Tuesday, May 13, 2014


When Final Cut Pro X was first released in June of 2011, one of the biggest changes in philosophy was the abandonment of traditional Tracks.  Today we’re going to take a closer look at that decision; why it was made, what benefits it poses, and how further development of FCP X may quell some of that criticism.


Track are, at their very core, an organizational tool.  A tool for organizing audio and video information visually in a way that makes locating it easier in complex projects.  In the case of audio, tracks are also used to group audio elements for the purpose of mixing and effects.

A Track is really just a folder of audio or video, laid out across a sequence of time.

But a Track is also a “dumb” organizational element.  Dialogue is on Tracks 1 and 2 simply because that’s where you the editor choose to put it.  But you might only need 1 Dialogue Track for a simple video, or you might need 10 Dialogue Tracks for a large scene involving lots of mics and many characters.  It’s completely arbitrary. 10 different editors are going to organize their audio/video Tracks 10 different ways.

Organization in Tracks is especially important in a collaborative workflow; where audio is passed off from editorial to post audio.  The editor always needs to supply support documentation, outlining what kind of audio is on what tracks.

Tracks in and of themselves aren’t important, they are simply a means to an end. The ability to organize information both in the timeline, the ability to group elements for common effects, and for the purpose of passing that work on cleanly to other departments- THAT’S the goal.  


The two big changes in the core philosophy of editing in FCP X were Connected Clips, and the Magnetic Timeline.   The key idea here was to set up a relationship-based methodology to content.  Elements in the Primary Storyline are considered the backbone of the cut, and any additional audio or video that is added is understood to be subservient to that “Primary” content.  In the last year of working with FCP X, I find this works remarkably well, especially for audio.  If you connect the SFX of a gunshot to a video clip in the Primary Storyline; once that relationship is established, it’s fixed.  Regardless of whether you trim, roll, slip, or even change the order of shots in the timeline.  

Where things start to get tricky, is when in the process of editing the Primary Storyline, connected clips come into conflict.  In legacy Final Cut Pro, if you trimmed a clip, and then closed the gap, you would either get a warning that the edit wasn't allowed due to a clip conflict, or overlapping elements would just be overwritten.  This is obviously not what you want, and it meant that the editor could be forever jostling audio elements from one track to another as the edit was refined, in order to resolve audio or video clip conflicts and make sure that elements overlapped as intended, all while trying to maintain the organizational structure of the tracks.

In Final Cut Pro X, clip conflict is resolved by one audio/video element “bumping” the other up or down; the integrity of both elements is maintained regardless of what goes on in the Primary Storyline.  The compromise, obviously, is that the vertical hierarchy of Tracks becomes impossible to maintain.  If TRACK 1&2 are DIALOGUE, and TRACK 3&4 are MUSIC- if 3 Dialogue elements overlap then a new “Track” [FCP X refers to them as “Lanes”] is added, and any structure based on tracks becomes moot.


The biggest detriments to the visual organization of audio in the FCP X timeline,  is that all audio only comes in two colors- blue for audio components, and green for everything else.  Secondly, all audio elements naturally gravitate towards the Primary Storyline.  In a simple projects with some interview audio, a music track, and perhaps a few sound effects, this isn’t so bad.  But as you get into more complicated projects with dozens of lanes of audio with no obvious separation or way to distinguish your elements visually; the audio in the timeline becomes a sea of anonymous green clips.

Simple FCP X Project with audio elements uniform colour and intermixed.  What's what here?


In September of 2011, Apple released their first update to Final Cut Pro X: 10.0.1.  The update brought with it a host of improvements including a brand new feature called Roles.

Roles was a new form of metadata added to media in an Event, explicitly tagging clips with an audio or video “media type”.  Pre-defined Video Roles included b-roll and titles, while Audio Roles included dialogue, music, and effects.  But Roles are completely customizable, with the ability to create new Roles (Ambience, Voice Over) or Sub Roles (Dialogue- Nick, Dialogue- Sally).

Roles imprints information onto media that in other NLEs must simply be assumed because of the track it sits on. 

As well, the addition of a Role tab in the Timeline Index pane, allowed you to selectively turn on and off Roles, or highlight all media of a certain Role, in the project timeline.  Roles also allowed the user to export stems of Roles in multi-channel audio exports.  Finally, via the 3rd party program X2Pro, Roles could be exported via AAF for use in ProTools.  The added benefit being that Roles name information was automatically transferred to the DAW, eliminating the need for track reference sheets.

As intriguing and seemingly powerful Roles are, it still didn’t solve a key problem in FCP X, a visual organization to material in the timeline.


When FCP X was first released, I remember reading a particularly maddening “review” of the software from a site I shan’t name.  The author went on about how he spent nearly an hour trying to figure out how to make Bins in FCP X, little realizing (and of course, not doing the research before writing his stupid article) that a new methodology had been implemented for organizing media: Keywords.

