Convert between video containers with FFmpeg

In my ever-growing collection of smart FFmpeg tricks, here is a way of converting from one container format to another. Here I will convert from a QuickTime (.mov) file to a standard MPEG-4 (.mp4), but the recipe should work between other formats too.

If you came here to just see the solution, here you go:

ffmpeg -i infile.mov -acodec copy -vcodec copy outfile.mp4

In the following I will explain everything in a little more detail.

Container formats

One of the confusing things about video files is that they have both a container and a compression format. The container is often what denotes the file suffix. Apple introduced the .mov format for QuickTime files and Microsoft used to use .avi files.

Nowadays, there seems to a converge towards using MPEG containers and .mp4 files. However, both Apple and Microsoft software (and others) still output other formats. This is confusing and can also lead to various playback issues. For example, many web browsers are not able to play these formats natively.

Compression formats

The compression format denotes how the video data is organized on the inside of a container. Also, here there are many different formats. The most common today is to use the H.264 format for video and AAC for audio. These are both parts of the MPEG-4 standard and can be embedded in .mp4 containers. However, both H.264 and AAC can also be embedded in other containers, such as .mov and .avi files.

The important thing to notice is that both .mov and .avi files may contain H.264 video and AAC audio. In those cases, the inside of such files is identical to the content of a .mp4 file. But since the container is different, it may still be unplayable in certain software. That is why I would like to convert from one container format to another. In practice that means converting from .mov or .avi to .mp4 files.

Lossless conversion

There are many ways of converting video files. In most cases, you would end up with a lossy conversion. That means that the video content will be altered. The file size may be smaller, but the quality may also be worse. The general rule is that you want to compress a file as few times as possible.

For all sorts of video conversion/compression jobs, I have ended up turning to FFmpeg. If you haven’t tried it already, FFmpeg is a collection of tools for doing all sorts of audio/video manipulations in the terminal. Working in the terminal may be intimidating at first, but you will never look back once you get the hang of it.

Converting a file from .mov to .mp4 is as simple as typing this little command in a terminal:

ffmpeg -i infile.mov outfile.mp4

This will change from a .mov container to a .mp4 container, which is what we want. But it will also (probably) re-compress the video. That is why it is always smart to look at the content of your original file before converting it. You can do this by typing:

ffmpeg -i infile.mov

For my example file, this returns the following metadata:

  Metadata:
    major_brand     : qt  
    minor_version   : 0
    compatible_brands: qt  
    creation_time   : 2016-08-10T10:47:30.000000Z
    com.apple.quicktime.make: Apple
    com.apple.quicktime.model: MacBookPro11,1
    com.apple.quicktime.software: Mac OS X 10.11.6 (15G31)
    com.apple.quicktime.creationdate: 2016-08-10T12:45:43+0200
  Duration: 00:00:12.76, start: 0.000000, bitrate: 5780 kb/s
    Stream #0:0(und): Video: h264 (Main) (avc1 / 0x31637661), yuv420p(tv, bt709), 1844x1160 [SAR 1:1 DAR 461:290], 5243 kb/s, 58.66 fps, 60 tbr, 6k tbn, 50 tbc (default)
    Metadata:
      creation_time   : 2016-08-10T10:47:30.000000Z
      handler_name    : Core Media Video
      encoder         : H.264
    Stream #0:1(und): Audio: aac (LC) (mp4a / 0x6134706D), 44100 Hz, stereo, fltp, 269 kb/s (default)
    Metadata:
      creation_time   : 2016-08-10T10:47:30.000000Z
      handler_name    : Core Media Audio

There is quite a lot of information there, so we need to look for the important stuff. The first line we want to look for is the one with information about the video content:

Stream #0:0(und): Video: h264 (Main) (avc1 / 0x31637661), yuv420p(tv, bt709), 1844x1160 [SAR 1:1 DAR 461:290], 5243 kb/s, 58.66 fps, 60 tbr, 6k     

Here we can see that this .mov file contains a video that is already compressed with H.264. Another thing we can see here is that it is using a weird pixel format (1844×1160). The bit rate of the file is 5243 kb/s, which tells something about how large the file will be in the end. And it is also interesting to see that it is using a framerate of 58.66 fps, which is also a bit odd.

