Adobe CS4 Master Collection Review

Written by Tim Siglin & Paul Schmutzler
April 9, 2009


Approximately a year and a half after Adobe released its Creative Suite 3 (CS3), the new Creative Suite 4 (CS4) is now available to the public in the same suites: Design Premium, Production Premium, Web Premium, and the all-in-one Master Collection.

With CS3, Adobe took its video product line several notches above the norm in quality, allowing it to elbow its way into the spotlight alongside other premium video software manufacturers such as Apple and Avid. The product introduced many features, including consistent user interfaces with brightness sliders, outstanding support for Flash video, and a new, easy-to-use audio processing program called Soundbooth. All these features allowed Adobe to catch the eye of many video professionals who previously incorporated only Photoshop in their workflows.

Each and every one of the suite’s features and technologies has been improved in CS4, some significantly. With an eye toward accelerating workflows and an initial foray into mission-critical metadata entry and retrieval, the product has some noteworthy improvements that merit attention.

CS4 Production premium box

Recording With OnLocation
We decided to start our tests by using OnLocation CS4, a direct-to-computer recording program that works with MiniDV and HDV cameras (see Figure 1). The first version of OnLocation, formerly DV Rack from Serious Magic, shipped with CS3 but was only available for Windows operating systems. OnLocation CS4 fixes that cross-platform oversight, as it is completely rewritten from the ground up to take advantage of both Intel-based Macs and Windows.

OnLocation CS4 screenshot
OnLocation CS4 is a direct-to-computer recording program that works with MiniDV and HDV cameras.

We wanted a way to test several of the features in rapid succession, so we chose to set up in a church auditorium, where we could test with both house sound and ambient sound. We could also work through a workflow that involved OnLocation, PremierePro, and Adobe Media Encoder (now a stand-alone product).

Paul set up a Canon XH A1 to record a 1080i HDV signal and connected the camera directly to the FireWire port of a MacBook Pro (2.16 Intel Core Duo, 2GB RAM, 250GB HD) with OnLocation CS4 installed. To test speech-to-text capture, an audio feed of the house sound from the sound system was connected via XLR to get the best possible audio.

OnLocation CS4, as well as several other CS4 tools, is now based on the concept of “workspaces,” where only necessary windows appear on the screen. The calibration workspace in OnLocation, for instance, provides a view of the camera image, vectorscope, waveform, and shot list all in one place. This proved to be too much for the processor on our slightly slow laptop, so turning off the camera monitor view resulted in a significant boost in performance. In short, OnLocation requires all the computer resources it can muster, so be prepared to have your most powerful workhorse on the job if you use it for a mission-critical shoot. Our laptop had significant lag in displaying the camera’s output, which would prove impractical—or at least disconcerting—in most situations. After acquiring a white balance from the projection screen behind the platform, we were ready to record, and OnLocation worked very effectively in this regard. There was no noticeable delay from the moment the record button was pressed to the time OnLocation actually began recording, and more than 1 hour was recorded with no dropped frames. While using the production workspace, there was a lag between real time and the computer display.

Having seen the same thing in similar programs such as Canon’s Console software, this is a common side effect with using a FireWire connection from a camera in order to view a real-time image. While this lag was more acceptable than that of the calibration workspace, we still recommend using a separate confidence monitor if you need real-time feedback from the camera.

OnLocation also offers the option of adding all the metadata you could dream of before you complete your shoot by allowing you to enter the data in a convenient tab on the right side of the interface.

Editing With Premiere Pro and Soundbooth
After recording, we packed up our gear and headed back to our office to import the footage into Premiere Pro. Our test editing system was a 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo iMac with 2 gigabytes of RAM and a 250-gigabyte hard drive.

Premiere Pro CS4 took about 10 minutes to index the 12- gigabyte MPEG-2 Transport (M2T) stream of multiplexed audio and video that OnLocation had created. It would be nice to see other format recording options in OnLocation, akin to the way that Focus Enhancements FireStore Direct To Edit technology handles hard-disk recording, but this would make even more processing power necessary.

Premiere Pro CS4 screenshot
Premiere Pro CS4 has a GUI that is more efficient and attractive than its predecessor.

After the footage was indexed, it was apparent that the pixel aspect ratio was incorrect when we opened the clip in the viewer. However, by simply reinterpreting the footage to the HDV standard of 1.333 widescreen, the video appeared correctly, saving us the time of reimporting content.

We weren’t able to open any of our old Premiere Pro CS3 projects because of the prerelease nature of the software, so we weren’t able to check out some of the complex edits we’d done with CS3. The release version fixed this issue. We did notice that Adobe has added a few features to Premiere that make it a little more efficient and attractive.

In the same window where you’ll find History and Effects, there is now a Media Browser option. This window provides a way to search any hard drive connected to your computer, finding any media that Premiere Pro can import. This is a timesaver, as you don’t need to keep clicking File > Import for every file needed for a project. Another new tab you can add to your workspace is called Resource Central—another part of the CS4 suite that blurs the line between offline and online usage. Within the Resource Central pane, you can access tutorials, sample files, and extensions for Premiere Pro and other video products that Adobe offers.

What used to be called the User Interface preference in CS3 is now called Appearance. In addition, it appears that the adjustable brightness introduced in CS3 was a big hit because Adobe tweaked the slider to enable users to make the interface even darker or lighter than before. You’ll also find better control over where your cache files are stored. Also metadata has a greater use and benefit in most of CS4.

