With so many options available on the video editing software landscape; how does one go about narrowing down the field and deciding upon the option that is just right for you?
I came on the editing scene at a time when non-linear editing was in its infancy. My media education in college still revolved around cutting film with razor blades and marking sound reels with grease pencils. Even the state-of-the-art computer based edit systems of the time were linear, driving tape decks back and forth over and over again.
The only type of non-linear video editing available was a hack at best. It meant you would have to dub off part of your work to a scratch tape, insert a new shot and lay back the old footage after it. I emerged from college and into the professional edit world just after Avid edit systems became mainstream in the U.S. and Adobe Premiere (the original) was a scant four years old. These systems were legendary, like the fabled futuristic film, graphic and edit systems reported to be only available at places like Skywalker Ranch and the exact details of which changed on a daily basis it seemed.
The world was unprepared, as was I, for the shift in thinking necessary to effectively edit on these machines. I had to unlearn what I had learned. Editing was no longer something you had to do one shot after another, contemplating the rest of your moves as the tape deck slowly cued up the next clip. You could experiment non-destructively. You could build your story in any order you wished, leave parts and come back to them later. The world of editing had opened into a universe of options.
Price, feature set and suitability are the major factors you should consider when purchasing an edit system.
More than two decades later, I’m reminded of that feeling once again. Now however it’s not so much the freedom of editing nonlinearly, it’s what flavor of non-linear suits you. These days I regularly have discussions about which edit system is best for the job, which is inadequate and which is overkill. Two decades ago most editors had only whatever non-linear system was in front of us. Now it’s common, and dare I say a necessity, to support many programs simultaneously.
So which system is good for you? What are the choices? What are the latest updates to our favorites? Which is too limiting for your needs and what is overkill? Let’s get updated on the latest developments in video editing software.
A Matter of Circumstance
When organizing such a diverse population of systems there are typically three paths to explore. When edited down (sorry about the pun), price, feature set and which best suits the circumstances are the major factors you should consider when purchasing an edit system. Comparing by price is most easily done by using a chart, which of course has been provided. Feature set is a little more difficult as criteria will differ vastly depending on what the particular user is trying to accomplish. Not everyone needs that one effect you find essential.
That leads us to circumstances, with just one caveat: The lines tend to blur, and in some cases they blur greatly. Some edit systems try to fit the beginner and life-timer alike. Others do their best to cater specifically to one level of user. We’ll do our best here to suggest how to conceptually approach each edit system, but know that for the most part these are guidelines, not hard rules. There are some professional-oriented systems that can be at least partially understood by a beginner, and there are some consumer packages that can put out an almost broadcast quality work.
Many users introduce themselves to the video edit world because they have a need or desire to complete a specific project. Perhaps you’d just like to make a fancy slideshow for an anniversary party or make a nice DVD of a school play. If you’re too busy, you could simply try what could be better termed a “video generator,” like Magisto or Muvee. You tell them what images, movies and music to use and they put together a presentation for you. There’s really very little control there though, and they certainly won’t edit your documentary.
Drag and Drop
The next step up would be a simple-to-understand program that would let you dive in and easily piece together your work without having to learn the fiddly ins and outs. Drag-and-drop interfaces are ideal here, as opposed to the more intricate timeline-based programs. The operational differences between these two types of interfaces are what most consider one of the major defining lines between consumer-oriented systems and those geared toward professional editors. In the former, video, still and audio sequences are simply lined up in the order you wish and tweaked to your liking, usually by dragging thumbnails that represent the pieces of media.
Composites are made by placing one clip above another and adjusting the effect parameters. The latter option, a timeline-based interface, provides you with a strip of time into which you place your selected shots. Once in, you affect them and decide how they interact with other clips at the same point in time. Each clip is represented as a block or strip in the timeline. The longer the media clip, the longer the block. The two concepts might sound similar on paper but in practice they are worlds apart in terms of how detailed you can get.
