Sorenson Squeeze 9 Pro

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Sorenson Media’s Squeeze encoder has always been at the top of the market for encoding features and quality. It’s now in the ninth generation of the software with standard, pro and premium versions. Sorenson Squeeze 9 Standard and Pro are Mac and Windows desktop applications, while Premium is designed to run on Windows servers. The difference between Standard and Pro is that Squeeze 9 Pro supports the encoding of Avid DNxHD and Apple ProRes (Mac only) codecs.

New for Squeeze 9 is an update of the user interface, HTML5 optimization, faster encoding and closed caption support. Another new feature is pre/post-roll stitching. This lets you attach an additional file, like a branding message, to the beginning and/or end of your video. These will be encoded together with the additional video clip(s) embedded into the same file – no editing required. As before, Squeeze supports import from files or camera devices and you can set up watch folders. All Squeeze purchasers get 5GB of free cloud storage with Sorenson 360, which they may use for private review and approval with clients or as a place to host videos that they’d like to embed into their own web sites.

The Sorenson Squeeze 9 presets are built around formats and workflows for easy access. If you want a specific preset, then it’s easier to find that in the format tab. On the other hand, if you want to burn DVDs, then getting there via the workflow tab makes the most sense. Of course, you can modify existing presets, create custom presets from scratch and save the ones you use most often as favorites. There is a large set of audio and video filters, which can be integrated into any preset, including VST audio filters already installed on your computer.

Publishing to the web or disc burning is part of the Squeeze workflow, so your presets can include target publishing destinations, like a YouTube channel or your Sorenson 360 account. One big feature of Squeeze is support for adaptive bitrate encoding. Most smaller users never encounter that, but it’s a requirement for many large enterprise-grade video sites. In this process, a set of different files with low to high data rates are encoded and grouped into a folder for upload. This permits the playback from that site to throttle performance by shifting between the files of these different date rates.

If you have a CUDA-enabled NVIDIA GPU card, then the encoding of AVC/H.264 content is accelerated. Even without it, encoding is fast. On my 8-core Mac Pro with an ATI 5870 card, QuickTime H.264 encoding speeds were comparable to Apple Compressor 4 with similar encoding settings and formats. There was a noticeable improvement in this version with WebM, which is the codec backed by Google and preferred for YouTube. In past tests , this was a real bear to encode. A one minute file might take 20 minutes. With Squeeze 9 it only took a couple of minutes for the same test.

The encoded quality is very good and gone are some of the contrast, gamma and saturation differences of past versions. When you encode QuickTime H.264 files, you can choose between the Apple H.264 and the Main Concept H.264 encoders. Both encoded results play fine in QuickTime Player, though each looks slightly different than a comparable file encoded using Compressor. This likely has to do with how the player interprets the flags within the encoded file. Generally the Main Concept H.264 version was the closer match.

Since I was testing the Pro version, I converted some Apple ProRes files to Avid DNxHD in the MXF format. Squeeze encodes these files complete with corresponding XML and AAF files. This means that you can simply drag the MXF and AAF files into an Avid MediaFiles/MXF/numbered folder. Then import the AAF files into Avid Media Composer and the encoded master clips appear in your bin. No further import or transcoding required. If you work in Final Cut Pro, Premiere Pro or Media Composer and prefer to batch encode a set of non-standard camera files into native DNxHD or ProRes media, then Squeeze is ideal as long as it’s a supported codec. If you purchased Avid Media Composer, then the standard version of Squeeze is included in your third-party software bundle. This can be upgraded to the Pro version by contacting Sorenson Media.

Sorenson Squeeze 9 is a healthy update to a top-notch encoding application and a valuable tool for any editor tasked with delivering a variety of formats. Android, iPad, YouTube, DVD, Blu-ray or broadcast deliverables – Squeeze has it covered.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine

©2013 Oliver Peters

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Pixelmator

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Over the years, Adobe Photoshop has become the go-to photo and design application for many editors, yet others simply never warmed to it. Naturally there is an interest in alternative solutions and one of those is Pixelmator. The company was an early adopter of selling through the Mac App Store and that move quickly vaulted it to the top of the Mac App Store’s sales list, earning it the “Best of Mac App Store” honor in 2011. Recently they released version 2.2 “Blueberry” with a whopping 500,000 updates in one week! Some of that may have been accelerated by the reaction to Adobe’s Cloud-only announcements or by the $15 introductory price. This new version is also a free update through the Mac App Store for existing customers. No matter what the reason, Pixelmator is clearly gaining attention.

