Configure the 2019 Mac Pro for Video Editing [u]

[Updates:
Apr. 19, 2020, with more thoughts on AfterBurner, the new Radeon Pro W5700X GPU, and revised system recommendations.
Dec. 23, 2019, with more information about video compression.]

Like many of you, I’ve been reading many initial reviews of the new Mac Pro from Apple. And, like many of you, I’ve been wondering whether I should buy it and, if so, which version I should buy.

In thinking about this new system – a lot – I realized that, while my work doesn’t require a Mac Pro, I certainly WANT one! Let me share my thinking with you – feel free to add your opinions in the comments.

FIRST, SOME BACKGROUND

Apple deserves MAJOR congratulations for designing, building and releasing the new Mac Pro. Virtually every one of our power requests has been granted… except the standard consumer complaint that we always want everything to cost less.

Apple describes the 2019 Mac Pro as a system “with the greatest performance, expansion, and configurability yet, it is a system created to let a wide range of professionals push the limits of what is possible.

“Mac Pro is designed for pros who need the ultimate in CPU performance. From production rendering to playing hundreds of virtual instruments to simulating an iOS app on multiple devices at once, it’s exceedingly capable. At the heart of the system is an Intel Xeon processor with up to 28 cores — the most ever in a Mac. In addition, large L2 and shared L3 caches and 64 PCI Express lanes provide massive bandwidth in and out of the processor. (Apple website)

WHAT’S SIGNIFICANTLY DIFFERENT

What is critically different from all other Mac systems available today is the degree we can customize this system AFTER we purchase it.

This means that we no longer need to decide, before we even start working with a unit, all the different hardware we MAY need in order to maximize its performance while protecting our investment for the future. With this new Mac Pro, as our needs evolve, we can add new gear into it.

This requires a big shift in how we think about purchasing an Apple system.

WHO SHOULD CONSIDER THIS SYSTEM?

There are many reasonable use cases for the Mac Pro, may of which don’t involve media:

I’m sure you can think of others.

Another big one is bragging rights. If you have the money, buying a Mac Pro is a STATEMENT. Especially if you are running a creative shop, there is no questioning your ability to push the envelop when you invest in one or more Mac Pros for your creative team.

The short answer, though, and probably the best, is that if you can’t get your work done on time and on-budget with the gear you have, you need to consider the 2019 Mac Pro.

Yes, the press got a large laugh out of fully-configuring the Mac Pro and watching it top out over $50,000! I know that the first thing I did, when Apple released its pricing, was to see how much a fully-loaded system would cost.

But, that misses the point. Very, very few of us and no video editor I know of, would need a fully-loaded system. Rather, we need a system that’s optimized for the work we need to get done.

For film-makers, that allows us to leave out the most expensive options: excessive RAM, excessive SSD storage and excessive GPUs. Apple needed to provide these options to prevent all the nay-sayers from asking: “Is THAT all you did???” But simply because these options are available does not mean that the work we do needs them.

If you have the money – buy whatever you want! The Mac Pro is amazing and, if I had the money, I’d buy two!  Sales will encourage Apple to release more upgradeable systems. But when budgets intervene, we need to look at the best way to balance performance vs. cost.

DO YOU NEED AFTERBURNER?

Afterburner is a PCIe accelerator graphics card that offloads the decoding of ProRes and ProRes RAW video codecs in Final Cut Pro X, QuickTime Player X, and supported third-party applications.

If you are editing 4K or smaller media frame sizes, you won’t see enough increase in performance to justify spending $2,000 for a video-optimized graphics card. As frame sizes increase beyond 4K, the Afterburner card will help – but converting to a proxy workflow will achieve the same performance benefit without the additional cost.

NOTE: Keep in mind that Afterburner only accelerates ProRes files. If you are working with MXF, RED or other media, Afterburner won’t help – while adding another general purpose GPU to the Mac Pro will.

While it is very cool to say: “I edit 8K multicam video natively!” my first question would be “Why?” There are so many better ways to work with media files that size. On the other hand, Afterburner is designed for those edge cases that are working with 8K ProRes media in real-time for live productions. In which case, this card becomes essential.

