Sorenson Media, one of the leading encoding developers, recently released its newly updated Sorenson Squeeze 7 application. Squeeze has become a popular encoder for many advanced media outlets, such as NBC Universal, which uses Squeeze to encode movie promotional spots for Yahoo, Google and Hulu. Most Avid Media Composer editors have used Squeeze for years, because it has been included as the default encoder within the Media Composer retail bundle (boxed version) or separately as part of Avid’s Production Suite of third party software.
If you already own or are familiar with Squeeze 6, then you’ll feel right at home with the workflow and interface design of Squeeze 7. The interface is designed with specific tabs to organize compression settings by destination, use or format requirements, including Web, Broadcast, Devices, Discs, Formats and Editing. This is a simple method of organization to make it easy to find the right preset, which may appear in more than one group. For instance, you might find the same setting under both the Devices and Formats tabs. In addition, settings can be easily modified and both preset and custom settings may be saved under a Favorites tab for quick access. As before, video can be brought into Squeeze 7 by importing a file from your hard drive, using a watch folder or by direct capture from a FireWire-connected deck or camera.
Squeeze’s Publishing Options feature was originally introduced with Squeeze 6, coinciding with the launch of Sorenson 360 – a robust, professional video hosting service on the web. Now on version 2, Sorenson 360 features content management and user privacy controls that make it an excellent client review and approval site. Sorenson 360 supports plug-ins, too, including a WordPress plug-in that allows you to post Flash or MP4 videos directly into the WordPress publishing platform.
Squeeze 7 still includes a one-year complimentary account to Sorenson 360. The Publishing Options allow you to add an upload component to any existing encoding preset. These include Akamai servers, YouTube and Sorenson 360, among others. At this time, upload settings to MobileMe galleries or Vimeo, another popular video hosting site, are not included.
If you have an established account with any of the enabled services, you may pick from existing Web Destinations presets, which are already formatted for a service’s encoding specs and include a “publish to” component. This isn’t just out to the web, though. For example, if you select an Apple TV preset, it includes a step to publish the encoded file to iTunes on your machine. FTP publishing is also available. Lastly, you can set up e-mail or text message notifications upon completion. The point of all of these options is to allow you to establish a complete one-step, automated workflow combining import, encoding to multiple formats, publishing to multiple destinations and notification – all as a single Squeeze 7 job.
Several key features were added to Sorenson Squeeze 7. Format options have been expanded to include more broadcast, blu-ray and web encodes. A Dolby-certified AC3 Consumer encoder has been added. If you have an NVIDIA graphics card using CUDA parallel GPU processing technology, you can take advantage of faster H.264 encoding. Sorenson claims up to a 3x performance boost. Even the low-cost GeForce GT120 card will yield some benefit. Don’t have an NVIDIA card? You’ll still get a boost. Squeeze 7 preferences let you launch simultaneous encoding processes, running at up to 1.5x the number of cores. In actual practice this seems to vary with the type of encoding being done, but you should be able to set the preference on an 8-core machine to 12 simultaneous processes and see multiple streams running at once.
Another new feature for Adobe Premiere Pro CS4 and CS5 editors is a Squeeze 7 plug-in. This is similar to Apple Final Cut Pro’s “export with QuickTime Conversion” and Avid Media Composer’s “send to – encoding – Sorenson Squeeze” menu options. From the Premiere Pro timeline, simply select the “export – media” command from the pulldown menu to launch Adobe Media Encoder. Within this interface you may select a Squeeze format and preset instead of an Adobe choice.
Sorenson has targeted large enterprise users with Adaptive Bitrate encoding – also newly added to Squeeze 7. One of the tricks for video hosting sites on the web is to throttle playback by switching among several different synched files encoded at various bitrates. If you are watching a web video on a mobile device and the bandwidth gets bogged down, the site can momentarily switch to a lower data rate version without interrupting the stream. If you are the compressionist who encodes such files, it requires specific target rates and folder packaging formats that are server-specific. Squeeze 7 now includes several Adaptive Streaming presets that take care of this for you. As a test, I picked the iPhone 3G preset. This automatically encoded and packaged six transport streams and the necessary reference files to link them.
Improved quality and performance
Sorenson Squeeze 7 definitely provides better quality encodes than Squeeze 5 and more options than Squeeze 6. However, if you can only use one single encoder, then quite frankly, there is no such thing as “the best” or “the fastest”. I’ve found that some encoders do better with one format than another and some do better on Windows than on a Mac and vice versa. Running Squeeze 7 on a Mac gave me great results on most, non-QuickTime encodes, like M4V, MP4, Flash and Windows Media. When it came to QuickTime-based formats, I was happier with the results from Apple Compressor, but often it was simply a toss-up.
As before, Squeeze requires a bit of color-level tweaking with some source files. This is especially true with Avid DNxHD source files on a Mac. I had several matching QuickTime test clips using both the Avid DNxHD and Apple ProRes codecs. The DNxHD files normally look flatter as compared with the ProRes versions. QuickTime Player doesn’t expand the DNxHD luma levels from Rec. 709 to RGB for the screen. When I converted these in Apple Compressor to the Apple TV .m4v preset, the resulting files matched. When I encoded these same files in Squeeze 7, using its comparable Apple TV preset, the Avid-sourced .m4v looked flatter than the ProRes-sourced .m4v.
For accurate encodes in Squeeze 7 using Avid source files, tweak the built-in filters to adjust black restore, white restore, hue/saturation and gamma. Then save a custom preset for repeated use. This isn’t a criticism, but merely to point out that each encoder has its own peculiarities, which you have to understand in order to make the necessary custom presets. By and large, video levels of encoded files created from ProRes sources typically matched between Compressor and Squeeze 7. You will want to create custom presets for your common routines. This is important not only for proper levels, but also for controlling 16×9 and 4×3 aspect ratios and letterboxed/pillarboxed display attributes.
Time to tackle WebM
A new web format added to Squeeze 7 is Google’s WebM, which uses the On2 VP8 codec. On2 VP6 has been used in Flash, but I’ve never been a fan of these codecs. Clearly Sorenson is trying to stay on the cutting edge, should the web video tide turn away from H.264 and towards WebM. Unfortunately, it’s not ready for prime time. Every encoding attempt I made bogged down about half-way through the second pass and took about 30 minutes to complete. (I confirmed this with Sorenson’s tech support.) The WebM-encoded file did look very nice and played rather smoothly. That shows promise, but until the encoding time comes down, a 30 minute encode for a one minute clip is unusable. In all fairness, WebM (VP8) encoding is slow on other encoders, too. According to Sorenson, the Squeeze team is currently working on optimizing it for WebM quality and speed.
Sorenson Squeeze 7 remains one of the best all-purpose encoders in the business. Plenty of format options, an easy workflow, relatively fast encodes and high-quality results. Windows users can easily select this as their only encoding application, while Apple users will find it to be a great alternative to QuickTime Pro or Compressor. For a one-step simplified encoding workflow, Squeeze 7 is hard to beat.
Written for Videography and DV magazines (NewBay Media, LLC)
© 2011 Oliver Peters