Pixelmator is a paint, design and graphics application built specifically around core OS X technologies. It’s 64-bit and taps into Apple’s Core Image for GPU-based acceleration. By building upon the OS technology itself, the Pixelmator team has been able to develop an application that is well-integrated and can be sold at a far lower cost than would otherwise be the case. The application is new, streamlined and clearly fits into the same interface design aesthetic as Final Cut Pro X or DaVinci Resolve. Previous versions boasted a nice set of paint, effects, retouching and layer tools. Pixelmator 2.2 adds several new shape and vector tools, gradients, shape styles, color popovers and a new light leak effect. If you own FxFactory Pro filters, they also show up as image effects available to be used inside Pixelmator – a serendipitous byproduct of their common use of Core Image.

df_pxlmtr_2Pixelmator saves files in its own format, but it can open and export a range of standard graphics files, including JPEG, PNG, TIFF, PDF and layered Photoshop file formats. If your main interest is in software that lets you do sophisticated and artistic design and image manipulation, then Pixelmator more than fits the bill. The real question is whether it’s a viable substitute for Photoshop. That answer depends on how much of a Photoshop “power user” you are, plus how much compatibility you need to maintain with clients that supply Photoshop files to you. The most recent version of Adobe Photoshop Extended is a behemoth application in the best sense. It can do video, a certain level of 3D and it has an advanced system of layer styles and effects. Most of these cannot be done with Pixelmator, but then most casual users also never use such functions.df_pxlmtr_3

If the most you do is apply some basic layer styles to text or a logo, like adding a drop shadow, then you can get the same look in Pixelmator, but via a different route. Think of Pixelmator’s capabilities as a very modern version of Photoshop’s feature set around the time of Photoshop 4.0. There were no layer styles, but you could duplicate, darken and blur a layer to create a drop shadow. You’d approach it in a similar fashion with Pixelmator, but even better is the new ability to change text into a shape. Once you’ve done that, shape styles can be applied. This lets you fill text with color or gradients, stroke an outline and add shadows – all while still in a vector mode. The keyboard shortcut of command-shift-V switches you into the Vectormator mode. This changes the interface configuration to bring forward all of the vector-based shape, text and drawing tools. Effectively this gives you a mini-equivalent of Adobe Illustrator right inside of Pixelmator.

df_pxlmtr_4I tested compatibly in both directions between Pixelmator 2.2 and Photoshop CS6. It was actually much better than expected. Layers came across in both directions. Layer effects applied in Photoshop were there, but not with the right look, unless I merged the layer in Photoshop. For example, a drop shadow would be there, but an elaborate emboss treatment I applied was not read by Pixelemator. On the plus side, the vector font was brought in as separate clean layer. Pixelmator files with shape styles applied to text layers – that were exported as Photoshop files – opened more or less correctly in Photoshop. The bottom line is that there is a reasonable level of interchange between Photoshop and Pixelmator, as long as you merge or flatten any layers with layer effects.

Pixelmator is a fun application to use. The 2.2 version has some great features and delivers high-quality final results. Excluding DaVinci Resolve Lite (for free), Pixelmator has to be the best bang-for-the-buck of any content creation software.  Regardless of whether you use Photoshop a lot or not, Pixelmator is a good addition to the toolkit. The more you use it, the more you’ll find it your new go-to design application.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine

©2013 Oliver Peters

Thinking about the Tube

df_mp_1Desktop computers had been on a trajectory of faster performance based on Moore’s Law until they hit the wall just under the 4GHz mark. Then came a variety of ingenious technological workarounds, including hyper-threading, multiple processors (CPUs), multiple cores within a single processor and finally, offloading processing to one or more graphics display cards (GPUs). All of these solutions have benefitted content creation professionals running edit and graphics software. With all of that effort, no one seems to have taken the effort to re-imagine how the hardware should work, nor whether the hardware is really built for what software developers are doing. For example, few applications really make effective use of multiple CPUs in a computer.

