Pinnacle Liquid Edition 6
Posted Dec 1, 2004

Pinnacle Liquid Edition was born in the days when virtually all video production was performed by professionals and almost always output to tape. Today, by contrast, the mass market for editing is largely non-professional users producing for digital playback on a DVD player or hard drive, or via streaming media.

Obviously, this shift from professional to non-professional user requires an emphasis on ease of use and feature accessibility over pure functionality and workflow. What's more, this shifting emphasis has changed user expectations, up to and including those that the inexpensiveness and accessibility of DV and DVD have brought into the burgeoning commercial videography field. More subtle in the NLEs themselves is the shift from a pure editor to a tool for producing the various digital outputs that dominate today's production environment.

Examples of companies recognizing the latter reality abound. Adobe introduced the simple yet sophisticated Adobe Media Encoder and Adobe Encore with Premiere Pro, and they subsequently updated Encore in the recent 1.5 release. Apple purchased Spruce to produce the highly capable DVD Studio Pro, and introduced the batch-capable Compressor encoding program with their latest release of Final Cut Pro.

How does this history lesson relate to Pinnacle Liquid Edition 6? In terms of ease of use, Pinnacle added Windows-style menus and wizards, as well as the ability to import projects from Pinnacle Studio. That said, Edition still has multiple controls for similar functions (like at least six for picture-in-picture), still asks the user to choose between CPU and graphics card-based controls, still uses arcane language in many controls, and introduced several new controls that are virtually incomprehensible. So while Pinnacle has increased Edition's ease of use, it still trails other programs in that respect.

Most disappointing was the almost complete lack of attention paid to Edition's rendering and authoring controls. Sure, Pinnacle added some great editing functionality to the program, like embedded support for the HDV format, the ability to edit DV and HDV on the same timeline, and support for multiple-camera shoots. In truth, however, while these features look great in trade show booths and press demos, they only benefit part of the program's user base, even if you project out for the entire 12- to 18-month product lifecycle. (Admittedly, many sophisticated videographers will revel in the Multicam features, and well they should.) The vast majority of users will produce DVDs or streaming files with the program, and most will be better served using third-party alternatives for authoring and encoding.

Edition remains one of the most competent and fun video editors. Despite the move towards ease of use, however, Edition's quirky interface and often obscure language are still much more appropriate for professionals and top-end event shooters than for most corporate and part-time videographers.

The Cook's Tour
Let's start with a quick overview of Edition's interface and workflow, both of which remain largely unchanged from version 5.5. In terms of interface, Edition is simply gorgeous: a smooth, clutter-free environment reminiscent of the dashboard of an expensive European sedan. Edition is highly configurable with multiple interfaces you can quickly jump between.

For example, you can import your assets and create a storyboard in one view, then send the assets in the storyboard to the timeline. Then you can toggle to the traditional editing interface with timeline, source viewer, preview, and library window to finish your editing. Most other programs shoehorn storyboarding into the editing interface, or use pop-up windows which almost always look cluttered. With Edition, even on a relatively small monitor, you always feel like you have plenty of space to work.

With the exception of the new menus and the wizards within them, operation is icon-driven, and you can decide which icons are available and where, allowing one-click access to the editing tools and effects of your choice. Once you become familiar with the icons, common operations like splitting, adding transitions, and jumping to the next edit point become fast and simple.

Edition supports multiple sequences on multiple timelines within a project, and you can group multiple assets into one "container" on the timeline to apply one effect uniformly to the group. The program saves all edit decisions in real time, so you don't have to save your projects, and won't lose work if the program crashes.

Background Rendering
As in previous versions, Edition employs background rendering to speed your production. Operation is subtle, however, and leads into a discussion of Edition's greatly expanded multiple-format support. Here's an overview.

