Q: What is your experience with streaming media encoders?
A: I’ve been using streaming media encoders and A/V codecs for about 13 years, with a focus on the film/TV post-production and broadcast industries. My main use of the technology has been in a point-to-point relationship between TV/film/advertising creatives/producers and the houses that actually do the post-production work (recording studios, video houses, advertising agencies, voice-over talent).
I have also been involved in the production of live-event webcasting, and have used streaming media encoders to generate the final product that is delivered to the target audience.
Q: What are the best practices for using these products?
A: The most important element is you can’t fight the principle of garbage-in-garbage-out.
To get the best quality output of any streaming media encoder, you need to start with the highest quality signal on the way in. This goes all the way to, if you’re preparing a live, on-site webcast, for example, having good lighting, video, and sound equipment, as well as skilled operators behind it at the source.
The next step is to determine the best trade-off between stream stability and quality for the bandwidth you have at your disposal. For this type of product, this will take the form of which codec and bitrate to choose. I’m firmly of the opinion that audio quality is more important than video quality for an A/V stream, [especially if they are] independently configurable.
Most of the streaming media product I’ve used has favored video over audio, and kept the audio bandwidth limited to maximize video performance. [This is] silly to me. [It’s] much better to have a “meh” quality video signal and intelligible audio than to have stellar video and crap audio.
Also, whenever possible, add redundancy to the process. This could take the form of multiple streaming codecs, multiple ISP routes to the target destination, and the hiring of larger content distribution for larger events. Even if the stream is not intended to be archived, run a local backup in real time, just in case the stream dies due to unforeseen circumstances.
Q: What are the tough issues or pain points with streaming media encoders?
A: The most common issues we see in the operation of any IP-based encoder on the manufacturer side are:
1. A difficult user interface
2. Less-than robust hardware build
3. Poor product documentation
4. Poor implementation of features
And on the user side:
1. Firewall issues
2. A lack of understanding of how these devices reduce quality to stuff a big stream down a small pipe, and how to minimize the resulting artifacts.
Q: What are the top trends when it comes to streaming media encoders?
A: It’s a surprisingly static field when compared against the tech world in general. The H.264 spec has been around for around nine years. The AAC [Advanced Audio Coding] audio format has been around since around 1997. Most of the trending we see in the hardware we deal with has been for lower build-costs and more flexibility in the configuration of the codecs used.
Q: What are some budget savers you can recommend?
A: For the streaming model on the other side of my office, our most useful cost saver [has been] good relationships with streaming media service providers, so our bandwidth requirements remain modest (just one or two streams to someone like Akami, who then distributes the content to a larger audience) compared to serving an audience directly.