UPDATE (4/19/20): Here’s a more detailed look at AfterBurner, which I wrote after writing this article.

UPDATE (4/19/20): THOUGHTS ON GPU CARDS

Apple just released the Radeon Pro W5700X graphics card as an option for the 2019 Mac Pro.

The AMD Radeon Pro W5700X GPU comes in two options when customizing a Mac Pro: A single graphics card with 16 GB of GDDR6 memory for $600 USD, or a dual option for $1,000. If you’ve already purchased a new Mac Pro, and want to take advantage of the W5700X graphics card, Apple lists the single GPU option on their site for $1,000.

The 5700 is much more affordable than the Radeon Pro Vega II card which starts at $2,400.

According to Apple’s Mac Pro page, the 5700 has about 67% better performance than the base level 580X, 9.4 vs. 5.6 teraflops. While the 5700 has about 32% less performance than a single Vega II, 14.1 vs 9.6 teraflops, the 5700 costs about 75% less.

Both the 5700 and Vega II support the same number of ports, same number of external monitors (with the exception of the ProDisplay XDR, where the Vega supports one less than the 5700), and roughly the same power consumption.

If you know you need top of the line GPU power, go right to the Vega II. However, for most editors, based upon the specs provided by Apple, the W5700X provides an excellent value with solid performance that’s worth spending the extra dollars to get.

UPDATE (12/23/19): WHAT ABOUT VIDEO COMPRESSION?

Unlike iMac and MacBook Pro systems, both the iMac Pro and Mac Pro use an Intel CPU that does not support hardware acceleration for H.264 and HEVC codecs. What I learned recently is that, while the iMac Pro and Mac Pro do not have the Intel Media Engine, they do include Apple’s T2 chip which features built-in, hardware-accelerated encoding of H.264 and 8-bit HEVC.

NOTE: 10-bit HEVC is still software encoded, and the faster your CPU, the faster the encode.

SO WHAT DO I RECOMMEND?

Unlike analyzing large data sets, or compiling programs measured in gigabytes, media editing is always stop and start. With any creative process, you need time to think. During those times when you’re thinking, the computer is calculating behind the scenes.

The 2019 Mac Pro is a monster machine, but we don’t need to fully load it to speed our work. And that’s an important point: The Mac Pro delivers speed, not higher quality.

Here are my thoughts:

NOTE: Here’s a tip on how to track memory use on a Mac.

These suggestions create a powerful system targeted at media editing for only $8,299 (US). While not cheap, this is a far cry from the initial reports of a $50,000 system. (And about $2,000 less than my original recommendation using a single Vega II card.)

While your needs may not match my suggestions, here’s my central point: the Mac Pro delivers high-performance in an expandable chassis. By thinking about what you need to get started, rather than where you may potentially end up, you can take advantage of the power the Mac Pro provides without breaking the bank.

After that, you can expand as your needs require.


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34 Responses to Configure the 2019 Mac Pro for Video Editing [u]

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  1. Steve Barnier says:

    Very insightful article. And I really appreciated it from an editors point of view. One thing I was hoping to hear was how to get audio out of that thing. I have a 2013 Mac Pro that connects to an amplifier and then to two good quality studio speakers. As I understand it, the only audio out on a new Mac Pro is the headphone jack. I’m not an audio pro by any means, so I’m wondering what do I do to hear through my speakers. Will I need an expansion card for that?

    • Larry says:

      Steve:

      Audio is easy – you connect any number of devices using USB. My favorites include FocusRite Scarlet and Steinberg. Extremely high-quality audio in or out on any Mac, not just the Mac Pro.

      • Steve Barnier says:

        Great. Thanks Larry. I wasn’t aware of these.

        • seanie blue says:

          And let me add that a small Behringer mixer is around $100, has two XLR ins and two more 1/4-inch ins for electric instruments, has a headphone jack (so you’re not tethered to the actual computer), and has some basic mixing pots to control your inputs and outputs, which makes it super-handy for recording narration or even singing vocals right from the same seat you edit in, AND through the mixer you can connect two studio speakers (I use Alesis MK2) which will blow away your clients when they look over your shoulder at your edit. All of this goes into your Mac with a USB cable, and is easy to configure in your system preferences.

