Preserve Old Family Media — 6. Video
Updated: Jun 26, 2020
Preserve Old Family Media
A Six Part Series
Part 6. Videos
Part 1 Restore & Digitize — an overview of: (1) types of old family media; (2) why & how they are being destroyed; (3) why & how they should be properly stored and digitized.
Part 2 - 6 — specific preservation information for each family media type:
Part 2 Photographs — loose and in old albums
Part 3 Paper — handwritten letters, important documents, newspaper clippings etc...
Part 4 Film — negatives & slides
Part 5 Movie Film — film reels
Part 6 Videos — VHS videos & and camcorder videocassettes
1. Family Videos are...
Before the Digital Revolution of the current century, we recorded our still and motion images on some type of film. We used canisters of film strips in our cameras that were processed to produce negatives, slides, and prints. Our home movies were first recorded with movie cameras using film reels... like the movies. BUT towards the end we moved to videoing on magnetic tape housed in cassettes.
We still have plenty of these 'videos' in our homes holding precious memories that we may not have seen in 20+ years. The problem is (1) that over time magnetic film loses it's charge and therefore sound/picture quality and (2) we needed equipment to make the images — camcorders; AND separate 'play-back' equipment to view them — video recorders... do we even still have these??
2. Video Revolution
The introduction of audio and then video magnetic recording in the 1970's, was a revolutionary technological innovation that heralded the demise — like CDs and DVDs did to it, a very short 20 years or so later — of vinyl records & film reels as our GO TOs for home listening and viewing pleasure. In it's heyday magnetic tape had a greater impact on broadcasting than even the invention of radio/TV transmission itself.
Videotape in a large cassette format, meant that we could easily & cheaply watch what we wanted/when we wanted on our TV's at home, and it spawned new professionally recorded video and video store rental market sectors — REMEMBER BLOCKBUSTER?!! There was a format war that was won by JVC's cheaper, more shareable and longer recording time Video Home system (VHS) versus Sony's higher tech savvy but pricier Betamax. By the end of it's era, like TV's, practically every home had a VCR.
Recordings on VHS tapes could be played on any VCR, and "blank" tapes (with the write-protect tab still in place) could be re-used and re-recorded, and LP modes were available to double the recording time at expense of quality.
Even more importantly, VHS tapes became a new tool of documenting our family memories. Compact camcorders, using smaller cassette format tapes, provided higher quality color video and sound, with much longer run-times, than the previous handheld home movie cameras using 8 mm film reels. With these new cameras and videocassette recorders (VCRs), offering 'plug and play', footage could be recorded, instantly 'played-back', and seamlessly watched on our TVs without the need of the cumbersome unpacking and setting up of projector equipment.
During it's short life-span, much like Smartphones today, manufacturers were constantly making improvements to video tape (recording/picture/sound quality...) and camcorder equipment (more compact/higher definition flip-out viewing screens...). By the end there were a range of formats: VHS-C, Hi-8, Video-8, mini-DV... each with a separate camcorder design.
3. Magnetic Tape WILL destruct...
When it comes to VCRs & videocassette tapes there’s a reason that they were so easily displaced by DVD players and discs. Even during the pinnacle of VCR use, there were two opposite reasons to call this technology 'disruptive' — (1) because it was so innovative AND (2) the 'technical' issues !!!... emanating from both the equipment and tape construction. VCRs had so many moving parts... it was a wonder they didn’t break more often and the tapes were quite capable of "self-destructing" all by themselves.
I vividly remember my "little princess's" reaction when these "issues" interrupted her watching (for the umpteenth time) of anything from a Disney Classic such as Sleeping Beauty to a "new release" like Little Mermaid. Tracking issues disrupting the picture with horizontal black bars scrolling up the screen, and audio distortions, could often be fixed with a quick fast-forward/rewind to 're-tension' the tape. BUT sometimes whirring, buzzing and then screeching sounds and a snowy TV screen signalled the destruction of the tape.
The problem is a VCR is made up of a myriad of moving parts — a spinning head, turning drums, winding mechanisms, and flashing lights — offering plenty of opportunities to snag, tear, or otherwise mangle a tape. With malfunctioning videocassette cartridges also getting into the mix.
The Cartridge. The tape is wound onto the tape supply/take-up reels in an 'easy-to-handle' videocassette cartridge with a hinged plastic top flap protecting the tape path. Pushing a VHS tape into a VCR, releases the flap to expose the magnetic surface of the tape to the tape head to be manipulated to record, store and erase data. If this "flimsy" piece of plastic snaps in the machine..... WELL POOF!!!
The Spool Winders. These turn the white gear-wheels on tape cartridges to progress the film at a steady pace. If these get out of sync, the film can slacken or become too taught... TRACKING DISTURBANCE IS ONE THING BUT....
