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Edit Review: Grass Valley ProCoder 3

Figure 1: You can add bitmap images to video using Grass Valley ProCoder 3, such as the Digital Content Producer logo on the bottom right. Note the small letterboxes: a problem, or just a slightly sloppy interface?

With input/output support for the Grass Valley Canopus HQ and DV codecs, plus the ability to function as an export plug-in for Grass Valley's Edius Pro version 4, ProCoder 3 ($499) should be strongly considered by any Edius users who require batch transcoding capabilities. With plug-in support for Adobe Premiere Pro 2.x and beyond, as a standalone product, ProCoder also makes a strong case for a more general audience; although, as with all transcoding products, there are strong and weak points.

Strengths include excellent encoding speed for most formats, a strong ability to leverage multi-core processors, plus good quality for every format tested — once I produced the desired data rate. Automation features are also excellent: There's support for Watch Folders and Droplets. Weaknesses include slow Flash encoding, some usability issues with H.264, a preview feature that needs tightening, and generally weak HD presets.

Grass Valley installs four programs upon installation: ProCoder itself, where you create encoding presets and batch-encoding runs; the Job Queue Manager, where you manage your encodings; the Watch Folder setup application, where you perform its namesake function; and the ProCoder Wizard, which can set up encoding runs and help with your Watch Folder selection. Overall, the programs are so simple to use and the wizard so limited that I recommend ignoring the wizard and jumping right into ProCoder.

Figure 2: I applied all five of these presets by choosing one profile.

Before we actually jump right into ProCoder, here are a couple of notes to bear in mind that illustrate the simplicity of automating your encoding workflow with ProCoder: You can create multiple watch folders using the Watch Folder Manager. These encode any file copied into that folder to any preset or profile, which is a collection of presets. This obviously is a highly useful bit of technology that lets anyone on the network with access to these folders compress his own files.

There are also Droplet icons that sit on your desktop. Drag and drop a file onto a Droplet and it triggers encoding to any preset or profile, which for many users will condense their daily encoding chores to a four-second drag-and-drop operation. Together, Watch Folders and Droplets give ProCoder some exceptional automation features.

OK, now let's dig into ProCoder itself. In ProCoder, workflow is driven by three tabs: Source, Target, and Convert. Source is where you choose your input files, which can include Canopus DV and HQ formats, H.264, AVCHD, Dolby Digital (AC-3) audio, MPEG-1 and -2, AVI, MOV, WMV, and Flash 7 files, which means Sorenson Spark but not On2 Technologies' VP6. For high-end production formats like LXF, GFX, and MXF, you'll have to look elsewhere — perhaps to ProCoder's big brother,Carbon Coder, produced by Rhozet, which is the same company that produces and maintains ProCoder for Grass Valley.

Figure 3: Here''s the Grass Valley ProCoder 3 Queue Manager, working on eight jobs simultaneously.

Once you input your source files, you can trim in and out points and add a number of corrective filters — including noise reduction — and input a bitmap over the video. (You can't control the transparency of the bitmap, though.) Audio filters include volume and normalization adjustments, as well as a low-pass filter. The preview for both types of effects needs work. For example, you can't preview any video effects in realtime, and all previews show letterboxing of some kind — even on files that don't need it (or have it). Audio previews are limited to 15 seconds, and you can't see the video during this preview.

Once you input all of your source clips, switch to the Target tab to choose encoding parameters. Here, you can apply individual encoding presets, which compress the source files to a single compressed file with pre-chosen parameters, or profiles, which incorporate multiple presets. Profiles are a wonderful automation feature; they let you simplify any number of encodes into a one-click operation. For example, if each source file needs to be encoded into five (or 10 or 100) different types of target files, create one profile containing all presets, and then apply the profile and you're done. Very powerful.

At the Target stage, you can also add filters to your source file that are unique to the chosen preset. For example, if your H.264 clips look a bit unsaturated, you can boost color saturation only for these encodes. Again, a very powerful feature.

When it's time to encode, you can either click Convert to encode within ProCoder, which freezes the program during the ensuing encoding, or click Queue, which sends the job to the Queue Manager and frees ProCoder for more work. Clicking Queue opens the Job Queuing window, where you can tell the Queue Manager to create a single task for each preset — essentially splitting the encoding work among the multiple cores in your computer. This makes ProCoder incredibly efficient when encoding multiple files on a multi-core system.

This is shown in Figure 3, where you see my test-bed HP dual-processor quad-core xw8400 workstation busting on all cylinders, which translates to huge time savings over competing products that encode serially, rather than in parallel. For example, working with my one-minute test file, ProCoder produced seven different compressed files: in H.264 (streaming and iPod), RealVideo, Windows Media, Flash, DVD-compatible MPEG-2, and HDV all in 8:48 (min:sec). But note that all files except for the Flash file (which was encoded via the On2 Technologies Flix Exporter) were completed in less than 2:39.

In contrast, Sorenson Squeeze, which encoded the files sequentially, peaked at about 35 percent utilization and often dropped below 20 percent, contributing to a total encoding time of 9:58. Take Flash encoding out of the picture, and ProCoder was done in 2:39, while Squeeze took 8:46. If Flash is your picture, of course, you'll spend $200 extra for the Flix Exporter, and Squeeze will produce your files more than twice as fast — in 3:30 compared to 8:48.

