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

Izzy with Video Camera

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.

30 thoughts on “What is the difference between a Master File and a Delivery File?

  1. Izzy,
    I usually create a Master Video but, I received an error 6 message. Wouldn’t you know, it was for a film competition and I wasn’t able to complete the film in time. I still can’t get the file to share. I’ve gone through the step of checking off Prevent App Nap and have had the computer checked for viruses.
    Do you have any thoughts on how to get my Master File to share?

    1. Hi Barbara. Sorry to hear about the issues.

      I’m not an expert in troubleshooting. My recommendation would be to try to contact Apple directly (assuming you’re using Final Cut Pro X or iMovie).

  2. There is got to be an easier way to manage a master file ! Maybe apple (FCPX) can
    come up with an idea to make this process simple and right in final cut pro.

    Best Regards


    1. Hi Dirk. I’m not sure what you mean by “manage a master file”. It seems pretty straight-forward to me to simply export a Master File.

      If you’re referring to the idea of using a separate compression app to transcode the Delivery File, then yes that’s a second step. Apple allows you to create a Delivery version directly form inside Final Cut Pro X, but I think a lot of people skip the Master File step when they use the built-in capabilities.

      I might have misunderstood your comment. Apologies if that’s the case. :)

  3. Hi Izzy,

    I tend to produce the Master file, then just use the ‘Share to YouTube’ feature on FCPX – is that the same as using the Apple’s Compressor app?

    Mike H – Surrey Visuals Ltd.

  4. Izzy, two questions?
    I’m shooting RAW or Prores 422 HQ with a Blackmagic Cinema Camera 2.5k, editing in FCPX (thanks for the excellent video tutorial Btw). What format would you suggest for the master file? I guess your point with the master file is to be able to delete all the original footage which takes up quite a lot of space?

    1. Flemming, I’d recommend leaving the master file at Prores 422HQ because then you won’t be transcoding an extra time.

      And the answer to your second question is that I recommend keeping it all, the master and the original footage and project — if you think there’s any chance you might need to make changes to the edit in the future. It depends on your situation, but the safest approach is to retain everything.

      I’ve had to go back and make changes to videos plenty of times before, and I would have been in real trouble if all I had was the Master file.

      On the other hand, if I didn’t have the Master and all I had was the original footage and project file, then I would also be in trouble because file formats sometimes stop working, or get changed so you can’t open an old project file anymore. That’s one of the main reasons to retain a Master file.

      To save hard drive space, it’s tempting to either choose the original footage and project OR the master, but the safest approach is to retain both.

      Anyway, I hope that helps clarify. :)

  5. I haven’t been posting videos lately, but when I was active on YouTube, I got far better end results when I’d compress the hail out of my video before submitting it. This was especially true when YT was using Flash compression. If I submitted the cleanest, highest-rez video they would allow, their Flash compression would step on my video and the result would be a poor picture and poor sound. But if I submitted a video that was already highly compressed, their Flash compression would do less damage to my masterpiece. I got the best results using the old version of DivX, before they switched to the Matroska container which is not accepted by YT.

    Even now, if it’s gong to be compressed, I’ll trust myself to do the job rather than Y.Tube.

    1. This is a super-interesting comment because it’s exactly the opposite of what most folks recommend. I’m going to have to do some additional experimentation around this. Thanks for the great comment! :)

    1. There are a lot of options out there, but the main ones I’ve used are Apple’s Compressor, Adobe Media Encoder, and Handbrake.

      The fact that you bring up Quicktime makes me wonder if you’re instead referring to the codec and file format. If that’s the case, then the standard on the web right now is an MP4 file encoded with the H.264 codec.

      I hope that helps! :)

  6. Hi Izzy, thanks for your very informative article. I notice you are making the masters in Apple Pro Res and am wondering if I should choose the same option in Final Cut Express? I have exported some masters using Export Movie (the files are large) however if I use Export Conversion and choose Pro Res the files are much larger again. Which should I use? Thanking you.

    1. Hi Ross!

      Yes, I like Apple Prores for masters because I think it will be around for a long time. I highly suspect that 10 years from now I’ll be able to open a Prores file without an issue. So if you have Prores, it makes sense to use it.

      In your setup, if you’re having to use Conversion, then you’re transcoding first which 1) could take longer, and 2) can reduce quality because you don’t want to transcode more times than you really need to. My guess is that you’re editing with the Apple Intermediate Codec in Final Cut Express, so when you do a simple Export Movie, the master is in the Apple Intermediate Codec. I’d probably use that if that’s what you’re already editing in.

      The truth is that that transcoding from AIC to Prores is not going to get you any more quality because you can’t add more quality when you transcode. You can only take quality away. And AIC is likely going to be around 10 years from now too (in my opinion).

      I hope that helps! :)

      1. Thanks very much for writing Izzy. Yes you are correct I am editing in Apple Intermediate Codec in FCE. I think you are right, it will probably be around in ten years so will just use the AIC export as you suggest. Please keep up your terrific educational work for all of out here working on our own. It’s great to know we are not alone!

  7. Hi Izzy. That’s a great article. I never fail to learn from you.
    So now I’m off to learn how to use Compressor.
    Thank you Sir!

  8. Dear Izzy,

    I’ve been making video’s since I bought my first Macbook way back in 2007. My only missing master files are of the first few projects I made. Of those I only have the dvd-copies.
    Since last year I’ve started gathering copies (mostly masters) of all the projects I made and have been putting them on a separate 2Tb hard drive. This drive has only been bought and is only being used for that purpose.
    As you say, you never know when you’ll need some old footage again.
    Thanks for the tip about using the mastercopy in a program like Compressor. I’ll give that a try one of the next weeks and see how it works.


  9. Thanks Izzy – you are so generous with your hints and tips! I haven’t got a lot of time to do videos at the moment but I am saving up all your material and will put it to good use in due course. It’s great having an expert on FCP and related video issues such as GarageBand – your course is great!! Very many thanks from across the ocean in the UK.


  10. I always upload the full resolution/quality masterfile to YouTube without any problems. It takes more time and they add a notification that uploading would go faster when you use their recommended formats, but you don’t have to. In that way, the only compression on the video will be the ones they use.

    Thanks for your always useful tips though!

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