When you open a new sequence, you choose resolution and codec. If you insert assets onto the timeline that match that resolution and codec, Edition leaves them untouched, but starts to render immediately when you add an effect. For example, if you choose DV as your codec and add DV files to the sequence, Edition does nothing. Add an effect, however, and Edition starts rendering the effect in the background.

On our dual 3.6GHz Dell Precision 670, we noticed little if any performance degradation when rendering in the background, though the system's cooling fans started to howl like Jimi Hendrix singing "All Along the Watchtower" (and we're not kidding). When you're ready to output to tape, however, your video should all be rendered, so there's no delay.

Similarly, if you configure your sequence for DVD-quality MPEG-2 and add DV video onto the timeline, Edition immediately starts to convert that to MPEG-2. We did notice a bit of a performance lag here, but nothing onerous. As you'll see when we discuss competitive performance, background rendering vastly improved MPEG-2 production time.

Finally, if you configure your sequence for HDV video, say 720p, and add HDV video to the project, Edition does nothing, editing the video in its native form. Many other editors convert HDV into a different format for editing, then back to HDV for writing back to the camera, adding digital generations that inevitably degrade quality to some degree. If you're editing in HDV and are considering a different editor, you should definitely understand whether it edits in native HDV before making your decision (at this writing, even though other applications will work with HDV at full resolution, Pinnacle is unique in supporting Long GOP MPEG-2 HDV).

Also consider this: on the Dell Precision workstation, Edition was able to decode and play three HDV streams—configured as one background video and two picture-in-picture effects—in real time without dropping frames. Add a fourth stream and the frame rate dropped to a still-very-usable 27fps.

This is a great indication of how responsive the system felt when editing HDV, which, at least on the Dell workstation, seemed little different from working with DV footage. Even on a Dell Latitude D800 laptop, running a 1.6GHz Pentium M, Edition still proved quite responsive when editing HDV video.

Note that you can work with different formats on the same timeline, for example adding DV video to HDV. After adding lower-resolution assets, Edition lets you choose whether to scale that video to the project output size or display it in a letterbox with multiple scaling options.

Obviously, these features don't really benefit DV-only producers in the short term. Still, the type of low-level engineering work necessary to support HDV and ultimately HD is better done sooner than later, since it's the foundation upon which all other features are based. And if you're working at the level where early HDV adoption is a consideration, there's plenty of other stuff in the program for you to like.

Multiple-Camera Support
Take, for example, multiple-camera support. If you're not shooting with multiple cameras now, you probably will be as soon as you buy your next camera. It's relatively simple to manage while shooting and vastly improves the quality of your productions. However, the editing side can be a chore, since switching from stream to stream manually on the timeline can be time-consuming.

However, Edition's new Multicam feature makes short work of multi-camera productions by setting up a production board-like interface that lets you switch from camera to camera in real time. You can synchronize via timecode, marker, or by setting a common in point. For example, to synchronize the two cameras from the concert footage we used in testing, we set a marker in both captured videos on a frame clearly lit by the same flash bulb.

After implementing your synch strategy, you select the various camera clips in the project window, choosing the clip with the desired audio track first. Then you right-click to select Multicam Synch, and Edition creates a sequence containing the various multi-camera clips. Double-click on the sequence to load it into the Source window, then play the video. Edition plays all camera views in real time, allowing you to click to the desired camera angle in real time. Or, for more precise switching, you can scrub through the sequence manually and switch between clips the same way. When you're finished, you drag the sequence to the timeline.

Edition inserts the result on one track, with all edit points clearly marked and fully tweakable. Not only does this make short work of selecting between cameras, it also ensures that you retain audio synchronization, a constant problem when manually editing input from multiple cameras.

Bezier Controls
We also liked Edition's updated effects interface, which now includes Bezier controls. Briefly, Bezier controls are handles that allow you to smooth the rate at which an effect is applied. As part of these controls, you can now insert parameter-specific keyframes, so you can control each parameter independently. For example, in previous versions of Edition, each keyframe controlled all adjustable parameters, which is less precise and more prone to error. The ability to insert parameter-specific keyframes is a great improvement that matches the capabilities of Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro.

