An anal-retentive FCP switcher's notes on Premiere Pro

Premiere Pro CS 5.5.2 splash screen

Premiere was the first NLE I ever used. I learned how to cut in Premiere 6.5 on my homebuilt PC nearly ten years ago. I’m now returning to Premiere after spending half a decade cutting in Final Cut Pro. My overall impression is that Premiere’s underlying technology has advanced by leaps and bounds (in fact, I’d go so far as to say that Premiere is the most technologically-advanced NLE on the market today), but its interface has remained largely (and sadly) unchanged.

I’m incredibly picky when it comes to cutting interfaces, having suffered through a lot of bad editing software in my life. It’s why I finally decided to dump FCP for Premiere: I could tell that the wind was blowing towards an iMovie-inspired interface, which is quite frustrating if you aren’t just playing around and actually know what you want. So I thought I’d make a copious sheet of notes about the Premiere user experience.

Just for reference, I’m using Premiere Pro CS 5.5.2 on a Mac Pro (3,1) with 6GB of RAM and an NVIDIA Quadro 4000 GPU. My OS is 10.7.2.

Honestly, the thing I miss most of all is the ability to toggle fullscreen preview on/off with a single keystroke. I’m a two-monitor kind of guy—I like to put my bins and scopes on my second screen where I can get at them when I need them, but let them hide behind my preview when they’re not needed. While we’re at it, if some preview options (*ahem* Firewire DV) are available only when hardware acceleration is disabled, couldn’t we have a keyboard shortcut to toggle that, too?

Lack of Mackie Control integration is embarrassing. This is a must. I rarely use my Tascam FW-1082, but the reason I let it sit here on my desk and take up an enormous amount of space is that when I do use it, I really need it. I can’t imagine how frustrating the lack of control surfaces must be for real sound editors—particularly those who are trying to do serious mixing in Audition.

Premiere Pro's shuttle controls

The way the shuttle controls are arranged below the source and program monitors wastes a lot of screen real estate. Just sayin’.

There’s little transparency in how PP assigns pixel position values. I think this stems from the fact that it tries to automatically handle pixel aspect ratios. It does a good job of that, but it gets confusing when you’re trying to set a pixel-perfect position for something like a hard matte, where exact pixels (and sub-pixels) make a difference. For instance: when working on DV NTSC footage, title designer sees the frame as being not 720×480, but 533×480. This gets confusing. Sadly, not really sure how one might address this problem and make it less confusing. I guess sooner or later we’ll all start living in a world of square pixels, and that will take care of this problem.

On a similar note, I much prefer Final Cut’s pixel positioning scheme, where (0,0) is the center of the frame, not the corner. It makes it easier to center elements on the screen, and it just makes sense that an element with default position should have a position of 0.

I’ve always thought that a pseudo-AGC adjustment would be a killer feature in an NLE. The Levelator is free software that does this really well, but I’d prefer to do it right in Premiere rather than roundtripping an audio export—ideally as a nondestructive operation on a subclip-by-subclip basis, rather than just being a function on the master audio track. The “normalize peaks” option is definitely a step in the right direction, though. Always pissed me off that FCP couldn’t do that.

Premiere Pro "Delete Tracks" dialog

The procedure for adding and removing tracks is way too complicated. I want to right-click on a track and select “delete track.” But I do like the option of deleting all empty tracks.

It would be way cool to be able to reorder tracks via drag-and-drop. This is particularly an issue in the audio timeline, as once stereo/mono/surround tracks are created in a certain order, it is nearly impossible to reorder them.

Okay, you don’t interrupt playback to autosave the project file—nor do you allow the monitor to sleep during playback. That’s incredibly rude, particularly if you’re previewing a cut for a client. You wait until playback is finished, THEN autosave.

Premiere Pro's eye-hurting scopes

I need to be able to customize the brightness/saturation of the video scopes. These things are hurting my eyes. And that brown background is killing me.

I really like the “scale to fit frame” option when mixing SD/HD footage, but it would also be cool to have a “scale to fill frame” option. In addition, I would much prefer that scaling to be applied as a basic motion parameter so that I can see exactly by what percentage the image was scaled, and so that I can scale up from that starting point without sacrificing any quality.

