I've been using Adobe products for over a decade now. So much so, that I have begun to think of the company as a kind of older brother or sister. Given the opportunity to review the Adobe Creative Suite 4 Master Collection, and specifically Adobe Premiere Pro CS4 and Soundbooth CS4, I have to say they have done an excellent job of updating both programs. Premiere Pro CS4 is a no questions asked upgrade, while Soundbooth CS4 comes pretty close. I'll be examining both programs in detail in this review. And in the future you'll be hearing from me about other programs from the Master Collection, like Encore, After Effects and OnLocation, as I add them to my animation workflow and learn more about them.
Premiere Pro CS4
Adobe seems to have developed a two-step formula for it's program upgrades over the years. With each new version you'll either get a big, new “wow” factor ability (with a lot of smaller, but neat new functions), or you'll get what I call a “finesse” upgrade, where there isn't one single aspect that impresses, but a lot of little adjustments and tweaks that make subtle changes in the program. Of course, Adobe research has always been at the top of it's field, so you always get something that is well thought out and useful.
New Media Encoder
With Premiere Pro CS4, Adobe has gone the “wow” factor route for an upgrade. The single element to the program that makes it worth the $299 upgrade (and thanks, Adobe, for not kicking this upgrade price up from CS3), is the Adobe Media Encoder. With Premiere Pro CS4, Adobe has created a standalone program that allows you to create multiple encoding jobs, initiate them, and then go back to working on something else in Premiere Pro. Whereas in CS3, you'd export your finished video to an encoder that was part of Premiere Pro itself (and stopping any further work in Premiere Pro while you waited for the encoding to finish).
The workflow for the Media Encoder is similar to CS3 in that you use the file > export media command which takes you to the export settings box where you can choose presets or customize how you want your video to be encoded. There's a nice added functionality which allows you to 'drag and drop' sequences or files into a designated folder which will then be encoded according to the settings you have specified. Moreover, you export a project with one encode setting and then when you open up AME, you can duplicate the project and change the settings from within AME. This is very useful if you are encoding multiple copies of your video for different uses. Say, one video is for YouTube and the other is a high-quality download version for your website.
My practical experience with AME was excellent. Encoding speeds were usually cut in half compared to the previous CS3 version of Premiere. Adobe has improved it's codecs and added a nice two-pass VP6 encoding (main concept codec), and the windows media encoding is much better. From my research, it appears that AME encodes serially (one after another), rather than parallel (at the same time), so those with quad core cpu's won't be very happy (myself included), but I have a feeling that Adobe will address this in a future upgrade. I did have some stability issues with AME, getting an above average amount of crashes. But after re-booting, the program handled the job just fine. It could just be my set up that AME chokes a bit with.
New Media Browser
So, what else is new in Premiere Pro CS4? Well, Adobe has wisely added the ability to work in the new tapeless camera formats (Panasonic's P2 HD and Sony's XDCAM HD), in addition to allowing Premiere to now accept multiple project settings within the same project. For example, you can import Blu Ray footage and DV NTSC sized footage into one project, and work with both types of media without a hiccup. There's a new media browser which makes it much, much easier to locate and review on your computer. The search function alone is worth it's weight in gold for the time it will save you browsing through (if you are like me) endless folders and filenames. You can find a particular file and drag and drop it directly to the timeline now.
Since the inception of the Creative Suite idea, Adobe has been consistent in promoting the idea that the metadata for your clips/media should be able to travel to any other Adobe project. What this means practically is that you are able to include extensive clip notes in Premiere Pro CS4 and when you import the project or media into, say, After Effects CS4, all of the clip metadata will be available there as well. Along with the new Media Browser, this continuing refinement of the metadata idea is something that allows Adobe to stand out amongst other programs. Once you start thinking the metadata way, it really allows you to spend more time working on your project, rather than trying to find files or making mistakes because you used the wrong take on a particular edit.
New “Speech to Text”
If you are a documentary filmmaker, you might find Adobe's addition of the “transcription and speech” search function to Premiere Pro CS4 to be the real “wow” for this upgrade. Basically, you have a metadata panel that opens up to allow you to select the “transcription” button for a particular clip. You can then select “render to text”, hit the start button, and after a while Premiere produces a fairly good written transcription of whatever words/dialogue were spoken in a scene. The key thing to note here is that the words are keyed to specific moments in the timecode of the clip, so if you click on the word “God” in the transcription, you will be taken to the exact moment on the timeline that the word occurs. My experience with the transcription varied according to the quality of the audio. If the recording is clear and simple, you get about 80% correct language. This percentage really plummets if the recording is muddy or loud. On the plus side, you can easily edit the transcription to the correct words without losing the timecode positions, but I have a feeling Adobe will be working on the effectiveness of this function in future upgrades. In the meantime, if you are careful with your audio, this new transcription function can be very useful, especially to the documentary filmmaker who uses a lot of talking heads.
