H.264 Marathon Man – ‘is it safe?’

Now that the MPEGLA has confirmed that H.264 is going to be safe from legal gotchas for the foreseeable future, I guess we’re all back to improving our H.264 game after kicking the tyres of Google’s VP8. Loads of choice to encode to H.264, but which one has the speed? Which one has the quality?

The Elgato Turbo.264 is a great little USB dongle that accelerates your compression so a 5 minute video takes about 5 minutes to encode. That’s right. Try it! And quality is pretty good. Just open up your movie, Export the movie using the Elgato hardware, and – as Mr Jobs would say – ‘boom’.

But it’s not the best H.264 in the world. It’s not that smooth-as-butter expensive movie trailer feel. At some point, you have to trade speed for quality. And without that magic little dongle (which, quite frankly could deliver all the quality you need), things get very slow indeed.

Compressor, still my Go-To choice for DVD, has been left out in the cold as it doesn’t do H.264 that well for all the time it takes.

So there’s Telestream’s Episode. This will do a pretty reasonable job, and it will encode pretty much anything into anything else with enough control to get good results. Then there’s the exotica – both hardware and software from the likes of Digital Rapids and Ateme, designed for major encoding jobs. They carry suitably major price tags too.

And then there’s the Open Source crowd. Sometimes the nicest encoders come with a very attractive price tag. X264 is one of them. Very much a pro tool, but tamed from its command line interface with apps such as FFmpegX. However, x264 can be driven from most QT apps (including Compressor – for batch work and scaling – and even direct from the FCP timeline if you’re not using the computer for a day or two).

MyComet is a conduit framework from the QT interface to the x264 engine. Although it’s a bit geeky and intense, this is not virgin territory. A lot of pro compressionists are using it thanks to its great results. So rather than wax lyrical here, I will simply point you at some resources for you to dive in and check it out.

The x264 compressor
http://www.videolan.org/developers/x264.html

MyComet framework for use in QT apps
http://www003.upp.so-net.ne.jp/mycometg3/

A useful intro to its use in Compressor
http://realworldvideocompression.com/rwvc/2010/5/7/using-x264-plugin-in-compressor.html

But I’m NOT giving up my Elgato Turbo.264 yet!

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Talk is cheap. Microphones aren’t.

TLM 103A little admission up front: I also do the occasional voiceover. As an editor, I’d often knock out a guide track for narration, and long story cut short, there you go.

To start off, I was using the trusty Coles lip-mic. This curiosity is the ‘living fossil’ of microphones, a ribbon mic held literally on the lip oft seen ringside at boxing matches. Its party trick, due to the inverse square law, is to provide an intelligable voice in noisy environments. You could record a half decent commentary in an office environment, or noisy edit suite (I needed to record lots of audio for phone systems at the time).

The Coles mic was good for its purpose, but the sound isn’t something you’d choose to listen to.

So, I switched to my trusty reporter mic – the AKG230. Perfect for the job, plenty of others that would fulfil the same function: 3-6 inches from mouth, good rejection of outside sound, perfectly acceptable and legible voice – for a guide track.

But when the comments like ‘we’ll go with the voice you used’ start, trouble brews.

An AKG230 or SM58, plugged into a USB audio interface, in front of your laptop running FCP is a dandy setup for guide tracks. It is not good enough for final audio if you’re going to let the audio do justice to your high end prosumer equipment. It’s a bit, well, ‘meh’ as our American cousins would say.

I tried using my lapel mics, but these are dangerous when there’s no picture to explain why people sound like they’re narrating from a toilet whilst wearing a hanky over their mouths.

I tried using my short shotgun – the Sennheiser 416 is very popular for recording voice overs for movie trailers, because when you get up close, the bass frequencies are over expressed and the mic generates a sort of audio codpiece for male voices. Fine, if that’s what you want.

But my Sanken CS-1 didn’t quite cut it.

And here’s another problem: recording a voice with a microphone is like recording a lightbulb with a camera. The bulb emits stuff all over the shop, which goes bouncing around and coming back to the camera after the effect. With a voice, pressure waves push forth, zoom past the microphone, find a handy wall to bounce off, come back and do another pass at the microphone.

You can cover your room’s walls with exquisitely expensive foam triangles, hang full length curtains everywhere, line your walls with wooden frames filled with kapok, but this may not be possible if you’re working on location.

So there’s a breed of ‘behind the mic’ sound absorbers that take your directional vibrations towards the mic, then absorb them once they’re passed, so they can’t travel on and cause trouble. It’s not like a voiceover studio, let alone an anecoic chamber, but you’ll avoid the toilet effect. You can create a makeshift one with a wall of cushions and pillows if you’re trying to get a good VO on site in your hotel room, but don’t get caught by the chambermaid kneeling at your bed surrounded by haberdashery as the embarrassment can be fatal.

