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Video, photo and music editing used to be only accessible through complicated and expensive hardware, and software programs such as Avid for video, Photoshop for images and ProTools for audio. But now a vast array of online tools and cheaper software are letting amateurs and pros polish up their work without spending any money.

In addition to being free, the online editing tools require no special equipment beyond an Internet connection and a fairly new browser. These simple tools don’t offer all the advanced features that professional software does; and not everyone is keen on uploading their personal files to a third party website. But these services can get simple jobs done and even help hone editing skills. Here’s a look at some of the more useful ones.

Video Editing

Technology advances at blinding speeds and it’s often shocking when you look back and see how much has changed in just the last 10 years. When I first entered film school, it was a time when cinema teaching programs were leaving behind moviolas — the manual editing stations of old — for computer programs. As a student, if you were lucky, you might get a chance to practice in an Avid suite (my school only had one, so it was tough). But most of the time you had to get your editing done on a software program called Adobe Premiere. Everyone of course had to take turns, as the software itself wasn’t accessible to starving students, not to mention the tape decks and monitors.

By the time I went back to film school for a postgrad course in 2002, film schools were already skipping Avid and adopting the much more affordable Final Cut Pro for video editing. While it was cheaper, it was no bargain for a student at about $500 a pop. So we’d still have to hang around the school to get our post-production done. I came into my film training at an awkward time: not late enough to enjoy all of the digital advances students and professionals have now, and at a time when film itself was being threatened by video. Today, students, professionals and aficionados have a wide array of cheap to free tools available to edit their work.

iMovie
Offline, Apple’s iMovie provides the basic features offered by Final Cut Pro such as easy drag and drop of clips, transitions and the ability to control audio elements. On the other hand, it does have some limitations which make it harder to handle more complex projects, such as the fact that some versions of it cannot handle multiple video and audio tracks. But some filmmakers have used it to edit feature length movies. If you’re just learning editing, iMovie is much more intuitive and has less of a learning curve than Final Cut Pro, not to mention that it comes free when you purchase a Mac.

Other Notable Services
On the Net, video editing and mashup tools are everywhere. While none can compare to the robustness of iMovie, there are a few services which are worth mentioning. A service called Jumpcut, owned by Yahoo, lets you upload, edit and share your video all in one place. I tried out Jumpcut and was editing video in less than 5 minutes. The service lets you upload your own work and edit it directly on the web with no downloads, adding sounds and visual effects such as titles.

Similar online editing tools include Motionbox and Cuts. There are also a number of programs that allow you to “mash up” YouTube videos. While most of these solutions are less than pro, they provide a valuable and accessible way to familiarize yourself with the audio-visual language and practice editing. Film students these days can actually take their editing work home with them and access it whenever they like.

Photo Editing

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Picasa User Interface

I learned photography with a film camera and a darkroom, and for me it wasn’t the easiest way to get started. While we all know what digital photography has done for those of us who love shooting photos, digital editing has done amazing things as well. When Photoshop came on the scene, it was also inaccessible to many due to its price. Luckily, more affordable basic tools such as iPhoto were introduced, allowing simple editing of images such as red eye removal, cropping, etc. Now a series of online services allow for free photo editing, opening up the possibility of great images to anyone.

Picasa
One of the first free photo editing services was Picasa, which was acquired by Google in 2004. Picasa, aimed at amateur photographers, allows for all sorts of editing, even fake tilts and zoom effects. The downside is that it requires a download, so you aren’t able to edit directly in your browser, and it isn’t available for Mac.

Picnik
While Picasa has been the leader in simple photo editing for a while, a new service called Picnik, a Flickr partner, is offering what looks to be a more comprehensive online editing service. While also geared toward beginners, it has some features only previously found in high-end photo editing software such as Photoshop. These advanced features make it easier to get editing done without opening up a memory-consuming software program. Plus, you can import photos from Flickr — and other social networks such as Facebook — directly into Picnik. One advantage Picasa still has over Picnik, however, is that it supports RAW files. This is very important to amateurs or pros that shoot with a higher end digital SLR.

