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CBR vs VBR Digital Encoding and What It Means to Your Project
Last week I received four inquiries about digitally encoding videotapes to DVD, where I ended up explaining the differences between constant bitrate (CBR) encoding and variable bitrate ( VBR)…and the associated price differences.
This is to say that there are different qualities of digital encoding…even when it comes to the same end product like a DVD video.
Suppose a customer wants to transfer a digital betacam videotape to DVD. At Video Labs, we have three paths we can follow.
The cheapest option is to play the video tape and encode the signal directly into our Pioneer DVD recorder.
We have three of these Pioneer DVD recorders. Even though they are no longer manufactured, they continue to be workhorses for us. We like them for a number of reasons, including: they can integrate components and SDI, can handle both NTSC and PAL signals, and offer basic authoring capability. (And by the way, an additional advantage is that when encoding SD subtitled tapes, these DVD recorders do not remove the subtitle information from line 21 in the vertical interval, which makes it possible to transfer easily subtitles from tape to DVD. Read more about this in my article: “The Challenges of Subtitles and Captions in DVDs”)
A more expensive solution to encode video would be to digitize the footage into our Final Cut Pro, then use Compressor to create an MPEG2 video and AC-3 audio file, then create a DVD in DVD Studio Pro, Adobe Encore or Sonic Scriptwriter.
Our high-end solution would be to output the tape to a digital betacam dub, then encode that dBeta into our Sonic SD-2000 encoder via SDI, then take the resulting MPEG2 video and AC-3 audio files and import them either in Adobe Encore or Sonic Scenarist to create a DVD.
There are two types of digital encoding. One is constant bit rate (CBR) coding. This is what low-end encoders use. The operator sets the bitrate and it is the bitrate at which the video will be encoded throughout. One advantage is that encoding happens faster.
But is this the best use of the allocated bit budget? Think about it. Doesn’t it make sense that a series of static images on a plain background would require less data (playback bit rate) than a series of images with lots of movement and action and/or a wide range of colors and contrasts ?
Well, if that’s true, then wouldn’t it be more efficient if the “bitrate budget” (remember, like one, you only have digital space available on a DVD) could be spent such that it uses a lower bitrate for static scenes in a program, then “pours in” when really needed for high activity and/or lighting/color scenes?
This is the concept of “variable bit rate coding” (VBR). And high-end encoders use this more sophisticated approach.
(Our high-end Sonic D-2000 encoder also uses “segment coding” which explains its base price. But let’s save that for another article.)
Now technology is changing rapidly in our field, and I’m getting new information from my various multimedia “gurus”, who say that there are now some very cost-effective software encoders on the market that use CBR and are actually pretty darn good . As I was told, these software encoding programs challenge the old “hardware is always better than software” philosophy. The thinking begins to be that since technology is changing so rapidly, the ease with which software can be updated relative to hardware offers an increasingly distinct advantage.
Hmmm, looks like your favorite media vendor is going to have to keep listening to their gurus and doing some research. Stay tuned.
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