Outside of tech blogging, my background is mainly film, and my main gig is primarily as a video editor and producer. If you, like me, have spent more than 15 years in front of a computer pulling your hair out trying to fix problems, you’ll probably end up accruing a go-to list of problem-solving programs to install on every computer you use.
Interestingly, these tend to be free, probably because most of the common problems are universal, and that usually means someone has thought of that already and gotten mad enough to fix it. And if someone on GitHub or an obscure video encoding forum has not solved the issue, there’s some great shareware software out there that won’t break the bank.
So here are the programs that have saved my bacon in one way or another over the years and that I would recommend to any experienced (and some aspiring) video editor at the drop of a hat. It is by no means an exhaustive list, and there is always room for improvement, so feel free to tell me your own favorites in the comments.
Cost: Free, $295 for DaVinci Resolve Studio
Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve is the best value of any non-linear editing software out there, period. If you are going to start editing software today, just download DaVinci Resolve. Do not mess around with Sony Vegas; they changed the pricing structure, and it isn’t worth the money now. Do not mess with Final Cut Pro. For the love of god, do not cut your teeth on iMovie, have some self-respect. You may have to mess around with Premiere in a professional context, but understand that, like most Adobe software, it sucks and crashes all the time.
DaVinci Resolve has a fairly robust version that is free to download, is intuitive, works better, and will be the only editing software that you need because it’s the only retail product made remotely well outside of Avid. As of last year, there is an iPad version, too, and I have heard very good things!
Out of the box, Resolve just works better than Premiere and is infinitely more enjoyable to interact with. It has some of the best tools around for editing, it has a powerful and flexible node-based motion graphics suite that isn’t constantly crashing like After Effects, it has a fairly competent DAW built into it that will make audio work very simple, and you cannot get a better piece of software when it comes to color grading because that is what it started as even before it was a Non-Linear Editor.
The full version, DaVinci Resolve Studio, is 295 bucks, and you pay for it once, which is the way I would prefer people sell me software. There are a handful of differences between the free and paid versions, but the main limitation is if you want to edit frame rates higher than 60fps and resolutions over 4K. There are also a handful of limitations on multi-GPU processing, color grading in HDR and a bunch of plugins and tools, but the vast majority of users will not need this. I have the full version, and unlike with other software tools, they have yet to harass me to pay for cloud features I’ll never use or upgrade my existing license to a new version of the software. It has just been a steady stream of very good quality-of-life updates since I redeemed the key.
(Hot tip: Blackmagic sells video cameras and a weird keyboard, and they package a license in with every single one. That’s how I got my license. Neat!)
If you are the kind of person who does not like using proprietary software and you need a basic video editor like Resolve, try Kdenlive as an alternative. I personally find Resolve more intuitive, and you definitely are not getting the same sheer toolset that Resolve gives you, but Kdenlive is completely free, open-source, runs very light and even allows you to see the FFmpeg strings it is outputting. I find it to be a great way to edit and output animated gifs, provided that is still something you are interested in doing in 2023.
FFmpeg is a crucial open-source software project that is a keystone of making videos function, both on and off the internet. The importance of FFmpeg cannot be overstated. To describe the scope of it would take a very long time, but it’s a core component of everything from YouTube to so many tools I am going to talk about. But it’s also so open-ended and massive that mastering it takes a while. YouTube, VLC, Blender, KDenLive and Bilibili all use it for processing. It’s basically everywhere.
With that big-picture stuff out of the way, FFmpeg is also an incredible tool for basic editing, transcoding, compression, merging video files together, and more. If you really want to be a video freak, download FFmpeg and try using it to edit video in the command line. Once you get fast at it, it will often be the most efficient way to do very specific commands, and if you are constantly doing one thing over and over again, you can use it to simplify and automate your workflow. It’ll open entirely new doorways into your workflow once you get good.
If that sounds too complicated, and you just want a simple and easy-to-understand GUI for FFmpeg, try using Clever FFmpeg-GUI. But get good enough with FFmpeg, and maybe one day you’ll move on to the hard stuff like Vapoursynth, and pretty soon you’ll be ready for anime fansubbing levels of video encoding,
Remember how I said that FFmpeg is built into a lot of other software? Lossless Cut is one of those. Let’s say you have a movie or a video file, generally, that you want to cut just one scene from before you edit it. Drag it into Lossless Cut, set an in and out point, click cut, and it will cut just that part of the video out without re-encoding the video.
