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Using Avid Xpress Pro and Mojo by Bob Donlon

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Using Avid Xpress Pro and Mojo by Bob Donlon
A Creative COW Editing System Report




by Bob Donlon, Bleecker Street Productions, New York City, New York USA

© 2004 by CreativeCOW.net. All rights reserved.

Article Focus:
Creative Cow's Bob Donlon tears open Avid Xpress Pro and Mojo in this in-depth report. Bob explores Xpress Pro's uncompressed editing options, multi-cam capabilities, the new "DNA" (digital nonlinear accelerator) hardware capabilities found in Mojo and the five streams of realtime available for users working in DV25. Bob also gives readers a look at configuring the system for maximum performance and concludes that the Xpress Pro / Mojo combination is a powerful combination worthy of a 4 Cow rating. Here's why...




Today, video editors have a plethora of low-cost professional-grade video editing tools to choose from on the market – most of which cost the same to own as a single day’s rental of a high-end editing suite. I was really psyched to dive into Avid Xpress Pro and Mojo, AVID’s low-cost offering, to see what kind of bang-for-the-buck it has to offer.

I first heard about this product from my buddy “Ed from Avid”. We were standing outside the Las Vegas Convention Center late one April afternoon, with that unmistakable trade show haze in our eyes. He started mumbling, in between cigarette breaths, about something called “Mojo”, and a new version of Avid Xpress DV called Avid Xpress Pro, and you could edit uncompressed and the whole thing was around $3k and I was like “Oh, you must’ve eaten some bad ecstasy last night, Ed -- you should really lie down.” After 3 days on a trade-show floor and the accompanying late-night Vegas hi-jinks, one was bound to lose their mind eventually.

It did seem kinda strange that they’d sell something like he was describing for that low. So I strolled by the Avid booth and saw the new “DNA” line (Mojo, Adrenaline, and Nitris). Avid was re-aligning their products and pricing in order to compete against every level of the food chain – from tricked-out HD finishing all the way down to low-budget DV. Sitting one link higher on the chain from Xpress DV, was Xpress Pro and Mojo.


What It Is, What It Is...
Avid Xpress Pro (MSRP $1,695) is the software and Mojo (MSRP also $1,695) is the hardware. Xpress Pro can be used as a standalone software-based editing application, or in conjunction with the Mojo – a hardware “DNA” (Digital Nonlinear Accelerator) about 1/3 the size of a laptop computer. The combination of the 2 gives more power and functionality.


What It Can Do...
Avid Xpress Pro gives you, for the most part, the Media Composer interface (for the uninitiated, Media Composer is what you’ll find in most high-end Avid suites). This means that if you’ve been cutting on Media Composers for years, as I have, you can sit down with Xpress Pro and start working right away with no learning curve. In addition, there is project compatibility with Meridien and Adrenaline based Avid systems (Media Composer, Symphony, Film Composer) as well as support for Avid Unity LANshare – all of which, in one huge long-ass-run-on sentence, makes it an ideal offline tool to be used in conjunction with these systems.

If you’ve never cut on an Avid before, this may all seem like a moot point. But consider the possibility of being able to own a tool that just a few years ago would’ve set you back tens of thousands of dollars – a tool with over 15 years of development and several Oscars and Emmys behind it – the same toolset found in the very same systems that continue to dominate the highest levels of production, in Hollywood and around the world, for a price that comfortably competes with other software-based systems.

And, because Avid is so ubiquitous, there are a wide array of training options available including classes, seminars, and books.

The Xpress Pro box comes with both Mac OS 10 and WinXP installers, and a USB dongle that can be used with either -- a bonus if you use both platforms, or might migrate to one or the other in the future. There’s also a suite of dual-platform 3rd party software included, such as Boris FX and Graffiti LE, and Elastic Gasket (lets you use 3rd party After Effects plug-ins within the Avid interface). Alas, the included DVD authoring software (Sonic ReelDVD LE) runs on WinXP only.


Here are a few things that differentiate Xpress Pro from Xpress DV:

Non-DV Resolutions
You do need a Mojo to work with uncompressed media, but even without one you can capture and playback 15:1s (for video offline), as well as 28:1P (for 24fps film offline). For these resolutions, Xpress Pro uses the same MJPEG compression used in Media Composer, so the media is compatible with high-end Avids. In addition 14:1P and 35:1P film offline resolutions can be played back in Xpress Pro, but not captured.

Mix Resolutions in Real-Time in the Same Timeline
All of the above resolutions, along with DV25, can be used in the same timeline without needing to transcode or render anything. And with a Mojo, you can keep your titles and effects at the highest, uncompressed quality, even when working with DV media. With other tools, you’re forced to render titles and effects to DV when working in a DV project – which means that they suffer the inherent quality-loss of being compressed to DV.