Note, however, that the Bezier controls are not available on all Edition effects, just the newer, real-time effects. In particular, they're not available on the classic 2D editor, which provides the best interface for adding pan-and-zoom effects to a still image.

Also new are Dynamic Timewarp effects, which allow you to change playback speeds gradually, which is much more elegant than abrupt changes from, say, 100% to 50% playback speed. However, finding the control is unnecessarily obtuse. You don't right-click and select Dynamic Timewarp, as you do with the linear timewarp control. Rather, first you select Linear Timewarp, then you right-click again and select "Edit Dynamic Timewarp."

This is totally unintuitive and guarantees that you'll need a trip to the manual to access this capability. Unfortunately, this is emblematic of how you access and control many of the program's more complex functions. Once you do find the Dynamic Timewarp controls, you open the bottom half of the interface with a small, unobtrusive triangle located atop the control. We found it right away, since we were on the phone with the product manager at the time, but unless you knew it was there, you would assume that the open controls are all that's available.

Fortunately, once you find all the controls, and play with them for a bit, you'll find the new feature quite capable, though we would have liked to find the same Bezier adjustments available on all of Edition's real-time effects. In addition, the control lacks preview capabilities, so you can't check your work without exiting the Effect Control window, rendering the effect and then playing it back.

Other noteworthy new features include Track Effects, or the ability to apply one filter to an entire track, and the ability to create a matte track. There are also workgroup features that allowed shared access to networked assets, and multiple editors can simultaneously edit the same project.

More relevant to smaller producers are audio effects like a graphics equalizer, and the ability to produce both stereo and 5.1 surround sound audio. However, this was the only real improvement to Edition's DVD authoring interface, which remains overly complicated and inelegant compared to sibling Pinnacle Studio.

For a complete description of Edition's DVD authoring capabilities, check out our earlier review of Liquid Edition 5 [August 2003, pp. 39-43]. The short story is that the interface is clumsy and confusing, and lacks advanced capabilities like multiple audio tracks, playlists, and multiple text tracks.

Our other major complaint relates to Edition's compression controls, which also have seen little improvement. Though the program can output to all relevant formats, Edition provides little information regarding the preset you are choosing, and customization options are confusing.

Functional Tests
In other functional tests, we still found that Edition's automatic color correction facility performed better than Premiere Pro's, providing instant adjustments with near-perfect accuracy. Chromakey trials were mixed. We found Edition's new real-time chromakey interface simply incomprehensible and the help facility decidedly unhelpful. We switched to the "classic" interface which produced good results, about on par with Premiere Pro. Both features lack Premiere Pro's ability to preview out the FireWire port in real time, a decided negative.

In performance trials, Edition generally bested Premiere Pro, but it depended upon which preset we used and which output format we produced. For example, when we configured the timeline for DV production, Edition was ready to write to tape when we were, while Premiere Pro took 6:11 (min:seconds) to render.

When producing MPEG-2 files from the same preset, Edition took 14:53 to Premiere Pro's 12:24. In contrast, if we configured the sequence for MPEG-2 output, Edition took only 8:24 to produce the final file.

This leaves us with a capable, high-performance video editor that's wonderfully suited for demanding DV and especially HDV solutions. However, this raw horsepower is hampered by a challenging interface and weak authoring and output capabilities. Fortunately, with $300 programs like Ulead's DVD Workshop and Sonic Solutions' DVDit! available, as well as Sorenson Squeeze and Canopus Procoder for compression, you have other good options for these functions.

Other Companies Mentioned in this Article

Adobe Systems, www.adobe.com
Apple Computer, www.apple.com
Canopus Corporation, www.canopus.com
Dell Computer, www.dell.com
Sonic Solutions, www.sonic.com
Sorenson Media, www.sorenson.com
Ulead Systems, www.ulead.com