As you know, I produce (film, run my mouth in, edit, and publish on the web) a lot of videos and podcasts. These are not only for my RedMonk coverage here on the blog, but also done for pay for clients. For the past several years I’ve been using my early generation MacBookPro to do this editing with Final Cut. I’ve written up parts of the process here and there, which can be painfully time consuling. Using the Mac day-to-day for work is great: I’m a committed Mac user for sure. But the performance for doing video editing and rendering was always less than ideal. I’d usually edit up a video, and budget several hours to pre-render, rendering during, render for export, and then (as my wife, Kim, calls it) “render useless” to post to the web.
Little wonder it took so long on my MacBookPro which just has dual 2.33 GHz Intel Core 2 Duos and 4 gigs memory. Recently, I tried using the elgato turbo.264 HD which promised to speed up the parts of the chain of video producing, but came out with extremely poor results: the rendering-for-web did speed up dramatically, but the audio was always out of sync. (And yes, I’ve applied many updates.)
In addition to “live” video, I do a lot of moderated screencasts. Here, one of our clients logs into Acrobat.com, shares their desktop, and walks through a demo over Skype. On my side, I use iShowU to record the video and AudioHijackPro to record the audio. Then I take the video and audio, synch them together, and edit the whole thing up in Final Cut. I’d do all of this on my MacBookPro. During the last two recordings, something would always go wrong: the audio would go all crappy, the video would garble up, or my machine would just crash. You can see a somewhat out-of-date, but detailed description of the process from 2007.
This sudden inability of my old hardware to take screencast and the ever looming dread of how long it takes to edit any video finally pushed me to look for a new setup.
I’m no old hand when it comes to video editing – I’m self-taught and know even less about hardware specs than I do weird video editing terms like “ripple edit.” As I started looking around for a new machine, the first problem was figuring out what exactly I needed. My inclination was to get a Mac, of course, but it just seemed like the pricing was so much higher than what a PC would be and I wasn’t sure how much it’d improve things
After looking around and Twittering about it for a few days, James suggested I hit up our friends at Dell (who’re clients of ours) for a machine. They quickly shuttled me into their influencer program and started specing out a machine that would turn out to be fantastic for my video needs.
Dell shipped over a Dell Precision T7500 workstation, whose sheer weight of 70 pounds was a good indication of how much video crunching it’d be able to do. I thought I’d call it “The Beast” due to it’s sheer girth and weight.
You can see the full specs here, but the highlights are:
- Processor: Dual Quad Core Intel® Xeon® Processors W5580 3.20GHz,8M L3,6.4GT/s,turbo, 64bit
- Memory: 12GB, DDR3 RDIMM Memory, 1333MHz, ECC (6 DIMMS)
- Video card: 1.0GB NVIDIA® Quadro® FX 3800, DUAL MON, 2 DP & 1 DVI
- Storage: three 300GB SATA, 10K RPM Hard Drive with 16MB DataBurst Cache™
As one of my friends put it: well, that’s really a server dressed up like a desktop.
While it’s not listed in the detailed specs or above, the sound card is also worth pointing out, a Soundblaster Titanium FATAL1TY Pro Series.
Obviously, moving to a PC meant moving away from Apple. I didn’t really even hunt out video editing on Linux, I just went for all Windows. The Beast shipped with Windows Vista (Ultimate) and I hit Adobe up for a copy of Creative Suite Production Premium for video editing. I’ve tried using Adobe Premiere before and found it weird compared to my ingrained use of Final Cut, but this time there wasn’t a choice.
I hadn’t asked for a screen, which was fine. I’ve been using an old Sun Ray 170 for my second monitor for awhile now – you can switch it into monitor only mode. It’s not a giant screen, but it works just fine and doesn’t take up a lot of my sparse desk.
High Performance Video Editing
To trial out the new setup, I used some of my DrunkAndRetired.com footage I had laying around from SXSW 2009 in my “what is it that Meatloaf won’t do?” series. I’d shot the video on a Kodak Zi6, one of those little hand-held HD video cameras and the 640×480 video on my old Canon PowerShot SD600. The Zi6 is actually a fantastic little camera, except that the battery life is terrible. It shoots in 720p, the audio is reasonably good, and it has a macro switch. (It looks like Kodak has a new Zi8 which boasts 1080p video and a longer battery life.)
I made this first video in between 40 or 50 minutes. To put it bluntly was mindblowingly fast. That’s not an hour of me editing, but an hour of clock time, total. Usually, it’d take at least an hour converting the weird Kodak video format and the even weirder Canon video over to something that Final Cut (or Premiere) could actually handle, and then 30 minutes or so editing, and then an hour or so more to rendering the video down for the web.
You can see another example from the Zi6 below, the SXSW 2009 Schwag review:
All of that video upscaling, converting, rendering, and then encoding down to H.264 for the web was done in minutes. Granted, for this first video each the video clips used were around a minute each, but those speeds are impressive compared to what I was used to on the old setup. The next question was how well it’d handle full HD editing and editing screencasts.
The massive speed increase is due, no doubt, to not only the processors but the H.264 acceleration in the nVidia card. Together with Adobe Creative Suite 4 support, it makes doing anything in H.264 mega fast. Generating raw Flash movies (FLV) is notably slower, but still incredibly faster than my old setup.
Editing HD Video
While I don’t have a final HD video to show yet (the first ones I made are still be held for release), HD editing went extremely well. There was a bit of a problem (as always) figuring out how to import from my Sony HDR-SR10 AVCHD camera, but it turns out you can just copy the video files directly from the camera with Premiere.
