Avid versus Final Cut

October 3, 2002

Avid versus Final Cut
One Editor's Perspective
By by Patrick Inhofer

Question: What is the difference between Apple's Final Cut Pro and Avid's Media Composer?

Answer: None.

Not at least when it comes to creating first-class, professional results in a timely manner. They both get the job done on-budget and on-time.

But when it comes to how we approach our projects or how we interact with the software itself, there are a few meaningful differences. I generally classify these differences into two types:

  • Big Picture differences are those which will actually impact our choice of software; when is it smarter to do a job in Media Composer or in Final Cut Pro? These Big Picture differences are few, but should definitely be heeded.
  • Smaller Stuff differences are differences that may impact workflow but won't have any impact on our ability to produce a professional product in a time-efficient cost-effective manner. These Smaller Stuff differences, if discovered mid-project, may cause headaches - but rarely will they bring a project to a grinding halt.

As for my credentials... well, I've worked them both. And many others. And while I've decided to build my edit suite around Final Cut Pro, I consider it my job to fully understand its weaknesses. Nor am I unduly critical of the Avid, having made a fair amount of money off of it in the past. In fact, if you were to ask me to name the best non-linear editor on the market, without hesitation I'd answer Discreet Logic's Smoke - if it were about $120,000 cheaper. But it's not. So instead (and because this topic is more interesting to me) I'll evalute the merits of Final Cut Pro in relation to Avid. What follows is my small contribution to this ongoing discussion.

The Big Picture

  1. Multicam. The huge, potential drawback against switching to FCP is if your work involves multicamera shoots. The fact is, Avid has a great multicamera editing workflow. It's fast. It's efficient. It's easy to use. And once you've cut multicam on an Avid there's no going back. Final Cut, by contrast, has zero multicam abilities. If you search the web you'll find some work-arounds to get pseudo-multicam functionality in FCP - but trust me, it's nothing like what can be achieved on an Avid. So if the majority of your work involves mulitcam, don't even bother looking at Final Cut.
  2. Networked Editorial Pipeline. Another area where Avid's maturity shines is its ability to network and share projects, resources and footage between multiple edit stations. Avid calls it Unity. While some new products for Final Cut allow a facility to approximate Avid's Unity networked environment - it's still very immature. Avid Unity allows far more control over the sharing of resources, keeping track of elements used in multiple projects and the accessing and sharing of centralized drives. I'm sure Final Cut will eventually implement this kind of robust asset sharing, but it's not there... yet. And remember, if your project requires eight editors working with the same media, Unity is a pricey add-on - not everyone has it.
  3. Not all Avids are created equal. Another big difference between the software platforms are, well, the platforms. With Avid there are a half-dozen different flavors of Avid. Some Avids have more features than other Avids. Some even have completely different interfaces. And moving up the Avid hierarchy means buying a whole new system. So as a Producer or Editor you have to know exactly what you want out of your Avid before you book the Avid.

    Final Cut, by contrast, is Final Cut. Whether you're working in DV or HD the interface is the same, the projects are the same - which means they are 100% interchangeable. The only difference between any two Final Cut systems is the hardware that pulls in and spits out the video (allowing you, for instance, to digitize Digital Betacam or output High Definition). And unlike Avid, if you want to upgrade your hardware, it's just a matter of adding a few boards - there's no new software to learn. On Avid, the worst case scenario requires you to not only buy an entirely new computer rig, but to also learn an entirely new program.

    From a producer's point-of-view this means your editor can actually follow the project from offline to online - maintaining continuity and resulting in greater efficiencies. This can also be a great boon to many editors who can cross-over between editorial and finishing - the interface stays the same, only the hardware changes!

Those are the three Big Picture differences between the two software packages.

Sweating the Smaller Stuff

From a Producer's point of view, when considering integrating Final Cut Pro, there are other, smaller areas that might trip up a project, depending on your workflow. And even if these Smaller Stuff issues effect you, they can be worked around - especially if you plan ahead.