Beginners will undoubtedly find the drag and drop method an easier starting point than a timeline editor. Indeed, if you’re just stringing items together, it is ultimately faster. It also helps beginners to ease into the concepts behind editing and learn some of the terminology.
Almost all consumer-oriented editors are designed with at least the option for — and usually default to — a drag and drop interface. This philosophy is based on the idea that new and casual users aren’t necessarily in it to make art, but to create a project or two that will preserve their memories of an event and/or tell a quick story. They want to get in, create fast and be done.
If this is where you are at, iMovie on the Mac, and Windows Movie Maker are good starts. Both will provide a fast, cheap and easy to understand entry into the world of video editing. The former has been updated this year with new codec support and is a great starting point if you foresee eventually transitioning to Final Cut Pro X. The latter is the revived free editor with many of the features that were lost in the old 2009 rewrite restored.
A Step Up
Cyberlink PowerDirector 13 and Serif Movieplus are two examples of the next logical step up. Offering a bit more power and versatility, both have an easy mode and an advanced mode. They also feature “auto creation” tools so you have the option to be quick and dirty if you want to, but you can also take a more detailed and active role should you wish. When you’re ready to take the reins, you can ease into simple builds with drag and drop interfaces, and when you outgrow those you can move on to the advanced layout mode of these programs and ones like them.
It is at this point, by the way, that you’ll notice that the companies behind these programs start to highlight specialty areas that they feel their products are good at. As a buyer it’s up to you to decide which features are really useful — image stabilization, for example, is popular — and which border on gimmicks — do you really need 400 transition effects? Some users might have a lot of media and need organization. Nero Video 2015 — or the entire Nero suite — might be a good choice for them. Programs like Premiere Elements can help your edits achieve an overall style by applying themes and style templates to your work, or helping with music creation.
The software companies realize, as will you, that sooner or later you will outgrow the lighter systems. Either you’ll get tired of the constant file conversion or the limitation in what kind of titles and effects you can use, or you’ll wish you could do a green screen effect or similar advanced effect. You’ll want to move up to the next level. Keep in mind though that as the important features grow and the edit systems become more capable, their prices increase in almost perfect synchronicity.
Keeping it in the Family
To reach as many customer levels as possible, many companies will offer options for the next level of editing apps. Many developers split their products at this level into different packages, each catering to a different type of user with different highlighted features in each. Suites also start to emerge whereby companies form partnerships with developers of complementary programs and plug-ins that will add to the value of their offering and push them out as bundled packages.
Typically there’s a standard editor, like in the case of Pinnacle Studio and Sony Movie Studio, a middle package offering a wider feature set such as Pinnacle Studio Plus and Sony Movie Studio Platinum, and a high-end product with even more features and perhaps bundled companion software, for instance Pinnacle Studio Ultimate and Sony Movie Studio Suite.
Which one is right for you depends again on your level of seriousness in editing and the desired depth and quality you need in your finished product. Hobbyists, community groups and small businesses are the main users at the entry and mid-levels. The top end packages might be enough to get you through your independent film, with added elements like image compositing and programs for creating and refining music and dialog.
Moving a little further up the ladder finds us at the semi-professional level. Don’t let the “semi-” nomenclature fool you here though — take it with a grain of salt. These programs are indeed powerful, and many are used to support small production companies and businesses that provide regular video content. What makes these programs really shine is not only the fine-grain manipulation you can achieve with them but the speed and ease at which you can do it. You’ll rarely need to convert footage before being able to work with it in your project.
Shuffling content between your edit system and other creative and digital content management programs becomes something you don’t even think about. It just works. You’ll find support for a greater amount of codecs and hardware built right into the program. Grass Valley Edius, Magix Pro, Sony Vegas and Lightworks are all edit systems that resonate with advanced processing tools, color and video metering, content creation, compositing and authoring, all integrated or supported by their companion applications.
These programs feature the tools needed for meeting or exceeding broadcast quality technical specifications. This is a good level to consider as a minimum for a documentary, feature film or television program.