Other Notable Services
Many other free or cheap photo editing tools are available, among them Pixenate, Phixr, Fotoflexer and Flauntr, all of which offer similar features with a few variations. A closer online cousin to Photoshop is Splashup, which allows for more advanced photo editing, and looks a lot like the real Photoshop. And even Adobe has jumped on the free online photo-editing bandwagon, offering Adobe Photoshop Express. It has less features than Photoshop but also allows for 2 GB of storage on the site.

Most of these tools won’t be able to replace Photoshop, but they will get your images closer to the way you want them.

Sound and Music Editing

Another inaccessible tool for starving media students has always been the ProTools sound editing system, which required a pricy software package and really expensive hardware. Back in school, after waiting around for our turns at the Avid, we’d then wait for our turn in the ProTools suite to work on sound mixing and editing. Having access to ProTools or a comparable editing system in one’s home was unthinkable.

As time has passed, cheaper solutions have emerged, such as Adobe’s Soundbooth or Audition and Sony’s SoundForge. Plus, free tools in the audio editing and mixing area have cropped up as well — though many of them require downloads and don’t work as online applications.

Audicity
One standout is Audicity, a free, open source, multi-platform program that allows for recording, splicing, copying and mixing of audio. Audicity does a lot of what SoundForge does, and it’s quite impressive that a free sound editing software can do things like change pitch, remove hum, and record up to 16 tracks at once. Audicity’s feature set is wide and lets sound editors mix like pros without paying a dime.

Other Notable Services
For film and video makers, a program called DubIt allows for the adding of voice narration or sound effects to video and image files. Online sound editing tool LoopLabs gained a lot of popularity in the early 2000s but doesn’t seem to be available for use anymore. A service called Splice lets you easily mix music online and share it with other musicians on the site.

For beginning musicians, Jam Studio lets novices make music from scratch instantly, choosing from different types of instruments, tempos and keys to easily create songs. JamGlue, geared towards rappers and DJs, lets you upload music and create remixes of tracks. Because it’s also a social network, JamGlue lets you remix other people’s songs as well. The downside of these online services is that features are very limited, so they aren’t as great for intense sound editing and mixing as full-featured software.

Music Videos

Animoto

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Animoto Produces Music Videos Automatically

We’ve covered audio and video editing, but what about musicians who need a music video on the cheap? A new service called Animoto allows for near-instant music video creation by nearly anyone. Animoto is designed by TV and film producers and all you have to do is import a bunch of your own images, upload your song and the program does the rest. According to the website, Animoto “feels” the music and produces the video accordingly.

I was skeptical, so I tested out Animoto myself. It’s the first online service that’s brought a smile to my face in a long time. I threw a bunch of random images into the system, added a Kanye West song, and Animoto spat out a video that, albeit bizarre, almost looked professionally done. On the other hand, because Animoto is automated the user has very limited control over the finished product beyond the choice of images and music, and the ability to “remix” the video.

Tools like the ones I’ve mentioned here can help encourage a younger generation of artists to beccome media makers — not just film school graduates or professional musicians. And as in the case of the new generation of video producers who are using the Internet as their top distribution channel, other artists will have a change to stretch their creativity with access to these cheap online tools. Of course, there will still be a premium on artistry, and no tool can turn bad work into good.

What do you think? Do you use online tools for editing media? Are these tools useful and will they eventually replace expensive software? What possibilities do these services offer to artists? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

UPDATE: Avid Technology contacted MediaShift to let us know that they are now offering a cheaper pro version of the Avid Media Composer software for $2495, as well as a student and educator version for $295.

Jennifer Woodard Maderazo is the associate editor of PBS MediaShift. She is a San Francisco-based writer, blogger and marketer, who covers Latino marketing at Latin-Know and Latino cultural issues at VivirLatino.

Editing bay image via Ramen Junkie and Picasa image via Hector Milla, both on Flickr.