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Processing Media Files with Discreet cleaner XL
(Discreet cleaner XL, Canopus ProCoder, 8/2003)
by Douglas Dixon
Change is good, perhaps, but change is also difficult. Change can out knock us out of our comfort zone, even when a friend has a dramatic makeover, or when a company plans a major reorganization. But you also have to admire companies that are willing to change, and take the risk of challenging their customers by reinventing familiar products, whether the results follow the example of the New Coke, or the New Beetle.
Discreet has challenged us in this way with its new release of cleaner XL for Windows, by dramatically changing this popular cross-platform tool for media processing and encoding. With the release of cleaner 6 for Mac OS X in late 2002, Discreet moved away from maintaining parallel Mac and Windows versions in order to provide deeper support for the specific features of each platform. Cleaner XL is the culmination of this work, with a total redesign of both the interface, and the processing workflow that it supports.
Tools like Discreet cleaner and Canopus ProCoder are designed to help automate the final step in video production, taking video files and processing, enhancing, converting, and compressing them into the desired destination formats. These tools allow you to package up commonly-used conversions and compression settings, and then automatically batch-process groups of files to a wide variety formats. You even can set up shared folders and simply drop in edited videos, and have them processed and delivered to pre-defined destinations in various file, compression, and streaming formats.
Media Cleaner was originally developed by Terran Interactive as a tool to automate the process of enhancing ("cleaning") media files and converting them multiple formats. Cleaner 5 (dropping the "Media" prefix), released in late 2000, was a popular cross-platform tool for converting video to web streaming formats, and also offered upgrades for MPEG encoding, including hardware assists. Meanwhile, Terran was absorbed into Media 100, and the Cleaner line was then acquired by Discreet in August 2001.
Discreet enhanced the cleaner product (now named with their lowercase style) to version 5.1 in late 2001 and early 2002, adding support for Windows XP and Mac OS X. But then Discreet made a strategic decision to decouple the development of the two versions of the product. Instead of trying to maintain a common interface across both platforms, cleaner could then be adapted to take advantage of the full capabilities of each platform, and also provide deeper support for platform-specific features in the available encoders and formats.
The first evidence of this change was the release of cleaner 6 for Mac OS X in October 2002 ($599 SRP), a Mac-only product with no accompanying Windows version. Cleaner 6 supports QuickTime, RealMedia, and Windows Media formats, Kinoma video format for handheld PDAs, and MPEG-4 and Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) audio through QuickTime 6.
Which brings us to cleaner XL, the new and substantially different Windows version released in March 2003 ($599 list, www.discreet.com/products/cleaner). Cleaner XL supports more formats, runs faster, has more quality enhancement features, and then packages this new functionality in a dramatically changed user interface.
In terms of functionality, cleaner XL supports 60 media formats, including the new Apple QuickTime 6, including MPEG-4 video and AAC audio; RealNetworks RealSystem 9, including multi-channel audio; Microsoft Windows Media 9, including high-definition and multi-channel audio; and Kinoma for PalmOS PDAs.
In terms of performance, cleaner XL is optimized for multiple processors and the new Intel Hyper-Threading architecture. Discreet benchmarks it as 100 to 250 percent faster than cleaner 5.1.2 on the same hardware.
For better quality results, cleaner XL processes video in its native color space, and provides more than 50 video and audio preprocessing options and filters to enhance, sweeten, repair, and noise reduce your media.
All of this would have made a fine incremental upgrade, but Discreet went further to re-architect its software using the Windows .NET architecture, and then built an interface that focused on providing great flexibility for saving and loading sets of processing settings. With cleaner XL, you don't just save a job or a compression format, you also can save custom input formats, encoding parameters, audio and video filters, and output formats. With this design, Discreet has deliberately accepted the additional interface complexity that comes with this flexibility, providing more power for serious users at the cost of making casual use more difficult.
The problem with designing an interface for this kind of media processing tool is that there are just so many parameters that need to be viewed and accessed. The common interface conventions for dealing with this are tabs or palettes to access different types of settings, and hierarchical lists (like Windows Explorer) to navigate within groups of options. Previous generations of Cleaner used tabs to view different types of settings (Image, Audio, Encode, Output), and a hierarchical list to explore preset compression options (MPEG, QuickTime, Real System, Windows Media). The advantage of this approach is that it is easy to view the big picture of current settings and available options, before drilling down into specific details.
