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Test Drive: Telestream Episode Pro, Part 1

Telestream Episode Pro has emerged as a top performer on the Mac, and last December, Telestream released a Windows version. It”s an affordable tool that all HD producers on both platforms need to be aware of, so I”m devoting this month”s Affordable HD to a review of this product. In this first installment, I”ll review the interface and discuss I/O, the new watch-folder functionality and the Preview window. Next time, I”ll detail performance and output quality and compatibility.

Let”s start with a couple of housekeeping notes. Telestream sells two versions of the product: Episode ($495) and Episode Pro ($995). The less expensive version lacks support for high-end formats such as MXF and GXF, doesn”t offer surround sound, and can only accept 25 jobs in the batch window. The Pro version can encode unlimited jobs, produce 5.1 and 7.1 audio, and supports more high-end formats—with some notable limits. You can scope out the differences between the two versions of Episode here. Note that one highly useful feature of Episode Pro is Nate Caplin”s Complete Training for Episode and Episode Pro DVD, which is a fast and efficient tool for getting new Episode users up to speed.

For the record, I reviewed Episode Pro running on an 2.66GHz eight-core HP xw8400 workstation running 32-bit Windows XP with 3GB of RAM. Note that Telestream will let you try before you buy via a trial version that will encode a maximum of 30 seconds of your source video file.

Figure 1. Telestream Episode Pro in Windows.

Basic Operation

The interface consists of three separate components: the Job Batch, Settings, and Preview windows. The Job Batch window is where you”ll start; it has five windows dominated by the large Job Batch/Settings Editor on the right and four smaller windows on the left (Figure 1). The top window on the left is for Source Bookmarks, where you can insert folders that contain source files for easy access. Below that is the Compression Settings window for canned and customized templates, and beneath that is the Watch Folders window. The bottom window contains recently encoded files for easy playback.

Operation is simple; you drag a file or files from Windows Explorer or the Source Bookmarks folder into the Job Batch window, and then drag a Compression Settings from the eponymous window onto the source file. You can drag multiple presets onto the batch window and choose a destination and naming convention for each file individually, or for all files in the batch, via dropdown list boxes on the lower right.

You click the Start Encoding button on the lower right to get things rolling. Note that you can continue to add jobs to the Job Batch, and even presets to a particular source file, while encoding—a nice touch.

Figure 2. The Video tab, crowded with filters and other parameters.

Customizing Settings

To edit a setting (and then save it as your own), you double-click the setting in either the Compression Settings or Job Batch window. This opens the Settings Editor, which has six tabs across the top of the interface that you logically work across to configure your settings. You can create your setting from scratch, but most of the time it”s easier to choose a setting close to your target and customize from there.

The Output tab is first as you work through the tabs. This is where you choose (or confirm) the format and codecs; select in and out points if you”d like to trim your video; and add bumpers, trailers, or short videos to precede or follow the encoded video.

Figure 3. Setting audio parameters and other adjustments.

The Video tab contains video compression parameters and 19 other adjustments that you can make before compressing the source file. These run the gamut including adding a watermark, timecode, or fade to the video; filters such as black-and-white restoration, gamma, sharpen, and de-interlace; and control over frame rate and field order.

Enabling and disabling these adjustments is straightforward; if you don”t click the associated checkbox to enable the adjustment, Episode keeps the encoded file “Same as Source.”

Figure 4. Episode Pro”s Preview window.

Next is the Audio tab, which contains compression-related audio adjustments and filters including an equalizer, high- and low-pass filters, and fade effects (Figure 3). Operation is similar to that of the Video tab; you click the checkbox for options you”d like to change, or uncheck them when you want the encoded file to be the same as source. Briefly, to finish off the list, the Metadata tab is for adding album, artist, and author information (if desired), the Streaming tab for applying stream-related features such as hinting, while the Description tab gives you space to describe your setting in detail.

On the bottom left of the Settings window, you can see the Preview button, which you click to see a preview of the video after adjustments, but before compression (Figure 4). In other words, like most encoding programs, Episode Pro can”t preview the effects of your selected compression parameters, just the precompression adjustments made in the Video tab.

Figure 5. Episode Pro”s watch folders.

Watch Folders

The Windows version of Episode Pro debuted with watch folders, which also appeared in the 5.1 Mac version, and I really like how Telestream implemented these. Basically, you identify a folder as a watch folder in the Watch Folder window, then drag settings onto the watch folder. As you can see in Figure 5, I have three watch folders set up—the first two with three settings, the last with one setting.

Any file that gets dropped into the folder gets encoded to all selected settings, which is a great way to share encoding functionality on a network—especially with users who don”t know a lot about compression. The only significant feature gap is the inability to deliver a file back to a specified folder or via FTP, which are both features offered by competitor Sorenson Media Squeeze.

With this workflow description as background, let”s discuss the types of files that Episode Pro can input.

File Input/Output

Generally, the encoding workflow varies by producer and often by the project. For example, in some instances you might just want to dump raw footage from a shoot into Episode Pro for encoding and sending off for review; other times, you”ll edit the footage, create an intermediate file from your editor, and produce your final files for distribution in Episode Pro. In either scenario, Episode Pro has some issues.

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On the camera input side, Episode Pro input DV and HDV without a problem, but it couldn”t load the AVCHD in the MTS container format or Red footage. Episode Pro can import MXF container files, but the initial Windows version didn”t support DVCPRO HD. Telestream does have a codec upgrade it will ship with the next version of Windows that will import DVCPRO HD. Note that Episode Pro does support D-10/IMX and XDCAM HD (both input/output) and DNxHD and Omneon (input only).

If you”re creating intermediate files from your editor in AVI format, note that Episode Pro supports very few Video for Windows codecs. My favorite intermediate codec when working solely in Windows is the freely downloadable Logarith lossless codec, which can operate in multiple color spaces including RGB24, RGB32, RGBA, YUY2, and YV12. That has largely replaced Intel iYUV, which isn”t as flexible but comes standard on all Windows computers so you don”t need to download or install the codec. No matter, however, if you”re working with Episode, because it won”t recognize either one of them. I discussed these issues with a Telestream representative, who commented that Telestream plans to offer complete AVI file compatibility at a later date.

Fortunately, I had better luck with QuickTime files—not surprising given Episode”s heritage. Episode Pro successfully loaded .mov files encoded with both the Apple Animation codec and Apple ProRes 422, though a file produced with the Apple PNG codec wouldn”t preview.

Note that Episode was not wonderfully fault-tolerant when it came to file input. Specifically, the program inserted AVI files produced with the Logarith and iYUV codecs, but crashed when I tried to preview them. Ditto for the MXF file I imported that contained DVCPRO HD content, though the QuickTime PNG file that wouldn”t load didn”t crash the system—it just wouldn”t encode. I’m still waiting to hear back as to whether Telestream could duplicate these problems in its facilities. I”ll report on that in the next—er—episode.

That”s it for now. Next time, I”ll let you know how Episode fared in performance, quality, and compatibility testing.