and Avid all allow for the above file types to be separated by individual project.  Final Cut Pro does not unfortunately, with exception to the Project File.  However at the end of your finished project you can use Media Manager to migrate all your project files into a singular folder/location for archiving purposes.

The reason for putting these files on your desktop is simple:  If you only have one drive then it doesn't matter where these files live, they will occupy the same amount of space no matter where they are in your menu structure.  Better to have them easily accessible and viewable in case of project corruption or, when it's time to migrate them off to an archive you know exactly where to find everything at a glance, rather than having to dig around your OS and find all the stuff manually.

In the MEDIA FILES folder:  Make sub-folders of all the different file types and import them into their respective places.

If you edit everyday then make sure you defrag your system at least once every two weeks to keep free space optimized and, make sure to use disk maintenance routines for both PC and Mac at least once a week to keep the OS tuned-up.

LAPTOP USERS:  Although all high-end laptops these days are blistering fast compared to even 3 years ago, they will still be limited to a narrower front-side bus pipeline than a similarly configured single-drive tower.  That means for HD editing you may only be able to lay down 2-3 streams of HD video before the system is unable to keep up in real-time playback even after fully rendering.  In a single-drive system there's just nothing you can do to avoid this - other than investing in external drives and as much RAM as the system will hold.



The first and most beneficial upgrade you can make to a single-drive system is to add an external Firewire - not USB - drive.  Firewire is much more data-stable in the I/O transfer process and most laptops have more space allocated to the Firewire bus than USB even though they often share the same total pipeline space.  In PC systems Firewire IRQ's are given priority over USB.


Now that you've gotten an external connected it's time to let your OS and NLE software have it's breathing room.  Move ALL the NLE-specific files - EXCEPT THE PROJECT FILE - mentioned above onto the external drive and keep them separated by folder and sub-folder just as with the single-drive setup.

Keep the PROJECT FILE folder on your desktop.

Make no other changes to your OS environment and keep it optimized for editing.


Take the above path and add as much RAM as the system can hold.  If you just can't help yourself you can start turning on some of the UI niceties that you've been keeping turned off.  Just keep in mind all these feel-good interfaces do nothing but steal CPU processing power away from your primary task.


At least one company, MCE, is making a kit that allows for the installation of a second internal HDD in late-model MacBook Pro's by removing the Superdrive and replacing it with another 2.5" inch HDD of your choosing, while moving the Superdrive to an external Firewire enclosure.  Now you're got more of what a tower-based system would be like and here's how to set it up:


Keep your external Firewire drive connected as you'll be needing it.


Move all your MEDIA FILES & CAPTURE SCRATCH to the new, second internal HDD.  All your CACHE, AUTOSAVE and RENDER files on the external Firewire drive.  The internal drive will have much faster I/O speeds than any external drive so you want the large, MEDIA FILES to be on the fastest drive available.  Keep the PROJECT FILE on the desktop.



    -  Sonnet Tech eSATA Express card Pro adapter
    -  Any 2-drive external eSATA HDD enclosure that is setup as JBOD
Setup your 2-bay eSATA enclosure as RAID-0 which gives you a massive and fast external HDD.


If you do not have the MCE kit mentioned above then migrate all your MEDIA FILES to this ultra-fast external RAID array and keep everything else on the Firewire drive.

If you DO have the second-internal HDD kit then:
    -  Move MEDIA FILES to the RAID array
    -  AUTOSAVE, CACHE and RENDER files onto the second internal HDD.  You can now use your external Firewire drive for archiving or data migration.



Since all Mac Pro's and most PC towers allow for multiple HDD installations the best thing to do first is to add as many drives as possible to the system.


Setup your files accordingly:
    -  OS and applications/programs on a single drive
    -  MEDIA FILES on it's own dedicated drive
    -  AUTOSAVE AND CACHE on it's own dedicated drive
    -  RENDER FILES on it's own dedicated drive
    -  PROJECT FILE should stay with the OS drive/desktop


Add as much RAM as you can afford. No other changes.