A Note on Specialization
Let’s take a sidestep here for a moment and go back to the concept of programs with specialties, because there’s an honorable mention or two here that are worth noting. Autodesk Smoke is not an edit program at its heart. Think of it more as an effects compositing program with a fairly robust editor built into it. It’s a unique approach that might appeal to those who create most of their content using digital sources, like 3D creation programs or animation and rotoscoping. Likewise Blender, a system most of us know as a free 3D modeling program, also has a built-in video editor. Both of these programs hope to capture the eye of the specialty creator who needs editing capabilities as well.
The Big Three
The top of our list is generally accepted to be shared by three big systems. Aimed strictly and unabashedly at the professional market, these programs are used in the creation of the majority of feature films, news systems, corporations and television shows. Ask most professional editors in the film and television business about their software and Avid, Final Cut and Premiere Pro will probably be the first three they will name.
Each of these systems provide complete environments with which to manage, maintain, create, manipulate, refine and distribute not only edit projects, but entire libraries of projects. You won’t find any auto-movie generation algorithms here, and the learning curve is truly a steep slope, but at this level you can rest assured that you have the ability to create any level of product desired — once you know how to use it.
Which makes your final cut?
We would be doing all of you a disservice if we said there was one and only one product at each level that stood out and you should buy this one over that. Perhaps that could be done 20 years ago, but with all of today’s options it’s just not a viable proposition capable of holding water. If you surveyed 20 people who create Internet-only content, you’d probably get at least 10 with unique requirements that would make one program a better than any other.
The good news is that almost every edit program out on the market today has trial periods or “Lite” versions. Consider your level of expertise and your future prospects. You might choose a simple editor now knowing that learning it will make you better at the edit system you want to transition to later on, especially if it’s part of the same family. Make a list of the most important features your projects will require, the types of media you will handle, and the codecs you will shoot with and determine which programs support them.
Do your research. Will rendering time be an issue or can your software process your composites in the background while you work? Can it output in the formats you desire? Will you be able to share files with others around you? Will you be able to translate your old projects to your new system? Do you even need that? Find what works for you and make educated decisions without overstepping your bounds.
Sure everyone wants to sit at the helm of the most powerful edit system ever, but is it money well spent if you have no idea how to use it, or never require its full potential? Finding a program that works for you at the price point you can afford is not an impossible task if you do your research. Knowing what is out there will ultimately make you happier with whatever path you decide to travel.
There’s no shortage of video edit systems out there. We’ve covered many of the mainstream computer software vendors on the market today, but there are alternatives.
Some of the products we’ve talked about (Nero, iMovie, MoviePlus, etc.) offer companion mobile apps for everything from screening to monitoring to simple editing. There are other stand-alone editing apps available for when you’re on-the-go. Cinefy and WeVideo are good places to start. Oh, and WeVideo also offers an online editing system, as does Youtube.
Flash Integro’s VSDC Free Video Editor is a decent edit program, that supports many popular codecs and can handle the demands of the casual user, if you can handle the hassle of skirting around all the “bundled” software during installation. AVI Demux is another free program that has built up a following over the years. It has versions for PC, Mac and Linux.
Speaking of Linux, did we mention Lightworks has a beta version for you? Cinelarra, Open Shot and Pitivi all help to round out the varied levels of expertise and complexity.
Finally, though not as popular as they once were, hardware edit systems do exist and have their advantages. MacroSystem Casablanca has been around for ages and still creates an intensely rich and no-hassle turnkey edit machine. Companies like 1Beyond produce products like the RuggedRack ENG Truck System. Companies like Newtek, Telestream and Matrox make portable production and streaming kits, which either have editing capabilities built in or work closely with edit/compositing software you can add on.
Having a dedicated system can sometimes work better than a software alternative, especially for mobile productions. Edit systems like these are definitely in the minority these days, but talk to their users and you’ll find a group of very loyal followers.
