Speaking Encode
Posted Apr 1, 2003

The multi-codec encoder field is more crowded now, but direct competition is surprisingly mild as the three leading products—ProCoder, Squeeze, and the radically reinvented Cleaner XL—pursue different audiences. Which is right for your workflow will depend on what you know and what you do.

April 2003|Once just an in-house piece of custom coding from a fledgling group of CD-ROM publishers, the original "Movie Cleaner" became a digital studio must-have tool as the norm of mastering to Betacam SP and dubbing to VHS gave way to the oft-dizzying world of digital distribution options. And that was when there were just a handful of compression choices for putting video on a disc. Today's streaming, download, and DVD options mean exponentially more viewing opportunities, but also far greater complexity.

Canopus' ProCoder (Windows only) and Sorenson Squeeze Compression Suite (Mac/Windows) have recently joined Cleaner, formerly from Terran Interactive and now from Discreet, as encoding tools that can help you keep up with the growing complexities of digital distribution. But can they match Cleaner's maturity? A recently released sixth revision of Cleaner for Mac users continues to support the latest codecs and formats with aplomb.

But hold on to your hat. There will be no Cleaner 6.0 for Windows. A new product, Cleaner XL, with a very different interface suited more to large-volume batch encoding has integrated Cleaner Central functionality directly into the main product. Job Queues and Output Profiles sound great, but what if your job is just trying to make a single file look good? Are the new changes and increased mouse clicks overkill?

Here, we take a first look at a Beta version of the new Discreet Cleaner XL and compare it to Canopus ProCoder, Sorenson Squeeze Compression Suite, and the familiar old version of Cleaner 5.1. The field is more crowded now, but direct competition is surprisingly mild as the three products aspire to different audiences. Which is right for your workflow will depend on what you know and what you do.

Spot Shines and Industrial Cleansers
Cleaner XL, ProCoder, and Squeeze all automate multi-format encoding, and each one offers at least a few codec choices. Each can encode individual files into one or multiple formats, and all except Squeeze can encode several different source files as a batch. All offer a variety of helpful presets and let users customize and save new ones to automate redundant tasks. Each even offers basic clip-trimming capability and video filters to help minimize file sizes and maximize impact without needing to open an editing application for minor adjustments.

Yet the tacks these three tools take vary greatly and the result is far less direct competition than it might appear at first glance. Sorenson Squeeze is the most basic application, featuring virtual one-button encoding to a variety of formats including basic Windows Media, QuickTime, and Real codecs, and that will appeal to those new to encoding. However, Squeeze Compression Suite should also attract encoding veterans as a package of proprietary Sorenson codecs, its Spark Pro for Macromedia's Flash MX amongst them.

Interestingly, the most direct feature and function comparison comes from two non-competitors: ProCoder for Windows and Cleaner 6.0 for Mac. That's not surprising, since Cleaner 6.0 for the Mac follows the same five generations of Cleaner that were the effective benchmark for ProCoder's development. Both ProCoder and Cleaner 6.0 handle small jobs and batches by assigning output parameters to individual files, letting compressionists easily tweak and preview output to optimize quality. Each supports a full array of codecs and opens a vast array of fine-tuning parameters, which can be augmented by video and audio filters and cropping, to allow experienced compressionists to create top-quality output.

What about Cleaner for Windows and ProCoder? Those anticipating more of the same from a hypothetical Cleaner 6.0 for Windows may be quite surprised by the new Cleaner XL, which moves away from many of Cleaner 5.1 and ProCoder conventions. Indeed, if you loved the old Cleaner, you might be sorely disappointed with the direction Discreet is taking the Windows product. But don't let first impressions and the surprise of something new fool you; there's a lot more here than just a visual makeover. More filtering and image-processing tools are matched with even better previewing options that anyone compressing files will love.

Cleaner XL is clearly raising the bar on both features and target audience. It follows the workgroup leanings of Cleaner Central, but builds that higher-end focus and workflow into one product that will replace Cleaner 5.1 and Cleaner Central. It's a bold move from Discreet to be sure, and one that deserves praise. It dramatically increases Cleaner's reach into and effectiveness within larger organizations by highly automating repetitive tasks and providing a virtual paper trail for all encoding work. Multiple copies of Cleaner can share presets, files, folders, and workflow, and that's a logical progression for a company like Discreet that sports heavyweight, high-end content creation tools—like Smoke, Flame, and Inferno—that are typically used in larger studios where collaboration is the rule.

