I got a Pioneer DVR-A03 from profeel in July 2001. After that (Dec. 2002) came the DVR-A04 and DVR-A05, which are similar except the A05 can write at 4x (but only on DVD-R blanks marked as "4x" speed). In May 2003 Pioneer announced the DVR-A06 drive, which also features DVD+R and DVD+RW, and in Nov 2003 they announced the DVR-A07 which can write DVD-R at 8x speed. I got an A06 drive which works well.
Warning: In June 2004 I got a Sony DRU-700A burner which consistently produces unreliable DVDs (5 for 5) using premium 4x Taiyo-Yuden DVD-R media, even with the latest firmware (VY05). Each one freezes in the same spot on my Yamakawa DVD-218. Same program, same media, same player is perfect (3 for 3) when burned with the Pioneer A06. I recommend you avoid the Sony drive (actually a Lite-On SOHW-832S).
You can buy a DVD writer from videoguys,
meritline or most local computer
stores, and they're a lot cheaper than they used to be.
The A03 and later drives write on DVD-R and DVD-RW discs. The unit goes into your computer just like a IDE-interface CD-R drive (which in fact it is; in addition to DVD-R/RW it also writes CD-R and CD-RW). Installation of the drive was easy and fast, and the hardware works flawlessly. However, the process of preparing files in the necessary format for writing a valid DVD (the so-called "authoring" process) is not so simple.
So far I have made several 1.5 hour-long DVD productions of dance performances, and also some compilations of shorter projects I had done earlier. For a description of the DVD format and what is capable of, see the bottom of this page. I describe the steps involved in my own DVD production process below.
Note: The files on a DVD disc have the same format regardless of the operating system you use to create them, and also what media you write them on (DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD+R etc). I am using a PC running Windows 2000. If you are using a Mac, from what I've heard, the Apple DVD authoring software is much less complicated to get working than what I have illustrated here. I am not familiar with Macs but there is a Mac-specific DVD authoring forum on 2-pop.com. Apple also used the Pioneer DVD-R drive (then called the DVR-103 in the OEM version) in its first DVD-capable computers in 2001, and as far as I know is continuing to use the Pioneer brand DVD-R drives.
0) Shoot your video. Use the best camera you can, because any noise in the video image will be accentuated by the MPEG2 encoding process. If you can, reduce the "sharpening" in the camera. Most consumer cameras have fixed, built-in sharpening process which looks fine when you make VHS copies, but is less desirable when encoding for DVD.
1) Transfer video on MiniDV tape from camera to computer over Firewire (I use the Canopus DVRaptor card, although cheaper options exist). Large hard drives are useful here; I have two 80 GB Maxtor EIDE drives in a Promise FastTrack100 TX2 array. I see about 50 MB/sec read and write using the Canopus drive test utility.
2) Edit various camera angles together with your video editing software. I used to use Adobe Premiere, but now I prefer Sonic Foundry Vegas 4. Another possibility is Ulead MediaStudio Pro. Most of the new NLEs (non-linear editor = computer video editing) permit you to export your video as a MPEG2 directly using a built-in encoder. This can be convenient, however I prefer the flexibility and control of saving the file as a DV AVI format, and encoding separately. Previously, I had to save each AVI block of about 8 minutes separately, due to a limit of 2 GB per each AVI file. On Windows 2000 with NTFS filesystem (and type 2 AVI files) this is not necessary.
For MPEG2 encoding I use a separate encoder program, see (3) below. It is possible to use external encoders as if they were built-in to your NLE using the Debugmode PluginPac Frameserver for Vegas, Premiere, and MediaStudio Pro. There is also a "bridge" program called Premiere Video Server, described here.
In general I have found the built-in MPEG2 encoders with most NLE software are reasonably fast, but do not generate optimum quality. The program bundled with the DVR-A03 (Sonic MyDVD) can encode MPEG2, but generates disappointing quality video, and is extremely slow as well.
A note on contrast: DV from a MiniDV camcorder, MPEG2 for DVD, and the ITU-R BT.601 (formerly CCIR 601) standard they are based on all specify a digital video brightness level of 16 for black and 235 for white, rather than the 0..255 levels common for computer graphics, JPEGs from digital still cameras, etc.