Decide which external RAID type you can afford (eSATA, Fiber, SCSI etc) and make the following changes in SOFTWARE:

    -  Move all MEDIA FILES to the ultra-fast external RAID array
    -  Keep all other file locations as listed in Phase Three


If your HBA (RAID controller/host card) can accept more than one physical enclosure or, if you have enough JBOD eSATA connections to split up into (2) RAID enclosures then do the following:

RAID Enclosure 2:  RENDER FILES and other final output files.

Regardless of system type Hard-drive space is a premium and should always be the first thing to consider when upgrading any system.  More HDD space is more valuable than RAM and faster CPU's by far.

Are your eyes tired yet?

Aerosoft vs IRIS F-16 for FSX: Head-to-Head Fly Off

AEROSOFT VS. IRIS F-16 FOR FSX:  Head-to-Head Fly Off

Professional pilots, aviation enthusiasts, RC modelers and flight-simmers alike all have some form of admiration for the General Dynamics F-16 "Fighting Falcon" or as it's pilots nicknamed it, the "Viper".  Almost everyone drools over it's ultra-sleek fuselage shape and those familiar with it's performance remain in awe of it's uber-tight turning radius and it's unique and completely visually-obstruction-free bubble canopy, something never before seen in any aircraft prior to it's launch.

So it should be no surprise that the flight-sim community has been graced with no less than two premium F-16 add-ons for Microsoft Flight Simulator X (FSX as it's more commonly known), one from Aerosoft and yet another from IRIS Simulations.  At first blush the two models appear to be quite similar (other than the obvious single vs. tandem-seat configurations) but in fact the two birds differ quite a bit from each other in various ways, and this review will cover all that I've had time to test.


Aerosoft chose to model the single-seat version, that being the F-16 A, AM and C models from both the US and it's allies.  IRIS models the F-16 D two-seat version, again both US and allied countries being represented.  Both companies provide "clean" and load-out variants with external stores ranging from missiles, FLIR pods, externals tanks, bombs smoke generators (for the various demo teams) and of course accurate representations of the liveries from the various squadrons and teams that use the aircraft.  Below are some of my favorite livery schemes from both versions but not at all the complete list.  (see pics below)


Both Aerosoft and IRIS do a great job of accurately modeling the aircraft shape, size, panel and line locations and livery markings down to minute details.  However they both also make some not-so-obvious errors that should have been caught prior to product launch and below is the list of niggles:

-  The Aerosoft intake and exhaust internals are too bright (see pics below).  There's no way in the real world that you can see all the way back into the inlet and see the fan blades of the main compressor or, see into the back of the exhaust nozzle up to the rear turbine blades while looking from the outside.  You'd either need to have stuck your head inside these areas and let your eyes adjust to the light or, have used some very bright lights to light up what is otherwise a very dark place.  IRIS on the other hand got this right and both the inlet and exhaust areas "fade to black" as you look directly inside.  Interestingly IRIS made the same "too bright inside" error on their F-14 but obviously learned from this mistake prior to launching the F-16.

-  The Aerosoft landing gear leaves something to be desired as both the physical modeling and the rolling-wheel animations look far less polished than the IRIS which again, takes the lead on small-detail visuals.

-  The size of the exhaust nozzle or "turkey feathers" is too long on the IRIS; the Aerosoft size is just a tad too small.  Somewhere in between is the correct size - but Aerosoft's is closer to reality.

-  The animation of that same exhaust nozzle is another story entirely:  IRIS has correctly replicated the smooth and somewhat delayed motion of the nozzle during throttle operation, most especially during landing gear operation where the nozzle opens-up fully ONLY after the gear is extended.  By contrast the Aerosoft nozzle is directly tied to the throttle lever; move the throttle forward and back and the nozzle opening moves in direct proportion to the throttle position with zero delay.  Zip the throttle back and forth super-fast and the nozzle opens and closes with the same speed.  This is completely inaccurate as the hydraulic system in the real aircraft would not only not be able to keep pace but the engine management computer which regulates the nozzle opening would wait for the engine to either spool up or down before making a nozzle adjustment.  IRIS nailed this one properly whereas Aerosoft either ignored it completely or simply didn't understand how that system is setup on the real aircraft.