For most formats, ProCoder is clearly fast. The next question is: Is it good? To determine this, let's analyze the features and output quality of the individual supported codecs.

Windows Media Encoding


ProCoder offers all relevant Windows Media encoding parameters, including multi-bit-rate files. It produced a test file seven percent below the expected data rate, which is minor, but something to watch when producing videos for a persnickety client. I compared the encoded test file, which contained 42 scenes in five categories, to one produced by the Windows Media Encoder, and saw no significant differences.

ProCoder provides access to all WMV codecs that are installed on your system. After I installed the Windows Media Format 11 SDK, I could access both the Windows Media Video 9 Advanced Profile video codec and the Windows Media Audio 10 Professional codec. Significantly,Sorenson Squeeze doesn't currently address these advanced codecs. For most users, ProCoder is a very good option for Windows Media encoding.

Flash


ProCoder natively supports only Flash 7 encoding; for VP6, you'll need to buy the Flix Exporter ($199). This provides basic Flash VP6 encoding, including alpha-channel support, but lacks features in Flix Pro and Squeeze such as advanced VBR controls and the ability to create Flash Players.

You access Flix Exporter by using ProCoder's QuickTime export settings, which is a bit jarring but easy enough to figure out once you get started. Flix Exporter and ProCoder hit within about one percent of our data-rate target, and, not surprisingly, the files were visually identical to those produced by Flix Pro. ProCoder does a credible job, but if Flash is your primary output choice, you should strongly consider Squeeze or Flix Pro.

H.264


ProCoder displays H.264 encoding options in a familiar QuickTime screen, which should be comforting to those who previously encoded in QuickTime Pro or Apple Final Cut Pro. This lets you choose between Main and Baseline profiles, multiple- and single-pass, and variable bit-rate and constant-bit-rate encoding. The iPod preset correctly applied the Baseline profile; all other computer-oriented presets that I checked properly used the Main profile.

That said, encoding multiple-pass H.264 files was somewhat of a pain. First, you can't include multi-pass H.264 encoding in a batch file encoded within ProCoder; these simply stop the batch. This isn't a problem if you encode in the Queue Manager, or via a Watch Folder or Droplet. I experienced only a few failed encodes during my tests, but many related to H.264 encoding.

ProCoder also undershot the data rate of some test files by nearly 30 percent, which resulted in substandard H.264 quality. Once I ratcheted up the data rate to reach the target, however, video quality was very good. If H.264 is a frequent target, I would download the trial version of ProCoder before buying.

There's not much to say about RealVideo. ProCoder provided all relevant options and undershot the target by about eight percent, but once I adjusted the data rate upwards, video quality matched that produced by RealNetworks' RealProducer. If you're producing RealVideo files, ProCoder should be a good choice.

HDV, DVD, and HD DVD


ProCoder includes a preset for HDV, which automatically expands lower-resolution files to full-HD height, inserting letterboxes on the sides, if necessary, to avoid aspect ratio distortion. Scaled quality was very good, and it took 1:45 to convert a one-minute DV file to HDV.

ProCoder can produce program, elementary, and transport streams for MPEG-2, as well as VOB files for burning directly onto DVDs. There are multiple standard-def DVD templates that you can customize as desired, and ProCoder can output WAV, MPEG-2, and AC-3 audio. To test file compatibility, I input MPEG-2 files produced with the highest-quality SD DVD template into Adobe Encore, Apple DVD Studio Pro, and Sonic DVDit Pro HD. All programs produced a DVD without re-encoding, proving that the files were legitimately DVD-compatible. On my dual-processor, quad-core HP workstation, ProCoder produced a six-minute MPEG-2 file in 6:10, which is very impressive for software-only encoding.

ProCoder outputs HD-resolution files in either MPEG-2 or H.264 formats, but not VC1. The MPEG-2 files input normally into Adobe Encore, but Encore re-encoded the files when producing a DVD. I tried producing Blu-ray-compatiblefiles using a third-party preset available on Grass Valley boards. The file loaded normally, but Encore again re-encoded the file before producing the Blu-ray Disc.

ProCoder produced a high-definition H.264 file, but QuickTime Pro couldn't play it and Encore couldn't load it. My contacts at Grass Valley say that the HD presets were for handheld devices such as the iPod, which makes little sense for presets with a resolution of 1920×1080. But that was the official response. Also on the HD front, ProCoder couldn't directly import MTS files produced by the brand-new, AVCHD-recording Panasonic AG-HSC1U camcorder, but once I manually changed the extension to MPG, the files loaded fine.

Grass Valley would do well to clear up the H.264 situation (many customers on GV message boards complain about the confusion) and provide HD-DVD and Blu-ray presets for critical programs such as Encore and DVDit Studio Pro. As it stands, however, ProCoder 3 is a good choice for encoding for standard-def DVDs and for converting SD video, including DV, to HDV and other MPEG-2-based high-definition formats.


bottomline


Company: Grass Valley
www.grassvalley.com

Product: ProCoder 3

Assets: Excellent encoding speed for most formats, strong ability to leverage multi-core processors, good quality for every format tested, excellent automation features.

Caveats: Slow Flash encoding, some usability issues with H.264, preview feature needs tightening, generally weak HD presets.

Demographic: Any Grass Valley Edius users who require batch transcoding capabilities.

PRICE: $499


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