The Secret Power of FCPX Roles And A Trackless Future

Final Cut Pro X launched with an ambitious goal: put video editing, sound editing and color grading in the same app. Apple has been refining FCPX in each of these areas. Last year Apple made big strides toward their goal and delivered an expansion of the “Roles” feature. Let’s dig in and see how Roles can help you focus on your work, and keep you organized.

The Benefits of Roles

We all want to streamline our work as much as possible. We want an efficient workspace so we can focus on telling our story. This is the benefit of Roles. They ultimately help streamline our entire post-production process and give us access to a cleaner, tighter editing environment.

Introduction to Roles

I think of Roles as “tracks without limitations.” Basically you are just telling Final Cut Pro X what role a particular clip plays in your film. Is it a title? A sound effect? The audio from a certain interviewee? There are both video Roles and audio Roles. Video Roles are helpful to visually organize your timeline; but audio Roles are where the feature truly shines. By default, Roles let you identify video clips as titles or normal video, and for audio, dialogue effects or music. These standard Roles get you started, but you can take the feature much further. Roles simply identify elements as what the are. The need to say, “dialog is on track 1-4 and sfx are on 5-8” disappears.

A Visually Organized Timeline

The first advantage of Roles is visually distinguishing between different types of video clips. Normal clips get the video Role (blue) and titles get the title Role (purple). Audio clips get different Roles as well. Your dialogue, sound effects and music clips all get distinct colors. This makes it really easy to see what you are working with at a glance. I find this more helpful than traditional video and audio tracks because the type of file is directly associated with the clip, instead of indirectly associated with it via a track.


SubRoles give you the opportunity to refine the kind of video or audio Role you’re working with. Open the Index and click over to Roles. Now you can add SubRoles to define the kind of video footage. Maybe you’ve added motion graphics from After Effects. Give them a SubRole so they’ll stand out in the timeline. You could apply a SubRole to a specific kind of footage, or apply one to all the footage shot with a particular camera in the browser.

Roles on Import

Right off the bat, FCP X wants to help make applying Roles as easy as possible. It automatically tags audio attached to video clips as Dialogue. But if you want, you can switch it right in the import dialogue. This way, the assigned role will populate in every project that you use that clip, in every multicam sequence or synced clip. This is the power of metadata—if you assign it early, it will work for you in every place you ever use that clip.

Assigning Roles in the Browser and Inspector

What if you forgot to assign a role on import? No worries. Just select your clips and change the role in the Inspector. What if you already used it in the timeline? This is important, because changes to a role in the browser don’t populate down into previous uses of a clip in a timeline. At first, that might seem strange. But the idea is that you can assign a new role to a clip that is only reflected in future uses of that clip because you wouldn’t want to mess up projects that were completed in the past. So if you’ve used a clip in a project or multicam, that role needs to be applied within that project. So the takeaway is to give some thought to assigning Roles before using clips.

Roles and iXML

Audio recorders like the Sound Devices SD633 or the Zoom F8 and F4 offer a cool trick. You can identify each of the channels on the device and FCPX will use iXML to automatically label the channels for you with SubRoles. This is really helpful if you have a reality TV shoot with a bunch of microphones or if you just want to take care of SubRoles on set instead of in post. The further up the capture chain you can apply metadata, the more time will be saved in post, and the more valuable your data is for future uses.

Video Roles

Here is a quick example of the benefit of using Roles for video. In my timeline I have a-roll, b-roll, titles and motion graphics created by a team of After Effects artists. I’ve applied Roles of title and a custom role of Motion Graphic to all those clips in the browser. Whenever they are used in the timeline, the graphics clips show up in red. In the case of this feature-length documentary, it is quite helpful to identify the distribution of clips with graphics to see how much coverage we have. In the same way, titles get a purple color, so by assigning all our lower thirds the role of “title,” they all appear purple. (In this case, all the lower-thirds titles are connected clips.)

Audio Roles

While video Roles are convenient, audio is really where the feature shines. The basic idea we have to get our heads around is that all these clips are data instead of footage. So you can “describe” the clip once in the browser as “voice over” by applying a role, and no matter where you use that clip—a teaser project, a trailer project, the feature itself—it will always carry that role.

On this project, I created over 20 custom SubRoles, at least one for each of the interviewees. I actually applied these SubRoles to the audio that I had round tripped through iZotope RX for noise reduction.

  • I exported the audio from the multicam clips
  • Cleaned it in RX
  • Reimported it (I prefer a round trip to a plugin, because of a shared editing environment)
  • Created and applied custom SubRoles
  • Added them as an additional audio-only angle in each of the multicams for the interviews.

Adding Your Own Effects to the Library

One “bonus” feature is that sound effects and music tracks that come bundled with FCP X, or music in your iTunes library, already have their respective Roles applied. Changing the genre in iTunes of SFX to Sound Effects applies the role of Effects in FCP X.

If you add sound effects to your FCP X library (Add a folder in /Library/Audio/Apple Loops/Apple/Final Cut Pro Sound Effects) you can apply the sound effects role and they’ll have it for all future projects.

Roles in the Index

How do you see the clips with a Role once you’ve applied it? Just hit the “Index” button on the timeline, then hit “Roles.” In the index you can now arrange the visual priority of your audio Roles. Are you working on cutting an edit to the beat? Drag the Music Role to the top and now you’ll have a compact view of your project where the music is nestled right under the video clips. Are you lining up VO? Just drag that Role up to the top and voila! This concept is unique to Roles, and in my opinion, it’s far more intuitive than track-based workarounds to get at the same effect.