-  When airborne the rear flaps will lower in the Aerosoft when the airspeed drops below 200 knots; the IRIS will only drop flaps when you lower the gear or, select a manual flap override in the cockpit.  Since I'm not an F-16 pilot I'm not sure which is more realistic but considering IRIS has replicated systems more accurately I'll assume they got this portion correct.

-  There are 2 things that make the F-16 visually interesting in flight:  The long vapor-streaks that emanate from just in front of the wing strakes which are a signature characteristic of the F-16 that hug the side of the fuselage during high-G maneuvers and, the smoke trail coming from the engine exhaust during mid-to-high throttle settings.  Aerosoft did a superb job of replicating both of these external characteristics; IRIS didn't do either.  For IRIS to completely ignore the vapor-streaks considering how much attention was spent on systems is very disappointing especially since it's such a noticeable trait of the F-16.  I can't help but wonder if IRIS just never noticed, purposely ignored it or forgot and found out too late before making the release.  (Update:  After emailing the IRIS designer for their F-16 the way the a/c was created meant that vapor trails was something that had to be left-off for some reason relative to how the model was built).

-  External lighting is yet another mixed-bag:  While they both realistically replicate the single white strobe on the top the vertical stab and both flashing and steady fuselage lights the Aerosoft goes a step farther - in the wrong direction.  When you turn on the interior cockpit lights (which by the way also turns on the flood lights at the same time) it also activates an external "livery flood" light on the tail projected by two points on the upper empennage (tail section).  While it sounds incredulous that a fighter would have flood lights on it's tail they actually do exist on the F-16 - but only on certain models, not all of them, and the Aerosoft doesn't allow for them NOT to be turned on when the interior lights are also on.  There are also smaller white lights on the top of the fuselage that Aerosoft modeled which get turned on as well but these aren't as pointless as the livery lights.  IRIS on the other hand didn't replicate the livery flood lights nor the added white marker lights but did do everything else including both upper and lower landing/taxi lights which unlike the Aerosoft are switchable and properly modeled.

-  External coloring is also a mixed bag.  Some variants of the Aerosoft seem to have missed color accuracy whereas the IRIS seems closer to real-world.  This is especially noticeable in the "Thunderbirds" livery included in both packages, IRIS getting the nudge for more color accuracy.

-  One last external visual niggle on the IRIS:  When the aircraft is on the ground and completely still, even powered off, it will wobble from side to side like a drunken sailor when you move the stick side-to-side.  I've seen freeware aircraft do this but for a premium payware plane to do this is totally unacceptable.  This same wobbly-kneed behavior also makes for less than straight rollouts on touchdown and uneasy ground handling.  The Aerosoft doesn't exhibit this wobbly-kneed bug.


These two areas are something where the Aerosoft and IRIS part company quite distinctly when it comes to accuracy:

The Aerosoft provides a very simplified cockpit with not-so-realistic looking gauges and switches and not many of the real aircraft system are replicated, most especially when it comes to lighting controls as mentioned above.  The HUD shape and display information isn't always easy to read either.  Cockpit internal lighting is horrible as there's no way to only light up internal panels alone, the damned flood lights are directly tied to the internal switches and no way to separate their operation.

IRIS on the other hand has in fact replicated every system that FSX limitations would allow.  On top of that gauges and switches are much more realistic both in their appearance and operation.  Unlike the Aerosoft, IRIS offers near-full control over lighting, both internal and external, engine and flap operations, radios and even weapons controls.  The overall appearance of the entire cockpit is amazingly life-like making gauge markings very easy to read, especially the HUD displays which in comparison to the Aerosoft are amazingly crisp and readable.  The internal lights operate exactly as they should, with gauge lights and flood lighting being separate allowing for much easier reading during night ops or daylight when shadows cover switch groups.

The fuel gauge is completely useless in the Aerosoft whereas the IRIS actually shows fuel on-board and as you burn it off it winds down accordingly.

