Media Composer and Final Cut Comparison — The Basics
In one way or another, most editors are facing a choice between Final Cut and Media Composer these days. Historically, Los Angeles has been very much an Avid town, but the question of a switch, if not the answer to that question, is certainly on the minds of many of us. There have been a lot of comparisons made between the two applications in the press, but they generally focus on visual effects and other glossy items from the manufacturer’s feature lists. Bread and butter tasks are rarely covered in detail.
Just because a machine can do great real-time color correction or six-layer effects, doesn’t mean that it will work best for the things we in “longform” do all day long. I don’t necessarily need a Swiss Army Knife. A really precise scalpel is much more important. But, of course, it would be nice to have both, and thus we are starting to look across the fence.
I’ve been thinking about editing software for almost two decades and though I certainly don’t know everything, I probably know as much about the comparative strengths of the two applications as anybody. So I’ve put together this post, comparing the basics.
The caveat, off course, is that my thinking comes from an Avid perspective. I helped design the Media Composer and I’ve cut lots of shows with it. I’ve only been trained on Final Cut and cut a few scenes with it. Though I’ve done my best to be fair, I’m sure I’ve gotten some things wrong. Please post your comments and let me know what you think.
Final Cut is fast and responsive on Macintosh, takes advantage of multiple processors and works smoothly on slower hardware, but Motion and Soundtrack Pro require a fast machine. The Media Composer requires fast hardware with plenty of RAM. It runs on both PC and Mac, but with unique quirks, performance issues and bugs on each platform.
The Avid is more fluid because there’s more focus on making editorial decisions based on moving video. Final Cut relies heavily on a desktop publishing metaphor and most editing takes place by moving things around in the timeline. It requires heavy use of a tool palette. FCP is probably easier to learn for computer-savvy beginners. The MC works better for experienced editors.
Final Cut is smarter when working on hardware of different kinds. Windows have magnetic edges and resize together, making it much easier to deal with a wide range of monitor sizes. The keyboard shortcut palette knows what kind of keyboard is attached and allows you to customize functions to that specific keyboard. Avid still shows its heritage as a system based on a rigid monitor configuration with a specific keyboard. It can adapt to other hardware but isn’t as slick as FCP.
In the MC a project consists of multiple bin files on disk. The application merges the files into a single database while you work. An FCP project consists of a single file. Bins live within the project and are a bit harder to access individually.
In the MC, projects that reside on a Unity server can be shared. Multiple editors can simultaneously look at the same bin. The system intelligently allows only one to write to it at a time. Shared projects aren’t yet possible in FCP.
Media Composer clips follow a rigid “inheritance” hierarchy, making it possible to change the data on a master clip and have that change propagate into all sequences where the clip is used. It’s also easy to step back through a clip’s “parents” and reconstruct it’s sources. Final Cut clips are mostly independent of each other. When a clip is cut into a sequence a new instance of the clip is created in the sequence. This allows sequence clips to be loaded into the viewer for modification, something that makes no sense in an Avid. Final Cut’s approach is simpler but Avid’s fits better into a typical Hollywood workflow.
Avid employs a “media database” and expects all media to live in a media folder at the root level of each drive. If you change something in that folder the MC instantly knows about it and reindexes the folder. The MC expects all media to be in its own formats. Anything you feed it gets converted and copied to the media folder. For the most part, the resulting file names are meaningless gibberish to humans. Final Cut lets you put media anywhere and any Quicktime file is fair game. The side effect is that it’s easier to lose things. Final Cut names files based on clipnames so if you do lose media, you stand a chance of finding it again. Assistants tell me that the MC’s media tool is way more capable than Final Cuts Media Manager, but I don’t have direct experience of this.
FCP allows for crude trimming via dragging in the timeline, which can be quicker for some tasks. But Avid’s trim mode is head and shoulders above FCP’s, especially when trimming complex sequences with many overlapped tracks. Trim rollers make it instantly clear what is being trimmed. Trim edge outlines move in real-time as the trim is adjusted. And it’s possible to make an asymmetrical trim and monitor any portion of the cut, a critical capability when working with dialog. For many feature and television editors Final Cut’s lack of advanced trimming capabilities is a fundamental roadblock to creativity. In addition, FCP can’t show moving video during a slip or slide, and you can’t use JKL to make those kinds of trims.
Final Cut’s timeline is in “segment mode” all the time. This means that to move the play cursor around you have to click and drag in a narrow track above the clip area. In the MC you can click anywhere and segment mode must be turned on, when you need it.
Final Cut can change the timeline magnification and scroll it while playing, a big advantage. But neither application does the simplest and most important thing, namely re-centering the timeline when you play off the edge of the visible area. The thirty dollar Amadeus audio editor does that and you get used to it very quickly. Final Cut’s timeline won’t zoom in around the cursor if a clip is selected. It also allows multiple sequences to be open in the timeline simultaneously with tabs.