In CCE, under "Encoder setting->Advanced [Video...]-> "Luminance" you can select [16 to 235] or [0 to 255]. The first setting reduces contrast; the second setting makes no alteration to your levels. For DV material, choose the second setting [0 to 255]. If you choose [16 to 235] the program will assume you've got the full input range (black = 0) and will compress your contrast so your output black = 16, but if you had DV to start with your output blacks will be too light. TMPGEnc has a similar feature: MPEG Setting->Quantize matrix->"Output YUV data as Basic YCbCr not CCIR601" which should be checked assuming DV input source. You can also manually tweek levels with a fine degree of precision using a filter within the TMPGEnc encoder: here's how. With other encoders you're on your own. For more technical detail see the pages at adamwilt.com on Black Levels and White Clip.
3) Convert AVI to MPEG2 with an encoder. (As noted, you can skip this step if you use the built-in encoders.) Warren Young has a review of MPEG2 encoders and other useful information. I have used a few encoders I like: TMPGEnc, CCE Basic, MainConcept, and Ligos LSX-MPEG. The Canopus Procoder does a very good job, but it is about 10x as expensive. TMPGEnc is a standalone program, as is Cinema Craft CCE Basic and MainConcept. LSX-MPEG is sold as either a standalone encoder or an Adobe Premiere plug-in, and is also bundled into Ulead MediaStudio Pro 6.5. The MSP version I have has very few options, so there is little more to describe.
The TMPGEnc program has a huge number of configurable options, start with the provided DVD profile and tweek to suit. vcdhelp.com has some explanation of the parameter settings, and here is a paragraph about the noise reduction filter. The TMPGEnc noise reduction - time axis (temporal filter) does not visibly affect any single frame much, but enables a more efficient MPEG2 encode for noticibly better output quality at any given bitrate. Highly recommended. You can also use an external pre-filtering program if your encoder doesn't offer it, for example virtualdub is quite useful. avisynth is even more powerful, but takes some time to learn.
Bitrate of the encoded video
is the most important factor for video quality. Too small a bitrate
will give bad quality, but too high may give you a file too large for
the DVD. Here is a bitrate
calculator from dvd-hq.info to help (that page has quite a
bit of useful information). I suggest you avoid maximum bitrates above
kbps for best compatibility. For example 8500 kbps can cause
rough-looking playback with many small glitches, if it doesn't actually
lock up the player. Yes, if you are making a "replicated", pressed
commercial DVD you can go up to 9800 kbps,
but DVD-R or DVD+R media is simply not reliable at the higher rates on
many players, especially older ones.
TMPGEnc has the option to de-interlace, but I keep the video in interlaced mode, for best playback on an interlaced TV. One person said that only the older TMPGEnc 12a from jamsoft.com worked with their DV AVI files, but the current TMPGEnc from the official site works well for me.
Note May 1, 2002: The Ligos LSX-MPEG plug-in for Premiere is much faster than TMPGEnc and the quality is at least as good IF you don't tweek TMPGEnc's settings. In Ligos I set VBR mode with 8000 kbps max, and 7000 kbps average (or less, depending how much video I have to fit on the DVD). If you do tweek settings, in particular brightness/contrast and temporal filtering, I find TMPGEnc can look better, and with the video server program it can be used like a Premiere plugin also.
Audio. DVD audio is always sampled at 48 kHz, either uncompressed 16-bit stereo PCM (1.536 Mbps), or compressed (MPEG1 layer 2 or AC-3) with a maximum bitrate of 384 kbps. Technically, a NTSC DVD title must have at least one PCM or AC-3 soundtrack to be compliant with the DVD standard, but in my experience, any DVD players that you can buy today can play MPEG1 audio. I have been told that a few DVD players do exist which don't support MPEG1 level 2 audio. I find that Linear (uncompressed) PCM takes too much of the available bitstream, affecting achievable video quality and playback time. Before 2003 I used MPEG1 layer II audio on my DVDs, but no longer. AC3 (Dolby Digital) encoding is better for playback compatibility as well as audio quality for any given bitrate, but it was too expensive for consumers. Fortunately, now Vegas4+DVD offers AC3 as well as Ulead DVD-Workshop through a separate AC3 plugin. There is a freeware program called BeSweet that generates AC3, but I found its output had playback errors. If you want to try it, there is a guide at dvdrhelp.com.
Here is the TMPGEnc parameter file I used for one DV->MPEG2 encoding project for DVD. You will need to adjust the noise reduction filters and brightness and contrast settings to suit your own material. This is quite important; it makes the difference between mediocre and superior video quality. This page about SVCD encoding has some generally useful information about TMPGEnc as well.
4) Optional. If you encoded many separate
files, you can combine individual MPEG2 files into one longer program,
using the TMPGEnc command
File->MPEG Tools->Merge & Cut.