Keywords imprinted metadata onto media in an Event, allowing for an active organization of elements based on tagging media with single or multiple Keywords.  It’s a very fluid and extremely powerful way to organize media, especially with the addition of Smart Collections, which allow you to set up a “Smart Bin” which is made of any media (or selections of media) which satisfy a user-defined set of not only Keywords, but any combination of metadata criteria.

This is opposed to other NLEs, where you create a static Bin [really just a folder] which you drop clips into.  Lets say you create a bin called “canoes”.  The material that’s in it is about canoes only because you put it in that Bin, and not because the media explicitly demands it.  Bins are dumb.  Keyword Collections are smart.  Smart Collections are REALLY smart.

So if we take what I proposed earlier about a Track being essentially “Bin across time”, then we start to see a really interesting correlation:

Bins are to Keywords, as Tracks are to Roles.

So if we take this concept to it’s literal conclusion, then what the Project Timeline in FCP X is really missing are “Role Collections”.


With Roles, organizational information has already been attached to the media, that information just needs to be used to sort the media in the Project Timeline.  By grouping Role elements together, and giving them a colour coding system, gives the timeline focus.

So if we imagine an empty timeline, and we add a new clip... lets say Voice Over- automatically a Voice Over Role Collection is created.  As you add more media, more Role Collections are added [Music, Dialogue, Sound Effect, Ambience].  And if you add media for which there already is a Collection, it’s automatically added to the appropriate place.

Same Project from above with Roles now separated vertically, and colour coding to allow easy identification
of video [Titles,
Graphics, Video] and audio [Voice Over, Music, and Sound Effects] elements.

Much cleaner, yes?

A couple of notes about this proposed organizational model.

Some have tried to use Compound Clips in FCP X as a way to faux Tracks.  The problem is that a Compound Clip breaks individual clips connections to the Primary Storyline- this is obviously not what you want if the cut is still evolving.  With Role Collections, these links would be maintained.

Tracks are always one audio layer deep.  While Role Collections could have as many stacked Lanes as required based on the number of overlapping media clips.  So, for example, a “Dialogue” Role Collection could be 1, 2, or 10 Lanes high; depending on the number of overlapping clips.  However, if you need more organizational granularity, you can (via SubRoles) create as many sub Roles for Dialogue as you see fit, and in the end each one has it's own Lane.

Another nice addition here would be expanded Role controls in the Timeline Index, allowing the user to alter the order of Roles [much like how you can re-order your camera angles in a Multi-cam clip].  Additional controls could be for selectable Role colour, and icons.

With complex Timelines, vertical space is always at a premium.  The ability to collapse and expand Roll Collections into single-Lanes [much like LogicPro X’s Stack Tracks] would also be a big help.  Another idea would be to “solo” a Roll [like you can solo layers in Motion], this would allow the editor to focus on one specific Role element easily, with the option to hear it on its own, OR in the context of the entire mix.


With Role Collections, we now have an organizing container which can now be assigned for more complex Mixing [should Apple decide to bring Bus-based mixing to Final Cut Pro X].  At the very least, it would allow for audio effects to be added to a whole group of clips via their Role Collection, and global volume adjustments to be made.

Seeing what a boon metadata-based organization has been in the Event Browser makes me hopeful that a more extensive implementation of Roles will result in a similar advances in timeline workflow.

Fingers crossed!


  1. Great article. Clear explanations. Color coded stacked roles is a brilliant idea -- I hope you communicate it to Apple. Regards, John (jtclubs)

  2. Great article from someone who reallys understand the power and evolution that fcpx bring to the world of NLEs!

  3. you've done here a really great job and prospection.
    I hope Apple read your blog !
    Another hope with role and audio, is about the AAF export to others DAWs. I make tests to have FCPX as NLE in France Television (french public main tv) and the mixer work with Pyramix (everybody don't work with ProTools). AAF from X2Pro work well for Pyramix we have the roles in the good order but not the name of the roles. Problem is when a role missed: i.e. : track 1 dialogue, track 2 ambiance, track 3 music, when there's no dialogue, ambiance become in track1 and music in track 2. It's very difficult for the mixer in a one hour complex project.
    I hope that Apple work with other firms to have a more open export system.

  4. Another Idea about role and sub-role : when I've a dialogue role for exemple with 3 channels audio, in my keyboard collection i put for all the clips a name for each channel :ch1=HF, ch2=hand mic, ch3= cam mic. Those name are good for my organisation in my edit but we don't have thoses names on the oaf export. So I have'd the idea to put a different sub-role for each channel but i can't do it in the event, i've to do it in the project timeline which is not really productive.
    Allow different sub-role for audio channels in the event should be a great improvement.

  5. Hi BenoƮt. Thanks for the comments.

    I have linked to this blog in my own feedback requests to Apple. If you think some of my ideas are good, I would encourage you to do the same thing.

    About your comments of sub-Roles and channel names. I'll have another post this week where I look at how assigning Roles could be improved. Especially in the Event browser.

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