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Getting Better Real-Time Playback Performance in Avid Media Composer

Ashley Kennedy

Maximize your real-time playback performance in Avid Media Composer!

There are many factors to think about when it comes to maximizing playback performance — in any editing software.  Whenever you run into issues with playback, keep in mind that your performance is determined by both hardware and software factors.

Minimum System Requirements

As far as hardware is concerned, you need to make sure that your system meets the minimum requirements.  Now, you can always find these on Avid’s website, but just so you know, these are factors that include:

  • Processor
  • RAM
  • Graphics card
  • Operating System
  • Internal system drive (speed, type and connection)
  • Media drive (speed, type and connection)

So first, it’s a good idea to make sure that your system meets all of these minimum requirements — because no matter how many things you do to help your playback, if your system is too slow or not advanced enough, you won’t have any luck.

So, if everything looks good in that department, there are a number of other things that you can try to maximize real-time playback performance.

Video Quality Settings

If you are having problems playing back video in real-time, one of the first things you can do to improve your performance is to switch the video quality, which is a located in a toggle menu in the lower-left hand corner of the Timeline.  There are three qualities that you can choose from: Full Quality, Draft Quality and Best Performance.

  • Full Quality:  Video frames move through the system at full resolution. (Generally, use only on digital cut or for a full-quality screening)
  • Draft Quality:  Video frames move through the system at 1/4 resolution. (Generally, use when editing)
  • Best Performance:  Video frame move through the system at 1/16 resolution. (Generally, use when doing heavy effects compositing)

Usually, by dropping a degree of video quality, you’ll achieve better playback performance.  When you’re finished playing back the problem area, you can usually switch your quality back, as necessary.

Project Format

If you’re working in an HD project, you can temporarily switch to the SD “flavor” of the project via the Format tab in the Project window.  This is a quick way to help maximize performance, but you should be sure to switch back to the appropriate HD format when you’re finished, because there are many other factors — like rendering and other media creations — that depend on the correct project format being set.

Video Display Settings

There are also several things you can do to assist your real-time performance in the Video Display Settings, accessible via the Settings tab in the Project window.

Desktop Play Delay

When you increase the amount of seconds on the Desktop Play Delay slider, Avid Media Composer will wait for that number of seconds before the position indicator begins to move (after you press Play).  Therefore, if you input “2,” every time after you hit Play, it will wait two seconds before actually playing.  This delay allows the software to pre-fill a buffer, which will let it get a head start on collecting all of the media-to-be-played.  This will usually allow for better real-time performance.  Sometimes, however, this option is not desirable, because it can be bothersome to wait several seconds for the video to play.

Maximum Stream Playback

Avid Media Composer can play back 12 streams of video, given that all system requirements are met.  And, as long as the Stream Limit in the “Maximum Real Time Streams” box is set at 12, Avid will attempt to play back all of them.  Depending on a number of factors (i.e., above), however, the software may or may not succeed in actually playing back all 12 streams.  Therefore, if unsuccessful, it will drop frames.

If your system drops frames, you have an option.  Because real time performance is often more important/desirable than actually seeing all 12+ streams play back together, you can decrease the stream limit (to something like 8 streams or so) so that you will have a better chance of playing all streams back in real time.

So which streams get dropped when you decrease the Stream Limit?  Avid Media Composer assumes that you want the base video track (V1) played, as well as all topmost video tracks.  Therefore, if your sequence has V1-V12, the software will play back the V1, and then, counting down from V12 — the next 7 streams.  So V2, V3, V4 and V5 would be dropped.

Decreasing stream count is certainly not a final solution, but it can help out a lot during heavy compositing.  Once you finish the effects editing, you will of course render the composite, and all streams will once again play in real time.

When to Render

Now, if you’re still not achieving real-time playback, even after assuring that your system meets the minimum requirements, altering your Video Quality Settings, and adjusting several Video Display Settings options, then you’ll need to render your sequence.  Make sure to render intelligently, though.  For information on intelligent rendering, see my blog post on Rendering an Effects Composite Intelligently, on PremiumBeat.com.

Achieving suitable real-time playback is really important.  Otherwise, you’re just scrubbing through the Timeline, guessing at how the sequence truly looks when it’s played.  You can’t sacrifice that type of performance, so the tips and tricks in this post should be useful in getting the maximum potential from your real-time playback.