Goodbye, VHS

Metres and metres of half-inch tape

Or: R.I.P. V.H.S. – part III 

Farewell, VHS. The time has finally come to lay you to rest.

I remember the day when we happily welcomed you into our home. It was 1989, and you were all grown up by then.

You were built your very own little nook, hidden away from those evil magnetic fields, the harsh rays of the sun, and the prying fingers of unwanted visitors. We dressed you up in hand-made clothing. People admired the custom covers made just for you.

Yes, VHS, you were well cared for. In return, you gave us many hours of viewing pleasure — as and when we chose.

While you helped unshackle us from the constraints of scheduled TV programming, you were also able to gleefully swallow the superior dish that was digital satellite television and afterwards regurgitate those same morsels in such a manner that they were still nutritious (although less tasty) with each play. You were entrusted with the safe-keeping of mass-market entertainment, historical artefacts, and unique personal memories. And when that wasn’t enough, we went out to a store to get you more media to nibble on — although, admittedly, binging on five “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies in one sitting was quite a bit to swallow.

But you knew the end was close at hand. You saw it coming. By the beginning of the new millennium your functions were reduced to gathering dust and telling the time as a new generation of shiny, digital offspring took your place in both purpose and prime shelf space. Nobody noticed that you had quietly starved in an old-age home – nor could we be bothered to scoop up your remains. Until now.

It was April 2014 that everything related to VHS was rounded up for the final curtain call of a play dubbed “VHS2AVI”.

Now, if you’re not interested in reading about some guy’s advice following his VHS conversion project, then leave now. Go away.

Dodgy Panasonic NV-FJ620 VCR

My Panasonic VCR (#3 since 1989) was getting a little long in the tooth, so I was given an extra Sharp VCR as backup (thanks, Martin). Another colleague donated a video capture device (thanks, Rolf) while another had placed his old media player into my care (thanks, Cenk). After a lot of reading up and experimentation with different capture-, editing- and conversion software (thanks, Internet), the VHS digitisation project was ready to begin.

Quite unlike with ripping audio cassettes, it’s the data that determines your hardware requirements:

1. A computer with plenty of horsepower and disk space: Really, I mean it!

While the capturing process itself only placed a <20% load on the CPU, there were times during the final format conversion and cleaning/filtering process where even the 3GHz Pentium 4 with 1GB of RAM running WinXP SP3 assembled for this project was put to its limits. Video is huge – you’ll want the most powerful and modern machine you can spare.

2. Something to record with: You’ll get as many “expert” opinions about the best software to use as you get metres of tape on an E180 cassette. What can be regarded as universal gospel is that VirtualDub is the freeware gold standard when it comes to recording analogue video. There’s no harm in giving whatever software came with your capture device a try either (you should expect it to work) whereas casual users might be happy with the simple AVS Video Recorder. Even Microsoft’s free “Windows Media® Encoder 9 Series … powerful production tool for converting both live and prerecorded audio and video into Windows Media files or streams” might do the trick for you, but like I said: VirtualDub comes highly recommended and is available for many platforms.

One word of advice, though: Record raw, naked, and uncompressed. What you do not want is unsynchronised audio/video or dropped frames.  Having too many filters while recording on an under-powered machine will cause exactly that, and the results are more frustrating than funny. Remember that video is huge!

3. Something to record to: Uncompressed video at standard VHS “resolution” of 720 × 576 px at 25fps (PAL) takes about 1GB of space per minute.

Yes, that’s about 100GB for an average movie! Since I generally processed only one video tape at a time this worked well in the beginning — until you start capturing only select pieces of a recording to be edited and merged with another recording later, and with all those temporary little snippets around you’ll soon run out of space. The 80GB + 160GB hard drive combination eventually gave way to an 80GB + 400GB combination, sometimes supplemented by an external USB drive. Disk space? Oh yeah, you’ll want acres of it.

Also: Contrary to some experts’ advice, I actually got some decent results when capturing (shoehorning) straight into de-interlaced 640 × 480 or even 352 × 288 resolutions (depending on content, purpose and original quality — see point 7 below).

