It seems trivial to declare that the needs of the individual content creator have been vastly empowered with announcements at this year’s NAB, that is, until we realize that their needs are key to the advancement of our industry.
Systems admins and broadcast engineers should not groan, for we see, all around us, the ability of the individual to articulately and professionally express themselves to a very large audience without a great deal of technical intervention or reliance on previous systems that had steep entrance fees.
And so it is with technology. I distinctly remember the sneer of a chief engineer at a local broadcast facility when I handed my “master tape” to him, which was a freshly recorded DV tape. (This was nearly fifteen years ago.) I had to take the next two days of my life to go to a dub house and transfer my piece over to a Beta SP tape, in order for me to get to the next step in the process: getting my piece on a public access show, the time slot for which I applied and waited for, for three months.
Now, a piece shot on a wireless telephone, edited on that telephone, and uploaded with that telephone via a content upload tool, can be soon seen by millions in minutes.
This got us to thinking: if the tools necessary for content acquisition and production, at least in some industries (read: news), are ever shrinking and readily available, then why is it so important to bring that content back to a centralized location and work with it in a shared storage environment?
The answer is simple: it’s not important, and it will increasingly become less important as two things happen.
First, the speed of the Internet will have to increase by at least 100-fold. No problem. Not tomorrow, mind you, but a very easily approachable milestone.
Second, the “cloud” will have to become both ubiquitous and inexpensive. Once it does, there will be really little need for a centralized storage environment at most facilities. Along the way, the cloud will have to experience a few more outages, terrorist attacks and other potholes that will keep many facilities away for quite a while. However, once security is heightened, ownership rights and guarantees are delivered to the subscribers, and replication of data to multiple sites is the norm, “to the cloud” is where we are all eventually headed.
No wonder then, that manufacturers who usually are focused toward the traditional broadcast industry, have all but turned their attention to the “prosumer.” And what an overused and extremely non-fitting term that is these days, which has come to mean everything other than the mom-with-a-camcorder and a well-salted-field-photog-with-a-camera-over-his-shoulder.
By this definition, young people making gripping documentaries that land on the show list at Cannes are prosumers. So are a troop of comedians that eschewed usual venues, produced their sitcom and licensed it directly to Hulu.
But thankfully, it’s to these creative “prosumers” that the industry has turned its focus, and as a result, entrance fees are disappearing and awesome power is being delivered in droves.
It seemed to us, for example, that the idea of “laptop as a powerful workstation” was being given fresh attention at the show.
Big and Fast Storage for All
Fast, redundant storage systems that can hang off of laptops with either eSATA or Thunderbolt connections were being featured front and center at G-Technology, Promise, Sonnet and a number of smaller outfits. And as SSD drives begin to commoditize and become more affordable, demonstrated speed levels are becoming almost comical. Most of these systems, outfitted with SSD drives, sport sustained read and write speeds of close to 1GB per second, with RAID5 redundancy to boot!
Capture Devices for All
Thunderbolt based devices for the conversion of baseband signal into the codec and wrapper of your choice were being shown in working prototype or near-production models at AJA, Blackmagic Design and Matrox, with others announcing support for Thunderbolt spec.
Apart from that, we had a flurry of in-field capture devices besides the finally-shipping Ki Pro Mini from AJA. Blackmagic Design announced the HyperDeck Shuttle and HyperDeck Studio, which record onto SSDs in uncompressed 10-bit format within a choice of file wrappers. The Cinedeck continued to wow with a built-in display alongside its ability to capture in-field signal. Even smaller vendors got into the game with their own variant of this rapidly growing product category.
The Radical Transformation of Live Switching
Soon after the announcement by Blackmagic Design, last year, of their acquisition of EchoLab and their product line, came BMD’s production switchers, starting at an astounding $2,500. In a hurried rush to provide some competition to the hot small-production switcher market, Ross Video announced at the show two lines of low-market switches, called CrossOver and Carbonite, starting at $10K. BMD also showed the ATEM Camera Converter, which provides the ability to convert the HDMI signal from your “prosumer” camcorder into HD-SDI, and throwing back tally and talkback, enabling it to join in on the switching fun. BMD once again has rudely barged into a market segment with excellent products at bargain pricing, and as a result, every kind of live or semi-live, multi-camera production environment stands to win from this tremendous commoditization of product. Ministry to municipal government to local cable access channels are rejoicing over these developments.
