It’s never easy, is it.
So many people have asked me recently about what is the best way of encoding footage for DVD that I thought I’d write the minor wisdoms of it here. There are lots of MPEG2 encoders available for computers, and some recent hardware products look like they could be good for some purposes. However, if you are on any kind of budget and need to encode to MPEG2 at a decent quality then you really have only a few options.
On an Apple computer you can use ‘Compressor’, which is decent enough but to my eye produces a washed out look most of the time – a little like a milky film over the top of the original pin-sharp video. Compressor excels in that it is free, can handle most challenges and gives you access to several useful filters and effects. It is based on the QuickTime MPEG component and as such differs little from the quicktime quality (apart from where you can specify more exact settings, etc). Compressor is bundled with Final Cut pro and DVD Studio Pro.
A better software encoder for the mac, for me, is BitVice. This superb encoder is really easy to use and produces remarkable results time after time. It is not free, but worth every penny, IMO. I have this on my Powerbook and use it when out and about or when I need a quick encode here and there. It has some excellent features – great digital noise reduction and the ability to specify Half D1 sizes too. Furthermore, it is well supported, widely used and seldom receives a word of complaint.
A third Mac based encoder would be MegaPEG.X Pro. This is also an incredibly versatile encoder, with shed loads of features, but to my mind is a little too complex to operate – even with the pre-sets. There are so many options to you it is easy to set it up incorrectly. I do like the output from MegaPEG, but getting there is tricky! It is comparable in cost to BitVice.
As for hardware on a Mac – if you are on a fairly tight sort of budget then you can look no further than a Wired Inc Mediapress Pro card. This useful piece of kit will take your video from the camera and encode in real time, giving you a lovely result. It doesn’t work on a firewire input, mind you – you need to either use component inputs or something like S-Video. It will, however, transcode a quicktime file at the same sort of quality as the live input, but it won’t do it in real time. The encodes I have got have been crystal clear, but somewhat dark if I leave things at the default settings. Not so dark as to cause a problem, but dark, nonetheless. I like to use the Mediapress card when I am in work, where we have one sitting inside a DP G4. The software for the Mediapress card is getting better – still not as intuitive as it could be, but clear enough – encoding takes a lot of RAM no matter how you do it, and the Mediapress card benefits from being in a fully loaded machine with a decent spec. The software can fail with some spectacular results if you try to use it in an underpowered machine – but support from Wired Inc is excellent.
ON a PC I only have a couple of options within the budget I work with (not very much money – certainly not in the thousands of pounds range). There are plenty of ‘TV” capture cards available as a hardware alternative, and these will encode to MPEG2, of course – just not at the quality I want. Therefore I go for software products on my PC (which is largely redundant and just sits around doing not very much at the moment) since it has plenty of processing power and RAM and is networked to my Macs. I am happy to shuffle files to it from the network, have it do the major grunt work and send them back when done.
I regularly use Canopus Procoder as it is probably the best software encoder in the range. I have tried TMPGEnc and am soon to look at Cinemacraft too, but TMPG produced nothing better than BitVice – and in some cases I found it worse. It does have some nifty features, mind you. Features are all well and good, but the output and flexibility of the software are paramount to me. As such, Procoder can take any format and convert it to any other – it can also handle standards conversions (NTSC to PAL and back) with ease and does a really decent job of that too. De-interlacing, gamma correction and all manner of other filters and effects can be applied, and then Procoder just gets on and does the job. It produces quality equivalent to Mediapress on the mac, better than BitVice most of the time and, although on a different platform with vastly different processors, etc, produces it a lot faster than BitVice too. I have yet to find a file Procoder can’t work with… or a task it can’t do – but I am not a very demanding user, overall.
So, which to use? The answer is fairly simple. If I have it available, I’ll use Canopus Procoder – it doesn’t tie up the Mac and so I can get on with other creative work whilst it chugs along. if I am working on my Powerbook, I’ll always use BitVice – there is nothing to better it for ease of use and quality so far. If I am in work and I need a real time encode then it has to be Mediapress.
There are alternatives out there – the Sonic SD range, for example. However – brilliant as these may be – I can’t afford one. Cinemacraft is the next option – I know it is used for a lot of high end encoding for DVD… again, I don’t have it and it is slightly out of the budget… but I could certainly see myself using it if I was suddenly given the budget I need! Both these options are PC based, of course.
Lastly, what of more humble encoders, such as the Fastcoder from LaCie? Well – this very promising little piece of hardware appears only to be available for NTSC at the moment. It is receiving good reviews and I’d like to have the opportunity to try it out. Also, don’t overlook things like the DVD recorders and the swathe of PVR kit such as the EyeTV. I don’t have one, but as soon as I can I’ll have a look at what they can do.