Avid versus Final Cut - 2004

One Editor's Perspective

by Patrick Inhofer
May 22, 2004

When I first wrote this article back in August 2002 a debate was raging. The debate concerned the viability of Final Cut Pro as a professional post-production tool. At that point I had been working on Final Cut for 9 months and had owned my own SDI- FCP-based edit suite for 3 months. I decided to share my insights and write an article. The response to that article has been overwhelmingly positive. 2 years later I'm still collecting emails from readers who find the article instructive. But they generally ask the same question, "That was then, how about now?"

This updated article is my response.


Summary: The purpose of this article is to identify which, if any, situations would force an editor or producer to work on Avid (the granddaddy of NLEs) instead of Final Cut Pro (the young upstart with major backing). When viewed from that perspective, in the last 2 years very little has changed. There have been welcome improvements in Final Cut and Avid has completely revamped its product line. But Final Cut hasn't yet addressed its show-stoppers and Avid hasn't introduced any mind-bending new paradigms giving us new reasons to go with Avid.

What follows is my original 2002 article. Any additional comments or changes are preceded by Update or Solved! Otherwise I'm leaving my comments as originally written. Enjoy!


Question: What is the difference between Apple's Final Cut Pro and Avid's Media Composer?

Answer: None.

Not at least when it comes to creating first-class, professional results in a timely manner. They both get the job done on-budget and on-time.

But when it comes to how we approach our projects or how we interact with the software itself, there are some meaningful differences. I generally classify these differences into two types:

  • Big Picture differences are those which will actually impact our choice of software; when is it smarter to do a job in Avid rather than Final Cut Pro? These Big Picture differences are few, but should definitely be heeded. You can call them show-stoppers.
  • Smaller Stuff differences are differences that may impact workflow but shouldn't have much impact on our ability to produce a professional product in a time- or cost-effective manner. These Smaller Stuff differences, if discovered mid-project, may cause headaches - but rarely will they bring a project to a grinding halt. But being prepared ahead of time should help you avoid overages.

As for my credentials... well, I've worked them both. And many others. And while I've decided to build my edit suite around Final Cut Pro, I consider it my job to fully understand its relative weaknesses. Nor am I unduly critical of the Avid, having made a fair amount of money off of it in the past. In fact, if you were to ask me to name the best non-linear editor on the market, without hesitation I'd answer Discreet Logic's Smoke - if it were about $120,000 cheaper. But it's not. So instead (and because this topic is more interesting to me) I'll evalute the merits of Final Cut Pro in relation to Avid. What follows is my small contribution to this ongoing discussion.

The Big Picture

  1. Multicam. The huge, potential drawback against switching to FCP is if your work involves multicamera shoots. The fact is, Avid has a great multicamera editing workflow. It's fast. It's efficient. It's easy to use. And once you've cut multicam on an Avid there's no going back. Final Cut, by contrast, has zero multicam abilities. If you search the web you'll find some work-arounds to get pseudo-multicam functionality in FCP - but trust me, it's nothing like what can be achieved on an Avid. So if the majority of your work involves mulitcam, don't even bother looking at Final Cut.

    Update Developing a psudeo-multicam workflow has become much easier with recent developments on Final Cut Pro 4.x running on a G5 (as evidenced by the above link). Working with uncompressed media you can tile up to 6 or 7 camera rolls with no rendering, it'll play back in Real Time (working on DV actually lowers the number of RT tracks for multicam). But still, for editors or producers who make their living working on multicam - Avid is still far superior.

  2. Networked Editorial Pipeline. Another area where Avid's maturity shines is its ability to network and share projects, resources and footage between multiple edit stations. Avid calls it Unity. While some new products for Final Cut allow a facility to approximate Avid's Unity networked environment - it's still very immature. Avid Unity allows far more control over the sharing of resources, keeping track of elements used in multiple projects and the accessing and sharing of centralized drives. I'm sure Final Cut will eventually implement this kind of robust asset sharing, but it's not there... yet. And remember, if your project requires eight editors working with the same media, not all Avid houses have a Unity.

    Update Keep an eye on Apple's Xsan. Not yet shipping, but it promises file-level access, rather the volume-level access of other OS 10 SAN solutions. Might this software force me to revise this article? Stay tuned.

  3. Not all Avids are created equal. Another big difference between the software platforms are, well, the platforms. With Avid there are a half-dozen different flavors of Avid. Some Avids have more features than other Avids. Some even have completely different interfaces. And moving up the Avid hierarchy means buying a whole new system. So as a Producer or Editor you have to know exactly what you want out of your Avid before you book (or buy) the Avid.

    Final Cut, by contrast, is Final Cut. Whether you're working in DV or HD the interface is the same, the projects are the same - which means they are 100% interchangeable. The only difference between any two Final Cut systems is the hardware that pulls in and spits out the video (allowing you, for instance, to digitize Digital Betacam or output High Definition). And unlike Avid, if you want to upgrade your hardware, it's just a matter of adding a few boards - there's no new software to learn. On Avid, the worst case scenario requires you to not only buy an entirely new computer rig, but to also learn an entirely new program.

    From a producer's point-of-view Final Cut enables your editor to actually follow the project from offline to online - maintaining continuity and resulting in greater efficiencies. This can also be a great boon to many editors who can cross-over between editorial and finishing - the interface stays the same, only the hardware changes!