          • Larry says:

            Seanie:

            Behinger is also a good brand, though I have had MANY issues with their documentation and support for their larger mixers.

            Larry

  2. seanie blue says:

    Great article, Mr. Jordan. Helped clarify my thinking about a purchase. I am more or less in synch with you in the configuration, with the only difference ($1,000 worth) being the 16-core versus the 12-core. I have not been able to find a single real-world editor’s explanation of why the 16-core might be more useful in three years, but something in my belly tells me to go for it.

    But I’ll also describe the financial reality I am in right now, as I press “buy” with the business financing team at Apple, in case anyone is interested. A $12,000 leasing finance will cost me $14,350 for a 36-month term. That’s a car payment every month, around $375. Or, a half-day job shooting or editing. We are a small LLC with 10 years of legal standing but ZERO credit, so this lease will open up other business opportunities for us, but that’s $2,350 in financing I could save by going with Barclay for 0% financing for 18 months; the APR is 16% after 18 months. If I could manage a payment of $750 a month for 18 months, I would save $2350.

    I am currently on a souped up iMac 5K (2016), maxed out on RAM, and unable to deal with my creative situation: codecs dating back to the Canon L1 Hi-8, to the finicky DJI 4K drone footage of today, and every conceivable codec in-between (SONY FX-1, Canon 300, NIKON D-850, etc.), and my external drives are now at 76 TB and rising, and I need access to all of it, all the time.

    The clients are easy: shoot, edit, store, done in a week. Forget about it. But I’m in the middle of a dozen personal movies that need access to everything I’ve ever shot of my own. So I am in a daisy-chained bottlenecked hell. I am in El Capitan, for instance, because of my reluctance to uproot my FCPX and Lightroom usage. So for this reason, the Mac Pro and its expandable bays for external drives is a godsend. The conversion of DJI 4K footage to ProRes results in huge files, and I shoot three or four times a week; so my situation is only going to get worse.

    I’m ordering the Mac Pro when I finish this text, 16-core or 12-core, I think I’ll be batch-processing a huge amount of footage from the native codecs into ProRes, so I think I’ll deviate from your configuration only to get the 16-core, which will add $30 to $40 to my monthly payment to the Apple business team. (And I will be signing up to your online FCPX courses to undo some bad habits I have taught myself since 2002!) Thanks for your continued guidance through the video editing forest; I imagine there are a lot of other lurkers who make panicked pilgrimages every month to your site!

    • Larry says:

      Seanie:

      I wish you GREAT success with your new Mac Pro. Given your description, it is an excellent choice.

      Regarding 12-core vs. 16-core, for multi-threaded applications, in general, the 16-core will be 20-25% faster. Not all applications – or codecs – are multi-core, but you are definitely buying more speed; especially useful for video compression.

      I also agree with your decision to keep your storage external – for the most part. Given what you are doing, external storage will be more than fast enough and cost less for more capacity.

      Report back after you’ve used the system for a while and let us know how its going.

      Larry

      • seanie blue says:

        Will do. Went with the 16-core. To my surprise, Apple CIT knocked off $600 as a small business “loyalty” support, and this taught me again to always make the buy in person, even on the phone, if possible and not in a crowded store, when people are lining up to get a sales rep’s attention. Also learned that Apple’s business financing unit is not as concerned with credit scores as they are with the length of time the business has been legal; our LLC was established in 2009 in Colorado, that’s all they needed to hear. Computer should arrive by January 15th. Extra RAM, LG 5K Monitor, and another 20 TB in ext storage will round out the holidays, I think. Cheers!

  3. William Buchanan says:

    Hi Larry

    We’re budgeted to replace my circa mid 2012 5,1 with a new MacPro in Q2 of 2020.

