Fixing Choppy Playback and Other Common Premiere Pro Problems
We’ve all been there before; the network goes down, your workstation won’t boot, or your NLE of choice crashes every time you right-click, and suddenly your workday comes to a screeching halt. Or at the least, Premiere Pro’s playback gets choppy and stuttery. And if this hasn’t happened to you, it’s coming.
Technology, like people, has bad days from time to time. Particularly for us in the post-production world, this inevitably seems to happen at the tail-end of a project when everything is due for delivery. That’s certainly my experience.
So even though troubleshooting a printer is not something most editors are prepared for, troubleshooting NLE problems is something we should all practice. Because when you’re two days from client review, the last thing you need is to waste hours browsing old forum posts for technical help. So let’s learn to take charge of our tools.
In today’s article, I’ll walk through some common issues and solutions in Adobe Premiere Pro and show you how to fix them. If you’ve ever experienced playback problems, export errors, or irregular performance, hopefully this guide will spare you future frustration, and get you on the right path to NLE creative harmony.
Before we start, restart
It may seem trivial, but sometimes Premiere Pro or your machine just needs a fresh start. Complex software like NLEs tie up vast system resources, including the CPU, memory, storage, GPUs, and network bandwidth, which can naturally cause a performance hit and choppy playback performance after long editing sessions.
Simply closing and reopening the program can often alleviate issues because the program “flushes” the processes it may be hung on and then initializes them again. And if a program restart doesn’t do the job, a full system restart just might.
And if restarting seems too obvious or simple a solution for the complicated issue that you’re suffering from, just take a few minutes and give it a try anyway. Take a minute to sit back, breathe, and have a mental reboot of your own. Your brain can suffer from choppy playback, too.
As the old adage goes, “have you tried turning it off and on again.” All editors, whether Mac or PC users, no matter if we’re Final Cut, Resolve, Avid, or Premiere jockeys, need to keep this standard practice in mind. It’s just the nature of the digital beast.
Now you’ve had a little break (maybe gotten a snack and some tea) while your system rebooted, but you’re back at your desk and ready to give everything another try. So you open up your project, but alas, the timeline is just not playing back right. What are you to do? Well, let’s first diagnose the exact nature of the funky playback.
Your thumb slams down on the spacebar, the time indicator starts to steadily slide along the timeline, and then ev..er..y…thing starts…to..stutt…er. But don’t resign yourself to wasting even more time by waiting around for timeline renders just to watch what you’ve created. Let’s solve this.
Choppy playback in Premiere can be caused by a number of things, including hardware, effects, media resolution, codecs, sequence settings, or some combination thereof.
Check the sticker
First things first, double-check with Adobe to make sure your hardware is up to par for running Premiere Pro. Short of buying a new system, there is no solution here if you’re computer does not meet the minimum system requirements.
Turn effects off
A more likely cause of choppy playback is that your timeline has too many effects.
Obviously, video effects, especially lots of them, can be hard for Premiere Pro to process in real-time. So if you simply want to playback your edit sans effects, then Adobe has you covered with a single click (or keystroke). You can easily turn off all of the effects in your sequence using the “Global FX Mute” button found in the Program Monitor (look for the stylized “fx”).
If you don’t see this button, it’s very easy to add to your UI. Simply click the “+” icon in the lower right of the window, find the button, and click to add. Also take the time to explore some of the other buttons in the menu if you’ve never done so before. Alternatively, you can create a keyboard shortcut.
While you’re in the Program Monitor, click the wrench icon and find the option for “High Quality Playback.” This option provides a slightly crisper image in the Program Monitor, though the visual improvement is often negligible without huge screens. That’s why I recommend unchecking this option, as the performance hit is usually not worth it.
Lower the resolution and use proxies
Now let’s talk resolution. If you’re attempting to cut 8K raw media on a laptop, there’s your problem. Very few machines can handle that many pixels smoothly, so don’t feel bad if you need to use a proxy workflow. In fact, most Hollywood workflows still cut with proxies, because it’s so much faster, especially for remote workflows.
But sometimes proxies aren’t enough, and you need to go a step further. You can also save some processing power by lowering your playback resolution in the Program Monitor. The frame size of your current sequence will determine what options are available in the window’s dropdown menu, but half or a quarter is generally acceptable for assembling your edit or fine-tuning a scene.