But there's no doubt that Discreet is also risking alienating the existing user base of Windows Cleaner users with a product that arguably has more in common with AnyStream Agility and Telestream FlipFactory than with ProCoder and Squeeze. Smaller studios who love the tweaking may find the workflow rituals of Cleaner XL little more than an extra load of mouse clicks and pull-down menus that don't help with visualization. Does anyone work like that anymore? Or is Discreet on target knowing that so much of today's encoding chores are about presets and repetitive tasks? More importantly, does the new methodology serve your needs?

Cleaner XLCleaner 5.1ProCoderProCoder*Squeeze
WM8 @ 704K18:4335:0522:388:0812:37
WM9 @ 256K27:06n/a25:2711:31n/a
MPEG-1 @ VCD13:3355:4621:2110:57n/a
DVD @ VBR ~5.7Mb35:111:45:2134:46n/an/a
Sorenson Video 3n/a15:4320:5311:0613:22
MPEG-4 @ 300K10:3312:2117:267:1617:56
RealVideo 8 @ 90K15:5814:0721:098:0912:27

Table 1: This is a representative sampling of our timed test results for each coder (reported in minutes:seconds) encoding an 8-minute QuickTime file created by Avid XpressDV using the Avid DV codec. (We also used the same 8-minute movie saved as a Windows Media fild with the Microsoft DV codec, but report only the ProCoder* results for this test.)

Canopus ProCoder 1.2, $699
Canopus freely admits that Cleaner was the model for ProCoder by its mere presence. Yet, with the luxury of hindsight, ProCoder could excel where Cleaner had generation-old shortcomings; specifically in workflow and processing speed. And against Cleaner 5.1, ProCoder delivers the goods on both counts. There are some nice improvements in ProCoder's interface and features compared to the old Cleaner, but some first-generation shallowness as well. Speed tests were also impressive, but not across the board.

ProCoder's interface is both intuitive and efficient for encoding one or a small group of files into a handful of distribution formats. It also serves as a great tool for transcoding to MPEG-2 for DVD or even from going from NTSC to PAL or vice versa. Three large tab buttons down the left side for Source, Target, and Convert create obvious and effective hierarchy encoding groups. The right side of the interface changes to provide suitable information for each tab.

Compared to Cleaner 5.1, where you need to add the same file to the batch once for each different output version you want to create, ProCoder's method of adding one or more Source files, then tabbing and adding multiple Targets to those Source(s), immediately streamlines workflow. Since it's such a common need to encode streaming files to Real, Windows Media, and QuickTime formats at multiple bitrates to support all players and connections, ProCoder's simple paradigm change is a welcome one.

Through an Advance button in the Source window, ProCoder matches Cleaner 5.1's ability to trim clips, thus avoiding opening an editing application for small encoding-oriented clip modifications. What's more, ProCoder offers stitching of source files to create one output file. The Advance tab is also where you'll find ProCoder's video filters—including color and gamma correction, crop, fade in, blurs, 3:2 pulldown, and more—along with a wonderful double pane source/preview monitor to show the effects of your changes. However, the dozen or so video filters and just three audio filters can't match the breadth of noise reduction, mattes, and audio processing that Cleaner offers. Also, adding a video filter by clicking "Add" to open a configuration window can become tedious compared to the check-box method of Cleaner.

On the other hand, ProCoder can highly automate individual repetitive tasks by using Droplets. If you have an output configuration you use often, a simple "Make Droplet" menu command creates a desktop icon onto which you can drop source files. ProCoder is automatically ready to go with your custom output settings. Droplets are similar to the Watch Folders of the other applications.

In terms of speed, ProCoder does very well, but with a major caveat: an apparent aversion to QuickTime source files really cuts out any serious advantage. With a Windows Media DV (Microsoft's codec) source file, ProCoder bested Cleaner 5, Cleaner XL, and Squeeze easily. But throw a QuickTime (Avid's codec) DV file at it and ProCoder is far more hit or miss.