Canopus ProCoder, released May 2002 ($699 list, www.canopuscorp.com) uses a similar approach to organize the processing steps in a wizard-like progression. In ProCoder, you select Source files, define Target formats, and then Convert. The Target page uses a tabbed approach to view a summary of the settings for each selected output format, and provides an Advanced tab to drill down into a hierarchical list of formats and their corresponding detailed settings. This approach is very easy to quickly understand and use: just select your input files, choose the desired output presets, and then run the conversion. As you get more experienced, the interface also provides additional options to drill down into the advanced features and define your own presets.
With cleaner XL, Discreet has moved in a dramatically different direction. Instead of providing a single interface to view and define your project settings, cleaner XL uses a myriad of separate dialogs to edit specific bundles of settings. The advantage of this approach is that each collection of settings can be individually defined, saved, and later reloaded to use again. The disadvantage is that the interface does not provide a quick way to explore or review the different settings, or to see high-level summary of the various current settings.
In addition, the cleaner XL interface is relatively sparse. There are no action buttons such as Add or Delete for files or settings. Instead, you must use the main menus to select an action, or the right-click pop-up menus to choose an operation in the selected context. You then click the settings buttons to display the associated settings editor, or click the drop-down button menus to load a predefined option.
Cleaner XL organizes its interface around the concept of a job, or an operation to be applied to a set of files. You define a job in the Job Window by loading source media files, setting processing options, and defining output formats. You then can save the job, or submit it to the queue of pending jobs. Cleaner provides a separate Job Queue window to view and manage your jobs, which means you can continue working and defining new jobs as it is running other jobs in the queue.
The Job Window contains two major sections, the Sources to be processed, and the Processing actions to perform on them. Each has lists of files or formats to be used in this job, and buttons to define the options for processing to be applied to them.
You build the list of source files by simply dropping them into the Sources area of the window. The Sources area also includes the Input Profile settings button. This defines the aspect ratio and interlacing format of the input files, with presets for DV and DVD, NTSC and PAL, 4x3 and 6x9. Or use the Input Profile Editor to define a custom frame format and pixel aspect ratio. Only one Input Profile can be defined per job, so all input files must share the same basic frame format.
You can right-click to view and edit the Source Properties, including Audio, Video, and Size. Or use the separate Monitor window to preview, trim, and crop each individual source file. Instead of scaling the video to fit the window size, the Monitor window offers three Size options: Full, Half, Quarter screen. As found in video editors, the Monitor window includes play controls to play back source files, and trim controls to set In and Out points within the clip. You also can set a crop region by dragging a rectangle over the frame, or right-click to display the Source Crop Editor to set numeric crop values and the crop aspect ratio.
The Sources area provides two more tools for dealing with special input formats. Use the Multifile Source editor to associate separate video and audio files (i.e., after MPEG compression), and multi-channel audio (with each channel defined in an individual file). Use the Metadata Editor to define auxiliary information about each source file, such as Title, Description, Copyright, and Author, including format-specific metadata for the various streaming output formats.
The Processing area then defines all the processing options to be applied to each source file. The first two settings, Deinterlace and Crop, are applied as preprocessing to all sources in the job and all output profiles.
The Deinterlace Method setting can clean up interlaced television video when converting to a progressive format (especially for streaming video for computer display). The visible differences between adjacent lines from different frames can be removed in different ways: Blend the lines (good for fast motion blur), Eliminate one set of alternating lines (to preserve sharpness), Automatic frame conversion when changing frame rate, or Adaptive deinterlace depending on the motion in the scene (slower).
The Job Crop settings apply to all sources, but can be overridden by a specific Source Crop setting in the Monitor window. You also can set the Remove Letterbox option to automatically remove the black unused areas in the top and bottom of a letterboxed video, including specifying the Tightness of the crop around the edge.
Next, you specify the list of formats, or Output Profiles that each source file is to be converted into, and the list of one or more Destinations to which each Output Profile is to be delivered.
Cleaner XL includes over 180 pre-defined output profiles. Each Output Profile defines one Encoder Setting (compression format), an associated video and audio Filter Setting (cleanup and enhancements), and a set of one or more Destinations.
