Making your own DVDs*

by John Beale  Beale Corner Productions  July 2001...May 2007
Shoot Transfer Edit Encode Author Test Burn Test Again Labels Cases Q&A Standalones Copying Playback Tech info

*standard definition or "traditional" DVDs. For true high-def Blu-Ray authoring  you will need some authoring
software such as Roxio DVDit Pro HD and a Blu-Ray burner like the LG GGW-H20L. Note: Blu-Ray media is not cheap.

    1) Shoot your video. Use the best camera you can, use adequate lighting, and keep the camera stable. Any noise in the video image will become more visible in the encoding process. Shaky video does not compress well. Better cameras (eg. "prosumer" models) have an adjustable "sharpening" control and it is important to set this appropriately- in particular, don't set it too high. Optimal recording sharpness intended for VHS playback to an old TV is different from what you want for DVD playback on a good modern set.

    2) Transfer video on MiniDV tape from camera to computer over Firewire. If your computer doesn't have a built-in firewire port, you can get an IEEE-1394 (firewire) adaptor card for under $100. Look for OHCI on the card, which is the card->PC driver interface that most PC software expects. Video from your MiniDV camera runs about 13 GB per hour, so large hard drives are useful. If you are doing editing, expect to use 3x the disk space occupied by just the raw input files.

If you're transferring from an old VHS tape, you need either a video capture card or a MiniDV or Digital8 camera with A/V inputs. Many (not all) camcorders have a "pass-through" mode that takes audio and video in from the VCR and puts the video out through firewire to the PC.

Windows ME and XP come with Windows Movie Maker which can record from firewire, or you can use other NLE software, or programs like Scenalyzer or DV Rack to capture video via firewire.

    3) Edit the video with your NLE (non-linear editor) software. Good editing is the difference between boring home movies that no one wants, and exciting video that captures your attention. Good editing takes a significant amount of time, one reason that good videographers (ahem) charge what they do for production.

Adobe, Canopus, MainConcept, Pinnacle, Sonic, Sony, and Ulead among many others make NLE software. Videoguys and B&H Photo-Video are online vendors carrying many of these. EditStudio from Puremotion seems to be a good value in the lower price range. I previously used Adobe Premiere and Ulead Media Studio Pro, but now I prefer Sony Vegas for power and ease of use. Windows Movie Maker is a free download if you use Windows XP.  

    4) Encode Most of the new NLEs permit you to export your video as a MPEG2 directly using a built-in encoder; this is fast but not necessarily the best. I prefer the flexibility and control of saving the file as an AVI in DV or Sony YUV format, and encoding separately. I use Canopus ProCoder Express. 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.

Be careful about levels: you may find your final MPEG2 is darker, or brighter, or shows more or less contrast than your original file when played on the same screen. The problem usually has to do with the difference between DV video where "black" is 16 and "white" is 235, and computer standards where black is 0 and white is 255. You may not have a problem but be aware of this possibility, check your output to be sure, and adjust if needed. For more technical detail see the pages at on Black Levels and White Clip.

Filtering video before encoding can give you better encodes if the signal is noisy (eg. dark room, or copy of old VHS) or you are trying to compress 2 hours or more onto one DVD. You can 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.  Here is an example script for Avisynth 2.56 that I used for filtering a downconverted HDV clip which had slightly noisy dark pixels, but clean lighter pixels.  Vegas 6d does not seem to do conversion of HDV 1080i material to SD 480i, because the result looks progressive rather than interlaced regardless of the settings of the project or the output file.  So, I export 1080i using the DebugMode frameserver and use this script for Avisynth to convert 1080i to 480i.

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 to help (that page has quite a bit of useful information). I have had good luck with maximum video bitrates of 9300 kbps or lower.

Audio. DVD audio is sampled at 48 kHz, in any of several formats: linear PCM, MPEG1 layer 2, AC3, or DTS. Although 20 and 24 bit 96 kHz L-PCM is valid, it normally takes up too much space and bitrate to be practical. A valid NTSC DVD title should have at least one PCM or AC-3 soundtrack. I prefer AC3 (aka Dolby Digital) for best quality vs. bitrate. Vegas6+DVD offers AC3, as do other mid-level authoring applications. There is a freeware program called BeSweet that claims to generate AC3, but I found its output had playback errors. If you want to try it anyway, there is a guide at

    5) Author the disc. Implementing menus, chapters and other features, and converting the input MPEG-2 files into the DVD standard file structure is called authoring the DVD. I have used ten different authoring programs over the years, most of them now obsolete. For most users I would probably recommend software from Ulead or Sonic that has a friendly user interface and hides much of the underlying complexity. I have used DVD-Lab Pro which has excellent features and low price, but you really want to have or acquire some knowledge of DVD authoring before using it. Currently I use the Sony "DVD-Architect Pro" tool which is sold along with Vegas Pro. The most complete, full-featured DVD authoring tool is Sonic Scenarist (the professional standard- stunningly expensive, not a consumer item). Sonic also sells some intermediate tools (below full Scenarist but above consumer-grade): ReelDVD and Scenarist Studio.

