My workflow for exporting to Web for best quality

As an online editor, one of the most common questions I'm asked is, "how can I compress my film for web distribution, like YouTube and Vimeo?". Although this is an extremely complex subject that used to be its own profession, known as a compressionist, I figured I would provide some guidelines for best results when exporting a file for web distribution. While I'm showing these guidelines in Adobe Media Encoder CC 2015, these tips are are useful for any application that encodes H.264 (Compressor, Handbrake, Squeeze, etc).

  1. Encode a "master" file using a high quality codec such as Apple ProRes, Avid DNxHD, GoPro Cineform, etc. Anything that supports 10 bit and allows you to set 4:2:2 or higher color subsampling. This is the source video file we will use to convert to a smaller, web friendly H.264, as it tends to result in higher image quality than directly exporting to H.264. This "master" file is also a great file to archive for long-term backup, as it is far higher quality than the web version we will encode. 
  2. Using Adobe Media Encoder (or your chosen encoder that supports encoding H.264), transcode the "master" file to H.264 using an .MP4 (preferred) or .MOV container with the following settings:
  • Video
    • Resolution: 1920 x 1080 or 3840 x 2160 (UHD aka Online "4K") - you can reduce 1080 if you are using a different aspect ratio from 16:9, such as 2:35, to "cut" off the black bars, but they will likely be added back on most displays when played back. 720p is also acceptable to save bandwidth, but will slowly become obsolete as services update with technology.
    • Frame Rate: 23.976 (or 25) - depends on your location and how it was shot. Avoid adjusting from the source resolution, unless necessary. 
    • (Pixel) Aspect: Square Pixels (1.0) - unless you are encoding anamorphic for final delivery,  use the standard Square Pixel 1.0 for HD and UHD material. If Standard Definition, it may require a different setting like .991. 
    • TV Standard: Depends on your location. Check your source material, as it will usually indicate. 
    • Profile: High - This is a very important option, as many presets set this to Main. Make sure this is set to High for best quality. 
    • Level: 4.2 or above - 4.2 is generally good, as the higher you go, the less compatible it is with et-top players like PS3, Roku, Chromecast, and others.
    • Render at Maximum Depth - Checked (Adobe specific option) - This is another important option as it provides for higher quality color processing at the expense of encoding time. It is usually worth the small hit to render time, in my personal opinion. In other encoders, this may be shown as the "bit depth" used to encode. The higher the bit depth selected, the higher precision of color processing used to encode the file, at the cost of render time. 
    • Bitrate Encoding: VBR, 2 Pass - VBR 2 Pass will provide the best quality AND the best file size for that quality by reviewing the file twice, to most efficiently distribute data throughout the length of the file. VBR 1 Pass is still very good, although the quality may not be quite as high as 2 pass. CBR doesn't look at the file contents at all, just providing a specific bit rate at all times. 
    • Target Bitrate: 25-30Mbps - This is HEAVILY dependent on the content, with more movement and fast cuts (Ex: generic action films) requiring more data than something that slowly moves (Ex: generic romantic comedies). Also, the more grain or noise, the more data required to maintain that image without turning into a blocky, compressed mess. 
    • Maximum Bitrate: 50Mbps - This is the maximum bitrate the encoder can use, period. The variable bit rate may decide this exact moment is particularly intense and requires a lot of data, and this is a "ceiling" of sorts for the bit rate. 
    • Key Frame Distance: Unchecked - This can be used to force a keyframe every # of frames, but will up the data rate.
    • Use Maximum Render Quality - Checked if using ANY type of scaling during the edit (punch-ins, re-positions, etc), FX that scale like Warp Stabilizer, or exporting to resolution different than source. - This option greatly helps scaling quality, both when upsizing &  reducing resolution, and with effects that use scaling, at the expense of render time. If you are unsure, just enable it and deal with the additional render time for better quality. If you know you are not doing any scaling at all, effects of manual, leave this unchecked to save on render time.
    • Use Frame Blending - Unchecked

 

  • Audio Settings
    • Audio Format: AAC (or AAC-LC) - Compressing the audio to AAC is the preferred audio format for both Youtube & Vimeo. 
    • Sample Rate: 48000hz 
    • Channels: Stereo - Unless your audio is mono (single channel)
    • Audio Quality: High
    • Bitrate: 320kbps - This is a good audio bitrate for 90% of videos, unless it is a studio mastered audio track. 

I hope this quick breakdown of my H.264 encoding workflow helps with your own encodings. I encourage you to experiment with the above and tweak them to fit your own content and preferences. Please leave any comments, thoughts, and feedback below, if this has helped or given you some ideas for your own workflows.