Similarly, we can look at the content of the audio stream of the file:

Stream #0:1(und): Audio: aac (LC) (mp4a / 0x6134706D), 44100 Hz, stereo, fltp, 269 kb/s (default)

Here we can see that the audio is already compressed with AAC at a standard sampling rate of 44.1 kHz and at a more nonstandard bit rate of 269 kb/s.

The main point of investigating the file before we do the conversion is to avoid re-compressing the content of the file. After all, the content is already in the right formats (H.264 and AAC) even though it is in an unwanted container (.mov).

Today’s little trick is how to convert from one format to another without modifying the content of the file, only the container. That can be achieved with the code shown on top:

ffmpeg -i original.mov -acodec copy -vcodec copy outfile.mp4

There are several benefits of doing it this way:

  1. Quality. Avoiding an unnecessary re-compression of the content, which would only degrade the content.
  2. Preserve the pixel size, sampling rates, etc. of the originals. Most video software will use standard settings for these. I often work with various types of non-standard video files, so it is nice to preserve this information.
  3. Save time. Since no re-compression is needed, we only copy content from one container to another. This is much, much faster than re-compressing the content.

All in all, this long explanation of a short command may help to improve your workflows and save some time.

Convert MPEG-2 files to MPEG-4

Image result for Canon XF-105
Canon XF105

This is a note to self, and could potentially also be useful to others in need of converting “old-school” MPEG-2 files into more modern MPEG-4 files using FFmpeg.

In the fourMs lab we have a bunch of Canon XF105 video cameras that record .MXF files with MPEG-2 compression. This is not a very useful format for other things we are doing, so I often have to recompress them to something else.

Inspecting one of the files, I just also discovered that they record the audio onto two mono channels:

Stream #0:0: Video: mpeg2video (4:2:2), yuv422p(tv, bt709, top first), 1920x1080 [SAR 1:1 DAR 16:9], 50000 kb/s, 25 fps, 25 tbr, 25 tbn, 50 tbc

Stream #0:1: Audio: pcm_s16le, 48000 Hz, mono, s16, 768 kb/s

Stream #0:2: Audio: pcm_s16le, 48000 Hz, mono, s16, 768 kb/s

So I also want to merge these two mono tracks (which are the left and right inputs of the camera) to a stereo track. FFmpeg comes in handy (as always), and I figured out that this little one-liner will do the trick:

ffmpeg -i input.mxf -vf yadif -vcodec libx264 -q:v 3 -filter_complex "[0:a:0][0:a:1]amerge,channelmap=channel_layout=stereo[st]" -map 0:v -map "[st]" output.mp4

An explanation of some of these settings:

  • yadif: this is for deinterlacing the video
  • libx264: this is probably unnecessary, but forces to use the better MPEG-4 compressor
  • q:v 3: I find this to be a good setting for the video compressor
  • filter_complex: this complex string (courtesy of reddit) does the merging of the two mono sources

Will probably try to add it to MGT-terminal at some point, but this blog post will suffice for now.

Simple tips for better video conferencing

Image result for video meeting

Very many people are currently moving to video-based meetings. For that reason I have written up some quick advise on how to improve your setup. This is based on my interview advise, but grouped differently.

Network

Image result for network clipart

The first important thing is to have as good a network as you can. Video conferencing requires a lot of bandwidth, so even though your e-mail and regular browsing works fine, it may still not be sufficient for good video transmission.

  • Cabled network: If you are able to connect with an Ethernet cable to your router, that would usually always be the best and most solid solution.
  • Wireless network: If cable won’t work for you (it is also difficult logistically in my own apartment), try to get as close as possible to your wi-fi router.