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 in a folder called VIDEO_TS. 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.

Note about copy protection and region codes: Hollywood studios created region codes so DVD titles could be released in stages in different parts of the world. Consumer-level DVD authoring applications can only generate "region-free" or uncoded DVDs that (should) play anywhere, except for the NTSC vs PAL format difference. CSS and Macrovision copy protection is also not available for consumer authoring, but it seems of little interest anyway. Software that will "rip" protected DVDs is very widespread. 

   6) Test the DVD project. Using a software DVD player like WinDVD I play the DVD production from disk, testing each menu, title and chapter to ensure the disc will work according to plan. When considering design issues, remember TV screens are more fuzzy and reproduce color differently than computer screens.

    7) Burn or record the DVD. I have used several DVD burners starting with the Pioneer DVR-A03 in 2001. Currently (Sept. 2005) I am using a Plextor PX-712A and a BenQ DW1640 in my PC to burn DVDs. Plextor has had a reputation for high quality (and price). BenQ is not necessarily any worse, and costs less. These units have EIDE connectors like hard drives, and mount inside the computer. You can also get external burners using USB2 or firewire connections.  New DVD burners are released all the time, so these models may not be available now. You can find reviews of the latest models at the cdfreaks website.

The Plextor is an 8x drive, the BenQ is 16x. I am currently using Taiyo Yuden 8x and 16x media, but I alway burn at 8x as that gives better quality when testing the readback error rate. The difference is not visible during normal playback since the errors are corrected in the drive. However, most people agree the best possible initial recording is key to media compatability and longevity, and it may also improve fast-forward or reverse playback. I like to use a DVD-RW disc for initial player tests, before committing to read-only DVD-R media. Dust causes errors so make sure the disc is clean before putting it in the DVD burner. I use Nero 6.6 for burning DVDs. It can write to multiple burners at once for better efficiency. If you get into huge volumes, you can get automated DVD duplicators, eg. from Primera that take a stack of 50 or more DVDs and run continuously.

    8) Test Again Insert finished disc in your DVD player and see what happens. Check that menu navigation and chapters are working. Can you read the text on the TV screen? Was your menu font and background color well chosen?

So far I have burned over 500 DVD-R discs; most being projects of 50 pieces or less. Compatability with user's player has been generally good with isolated exceptions; see this for details. I recommend sticking to trusted brands and trusted vendors of same. In the July 2002 issue of DV Magazine, Ralph LaBarge notes 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.

    9) Labels DVD media manufacturers recommend against adhesive labels. For cleanly printed labelling, you can use thermal-transfer printers like the Casio (see these notes) or inkjet-printable DVDs with Epson Photo 900, Photo 960, R200, R300 etc. or the HP lightscribe discs and burners. I have found the Epson inkjet printer approach to work well, since I get full disc coverage and full color. The color is not as vivid as it is on photo paper, due to the dull disc surface. TDK has announced PrintOn glossy white photo-quality printable DVD-R media but I haven't tried it yet.

    10) Cases Most of the DVD boxes sold look similar, but have slight variations in the design of the hub capture system and some work better than others. I like the black case sold by Rima, except for the weak one-catch hub. For a better looking, upscale case alternative, check out JewelBoxing. They have some great design examples, demonstrating DVD packaging can go farther than you may have realized.

Logos on commercial DVDs usually include trademarks such as the widely recognized DVD-Video logo and the Dolby Digital logo. To use these trademark logos on products offered for sale, they must be licensed. Dolby Digital requires preapproval of your soundtrack and packaging materials. The DVD logos including DVD-R and DVD-Video requires first article testing at a Class A Verification Lab as well as a licensing fee that puts it into the realm of studios and disc replication companies, not individuals.

DVD Authoring Questions

Q:  I've downloaded some video in the .mov, .flv, and .ivr formats. What format should I convert them to, so I can play them on the progressive scan DVD player hooked to my TV?