Still, Canopus has a virtual magic bullet for speed. If you're encoding a single source file to multiple target files, indeed one of the main reasons for using one of these coding applications in the first place, ProCoder leaves the others in the dust by encoding to many files simultaneously rather than one by one. This eliminates redundant reads from disc and decodes of the source file, and the results are eye-popping. For example, we encoded four files (three independent Windows Media 9 streams at 56Kb, 256Kb, 1Mb, as well as a VBR MPEG-2 file for DVD) separately and it took 2:01:16, not counting the interface clicks back and forth to get things going for each. When we encoded to the same four files as one batch, the group took just more than half the time: 1 hour, 5 minutes, and 30 seconds.

Canopus does have a plug-in that lets you leverage ProCoder's encoding virtuosity on output from an Adobe Premiere timeline, making it a nice match for Canopus' DVStorm editing solution, which uses Premiere. However, Canopus is several steps behind Cleaner here, where such plug-ins are also available for Avid, Media 100, and Final Cut Pro (on Mac).

Overall, with Cleaner XL moving upstream, ProCoder may gain a solid following with developers who simply need to compression a few files efficiently and effectively. In addition, with more than a decade of internal codec development to lean on, Canopus may be well-positioned to augment a solid product introduction.

Discreet Cleaner XL for Windows (Beta), $599
It's symbolic more than serious, but Cleaner XL's new interface doesn't have any big "Go" button to start compressing. Sure, the old "Play" arrow of Cleaners past that used to start a batch compression was a bit odd, but at least it was a visual aid for learning the Cleaner interface and how to compress. Cleaner XL makes no such concession to novices, and that's a good hint at what's to come in this new design. And perhaps it's right that an effective sixth version would take a serious turn, especially where successful streaming and digital distribution in today's climate demands a serious nod toward efficiency, if not straight return on investment.

Cleaner XL is organized by "Jobs." Indeed, the main interface is really an individual Job window into which you add one or more source files that share an "Input Profile"; for example, "NTSC 4x3 Interlaced Bottom Field First." If you have source files with different Input Profiles, you can open a second Job window. Below the source files area, each Job window has a list of Output Profiles, or compressing parameter presets, which you simply check off to add to the Job's output. Naturally, you can edit or add these Output Profiles, but each time you do the result will be saved as a future Output Profile. You'll want to save copies of existing Output Profiles rather than tweaking them, because the changes are always saved.

These "adding to Jobs" and "saving Profiles" routines can be kind of annoying if, like us during testing, you just want to experiment with setting and see the result. What's more, you can't start any Job without saving it first and there will be times when that "OK" window can be exasperating. On the other hand, Jobs are a potentially helpful record of work for larger organizations and contain data and timing information that may have some value for quality control. And in the big picture of everyday work and workflow, once you've set up common Input Profiles and a number of Output Profile settings, Cleaner XL will really start to show its mettle as processing encoding Jobs becomes highly automated. Add a file, check boxes, and go. It's hard to beat for automation.

You can also save Job Templates, which contain regularly used ready-to-go sets of Output Profiles, Video Filters, and Output Destinations. And since Job Templates are XML files, like Cleaner Presets of old, they can be shared between collaborating partners in the same workplace or across the Internet. You can also automate Job processing by creating Watch Folders that pre-assign Job settings to a desktop folder. Drop a source file in and Cleaner XL can immediately set to work encoding.

The engine that ultimately drives Watch Folders and Job processing is the Job Queue. Ctrl+R (or Encode Now from the Job menu) will set a Job encoding immediately, but that command is really just an accelerated way of moving a Job into another processing queue window and hitting "run." It's in the Job Queue that larger organizations can set Job priorities and monitor pending and completed Jobs submitted from around an organization. The Job Queue constantly monitors pre-submitted Watch Folders for any newly added files and processes them either in order of submission or by assigned priority.

What about just compressing files? The old filter capabilities are all still there, and Discreet has added new ones like color correction Curves, more parameters for noise reduction filters, and ability to save filter presets separate from encoding parameter presets. There are also new audio options like a very cool Parametric EQ.

And visualization? You still have Cleaner's trademark "before and after" split-screen slider, but also now a before and after toggle to see a full-screen comparison. And get this, there's a new short duration PRE-preview that gives you a fully-encoded, full-motion look at what effect your settings will have without ever starting the full encode. Old-time tweakers should love that, and you can even watch it in Loop mode!