Adobe has added a couple more nice improvements to an already excellent video editing program. You can now apply effects across multiple clips with ease (in addition to saving them as presets), there's improved integration with Photoshop CS4 (full control of layers imported/exported both ways), and a very nice ability to change the form of timecode you are using in a project from standard to frames or feet, or 30 fps drop-frame/non drop-frame) with the timecode also changing the info panel for that particular clip as well. You can also export a project to Adobe Encore without having to render it first in Premiere Pro (very welcome change). And Adobe's re-design of OnLocation (importing clips from your camera) is much improved with a new interface, ability to add shot lists/metadata and some improvements in color scopes and DVR functions. There is some question about whether the monitor in OnLocation is set with RGB values for color instead of the more popular IRE version. Apparently, there is an update to the program that fixes this by adding an IRE screen.
You can now import Final Cut Pro projects along with motion, opacity and many transition effects directly into Premiere Pro CS4 using the XML project file. This is good news for production houses that might use both editors and need to move quickly back and forth from each program.
The interface for Premiere Pro CS4 has changed slightly to a slightly more robust gray/gold/green color scheme that makes it much easier to stare at for long editing sessions. This is the kind of nice touch that Adobe is known for and is much appreciated. Of course, you can easily adjust the colors and frames of your workspace with a few clicks, but the default color scheme is easy on the eyes and works just fine.
After working through an entire animated film project from importing clips to final render, I have to say that Adobe Premiere Pro CS4 is my favorite version of this already excellent program. The addition of the new standalone media encoder (AME) alone is worth the upgrade price. The increased ability to manage assets is a big time saver and the program just seems more stable. In the past, you'd have to stop and save your project frequently with Premiere Pro, but with CS4 I never experienced (except for the new encoder) a single crash in over 15 hours of use.
Higher Hardware Requirements
I will say that the hardware requirements for Premiere Pro CS4 are a bit higher than previous versions. You absolutely have to have 2G of memory and a fairly hefty CPU (2.8 Ghz to 3.4 Ghz), but with prices plummeting for processors and ram memory, I don't think it will be a problem for most of us to upgrade. Put it this way; if you have a decent mid-level game rig for a computer, you'll have no problem with any of the Adobe CS4 programs.
And finally, Adobe Premiere Pro CS4 ships with OnLocation (for capturing clips from your camera) and Encore (for creating DVD/Blu Ray DVD's), which really adds to the value of this program. Instead of having to build your DVD's inside of Adobe, you can now easily export products to Encore, a program I'll be reviewing here soon, which is designed specifically for DVD creation.
Nice job, Adobe. If you are a Premiere Pro user, this is a must-have upgrade. And if you are just starting out, Premiere is a pro-level dv editing program with a huge user base. Very much worth the cost.
Adobe Premiere Pro CS4
Soundbooth CS4 is Adobe's sound-editing program for dummies. Or, rather, the sound editing program for video editors who don't have time to work with the superior Adobe Audition 3.0. At least, this is how Adobe figures it. There's certainly room for debate on that point. However, Soundbooth CS4 is probably the program that should have been released with CS3.
Let me rewind a bit here; several years ago Adobe bought Syntrillium, a company that created a superb audio editing program called Cool Edit Pro. After a fair amount of research and development (Adobe didn't have it's own sound program), Adobe released Adobe Audition which, as it's grown to the current Audition 3.0, is a clear improvement on previous versions of the program. What caused most sound editors to scratch their heads was Adobe's creation of an entirely separate audio program called Soundbooth which edged Audition out as the program Adobe wants you to use with Premiere Pro. Even more confusing was the fact that Soundbooth had some major flaws in it's initial release with the CS3 bundle, primarily centering around the fact that Soundbooth had no multi-track capabilities.
I think what Adobe was trying to do is to create their own program from scratch, which would allow them to develop it in the same way other “ground up” programs (like Premiere) were developed. I say this because Soundbooth CS4 is a much, much improved program over it's predecessor. Putting speculation about Adobe's motives aside for a moment, let's talk about the improvements that have been made to Adobe Soundbooth CS4.
With the addition of multiple tracks for audio editing, Soundbooth CS4 immediately becomes a more mature sound editing program. Having multiple tracks enables editors to create sound effects tracks, music tracks, dialogue tracks and any other sound track you need to create a professional sound mix for film. Having the ability to minimize certain tracks if your mix gets complex is an excellent addition. It's extremely easy to adjust volume and panning for each track as the controls for these adjustments sit right above each sound form. Simple double-clicking on each track takes you directly into the editing mode for the particular sound file, where you can add effects, clean the sound, etc. Adobe has given the time ruler for each track an ability to adjust on the fly depending upon where the particular track is in the mix. You can also take a “snapshot” of a particular multi-track mix and store it in case you want to go back to a previous version of the mix. All in all, the multitrack addition, while not quite as robust as that of Audition, is very well-done.