Beyond resolution, codecs can be a prime culprit of choppy playback. Some codecs, like H.264-based files and flavors of .MXF are very processor intensive due to their use of inter-frame compression. These codecs are generally great as a delivery format, but terrible for editing. So if time permits, transcoding your media to an intra-frame codec like ProRes can really speed your editing along.
If you’re guilty of right-clicking “new sequence from clip” in the project window and then editing your project in that sequence, then your sequence could be defaulting to some less-than-helpful settings. So, I encourage you to dig a little deeper into the sequence settings to make sure you’re editing media in a quality intra-frame codec, and that your sequence is creating previews files in the same or similar codec.
For example, I commonly use QuickTime as the preview file format with Apple ProRes 422 as the codec. If you want (and this is a strong recommendation) you can create a custom sequence preset with the settings you need, so you don’t have to manually change them for every new sequence.
Clear the cache
Lastly, choppy playback in Premiere could be caused by bad render files and/or cache files. If the above solutions haven’t solved your playback woes, it may help to clear these files.
Clearing your sequence’s render files is pretty easy. Just open the Sequence dropdown menu on the program bar and click “Delete Render Files.”
With Adobe’s latest 2020 release, it is now much simpler to clear Premiere’s cache. All you have to do is open Premiere’s preferences and select the “Media Cache” tab, and then click the new “Delete” button next to “Remove Media Cache Files”.
From here you’ll have two options.
The first, “Delete Unused Media Cache Files” clears all unused cache files in relation to the project you currently have open. The second option can only be selected after restarting Premiere without any projects open. It clears the entire cache.
If you prefer the older hands-on approach of clearing the cache, take a stroll into your project’s media cache folder and delete the files manually.
You can delete the folders “Media Cache” and “Media Cache Files” entirely to really make sure your cache clears. Don’t worry, Premiere will rebuild them.
Now let’s imagine you’re problem is a little bit different than choppy playback across a whole project.
Sometimes you might feel like a clip you’ve applied a speed ramp to pops or stutters during playback. Or that a sequence with footage of mixed frame rates has certain clips that experience the same issue.
In both instances, this type of clip-specific stuttering is caused by how Premiere is interpolating the footage, rather than a performance issue rooted in your hardware.
Interpolation is the method for how Premiere handles playback of a clip at a different framerate than the actual number of frames per second it was recorded in. These methods usually involve the creation of “missing” frames necessary for a time-remapped clip or mismatched frame rates.
For example, if you time remap a clip from 100% to 50%, the clip length doubles, but where do those extra frames come from? That’s the work of interpolation.
Mixing frame rates in a sequence is often a necessary evil, especially in documentary work. Say you plan to deliver in 23.98fps, but 1/3 of your media is 29.97fps. Dropping a 29.97fps clip into a 23.98fps sequence will often generate a slight jitter that’s most noticeable in clips with movement.
Step back and think about what’s happening. Premiere is taking a 1 second 29.97fps clip and squeezing it into a 1 second slot in a 23.98fps sequence. That’s basically 6 extra frames per second Premiere has to interpolate. Aside from trying alternative interpolation options, there’s not much that can be done to fix this inside of Premiere. Depending on the severity of the jitter, it may be in your best interest to use a hardware converter, like the Blackmagic Teranex, to conform the clip(s) from 29.97fps to 23.98fps.
Interpolation is also used when time remapping clips. Adobe Premiere offers three interpolation options: frame sampling, frame blending, and optical flow.
Frame sampling duplicates a frame to make up for missing frames, frame blending blends two frames together to create a new frame, and optical flow uses complex math to make a best guess at what the missing frame should look like based off pixel information from within the image.
Each method offers a different look/effect and can be used to help reduce the popping or stutter of a remapped clip. Unfortunately, that is not enough, especially when slowing a clip down substantially.
Proper speed ramping usually forces us to do some pre-planning when shooting video, which sometimes even includes math. Shooting at high frame rates allows editors to slow down footage in post and helps avoid the stuttery look. Understandably, there are many situations when the exact speed of a time remapped clip won’t be determined until in the edit, but you’ll need to do your best if you’re involved with production of the project.