While Job windows offer a fast overview of Output Profiles by name, there are no handy tabs of old through which you can toggle to double-check settings before starting an encode. With Cleaner XL, you must do a lot of opening and closing of windows if you have any doubt about your settings. But that ultimately goes back to much the same idea of no big Encode button. The wonderful new preview functions notwithstanding, Cleaner XL is at its best after the initial set-up of commonly used parameter and presets. In other words, Cleaner XL is turbo-charged for efficiency and really shows it when you can move it into fifth gear and go.

Finally, the price is amazing, especially as Cleaner XL moves toward AnyStream and Telestream functionality. Throw out that Cleaner Central node pricing that was in the thousands. The price of industrial-strength Cleaner XL is the same as it was for the desktop-centric Cleaner 5.1, but with far richer capabilities for workgroups and automation. Discreet hopes you'll buy several copies, and if you're a larger organization, you probably should.

Sorenson Squeeze Compression Suite, $449
At $449, the Squeeze Compression Suite is a bit less expensive than either Cleaner XL or ProCoder, and that doesn't hurt. Yet Squeeze is more about features than price, though oddly, "features" in this case can work both ways. Squeeze can appeal to very different crowds with very different levels of compression sophistication.

First, as an encoding automation application, Squeeze gets nice marks for being easy to use. If you're looking for a tool that gives access to basic encoding parameters, but thrives on simplicity, Squeeze is worth a look. The main interface is straightforward, featuring a series of format buttons across the top of the main window (there are six in the full Compression Suite, less if you purchase the components separately). Open a source file, select any combination of the format buttons, choose a bitrate preset from another group of buttons, and "Squeeze It." Naturally, you can get in a little deeper into encoding parameters— customize bitrate, crop, set keyframes intervals, etc.—if you like, but encoding can be that easy.

The six format buttons in the full Compression Suite are FLV (for Macromedia Flash MX), SWF (self-contained Flash files), MPEG-4 (Sorenson's own), MOV (QuickTime, but only the Sorenson Video 3 codec), RealMedia, and Windows Media. It's that collection of mostly proprietary compression technology that isn't available elsewhere that should appeal to expert compressionists. That's particularly true of the Spark Pro codec for Macromedia Flash MX, the only video compression that can be seamlessly and natively integrated into a Flash movie. Other video formats can open in a window in Flash, but Flash now includes native Spark decode and the video can become part of the SWF itself, responding to user controls, containing hot spots, and more.

However, the combination of an easy-to-use, relatively feature-limited (compared to ProCoder or Cleaner XL) inter- face against very powerful compression technology creates a dichotomy between users looking for simple and those wanting advanced tools. It would be better for Cleaner users, for example, to have Spark Pro or Sorenson MPEG-4 show up as codec choices in Cleaner with all its adjustment parameters and image filters and integrate into a familiar workflow. But for the present, Sorenson and Discreet do not have such a partnership. Moreover, Discreet no longer supports any Sorenson codecs within Cleaner XL. It would be even better for Macromedia to offer a full version of the Spark Pro in a slightly more expensive Video Edition of Flash MX, but as yet there is no such bundle.

That leaves either the Squeeze Compression Suite or Squeeze for Macromedia Flash MX ($149) as the only ways to access full control of Spark Pro encoding parameters. Macromedia Flash MX ships with Spark, but offers only cursory encoding controls, like an inexact slider for quality control and few other fine-tuning options. With Squeeze, you get options like precise bitrate control, CBR and 1- or 2-pass VBR options, keyframe intervals, and audio compression choices that serious coders demand.

Squeeze also does automatic fade in and fade out, just like Cleaner and ProCoder, as well as cropping, de-interlacing, two-mode noise reduction, and basic brightness, contrast, gamma, and white and black restore filters.

Ultimately, professionals will likely be frustrated by the simplicity and lack of power of the Squeeze interface. Still, Sorenson's unique compression technology, especially if you're a Flash developer, should override the modesty of the interface.

Adobe Systems, Inc.
Anystream, Inc. www.anystream.com
Apple Computer, Inc. www.apple.com
Avid Technology, Inc. www.avid.com
Canopus Corporation www.canopus.com
Discreet www.discreet.com
Media 100 www.media100.com
Sorenson Media www.sorenson.com
Telestream Company www.telestream.net