5) Authoring. Use a "DVD Authoring Tool" to make the final DVD image on your hard drive. In the past this has been tricky, but the authoring software has been improving a lot recently.
I have tried Sonic MyDVD and DVDit, Spruce Technologies SpruceUp, MTC2000 DVD-Motion, Authoringware DVD Junior, ULead DVD Workshop and DVD Plug-In, Sonic Foundry DVD-Author, Mediachance DVD-Lab and Pegasys TMPGEnc DVD Author. I believe that DVD Workshop is currently the best choice among these programs for most users. It has a good user interface and comes with a number of pre-built menu and background templates. It has a built-in preview mode to test-play your disc, navigate menus etc. prior to encoding. It also has a built-in video capture mode and MPEG2 encoder, which works well (but normally I use TMPGEnc or CCE as described above). The current DVDWS ver1.3 can play back AC3 audio (see this note) but you need a separate AC3 plugin pack to encode your own AC3. As of Summer 2002, DVD Workshop was available for free 30-day trial at Ulead's website.
The other choices: DVD-Lab is the new kid on the block- inexpensive and many powerful features, but may not be 100% debugged yet especially with PAL DVDs. If you don't mind testing out beta-level software, definitely give it a try. SpruceUp was basic but quite nice, however, due to corporate acquisitions, neither SpruceUp nor the more primitive DVD-Motion are available anymore. MyDVD has a slick interface but it is functionally quite limited, eg. won't let you use MPEG1 Layer2 audio so it's a non-starter in my book. Ulead has a DVD plug-in, bundled with MSP 6.5. I made a DVD using MSP 6.5's built-in encoder (Ligos LSX-MPEG) for conversion to MPEG2 (good quality) plus the DVD plug-in: it is easy to use, but limited: it permits only one video title with one menu to select chapter points, plus a separate first-play title (with no menu or chapters). Also, the plug-in's chapter-point selector seems buggy: you can manually enter timecodes ok, but it just freezes (permanently) if you try to interactively scroll the slider to select a chapter point. DVD-Lab came out of beta in May 2003 and is an inexpensive option, but check for compatibility before releasing a title with it. TMPGEnc DVD Author is rather basic and does not give you full control over menus. The most complete, full-featured DVD authoring tools are Sonic Scenarist (the professional standard- stunningly expensive, not a consumer item), and Spruce DVD Maestro (also pricey, and no longer sold). Sonic also sells some intermediate tools (below full Scenarist but above consumer-grade): ReelDVD and Scenarist Studio.
In the past I made my DVDs with AuthoringWare DVD Junior which has useable, but quite basic user interface (not as "slick" as some others). Before Ulead's DVD Workshop came out, DVD Junior was my choice of software. The full version of DVD Jr does have additional audio tracks (eg. director's commentary, or second language) and subtitles which DVD WS v.1.3 does not feature. Note, due to FAT32 filesystem limit of 4.2 GB (?) you cannot use quite all of the 4.5 GB of space on a DVD. If you use Windows 2000/ME/etc. with NTFS filesystem, this limit does not apply to you.
6) Having finished authoring your title by inserting chapter points, creating and linking menus and buttons with chapters, you export your finished video program from the authoring software. This creates a DVD file set on one of your hard drives: you will see VIDEO_TS and AUDIO_TS folders. AUDIO_TS contains nothing, it would be used in a DVD-AUDIO type disc. The authoring software converts your MPEG2 files (either elementary audio and video streams, or a pre-multiplexed system stream) to a program stream type with the VOB extension ("video object"), plus some other indexing files (IFO, BUP), all of which go in the VIDEO_TS folder. Many authoring programs are now offering the capability to burn a DVD directly but I wouldn't recommend that. I'd rather test-play my title from the hard drive first before taking the time to make an actual DVD.
7) Use a software DVD player (I find WinDVD is the best) to play your DVD production from disk, testing each menu, title and chapter to ensure your disc will work according to plan. WinDVD 4.0 can play the DVD from a VIDEO_TS folder directly. A player opening just an individual MPEG or VOB file will not show you the menus or correct chapter points.
8) Record the disc. Dust causes errors so make sure the disc is clean before putting it in the DVD burner. Using the Prassi PrimoDVD data writer utility which was bundled with the Pioneer drive, burn the VIDEO_TS and AUDIO_TS folders onto a DVD-R or DVD-RW disc. Prassi offers two variants of UDF Bridge filesystems for writing DVD-R discs, and I believe they both work. The A03 is a true 2x speed drive writing DVD-R, and it takes 28 minutes start to finish, to burn my larger DVD project (which used about 90% of the full available space on the disc). It is only 1x speed when writing DVD-RW, and 8x speed writing CD-R. Note that it is apparently only 1x if you use unapproved off-brand (cheaper) DVD-R media. I know it does work at 2x speed on Apple and Pioneer brand.
