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Final Cut Studio 2 review: Final Cut Studio 2

Final Cut Studio 2

Elsa Wenzel
9 min read

Final Cut Studio 2 is a tightly integrated software package serving would-be Hitchcocks and Coppolas who edit, mix, grade, and produce video and audio. New to this bundle is Color, which brings professional color-grading tools down to the WYSIWYG consumer level. In addition, the updated Final Cut Pro 6, Motion 3 and Soundtrack 2 offer improved interfaces and a variety of fun and practical features for mixing and buffing up film and video projects. Final Cut Studio 2 costs $1,299 or $499 to upgrade; thankfully, the price has not increased, even with the addition of Color. Those with any prior version of FinalCut Pro may upgrade to the full Studio 2 for $699.


Final Cut Studio 2

The Good

Final Cut Studio 2 is a solid value; includes new Color app; new open-format timeline; SmoothCam feature; improves integration throughout the suite; includes 5.1 surround sound support; adds effects and templates.

The Bad

Final Cut Studio 2 offers no support for Blu-ray and some professional cameras; lacks previews for exported content; and its complexity might cause beginners to weep.

The Bottom Line

Final Cut Studio 2 is a solid value and worthy upgrade for serious film editors who work on Macs. However, hobbyists should consider simpler software.

At bare minimum, Final Cut Studio 2 demands a 1.25GHz Mac computer running OS 10.4.9 with 1GB of RAM, and nearly 60GB of free hard drive space for all the programs, templates, and tutorials. You'd be wise to check Apple's fine print for more recommendations. Unfortunately, Studio 2 won't work well with integrated Intel graphics processors, and of course, Windows users are out of luck. Those without Macs who are seeking hearty video-editing software could turn instead either to the Master Collection or Production Premium versions of Adobe Creative Suite 3. Amateurs on a budget may be better off with Final Cut Express, Corel VideoStudio 11, or Apple iLife. Kick back with a strong cup of coffee when installing FinalCut Studio; this nine-disc suite took us nearly four hours to load on a MacBook Pro with 2 GB of RAM and a 2.3 GHz processor. Installation took just about an hour when using a dream machine Mac Pro with 4 GB of RAM and two dual-core processors.

Final Cut Pro offers a highly customizable interface with modules that you can drag and dock to your liking.

The look and feel of Final Cut Studio remains largely the same as in prior versions. For professionals and longtime users, the multipane, task-based layouts shouldn't be a problem, especially with the workspace customizations as well as resizable, drag-and-drop feature modules. And many tools are relatively intuitive, such as the scopes within Color. But we don't recommend that any newbie tackle Final Cut Studio without reading up on it first, as it's easy to make a mess out of a project by setting it up incorrectly from the get-go. You will need a spacious monitor--ideally two of them--to give your eyes a break. For example, the labels of nested folders are tiny. And as with other complex applications, learning the keyboard shortcuts will pay off in the long run.

Final Cut Pro 6
This video-editing application is at the core of Final Cut Studio 2. The interface consists of multiple panels, including a file browser, timeline, canvas displaying the timeline, clip viewer, and tool palettes. Master Templates can help you add polish quickly to a project. We were highly impressed by Final Cut's updates, such as the ease enabled by the new Open Format Timeline, which lets you drag and drop assorted layers of clips in varied formats into a project without any transcoding. PAL, NTSC and MPEG content that we popped into the timeline scaled automatically. (Just double-check the properties of the first clip you drag, as clips added subsequently will match its settings.)

The SmoothCam feature is a godsend for stabilizing rocky footage that we couldn't have otherwise used without turning to other tools.

In this era of transition, few people have DVD players and televisions that display high-definition footage in its full splendor. Editing software has only slowly caught up with the many high-definition cameras and formats. But Apple's new ProRes 422 format makes it possible to pack high-definition work into the space that a standard-definition project would normally take up. In theory, rather than needing a RAID drive to render a 13-minute video, for instance, you could get by with a 170GB drive and achieve results that look identical to the naked eye.

Final Cut Pro 6 supports industry-standard formats, including DV, HDV, XDCAM HD, and DVCPRO HD. However, there is no support for Blu-ray. AVCHD support has been added with version 2.0.1 updates, which can be found online. Of course, there's support for many next-generation cameras, but you'll have to pay for extra tools to hook up to legacy, non-Firewire cameras. And professionals won't find built-in support for the widespread Sony V1U or JVC 60fps HDV cameras. Apple is known for its elegant software and gadget designs, but we'd like Final Cut to be more intuitive both overall and in the fine details. For instance, there's no estimate of the final file size when you're exporting a project; even Sony Vegas offers that. On the deluxe Mac Pro, we waited 35 minutes for Final Cut Pro to export a half-hour wedding video to MOV format at rinky-dink, 320x240 size, only to get a colossal 5GB file in the end. And while we like what we've seen of Adobe CS3's Device Central, Apple doesn't offer comparable previews of how movies will look on handheld gadgets.

Color offers color-grading tools that you would normally have to spend tens of thousands of dollars to get.

Also, unfortunately, on our MacBook Pro, we encountered glitches. For instance, Final Cut Pro 6 crashed when we tried to export a project to a video iPod. We suspected a corrupted file, but QuickTime achieved the same task without a hitch. Indeed, Apple has already released an update to Final Cut Studio; visit the company's Web site to find what's new. Nevertheless, even after we added version 2.0.1 updates, Final Cut Pro crashed multiple times with general errors and "Out of Memory" messages while performing various functions. Oddly, even taking these downsides into account, Final Cut Pro 6 is a dramatic improvement that sped up our workflow compared to using version 5. However, we advise against multitasking while running the software; dedicating your machine solely to the editing tasks would be wise.