Easy to equalize
Since Soundbooth is geared towards film editors/directors, many of the new upgrades to the program are in this area. The ability to mark out beats in a waveform is very easy now. The beats appear as small, shaded “scoops” at the top of the wave form. Beat detection and the ability to create loops is excellent in CS4 now, making it a much more useful music creation tool. I was also impressed with the Soundbooth's new ability to match volume levels over multiple clips and the new ability to preview mp3 files so as to hear the quality of whatever setting adjustments you make to the file.
Soundbooth CS4 has the same metadata form as Adobe Bridge, which will make it much easier to search for files and identify/explain clip data that will travel with the file across other Adobe programs. Another very nice feature to Soundbooth is the ability to transcribe speech to text (similar to Adobe Premiere Pro CS4), and then use the text to navigate through a project in time.
Keyframe your volume!
Similar to Audition, Soundbooth CS4 allows you to create “keyframes” at any point in the sound file and adjust those keyframes (can be pan or volume) easily. This makes it so much easier to layer in sound effects and ambient sounds to a video track. And, as much as I like Audition, I have to say the visual representation of these keyframes are much better in Soundbooth. Add to that the ease of moving tracks around in the multitrack, or adding/subtracting new tracks, and you have an audio program that is moving very much in the right direction.
However, I still find Soundbooth confusing at times to use. Since I have created sound effects for dozens of animated films, I'm pretty clear on what I want to do with certain effects and sound files. In several hours of work, I found myself going to the help section several times to do things, like add a second effect to a single track. You begin to get the hang of how the effects tracks are laid out (you can add up to five effects on a single track), but even with my experience I was often confused. The interface felt a bit out of sync with my workflow, like driving a car and reaching for the radio knob only to find the windshield wiper button.
Good integration with Premiere Pro
Still, with Soundbooth CS4, Adobe has made a big step towards a sound editing/creation program that professionals can use. While designed primarily for video editors, Soundbooth CS4 is now becoming a solid sound program in it's own right. In several hours of use via Premiere Pro CS4 (you can right click in PP and choose “open in Soundbooth”), I had no crashes and the program worked very well. I was able to adjust/record/mix the sound for an entire short animated film quickly and fairly efficiently. And I have a feeling that Soundbooth is only going to get better.
So, even though I recommend Adobe Audition 3.0 for a top of the line sound editor, you can use Soundbooth very well in tandem with Premiere Pro CS4. The two programs fit hand in glove with each other. Adobe's development of the Adobe Sound Document (ASND) format allows very smooth integration with Flash, After Effects and Premiere Pro. And with the new improvements (notably multitracks), Soundbooth is now a viable program in it's own right. Something I think Adobe had planned to do from the beginning, they just were a little slow in getting there.
Soundbooth CS4 is a no questions asked upgrade ($79 USD) from CS3. And, as a $199 standalone program, it's pretty darn good.
Note on Adobe Support:
Over the years I've had varying degrees of success with Adobe support. I'm very happy to say that there have been major improvements in the area of customer service and documentation with Adobe products. You'll find that the documentation that comes with both Premiere Pro CS4 and Soundbooth CS4 are very helpful in learning each program. There is additional media on the discs, plus the online help has vastly improved. Adobe has smartly created a sound blog (Inside Sound) for Soundbooth, and a lot of great info/help/tutorials for both programs. One big “wish for” item is a return to hard copy manuals for each product. You can download a pdf using the help section of your respective program, but hard copies have to be purchased separately. I understand the business rationale (not cost effective), but I think it would be a nice gesture to the customer to at least provide the books at a significant discount.
My sincere thanks to Adobe for providing the Master Collection to review for Renderosity. What a pleasure it's been to work with these new upgrades.
*For a limited time, upgrade from an earlier qualifying version of Creative Suite® software or Macromedia® Studio software for the same price as an upgrade from Creative Suite 3. Hurry – introductory price ends on February 28, 2009. More details here.
Ricky Grove [gToon], Staff Columnist with the Renderosity Front Page News. Ricky Grove is a bookstore clerk at the best bookstore in Los Angeles, the Iliad Bookshop. He's also an actor and machinima filmmaker. He lives with author, Lisa Morton, and three very individual cats. Ricky is into Hong Kong films, FPS shooters, experimental anything and reading, reading, reading. You can catch his blog here.
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