Review: Adobe Production Premium CS4

Submitted by Robert Alstead on Mon, 05/25/2009 - 01:42

There's been big changes in video since Adobe announced the release, two years ago, of Creative Suite 3 (CS3). Even in the months since Adobe released its moving-image editing suite Production Premium CS4, things have moved along apace in videoland. High resolution video has become ubiquitous across the web, from Old Media newspaper web sites to bedroom vloggers.

What's more, the variety of recording and viewing devices continues to grow with solid state media recorders becoming the norm, and increasingly more traditional filmmakers looking to the web as a mainstream distribution channel.

Adobe has tried to tap these trends in CS4, which means greater emphasis on meta-tagging content so that media is visible to search engines. There's more support for capturing and processing content for multiple scenarios. You can record straight to disc and edit non-tape formats such as AVCHD (if your computer hardware is up to scratch). Adobe has also tried to find new ways to speed up the workflow, whether it is harnessing the potential of speedier computers with 64bit processing, enhancing integration between different Adobe apps, or streamling the user interface.

CS4 re-inforces Production Premium's position as a solid and very capable professional editing suite where increased integration of programmes boosts productivity. For serious videographers there should be more than enough power to cover off almost all your video tasks.

For users of Production Premium CS3, a suite that was designed to take on rival Final Cut Pro on the Mac side - and did it well, by most accounts - the question of whether to upgrade will depend largely on one's needs and budget. This isn't a massive upgrade, like the introduction of the first Premiere Pro, where the whole application's engine was rewritten, but if you're doing a lot of videowork then it's worth the additional expense.

Full suite

At the core of Production Premium are new editions of Adobe's top-end titles: Premiere Pro, After Effects, Photoshop, and Illustrator. In themselves, these applications would make a powerful video editing suite, but there's more: Flash for vector based and FLV movies, Soundbooth for audio and soundtrack compositions, Encore for authoring to blu-ray or DVD disc, Adobe Bridge for file management, and On Location for live recording.

Media rendering is also broken out into separate apps in Adobe CS4, with a Media Encoder for exporting movies and finished projects, and Device Central for simulating and managing how your work will appear on a variety of handheld platforms.

Preview video before importing

As before, Premiere is at the heart of this suite. If you are editing video and were going to have one programme then this, the video editor's workhorse, would be it. Actually, you can't buy just Premiere: the “standalone” version of Premiere Pro CS4 now comes packaged with Encore and On Location, as well as the Media Encoder and Device Central, which probably justifies the price tag.

Premiere doesn't look that much different from the earlier version when you first open it. The most obvious change to the interface is a new Media Browser window which allows you to browse via a folder tree window for files on your computer from within the programme itself, preview the files in the clip window, and even set in and out points before you import it.

One of the benefits of a media browser is that tapeless cameras often produce complex footage structures with a variety of different folders and files. The Media Browser only shows the usable clips.

This could also save on overhead, particularly if you have a big video file, since Premiere only conforms the part of the file that you selected before importing into your project rather than the whole clip. You can still use other methods for importing footage files, like dragging and dropping from Bridge or importing folders and files directly into the Project window, but the Media Browser allows additional flexibility.

Adobe has also broken out the rendering of final movies to Adobe Media Encoder. This means that you can send off the multiple jobs to the Media Encoder at different settings and continue working within Premiere while Media Encoder does its rendering work. The only time this is a drawback is when you want to quickly export just a single frame. In the past you could do this directly from Premiere, but now you have to go through Media Encoder which seems a long-winded way of doing things.

Keep it simple: On Location

The benefits of On Location are particularly time-savings. As with the previous version, you can record SD and HD footage direct to disc in Adobe OnLocation CS4, saving on tape costs, and time normally taken in capturing footage from tape.

The no-frills interface is as you would want for shooting fieldwork, with displays just for vectorscope, waveform, and histogram, for monitoring colour and light intensity and audio levels for sound. You can move quickly between workspaces and resize windows on the fly using hotkeys, which is always useful in a live recording situation. OL also has a feature for creating shotlists, with holders for each clip, to ensure that you get the coverage that you need and you can add “post-it” style comments to clips for reference when editing. OL is also set up for logging of metadata that can then be accessed in other Adobe apps.

