- Editor's Rating
By Dustin Sklavos
Adobe Media Encoder arrived as a standalone program in Creative Suite 4 to much gnashing of teeth. Does Media Encoder CS5 redeem the application? We break it down in this review.
People who have been using Adobe’s production software for a while will remember the upheaval that occurred with CS4. While CS5 is more evolution than revolution, the revamped interface of CS4 and added functionality produced a major break with its predecessors. I’ve read that the cult zombie movie Undead was edited on Premiere Pro way back in the day and that the Spierig brothers (who went on to write and direct the equally offbeat and interesting Daybreakers) more or less hated, loathed, whatever you want to call it…the experience. This would’ve been on a substantially older version than what we have now; Premiere has evolved by leaps and bounds, and CS4 in particular really pushed things forward.
One of the major changes there brings us to our review today: in CS4, Adobe split the Media Encoder out of the core Premiere program and introduced it as its own utility. You can only get it with certain Adobe applications — the ones you’d use it with — but it’s powerful enough to merit being approached on its own.
With the initial release of CS4, splitting the Media Encoder into its own app produced some major inconveniences. Premiere has gotten much better about multitasking on a powerful system, but when CS4 first dropped, you were looking at a good five to ten second wait switching in and out of Premiere, assuming it didn’t crash outright. So you had to wait a few seconds, then Media Encoder had to load, then if you wanted to go back to Premiere before rendering, you’d be in for another wait. One of the great features about splintering Media Encoder off was being able to queue renders from Premiere…except that you’d have to go in and out of Premiere to queue each individual render. I wasn’t a fan of Media Encoder at the time.
Now, however, it’s really an invaluable piece of software. Tabbing in and out of Premiere isn’t as onerous as it used to be, but more than that…Encoder’s darn flexible on its own.
The “What’s New” for Media Encoder is small and simple, and it’s the same big feature that most of CS5 brought with it: 64-bit binaries. If Media Encoder wasn’t already well-threaded before, it runs even better now, and it will happily use as much RAM as you choose to allocate to it.
What makes Media Encoder CS5 awesome — other than the ability to queue substantial amounts of renders, click “Start Queue,” and then go have dinner, sleep, or have a social life — is the sheer magnitude of formats it supports.
I’ll break it down for those of you in the cheap seats: Adobe Media Encoder CS5 can convert/encode any type of media file into nearly any kind of media file. The format list you see to the right covers popular image, A/V, video-only, and audio-only file types, and it’s the tip of the iceberg. Let’s pick, say, H.264. H.264 is an extremely popular codec for compressing video.
Any particular preset you had in mind? It’s covered here. Note that the source file is Windows Media (admittedly a personal favorite for a variety of reasons); Media Encoder can handle just about any format you’d want to transcode. In fact, Media Encoder can even break your video file down into a series of still TIFF images. I’ve actually even used it to transcode a series of BMP images into JPEGs to post online, and it’s remarkably simple to use.
If the presets aren’t cutting it for you, you can also go in and tweak individual encoding settings to suit your needs; some codecs are more flexible than others, but you won’t be at a loss for options with the Media Encoder.
Another useful feature is being able to choose a specific clip of a larger video and/or audio file to render out. This is a necessity, since Media Encoder renders video from Premiere by importing the actual project file from Premiere and then defining in and out points for the clip, but can be used to slice up any sort of audio or video file.
Finally, Media Encoder can estimate how large your final encoded file will be, and if you click the “Output” tab can also approximate how your encoded video will look with your chosen codec and settings. It’s tremendously useful for seeing how a high definition video clip will look bounced down to standard or encoded in Flash to be trotted off to the internet.
Adobe links many settings between Premiere, After Effects, Encore (DVD mastering software), and Media Encoder, but what I’d really like to see in CS6 is better integration between Media Encoder and After Effects. While you can add After Effects projects to Media Encoder, the program proper still uses its own render queue. Media Encoder is maturing, but it’s not all the way there yet and still feels very much like a feature of Premiere that’s been given its own separate program (the settings window is still the exact same one from Premiere Pro CS3). Hopefully Adobe will make a full integration between it and After Effects at some point in the future, allowing the user to easily render multiple compositions from After Effects and video projects from Premiere just by queuing them up.
If there’s anything you might want to criticize about Media Encoder, it’s that it isn’t GPU-accelerated the way many consumer-grade encoders are these days. Media Encoder does all of its heavy lifting on the processor, the way it’s been done since time immemorial. This isn’t a major loss; CPU-based encoders to this day still produce superior output compared to GPU-accelerated ones, but if you’re more interested in speed than quality it’s going to disappoint you.
That said, if I were a speculating man — and I am — I’d assume Adobe’s partnership with Nvidia for CS5 suggests increased GPU involvement in future versions. It’s really only a matter of time until GPU-acceleration enters the fold proper for professional video work and becomes invaluable, but it’s still teething and most people doing serious work are going to want the best quality they possibly can. When media transcoding already runs the risk of producing inferior output to begin with, any loss you can mitigate is huge.
One of the important things to remember about Adobe Media Encoder CS5 is that it’s professional-grade software. It’s not the most user friendly software on the market (though it’s surprisingly easy to use regardless), and it will require at least some working knowledge of media codecs and editing. That said, bifurcating it from Premiere back in CS4 and then refining in CS5 was a very wise move on Adobe’s part.
In the meantime, Media Encoder CS5 is still very useful — and very easy to use — software, and is a must have in any video editor’s toolbox.
- 64-bit RAM allocation
- Can transcode any format
- Wide array of settings to tweak
- Not yet mature