Audio

Image result for headset clipart

I would argue that improving the audio is more important than the video for video conferencing. Most video conferencing systems (Skype, Zoom, etc.) will prioritize the audio channel, which means that the video may stutter while the audio is passing through fine.

The main trick is to aim for separating the “foreground” as much as possible from the “background”. There are some very basic audio principles to follow:

  • Use a headset: The best way to get decent sound for video conferencing, is to move the microphone as close as possible to your mouth. Headsets with a microphone boom in front of your face are the best, but a regular mobile phone headset (the one that came with your mobile phone, for example) would still be better than nothing.
  • Use headphones: If you for some reason do not have a headset with built-in microphone, using a regular pair of headphones is still better than using the speakers on your computer. With this setup you use the microphone on the computer, which may not be ideal, but at least you won’t get feedback problems.
  • Avoid reverberant rooms: If you aim for clarity in conversation, it is typically better to sit in a smaller and more damped room than a large one. That means that a bedroom is typically better than a larger living room. If you use a headset this is less important, but particularly if you only use the built-in microphone and speakers on a laptop, this could make a huge difference in how your voice gets through.
  • Mute yourself: In most system there is a button to mute yourself. If you are not talking all the time, it helps to mute yourself from the discussion. Just remember to unmute when you want to say something!

Video

Image result for webcam clipart

The same principle of separating “foreground” from “background” applies to the video.

  • Lighting: To obtain the best possible video image, think about your placement with respect to lighting. It is, for example, not ideal to sit in front of a window, since a bright light in the background will make it difficult to see your face.
  • Background: The best is to sit in front of a plain wall. If that is not possible, consider whether the background of your image is what you want to show to your fellow students/colleagues.
  • Video angle: If you are using the built-in camera on your computer you may not have too many options for how to place the camera. But you may still consider shifting the camera position so that you and your surroundings look as good as possible.

Summing up

There are, of course, many ways to improve your video conferencing setup. Many people believe that you need to invest in expensive equipment to get good results. But even cheap consumer products are very capable of producing decent results these days. So it is more a matter of optimizing what you have. Good luck!

Visualizing some videos from the AIST Dance Video Database

Researchers from AIST have released an open database of dance videos, and I got very excited to try out some visualization methods on some of the files. This was also a good chance to test out some new functionality in the Musical Gestures Toolbox for Matlab that we are developing at RITMO. The AIST collection contains a number of videos. I selected one hip-hop dance video based on a very steady rhythmic pattern, and a contemporary dance video that is more fluid in both motion and music.

Hip-hop dance

The first I have looked at a couple of different files. Let us start with this one:

We can start by looking at the motion video from this. While a motion video gives less information about context, I often find them interesting to study since they reveal the essentials of what is going on.

And from the motion video we can look at the motiongrams and average image:

The horizontal motiongram reveals the repetitiveness of the dance motion, but also some of the variation throughout the different parts. I also really like the “bump” in the vertical motiongram. This is caused by the couple of side-steps he is doing midways in the session. The “line” that can be seen throughout the horizontal motiongram is cased by the cable in the back of the video.

Contemporary dance

And then I looked at another video, with a very different character:

From this we get the following motion video (wait a few seconds, since there is no dance in the beginning…):

The average image and motiongrams from this video reveal the spatial distribution of the dancer’s motion on stage. Here it is also possible to see an artifact of the compression algorithm of the video file in the beginning of the motiongrams.

I really look forwards to continue the explorations of this wonderful new and open database. Thanks to the AIST researchers for sharing!

