Preparing Videos for YouTube Distribution

Not so many years ago, distribution was the most difficult part of the video-making process. Sure one could create a video, but who would see it? In those days, only a handful of television networks could show a video. Distribution was everything. YouTube changed all that.

Today, distribution is the easiest part of the video process. One simply posts the video to YouTube and within minutes it can be seen anywhere in the world. The power of that is remarkable. Of course, distributing video has nothing to do with its quality or whether anyone will want to watch it. That’s another issue (and another story) entirely.

YouTube now has over one billion global users each month and a greater demographic than any major television network.  In fact, television stations and networks often post their own videos to YouTube, and some TV stations in Houston broadcast live on YouTube after they were flooded. There is no wider distribution system on the planet.

Though posting video to YouTube is simple, posting the best quality video involves a few more decisions. First, make sure your video looks as good as you can make it. That’s a given. At the distribution stage, decide which file format to post so the video will shine online.

Before posting video to YouTube, consider your audience. Is the content targeted at mobile or TV set viewing? The audiences' display device will influence the codec selected.

Before posting video to YouTube, consider your audience. Is the content targeted at mobile or TV set viewing? The audiences' display device will influence the codec selected.

When a video is uploaded to YouTube, the site’s servers begin transcoding the file into streams. These streams allow the video to play on a range of devices, from tiny screens on mobile phones to large 1080p and 4K desktop displays. All video is transcoded at YouTube, so it is best uploaded in an uncompressed state. Otherwise, your video will be compressed twice.

YouTube does not rely on a single codec. Video is encoded to multiple resolutions at varying bit rates. Most of YouTube’s videos have used the H.264/AVC codec, but that is changing with Apple’s recent announcement that their new systems will support H.265. The VP8 codec is sometimes used, while the newer VP9 codec is being used for 4K content. Other codecs are used for compatibility with older devices. For the foreseeable future, expect codecs to be in a state of constant change at YouTube.

As for video formats, YouTube supports MOV, MP4 (MPEG4), AVI, WMV, FLV, 3GP, MPEGPS and WebM. It also supports professional formats like ProRes, DNxHD and uncompressed 10-bit HD video. Of course, with these larger formats, the upload time can be extreme without a super fast internet connection. And, at this level, it is often hard to distinguish between formats.

YouTube supports MOV, MP4 (MPEG4), AVI, WMV, FLV, 3GP, MPEGPS and WebM.

YouTube supports MOV, MP4 (MPEG4), AVI, WMV, FLV, 3GP, MPEGPS and WebM.

The choice of any of these formats must be weighed for their pluses and minuses. MP4 overlaps all the advantages with small file size, high compression rate for high quality and user popularity. MP4 includes two video codecs — MPEG4 and H.264. These are both widely supported, together with AAC (two channel - eight channel) and MP3 as the audio codec. MP4 is most recommended YouTube upload video format.

As to frame rate, keeping the original video frame rate is preferred with 25-30 fps recommended. The recommended resolution is 4:3 (640 x 480) or 16:9 (1280 x 720). When the video is uploaded to the site, YouTube will make it 16:9 or add vertical black bars for 4:3.

YouTube limits the length of a video file to 15 minutes for standard accounts. It means a user can only upload a video of 15 minutes at most. A 2GB video file can be uploaded from YouTube’s webpage, but 20GB is allowed when an up-to-date browser is used.

Although either progressive or interlace scanned video can be uploaded, YouTube suggests converting all videos to progressive before uploading. Progressive scanning offers the best quality video and is highly recommended.

If video quality is a top priority, upload ProRes, DNxHD or uncompressed HD video files. There will be fewer video compression artifacts on YouTube when uploading these professional video formats, as opposed to low bit rate files. But be sure you’ve got the time and bandwidth for the upload. You’ll need it.

At some point though, the visual difference between a ProRes file and an uncompressed file becomes indiscernible. The only real difference is file size. So don’t spend more time uploading than you have to. If time is valuable, an H.264 or H.265 video with the MP4 file format is the way to go. This is YouTube's recommendation.

However you choose to upload a file to YouTube, once you’ve begun the file is locked. You can’t change out the file to increase its video quality later without losing your viewer count information along with any links to your project. The best you can do after the fact is to remove the video entirely and upload a new one.

YouTube’s recommended settings:

Container: MP4 with no edit lists.

Audio Codec: AAC-LC in stereo or stereo + 5.1 with a sample rate of 96khz or 48khz.

Video Codec: H.264

Frame Rate: The same rate the video was captured at.

Bitrate: No fixed bitrates required.

Resolution and aspect ratio: 16:9 aspect ratio at your preferred resolution.

Finally, most professional and amateur video editing applications have settings for YouTube uploads. These include Final Cut Pro X, Premiere Pro and Media Composer, as well as consumer applications like iMovie and Vegas Pro. Use them. It is hard to go wrong.

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