    In regards to media storage, I see three viable paths, external enclosure RAID 5 24TB via Thunderbolt, internal MXP Promise Pegasus R4i Raid 5 24TB, or OWC Accelsior 4M2 8TB via PCIe.

    The Pegasus and external should deliver somewhere in the ballpark of 700MB/s +/- transfer speeds yes? While the Accelsior should deliver up to 6000 MB/s transfer speeds – or so it’s claimed.

    I have a 1TB Acceslior PICe card in my current MacPro as my boot drive and it’s been rock solid for over seven years now.

    The Acceselsior 4M2 is RAID 0 (as I understand it) but I would do a daily back up of all media to a spinning disk drive using the Pegasus J2 8TB MXP. I currently do a daily back up my A RAID 0 to my B RAID 0 so that’s a workflow that I’m happy with. I would also use the other slot in the Pegasus J2 for a drive that backs up my main OS drive every day – or for my Time Machine drive. Yeah, I’m kind of paranoid on the backup front…

    My work is a mix of HD and 4K and I often have multiple streams playing at once with various plug-ins, color correction, graphics, multi-cams and what not all layered together – it’s a lot of commercial spot work.

    The blazing speed of the Acceslesior 4M2 seems like the most robust, future proof path. The 8TB size is sufficient for my work as I regularly archive libraries off to keep a tidy house. Am I missing anything thinking that the Accelsior 4M2 is the best path for active media storage?

    This would all be on a 3.3GHz 12-core with 96GB of RAM.

    Thanks for taking a look at this and any input is appreciated.

    • Larry says:

      William:

      There’s nothing “wrong” with your thinking as there really isn’t a “right” answer. The best answer is what works best for you.

      Personally, I prefer using more external storage because it can be moved from one system to another, while its lower cost means I can purchase more storage capacity for the same amount of money.

      That being said, if speed is more important than capacity, the system you outline is perfect. For example, for effects heavy work, faster GPUs are more important than faster storage – especially for projects with smaller frame sizes.

      Still, if your budget supports it, this will be a truly fast system that should support you long into the future.

      Larry

  4. Marc Sedaka says:

    I purchased my MacPro before reading this article and was relieved to see that I followed all of Larry’s suggestions EXCEPT the graphics card which I kept as the base Radeon Pro 580. Can’t really test it fully until Avid is compatible with Catalina, but should I already be considering the upgrade? And how much (if any) have I screwed myself by not upgrading from the git-go? Is this one just a loss? And should I be looking at aftermarket models now or do I have to stick with the Apple offerings?

    • Larry says:

      Marc:

      You haven’t screwed yourself at all. Worst case, rendering is a bit slow. The image quality is the same, regardless of the GPU you use.

      If your deadlines are tight, adding an eGPU later makes sense.

      For right now, take a deep breath. You should be fine.

      Larry

      • Marc Sedaka says:

        Thanks so much, Larry. Deep breath taken! Out of curiosity, if I did want to upgrade down the road, would any Radeon Pro work (W5700, WX7100, etc.) or just the ones listed on the Apple site?

  5. Franco says:

    Thanks for the detailed article about the new mac pro, very interesting.
    Since I intend to buy a mac pro 2019 especially for video editing Final Cut X and Adobe Premiere as well as other Adobe Creative Suite programs, I have Two questions, also in relation to costs:
    1) Is better to buy 1 or maybe 2 AMD Radeon Pro W5700X or just 1 AMD Radeon Pro Vega II ?
    2) Is it possible to install 1 AMD Radeon Pro W5700X and subsequently 1 AMD Radeon Pro Vega II (together)? or they must be similar graphic cards.

    Thank you.

    • Larry says:

      Franco:

      1. I would buy the W5700X to start and see if that meets your needs. You can add more cards later.

      2. GPUs do not need to match if you add more.

      Larry

      • William Buchanan says:

        The Radeon Pro W5700X cards that are offered as double are actually two physically separate cards, yes? I know that seems obvious but I get caught on the obvious questions sometimes. Does each card then take up 2 PCIe slots then? for a total of 4 PCIe slots consumed just by the two cards?

        Thanks!

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