Adobe Premiere Pro Creative Suite 4 (CS4) is out and shipping in all its glory. You’ve probably heard lots about it. In this review, I’ll pull the major points together and review CS4’s new features within the workflow of a typical project, from preproduction planning to rendering and authoring.
First, some housekeeping details. Premiere Pro CS4 includes an updated OnLocation as well as Encore; it retails for $799, with upgrades starting at $299. Or you can get Premiere Pro as part of CS4 Production Premium ($1,699/$599) or CS4 Master Collection ($2,499/$899). With this as background, let’s jump in.
OnLocation got a complete facelift in Adobe Premiere Pro CS4. Here’s the waveform with RGB values; Adobe made IRE values available in version 4.0.1.
OnLocation started life as Serious Magic DV Rack, which converted a desktop or laptop computer into a waveform monitor and digital video recorder and offered related tools. In CS4, Adobe completely reworked the interface and added native Mac compatibility (rather than relying on a product such as BootCamp for Windows-based operation on a Mac). The facelift is mostly terrific, except there is one hiccup worth noting: Adobe configured the default screen of the waveform monitor using the RGB scale, which has values from 0 to 255. Most shooters are much more familiar with the IRE scale, which runs from 1 to 100, and it is universally used in zebra stripes on camcorders (and in OnLocation’s own zebras) and in Premiere Pro’s internal waveform monitor.
The initial version of OnLocation didn’t have a screen with IRE values, but with version 4.0.1, Adobe added the screen. It’s still not the default, which is silly, but nobody asked me. Long story short, if you prefer IRE values on your waveform, get the update.
Otherwise, Adobe added several key new functions. Users can now create a shot list in a preproduction workspace and add metadata to clips captured via the DVR. Overall, most users just want the scopes and DVR, and the new interface makes OnLocation much more usable.
The big new format addition to CS4 is AVCHD, which you import via the traditional File > Import command rather than via a special import procedure. Adobe edits AVCHD natively rather than using an intermediate codec, which seems to work better on the Mac than in Windows — though perhaps this relates more to the configurations of the computers I used in testing.
To explain, Apple loaned me a Mac Pro with two quad-core 3.2GHz Intel Xeon processors and 8GB of RAM. For Windows, I used an HP xw6600 with two quad-core 2.8GHz Xeon processors and 3GB of RAM. Simply by virtue of processor speed, the Mac should have performed about 15 percent faster than the xw6600, and most results were in this neighborhood.
On a simple 4-minute AVCHD project, the Mac rendered the project to Blu-ray-compatible MPEG-2 in 11:46 (min:sec), while the Windows workstation took 68:34. I checked memory usage in the Windows Task Manager, which reported that page-file usage was around 2.5GB — a hefty chunk of the total. Tough to tell if this was a memory- or CPU-use issue, since the Mac used up to 75 percent of CPU resources, according to the Activity Monitor; the HP peaked at about 46 percent, according to Task Manager.
Premiere Pro CS4’s general look and feel is very similar to that of CS3. Here, Premiere Pro is editing AVCHD .mts files natively.
To test whether an intermediate codec would produce faster results, I downloaded CineForm HDLink and converted my AVCHD source files to the CineForm intermediate codec and rebuilt the project in Premiere Pro CS3. (CS4 isn’t yet compatible with CineForm.) Premiere Pro CS3 rendered the project in 30:18, shaving the Windows machine’s processing time by more than 50 percent. To be fair, this doesn’t take into account the time it took to convert the AVCHD content to CineForm. If you’re producing AVCHD on a Mac, you should expect very good performance with CS4. In Windows, you should maximize the RAM in your computer and check out the trial version of CineForm once it’s compatible with CS4 to see if it improves performance.
Though not technically an ingest function, let’s briefly touch on CS4’s audio-to-text feature, which I tested extensively and reported on in the September issue. (Read it here.) If you have high-quality audio with good levels, you can expect a transcription accuracy rate of 90 percent or higher, but this falls off fast as audio quality decreases. Getting an accurate transcription isn’t the only goal, of course, since even a much lower success rate will allow you to scan through the text transcription faster than you could usefully preview the video file. Once you find the desired text, double-clicking a word will cue Premiere Pro to that frame.