    Update The only thing I'd add (which is as true today as it was 2 years ago) is since most Final Cut systems are custom setups, Producers might have to hunt around for a system that meets their exact needs. Of course, the same is essentially true for Avid (Avid doesn't sell custom setups but the product line is insanely stratified) - so on this minor point there is parity. But from an Editor's point of view, you can walk into any Final Cut Pro 4 suite in the world and know exactly how to run the software, no matter the hardware hanging off it.

Those are the three Big Picture differences between the two software packages. As you can see, in 2 years nothing has fundamentally changed at that macro level.

Sweating the Smaller Stuff

From a Producer's point of view, when considering integrating Final Cut Pro, there are other, smaller areas that might trip up a project, depending on your workflow. And if these Smaller Stuff issues effect you, they can be worked around - especially if you plan ahead.

  • Mostly Solved! Split track outputs are more tedious. Not that they can't be done, they just require 2 passes.

    Update 4 channel split track outputs with each track on the timeline independently routable has been implemented! On this point FCP now has parity with Avid. Thank you Final Cut team. Now all we're waiting for are 4-channel captures. We are still restiricted to stereo captures, meaning 2-passes if you need to capture 4 track splits.

  • Final Cut's audio OMF outputs for your post audio mix won't contain transitions, audio levels or the "rubberbanding" settings that your editor implemented. On an Avid these settings will typically make it into the OMF. But keep in mind, some mixers won't even look at these settings - they prefer to start from scratch. Others may prefer using these settings. So talk to your post audio person if you think this issue may effect you. And even if your post audio mixer prefers getting those settings, if your #1 editor has switched to Final Cut you might be willing to force post audio to deal with this extra little hassle.
  • As a Producer, you might have to shop around a bit in order to line up an experienced editor who is comfortable on Final Cut Pro. It's best to do this before you decide to make that first cut on your FCP system. You shouldn't have to explain B-roll, cut-aways and mix-minuses just because you're using Final Cut Pro. Yet the talent pool is still a little thin on the FCP side, more so on the East Coast than the Left Coast. It'll serve you well to ask around and make sure you've got someone with experience to fall back on.

As an editor, when evaluating Final Cut, there are some differences between the two programs to which you'll have to get acclimated:

  • Avid's media manager is much more mature than Final Cut's. For some, this could be a deal breaker and should be listed up above. Based on my experience, it's not. I have no problem hand-holding Final Cut, making sure I don't lead it into one of the hidden dead-ends that lurk within Final Cut's media mangament utility. If you're not as inclined as I am to deal with these issues, then move this item up to the Big Picture section and wait until Apple addresses this utility (which was a significantly improved in Version 3 compared to Version 2). Again, there's no reason you can't the job done when managing your media on Final Cut - it just requires some forethought.

    Update The Media Manager has gotten more robust and more reliable. The various public forums and mailing lists have noticably fewer editors ranting about Media Management. But there are still some bugs and when it comes to media management there's no such thing as a small bug.

  • Solved! Final Cut's keyboard is customizable! Finally. I'm leaving my old comments about keyboards (with some slight edits) because I think many of the points are still valid. What follows are my original observations on the default settings of the keyboards and how editors use them...

    Most editors rarely change more than a dozen keys. They rely on the default keyboard shortcuts and are more likely to customize the button icons under the playback windows. Except for anything other than their top ten most useful buttons whole swatches of the typical editor's keyboard will go barren (particularly in the shifted, control-shifted-, option-shifted positions) - I know this because as a freelancer I regularly called up other editor's keyboard layouts looking for new ideas, rarely did I find an editor who remapped more than a few keyboard strokes. Thus, the default keyboard settings could have a big impact on the productivity of an editor.

  • Final Cut has more default keyboard shortcuts than you can possibly imagine. Far more than Avid. Every button has a primary function, a secondary and usually a tertiary function. No editor in their right mind would ever customize a keyboard to this extent. But learning a keyboard this dense is relatively easy. And once you've mastered it you'll be using the keyboard far more frequently than you ever did on the Avid (and your wrists will thank you for it).

  • Final Cut is far less regimented than Avid. Final Cut has no Segment Mode. More precisely, Final Cut is always in Segment Mode. Clips can be swapped, moved or dragged as quickly as you can move. Cut and Paste entire clips, tracks, timelines. Keep open as many timelines and projects as your RAM can handle and drag and drop clips, sequences, and bins between them. This kind of flexability takes some time to get used to, but it's difficult to go back to Avid's regimented way of working.

Wrap-up

2 years later and not much has changed - certainly not at the macro level. When I re-read this article (after not having read it in 18 months) I was very surprised, I had expected to do a major re-write. And yet, my original conclusion still holds: Avid and Final Cut are both professional-level programs. There is no doubt about it. With the exception of multi-cam and the lack of Unity-style media management, Final Cut Pro has no real inherit limitations when compared to Avid. So to all those producers out there wondering if they should avoid or seek out editors working on Final Cut Pro...

...buy the editor, not the software. If you follow that advice, most all of the issues discussed above will be completely invisible to you because good talent will overcome software and workflow issues - leaving you with nothing but a warm fuzzy feeling.

And to all those editors out there who get so heated up in these Avid vs FCP discussions...

...that boat left the harbor many years ago. The question is no longer if Final Cut Pro is ready for the big-time, because it is, but when you might want to occasionally avoid it. Or for those of us who have made the Final Cut plunge, why the heck would you ever consider going back?

Patrick Inhofer is an editor, compositor, and nice guy. He has 14 years experience in post-production and broadcast graphics. He is also the guy in charge of Fini. You can praise him or flame him at articles@fini.tv.