The Rotary Drums. During loading, the tape must be pulled out of the cassette case and threaded around a rotating drum containing the tape head to carry the tape over it to be manipulated... These drums are tilted so that at each rotation of the drum, a new area of tape passes the head. A slight tape imperfection causing it to snag AND.... GOOD LUCK PULLING MANGLED FILM OUT!!!
The Tape Head. A very high head-to-tape speed is necessary to record high bandwidth signals of video, so most systems operate with air bearings separating the tape head from the surface of the drum. This leads to complex and potentially unreliable mechanics. Further, the tape head (being magnetic) physically "rubs off" oxide particles from the tape to 'manipulate' the data. This causes a build-up of oxide on & around the tape head, altering magnetic sensitivity and preventing the head from reading the signal on the tape — SO NOW YOU KNOW WHAT THE CLEANING TAPE WAS FOR!!!?
Magnetic tape is made of three layers engineered to help video tapes survive the friction and stress of repeated playback, winding, and re-winding . The binder layer is a thin, magnetizable — typically (brown) iron oxide — emulsion, usually suspended in the binder along with a lubricant, to reduce damage by the drum and tape head of the playback machine. The substrate layer is a long, narrow plastic strip to which the binder layer is attached with an adhesive. The backing layer provides dimensional stability and strength and helps reduce friction. Despite these efforts, magnetic tape comes with a long list of deterioration issues:
Magnetic Remanence Decay. With age, ALL magnetic particles gradually lose their charge, the rate depends on a number of factors but the consequence is weakening of the tape's readability, leading to reduced sound clarity/volume and picture hue and contrast. Magnetic particles can also be 'accidentally' demagnetized by being stored too near a magnetic source (like an audio loudspeaker) or more likely from demagnetized ("dirty") playback machine tape heads erasing information from the tape! The lubricant in the binder layer eroding with age can also cause wear of the magnetic particles and information loss.
Sticky-shed syndrome. Especially in "older" (1970s) tapes, manufacturer's (before they knew better), were using unstable polyurethane-based binder adhesive formulations. Hydrolysis (water absorption) causes the polymer to breakdown and urethane to rise to the tape's surface . When playing the tape, the reels start making an audible squealing noise. With continued playing the sound can reach screeching pitch. The urethane adhesive makes the tape's surface 'sticky', causing "tear off" of oxide flakes and consequently audio-visual dropouts. Eventually the tape is rendered unusable. The oxide flakes can also damage/stop the equipment by clogging the play heads and guides. In many cases "Baking" the tape can temporarily restore it's function by removing unwanted moisture and temporarily stabilizing the binder, making the tape playable again (sometimes of up to a month) before deteriorating again from further water absorption. HOWEVER, severe cases — where the binder sheds from the base, leaving a pile of dust and clear backing —are un-rectifiable.
Tape stretching from multiple rewinds and playback can cause tracking errors and reduce playback quality. Copying information from one tape to another also causes a certain amount of signal lose with each successive recording.
Self-destruction. ALL magnetic media eventually lose charge. 30 years archival data storage is most often cited by manufacturers for video tapes Unfortunately, "baking" the tape DOES NOT restore magnetic charge ("remanence"). Charge lose means signal loss AND even a 20% signal loss has an impact on the picture quality.
4. How to Store Videos
In terms of preservation, video tapes have one good thing going for them — videocassette cartridges. These protect the tape from some 'media destructive elements' (...dust), especially camcorder cassettes stored in their plastic cases.
Commercial "pre-recorded" VHS tapes usually came in plastic cases, but blank tape cases were only cardboard. Empty plastic VHS cases can still be bought and could be a worthwhile investment to protect precious family memories transferred to VHS tapes from camcorder tapes. or at least store them in an air-tight plastic bin.
For long-term storage, there are some specific video tape temperature and humidity considerations:
Cool, but NOT cold because very low temperatures, cause chemical changes with the lubricant in a video tape's binder layer.
Low relative humidity to prevent hydrolysis (sticky-shed syndrome). Tapes stored in hot, humid conditions are particularly vulnerable to accelerated tape degradation and demagnetization. Like all other media, tapes can also 'grow' mold under these conditions.
Temperature or Humidity fluctuations that repeatedly stress the substrate and backing, (tape stretch problems)
As with ALL Family Media, video-tapes are better off stored in the main part of the house — where temperatures are relatively stable and humidity is under control — than in unregulated attics, basements and garages.
5. Why Family Videos MUST be Digitized.
Family Memories are Priceless
The videos of our families, captured on magnetic tape — some not seen in many years, for lack of the equipment to view them — hold unique insights into our family histories. The stories they tell are worth so much more than the 'plastic' they are stored on. Digitizing these family treasures and backing them up, is the ONLY WAY to truly preserve, fondly relive and lovingly share and pass on poignant family moments.