Avid’s patch panel and it’s ability to show the source timeline makes it much easier to cut one sequence into another. In Final Cut, you typically use cut and paste to do this. But Final Cut allows you to select all clips to right or left in timeline, which is very useful for opening up space in the middle of a complex sequence. FCP also offers a grabber hand in the timeline, which is nice for moving the timeline around quickly.
Final Cut offers a nesting metaphor that allows one sequence to be place inside another. No Avid equivalent exists. But effects can be placed on empty tracks in a Media Composer allowing one to put a matte over an entire sequence, for example. To do that in FCP you have to nest the sequence and apply the effect to the nest.
FCP does not remember the complete state of the application when you quit and restart. In the Avid, every window that was open when you quit comes back, along with the clips that were loaded into the monitors.
In FCP, dupes are shown in the timeline whether the clip is duplicated in current track or some other track. In the MC, dupes only reference the current track.
In the MC, scrubbing and snapping can be activated quickly with modifier keys. In FCP you have to deliberately turn these features on and off. And snapping only moves from head frame to head frame. In the MC you can jump to heads with the command key down and tails with command+option.
The Mac Media Composer has improved its scrubbing performance lately, but Final Cut is still significantly faster. When dragging through the timeline Final Cut also gets more frames on the screen so you see more of the material you’re scanning past. The PC Media Composer is better and more or less comparable to Final Cut.
In FCP there’s no indication that a clip carries an effect without a timeline mode change. The MC shows effected clips by default. In FCP you can drag a clip from the viewer or a bin and let go on the space above or below the TL tracks to create and simultaneously edit into new tracks, a convenience.
Final Cut uses a linking metaphor that causes synched clips to move together in the timeline. This can be handy when dragging things around. Final Cut can also lock clips into arbitrary sync relationships in the timeline. This is useful if you want to tie sound effects to picture, for example. Final Cut can also slip or move a clip into sync with a simple contextual menu pick. An Avid timeline feature, sync locks, allows you to do a variety of editing functions without worrying about sync.
The Media Composer makes it trivially easy to resync subclips to quarter frame accuracy and the new sync relationship is inherited to all cuts made from that clip, wherever they are. In Final Cut you can resync to 1/100th of a frame accuracy, but it’s not easy or intuitive to do so.
Neither application will create head and tail leaders automatically.
The Media Composer offers a convenient undo history via a contextual menu pick. You can go back many steps at once. Final Cut offers no history, so you must undo one event at a time.
Final Cut undoes just about everything, while the MC only undoes changes to the timeline. As a result, FCP will undo the creation or deletion of a sequence or subclip, which can really save your bacon if you make a mistake. But when you’ve made an alternate version, saved it as a subclip, and then want to undo the timeline back it’s original state, you’ll be frustrated – the alternate in the bin will disappear.
In FCP, markers can be moved in the timeline, and can have durations. They are displayed in a text-view bin, so you can treat them almost like clips. But the MC allows you to see all locators in a single window and to print them, together with their text, which can be critical for visual effects turnover.
FCP uses separate shortcuts to jump to markers, marks and cuts. Avid’s simpler “Fast Forward” button will stop on events chosen in preferences.
Avid offers a “Phantom Marks” feature that can be very useful for measuring and predicting the effect of an edit.
In the MC, frame icons can be as large as you need. FCP’s are limited to postage stamp size, which is too small for some of us. When you move multiple icons around on the screen, the MC provides navigation outlines to show you where they are going. In FCP you’re dragging blind. The MC’s “fill sorted” feature allows frame view clips to be sorted into neat rows in alphabetical order in one step. It can also scroll multiple frame icons at once, allowing you to choose representative frames for a group of clips in one step.
To my mind, neither application provides enough information about clips in frame view. Data that would appear like a tool tip would be welcome. So would two lines of info below the clip.
In Final Cut, sequences are displayed with a generic icon. In the MC a sequence is displayed just like any other clip, using a frame from the sequence.
Final Cut doesn’t integrate with a script. Avid has lined script functions built in. Coming soon, Avid will allow clips to be aligned to a script via automatic voice and character recognition (and yes, it seems to work).
Final Cut will play as many audio tracks as possible with hardware. The Media Composer can only play 16 tracks at once. Final Cut offers bezier audio keyframes, which can make for smoother transitions.
When mixing, FCP can lay down sparse keyframes. In the MC, when doing live mixing, hundreds and hundreds of keyframes are created, which makes managing the mix very difficult. Final Cut can also copy and paste audio keyframes from one clip to another, a big advantage. But the MC can raise or lower multiple keyframes in one move with the mouse. Final Cut’s mixer displays as many sliders as can fit on the screen, while Avid’s defaults to four and will only show eight at a time. Final Cut will also display audio waveforms without a performance penalty. Avid’s waveforms are more detailed but they slow the system down. The MC can also enlarge waveforms vertically without enlarging the track itself, a neat trick when you’re working with audio at low volumes.