Soundbooth 2 shows some significant improvements over the first version, which was introduced in CS3. A feature sorely lacking in the original Soundbooth was multitrack audio production, and the new Soundbooth’s multitrack interface aims to please. The interface is simple and not at all intimidating, as it uses dashboardlike controls that pop up when the mouse hovers over a track. One click on a track will quickly switch from the multitrack production interface to the file editing screen. After making editing changes, it’s another single click right back to your multitrack layout. For our testing, we used Soundbooth only to make some minor improvements to our sound quality and to get a transcription of the narrative, so we’ll expand our assessment in a future article. After reducing our hour of footage down to a 3-minute test clip in Premiere Pro, we added fades in and out, adjusted the color, and exported the timeline to Adobe Media Encoder CS4.

Encoding With Adobe Media Encoder
Adobe Media Encoder is a stand-alone product that works in harmony with After Effects, Premiere Pro, and other Adobe tools, but it can also be used on its own, similar to the way that Apple Compressor works either with Final Cut or on its own. Put any audio or video media in the Adobe Media Encoder queue, choose your compression settings, and let it go to work. You can also choose a specific timeline within a Premiere Pro project to compress without opening Premiere, which is a timesaver for those who just need to get the compressed file out the door as quickly as possible. Adobe Media Encoder also supports watch folders that will automatically begin a preset encoding session as soon as a file is placed inside.

Media Encoder CS3 screenshot
Adobe Media Encoder CS4 works with Premiere Pro or as a stand-alone encoder.

Having chosen H.264 Blu-ray and Dolby digital audio for our compression, we let Media Encoder load our timeline into its queue. Two hours later, our 3-minute test compression was done. In place of FLV and F4V files, which were having a few issues in our prerelease version, we exported a QuickTime streaming file at the full 1440x1080 size, which turned out to be excellent quality.

Adobe Media Encoder can also upload a completed compression to a user-identified server, a significant step in workflow enhancement. However, as Tim mentioned in an article on StreamingMedia.com, automated FTP transmissions are only available on Adobe’s more expensive Flash Media Encoder Server. There is also the option to have Media Encoder delete the original file after verifying a successful upload to a remote location.

Transcription With Premiere Pro and Soundbooth
Adobe has added an autotranscription feature to Premiere Pro and Soundbooth. In theory, you can take a video or audio clip and run it through the analyzer, which will spit out a speech-to-text metadata file that times each word to a synchronous frame of video. There are several tools that do this and do it quite well, but they range from a low-end price tag of about $18,000 to more than $100,000. Adobe licensed a set of speech-to-text libraries that are acceptable for the price range, even though they seem to lag behind other speech indexing, search, and retrieval systems we’ve used.

Adobe recommends using clean audio with minimal extraneous noise, meaning that you may want to use Soundbooth to clean up the audio before attempting the speech-to-text transcription. The program also has the ability to distinguish between more than one speaker and label each individually.

In our tests, the autotranscription feature performed very poorly. It had 95%-plus accuracy when our speaker had noticeable breaks between words, but it dropped to the 50% range when he spoke at a natural rate with few pauses. While we could suggest it was the Southern accent, this wouldn’t account for the lack of accuracy, since the South is not exactly known for fast talkers. The transcript did make for some very humorous reading, though. We tried running a few other videos through the transcriber in hopes that they would have easier-to-transcribe audio tracks, but we didn’t get any better results.

The transcript is also available as only metadata, with each word tied to a particular frame of video. So editing the transcript requires clicking on and changing every single word individually. It would be nice to see a modification that allows users to export the transcription to a text document for ease of distribution and editing, as some of the other systems on the market do, and to reimport the edited file with autoparsing (compared against the original transcription).

We like the transcription feature in concept, but we think Adobe can do better, especially with some of the systems out there having more than a decade of trial-and-error testing. Hopefully, these shortcomings will be improved as technology advances and future Adobe releases come along.

The Case for Metadata
If there’s any common thread in all of the CS4 applications thus far, it’s metadata. The dictionary definition of metadata is “a set of data that describes and gives information about other data.” Not so descriptive, especially since we were always taught never to define a word with the same word. The practical benefits of Adobe tying metadata in at every level can’t be overstated, though, so let’s look at why Adobe has incorporated metadata entry and retrieval extensively into the new product release.

Probably the most common and well-known metadata today is the infamous ID3 tags that all of our digital music files come with. These wonderful little bits of information help us keep our iPods and media player libraries neat and tidy by providing all the track and album information for our music. But this same technology is available in any computer file. Look at the properties of any file on your hard drive, and you’ll see all kinds of information that you may not have known was there, such as the software developer’s name, the version number, a URL link to the company’s homepage, and so on.

Adobe understands that having the power to edit this information about your original digital content can be extremely advantageous. The metadata that you add to your videos can, in theory, be carried into and displayed in every major media player that will be used to view your content. Not only is this metadata addiction a good marketing strategy, it also helps make the Adobe Media Player and interconnecting technologies such as Adobe’s Bridge tool more dynamic and easier to search. If you’re having trouble finding the video of the recent presidential inauguration that your intern logged and tagged for you, try searching for keywords such as historic, president, or overcrowded, and you’ll understand that we’re entering an era where search is becoming a major part of workflow acceleration.

Impressive but Imperfect
In summary, although the release of CS4 pushes Adobe’s video software further into the spotlight, it doesn’t make as large a first impression as its predecessor did. Adobe Media Encoder, OnLocation, and Soundbooth in particular have seen some real growth, but Premiere Pro’s updates are significantly more subdued unless tapeless workflows (such as native AVCHD or the RED camera) are your primary method of acquisition.

If the company can heavily optimize the speech-to-text and metadata tweaks in updates for the release version, it will make the upgrade especially attractive to content creators who do a significant amount of repurposing. More specifically, content creators who deal primarily in streaming video and who want to ensure that their content always gets distributed with credits and copyright information intact will be able to capitalize on metadata tagging for search engine optimization now that Flash files are searchable by major search engines such as Yahoo! and Google.

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