Overall Aerosoft's modeling of systems is poor and comparatively lazy and in fact they mention the supposed limitations in their documentation, saying that what wasn't simulated wasn't possible to do in FSX.  Obviously that's completely wrong since IRIS did an amazing job of systems simulation.


You'd expect these two F-16 offerings would fly similarly but they don't and in fact behave very differently when compared head-to-head.

IRIS has supposedly modeled the "fly-by-wire" system in the F-16 to a higher degree than the Aerosoft however they did create one big bug which is the rudder.  In-flight with gear-up you have zero control over rudder inputs and the plane flies as if you have "autorudder" turned on in FSX, even if you don't.  That means that crisp aileron-type rolls are impossible, making barrel-rolls how the plane actually performs.  Even slow, smooth movements in either direction, left or right of the stick will engage rudder-type movement from the aircraft creating far too much yaw.  You only have rudder authority when the gear is down.  That can't be how the real aircraft performs and I'm inclined to think it has something to do with the "wobbly-knee" bug mentioned earlier.

The Aerosoft's rudder actuation is more realistic; if you push the stick to the side for an aileron roll that's what you get.  If you kick in hard rudder the plane will yaw deep and roll, just as you would expect it to. 

On the other hand, the IRIS tends to keep it's nose where you pointed it which would indicate that indeed their fly-by-wire simulation is more accurate.  The Aerosoft by contrast is a bit more lazy and while in a turn will actually drop the wing further during the turn forcing you to make a reverse-aileron correction to keep the bank angle where you had it originally.

The IRIS accelerates and decelerates far too fast to be realistic; you can punch up 400 knots and bleed it off in a heartbeat especially in a clean configuration much faster than the Aerosoft.  If the real F-16 performed as well as the IRIS neither the F-18 nor the F-22 could catch up to it!  I'm inclined to think that the Aerosoft is closer to real-world in this category as throttle-to-speed ramps take a great deal longer.

Both aircraft seem to replicate takeoff and landing speeds accurately; fully loaded with external stores you won't rotate until about 220 knots and an ideal landing speed with the same configuration and load-out is around 170 knots.  Much less for both with a clean configuration and bingo fuel.

The IRIS takes systems replication to a whole new sense of realism in this aircraft; you need to pay attention to the FTIT (fan turbine inlet temp) gauge in the cockpit.  If you redline this parameter too long (and your warning gauge will alert you to an ENG problem) you'll permanently damage the engine and it will die without the ability to re-start it - until you reset your FSX flight.  That means you'll be looking for an airport to hopefully make a dead-stick landing!  You can easily redline the FTIT by flying at low altitudes at airspeeds above 700 knots with power at or above 100% (afterburners don't need to be engaged).  At higher altitudes as the outside air temp drops - above 10,000ft - you won't have to worry about this.  But if you get a full head of steam way up top and make a nosedive whilst in the middle of some aggressive ACM you'd better pay attention to the FTIT needle and keep it out of the red otherwise you're dead meat.


Internally both the Aerosoft and IRIS are near identical; startup-and shutdown sounds are similar however the roll-up wind noise against the bubble canopy ramps up and down much more noticeably in the IRIS.  The Aerosoft is using some of the FSX default sounds for the front intake, one of those sounds being affiliated with the Learjet, and sometimes it can be annoying to hear an engine whine you know doesn't belong to the F-16.

The only niggle with Aerosoft internal sounds is that during rollout or high-speed taxi the landing gear makes rattles and squeaks, like an old shopping cart.  I can guarantee you that if the real aircraft made sounds like that the maintenance crews would pull it out of service and have the landing gear overhauled, so there's no way that's an accurate reproduction of gear noise.  The IRIS has a low-frequency grumble that you'd expect to hear from ground rolls.

Externally however it's a completely different story and yet another area these two models part company.  The IRIS uses a synthesized sound pack for engine sounds in which you can clearly hear the points where the sound file loops on itself.  While different from the default F-18 sound pack it's not very realistic sounding at all and is one of the most annoying features of the IRIS sound.  Especially when the afterburners kick-in (or engine re-heat if you're British) the IRIS external engine noise kicks in a whole new level of synthesized screech.  What's interesting is that in the real aircraft there's almost no perceptible change in engine frequency or amplitude from full military power and full AB, so IRIS got this one wrong.