Avid Media Composer
Arguably the biggest movement in the past year comes from Avid’s NAB 2014 announcement of a subscription pricing plan. This is great news for small businesses and freelancers alike, both of which can stay up to date with the latest version, yet avoid shelling out for an expensive purchase. It means that, for the first time, they can gain affordable access to Media Composer when they need it, and save on expenses when things are slow.
What’s the second best thing about this plan? That’s easy — they didn’t get rid of their buyout option. Those who benefit from purchasing the software outright need not hop on their favorite forums to complain. Those who fall into neither category are also in luck. They also offer a “floating license” plan which allows sharing across multiple systems, with the caveat that any single license can only be in use at one system at any given time. No matter the operating tier, this is a win for all users here.
The subscription package can be purchased monthly or annually with a one time discount for current version 6.5 owners. The subscription gives access to the full Symphony package, Sorenson Squeeze Lite, Boris Continuum Complete Lite and NewBlue Titler Pro 2.
Avid spent the rest of the year releasing an incredible amount of tweaks to their system. Experienced users will appreciate the enhanced project searching and filtering features in the places that needed them. Interface tweaks were also made to help provide more information where it’s needed.
Users who are used to other professional systems will appreciate the inclusion — at long last — of copy drag support and the ability to mute individual clips in the timeline. Enhancements have also been made to speed up both frame and thumbnail caching. Several welcome interface tweaks geared toward sorting and organizing round out the package and many more enhancements that would take much too long to go over.
The only downside we see is that Avid Media Composer still remains among the most expensive edit systems no matter which plan you choose. Those with little-to-no budget still need not apply, which is probably okay as most users at that level will likely not need the excessive professional level tools, nor will they want to climb the steep learning curve of such a system for projects that don’t require that level of detail and finishing.
Though it may make extreme inroads into the prosumer and freelance professional market in the coming years, Media Composer remains unnecessary and out of reach of the consumer hobbyist and semi-pro users.
Adobe Premiere Pro (Creative Cloud)
Whether used independently or as part of the entire Creative Cloud package, Adobe Premiere Pro is an attractive solution for freelancers and professionals alike. Accessing anything in Adobe’s CC package of programs is done strictly on a subscription basis. The advantage of this is that updates can be pulsed to you as they become available, as opposed to the point release update that happens a few times a year at best. Ultimately it keeps every user up to date with the most recent features.
Premiere Pro can be purchased — that is, rented — separately from the rest of Adobe’s products meaning you can rent the video editor for just the month you need it, but can keep Photoshop around all year long if you like. Obviously however, as with all subscription services, you must be able to connect to the Internet on a somewhat regular basis to verify your license and download the updates.
Once you decide which package to use — a rather major undertaking in and of itself — you have access to one of the top video edit systems on the market. Used primarily by professionals, freelancers and small businesses, Premiere Pro comes packed with everything from support for the latest camera recording formats to interface customization, all of which are geared toward simplifying the general tasks of everyday editing.
Premiere Pro does a good job of explaining options to the user while keeping the wording simple, making it especially interesting for those wishing to make the jump into the professional realm.
Improvement highlights this year come in the form of support for passing clips, sequences and media between projects, improved masking and tracking and effects that can be added to master clips and thus passed directly into any edit sequence they are laid into.
Adobe’s offering is a force to be reckoned with, as a monthly rental of the complete Creative package, which includes tools for photo, web, video music, coding and more, is the same price as a monthly rental of Avid’s MC package. Unfortunately they remain among the more expensive systems on the market, and part-time users may find the suite out of reach.
Final Cut X
Final Cut X is Apple’s proprietary video editing system and works hand-in-hand with the Compressor video encoding system and Motion effects compositing system, both available for purchase separately. To be fair to Adobe and Avid however, you should consider these programs as part of the essential package cost if you want to compare the offerings side by side, as the other companies have programs for these needs built into their bundles.
Each of these other programs are $49.99 at the time of writing, and both have been flooded with updates of their own this past year, which we will not go into today. Also consider that, like Avid, users may still find themselves shelling out additional bills for additional photo editing software and the like.