You will be shocked at how useful this is. In and out points tend not to be exact a lot of the time, mainly because of how it is doing the cutting, but for bigger projects or for just doing little tiny edits for posting, you cannot find a cleaner piece of free software. I recommend everyone download Lossless Cut — it’s just that good.
You will often just need a basic audio editor and recorder, and Audacity does the job. It’s not complicated, but it’s free, competent, and it works. Nothing too complex there, and most people will never need to go beyond that, but you can do a lot of basic editing in Audacity, too, if need be.
Cost: $60 (individual); $225 (commercial); 60-day free trial
I would also like to recommend REAPER, an audio workstation and MIDI sequencer, because even though most people will never need to use it, it’s a very robust piece of software to the point of being very overwhelming, and I just generally like and respect them as a company. They are also fairly generous with their evaluation period, so it is a no-brainer to poke around and try. Their software is basically 60 bucks for most normal people, and the license covers a fairly high number of updates. They’re cool and worth supporting.
Sometimes you are simply not in an ideal audio situation, and you need to isolate music from vocals or vice versa. Or maybe you just wanna have fun putting goofy vocals over different music. There are tons of very good, open-source models out there for just such a task, with Demucs and MDX-NET currently being among the most respected. Ultimate Vocal Remover is a free GUI that lets you download any number of those AI models so you can isolate vocals from a clip and spit that out into stems. It lets you get very granular with the options too.
If you want to try those models out online instead, MVSEP is a donation-supported web interface for processing your music and has a running scoreboard of how all those various models currently fare.
So many people do not know the correct way to download a YouTube video, and that’s really a shame. It doesn’t have to be this way — there is software that does this. Namely YT-DLP.
YT-DLP is a fork of youtube-dl (which made the news a while back for getting DMCA’d). Like FFmpeg, you can use the command line to download videos, and also, like FFmpeg, the code for this is embedded in a bunch of other software natively. There are tons of front-ends for this.
Cost: Free for limited version; $10 for one-year license; $15 for personal version, $45 for pro version
If you don’t want to deal with that or get too granular, 4K Video Downloader will do the trick for most people. In fact, I use that most of the time because it is fairly good and also because I am lazy. You can also throw them some cash for additional features, but out of the box, it does what most people want it to. There is apparently an Android app too, but I haven’t used it.
To download videos from Twitter, I like using the TwitFix extension or one of the various TwitFix forks, which just lets you right-click a video and download it instead of annoyingly tagging a bot to tell it to download a video for you. Either way, it beats the hell out of using a website called something like “downloadyoutubevids4free.malware.”
Sometimes you don’t have time to use YT-DLP. Understandable! If you are on an iOS device like an iPhone and want a fast and easy way to download videos from YouTube or Twitter instead of screen recording, cropping and trimming, shortcuts are your answer. (As an aside, if you have not messed around with what shortcuts can do, I highly recommend it. I have a dedicated button on my screen that just plays various NTS streams.)
JAYD (Just Another Youtube Downloader) and HiRes Twitter allow you to download YouTube and Twitter videos directly to your phone by simply copying and pasting a link. They can be a little wonky at times, but it beats the hell out of tagging a bot to download it for you.
HandBrake is an old encoding workhorse for a reason. It’s pretty easy to understand, straightforward and is a fantastic tool for most people if you just need to convert a file from one format to another. I personally am using it less and less these days as there are more depraved alternatives for what I need from it (like FFmpeg and the program I am about to mention), and parts of it just did not function the way it needed to for a bit, but everyone I know who has edited video has had to have this on their computer at one time or another. The company has also made a lot of really impressive updates recently that fix a lot of my long-standing issues with how it worked. It absolutely deserves a place in every editor’s computer.
I hate to recommend Windows-only software, but Staxrip is incredible and one of my favorite encoding tools out there. It acts as a GUI for several other pieces of free encoding software like FFMpeg, eac3to (a very good piece of audio encoding software), Avisynth+ and Vapoursynth (two very powerful video post-production tools), and many more. The company has also just added a row of other software with it that I like, such as MKVtoolnix, mpv.net and more. It even lets you do scripting in Windows Powershell. If you want to get serious about encoding, Staxrip is a fantastic place to start.