If you can program in ActionScript 3, you can produce a Flash player that displays the video and text and lets viewers search for text and cue the video to the associated video. I hope Adobe will make this accessible to mere mortals in future versions. Either way, over the long term, I expect this feature to have a significant impact in talking-head and interview-heavy news and entertainment sites, as well as training and other information-intensive videos.
In addition to the aforemetioned IRE scale for the waveform monitor in OnLocation, other goodies in version 4.0.1 include the ability to to import Apple Final Cut Pro projects via XML interchange, export to OMF, and import and export projects in Advanced Authoring Format (AAF). Also, both Premiere Pro CS4 4.0.1 and After Effects CS4 9.0.1 provide a file-based workflow for Red Digital Cinema cameras’ .r3d files — without transcoding or rewrapping — via Red’s beta plug-in (available at www.red.com/support). Version 4.0.1 also adds full support for 64-bit computing platforms.
On the editing front, Adobe’s marketing materials state, “Adobe Premiere Pro CS4 includes over 50 of the most requested editing enhancements.” It’s hard to disagree, because there are so many significant new features that will help me edit more efficiently. One of the most important features is the ability to create sequences with different configurations within the same project. For example, suppose you’re shooting in HDV, but delivering an SD DVD and a streaming file. You might want to capture and edit using an HDV preset, then add titles for your DVD (with safe zones) in a 720×480 preset, and then add titles for your streaming file (no safe zones) in a 640×360 preset. With CS3, you would have to create three different project files, which was ungainly. With CS4, you can create all three sequences within a single project.
I also appreciate the ability to apply one effect to multiple clips in a sequence; this is a huge time-saver when I’m color-correcting multiple clips from the same shoot. You can also remove single or multiple effects from multiple clips, which saves time when you figure out that your first color-correction settings don’t quite cut it. Continuing this one-to-many theme, you can add the default transition to multiple clips, which will simplify multicam editing. However, you can’t easily remove or edit a group of applied transitions, which would have been nice. Another one-to-many enhancement is the ability to adjust the gain of multiple clips simultaneously, which saves time and helps ensure good audio levels throughout your production.
Adobe also added a metadata panel that incorporates metadata created during the shoot — either via OnLocation or from metadata-rich formats such as Material eXchange Format (MXF) — and lets you add your own while editing. Metadata follows the content through the production, so you can search for content based upon this data. For some, particularly larger production companies, this metadata will help preserve and enhance the value of video libraries. At the very least, metadata makes important clips easier to find within asset-management systems. For the rest of us, the value of metadata is less clear, but it’s nice to know that the feature is there should preserving clip-related textual information suddenly become important for our businesses.
OK, these are the bigs; there are many other enhancements that you can easily check out by scanning the Premiere Pro spec sheet on Adobe’s website. Let’s assume that you’re done editing and you’re ready to render. Here’s where things get really interesting.
Adobe Media Encoder
In previous versions of Premiere Pro, sending a project to Adobe Media Encoder signaled a halt to your video-editing productivity because Premiere Pro was locked up for the duration. In CS4, you can send a sequence to the Adobe Media Encoder (AME), which is now a standalone application, and continue editing. You can even load sequences from saved Premiere Pro project files directly and load multiple encoding jobs for consecutive batch rendering.
Adobe Media Encoder chuggng away.
The workflow is very similar to that of CS3. You choose File > Export Media, which opens the Export Settings dialog box, where you choose a format and preset and then customize as desired. When you click OK to close the dialog, however, the Export Settings dialog closes and you can return to editing. AME takes a moment to load the sequence, and then you’re ready to start encoding.
To continue with our example from above, if you were rendering a DVD-compatible MPEG-2 file and a streaming file from the same HDV source, you could send each sequence to AME and then keep on editing. For all but the most casual Premiere Pro producers, this capability alone is worth the $299 upgrade price. But wait, there’s more — and, er, less.
On the more front, there’s also watch-folder functionality, which encodes any files dropped into the designated folder to a selected template. While this is a great feature for sharing rendering tasks among a workgroup, encoding won’t start automatically; someone has to click the Start Queue button. Unfortunately, this is consistent with all AME functionality. After you send a project to AME, you have to start the queue manually unless a previous encoding job is still running. An auto-start function would be nice.