The Aerosoft by contrast uses a sampled sound pack taken from the actual aircraft (or so their marketing says) and all engine noises are very realistic.  In fact, the first time I heard the engine from the rear as you ramp up to full power from idle, boy howdy... I got goosebumps!  It sounds as if the air molecules are being ripped and torn apart as the engine bellows out it's powerful sound-print as only a military jet engine can do.  Oh yeah... firewall the throttle on this baby you're belching out a warning the world can hear!

At some point I'll find a way to post samples of those sound clips here on the Blogger platform but for now you'll have to take my word for it:  The Aerosoft external sound pack will give you goosebumps!


This one also is markedly different.  The Aerosoft with a 3D cockpit turned on takes a heavy toll on frame rates.  The IRIS doesn't affect frame-rates any more than a default FSX aircraft which is surprising considering how many systems are replicated and how gorgeous the cockpit interior is.


The detail in pilot is quite different in these two models:  The Aerosoft pilot is constantly moving his head around from side to side and, when you kick in the rudder his head follows rudder movement; this may also explain why their model takes a hit on frame rates for this constant animation. The IRIS keeps the flight crew static (non-moving) however they change their head position from time to time randomly and do not follow rudder movements.  I've not figured out how or what controls their random head positions and IRIS has not responded to an email about this.

CONCLUSION:  A TIE (Almost) !!

Overall the IRIS is modeled more individual items correctly, and especially with a/c systems they really outdid themselves when compared to the lazy-man's version of systems in the Aerosoft.  BUT, IRIS missed the mark on some very key and highly noticeable traits of the F-16 both in visuals and handling in which Aerosoft gave a virtual smack-down to it's rival.  And because both these companies missed the mark enough times they both tend to equal each other out in overall standing head-to-head.  I'd give both of these models a solid 8 out of 10, for different reasons.

However, if you were going to somehow combine the best of both and make the ultimate, most accurate F-16 simulation for FSX here's what it would look like:

External visuals:  Take your pick; they both did superb jobs of fine details
External Animations (vapor trails, smoke):  Aerosoft
Internal Sounds:  IRIS.
External Sounds:  Aerosoft  (oooh, yeah!)
Exhaust Nozzle Animation:  IRIS
Exhaust Nozzle visual size:  Aerosoft
Flight Model:  IRIS (assuming fixing the rudder issue)
Aircraft Systems:  IRIS
Lighting:  IRIS
Ground Handling:  Aerosoft
Frame Rates:  IRIS

Truth is, I end up flying both of these models about the same amount.  I get annoyed with hearing the grossly inaccurate external sounds or dealing with the lack of rudder control in the IRIS and I'll switch to the Aerosoft.  But the Aerosoft will lose favor when I take a hit on frame-rates in multiplayer or when the external lighting at night makes me cray or that the less than accurate cockpit lighting just feels too goofy.  Neither one is perfect and they both exhibit traits that show it.

One last thought about these two differences:  Aerosoft seems to be on an update path for their model; version 1.21 was tested.  IRIS on the other hand does not seem to offer updates for their models as I've never seen an update posted anywhere on their site (their support directs you to their forum which is loosely put together at best).  So while Aerosoft might fix the bugs in their model in the future it seems once IRIS releases a model that's it, they're off onto something else and consider their releases "final".  Too bad since they're closer to a perfect model than Aerosoft in certain key areas.

On the whole you can't go wrong with either of these models.  I would suggest however that if you go with the Aerosoft that you turn off "3D cockpit" in FSX preferences as this will help greatly in multiplayer scenarios.

Maybe someday a very creative and knowledgable code-monkey will find a way to merge these two aircraft - or at least learn from their mistakes - and produce the worlds perfect F-16 for FSX.  I'd pay money for that!

And if you ever want to be my wingman, just look me up on FSX multiplayer.  You'll most likely see me logged in as either "lenzdude" or "Viper602".

Tailwinds to all.