64-bit enhanced

Always an issue with video, particularly if you are working with HD video, is how to get the best performance from your computer. Most new computers are not running as fast as they could according to Adobe's benchmark tests. Thanks to 64-bit processing Adobe suggests you can attain speeds of up to 67% faster with with DV, HDV, and AVCHD in CS4.

Premiere and After Effects, both of which have been rearchitectured for 64-bit support, can tap the larger RAM capacity of 64-bit operating systems - up to 20GB of memory for Premiere Pro alone and up to 64GB for Production Premium as a whole. Perhaps then the promise of handling multiple simultaneous jobs in different programs – encoding, compositing, editing, printing a disc, and so on – will be a reality and not just a pipe dream.

Speech Search

One exciting development, although still barely out of the prototype stage, is Speech Search. Speech search is a speech recognition system. This new function will automatically create a “speech transcript” from an interview. Unfortunately, even with clearly recorded audio, it still lacks accuracy – many of the words don't correlate.

That said, you can go in and change the transcript in the metadata window and then click on certain words to go directly to a point in the clip. It's easy to see the potential, although Speech Search needs to be more accurate to be practical and time-saving. For example, there is only one setting for the whole of the British Isles and it isn't smart enough to learn your pronunciation.

When I recorded this:

“Adobe speech search.... Adobe speech search... Adobe CS4 speech search... Adobe CS4 speech search”

it came out as:

“Adobe speech research.... Adobe speech so much.... I don't BCS four speech search... but the BCS force the church”

As I say, it's still early days for the transcribe feature.

Better Meta Tag

Now that virtually everyone online is used to the idea of tagging content with keywords, Adobe has started bringing metatagging to the fore in CS4. Premiere Pro CS4 comes with a metadata browser and a metatagging workspace.

As mentioned above, Adobe's XMP metadata system allows you to augment the embedded technical tags (shot date, format, length, etc.) with custom tags during acquisition from On Location or browsing within Premiere. The beauty of tags is that you can then filter media by searching on keywords. If you stay with file formats that support XMP – namely Flash if working with video - you can also put that metadata to work online when exporting to the web.

As with CS3, much of the tagging work can be accomplished in the suite's media browser Bridge (accessed by file > browse from the editing apps).

Bridge loads by default in the background when your computer starts up, and the code has apparently been reworked and improved for speed. It is definitely less sluggish on my system than with CS3.

Thumbnails of media appear in Bridge quickly which is probably why I'm finding myself using it more than in the past to preview, organise, and rename footage. However, renaming files can be a frustrating affair when juggling separate programmes. When you rename a file in Premiere's project window it's not permanent. However, when organising and renaming files in Bridge it is permanent, so Premiere will ask you to relink the original project file. On the plus side, Premiere is good at autofixing broken links if a folder of footage has been moved or renamed but the names of files inside are unchanged.

Dynamically Linked Sequences

Adobe has enhanced the way that Premiere's Sequences, the individual editing timelines, are handled in Production Premium CS4. They are now much more autonomous. When editing in CS3 the Project settings affected all Sequences. Now each sequence can have its own settings: so one sequence can be PAL widescreen and another 4:3 NTSC within the same project.

This offers great flexibilty, and makes experimentation much easier – no need to set up separate projects to try out different settings. You can then queue up movies for batch proessing with the external Media Encoder.

Perhaps even more important is that Dynamic Link, where edits in one programme automatically update in linked projects in another programme, is now supported by individual Premiere Pro sequences.

As features go, Dynamic Link is the great facilitator. It saves time and allows for more creative freedom. For example, Encore's library of DVD/Blu-ray buttons and menus is pretty unexciting, but since CS3, it has shone when used with dynamically linked Photoshop and After Effects files. You can create good-looking, motion menus and roll-over buttons with the much more refined toolset of those apps and see the work update in Encore.

So in CS4, you can embed individual Premiere Pro sequences as timelines for your Encore DVD or Blu-Ray project early on the workflow, complete your edits in Premiere and come back to see the final edits of the source updated in your Encore project.