Once I had the HD video imported – here, about 45 minutes of footage for a talking heads style video and 15 for a “record the screen” demo – editing was super easy and fast. Editing in native HD on the MacBookPro was impossibly slow and forget exporting at anything remotely HD (like 720p) for web publishing, that’d take way to many hours, probably 4-5.
Conversely, on The Beast, exporting H.264 and Flash (FLV) videos for the web was so quick and easy that I ended up with a bit of a problem. While I could export 1080p (and 720p) videos with “reasonable” file sizes, once I got them uploaded to blip.tv, some laptops didn’t have the horse-power to play the videos back. The Beast, of course, could play these HD videos fine, but playing on machines like my MacBookPro (and one of the client’s machines) resulted in choppy videos. So, while I can now export to HD with 29.97/30fps, and as at any quality you might like just fine, I’m still targeting lower settings to assure playback on any machine, Beast-y or not.
Screencasts where always the most time intensive and difficult of all the media I’d work on. You’re recording in weird, non-standard resolutions and mixing in audio as well. The disappointing thing about high-end video editing software (across the board) is that they’re all piss-poor at editing non-standard sized videos, that is videos for the web. As such, in the process of editing a screencast, you spend a lot of time taking a perfectly good 150-200 meg video of your desktop, up-scaling it to a standard or high definition video format, editing it, and then down-scaling it again to a video for web publication. It’s silly, but I’ve yet to find a way around it.
With The Beast, while I still have to go through those silly steps, they just take minutes as opposed to hours as they used to. The end-result (seen above) are excellent, high quality moderated screencasts.
If editing HD video is fast, you can imagine that editing sound only is super fast. For all the podcasts I use, I have a pretty simple tool box of Audacity, The Levelator, and occasionally Soundbooth. I never really had complaints about how long audio editing took, but with The Beast it takes no time at all. In particular, using Soundbooth had always been extremely slow compared to Audacity on the MacBookPro, but now it’s fast enough to actually use. Soundbooth is still a little weak when it comes to multi-track editing, but it’s certainly a prettier tool than Audacity. And running audio through The Levalator takes no time at all.
More importantly, the integration between Premiere and Soundbooth, crossed with the speed of the new machine is fantastic. You can export sound for a video clip in Premiere straight to Soundbooth, fiddle around with the audio (fading in and out, cleaning up pops and fizzes, etc.) and clicking save syncs it right back to the video project in Premiere. That sort of work-flow is possible in Final Cut with an external sound editor, but the speed for doing it on my Mac was terrible.
I haven’t yet perfected recording a podcast on The Beast yet, but the Soundblaster card looks promising, if overwhelming in it’s options. The software for the sound card comes with recording options that will record everything you hear (that is, both ends of a Skype conversation). I’ve yet to master the dials and sliders enough to get a good recording though so I’ve still been using the Mac for recording.
It’s been many years since I’ve had a dedicated, high performance Windows box. Beyond video and audio editing, The Beast has been great to evaluate and use all sorts of Windows software outside of a virtual machine on my MacBookPro. For example, I can run Spiceworks continually now and start to play with things like Microsoft SketchFlow more easily.
The nice thing about The Beast is that it’s beefy enough to virtualize several well-endowed guest instances. Thankfully, I’ve also got an MSDN subscription, so there’s a whole trove of Microsoft OSes, tools, and middle-ware I can tinker with on a real Windows box (instead of a virtualized one on my MacBookPro). For example, it’ll be nice to actually give Windows 7 a real testing out aside from booting it up in a virtual machine.
As you can imagine, this machine makes my professional life much better. At just under $12,000 as spec’ed out (not including the $1,494, in Amazon, for CS 4), I wouldn’t have even tried to justify buying the machine to RedMonk. The thing is, I wasn’t really practiced enough in video editing hardware to know if that amount would have made a difference, or by how much.
But, after using The Beast for almost a month I can understand how it’d be worth it to justify that spend. While it makes me happier to (much) spend less time futzing around with video, the more important part isn’t me having less work. Indeed, I still spend about the same amount of time editing each video (not including the “render overnight” hours, of course), but instead of waiting here and there for slow performance, I spend that extra time actually editing, creating different cuts of the video, and otherwise making a better product for the audience and sponsors.
As an example, with a couple of recent videos I was able to throw together 5 minute and a 25 minute rough cuts (the HD demo and an interview mentioned above) that I could send around internally for RedMonk comments. Normally, producing “rough cuts” would take so long that I’d avoid that and just go with my own judgement. But, because it was so quick to chop up the videos and render it down for sharing privately over the web, I could include this new step.
Once I put the final videos together, we then decided to cut down the 25 minute video even more, down to 8 minutes. With the old setup, this would have been terrible and started to run our margins down with time spent. With The Beast, of course, it was no problem: basically the only time spent was me doing the actual editing, which was negligible compared to the usual amount of attention I’d have to spend handling all the rendering and exporting for web on the old setup.
Personally, the most important thing for me is that I actually look forward to video editing now. Among RedMonk, friends, and especially with my wife, it’s well know that I’ve grumbled about video editing in the past, dreading the sheer clock time it takes. Now, I’ve found myself seeking out more videos to produce, which is big turn around thanks to the Dell T7500.
Disclosure: not only is Dell a client, they sent me that $12,000 box for free without asking for it back. Adobe is also a client, and sent me a copy of CS 4 Production Premium for free. Thanks to both of them for those. Spiceworks and Microsoft are clients as well. IBM and Genuitec, depicted in some of the above screenshots and screencasts are also clients.