Pretend we’re working on a project, planning to deliver in 24fps and shooting in 60fps. For our clips to play back buttery-smooth in a 24fps sequence, we need to know the precise speed to play back each of the 60fps clips so that there is only one frame for every 24th of a second. So, 24 frames per second of playback divided by 60 frames per second of footage, leaves us with 40% speed. That means slowing each 60fps clip down to 40% speed will turn those clips into smooth, slow-motion 24fps clips.
If math isn’t your thing or you just want Premiere to do the work, you can also select the 60fps clips in the Project panel, right click “Modify” and under the “Interpret Footage” tab select “Assume this frame rate:” and type 24fps.
Once you click ok, Premiere will do all the math for you and every clip in the sequence will playback at 24fps. Note you should do this prior to adding clips to any timelines as this obviously changes the clip’s timing.
Slow preview rendering
Despite our best efforts, rendering is sometimes the only way to play back a sequence or parts of a sequence in real-time. And depending on what’s going on in a sequence, this can also take a while. Outside of the amount of sheer processing power available to your system, the resolution, codec, and amount of effects in your sequence weigh most heavily on this issue.
One option that may save time is to adjust the video preview settings of your sequence. In your Sequence Settings, the option to change preview size only affects the previews you’re seeing inside of Premiere and not the final export.
So if your sequence frame size is 3840×2160, setting the video preview size to 960×540 drastically reduces the size of the preview files Premiere has to create, which obviously means they take less time. And unless you’re relying on dedicated preview monitor, you may not notice a huge quality difference in your Program Monitor.
No video preview in Program Monitor
If you’ve been editing along swimmingly and suddenly the Program Monitor only shows black while playing back a sequence there’s a good chance the GPU or a bad render/preview file is to blame.
GPU issues sometimes occur when using CUDA or Metal-based renderers, and then most often happen when stacking effects on high resolution video. As powerful as these cards are, they sometimes hit a snag with intensive workflows.
Normally a program or computer restart addresses the issue, but occasionally they can persist when a certain part of a sequence with heavy effects will always cause the Program Monitor to go black. If you experience this try changing the renderer in your project settings (File > Project Settings > General…) to use Software-Only rendering. This option takes your GPU out of the equation.
This will almost certainly cause a noticeable performance hit, but you can work like this in a pinch. You can also mark In/Out on the troubled section of video, render it In to Out, and then export that section of your sequence using preview files in a good codec. By cutting this “pre-rendered” chunk back into your sequence on top of the layers that were used to create it, you can keep your GPU rendering on without the monitor going black.
Another option to fix lack of video in the Program Monitor is to try clearing the renders/preview cache like we explored earlier.
Audio won’t play or drops out
Chances are that, if audio playback is choppy or not playing at all but Premiere otherwise seems to be working fine, then your hardware settings have changed. These settings are system dependent and can be adjusted in Preferences > Audio Hardware. Pay careful attention to the Default Output option as it isn’t necessarily the same as the system’s default output.
If audio is dropping out as you playback a sequence, that could be due to latency or using compressed audio.
Latency is the short delay that’s experienced when an audio signal is processed by a computer and then output to the speakers. You can adjust latency in the Audio Hardware preferences, so give that a try if necessary. Smaller values offer lower latency, but higher values can sometimes alleviate audio dropouts.
Premiere can generally handle whatever you throw at it, but some systems may occasionally experience audio dropouts with compressed audio files, like MP3s. The best way to avoid this is to either use an uncompressed audio file, like .WAV or .AIF, which are easy to convert to.
Common export issues
Now let’s imagine another problem. You’ve finished editing your project, but you can’t get the blasted thing to export correctly. Let’s take a look.
Error messages defined
Sometimes Premiere will do you a favor and spit out an error code about an issue. These messages do a decent, albeit still frustratingly inconsistent, job of titling errors in a meaningful way (at least for export/render issues).
If you don’t know what an error really means, just consult the list to get to the bottom of it.
But let’s assume you didn’t get a clear error message. Here are some common causes for export issues in Premiere Pro
The usual suspects
As we’ve already covered, the most common performance issues revolve around codecs, GPU processing, write locations, effects, and corrupt media. Likewise, export errors involve the same sorts of things. We’ve already covered codecs pretty well, so let’s jump back to GPUs.
If you think the GPU is causing your exports to fail (like it can with render previews), then try disabling hardware render settings in your project’s render setting. Again, software-only rendering will be slower, but it may allow you to export the sequence without failure.