Final Cut comes out a bit ahead here, but neither application offers enough flexibility. For example, neither allows the slipping of keyframes within a clip. Neither allows multiple keyframes to be moved together in time (horizontally) and neither allows keyframes to be moved numerically. Both applications only apply keyframes and audio effects to clips, not sequences.
Soundtrack Pro offers a level of audio control unmatched on the Media Composer, but you must use two applications to do it; and Soundtrack doesn’t integrate well with Pro Tools, so the work you do there isn’t going to end up in the hands of your sound editors.
Final Cut intelligently reduces video quality and/or frame rate in order to preview complex effects in real-time. In the MC, you can choose to reduce playback quality to play more effects in real-time, but the controls aren’t automatic and the resulting degradation applies to the whole sequence.
In Final Cut, transparency and other blending attributes can be directly manipulated in the timeline without going into an effect mode. And Final Cut’s fade-in-and-out effect is much smarter than the Avid equivalent. Avid’s fades can turn into dissolves if they aren’t cut against black.
The applications offer similar Multicam functionality. Final Cut allows clips to be added to a group, an advantage, but group clips that have already been cut into a sequence do not inherit the added clip.
Final Cut’s basic titles don’t need rendering, but the UI is very text oriented and unintuitive. Motion offers elaborate title effects that the Media Composer can’t approach.
Avid’s title tool is limited and badly dated. Marquee is more powerful (it makes much nicer drop shadows, for example) but it’s terribly unintuitive. Regardless of how you make a title in the Avid, it must be rendered, although render times for titles are very quick. Changing an existing title is frustrating and confusing (especially with Marquee) and render files end up in inappropriate places. And you can’t match frame on a title to get back to the original source clip.
Neither application offers robust and easy to use title capabilities within the application. Most important for longform editors, neither allows for title styles where multiple titles can be changed at once by changing the style, the way you can in MS Word, for example.
Apple copied Avid’s list functionality almost verbatim, and in the process made the software simpler, more consistent and less buggy. But entering and manipulating data means awkwardly moving back and forth between Cinema Tools and FCP. In the Media Composer all your source data is in the bin and immediately accessible.
Avid’s lists can do just about anything, but the software is really showing its age. Many bugs lurk. It’s difficult to print lists and difficult to find the data you want. Effects lists are particularly troublesome with many editors simply ignoring them and making lists by hand.
List making is rarely an isolated task and should be part of the editing application. Avid’s software originally worked this way, but the list functionality was subsequently stripped out. Neither application does everything we need.
Final Cut shows clip data as an overlay over paused video. The Media Composer shows one or two rows of selectable data above monitors. Avid offers more available data, but getting to it can be awkward.
Final Cut now allows for navigation in feet and frames, but not all entry fields will do it. Avid offers feet and frames throughout the application.
Feature and TV editors need to apply real-time footage and timecode burnins on outputs. ABVB Avids once could do this in hardware, but since then various kludges have been necessary. I’m told that MC and FCP now both allow this, but I have yet to see it work.
The good news for editors is, of course, the horse race. As long as Avid and Final Cut compete vigorously, we win. Both applications have come a long way in the last couple of years and today are more similar than they are different. FCP’s main contribution has been its workflow model: one application does it all at a wide variety of video resolutions, works on many kinds of hardware, and does its job using the power of the host CPU. This makes our editing environment less expensive, more flexible and more mobile. In many other ways, Final Cut has copied the Media Composer, with the very big change that the timeline remains in “segment mode” all the time. Avid has been the interface leader, but it has had to scramble to compete with the fundamentally disruptive workflow change that Final Cut represents.
The winner, for me, remains the Media Composer, primarily, at this point, because of its trimming controls. It’s just a whole lot harder to cut dialog without them. Avid also wins in my book for the fluidity of the timeline, which has a lot to do with the fact that you don’t have to click in a small track to move the cursor around, you can snap to heads and tails using a modifier key, and you can turn scrubbing on and off the same way. But Final Cut does some things better than the Media Composer these days and those improvements, especially the ability to do really slick titles in Motion and sophisticated sound work in Soundtrack Pro, make it more and more interesting.
Final Cut’s advantages include:
- more adaptable to a variety of screens and keyboards
- better mixing controls with the ability to record sparse keyframes
- faster scrubbing and more responsive dragging than MC Mac
- intelligent realtime player shows as many effects as possible without much need for configuration
- ability to scale the timeline while video continues to play
- easier to drag clips around in the timeline
- easy to open up space in the middle of a complex sequence
- ability to undo the deletion of a sequence
- tight integration with Motion and Soundtrack Pro
Avid’s advantages include:
- much more powerful trim controls
- ability to share a project among many editors
- able to view a source sequence in the timeline
- more powerful when cutting one sequence into another
- undo history submenu
- easier access to snapping and ability to snap to tails
- scrubbing can be turned on and off with a modifier key
- much easier resyncing
- better data displays
- superior clip inheritance
- better media management
- bigger clip icons in bins