Magnetic Tape has a shelf-life
Proper storage and NOT playing videos may slow BUT CANNOT STOP the demagnetization of video tapes. This makes them an "at-risk" media with 30 years archival data storage being the widely quoted archival data storage life-time. SO converting old tapes to a digital format is a more pressing task than converting 50+ year old film.
Play-Back Equipment is becoming Obsolete
The mechanical components of playback equipment are prone to age-related deterioration. Even in their heyday, VCRs regularly malfunctioned and "chewed up" tape. Manufacturers of old equipment cease operations and/or stop providing support (parts, technical updates) over the years, for machines that they no longer make.
Digitized movie media can be edited & shared
IF YOU REMEMBER!!! We wasted a lot of footage, training our camcorders on one of the kids for many minutes trying to capture a cute moment. Editing our digitized videos is a great way to consolidate many hours of footage and gives us the best way to easily view and share our collection. The footage can be as simple as 1-2 minutes of highlights, or as involved as an edited down version of our entire tape AND film archive. By clipping out the best footage, we can combine it with images, audio and writing to tell a full family story. By adding effects such as custom transitions, text effects, captions, title slides, music and voice-overs etc... we can make new "one-of-a-kind" digital keepsakes.
5. How to Digitize Videos
While setting-up is a bit more involved than for scanning photos, videocassette tapes can be digitized 'at-home', relatively easily & inexpensively. The condition of the tape can be a factor, but with the availability of original "play-back" equipment (in good working order), and purchase of an inexpensive "video-capture" device, DIY video digitizing IS DOABLE . LIKE movie film conversion, the transfer is an analog process (i.e. 2 hours of tape takes 2 hours) BUT UNLIKE movie film conversion, the picture quality cannot be digitally-enhanced; i.e. it depend on the tape signal strength. So using a professional service will NOT necessarily yield better digitized video results.
DIY Video Digitizing
The play-back equipment needs to be able to play the specific tape type: A VCR (or Betamax) recorder for large-format video tapes; a multi-format tape deck or tape-specific camcorder (VHS-C, Hi-8, Video-8, mini-DV... for small-format tapes. These also need to be format specific : NTSC in the US; PAL in the most of the rest of the world. Do you still have a VCR or original camcorder?
If not maybe you can borrow or rent... and second-hand equipment is still readily available (on E-bay etc..) at a reasonable prices (under $100), although a tape deck (think gigantic "card-reader") will still set you back a bit.
Before starting, check that the equipment is "clean" & in good working order. Do you still have any of those professionally recorded Disney Movie videos to tryout first?
A USB-to-composite video converter
There are plenty of video-converting devices on the market from as low as around $30. The Pinnacle Dazzle & Elegato devices are popular. They are in the $80 range but do include 'easy-to-use' video capture software. These have composite RCA (red, white & yellow) & S-video adapter cables on one end and a USB connector on the other.
NOTE: DV camcorder “tapes” are already digital files and need an IEEE FireWire cable (and a computer with a FireWire port) for transfer.
This needs to meet the "system requirements" of the capture device. Video tranfer is an intensive RAM use & ROM use-up process (file sizes are in 10's to 100's GB size). So the better the processor and more RAM (8GB +) and hard disk space... the better.
As well as making sure that the play-back equipment is in good working order, it is also worth preparing the tapes: dusting any exposed tape, manually twirl the spokes to loosen them up and if necessary, 're-tensioning ' (fast-forwarding/rewinding) the tape.
Then it's just a matter of connecting the computer to the tape play-back equipment via the video-capture device and installing the video-recording software which will walk you through the process. Of course, insert the tape into the recorder, wind/rewind it to where you want to start recording, and when ready, hit Record within the program and Play on your tape player.
A Tip: Taking into account some above mentioned issues (tape tracking, data transfer processing..) ... leaving a 2 hour tape to transfer by itself, and going off to do something else does NOT necessarily represent good time-management. EVEN if the transfer goes perfectly, the resulting (100's of GB) file will be TOO large to do much with (back-up/upload/share/edit etc..). A better option is to start & stop the recording (believe me... there will be plenty of places to do so) to create several smaller, more manageable digitial files AND you can even "skip through" unwanted footage.
A NOTE: There are plenty of HOW TO YouTube tutorials providing audio/visual instructions for every tape type/play-back equipment/video capture device combination.
As I mentioned above, using professional conversion services will NOT yield better digital video results than the DIY method. Where specialist services might be able to help is with rescuing footage from damaged/decaying videocassette tapes.
In the last few years digitizing companies have begun to offer more affordable sliding-scale pricing options, based on the number tapes to be converted. For most tape conversions, this work out at somewhere in the range of $10 - $20 per tape.
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The information presented in this Blog is an accumulation of my own experience and internet searches. I am not affiliated with any of the institutions, services or products that are mentioned.