Real-time 3d Effects
Xpress Pro uses Open GL and certain supported graphics cards to play 3D effects in real time (see http://www.avid.com/products/xpresspro/specs.asp for details on supported systems and cards). It’s important to note that Avid wrote the code specifically for these supported cards so if you use lots of 3D effects you need to make sure you’re using one.

Up To 5 Streams of DV25 in Real Time
This is going to depend on the speed of your system. We’re running Xpress Pro on a dual 1.25Ghz Mac G4, and it will not give us 5 streams of DV25 in full resolution – we have to bump down to draft quality. As with most things, the faster the machine the better the performance (as in “actual performance may vary”).

Multi-camera Editing
Load up to 4 different camera angles into a quad-split and select which shot you want to see when by simply clicking on it. This makes it very easy to cut between angles, and you won’t find it in any other NLE in this price category. For you seasoned Avid editors, be advised that it’s not quite Media Composer multicam as the quad-split does not play back in real time -- it updates as you scrub the time marker. It’s definitely much easier than dealing with each angle separately, but it’s not really a “video switcher”.

Automatic Expert Color Correction
This lets you apply AutoCorrect (i.e. things like “Curves Auto Balance” and “Curves Auto Contrast”) to an entire sequence. Makes it very easy to do a quick color correction when time is really tight.




More Features from Media Composer
As Avid continues developing the Xpress line, more and more features from the high-end products migrate their way downhill. Along these lines, Xpress Pro has some advanced Media Composer commands previously unavailable on the low-end including JKL trim, extend edit, replace edit, and sequence decompose. Again, this goes to the “no-learning-curve if you know Media Composer” thing.


MOJO
Mojo’s sleek chrome case weighs in at a feathery 1.5 pounds, and connects to your computer with a single firewire cable (simple enough) and has ports for DV and analog I/O. You’ll find a single 1394 connection for a DV camera or deck, and a single Composite (RCA) output to a client monitor (NTSC or PAL). As far as analog I/O goes, there are separate input and output connectors for S-Video, Composite (RCA), and stereo Analog Audio (RCA). Component I/O is enabled with the addition of a breakout cable ($75 from Avid or you can make your own) that has BNC connectors to attach to a deck.

The addition of Avid Mojo brings some really interesting capabilities into the picture. The aforementioned I/O makes it possible to capture/playback analog uncompressed (4:2:2), and gives you real-time output to a client monitor. But what makes the uncompressed thing even more interesting to me is that you can have uncompressed titles and FX in the same sequence as DV25 footage, and see the whole thing output on an NTSC monitor, perfectly synced with the computer monitor.

Avid Mojo does the DV encode/decode with a hardware codec, freeing up the host CPU for other tasks like real-time FX (i.e. less to render). Mojo also takes over resizing tasks from the host, so draft resolutions are of much better quality (especially when viewed on the client monitor).

A little bonus for those of you on Windows – if you use After Effects as well, Mojo will output your AE comp to a client monitor, so you can see your AE work on NTSC or PAL in real-time.


Put to the Test
So the project arrived late this fall that would let us put Xpress Pro and Mojo to the test. We secured funding to finish a TV Show pilot that we’d started earlier in the year – an oddball travel show called “Monkey and The Rooster”. We’d shot in January 2003, in the Dominican Republic, and had a footage mix of mostly DV and some analog Betacam.

Along with the funding came a pretty tight delivery date, and for this we had to hire a second editor – one Dave Kirkman. He’s a veteran Avid editor with no Final Cut experience, so having the Avid interface was essential. We’ve both found that the interface is really the same as Media Composer. Yes, there are a few minor things missing, such as the ability to have a second row of buttons under the Source/Record monitors. But for everything we needed to do, the buttons and menus were where we expected them to be.

Xpress Pro would also let us mix DV and 1:1 in the same timeline – and more importantly keep our titles and effects away from DV compression.


Setting Up the System
I installed Xpress Pro and Mojo on our dual 1.25Ghz Mac G4, running Mac OS 10.2.8. Both the software and the Mojo installation were fast and painless – the software installed in about 5 minutes from a single CD-Rom, and the Mojo was up and running simply by plugging it into one of the Mac’s Firewire ports.

If you’re planning on using external drives, then pay careful attention to the specs on the Avid website (http://www.avid.com/products/xpresspro/specs.asp). Mojo sucks up all the bandwidth on the firewire bus, so if you plan on using external firewire storage you’re going to need to install a second firewire PCI card in your system. Even then, your system needs a second PCI bus segment. Not all of them do – once again check the specs on the Avid website to make sure that yours does.

