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Express Yourself

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The Interface
Expression Encoder has an attractive, flexible interface with three basic components. On top is the Viewer pane, where you can view your media and preview compression. As you would expect, the Viewer pane has a number of transport controls, including Play/Pause, jump to next marker, and the like. You can also use your keyboard’s arrow keys to navigate through the video, a convenient, professional touch that comes in handy when setting markers and script commands.

Just beneath the transport controls, you’ll see two buttons on the extreme left- and right-hand sides. The Leader button on the left lets you insert a video before the imported video, while the button on the right lets you insert a trailer after the imported video.

Beneath the transport controls is the Media Content panel, which lists all imported videos and their current compressed status. Note that you can load multiple files into the Media Content panel to create a batch-encoding run and save the batch as a "job" that you can recall and run again. You’ll use the Import button on the upper left of the panel to import your media files.

On the right is a Settings panel with three tabs—one for Settings, which controls scaling and compression parameters; one for Metadata, which includes true metadata, as well as markers and script commands; and a third for Output, where you’ll find output templates and other publishing options.

You can stretch and resize each window as you like; you can even detach and "float" any window independently from the others. I liked working with the Windows docked together, but I appreciated the interface flexibility.

Getting Started
Click the Import button to get started. The big new addition from an import perspective is support for QuickTime and H.264 input, plus MPEG, WMV, DVR-MS, and VOB. One very cool feature is the ability to import and configure settings for a file while the Encoder is actually compressing another, which is relatively rare among encoding tools and wonderfully convenient when you have more than one file to compress.

After importing your file(s), move to the Settings tab in the Settings panel. Here the controls are relatively straightforward, though the nomenclature could use some tightening up.

For example, all compression controls are in the Profile category, with a section for video parameters and a section for audio parameters. Beneath that is the Video Profile category where you adjust resolution and aspect ratio, plus trim the video. So, you set compression parameters in the Profile Video category and adjust other parameters in the Video Profile category. As you’ll see later, this can get quite confusing, especially since the two control categories interrelate.

When encoding, start in the Settings tab by choosing a Video preset, which controls both video and audio parameters. I counted 18 canned presets, conveniently labeled MP for main profile and AP for advanced profile. The rule of thumb has been to use the advanced profile only for interlaced content. Though the Silverlight plug-in can play both profiles (unlike the Windows Media Player, which may need a codec update for the advanced profile), if you’re not producing interlaced content or invoking registry key changes either via command line encoding or the PowerToy, there’s no reason to use the advanced profile.

If you change any parameter in any preset, Expression Encoder creates a custom preset, which is the Custom— final_dv. Click the white square next to the Video profile list box to save the preset for later use; otherwise, Expression Encoder flushes it.

Since the presets were handcrafted by the self-proclaimed "World’s Greatest Compressionist" Ben Waggoner—who was helpful and very responsive while writing this article—I’m a bit loath to criticize them, though I will say that they tended to be a bit audio-heavy. For example, all presets included 44.1KHz, stereo audio, often at comparatively high data rates, like 64Kbps of audio in the 256Kbps preset, compared to 150Kbps video. For most talking head videos, stereo adds no value and you can drop the data rate to 32Kbps, mono, perhaps even to 22KHz, and allocate the extra bits to video. Note that this isn’t always possible because all VBR modes are stereo only.

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