Canopus's ProCoder has been unchallenged as a media encoder for a good few years. Despite competition from Compressor on the Mac platform and Sorenson Squeeze, ProCoder managed to do just about everything right and deliver phenomenal results to boot.
MPEG encoding for DVD was terrific. Windows Media and RealVideo crunching for the net was great too. Most of all, ProCoder shined in its sheer convenience, allowing users to create batches for encoding, or even specify watch folders so that the program could start work on a new file as soon as it became available.
In the last couple of years, though, ProCoder seemed to have fallen behind the times somewhat - particularly in its lack of direct support for HDV transport streams and its inability to export Dolby AC3 audio files with its elementary MPEG files.
Version 3 of the program has, therefore, been eagerly anticipated by existing users who increasingly found themselves stepping away from their favourite encoding suite to crunch their media.
At first glance, ProCoder doesn't appear to have changed much. Unlike recent changes to Grass Valley's Edius editing software, the general user interface is largely untouched since version 2, being composed of Source, Target and Convert tabs under which selections are made and settings tweaked.
As before, there are also buttons for the creation of watch folders and queues. The first sign of redevelopment comes when a clip is imported for encoding, as ProCoder 3 will now accept AVCHD footage, H.264 video and Dolby AC3 audio files as source media.
Source files are collected in a list in the Source panel, and can have their attributes examined and, in some cases, changed. If, for example, your source footage has been prepared with the wrong aspect ratio flag, this can be reassigned in ProCoder's source panel.
New to the toolbox, however, is the fact that ProCoder now allows you to select an alternative audio file for movie encoding, rather than simply using the video file's own sound - a bonus for anyone who's in the habit of mixing sound in external audio editors.
Advanced features at the target stage include trimming tools, by which tops and tails can be discarded without putting footage through an editing program first.
Video filters are generally useful and sensible ones, such as colour correction, deinterlacing, watermarking and noise reduction. Besides saving time, applying filters at this stage is also useful if you have multiple source files and a standard set of filters won't be appropriate for them all.
Audio filters are more scarce, with only five basic options including fades, normalisation and lowpass filters, but ProCoder 3 does now provide a sound channel mixer.
Output formats for encoding Targets are organised according to their application - such as DVD authoring, web streaming, editing or storage. The list is quite comprehensive, although we're disappointed to see that Dolby AC3 isn't available for audio-only conversion.
AC3 is available when encoding video to elementary streams for DVD authoring, however. Other newly supported output formats include H.264 and iPod-compatible MPEG4, as well as HDMA4000 video. Templates for HDV-compliant MPEG2 are also much more intuitive.
As with source footage, video and audio filters can be applied to target media formats, allowing you to grade footage slightly differently for each distribution method if need be - and also to sharpen, crop and deinterlace for streaming video delivery while leaving higher quality encodes alone. Audio channel mixing is also available at this stage too, enabling stereo, 5.1 or even 7.1 surround sound configurations.
Depending on the requirements of your target formats, ProCoder also allows control over bitrate, frame size, frame rate and audio formats. The level of control is quite vast, and while most novices will stick with ProCoder's ready-made profiles, more experienced movie makers will be more than glad of the in-depth control and easy-to-follow presentation.
Multiple ProCoder sessions are easily queued for unattended processing, allowing it to be left overnight or over weekends without the need for any manual intervention. And while the software works well stand-alone, it's also a dream to use as a plug-in.
As we'd expect, ProCoder 3 integrates very neatly into the export options of Edius 4.5, but it also serves as a seamless export tool in Premiere Pro.
Encoding speeds are determined by the output formats chosen, effects added, quality requirements and the speed of the host system, but we weren't disappointed by ProCoder's performance.
On a 3GHz Intel dual-core system with 2GB RAM, we crunched a 97-minute HDV project directly from Premiere Pro's timeline as a mastering quality DVD-compliant MPEG file with AC3 audio.
We had opted for two-pass variable bitrate encoding and hadn't bothered pre-rendering any of the titles or transitions applied in Premiere Pro, but the task was completed in just under eight hours - very close to the time taken by Adobe's own Media Encoder. ProCoder 3 delivered much nicer results in our opinion.
ProCoder isn't the most exciting program in the world, but it is one of the most useful. The quality of its output is superb and its versatility is sure to be a blessing to the majority of working pros running Windows-based systems.