In our case, we decided to go with a combination of firewire and SCSI drives, using firewire for the DV stuff and a Medea VideoRaid RT (SCSI) for the uncompressed.

If you plan on running Mojo with a laptop (a fine solution, considering Mojo’s small size) then you’re outta luck as far as external storage goes. Nobody today makes a laptop with 2 PCI bus segments. You’ll need to get as much internal drive capacity as you can in order to make Mojo a plausible solution.


Getting to Work
We had 17 hours of footage to capture. I captured the first 2 hours without the Mojo – going directly into the firewire port on the G4, and had no problems whatsoever. (It should be noted that even if you’re not using Mojo, you're gonna need a second firewire card to capture to external drives.)
With Mojo attached, the DV capture also worked flawlessly – in this case the deck going into the Mojo, then the Mojo into the G4’s native firewire.

Next was the real test for me – capturing uncompressed from Betacam SP. The video connections were straightforward, as the Avid breakout cable has BNC connectors, but as for audio I had to convert the balanced XLR output from the Betacam deck to unbalanced RCA (a bit of a pain and not quite ideal). I used a Keyspan USB/Serial adaptor to connect RS-422 deck control to the Beta deck, and started logging my clips.

Deck control worked smoothly, and I captured about an hour’s worth of footage at 1:1 OMF without any problems. The quality of the uncompressed footage I captured via Mojo compared favorably with uncompressed analog footage captured into Final Cut via my Aurora Iginiter X card.

With the footage now captured, Dave and I started working in shifts – generally he’d edit during the day while I’d be working on the animated opening and other graphics in After Effects. At night, I’d pick up the editing. At first, we averaged 3-4 crashes a day, most of them happening while using JKL trim. This wasn’t unacceptable, but still annoying. Along the way, Avid posted the Xpress Pro 4.1.1 update to their website which we downloaded and installed (it requires a complete uninstall and reinstall, but all told it took under 10 minutes). Now we’re down to 1-2 crashes a day and I’m much happier.

One of the best things to me about having uncompressed available is not having to subject my titles and effects to DV compression. Even in Final Cut I always have to render titles – and then if it’s a DV project I can only render them to DV. Xpress Pro really solves this one – I can create titles without rendering, and play them back over the video in real time, with output to the client monitor. When I import elements from After Effects I can keep them uncompressed as well.

Take the “Cinelook” plug-in for example. It adds lots of random noise and junk to the picture (that’s the idea). Random noise and junk plus DV compression equals picture that really looks like caca, and for that reason I’ve never been able to use Cinelook in DV25 projects. That problem has now been solved – we rendered our “Cinelooked” shots uncompressed and mixed them in the timeline with our DV25 and 1:1 shots.

As far as color correction goes, we tried the “Automatic Expert Color Correction” and got mixed results. For example, we had a sequence of shots that were all washed-out, and were able to just about fix the whole lot by applying “Curves Auto Balance” to the sequence, then performing some minor tweeks on a few of the clips. In other situations, this approach was way too generic and I found that starting from scratch with each problematic clip individually was the better way to go.

Nevertheless, the color correction tools in Xpress Pro are really excellent. We used NaturalMatch quite a bit to match skin tones from the 2 different cameras (done very simply by pointing and clicking). Avid calls the color correction in Xpress Pro “Symphony-Style,” and while it lacks many of the advanced features found in Symphony’s color correction it still stands out as the best set of color correction tools found in any NLE in this price category.


Summary
The big wins with Xpress Pro and Mojo are the robust time-tested Avid toolset, interface/project/media compatibility with other Avid systems (and more importantly other Avid editors!), and the ability to work real-time with resolutions other than DV -- most importantly uncompressed. If your workflow involves component or composite analog, then it’s really a no-brainer.

For my little studio, having real-time uncompressed titles and effects on a DV project, and seeing it all in perfect sync on a client monitor is alone worth the price of entry.

Still, I would love to see Avid add SDI I/O to the Mojo as well as upgrade its existing I/O interface (balanced XLR audio being first on my wishlist).



I give Avid Xpress Pro with Mojo Four Cows. This is a powerful editing system with a lot of capability for a lot less money than you'd expect to pay. Top notch color correction, powerful multi-cam features, the industry-standard Avid interface and integration, flexibility in both uncompressed and DV25 -- a great system.


In Conclusion...

I give Xpress Pro and Mojo 4 Cows.

Xpress Pro and Mojo builds upon an already robust set of tools by finally breaking the DV barrier. A great offline tool for use in conjunction with high-end Avids, and a great standalone editing solution for those looking to step up from DV on a budget.


# # #

For more information visit http://www.avid.com/products/xpresspro/index.asp

Visit the Cow's Avid Editing forum to discuss this article or other Avid-related topics with Bob Donlon and the Avid Cow forum team



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