  • Split track outputs are more tedious. Not that they can't be done, they just require 2 passes. Of course, if you typically take your mix into post audio, than this isn't really an issue. Which brings me to another point...
  • Final Cut's audio OMF outputs for your post audio mix won't contain transitions, audio levels or the "rubberbanding" settings that your editor implemented. On an Avid these settings will typically make it into the OMF. But keep in mind, some mixers won't even look at these settings - they prefer to start from scratch. Others may prefer using these settings. So talk to your post audio person if you think this issue may effect you. And even if your post audio mixer prefers getting those settings, if your #1 editor has switched to Final Cut you might be willing to force post audio to deal with this extra little hassle.
  • As a Producer, you might have to shop around a bit in order to line up an experienced editor who is comfortable on Final Cut Pro. It's best to do this before you decide to make that first cut on your FCP system. You shouldn't have to explain B-roll, cut-aways and mix-minuses just because you're using Final Cut Pro. Yet the talent pool is still a little thin on the FCP side, more so on the East Coast than the Left Coast. It'll serve you well to ask around and make sure you've got someone with experience to fall back on.

As an editor, when evaluating Final Cut, there are some differences between the two programs to which you'll have to get acclimated:

  • Avid's media manager is much more mature than Final Cut's. For some, this could be a deal breaker and should be listed up above. Based on my experience, it's not. I have no problem hand-holding Final Cut, making sure I don't lead it into one of the hidden dead-ends that lurk within Final Cut's media mangament utility. If you're not as inclined as I am to deal with these issues, then move this item up to the Big Picture section and wait until Apple addresses this utility (which was a significantly improved in Version 3 compared to Version 2). Again, there's no reason you can't the job done when managing your media on Final Cut - it just requires some forethought.
  • Final Cut's keyboard is not customizable. It is what it is. At first, I thought this would drive me nuts. To the contrary, it's somewhat liberating. First of all, I can start editing immediately, no matter whose system I'm using. Secondly, most Avid editors rarely change more than a dozen keys. Instead they rely on keyboard shortcuts or the adjustable icons under the playback windows for anything other than their top ten most useful buttons. In fact, whole swatches of the typical Avid editor's keyboard will go barren (particularly in the shifted positions) - I know this because as a freelancer I regularly called up other editor's keyboard layout looking for new ideas, rarely did I find an editor who remapped more than a few keyboard strokes.
  • By contrast, Final Cut has more keyboard shortcuts than you can possibly imagine. Every button has a primary function, a secondary and usually a tertiary function. No editor in their right mind would ever customize a keyboard to this extent. But learning a keyboard this customized is relatively easy. And once you've mastered it (after six months I'm still find useful shortcuts) you'll be using the keyboard far more frequently than you ever did on the Avid (and your wrists will thank you for it).

  • On an Avid, if you want to move clips or swap clips you've got to go into Segment Mode. In Final Cut there is no Segment Mode. More precisely, Final Cut is always in Segment Mode. Clips can be swapped, moved or over-written in a moment. There is no need to take the time and switch modes - another time-saving feature. But, it takes some getting used to.


Avid and Final Cut are both professional-level programs. There is no doubt about it. With the exception of multi-cam and the lack of Unity-style media management, Final Cut Pro has no real inherit limitations. So to all those producers out there wondering if they should avoid or seek out editors working on Final Cut Pro...

...buy the editor, not the software. If you follow that advice, all of the issues discussed above will be completely invisible to you because good talent will overcome software and workflow issues - leaving you with nothing but a warm fuzzy feeling.

And to all those editors out there who get so heated up in these Avid vs FCP discussions...

...that boat has already left the harbor. The question is no longer if Final Cut Pro is ready for the big-time, because it is, but when you might want to occasionally avoid it. Or for those of us who have made the Final Cut plunge, why the heck would you ever consider going elsewhere?


This article first appeared on applePi Editorial Design and is reprinted here with permission.
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