9) Insert finished disc in your DVD player and cross your fingers. So far I've burned about 60 DVD-R discs, mostly for my dance group. The home standalone DVD players generally work, even several year-old ones. Several older laptop DVD drives did not play. All the standalone players I tried at the local Fry's Electronics store worked on DVD-R (about 10 different models). Many players do show a brief glitch, for example a small blocky area for a few frames on any given disc, typically the areas with highest bitrate (fast motion). Often this is acceptable but be forewarned. You may be able to avoid this by restricting yourself to lower bitrates, for example 7 Mbps max.
This page has a list of players reported to be compatible with DVD-R, DVR-RW and DVD+RW media. The DVR-A03 writes DVD-R and DVD-RW (plus CD-R and CD-RW) but not DVD+RW or DVD+R. There is a review of DVD format and player compatibility published in the July 2002 issue of DV Magazine. They note that brand-name discs are more widely compatible than the cheaper no-name type, and DVD-R is more widely readable than DVD-RW or DVD+RW.
10) Labels: I would like to make nice
printed labels to give a professional appearance to the product, but
there are several
problems. One, the manufactures of blank discs don't recommend it,
claiming potential readback problems. Two, the clear labels I tried had
a problem. There are several
possible approaches, including a surprisingly inexpensive printer from
(see these notes). [4/2004] Epson now
makes several printers (Photo 900, Photo 960, R200, R300) which can
print directly on white coated "inkjet-printable" CDs and DVDs and the
results look very good. But be careful, a damp finger can smudge the
NOTE! (05-31-2003) According to a Maxell representative, the "Maxell unbranded 2x DVD-R" media sold in 2003 by Meritline is not a genuine Maxell product. I have some more details here.
NOTE! (9-17-2002) If you have a Pioneer DVD drive including the DVR-A03, DVR-A04 and the "Superdrive" used in Mac computers, you must install this firmware update before using any 4x DVD-R or 2x DVD-RW media in your drive, or risk permanent hardware damage. This does not apply to the earlier 1x or 2x DVD-R media.
Ralph LaBarge, writing in DV Magazine did an excellent compatibility test using many different vendors of DVD-R and many different DVD players. He found DVD-R blanks from Maxell and TDK had the best compatibility with players, and generally speaking the cheapest brands (or no-name discs) were the worst performers. The full DVD Compatibility Test is online (free registration required.)
I have tried Taiyo-Yuden, Pioneer, Apple, Mitsui, Maxell, Ritek, and Meritline DVD-R media. The Mitsui brand did not work in most DVD drives I tested, the others worked almost everywhere. When you're testing different brands for playback, make sure that dust on the disc is not an issue. You can buy DVD-R media online from places like supermediastore or meritline.com.
Note, the Pioneer 103 and A03 DVD-R writers will only work at 2x speed with those specific brands of DVD-R media present on a list encoded in the firmware as acceptable for 2x speed writing. Apple and Pioneer brand work at 2x, many others (typically the "cheap" brands) are actually written at 1x speed. Pioneer does have a recommendation on which DVD-R brands to use for 2x burning: as of June 2002 they are: Pioneer, Verbatim, TDK, Mitsui, Maxell, Taiyo-Yuden, and Panasonic.
Note that Apple's new version of their DVD-R which I discovered on June 22 2002, needs updated firmware on the A03 to burn at 2x. The exterior packaging of a box of 5 is identical to the older version. I hate it when manufacturers do that. Anyway with the new firmware it burns at 2x and so far, it seems to play back just as well as the older type.
There are two types of DVD-R discs: General and Authoring. The Pioneer DVR-A03 drive writes only to DVD-General disks. The earlier, much more expensive Pioneer DVR-S201 drive writes to DVD-Authoring discs, which permit writing of extra data that a DVD replication house can use to generate the CSS (content scrambling system) data on the final discs.
DVD Compatibility: not perfect.
