After Hours

Encode streaming media files

Encoding is strongly recommended for playback of high-quality streaming media. Here's how to encode streaming media files.

By Joseph T. Sinclair

Encoding is strongly recommended, but not absolutely necessary, for playback of high-quality streaming media. Encoding is the compression of normal sound or video files. This process both shrinks files and allows for more efficient streaming. Codecs (compression algorithms) perform the encoding. Different codecs optimize encoding for different bandwidths. Both RealPlayer and the QuickTime Player will play back a wide variety of unencoded media files, but keep in mind that most unencoded media files are huge and will stream painfully slowly.

Encoding is simple because it is automated, but the process takes time and ties up your computer for the duration. To encode long audio or video files, you may want to consider setting up the program to run overnight.

RealNetworks provides basic encoding software (complete with codecs) for free, and that's really all you need. More advanced encoding software is also available; one such product is Terran's Media Cleaner Pro. Advanced encoding software uses special codecs that claim to produce a superior sound signal, but the difference will probably matter only to dedicated audiophiles. However, advanced encoding software will clean up noise within the sound signal—a desirable and noticeable effect—and provide batch processing, useful for volume production and overnight encoding.

Web-based encoding services such as Loudeye provide encoding for large numbers of files that would otherwise tie up a computer for an extended period.

RealNetworks encoding

You can use RealProducer, available free at the RealNetworks Web site, to encode. You can also buy RealProducer Plus ($149) or RealProducer Pro ($399) for extra functionality, but you don't need either to accomplish the basics.

The RealMedia codecs do a solid job of encoding for various bandwidths. To save you the trouble of encoding for each bandwidth, RealProducer uses SureStream, which encodes with a specific assortment of codecs to match the purpose of the streaming media. With SureStream, RealProducer might use the same codec for 28k and 56k modems, and another for ISDN (128k) modems. You specify the purpose (voice, video clip, and so on), and SureStream automatically uses the proper codecs in one operation, saving you the trouble of encoding separately.

QuickTime encoding

The free program QuickTime Player only plays files. For authoring capabilities, you can pay $29 for QuickTime Pro at the Apple Web site. The program will also encode media into QuickTime files. QuickTime offers smart streaming, a similar idea to RealNetworks' SureStream. However, in QuickTime Pro you must generate a separate movie for each purpose, using different codecs and then a tool named MakeRefMovie to create a reference to each of those movies. QuickTime Pro does not work automatically, as SureStream does.

For more QuickTime information, try Peachpit Press's QuickTime Pro 4 for Macintosh and Windows: Visual Quickstart Guide, by Judith Stern and Robert Lettieri.

Joseph T. Sinclair developed the first gourmet food store on the Web in 1994 using Web database technology. He has written seven books about the Web.

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