As before, you can dynamically link existing After Effects projects within Encore and Premiere Pro or even create a new After Effects Project from within those programs. Soundbooth projects can also be linked with After Effects and Premiere Pro projects by using Soundbooth's native .asnd project files.

Encore CS4 more robust

With the last version of Encore, I had a long-running problem when printing to DVD, in particular programme freezes. Apparently this was something to do with a Microsoft patch for XP. I can report no such problems thus far with Encore CS4.

Reflecting the greater integration of Flash, a new feature in Encore CS4 is the facility to output to the web as an swf file which you can stream using a dedicated Flash server.

You can now also create pop-up menus in Encore for Blu-ray discs, although I didn't put this to the test.

To sum up Encore, as a standalone disc/Flash site authoring app, it does the essentials well, but really its great strength is in the integration with the software suite through Dynamic Link.


Soundbooth – the suite's soundtrack editor – also does the job, but is nothing to rave about. That said, Soundbooth is much improved in CS4 – it now includes multitrack editing and a new lossless file format (.asnd) - but I'm still missing Audition.

Adobe said that videomakers were too confused by Audition, an altogether more sophisticated audio app, but the converse is that the more accessible Soundbooth falls short if you plan on doing your own sampling and audio mash-ups.

Multitrack support was much needed in CS3.0. Now you can mix multiple audio tracks – dialogue, music, voice-over, sound effects. There's an array of effects in Soundbooth which are easily accessed via a drop-down menu of presets such as “Reverb: Small Room”, “Voice: Old Time Radio”, or “Loudness: Maximum Pumping.” These “racks” of effects combos can be tweaked and played with and you can create your own custom audio effects. As in CS3.0 you can import video and cut the audio while watching the visuals in video preview window.

However, frustratingly you can't seem to record directly onto one track while listening to another audio track in your Soundbooth composition (unless I missed something here). In Audition you arm the track, play the composition, and record: nice and easy.

I also found the Soundbooth interface – while generally straightforward - a little confusing when switching in and out of multitrack. When editing an individual track you switch into a separate window when I'd rather work in a multitrack view with all the tracks in front of me most of the time.

Cinematic soundtracks

Soundbooth's 40+ royalty free Scores plus a smattering of sound effects, are a definite asset for undemanding video jobs. These generic theme-music tracks offer a satisfying cinematic feel to projects and are very easy to work with as they can intelligently adapt to the duration of your project.

Like new fonts, time and use will wear them out, but I knocked out a new baby DVD using a couple of scores and family members were suitably impressed. Adobe offers a resource – a still nascent marketplace for Scores and sound effects – where you can download a few more.

Other welcome additions to Soundbooth are a facility to preview mp3s at different bitrates, accurate volume matching at a click, and volume keyframing.

Soundbooth in CS4.0 also has Speech Search (mentioned earlier) and you can dynamically link Premiere and After Effects compositions from within Soundbooth. However, Soundbooth compositions can't be dynamically linked vice versa – i.e. by importing the new .ASND Soundbooth project into After Effects or Premiere.

Soundbooth's shortcomings wouldn't be so glaring if the rest of CS4 suite were not so exceptional.

I should qualify that by saying that I've yet to really get stuck into Illustrator and Flash – although both of these programmes offer tantalising creative possibilities with vector graphic and path-orientated animations when combined with After Effects.

Photoshop on wheels

After Effects now has an even bigger arsenal of creative tools. As has already been mentioned After Effects integration with other CS4 apps is improved. It works seamlessly for titling and motion graphic elements of Premiere video projects.

You can now also export compositions as layered XFL format projects for editing in Flash and Illustrator artwork can be preserved as vectors. XMP metadata can be shared with other CS4 apps, and then you can preview compositions for handheld consumption in device central.

Support for 3D is enhanced in After Effects. You can now import Photoshop 3D layers, and there are individual keyframe controls on x, y, and z position values of 3D layers. A new unified camera also allows you to view all the angles.

Adobe also has included, in a separate programme, Imagineer Systems' Mocha, a tool specialising in 2.5D planar motion tracking for greater accuracy with difficult jobs where the underlying footage may be too grainy or moves out of shot to track by hand.