After making about 60 DVD-R discs and playing them on a number of different systems I have observed that about 90% of the players will work. That is to say, they appear to play the disc normally. BUT, half of those players will very occasionally show some blocky "glitches" on the video, due to playback errors. DVD-R media is not as reflective as standard silvery commercial DVD discs so the player has to work harder to read it, and there is a greater liklihood of errors particularly with fast-scan FF or REV play modes. Some players are "marginal" in that they play maybe half the DVD-R discs loaded and refuse to play others, even identical DVD-R media from the same box burned with the same video using the same program on the same hardware, or sometimes refusing to play the very same disc they played before. Go figure. For some reason, laptop computer DVD drives seem to have the most problems. Desktop PC DVD drives and standalone players seem better. I have found Pioneer brand DVD drives and standalones to be the most reliable (Pioneer was also the first to make a consumer DVD-R burner.)
DVD Quality. How good is it, really?
This is entirely dependent on your source material and your MPEG2 encoder. Noise does not compress well, so the video noise-reduction filter in TMPGEnc can help. Many encoders, for instance the one bundled with the A03 drive, produce disappointing quality. TMPGEnc at the 8000 kbps rate provides good results. With close attention you can see some difference and occasional slight artifacts on the DVD as opposed to the original DV material. Examining individual freeze-frames from fast motion sequences, the difference is quite obvious. Any time you change compression formats, you will have loss, but from the standpoint of a casual observer, I would say there is really little difference from DV original to MPEG2 on DVD.
My DVDs are clearly not as good as a Hollywood product. Apart from the production values and film quality itself, a 24 frame/sec image compresses better than a 60 field per sec. image. I have not done any hard-edged graphics, everything was slightly blurred for a cleaner look in the original DV. In general, still frames on the DVD look great; it's fast motion that shows the limits. It is definitely better than SVHS.
You can find out exactly how good a DVD will look (on a computer player, at least) right now, without spending any money. Just download the TMPGEnc encoder and compress some of your favorite DV footage to MPEG2, limiting yourself to 8000 kbps video bitrate. You can use the free trial version of WinDVD for display. It will only play back 5 minutes at a time but that's fine for this purpose. (WinDVD does on-the-fly deinterlacing for computer display, which works pretty well.)
Again, all the encoding affecting image and audio quality is done by TMPGEnc (or other MPEG2 encoder). The authoring software really just does stream multiplexing, formatting and menus in compliance with the DVD spec, and the DVD writer, while expensive, is simply a data transfer device. Video does show better colors on a good video monitor than a computer monitor, but if you have a S-video output on your PC card, you can connect a television monitor directly.
Can I use the DVR-A03 for general data backup, not just DVD video?
Yes, the Prassi PrimoDVD 2.0 application works just like (and in fact, is) a CD-R burner utility, which can also write DVD-R and DVD-RW discs. You can select any files and folders on your hard drive, or drag-and-drop them onto the program. DVD-R and DVD-RW discs each store 4,489.25 MB (that is 4,707,319,808 bytes, because 1K = 1024 bytes). The DVR-A03 also writes CD-R and CD-RW media, which stores about 650 or 700 MB per disc depending on the type.
My Pioneer DVR-A03 or DVR-103 is giving me strange errors when writing a disk.
Is Prassi PrimoDVD or other CD-R/DVD-R burning software giving you
errors like these?
DVD Technical Info
Broadly speaking, the DVD format offers the best audio and video quality generally available to the consumer, and also provides menu features not possible with tape-based media. This paper describes the features of the DVD format in general, but only a subset of these are currently available using authoring software affordable to consumers. There are two books often recommended for detailed DVD information: "DVD Demystified" by Jim Taylor and "DVD Authoring and Production" by Ralph Labarge.
The help file for "Mark's DVD Tray Player" contains an excellent reference for DVD structure and navigation commands, aimed at the DVD author, and Mark's Player itself is useful for testing and analysing your DVD. You can read about this software here. The dvd-replica.com site has a detailed view of DVD internal structures useful if you are doing complex authoring tasks. The DVD FAQ has a section on recordable DVDs and writers. In April 1996, Chad Fogg posted some technical notes to several newsgroups on the DVD specification and file formats, which are still the most detailed I've seen. You can find mostly the same information here at www.mpeg.org. dvdpro.com describes the packet structure of the DVD VOB files. This Pioneer website has a high-level overview of the DVD format.
Get answers to your DVD authoring questions at the Creative COW forum. You can find DVD authoring guides at dvdrhelp.com. The mpucoder site has some detailed information on DVD stream coding and also the freeware programs IfoEdit and VobEdit, which can display and even alter finished DVD project files at a very low level (the interface is similar to the Windows Registry Editor, and about as opaque if you aren't well versed in DVD file structures). At the lowest level, the flow of a DVD presentation is controlled by a command set which tells the player what video segment to present next. This site has a handy table of the DVD command set.
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