Testing simple camera and microphone setups for quick interviews

We just started a new run of our free online course Music Moves. Here we have a tradition of recording wrap-up videos every Friday, in which some of the course educators answer questions from the learners. We have recorded these in many different ways, from using high-end cameras and microphones to just using a handheld phone. We have found that using multiple cameras and microphones is too time-consuming, both in setup and editing. Using only a mobile phone is extremely easy to set up, but we have had challenges with the speech’s audibility. Before recording this semester’s wrapup videos, I, therefore, decided to test out some solutions based on the equipment I had lying around:

  • Sony RX100 V
  • GoPro Hero 7 w/o audio connector
  • Zoom Q8
  • Samsung Galaxy Note 8
  • Røde Smartlav+ lavalier microphone
  • DPA Core 4060 lavalier microphone

In the following I will show some of the results of the testing.

Testing various devices in my office.

Sony RX 100 V

First out was the Sony RX 100 V, which is my preferred stills camera. It is small, yet has a large image chip. This makes it able to capture much nicer photos than my phone. The biggest problem with the Sony camera is that it does not have a separate microphone input. So I had to rely on the sound from the built-in microphones. As can be imagined, the image quality is good, although the focus is slightly off in this recording. The audio is ok, but the built-in microphone picks up a lot of ambient sounds. It works, but it is clearly not a good solution for this type of setup.

GoPro Hero 7

Then I moved on to the GoPro Hero 7 with just the built-in microphone. This worked much better than expected. The audio is quite clear, and it is easy to hear what I am saying. The colours of the video are vivid, but the image is compressed quite a bit. The video is very wide-angled, which is super-practical for such an interview setting, although it looks slightly skewed on the edges. But overall this was a positive surprise.

Connecting a Røde Smartlav+ to the GoPro results in an immaculate sound. In fact, this could have been a very nice setup, had it not been for some challenges with placing the camera. That is because the audio dongle for the GoPro is (1) bent downwards and (2) this makes it impossible to use the housing needed to put it on a tripod (as can be seen in the picture to the right). This makes it super-clumsy to use this setup in a real-life situation. I hear rumours about a new audio add-on for new GoPro cameras, which may be very interesting to check out.

Zoom Q8

My next device is Zoom Q8. This is actually a sound recorder with a built-in camera, so one would expect audio to be the main priority. This is also the case. The video is quite noisy, but the sound quality is much better than with the GoPro. Still, I find that the microphone picks up quite a bit of the room. This is good for music recordings, but not so good when the focus is on speech quality.

Hooking up a DPA 4060 lavalier microphone to the Zoom Q8 definitely helps. This is a high-quality microphone, and it needs phantom power (which the Zoom Q8 can deliver). As expected, this gives great sound, loud and clear. The downside is that it requires bringing an extra XLR cable together with the microphone and camera since the DPA cable is too short for such an interview setup. I like the wide-angle of the video, but the quality of the video is not very good.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8

Mobile phones are becoming increasingly powerful, and I also had to try the camera of my Samsung Galaxy Note 8. I have a small Manfrotto mobile phone stand, making it possible to place it on a tripod at a suitable distance. After recording, I realized how much less wide-angle the phone image is than the GoPro and Zoom cameras, leaving my head cut off in the shots. This doesn’t matter for the testing here, however. The first video is using the built-in microphone of the mobile phone. I am very positively surprised about how crisp and clear my voice is coming through here. In fact, it is quite similar to the GoPro. The video quality is also very good—clearly, the runner-up after the Sony camera.

And, finally, I connected the SmartLav+ lavalier microphone to the Samsung phone. Here the sound is, of course, very similar to the GoPro recordings.

Conclusion

It is not entirely straight forward to conclude from this testing, but here are some of my thoughts after this very rapid and not very systematic testing:

  • Using on-body microphones (lavalier) greatly improves the audibility as compared to using built-in microphones.
  • The DPA 4060 is great, but the Smartlav+ is more than good enough for interviews.
  • The GoPro could have been a great device for such interviews, had it not been for the skewed image and the clumsiness of the audio adaptor.
  • Unfortunately, even though the Zoom Q8 is the best audio device (as it should!), its video is too bad to be used for such recordings.
  • All in all, I think that the easiest and best solution is the Samsung phone with Smartlav+.