When playing back footage at high speeds, I’d really appreciate the option of Final Cut-style audio playback—I find that dialog is much easier to understand when it’s a bit choppy but normally-pitched vs. smooth but high-pitched—particularly at very high speeds, where the audio in Premiere can get so high-pitched that it turns into a dog whistle.

While we’re talking playback, I find myself missing FCP7’s playhead behavior. During playback, I could click anywhere on the time scale and the playhead would jump to that point and keep playing. Premiere is almost the same, but I have to press play again after I reposition the playhead. This seems like an unnecessary additional step and I keep stumbling over it, even as I get used to Premiere’s other interface differences.

I’d like an easy way to generate a freeze-frame that I can keep in my bin. No keyframing, no exporting/importing, no extraneous files.

Is it just me, or are renders (software engine only) very slow? Just in comparison to FCP7. Makes me worried about how the user experience might be cutting on my new laptop that doesn’t have a CUDA card.

That said, with this Quadro 4000, the realtime rendering is INSANE. I used to sit at my Final Cut workstation and dream of the day when renders would no longer be necessary, and CUDA acceleration seems to be making that dream come true—this technology is awesome. But couldn’t CUDA renders cache, so that I can see smooth playback on eccentric formats? Example: I shot some 720p footage with my iPod that I wanted to include in an SD timeline, scaled down to 68%, with a title composited over it. My GPU is fast, but the frame rate still lags significantly when working with such an unfriendly codec. If I could pre-render that footage, I could at least watch it back at its true frame rate without exporting it to a QuickTime file. This is something that FCP7 handles really well with RT extreme: you can play it back in real time, OR you can cache a render.

By the same token: couldn’t we have background rendering? If FCPX can do it, surely Premiere should be able to.

Sort of off-topic: is Adobe working to bring CUDA acceleration to After Effects? Because that would rock.

Speaking of After Effects, I really wish I could access the warp stabilizer from within Premiere. It’s incredible technology, but it feels like overkill to make an After Effects comp for every shot I want to stabilize.

Using the tilde key to temporarily fullscreen panels is a revelation. SO useful.

It would be great if the AE graph editor made an appearance in PP. The existing graph editor is mostly usable (not being able to zoom out past a certain point means that if you’re keyframing from the beginning of a clip to the end of it, the first and last keyframes sit right on the edge where they’re almost impossible to grab and drag), but AE’s is much more intuitive.

Premiere Pro EQ interfaceJust taking Premiere’s graphic EQ as an example: the interface is decent (although fake knobs on computer screens seem pretty pointless to me, all audio plugins seem to be built that way so I’ll give it a pass), but the way it sits in the effect controls panel is really awkward. In most window configurations it appears as halfway cut off, and you have to adjust your panel layout to see the whole thing. If an effect interface requires me to readjust my screen layout in order to use it, there’s something wrong.

Soundtrack Pro's graphic EQ with spectrum analyzerSince we’re talking about EQ, one of the most (and only) useful features in Soundtrack Pro was the spectrum analyzer in its graphic EQ. If you turned it on and played the sound you were working on, a little graph would superimpose on the chart to show you visually where pitches were falling in your audio. It made it very easy to target specific frequency ranges for correction, rather than guessing. Any chance of a feature like that making its way into Audition and/or PP?

I find that I’m still a little unsure of myself when cutting in Premiere, and I don’t really understand all the ins and outs of the Premiere timeline just yet. Sometimes I feel the urge to quit Premiere and open up FCP7, but so far I’ve been able to avoid that. I haven’t used Final Cut in three months, and although I don’t regret making the switch, I would say that I like the interface of FCP7 better than that of Premiere CS 5.5. But FCP is a dead platform. It will never improve. Adobe has proven itself to be an astute, communicative, responsive company, and their investments in new video technology (including the acquisition of IRIDAS, which makes me giddy with excitement) demonstrate their dedication to the future of Premiere as a powerful, professional platform. So although there’s plenty that I don’t like about Premiere right now, I’m excited and optimistic about its future.

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