Add to this the financial aspect, which points to the growth in laptops and tablets to the detriment of traditional desktop computer sales. Is there even a need for a desktop machine that caters to professional users? Into this uncertainty comes Apple with the new Mac Pro, which I’ve euphemistically called “the Tube” in my title. df_mp_6Apple is the king of re-imagining. After months and years of wondering whether Apple still cares about professional computer users, they blew away the audience at their annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) with an innovative new design for the next generation of Mac Pro desktop workstation. Like anything Apple does, a lot of legacy technology was dropped, which has drawn both praise and criticism. Those of us in the camp that predicted few or no slots and more use of Thunderbolt had largely guessed right. But the rest of this machine’s design is literally thinking “outside of the box”.df_mp_2

Right or wrong, the Mac Pro that Apple plans to ship represents design and engineering innovation that IBM, Lenovo, Sony, Dell, HP and others are clearly incapable of delivering. All of their products tend to follow the standard PC “box” formula, with the notable exception of HP’s Z1 – itself a copy of Apple’s iMac. Naturally the round design raises concerns about rack installation and so on, but very few desktop systems used by video pros have that need anymore. If you think round is odd, then take a look at the design of supercomputers like those from Cray.

df_mp_11The new Mac Pro is clearly intended to put the maximum horsepower literally on (or under) the desk of the working video editor, graphic designer, animator, scientist and others. As noted above, many applications don’t make efficient use of multiple CPU sockets, so the Mac Pro seems to be limited to a single CPU, but based on new Intel chips that have a maximum of 12 internal cores. Apple is banking on increased reliance on the GPU to deliver visual performance. Out of the gate, there are two built-in GPUs. Clearly this will benefit core Apple creative software, like Final Cut Pro X, but also others, including DaVinci Resolve and many of the Adobe products.

df_mp_3Look more closely at the video subsystem of this machine. Apple is designing a machine geared for 4K production and post. With multiple GPUs and built-in HDMI output using the 4K-ready spec, the new Mac Pro should be able to cut 4K content “like butter” and handle all monitoring tasks (computer monitoring plus video) without the need for external devices from AJA, Blackmagic Design and others, unless the user has a definite need for these. My guess is that’s why you’ll have the extra GPU horsepower, more so than accelerating FCP X effects.df_mp_5

Connectivity is now based on USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt 2.0. The latter is a 20Gb/s bi-directional data pipe and this Mac Pro has three such busses split over six ports. While there’s been a lot of discussion on the web about whether this is adequate compared with the current PCIe standard, I think it’s too early to say one way or the other. Firewire – once Apple’s darling – has been relegated to history’s dust bin, right next to SCSI, floppy diskettes and other older technologies. In any case, if you need more connections, then Thunderbolt adapters and/or an expansion chassis will be the way to go. Just like Apple’s philosophy with FCP X, this new Mac Pro is more of a “platform” than an all-inclusive solution for people who have every possible type of need. It’s the “hub” that will handle the majority of pro requirements and if you need more, you’ll have to augment the “hub” with third-party products and devices.

df_mp_9That brings us to cost. The internal pieces of this machine aren’t cheap. It’s anyone’s guess what the price will be. There is at least the potential for it to be relatively expensive. On the other hand, Apple has a lot of leverage with its supply chain and may have incentive to offer the machine at an artificially low price. They will be flying the “Made in the USA” banner with this Mac Pro and they also have added more in-house R&D centers across the US. So, in coming years, more of the internal guts could become Apple-manufactured, which could reduce production cost. My guess is that the retail price will be somewhere in line with current Mac Pro machines. After all, a fully-decked-out, current 12-core Mac Pro aluminum tower isn’t cheap either.df_mp_7

In any case, this will be a very low-volume machine. It’s the sports car that defines the brand. Apple may or may not decide to make it profitable. Another variable we don’t know is whether the technology used, such as dual internal GPUs, will be integrated into new iMac models. In that case, a small number of users will actually buy the Mac Pro. Many will drool over it and then end up buying a decked out iMac – no slouch, by any means. df_mp_4Thus, the “halo” effect. You’re attracted by the shiny, black Mac Pro, but purchase the iMac, which generates more bread-and-butter income for Apple. Unlike any other technology company, Apple assesses its bottom line using a holistic approach. If a product contributes to the total revenue of the company, then it’s deemed important to have and to develop, even if that product by itself is not profitable (though, that’s usually not the case with an Apple product). No one outside of Apple’s executive level really knows for sure.

As a video editor, I love what Apple is doing with this machine. Does it work for my needs and will I buy one? I don’t know yet. Depends on price and actual performance, but it’s certainly on the wish list at this point.

©2013 Oliver Peters