Then hit the little circle “focus” button, and all the other audio clips with other Roles condense down. This is a truly fantastic feature when working on a laptop with limited real estate. Instead of keeping track of which track your audio is on, you are now focused on the role it is playing in your film and the stage of post-production that you are working on.

Audio Lanes

FCPX wants to get all your audio tracks as visually close to your primary storyline as possible. But sometimes you really need to explode all that compactness and see where you’ve laid in sound effects and music. Hit the “Show Audio Lanes” button at the bottom of the Index and FCPX leverages all that metadata to produce Audio Lanes. They look like traditional audio and video tracks, but as we’ll see, they are much more powerful. These lanes are automatically tagged with the Roles that you have indicated. So it makes it easy to work on effects or music in their own space. You can also easily identify a stray clip with the wrong role and fix it.

Showing and Collapsing SubRoles

Now you might be asking, “What about all that work we did applying 20+ custom Roles to each interviewee? All the dialogue is grouped together.” At the bottom of the index panel is the “Show or collapse SubRoles in the timeline” button. Click it and witness magic. Instantly, each interviewee’s audio is broken out into its own lane.

We now have what looks like a traditional view. Lanes and lanes of audio when we need it. Easily select all of a person’s audio and adjust the volume, or apply effects to all the instances of their voice. Then when you’re done, turn off the view and everything collapses back to normal.

The FCPX magnetic timeline combined with SubRoles gives you all the advantages of the extremely-compact “always-in-sync” timeline, with the ability to quickly separate  things out as finely as needed.

Compound Clips for Audio Busses

What if you’d like to apply an effect like an EQ or compressor to all the clips from one SubRole? Simply select all the clips in your timeline and create a compound clip, and show the audio lanes.

The next step is less obvious. Go to the inspector for the audio configuration and select “subroles.”

Now you can use the SubRole lanes just like an audio bus and the effects will be applied to every instance of that interviewee.

Final Cut Pro X ships with the same set of filters that are in Logic Pro X, so you’ve got plenty of horsepower to make a great mix.

Compound Clip for Final Mix

Now that you’ve evened out levels and applied filters at the SubRole level, it is time for one final level of mixing. Select the whole timeline, and create one more compound clip. You’ll see all your Dialogue, Music and Effects tracks gathered. (In this example I have VO as a fully separate role).

Even out the levels and once your mix is done, you are ready to output your final project.

This MacBreak Studio episode with FCPX gurus Mark Spencer and LumaForge CEO Sam Mestman breaks down exactly how to do this Compound Clip technique. A worthwhile watch! (FYI: the two people pictured in the thumbnail are Mark and his usual MacBreak Studio co-host, Steve Martin, founder of Ripple Training.)

One thing that often comes up is that different platforms really require different overall levels of audio. I like to use Apple Compressor to create presets that raise or lower the overall mix by 3, 6, or 12db. That way I can leave my main timeline set at the levels that I need and choose a setting with overall boosted audio levels if necessary.

Export Roles to your DAW

If you are passing your edit off to a sound mixer to work  in Logic Pro, FCP X gives you the ability to export an XML and open it in Logic Pro. You’ll see your SubRoles on separate tracks, and you can take full advantage of your DAW’s toolset and control surfaces.

A secondary way to export your audio is to “export Roles as separate files.” You’ll find this option in the export dialogue box. This method gives you separate stems for each SubRole, and you can bring those into your DAW. Just place each stem on its own track and you are good to go.

If your sound editor is using some other DAW (like Avid’s Pro Tools), use an app like X2Pro that can export your project as an AAF (since other DAWs cannot natively import FCPXs XML). If you prefer not to spend the $100+ on X2Pro, use DaVinci Resolve for free as your “go between” FCPX and other DAWs.

Exporting M&E Tracks

Another great use of Roles is for exporting “Music and Effects” tracks. This is needed when you are sending your project out for international distribution. A local distributor may want to put in their own dub, so they need an export that only has the music and effects. You’ve already done work in tagging your clips, so the export is simple.


The Roles feature in Final Cut Pro X really demonstrates the power of metadata when handling both video and audio. You’ll be more organized and your timeline will be cleaner and tighter. As for audio, you’ll be able to take your audio editing further than you ever thought possible, right in your NLE. And when you need the big guns of a DAW, Final Cut Pro X has got you covered with easy exporting. Best of all, Apple has already telegraphed that they are going to be continuing to add new ways to use Roles in the future with the release of version 10.4.

Are you a fan of roles? How have you used them. Share in the comments.

Shout-out to Mike Matzdorff for his contributions to this article!

Images courtesy Faithlife Corporation, Copyright 2017.

Reuben Evans

Reuben Evans is an award-winning screenwriter, executive producer at Faithlife, and a member of the Producers Guild of America. He has produced and directed numerous documentaries and commercials. Reuben’s tools of choice are RED Cameras, Final Cut Pro, and DaVinci Resolve. He writes for Insider and is part of the Blade Ronner Media writers network. Reuben resides in Washington state with his wife, four kids, and one crazy goldendoodle puppy named Baker.