After the backlash of the decision to abandon the old Final Cut Pro series and start again, many users have warmed up to FCP X, and it has regained a little bit of respect, although many consider the adjustment to the new way of working a little bit of a bumpy ride. New users, on the other hand, will enter into a world of smooth, professional editing based on a multi threaded, 64-bit system optimized for the latest Apple workstations. Many of the advanced professional utilities are present and response time is lightning fast.
Apple had some interesting — if not slightly perplexing — improvements in its editing software package. Final Cut X has done a lot to catch up to the level Final Cut Pro 7 was at when it was discontinued, however many of the interface shortcuts and enhancements are still missing. Whether or not you will miss these items really depends on how you work. Nevertheless, it seems these features will likely eventually return, it’s just a matter of when. Meantime, new features have been added to fill some niche markets. 4K support has been added, as it has an accompanying 4444 XQ codec.
The new system has been optimized for the new Mac Pro workstations, and Libraries, media indicators and enhanced media management options to speed up asset management. External monitoring and a new voice over tool round out the major additions. Making a “return” is the ability to make numerical speed changes to video clips. All of these are welcome additions to the arsenal, but one wonders why more attention wasn’t focused on returning some more of the FCP7 fan favorites. Nevertheless, Mac users who find iMovie inadequate will find this a natural transition, and the price makes it all of a foregone conclusion for such a powerful piece of software.
Vegas Movie Studio
Sony’s Vegas line is another series that has a product for all levels of editing needs. Indeed, it could be argued that it has the largest variety of edit systems, perhaps too many. Still, variety is the spice of editing. The Vegas family includes no less than three package options for the “professional,” and three more for the “consumer.” Don’t let this overwhelm you though. When all is said and done there are really only two distinct edit systems. What separates the packages are the availability of features and the additional software bundled with it.
The Movie Studio Line is a powerful edit system and will satisfy the needs of those who are mainly authoring their own DVD and Blu-ray discs, or authoring for the web or local playback. The Standard edit mode will get any project done in no time, but those needing to edit the details or who have special edit needs will find it lacking flexibility. The advanced edit mode, available at the “Platinum” or “Suite” level is where some real magic happens. There are no waveform monitors here, but color correction and other popular effects are available; 4K and 3D are supported as well.
The Vegas Pro Line adds native support for things like Photoshop, PSD support, Waveform monitors, many of the popular video codecs and even more editing tools and configuration options. In this case, the real magic is in the Suite which adds Sound Forge Pro and DVD architect (also in the middle package), and an effects/compositing system by the name of HitFilm 2 Ultimate. In many ways, Vegas Pro has already earned the right to sit with the top three professional systems above.
Prospective purchasers of this product line (lines?) should be aware of a few criticisms. The user interfaces across the board can be somewhat confusing at times, and it may take you a few extra clicks to achieve something that takes one click in other programs. Thus the learning curve is a little steeper for new users than some of the other options, especially on the consumer side. Professional editors will be able to work things out, it may just take some hunting. There’s also an obvious lack of separate encoder. If you don’t have your own, all renders will need to be done within the edit software itself, which could slow down workflow.
There are also some new features to talk about, some of which are rather unique. Touch support for tablet editing and specialized mobile collaboration apps are available on some versions, as are new surround sound mixing and enhanced level monitoring. Sony’s website has an excellent chart for comparing all of its products.
Nero Video 2015
Nero has built its foundation on its disc burning system, but it offers much more than that. For our purposes, this consumer-level product is probably best for the hobbyist or enthusiast who shoots and/or collects large amounts of media and loves to have it organized. Available as a standalone product, or as part of the Classic and Platinum Suites, Nero video is aimed at simplifying many tasks that you’ve seen in professional videos and wish you could add to your own.
