What is the difference between a Master File and a Delivery File?

Published on April 2, 2019

Just in case you’re not already doing this, I thought I’d share this useful workflow for exporting…

By the way, I’m going to share the process I use, but please keep in mind this isn’t always the right process for everyone. But 99% of the time, it’s the right process for many of us.

Also, I should mention that there’s nothing revolutionary about this workflow. It’s one that people have been using for many years.

But if you’re new(ish) to video production, it’s not always an obvious process. If you don’t know about it, you can accidentally build some bad habits.

Okay, here’s how it works…

Let’s say that you’re done editing your video project, and you’re ready to export. Now what?

Do you simply use the built-in export options in your software to upload to YouTube, Vimeo, or wherever?

Plenty of people do that, but personally I think that’s sometimes a mistake. If you do that, you’ve skipped a very important step: making a Master Video File.

Step One: Make a Master Video File

The first thing I do is export a Master Video File.

I’ve talked about the Master Video File before, but in a nutshell, it’s a full-resolution, full-quality version of the video.

The Master File becomes the source file for other videos you transcode from it.

For example, if I wanted to upload a video to YouTube, I’d start with exporting the Master Video File first. Then I would use software such as Apple’s Compressor, Adobe Media Encoder, or another video compression app to create a new compressed version of the video from the original Master Video File.

So now I have two files: the original Master File (which is likely large because it’s not compressed), and the second file is the “Delivery File”. This is the compressed video I’ll upload to YouTube, for example.

By the way, there’s only one situation where I wouldn’t create a Master video file: That situation is if I considered the video disposable. If I don’t care about retaining it in the future, I won’t bother with a master file. That’s rarely the case though.

Usually if I go through the trouble of editing a video, I don’t consider it disposable.

And yes, the file sizes between the Master File and the Delivery File will likely be very different because the Master File is not compressed, and the delivery file is compressed. The Master File will be enormous. The Delivery File will be much smaller.

Step Two: Make a Delivery File

How do you make the Delivery File?

Each piece of compression software works differently, but generally here are the steps:

  1. Import the Master Video File into the compression app
  2. Pick a preset as a starting point
  3. Change some of the settings as needed
  4. Start the export
  5. Wait (sometimes a long time!)

One of the most common questions that people ask me is “What compression settings should I use?”

Unfortunately that’s not an easy question to answer because the settings change based on the specific video and what you’re trying to accomplish.

For example, if I was creating a Delivery File to upload to YouTube, Facebook, or Vimeo, I would create an MP4 file using the H.264 codec, and I would use a high bitrate because those platforms transcode the videos you upload to them.

That’s an important point, so I’ll repeat it: When you upload a video to YouTube, Facebook, Vimeo, or a number of other platforms, they transcode the videos you upload.

Usually they’ll create several different versions of your video at various quality settings and file sizes. That way the platform can deliver the version of the video that matches the connection speed of their user.

I upload a large file to them because I know that the video is going to be transcoded again. It’s still an H.264 MP4 file because that’s what they like, but I keep the compression settings dialed down. I don’t want that file to be compressed too much.

The video file is minimally compressed because I’m planning for them to compress them further.

But what if I’m not delivering to a web video platform? What if I’m just sending the file to a few relatives?

In that scenario, I would likely create a Delivery File that’s an H.264 MP4 file, but I would crank up the compression settings.

I might turn down the bitrate. I might have the compression software do multiple passes.

My end goal is that I want to have the ideal balance of a smaller file size while still maintaining as much quality as possible.

In a situation like this, file size is important. Most likely I’ll be putting the Delivery File in a Dropbox folder and sharing the link with family. I don’t want the Delivery File to eat too much of my Dropbox drive space.

If I was going to email the video file as an attachment, I would need to compress it even further. Not only would I crank up the compression settings, but I’d probably reduce the frame size as well, so the overall dimensions (and hence the file size) would be smaller.

The Delivery File size will vary based on the duration of the video, the content of the video itself (a lot of movement from one frame to another, for example), and the compression settings I select.

By the way, here’s a big tip when it comes to compressing videos: When you’re testing compression settings, try the settings on a short segment of the video first.

It can take a long time to compress a video, so don’t compress the entire thing when you’re just testing settings.

Once you have settings you’re happy with, then you can compress the whole video.

Also, take a moment to save the settings you like as a Custom Preset. All the compression apps I’ve used will let you save custom presets. This will give you a nice starting point for future videos.

I usually start the compression at the end of the day and let it go overnight if it needs to. My computer is getting a little old, so it can take a while to compress a video.

But that’s okay. I’m in the other room sleeping, so it doesn’t much matter to me how long it takes to create the Delivery File.

Anyway, the next time you’re done editing a video, remember to do the two step:

Step one: Export a Master File first. Step two: Use the Master Video File as a source to create a Delivery file (using a video compression app).

This two step process is a good habit to build.


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