This addition to Final Cut Studio includes a slew of ways to view and adjust color beyond grading capabilities of Final Cut Pro, including with 3D scopes and flatter-looking levers. This application doesn't resemble its brethren in the suite, but it was relatively intuitive. We were able to adjust shadows, midtones and highlights, and customize RGB and luma curves, while presets quickly achieved various mood effects. Color preserves luma values, which saves time when moving work into editing with Adobe AfterEffects. You can also make colors match from various sources or create special effects, such as tinting only a rose red in an otherwise black-and-white movie. Color will likely enable independent moviemakers and editors to achieve lovelier-looking work. However, Color is limited to 10-bit resolution support. Plus, it handles 2K RGB but not high-end 4K RGB, which Adobe Premiere Pro does handle. Another limitation is that you must break down projects sent to Color into 22-minute reels, ideally with 200 edit points or fewer. Some users have complained that the timecode in a rendered file in Color didn't match that of the original clip. However, we were unable to duplicate this problem.

Motion offers sophisticated 3D handling and good integration with Final Cut Pro.

Motion 3
The Motion 3 animation application offers a cleaner interface and cool 3D compositing capabilities. A bunch of new behaviors allow for creative options without requiring the use of a curve editor, filling in coordinates, and using keyframes. You can view and drag around the 3D space from multiple angles, including the camera's vantage point, and then easily zoom in, set drop zones, and duplicate behaviors. SmoothCam technology let us take otherwise unusable footage shot from a helicopter and stabilize it for a result that was usable, albeit slightly blurry. We achieved this fix in a series of short steps without having to pick and lock down a stable point, and without using the separate Shake application. New vector painting tools provide brushstrokes as wacky as feather boas and birds on a wire. Tracking and match moving, optical flow retiming, and a pattern replicator are other notable options. Apple has also added 3D animated text effects and plenty of new stock design elements. And among the new cross-application integration features is the capability to edit templates from Motion 3 without leaving Final Cut Pro 6.

Soundtrack Pro offers strong support for 5.1 surround sound, and its Conform feature nicely synchronizes audio between that application and Final Cut Pro.

Soundtrack Pro 2
Also with a new look and feel, this update to Final Cut Studio's audio-editing software features support for converting stereo to 5.1 surround sound or combining the two. (Obtaining the necessary equipment for optimal listening is another matter.) An enhanced spectrum view, similar to that in Adobe Soundbooth CS3, resembles a heat map that can display pops, hisses, and telephone rings better than a waveform can, allowing for quick corrections. Visual fade selectors are set up to allow tweaking transitions quickly. And nondestructive waveform editing enables making changes without losing earlier work, should you change your mind. The new Conform tool lets you sync video and audio changes, such as when dubbing over actors' flubbed lines, made from within the various Studio programs. This worked smoothly in our tests. And a lift-and-stamp tool analyzes two audio clips and matches them without making you grapple with an equalizer. Plus, you can edit more than 1,000 new royalty-free music samples and sound effects from "ambience" to "sci-fi."

Compressor 3
Compressor 3 is set up to allow batch processing and flexible job chaining. You can apply and access dynamic filters, such as watermarks, without rendering. Apple intends for encoding to be 2.8 times faster than in Compression 2, and it supports formats such as MPEG-2 and H.264. However, preparing content for mobile devices isn't as easy as Adobe Creative Suite 3 makes it. For instance, you don't see skins to preview how your work may look on various gadgets.

Soundtrack Pro's colorful Frequency Spectrum View allows you to edit audio with precision.

Final Cut Server
Apple intends to serve professionals while also bringing lofty digital media creation tools down to earth. To that end, Final Cut Server asset management--which we did not test--could enable users to do what only a billion-dollar broadcast network could previously afford. For example, college kids with access to this $999-per-10-user technology could edit each others' video clips from dorm rooms across the world and operate, say, a 24-7, Web-based broadcast network. Access for unlimited users of Final Cut Server will cost $1,999.

Unlike many applications these days that only come with PDF manuals, you can thumb through four volumes of printed manuals for Final Cut Studio 2. Free videos are also available. Professionals will likely find these a handy reference. But despite the wealth of resources, learning Final Cut from scratch could be a hair-pulling task without seeking advice from someone in the know; otherwise, something as mundane as trying to add titles to a movie could waste hours. Luckily, you'll find many passionate users online. AppleCare representatives are on hand live via telephone and e-mail 12 hours each day, once you pay a $799 fee. But at that price, we wish someone were on the line 24-7 to assist with the inevitable predawn deadline.

Unfortunately, we weren't able to export a project from Final Cut Pro 6 to a video iPod. We also ran into other inexplicable error messages that troubleshooting and user manuals failed to help.

Film editors who use Macs will relish the future-forward tools within Final Cut Studio 2. And as more film freelancers are called to multitask, this suite provides an all-in-one toolkit that more than pays for itself by handling color correction and other projects that might otherwise costs tens of thousands of dollars to outsource. That said, we find the features within Adobe CS3 more appealing for creative projects that need to be repurposed for large and small screens, including handheld gadgets and Web sites. It's too bad that we still encountered some crashes with Final Cut Pro, but we've grown accustomed over the years to its sensitive personality. We expect that Apple will roll out updates to address bugs as they surface. Overall, however, the many new features in this suite are speedy, impressive time savers. Other software packages may be friendlier for beginners or even seasoned amateurs, but Final Cut Studio 2 remains a solid choice for experienced film professionals.


Final Cut Studio 2

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Performance 7