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Video Tech For Working Bands
By Scott McQuarrie
While the future holds the promise of "total convergence" of media and delivery systems, we're not there yet, and it takes a little (okay, a lot) of work to get video of your band streaming from your website. Whether it's a music video à la MTV, or a minimally edited tape of a (hopefully great) performance, your promotional plan is incomplete without it. You need to jump into the Internet river of streaming media, and right now.
Fortunately, you don't have to navigate the waters by yourselves, and can call on such veteran pixel-pushers as Kevin Bee. Bee is President and co-founder of Uptime Video (uptimevideo.com), and has been prepping video for the Internet since 1999.
Stepping into the stream The first step is to "rip" the video onto a computer's hard drive. "Most of what we do," says Bee, "is proprietary, without the use of any off-the-shelf software, but for the average webmaster there are tons of ripping programs, some free and some not." Windows programs Flask MPEG and MPEG Mediator are free; free applications for Macintosh include Mac the Ripper and Handbrake. Other ripping programs, for both operating systems as well as Linux, vary in price and sophistication, cost from $10 to perhaps $100 and offer an increasing assortment of options as you move up the price ladder.
"Most webmasters," continues Bee, "will break the movie into clips, either as scenes or chapters like the original [video] or small 10- to 30-second clips" for promotional content. This "clipping" work can be handled by single-purpose applications -- Bee says that a popular one for "chopping up video" is VirtualDub, freeware for Windows -- but well-heeled webmasters, like most encoding firms, will use one high-end package for both clipping and editing tasks.
Next comes editing, meaning final editing like inserting watermarks, deleting scenes, etc., at the producers' direction. "Again," counsels Bee, "there's lots of software out there. The most popular Windows program is probably Adobe Premiere, definitely not free, followed by Sony Vegas ." Adobe Premiere is also available for Macintosh, but takes a second seat to Apple's Final Cut Pro. A Google search will unearth many freeware (no-cost) or shareware (low-cost) applications for every computing environment, some of which are surprisingly powerful for the price.
Squeezing those pixels If you're a do-it-yourself webmaster, this is a crucial step: encoding. Uptime Video, of course, stays on the cutting edge of hardware, uses custom-made applications and processes jobs in ways that are unlikely to be duplicated by even the most talented Web site proprietors working alone. But everyone has to start somewhere, and even using today's off-the-shelf computers with freeware programs can yield decent, sometimes very good, results.
You must first decide how many formats to produce for streaming. For Uptime Video's clients, says Bee, "We make sure we understand how and where they plan to use their content." For most webmasters, continues Bee, ".wmv is the most popular format, followed by .mpg. While .mpg is an older, muddier codec, it is playable through almost all popular media players. Flash video is gaining major momentum for this reason, because regardless of the computer, most browsers have the Flash player installed."
Still, a variety of other formats and codecs are being used daily: RealVideo, QuickTime, various flavors of .mpg, .avi and so on. Beginners may find it easier to use "dedicated" encoders that specialize in creating one format well -- Windows Media Encoder for .wmv, QuickTime Pro for QuickTime, Flash Video Encoder for Flash video -- while more experienced hands (reaching into deeper pockets) "can use software bundles like Sorensen Squeeze or VideoCharge," says Bee. "With these, users can encode to multiple formats through one piece of software and one interface."
Once you have encoded your video -- after trying various "bit rates" and compression schemes that affect, respectively, smoothness of play and clarity of images -- it is time to check with the companies hosting your site. Hosting firms do not offer media servers and sufficient "bandwidth" (the amount of data traffic allowed on a Web site's Internet offramp) with their bargain basement $9.95-a-month plans. Streaming media of any kind, music or video, involves a complex, power-hungry set of processes.
You also need to remember the end-users. One Hollywood recording studio spent hundreds of hours perfecting a Web site with Flash motion graphics, audio/video clips and live chat capabilities, all in the mistaken belief that "most people" have high-speed net connections. The site may have succeeded in South Korea, where about 75 percent of net users have broadband, but the studio owners made their site nearly inaccessible to the seven of every ten American Web surfers still using dial-up connections.
Tomorrow's coming fast Major content distributors of all kinds still provide low-bandwidth streams to serve all the 56k modems out there. But if the future is now for those webmasters lagging behind the leaders, the future for MTV and other content kings is approaching like an onrushing train.
Bee concurs. "We are already seeing a major shift to Flash video because of the flexibility and inherent benefits, and [the] average specs for a home computer are only going to increase further," Bee states, "which will make more advanced codecs more feasible." The video veteran also sees major and widespread implementation of High-Definition (HD) video as well, beginning with the h.264 codec now being used for the newest Apple video iPods..
"We'll see more implementations of the h.264 codec in other formats like Windows," Bee predicts, "including new derivatives and even multi-threaded codecs that surpass h.264." Naturally, the proliferation of HD video, coupled with the release of new HD-DVD players, will fuel the continued development of HD encoding, as well as fulfill the need for better compression quality.
Average bandwidth capacity will continue increasing as the Internet continues maturing, says Bee, "so we could potentially see live DVD-quality streams." While some websites are already trying this, Bee calls their efforts "dramatically unsuccessful because of the current technology limitations." For now, that is.
Other uses Much of this new technology can be used in different ways, and not just for creative purposes. It can also be used to protect your investment in gear. You can easily set up low-cost webcams and other cameras as surveillance and security to protect the locations where you keep your expensive equipment - studio, home, storage unit, wherever. You can also set up a laptop with a wireless card and send/receive those same images, to and from other computers, or even cell phones.
Video clips of the hottest recording stars are now being delivered to cell phones, too. But a recent survey by NDP Research indicates the marketing challenge that content creators and distributors face with cell phone delivery (and every other new destination): only 28 percent of cell phones currently in use can handle video streams, and an infinitesimal 1 percent of users currently pay for the service.
Of course, this is just another challenge in a long list of challenges that the envelope-pushing, technology-driving, paradigm-shifting entertainment industry has successfully met. And if past successes are any indication, high-quality content deliveries should grow from a stream to a tidal wave in no time. You need to make sure you and your band are riding that wave, too.
By Scott McQuarrie, representing the EZWatch Pro brand, a leading provider of computer based security-cameras for business, commercial and government applications.
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