The supplied Output Profiles include streaming formats (MPEG-4, QuickTime, Real, Windows Media) for Film, NTSC, and PAL; 4x3 and 16x9 aspect ratios; download and streaming; at dial-up to wideband rates. It also includes MPEG-1 and -2 for CD, Web, Kiosk, VCD, and DVD delivery; Handheld (Kioma); and Audio-only (MP3 and streaming). You can create your own Output Profiles by duplicating and editing an existing format and then saving it with a new name.
To edit an Output Profile, you use the Encoder Setting and Filter Setting buttons to display the associated editors. These settings also can be saved and reloaded, independently of the Output Profiles that may use them.
Use the Encoder Setting Editor to define the base encoding format (i.e., AVI, MPEG, streaming, audio), the video and audio codecs and formats, and format-specific encoding parameters. You also can rename the output files to help identify them using File Extensions with a format-specific Prefix and Suffix.
Use the Filter Setting Editor to set a chain of one or more filters to apply to the input video and audio before it is compressed. The available filters are listed as a chain of consecutive processing steps. The Video filters include Color adjustments, Noise Reduce, Blur and Sharpen, Fades, and Watermarks. The Audio filters include Noise Reduction, Volume, Normalize, Parametric EQ (6 channel), and Fades.
To apply filters, just check the desired filters to apply them, and then edit the associated parameter values. Again, cleaner XL provides an array of pre-defined presets for each filter, and you can load, edit, and save your own individual presets as well.
Finally, click each Output Profile to view and edit the list of Destinations. The default destination is Cleaner Output, which is set under the View / Options menu. Not surprisingly, Cleaner also offers a Destination Editor to define and save other destinations. The destination can be a local or networked directory Path, and a sub-directory can be automatically created for them based on the job name. The destination also can be a FTP site, for example to publish files to a Web server. You also can control the action taken if the output file already exists: overwrite, skip, or automatically serialize by adding a numeric suffix.
Now that you have defined all the job options, and loaded and saved all the various bundles of useful settings, you can start the job running. Or, you can use the Monitor window to preview the results of the job. Click the small right arrow on the side of the Monitor window to open the Preview pane. You then can use the play controls in the left Source pane to move through the clip, and also view the corresponding output frame. To help look at the results of the processing and filtering, you use A/B Flip to alternate between the before and after frames, or Split Screen to see the difference within a frame, or select Output to render a preview and play through a short section of the clip.
Now, it's time to actually run the job, which involves submitting it to the job queue. The Job Queue window displays the encoding status of the current job and an optional preview of the output frames. The Job Queue also lists Pending and Completed jobs, so you can display the job properties, and disable or remove pending jobs.
The Outputs section of the Job window also lists the status of each Tasks within the job (ready, pending, encoding, complete), and the Log section lists the processing steps and timing.
Cleaner XL provides an incredible amount of flexibility in defining, saving, and reusing groups of settings, nested from entire jobs down to the details of encoding, filters, and even destination folders. Once you make the effort to define common formats and processing for your work, or for your shop, you then can automate your work by loading and applying these setting and presets.
Even better, cleaner supports Watch Folder jobs, which monitor the contents of shared folders and automatically processes any new source media files that are found there. In this way, for example, you can set up a dedicated encoding server machine running cleaner XL, and have it monitor various folders across the network for new work that has been created at individual editing workstations.
As you have seen, this dramatically new interface for cleaner XL can help well-organized people design a collection of custom settings for video and audio processing. Ideally, you can have your in-house video processing expert define preferred house settings in all their gory detail, and then even package up the actual processing using Watch Folders.
However, the cleaner XL interface is certainly less approachable for novice or occasional users. In particular, it does not provide convenient overall views of available options and settings. Instead of a hierarchical Explorer-type view, you must use a file open-type interface to browse each individual sub-folder, and then load each preset setting in order to view the details of its contents. Similarly, while the main Job Window interface does list the source files and a summary of the output profiles, it provides no indication whether any filters have been enabled, much less which ones.
Beyond the interface changes, cleaner XL is clearly an important update, with its support for all the new media formats and significant performance improvements, especially on multi-processor architectures. Discreet does offer a trial version of cleaner XL that you can download and try out for 30 days. It can process up to 50 jobs, and stamps a watermark on all output video. So whether you are a novice, or an encoding professional, try it out for a change.
Canopus - ProCoder
Discreet - cleaner