Cost: Free (Sponsorships available)
Sometimes you just need to know what a video file’s whole deal is, and MediaInfo is generally regarded as the gold standard. It’s free, open-source, and cross-platform and will give you very granular, detailed information about what’s going on with your video file, like audio and video format, container, bitrate, color space, resolution, subtitle format and more. On top of that will, it will give you multiple ways to display the information, although I personally tend to stick with text and tree views.
Cost: Free for 30 days, $60 after for all features
When it comes to ripping your DVDs and Blu-ray, MakeMKV is my favorite piece of software. You aren’t getting a complete backup of the disk, but a transcoded lossless MKV file that you can easily play on VLC or whatever your video player of choice is. It isn’t open-source, and it’s not technically free, but it’s a pretty generous shareware license (DVDs are always free, and Blu-rays are conditionally free), and it’s not too expensive to buy, so it deserves a place on this list. And while there are times when it makes sense to rip an entire disc, this is often preferable.
If you want to go down a fun rabbit hole, look up LibreDrive. It’s embedded software that you install on a Blu-ray player and lets you have direct control of your drive and rip whatever you want.
Cost: Free, donations accepted
Everyone needs a video player, and I recommend the old reliable: VLC Media Player. Like Handbrake, it’s a standard for a reason. It’s cross-platform, mostly does what it is supposed to, and gets most simple jobs done.
Cost: Free (donations accepted on Ko-Fi)
I would also like to take this opportunity to offer an alternative: mpv.net, a very good Windows player based on MPV (a command-line video player), with a lot of smart features added. If you want to get very granular with how you configure your player, including options for GPU acceleration, mpv.net has it all. I really just love the way it is laid out. The person who maintains MPV.net, Stax76, also does StaxRip.
Live streaming is an entire topic unto itself, but every video editor, professional or not, should just have OBS on their computer. It’s got tons of uses, even outside of being a Twitch star, and it’s clutch if you wanna start dipping your toes into doing live video.
While I know many professionals that are ride or die for vMix (for very good reasons — it has long been the most robust tool out there for streaming, although it comes with a hefty price tag), OBS has made massive strides in its functionality over the years, to the point where I would not recommend anything else for most people.
A lot of people I trust also use Streamlabs, which also works very well. I am still hesitant about them after the plagiarism controversy with OBS, but that has since been ironed over, and they are now working together, so if it works for you, go nuts. That said, OBS will take you where you need to go, up to the very highest levels. There are also too many great OBS plugins to mention, like OBS Closed Captions, SAAMI, Downstream Keyer, Source Dock and more. Give it a shot.
Cost: Free (accepts patrons for support)
I don’t want to get too granular with plugins for OBS because there are so many, and we would be here all day, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Xaymar’s great work on the StreamFX plugins. If you are a video editor, you can make use of the FFmpeg and AV1 encoders, but there are also tons of filters. It’s free to download, but Xaymar does accept donations and Patreon support if you feel like supporting it.
Platform: Windows (requires an Nvidia GPU)
If you have an Nvidia GPU, you may as well download Nvidia Broadcast, if only for the live AI noise reduction. It tends to work really well and will help if you have to record in less-than-ideal situations. Worst case, it’ll help you out on Zoom calls. There are also tons of other features.
I love NDI. It’s so cool. Basically, what NDI does is let you transmit low latency, very high-quality video over LAN. What that means is you can take any video source — like a webcam, your video capture card or your desktop — and designate it as an NDI source. Any computer on the network can then access that NDI source.
For streamers with multiple camera angles or video sources over a wired network, this is very useful. During lockdown, I even used it to stream games from my capture card so that I wouldn’t have to move my PS4 between the living room and my office. It has plugins for OBS, a great iOS app, and works very, very well. It is not open source, but it’s free to download, and there are even capture cards out there by companies like Magewell that natively encode to NDI. Mess around with it! It’s fun.
That’s all the video software I can think of off the top of my head that’s saved my ass. I hope one of these, at the very least, manages to get you out of a scrape so you aren’t stuck in the office until 2AM fixing a problem that could have been solved in five minutes. Happy editing.
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