So…

The sort of VO work I was doing required a natural to ‘announcer’ feel. I could temper the accoustics to a certain extent, so long as I worked at night (less traffic noise, absence of child, TV noise etc).

More importantly, clients needed fairly finished recordings, so I had the chance to clean up any misdemeanours.

So I ended up with a Rode ProCaster, the dynamic XLR version of the PodCaster. It could, once taken by the hand through SoundTrack Pro’s ‘multipressor’ (a compressor that works differently at different frequencies) and some EQ, could generate something that could almost pass for a radio sound that would sit heavily and solidly under most pictures without getting lost.

I could have got the standard Rode NT1a for around the same price, which would be a better bet on reflection – but I was then working with an Edirol R09-HR recorder – no phantom power, so the dynamic nature of the ProCaster (and its lack of delicacy) meant I could have a portable VO solution.

But the ProCaster wasn’t really cutting it with the professionals. It’s good – based, I am guessing, on the venerable RE20 – but it has a raspy touch to the middle of the voice range, and STP ran out of puff in trying to fluff and puff things up.

Ozone 4 from iZotope helped a lot, but as time went on and my ears ‘developed’, I was fashioning leather purses from sows ears, and there are times when a silk purse wins over a leather one. And there’s no fooling a seasoned ear.

The sound was competent, would pass muster on low end corporates, but lacked the warm trickle of frequencies and effortless handling of transient sound. There needed to be a replacement to the ProCaster.

And so here am I with the Neumann TLM 103.

It’s a revelation – like stepping out of a 1.3 family runabout into an executive saloon.

It hears things that the Rode did not. It adds layers and layers of magic to what it hears, so much so that Ozone is almost redundant.

It’s not cheap. Of course not. The Rode NT1a will do 90% of what the TLM 103 does for not much more than the ProCaster.

But it’s like moving up from a PD150 to an EX3. The last 10% is significant.

In fact, that’s the next big challenge, as I’ll need to learn a whole new load of stuff about where it wants to be in relation to sound sources and sound deadeners. It’s a very quiet mic – there’s virtually no noise, but it’s also very sensitive – it can hear the chickens snoring next door.

But there is a joy to working with kit that delivers quality by the lorry load, so please excuse me as sign off for now to read out notes on dental insurance just to hear this mic do what it does the best.

Accessorisation by Demand

However much I plan new equipment purchases, jobs come up that demand kit you can’t rent or borrow so the longed for toys have to wait again whilst you fork out for the basics.

I have been nursing a little pot of cash that may have bought a brace of 32GB SxS1 cards, or some nice Canon L-Series glass, maybe even a BlackBird. Nice-to-haves that I needn’t worry too much about getting a quick return on investment.

But at my end of the video production industry, work often involves making things look as expensive as possible for as little cash as possible, and often at short notice. It sometimes means buying an accessory of some sort (or ‘toy’ as my accountant calls them) that will lift a simple 1 man shoot to a higher ‘Production Value’ level, but because we’re using Prosumer kit rather than the heavy duty pro stuff, it’s pretty much impossible to hire a spider dolly for a Miller Solo tripod, and impossible to source a proper dolly system (or use it single handed) either at home or on the shoot (which is often abroad).

So you shrug, open your wallet and spend.

I bought the special Miller spider dolly. Not the sexiest of toys in some ways, but it has gone on to produce sexy shots.

So in quick succession, two jobs come up that require ‘something special’. One job needs to capture a whole lot of outdoor activities as they happen (so we can’t ‘fake’ it, I will be filming people actually doing it, so no take twos) in a mere two or three days, on top of the usual corporate stuff. Heavy going.

White water rafting can be exciting but the best view would surely be inside the boat, but I AM NOT getting in one, especially not with my gear. Cycling along mountain paths is picturesque, but unlike a cycling version of Top Gear, I cannot set up shots and be in several locations to ‘catch the group rounding a corner’. I have to cycle along with them with an EX1 in a backpack.

So I just had to have a GoPro Hero – a miniature waterproof HD camera that can be attached to helments, clamped to bikes or – more fun – strapped to head or chest harnesses. So now I can join the peloton of cyclists and do the old Top Gear routine (charge through the crowd, then let them pass by, and so on). Lots of fun. And the white water rafting footage shot from the middle chap’s chest was suitably dynamic too.

The cost of hiring a GoPro with all the bits for a week (if one could be found) would probably be not far off the cost of buying one, so once again, shrug shoulders and open up the wallet.

And then there’s the other job which involved filming projected diagrams all over a big lump of metal. I guess if it were a commercial, you’d want a motion control rig and a snorkel camera. At least a big crane or jib arm on a dolly. But at the client’s end of the market, they need a tripod mounted slider.

Guess what. None I can find for hire at short notice.

So reach for wallet, shrug shoulders, buy GlideTrack…