Sony Pictures Digital Vegas 4.0

It’s still easy to use, but does a lot more
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It’s still easy to use, but does a lot more

When I started working with computer-based video, I encountered simple programs with frustrating limitations, and sophisticated programs that induced “brain overload.” But then I got lucky, met Vegas, and have been working with it ever since. Over the years, with each update Vegas has gotten better, more feature-laden, and let me produce better results. Version 4 is no exception.

This review will concentrate on what it’s like to create with Vegas, particularly from an audio person’s viewpoint. Ultimately, I suspect I like Vegas not so much because it’s a great video program — although people who know video assure me it is — but because it’s a great video program for people who come from an audio background.

First, though, let’s hit the new features.

As this isn’t a video magazine, I’ll just touch on the video improvements. To start, the new color correctors are like three-band EQ for color as you can change hue and saturation for low, mid, and high tones. This goes well beyond the usual brightness, contrast, and color balance types of controls.

There are several new transitions (I particularly like the 3D ones) and effects. The “TV simulator” effect is a riot — remember the effects in “Independence Day” when the aliens messed up the TV transmissions? You can do all those effects in Vegas. I mention this not because this is the World’s Most Needed Special Effect, but it indicates the kind of creative thinking that permeates the program.

The new Noise Texture generator is more practical, and produces textures that resemble clouds, marble, wood, stripes, and much more. Like almost everything in Vegas, the dialog box has a timeline where you can set the equivalent of “effect keyframes,” and the program morphs between them over time. For example, I created a noise texture with clouds, and made them change and eventually dissipate over about 10 seconds. You could create a whole impressionistic video using just this generator.

The video bus feature works like an audio bus — it can process the combination of all video tracks. For example, if you need to bump up the brightness for the entire video, this is the easiest way to do it. Also cool: Supersampling, which calculates intermediate frames to smooth the motion of slow-motion and computer-generated animation.

You can set up a parent/child relationship between video clips where if you apply an effect, the characteristics of one affect the results in the other (think of it as “video vocoding” or “video ring modulation”). On the convenience front, you can copy and paste event attributes (finally!), and determine whether video effects follow along with pan and zoom.

As to audio, Vegas 4 adds 5.1 surround mixing, automatable surround panners in the tracks, envelope automation for supported DirectX plug-ins (14 are included; I couldn’t get any other DirectX effects to automate), ASIO driver support, input monitor while recording, and bus tracks for master, aux, and effects. The bus thing is great — it used to bug me to fade out each individual track to create a fade. Now I just assign them to the bus, and use its volume automation envelope.

Vegas still doesn’t do Acid-like time-stretching, but you can stretch length, pitch, or both for audio events. There are also some efficiency-oriented changes, like improved ripple editing (where moving a clip causes related clips to move as well), and cursor preview (hit 0 on your keyboard and Vegas plays a few seconds around the cursor).

Finally, there are cool split-screen options where you can see the in and out points of events, or compare the results of a video effect with the unprocessed clip.

Other improvements relate to managing clips, as well as optional-at-extra-cost goodies (integration with DVD Architect, and AC-3 encoding using the Sonic Foundry 5.1 Surround Plug-In Pack).

Sonic Foundry has the interface recipe down. Vegas has the same unified interface as Acid, where most of the work occurs in a track view that nominally occupies the upper part of the screen. Other editing views, selected by clicking on tabs, appear in the lower part. These editing views can slide over one another to reveal more of a particular view but some can also be “floated,” which is great with dual monitor setups. I usually float the video preview window over to the second screen, so it doesn’t get in the way of other editing functions.

Audio and video clips are treated as interchangeably as possible. You cut, copy, paste, solo, mute, etc. using the same tools and the same buttons. Just don’t expect shadows or other eye candy; the interface, though not unattractive, is designed purely for efficiency.

Vegas includes a companion video capture program. Once your DV is hooked into your FireWire card, VidCap can take control over the camera transport, and capture pieces of video, frames, or an entire tape.

Pay attention to where you want video clips to end up — video takes a lot of space, so make sure everything is going to the right folder. Also, when you’re saving clips, there’s a Rename All function. Take advantage of this to give your clips a more meaningful description than just a generic name.

To use your clips in a project, go to the Explorer tab, and drag them from the Explorer-type window into the desired track. You can create any number of audio and video tracks; cutting, copying, crossfading, and other common features are intuitive and work just like audio.

Adding effects is simple. For transitions (e.g., a clip dissolves into another clip), you drag a transition (found under the Transitions tab) into the junction of two clips. Holding your mouse over a transition before dragging it activates an animation that shows the transition’s effect.

Plug-in effects (video or audio) are handled similarly: Click on a track’s plug-in icon and add it to a chain. Parallel effects aren’t possible, but you can clone a track and each can have its own effect. Incidentally, Cakewalk’s VST-DX adapter allows using VST audio effects.

Like transitions, video FX also show up with little animated thumbnails so you can understand what the effect does without actually calling it up and applying it. However, you can’t check how it looks by doing a temporary partial rendering (the preview sometimes bogs down with complex effects); you have to render that part to disk, then open it and look at it.

One very pleasant “feature” is that under XP, Vegas is beyond rock solid — it hasn’t crashed in months. That’s amazing, considering how much I abuse it.

As an audio guy lost in a video world, Vegas got me up to speed with its totally intuitive operation. The latest version adds a lot of new features, but they don’t get in the way; you can learn them at your own pace.

Vegas is a bit deceptive — there are only seven menu bar options, and their menus aren’t all that long, so you might think there’s not a lot going on. But this is a brilliantly designed and executed program. You can skim the surface and throw together a video in minutes, or dive as deep as you like. Vegas has earned its prominent place in my audio for video setup, and as long as upgrades like this keep coming, I feel no need to look anywhere else.