The Shape of the Mac Pro
In our last article, we caused a small stir with the supposed announcement of the death of the Mac Pro, which of course was not our intent. All we continue to harp upon is the death of the PCIe slot within a Mac Pro. Since last week, a curious rumor flared up that might corroborate that prediction with a rackmountable, 3U deep Mac Pro, sans PCIe slots, but with an inventive way of adding internal drives and RAM. Thunderbolt will surely be a part of the design, and that is entirely the point.
But, in reality, the power needed to accomplish most individual creative tasks may well be within the confines of a Mac laptop, Mac Mini or iMac, given the tremendous opportunity for I/O that forthcoming Thunderbolt ports will supply.
Which bring us to the software that we will run on this workstation of the future. Yes, FCPX was the big news, but with the demonstration being given at an 100-foot distance, the introduction left more questions than answers. There is a fine line between demonstrating the strength of a playback and rendering engine that takes advantage of every hardware and core operating system resource available to it, and an application that delivers efficient and accurate tools to make editing decisions.
Since Apple’s obligation is to dive straight towards the middle of a market segment and hope that the fringes are taken care of by third party add-ons, we once again hope that there is sufficient human resources within Apple to deliver timely APIs and documentation to the third party software developers that hang off of the FCP ecosystem. It would be ideal so see these tools provided directly within the realm of the standard Mac Dev Center website, but we fear that Apple will play favorites with this information and provide it only to those they deem deserving of such gold.
At the end, we have to surmise that Apple’s hijacking of the FCPUG meeting at NAB was an act of desperation, in that many high-profile clients had long been murmuring of taking their editorial workflows to the other “A” companies. They needed to publicly display their intentions so that folks could at least make an informed decision as where to go next. At this year’s show, therefore, significant onus was on the other manufacturers to prove that a switch was worth it.
Avid’s interface always was top notch, and it has made significant progress into partnering with third party hardware and software in order to provide more ingest options to their prison-like workflow. Their offer for editors to “trade up” to Media Composer from FCP for $995 is a bold move. But Media Composer’s export options are still heavily limited and rely on significant investments in their product line.
Our time at Adobe looking at Premiere Pro CS5.5 was mainly comprised of watching the demo artist reboot the program and the machine, several times, to get some source footage to play on the timeline. Enough said.
And then there is Smoke for Mac from Autodesk. Yes, the tool is a significant statement of Autodesk’s commitment to the product and the Apple way of life. Some of our high-end post clients are already playing with the product to see if it’s worthy of their craft editorial dollars. But there are three significant costs that eliminate consideration by the vast majority: the cost of the software, the cost and shape of the hardware it’s designed to run on, and the cost of training your editor to use the Discreet Logic-born interface from ten years ago.
We’d like to say that the choice of editorial software doesn’t matter, and that this consideration is the least of your worries when putting together a comprehensive workstation, whatever the form factor. But that is like saying that baking the perfect cake has little to do with the batter. As we’ve presented before, FCP is and will be the worst editor in the market, except for all the others. It will remain our editor of choice going forward.
Blackmagic the Conqueror
If you look back on this article, you’ll see Blackmagic Design being mentioned quite a few times, and not just because its booth just happens to occupy the exact football field sized acreage that Apple used to rent when it showed at NAB. We have to tip our hat to a company that continues to disrupt the fabric of the creative content and distribution market over and over again, by either inventing or acquiring technology that shakes up market segments long held by big iron manufacturers with high price points. As they do so, they tend to piss off quite a few people along the way. But that, dear reader, is the nature of disruption. They continue to provide formidable competition in the PCIe card capture card market (their original entry into the fray) and never cease to wow with their latest strategic acquisition.
So that’s the summary. We invite you to get in touch if you’re in the market to build an individual workstation, or are thinking of upgrading all or part of your current rig. We also welcome your comments.