The other caveat is that AME encodes files serially, not in parallel, which can slow the encoding performance. In addition, you can’t open multiple instances of AME to boost the speed of multiple-file encodes as you can with other programs, including On2 Technologies Flix Pro and Sorenson Media Squeeze. Adobe also doesn’t offer an applet such as Apple’s QMaster, which speeds encoding on computers with multiple cores.
As mentioned above, on the eight-core HP workstation, Premiere Pro’s CPU use peaked at about 46 percent when producing Blu-ray-compatible MPEG-2 from AVCHD output; this essentially means that four CPUs are being wasted. This is nice if you’re trying to edit while AME is rendering; you should have plenty of residual CPU horsepower. But if you’re in a hurry to encode multiple projects, you would prefer that AME could process them in parallel. Even worse, when producing Flash VP6 files, AME’s CPU use peaked at about 13 percent, meaning only one core was being used.
These performance issues aside, however, AME has blossomed into quite a useful streaming-encoding tool. For example, those producing VP6 will appreciate the addition of the higher-quality two-pass encoding, and support for VP6-E and VP6-S. H.264 quality — which uses the MainConcept codec — was generally very high. Windows Media quality was very good in the Windows version of Premiere Pro, but you still can’t produce Windows Media files in the Mac version.
To be fair, encoding speed for Windows Media and H.264 output was quite good compared to other sub-$1,000 encoding tools. Basically, unless you’re a multifile VP6 producer in a hurry or a Mac producer who needs WMV output, AME should be more than sufficient.
On the export front, note that the Export to Movie, Frame, and Audio options that existed in CS3, in addition to the Export to Adobe Media Encoder option, are no longer available in CS4. For example, in CS3, I created all .mov and .avi intermediate files for encoding in other programs via the Export to Movie function. I exported frame grabs via the Export to Frame function, which was faster and simpler than working through Media Encoder. Not a huge deal, but working through AME in CS4 adds a couple of steps and is more complicated; I’ll miss these simple output options.
In previous versions of Premiere Pro, you had to render your video sequences before importing to Encore. You also had to re-encode your video completely if you discovered errors while authoring. In CS4, Adobe extended Dynamic Link to allow you to send sequences from Premiere to Encore without rendering. You can then easily edit the sequence in Premiere Pro by clicking Edit Original. If the enhancements to AME and the Premiere Pro-to-AME workflow didn’t convince you to upgrade, this feature should do the trick.
Adobe also corrected two important feature deficits in CS3 by adding support for dual-layer Blu-ray Discs and Blu-ray subtitles. The killer Blu-ray-related feature for Encore CS4, however, is the ability to add pop-up menus to your Blu-ray titles. These appear above the video while it’s playing, saving the viewer a trip back to a regular menu to click over to a different scene or video. Encore is the only sub-$40,000 authoring tool to support this feature.
Finally, as before, in addition to producing Blu-ray Discs, Encore can render your productions to a Flash .swf file for posting to a website. In CS4, Adobe enhanced this function with several new web-page templates and additional encoding presets, including a number of widescreen templates that weren’t available in CS3.
I ran several tests to compare the performance of CS3 and CS4. In one test, I rendered a 3.5-minute DV test project to DVD-compatible MPEG-2 format. The test project included chroma key, speed changes, color and brightness corrections, and titles and other overlays. On the HP xw6600, CS3 took 3:03, while CS4 was slightly slower at 3:52. On the Mac, CS4 produced the file in 2:57.
Interestingly, in a 1-minute HD multicam production in Windows, CS3 rendered to Blu-ray-compatible MPEG-2 format in 10:59, while CS4 burned through the job in 1:54. Mac performance was even faster: Rendering was complete in 1:14. Overall, it appears that CS4 should be about as fast as CS3 for normal productions, with some significant upside in multicamera jobs.
With Premiere Pro CS4, Adobe nailed the big workflow issues, making the editing program much more efficient for almost all users. The company also sprinkled in enough goodies — metadata, audio to text, and pop-up Blu-ray menus — that help users further monetize their content and distinguish their productions from projects produced with other tools. Over all, it’s hard to imagine any CS3 user who shouldn’t consider this a must-have upgrade.