Video Archiving – Part 1

The aim of this post is to pass on my experiences of converting old analogue video tapes to digital media for archiving and sharing.  And to encourage you to convert yours before it’s too late.

As genealogists we pay a lot of attention to archiving, copying and repairing old material such as photographs, certificates and other old family documents.  I think what we tend to miss is the more recent material that is decaying, perhaps quicker than we realise!  Video tape is a prime example – It is now thought by many experts that magnetic tape has a lifespan of 10-20 years.  My oldest VHS tape is from 1983 – That’s 28 years old!  And my oldest Hi8 tape from 1992, that’s 19 years old.  Time to start worrying.

If video tapes are not stored correctly then their lifespan can be considerably less than 10 years.

The lifespan for the common magnetic tape formats such as VHS and Hi8, as used by video camera’s and camcorders of the 80’s and 90’s, is a cause for concern.  Personally I have many video tapes of both types containing valuable family archive material – we are talking here of grandparents, parents, children, etc., some who may not now be with us!  Video gives far more to the family archive than photographs, as here we have relatives that are moving, talking, laughing, playing, singing, and so on.

This material must be preserved – URGENTLY.

Typical VHS & Hi8 Tapes

Apparently VHS tapes will wear out a little every time they are played.  If tapes are not stored and handled correctly they will also degrade.  

The magnetic particles that make up video tape will change their properties and become unstable over time.  

These particles will be affected by humidity, temperature swings, pollution, sunlight, and even other magnetic fields such as those from loud speakers.  The tape itself should never be touched and dust particles need to be excluded from the storage box/area.

There are lots of stories on the video forums of people trying to recover video from old tapes that have failed for one reason or another, I did not want to be one of them, so I recently set about archiving my family video footage.

Before we go off converting all our tapes to DVD lets first consider the lifespan of DVD discs – Manufacturers claim minimum lifetimes of 50 years for DVD-R’s and 25 years for DVD-RW’s.  However this lifespan refers to top quality discs and the assumption that they are in turn stored correctly.  This was my first dilemma – how store my new digital video’s without ‘breaking the bank’.  I will cover this in part 2.

So what did I do?  First I need to find the tapes, they were in the attic where they had been (degrading) for the past 8-10 years!  I also found my old Panasonic VHS Player and Sony Hi8 Camcorder in the attic, neither of which had been used since moving house 6 years previously.

Wanting to see video’s from long ago and make sure that they were ok I eagerly plugged the VHS player in to the 42″ TV and switched it on, inserted a VHS tape from 1983 and ……..nothing!!  The VHS deck refused to work; apparently I had been storing it in the wrong conditions!  After investigating I found that most of the drive bands had deteriorated (stretched).  The thing was useless, so I quickly ejected the tape and put the Panasonic in the bin.

My Ancient Sony V600 Hi8 Camcorder

Not to be deterred I next plugged the Sony Camcorder into the TV, inserted a Hi8 tape from 1992 and ………..lots of whining and groaning so I quickly ejected the tape.  

Guess what? Yes I had the same problem with the Camcorder as I had with the VHS player.  Both now in the bin!  This was a mistake as I could have sold both for spares on eBay.

My next move was to buy a working VHS player on eBay – For £24 I picked up a Sony SLV-SE830; a very nice VHS player.  As soon as it arrived I tested that it with an old movie tape, it worked a treat.  I now inserted my 1983 tape again and …………..more problems, lots of moving interference lines and picture judder.  At this point I was begging to think that my tapes had deteriorated somewhat.

Rather than resort to professional help I started to look for help on the many Video Forums.  It transpires that there are VHS players and VHS players!!  Different brands of VCR’s handle tapes differently, black and white levels vary widely, and frame dropping can be a big problem.  Also unknown to me I found out that video tapes actually contain far more quality data than the average home VCR can read, how many people know that?  For best results playing back VHS tapes you need a professional deck (but they are very expensive)!  I noted that my problem had been experienced by many other people on the forums, I discovered what I needed was a VHS player with TBC (Time Base Correction).   

Time base correction is a technique to reduce or eliminate errors caused by mechanical instability present in analogue recordings on mechanical media.

S-VHS (Super VHS) VCRs are generally the best at this task. 

Super VHS VCRs have internal time-base correctors, as well as better heads and transport mechanisms, which means they are capable of projecting a clearer and more noise-free video picture.  They also tend to have video processors that can clean up the image.  My new Sony VCR did not have this TBC so it went back on eBay.  I then purchased (on eBay) a JVC S-VHS HR-S7965EK


I connected up the new VCR, used its default setup and inserted my 1983 tape – what a difference!  A super picture and no interference (remember to switch your 42” wide screen TV to 4:3 mode). 

And a BIG sigh of relief

Rather than go through all these headaches I could have taken the easy way out.  Purchase one of the many VCR/DVD machines that converted VHS tapes to DVD with no intervention.  But after reviewing what they did to the data I decided that I wanted more control over the format of video storage, also the abilty not to lose any inherent quality, and to be creative with my own DVD structure (menu’s, etc).  This was important for me as a responsible genealogist to have a more professional approach to archiving my valuable “moving family history”

Things were now starting to look better, so the next step is to get the video from magnetic tape and on to my desktop computer.  
I will cover this in part 2.
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3 thoughts on “Video Archiving – Part 1

  1. Tony,
    Thanks for stopping by my blog (Family Matter). Also, you've just reminded me why I've got to find some time to transfer some VHS tapes. I've done this using Roxio software. I was successful but it is very time-consuming.

  2. You indicated that your video captured through the Canopus was uncompressed. Canopus captures to DV which I believe is a compressed format. Probably ok given your tape is only svhs, but you'd need to use something like a blackmagic intensity pro card and captur to uncompressed avi to get the best capture.

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