Long-standing criticisms of Nero’s platforms have been a reliance on templates and a bit of confusing redundancy between programs. While the suites can still be confusing at first, and you will find no lack of templates in Nero Video 2015, they are by no means essential. Use them or not. There are simple and advanced modes of editing, the former reflecting programs like Windows Movie Maker, and the latter offering a typical timeline with keyframe support and more. There is great emphasis on codec support.
Only professionals and users with specific hardware codecs will need to take the long road, and convert before importing. If you’re grabbing from the web, you’re pretty much good to go. Titling and other effects are made as simple as can be, at the sacrifice of some customization which only the pros will miss. Nero also offers companion apps for organizing and working on the go.
New features include 4K support, video stabilizer, many effects and the long overdue on-the-fly video disc format switching. Users will need to decide on their own if their needs are satisfied strictly by the video editor, or if the enhanced integration of the suites and all they provide is beneficial to them. Nero tends to “take over” as the media handler of your entire system and incorporate everything into its own operating structure, but then again that’s what people who are enthusiastic about the Nero suite look forward to.
Autodesk Smoke 2015
Some edit systems have a compositor integrated as part of their expanded tools package. Think of Smoke as the exact opposite. Primarily an effects editor, Smoke is equipped with a fully functional timeline to compile video and effects into your media project. Not to worry though, if you’d like to step outside of its editor for a little more power, Smoke works just fine with most of your mac-based edit systems. Unfortunately though, PC and Linux users need to look elsewhere.
Improvements this year are mostly under the hood, consisting of support for the new Mac Pro systems, better FCP integration and many interface and performance improvements.
Smoke is subscription only, running $185 per month (Autodesk online store only), or $1470 per year (online or resale), or $485 quarterly (reseller only).
At a $14.99 one-time fee, iMovie is one of those programs that all Mac owners should just consider buying and keeping in their arsenal. Strictly a consumer-level edit program, the advantage is that those wishing to make the leap to Final Cut X will find much of the interface familiar. Professionals will like the ease of assembly for those quick and dirty projects, and will also be prepared for when that random client walks in the door and says “I’ve already started editing on iMovie.”
Beginners will find the drag and drop interface easy to understand with little or no instruction. Hobbyists looking to take things one step further will benefit from tools like the chroma keyer, image stabilizer and music integration with Garage Band. New to the program, are video frame image sharing, improved codec support and a new look for Yosemite.
Pinnacle Studio 18
With three package options to choose from, Pinnacle Studio is another great choice for the hobbyist or semi-professional. Users new to video editing will need some time to adjust to the intermediate multi-track timeline interface. Luckily, it comes with six weeks of access to their exclusive video tutorial and tips site. Whereas Sony’s packages at this level concentrate on offering additional companion programs and plugins at each level, Pinnacle focuses more on adding features. It’s not until you get to the Ultimate package that the third-party programs really kick in.
At its base $59.95 package, this 64-bit edit system boasts six tracks of drag and drop storyboard and timeline editing, 2D and 3D effects, and the ability to correct and effect clips on the source side, meaning every time you use it from then on, it will be effected by default. Stepping up to the $99.95 Plus package allows up to 24 tracks of video, even more effects options and screen capture capability. Finally the Ultimate version grants unlimited tracks, 4K editing, NewBlue Effects and the iZotope music and voice cleaner for $129.95
Corel VideoStudio X7
Corel eschews the typical triad of offerings and instead welcomingly puts forth a dynamic duo. If there was a package that could be termed the ideal for the hobbyist, this would be it. VideoStudio Pro is the base model at $79.99. It is a 64-bit edit system with 4K support, screen capture, motion effects and tracking and color pattern background generation. Version 7 includes numerous enhancements to media handling, categorizing and tagging, and a subtitle editor. The Ultimate package includes additional effects options, NewBlue’s ColorFast correction package, Boris Graffiti 6 and a “RotoPen” feature — think Indiana Jones when he flies around the world. The price is set at $99.99. Video Studio is Windows only, making it a perfect choice for those who can’t get iMovie. At those prices it’s hard to not at least give it a try.
Peter Zunitch is an award-winning editor working in New York.