A. Remember that a DVD is not simply a collection of data files. The video must be in one of certain very limited MPEG formats (often MPEG-2 720x480 for NTSC) but it must also be "authored" so the filesystem, formats, files and file structure is all compliant to the DVD spec. For this you need a DVD authoring program, as available from (for example) Adobe, Sony Creative Software, ULead, Pinnacle, Roxio, Mediachance etc.  See also: Wikipedia: DVD_authoring

Stand-alone recorders: Why bother with all these steps when you could just press "record"? There are a number of stand-alone DVD recorders that record input video direct to a disc (often DVD+RW), either live or from an internal hard-drive recorder. Some have firewire inputs. They give you immediate results but have very limited and cumbersome editing, and fixed menu structure (or none at all). I tried a Philips HDRW720-17 DVD recorder but returned it when I found the video quality at any bitrate to be noticibly worse than my computer DVD productions. Not everyone is as picky as me, and some people find these recorders invaluable.

Copying: DVDs produced by consumer authoring programs are not protected, so that anyone with a DVD burner can simply copy the entire thing onto another disc. Pressed DVDs from Hollywood studios use CSS and Macrovision protection methods, but there are many programs available that will copy even these protected DVDs with one click. If you want the copyright on your work to be observed, practically speaking my best advice is to maintain a good relationship with your customers. Also use well-designed packaging, disc surface printing, cover art and inserts to support the idea that your original DVD is something of value to be respected.

DVD Playback: Does it work today? Will it work tomorrow?

Compatability:   In 2002 Ralph LaBarge's report in DV Magazine (also available here) found DVD-R blanks from Maxell and TDK had the best compatibility with players. In general the cheapest brands (or no-name discs) were the worst.  In 2005, these NIST talk slides on DVD+/-R/RW report the best media tested was 100% compatible with players. "No significant difference" was found in compatibility between +R and -R, and R vs RW. Across the market, DVD compatibility in playback is 91%, and 98% if you don't use the last 10% of disc space at the outer edge. It is advisable to use the latest burner firmware, and only use media recommended by the burner manufacturer for your specific model.  This test report from (April 2006) shows error rates with the Prodisc R05 DVD+R was acceptable with all five burners tested,  while the MCC 03RG20 DVD-R was acceptable on only two out of five burners. This site has additional brand quality rankings.  Here are my measured error rates for the DVD-R media I have used. I found that Taiyo Yuden 8x media gives better results than 16x media on my particular BENQ drive.  Before recording, make sure that dust is not an issue.

Longevity:   DVD is still new and no one really knows how long they will last. In 2002, Rohan Byrnes carefully documented pinholes forming in the reflective Al layer of commercial, pressed DVDs. This is apparently a very rare fault related to manufacturing issues at specific pressing plant(s) which has since been addressed. I has seen some incidents of DVD-R media becoming unreadable over time, mostly on cheap "no-name" media, or counterfeit media.   Unfortunately I found one Maxell DVD-R went bad after just 3 years of normal shelf storage.  For best lifetime, use good quality DVDs stored vertically in hard cases (not envelopes or wallets that can bend or scratch) in a cool dry place, away from sunlight and noxious fumes. Here are some disc handling guidelines and more detailed info.

A Gold Standard?   Recordable DVD media typically uses silver or silver alloys as the reflective layer, but MAM-A and Delkin are currently offering so-called archival gold DVD-R with a reflecting layer of 24 karat gold. This media costs up to 10x more than regular DVDs. It is not yet clear what archival means in this context, but the US standards lab NIST and the industry group OSTA are currently working on a set of qualification tests that would give a defined meaning to "archival quality grade" media. See also the 2004 NIST report and OSTA presentation on optical media stability.

Fixing DVDs  If you keep your DVDs in paper sleeves (or worse, mail them in paper sleeves) they will get scratched. Eventually, they may get scratched enough not to play reliably. Since the data layer is in the center of the media (0.6mm below the surface) it is not affected by surface scratches. You can restore the disc so it plays again by smoothing or polishing out the scratch. One method uses non-wax furniture polish (eg. Pledge), see this guide. You can also buy expensive special products like Proline DiscGuard 2(tm).  I bought a bottle; I'm not an expert but to me it looks, smells, and works like furniture polish.

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. There are two books often recommended for detailed DVD information: "DVD Demystified" by Jim Taylor and "DVD Authoring and Production" by Ralph Labarge. Jim also maintains the extensive DVD FAQ.  There is some information about HD-DVD from the DVD Forum and from Microsoft,  and there is some discussion about Blu-Ray from this Blu-Ray forum site.

PgcEdit is a comprehensive freeware tool for studying, debugging, and modifying a compiled DVD project (may be difficult for a beginner to use). 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 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 describes the packet structure of the DVD VOB files. This Pioneer website has a high-level overview of the DVD format. Here are the physical specs of DVD-R from MAM-A.

Get answers to your DVD authoring questions at the Creative COW forum. You can find DVD authoring guides at 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.

There is an older version of this page still online with more references to now-obsolete hardware and software.

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