Write location and permissions
Write location issues generally stem from not having enough space available on a drive to write to the file. But they can also involve permission mismatches. Obviously, the simple solution to the former is just to make sure you have enough space available at the write location prior to exporting.
Permission problems can be especially prevalent in networked environments. (They can pop up on solo machines too.) They can be a real pain to solve if you’ve never encountered them before. The exact cause and solution of these problems is dependent on a number of factors, and are a bit more granular than we’ll cover here, but there are lots of resources out there for solving common Mac and Windows permissions issues.
Troublesome effects, again
Too many effects can give us a lot more grief beyond just choppy playback. If your exports are failing, it’s possible there’s a troublesome effect hiding in your timeline.
It’s easy to test this. Turn on the “Global FX Mute” option and try to export your sequence. If it exports fine without effects, then there’s a problematic effect or corrupt piece of media amongst your clips.
But at the end of the day, you probably need the effects on your timeline. So you need to find it and fix it.
So disable “Global FX Mute,” and mark an in point at the start of the sequence and an out point in the middle of the timeline. Now attempt to export that portion.
If it works, then you know the troublesome effect is not in the first half of your sequence. Now test the second half. So make an in point in the middle of your sequence and an out point at the end. If it fails to export here, you know the bad effect is in that half (though you probably already knew that since the first half exported fine, this just confirms it).
Now it’s time to hone in on the bad effect, so repeat this process again by exporting half of the failed in/out points. If it exports fine, the bad effect is in the last quarter of your timeline, and if it fails, you’re closer to finding it. You get the idea.
Once you’ve found the problematic clip or effect, render it and export it individually, both with and without effects. Once you have a rendered file of the troublesome clip, just import it into your timeline and insert it above the offending clip (which you may need to disable). Now you should be able to export your timeline without any issues.
Unfortunately, there are times when technology will get the best of us and we are left with uncomfortable choices.
We’re fortunate as video editors that this isn’t life and death – just lost time and productivity. But it’s a hard choice nonetheless if you’re approaching deadline and Premiere still has performance problems.
For times such as these, here are the final, nuclear options to consider.
Clear Premiere Pro’s preferences and plugins
Resetting Premiere Pro back to its original state may be the cure for your ills. Of course, trashing all your preferences and customizations is painful, but it may be your only option.
But before you reset Premiere Pro, first try clearing the plugin cache. Plugins are great, but sometimes they don’t play nice with the latest update. Or they develop bugs of their own. To clear their cache, hold Shift+Alt (Windows) or Shift+Option (Mac) while launching Premiere until the splash screen appears. And if this doesn’t work, try removing and re-adding plugins to Premiere.
But if that still doesn’t work, it’s time to reset Premiere’s preferences entirely. Hold Alt (Windows) or Option (Mac) while launching Premiere until the splash screen appears. Prayers are optional in this step.
When all else fails
If none of the above has solved your Premiere Pro playback issues, I apologize and mourn your situation. At this point, your only option may be to uninstall and reinstall Premiere Pro. It sucks, but sometimes years-old installs need a fresh start. Make sure all your projects are saved and backed up externally. Then use the Creative Cloud desktop app to remove and perform a clean install of Premiere Pro.
If after this final stop you’re still having performance bugs, it’s likely you have a deeper hardware or workflow issue. It’s time to call in an expert to look at your situation. Godspeed.
The road to recovery
Solving technical issues can be a painful process. It’s confusing, disruptive, and sometimes mind-numbingly slow. When a client or producer is breathing down your neck to finish a project, it’s massively stressful.
But at the end of the day, it’s our job to keep our tools in shipshape. We need to take charge of our workflows and equip ourselves with the knowledge to fix our own problems. If we can do that, we’ll feel more comfortable with our technology and more confident in our abilities. Plus, showing off a little technical prowess can definitely impress clients and coworkers. And that can inspire them to work with you down the road.
Now you should be ready to tackle some of the most common issues you’re likely to face in Premiere Pro. So go forth and conquer those workflow bugs!
Choppy playback isn’t the only issue with Premiere Pro. Are there any common issues we left out? Let us know in the comments, and share your solutions with the community. We love hearing from our readers, and learning from your incredible creativity and experience.