Search with ease

Moving around After Effects compositions has been made much easier with a Quicksearch feature – want to check the scale of each layer on your composition? Type “scale” into the search box and each layer's scale properties appear instantly.

The headline new effect is the Cartoon Effect which takes live footage and renders it like cel animation. With good controls for refining the edges and shading the results can be impressive although, not surprisingly, rendering is time-consuming.

One of the ways Adobe addresses rendering speed issues is with the Auto Resolution feature. When this feature is turned on, only visible pixels are rendered when zooming in and out of a composition view. This means that when zoomed in on a layer it preview renders at full res and then if you zoom out, so that you are viewing your composition at 25% the auto resolution kicks in and renders at quarter quality, but it renders much faster.

CS4 also includes enhancements to the management of memory and processor resources in AE, with dialogue boxes in the preferences file for setting RAM and multiprocessor usage.

AE was already powerful, but the new features and better integration in CS4 makes it even more attractive proposition.


One final thought, before rounding off, is on documentation. CS4 help now takes you to an online manual, which in the true spirit of web 2.0 people are free to comment on. Adobe use a Google Custom Search engine from within CS4 apps for help. This yields results from a number of non-Adobe resources as well as the Adobe handbook and Adobe's own web pages.

Initially, this was off-putting as there's inevitably a variation in the quality and relevance of the results from the “Adobe Community” – as you typically get from many Google searches - and actually makes finding the answers to questions sometimes harder rather than easier. However, it also means that you'll stray across some good quality content such as an CS4 tutorial or trick that you might not have found otherwise.

System Requirements: Windows

2GHz or faster processor for DV; 3.4GHz for HDV; dual
2.8GHz for HD*
• Microsoft® Windows® XP with Service Pack 2 (Service
Pack 3 recommended) or Windows Vista® Home
Premium, Business, Ultimate, or Enterprise with
Service Pack 1 (certified for 32-bit Windows XP and
32- and 64-bit Windows Vista†)
• 2GB of RAM (more RAM recommended when
running multiple components)
• 16.3GB of available hard-disk space for installation;
additional free space required during installation
(cannot install on flash-based storage devices)
• 1,280x900 display with OpenGL 2.0–compatible
graphics card
• Some GPU-accelerated features require graphics
support for Shader Model 3.0
• Dedicated 7200 RPM hard drive for DV and HDV
editing; striped disk array storage (RAID 0) for HD;
SCSI disk subsystem preferred
• For SD/HD workflows, an Adobe-certified card for
capture and export to tape‡
• OHCI-compatible IEEE 1394 port for DV and HDV
capture, export to tape, and transmit to DV device
• DVD-ROM drive (DVD+-R burner required for DVD
• Blu-ray burner required for Blu-ray disc creation
• Microsoft Windows Driver Model– or ASIOcompatible
sound card
• QuickTime 7.4.5 software required to use QuickTime
• Broadband Internet connection required for
online services
* An SSE2-enabled processor is required for AMD
† Adobe Photoshop Extended natively supports
64-bit editions of Windows Vista. Adobe Premiere
Pro, After Effects, Soundbooth, Encore, and Adobe
OnLocation are certified on 64-bit Windows Vista.

System Requirements: Mac

• Multi-core Intel® processor
• Mac OS X v10.4.11–10.5.4
• 2GB of RAM (more RAM recommended when
running multiple components)
• 20.6GB of available hard-disk space for installation;
additional hard-disk space required during
installation (cannot install on a volume that uses a
case-sensitive file system or on flash-based storage
• 1,280x900 display with OpenGL 2.0–compatible
graphics card
• Some GPU-accelerated features require graphics
support for Shader Model 3.0
• Dedicated 7200 RPM hard drive for DV and HDV
editing; striped disk array storage (RAID 0) for HD;
SCSI disk subsystem preferred
• DVD-ROM drive (SuperDrive required for DVD
• Blu-ray burner required for Blu-ray disc creation
• Core Audio–compatible sound card
• QuickTime 7.4.5 software required to use QuickTime
• Broadband Internet connection required for
online services