Apple Goes to Vegas

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OK, so there were no showgirls, no neon signs, and no Elvis sightings--but Apple did put on a pretty good show at its so-called 'customer event' on Sunday morning at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas to kick off Apple's participation in this year's National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) trade show. (There were champagne and hors d'oeuvre afterwards, but that's beside the point.)

After a quick run-through of some of the features of the upcoming Tiger release (namely, Spotlight, Dashboard, iChat AV, the H.264 video codec, and the updates to OS X's Unix core), Rob Schoeben, Apple's vice president of applications marketing, took a good-sized crowd (in a much larger room than last year) on a tour of Apple's new Final Cut Studio --which, for a smartly-priced $1299, contains new versions of Final Cut Pro, Motion, and DVD Studio Pro, as well as a new application called Soundtrack Pro. (However, there was no mention of whether any of the new products will require Tiger.)

Perhaps the most exciting news in my mind (and, judging by the applause from the crowd, theirs too) is Final Cut Pro 5. When Apple announced iMovie HD and Final Cut Express HD at January's Macworld Expo in San Francisco, the company announced both products now supported the HDV high-definition video format (a highly-compressed format that uses MPEG-2). While that was true, neither app could work on HDV files directly--that required an intermediate codec to translate HDV to something iMovie and Final Cut Express could deal with--and that meant a loss of video quality in the process. Final Cut Pro 5 introduces native HDV support, which means it can edit HDV MPEG-2 files with no extra steps involved--a difficult thing to do and something Final Cut Pro customers have been clamoring for. With this addition, Final Cut Pro users can easily edit the HDV, DVCPRO HD (support for which was announced at last year's NAB), and uncompressed HD formats. The other feature that got major oohs and aahs was new support for multicamera editing. Using the example of a new Black Eyed Peas video, Apple showed how users can have up to 16 simultaneous video sources playing back at once in a grid. And the coolest part is, you can simply click on the different source angles as the music plays back and those clips are added to the timeline, producing a quick rough-cut of your project.

And for those interested in shooting HD footage, Panasonic showed off its new AG-HVX200 camcorder during the Final Cut Pro portion of the presentation. This 3 CCD, 16x9 camcorder can shoot in pretty much every flavor of the high-quality DVCPRO standard (including HD) using P2 solid-state memory cards that come in sizes up to 4GB (and soon 8GB). The best part--the price. At $5995, this camcorder (which is set to be released in the last quarter of 2005) drops the entry level for DVCPRO HD from around $60,000 to around $6,000.

The other app that got people pumped up (thanks in part to a particularly enthuisiatic demo person) was the brand new Soundtrack Pro. Whereas the original Soundtrack's name was a bit optimistic, Soundtrack Pro really has the potential to work with Final Cut Pro to help you create background sounds and music. Similar to Adobe Photoshop, Soundtrack Pro projects feature an Actions pallete that tracks each edit you make on a sound and is completely non-destructive--you can turn off anything you've added or change their order without affecting the original clip. It includes 5,000 Apple Loops format sounds and effects, and has a pretty impressive-looking Find-and-Fix feature, which can identify background noise, clicks, pops, and hum--and repair them for you automatically. Although we'll have to wait and see how well it works, chances are there will still be a place in the audio market for products like BIAS's SoundSoap and SoundSoap Pro.

Motion 2 adds several feature, but the coolest in my book is MIDI Behaviors, which bascially will let users trigger animations and effects using a MIDI keyboard--in essance controlling and playing multiple parameters at once. This would work well when working on an project that's set to changing music.

DVD Studio Pro got very little time as the last product of the suite to be mentioned. A slide showed that it includes an integrated AC-3 audio encoder and can now take advantage of distributed video encoding--both nice features. Schoeben mentioned that the new version can encode HD-DVD format discs using the new H.264 codec that's part of QuickTime 7 in Tiger, but since burners and players are still a while away, Apple is basically updating DVD Studio Pro for the future, and not adding a whole lot to the product that's useful today (or in May, when all the products in the suite will be released).

And in a classic "one more thing" moment (familiar to anyone who has watched a Steve Jobs keynote), Schoeben spent the last minute glossing over a major update to the company's $3000 digital compositing software Shake 4 (a favorite among the NAB crowd), which he called the biggest update to the product in its history. But to see it, you'll have to go to Apple's booth on the show floor here in Vegas, or visit the Shake page on Apple's Web site. The page says Shake 4 will be available this summer, but an Apple PR person told me more specifically to expect it in June.

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