Stuck in the Middle

Promising new postproduction tools could give Pro Tools stiff competition.

With Digidesign's mid-'90s introduction of its PostConform Pro Tools add-on (which played QuickTime movies in conjunction with a video accelerator card), affordable, all-digital post-production became a solid reality. Personal studios and multiroom facilities with many systems to buy took note. Being an audio-only system, Pro Tools developed and grew strong in the post market.

Flash-forward to today, when desktop computers play QuickTime just fine without add-on accelerators and all-digital production is old hat. The Pro Tools product line has mostly moved several thousand dollars upscale, leaving a gap in its wake. Those with the budget generally still opt for Pro Tools, but for everyone else, as my father never said to me, “It's not a bargain if you can't afford it.” The alternatives for those left behind were unclear.

In the past few years, however, as ASIO has caught on, plenty of inexpensive I/O hardware for digital audio workstations (DAWs) has appeared. The burning question has been what software to use. With Pro Tools out of the picture (so to speak), the most powerful multitrack digital-audio editors for midrange users were digital-audio sequencers. They had integrated QuickTime or AVI playback but weren't really optimized for audio post other than music scoring: time was often expressed in bars and beats, busing and panning weren't conducive to surround work for film, spotting functions were weak, and so on. The products were certainly usable, but people got the feeling they were fighting the tide when they used a music-oriented sequencer package for post.

Now it seems the tide may be turning. A few years ago, Steinberg developed Nuendo, a program built from the ground up for post work, for Silicon Graphics (SGI) computers. More recently, the company worked up Windows and Mac versions and promoted them heavily at the recent winter NAMM show. Also shown at NAMM was Mark of the Unicorn's Digital Performer 3.0, which offers a host of new features targeted squarely at the surround and post-production market.

The designs of both Nuendo and Digital Performer show that their manufacturers have been listening to the market they are courting. The programs offer substantial surround-mixing capabilities, extensive fade control, shortcut definitions for every function, and more. Each program has its strengths and weaknesses. Digital Performer has the more versatile surround panning whereas Nuendo has a comprehensive, multilevel undo structure.

For those stuck in the middle, this is a nice trend, and it's likely to get better. I'd be surprised if Emagic wasn't cooking up its own package to get a chunk of the post market, and others will surely join the fray.

But taking on a new market means the manufacturers have to cover new territory. Although each of them has had customers in post-production, the increase in numbers is going to focus more attention on the post market's needs, such as extensive, direct user support. If you are a software developer and the work on James Cameron's next epic is held up by bugs in your software, immediate help is needed, and you will be made aware of that fact in no uncertain terms. It will be interesting to see who will manage the support challenge most effectively.

Post-production editors and mixers also demand stability and won't tolerate a new version ridden with bugs. Post-production houses will wait to purchase or upgrade until they are confident the program is stable enough to function in a high-pressure production environment. They also want their multitrack graphical user interface to display the program's audio portions and hide its music heritage (music scoring excepted, of course).

We can expect some bumps in the road; for a start, neither Digital Performer 3.0 nor Nuendo for the Mac are shipping as I write this. But it is gloriously clear that smack dab in the middle is, once again, a good place for post-production facilities to be.