Software Review: AVID Media Composer First

The leading professional video editing software launches a free version of its Media Composer tool. How good is it? Review by Tom Atkinson (@r3digital) for Tech Trends

Now this was one announcement that genuinely caught me by surprise; Avid — yes the behemoth of the professional video editing world — giving away Media Composer. Even considering this was as a pared-down version of the software package, the fact that Media Composer First is now available to anyone who wants to learn to edit in Avid is a big deal.

For decades now, it was impossible to use the software without forking out for the very expensive subscription costs for their pro-level packages. Working as a post-production facilities manager, producer and editor over the past 17 years or so I’ve developed something of a love-hate relationship with them, as they are certainly the dominant industry standard, offering very capable pro level NLE solutions. Yet their software is fickle, sometimes buggy, and every update seems to cause more problems than it solves. Plus, they’re very picky about the hardware, drivers and codecs they like to play with, more on this later.

Like a thoroughbred racehorse, Avid needs careful and patient management to perform at its best. You could never install it on a computer and expect it to just work, even dedicated workstations threw up issues so offering a version to the masses is ambitious! Despite my frustrations I exclusively used their NLE software until last year, grudgingly paying the approx. $600 annual subscription fee because it was simply the most capable solution out there. I was therefore blown away when I heard they had decided to encourage new users and aspiring filmmakers to learn the basics of the software with this free version. I hurriedly downloaded it on my MacBook Pro to test-drive it, hoping Avid had taken this opportunity to show off the best of what Media Composer has to offer.

Firstly I should point out that Media Composer First is a very limited version of the full programme, but it aims to give you the basic cutting experience, plus some key functionalities of its big brother. So before we look at a few of the most important limitations here, it’s important to celebrate the positives. We consume most of our video content via the web these days and Avid gets this, offering very basic options for exporting your finished video via Quicktime in the web friendly H.264 or their propriety DNxHD codec or even better, publish directly to YouTube or Vimeo. Yes you can edit 4k video in First but only downscaled to HD, output is also limited to HD but again this is still the most web friendly format and to make your 4k files work for you Avid retain the awesome FrameFlex from the pro version. FrameFlex enables you to resize and reframe Linked 4k footage to best fit your HD edit while keeping the advantage of the higher res footage, I really love this tool!

Multicam editing is also supported in First — up to four cameras can be synched and edited which opens up options for event and music video producers — which is also a great feature. Avid have also included a basic set of effects including a few gems such as a good Stabilizer and basic Luma and Matte Keys. First also has lower minimum requirements for hardware, importantly Avid say it should run on Laptops with 6GB of RAM meaning cheaper computers are able to run the software keeping costs lower for users, particularly those on budget Apple Macs.

So, on to those limitations… Some things jumped out at me as features that might challenge new users. For example, there is a 5 bin limit per project. This seems arbitrary to me, and will limit a user’s ability to organise their edit, and a bad call on Avid’s part as far as I’m concerned. Sequences are also limited to 4 video and 8 audio tracks. This is restrictive but not too bad and I think these limits actually make an editor think harder about how they edit, keeping edits simple is a vital part of being quick and effective. The colour correction tools on offer are very limited though, and are frustrating to use. It’s good that the options are there for new users to familiarize themselves with them, but they are not of much creative or practical use. Overall though, the simple cutting experience in First is generally great and Avid’s famed editing tools are all here for you to play with, including Audio Ducking, a relatively new feature that really saves time when editing dialogue over music.

All in all I was very excited when I downloaded First and felt enthused that Avid are reaching out to new users with this software, BUT when I opened my first project and tried to import some footage I hit a major road block straight away.

Most potential users of First will be shooting on modern DSLRs, anyone who can afford to shoot on RED or similar cameras will be looking to use the full pro level version with 4K capability so for my test I sourced footage from three of the most popular DSLR’s for video the Panasonic GH5 and the Sony A7II and A7RII. You would think Avid had thought this through and made sure modern DSLRs are supported in First but sadly I could not Link or Import footage from these cameras. This has been an issue with Media Composer for years, Avid simply don’t ensure their software works with current video codecs meaning time is always wasted Transcoding video into ‘Avid friendly’ codecs before you can even start editing. For those in the industry this is a pain in the arse but you simply cant offer a product like First to the public without resolving this issue. I checked the First site and there is no explanation of this limitation and no instructions on what Transcoding is, why First users will have to do it when shooting on certain cameras or how to do it. In reality it means the expense of buying extra software from a third party, at very least Avid should explain this issue to First users and recommend or provide some free Transcoding software.

I tried different projects, different ingest formats and made sure I was working at the right frame rates but to no avail. Sometimes First would give me a “not supported for import” message and sometimes First would seem to import the footage but leave me with useless media with black or green video output. Again thinking realistically about the use case for First and editors creating content shot on Mobile for social sharing, I tried to link and import HD and 4K footage shot on my Samsung Galaxy S7 and to Avid’s credit both tests worked. However, while importing provided usable, smooth playback, Linking to both formats resulted in unusable juddery playback even at the lowest Video Quality playback setting which is pretty inexcusable with these low bit rate files. Yes this was a quick test but as an experienced editor I think the results show up some unfortunate problems.

This is the first version of Media Composer First and I am sure Avid will be addressing some of the issues I have with it but my feelings about the product are mixed, I love that Avid have done this at all, it is a big step for a company that dominates the professional market, but at the moment I feel that First offers an aspiring editor little more than an opportunity to experience the interface of Media Composer whilst also getting a taste of the frustrations that working on Avid systems have always offered.

Avid really tries but is often a step behind its users’ demands, which can be frustrating as it forces you to work around bugs that shouldn’t be there in the first place. I wanted to be convinced, and hoped Avid were offering a functional and well thought out product that presented the best of what Media Composer can be, yes limited, but without unnecessary and avoidable problems. Sadly my love hate relationship with them looks set to continue.

There are many more differences between the full version and First than I can go into here and which may or may not be of interest to new users buy they are clearly laid out here so take a look and tweet me your own thoughts and experiences @techtrends_tech

Technology writer for FastCo, Quartz, The Next Web, Ars Technica, Wired + more. Consultant specializing in VR #MixedReality and Strategic Communications

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