4. Something to record via: There are numerous types and brands of capture devices on the market, ranging in price and quality from dirt cheap and shitty USB devices all the way to professional-grade and horribly overpriced rack-mounted solutions.  ATI All-in-Wonder graphics adapters are said to be a great middle-ground. Since I’m a cheap bastard, the Geniatech Handy Cap Video Grabber USB 2820 Device I was donated became my tool for the task, and guess what? It worked just fine: my captured videos look about as good or shitty as the original VHS tapes from whence they came. It did the job.

5. You may additionally need something to record through: Macrovision (ACP) was a copy-protection scheme that operated on the basis of messing around with the timing signal of some commercial video tapes. Either my Chinese video capture device didn’t give a shit about Macrovision, or none of my tapes were protected. Also, having a TBC (time base corrector, AKA video stabiliser) is like a gun: it’s better to have one and not need it than it is to need it and not have one.

Westfalia Technica Digital Stabilizer

6. Something to record from: Use the best-quality VCR you can get your hands on, preferably the very one your tapes were recorded with. S-VHS players are highly-regarded by pundits but they’re scarce and accordingly expensive. My donated six-head Sharp VC-MH770 did exactly what it was supposed to: it played, and it output composite video just fine. I know this because I viewed the source tapes via a standard tube TV in order to compare the before/after quality. I suggest you do the same. Compare.

7. Something to record: None of this matters if there’s no source material.

Consider what it is you want to record and consider that you can get most things elsewhere (preferably legally). Make sure your irreplaceable children’s birthday party recordings and wedding videos won’t get jammed in your VCR because of some stuck hinge or the tape is disintegrating. Fast-forward and rewind the cassettes, inspect them, make sure they’re not grubby. Clean them. Convert your filthiest tapes last.

8. Something to write out with: Once you’ve captured the uncompressed video material, you’ll most certainly want to output it to a container format you can store for playback — forever and ever. Choose something future-proof like MPEG-2 (as used on DVDs).

3Mbps (video) and/or 192kbps (audio) were the highest bitrates I ever used — it all depends on what you’re copying, how important quality is and how much disk space you’re willing to sacrifice. I went with mostly H.264/MPEG-4 AVC (MPEG-4 Part 10) which I found to be a good middle-ground with regards to size vs. quality vs. compatibility, squeezing an average 90-minute movie into a 700MB file (similar to SVCD).
Remember that your playback device needs to support the output format and bitrate. Grab the FFmpeg suite of codecs and XMedia Recode and you’re settled for most any output format / device. Your mileage will vary.

Deal with the fact that you’ll never get DVD quality (let alone HD) out of even a perfect commercial, purchased VHS tape; the best you can hope for is something that approximates the TV broadcast you recorded over 20 years ago. Expect no miracles. Experiment with different settings. The preparation work alone will eat into your hours, especially if you’ve never done this before.

Words of advice: Find your best tape and tune your digitising process into achieving the highest possible compression / smallest file size ratio until it starts looking like the dog’s breakfast. Then grab your shittiest video and determine the point at which no matter how little compression you apply, it don’t get no better than the original. Your ideal and generic setting for bulk work would be halfway between those values. This is trial-and-error. Experiment much. You are on your way to becoming a VHS ripping guru.

Consider the following as gospel: Your most important and precious tapes should be saved at the highest possible bitrate (lowest compression). Space and time dare not be an issue with irreplaceable personal artefacts. Make many copies, and remember that you can always compress more (make smaller) and convert to another format later on should the need or device require it. If it’s irreplaceable, KEEP THE ORIGINALS!

9. Something to write onto: Unless your playback device is the same PC you’re recording into (and will remain so until Armageddon), make sure you choose a container format that’s compatible with it. MKV and DivX are great but not all of my media playback devices supported them. MPEG-2 will, for VHS-quality video, be the ideal lowest common denominator. Make backups. Oh, and did I mention that uncompressed video is huge?

10. Something to do while recording / converting: This is a real-time process, way different to ripping DVDs. It takes 90 minutes to capture a 90-minute video, and that’s not counting a similar amount of time to convert it to your preferred final format (depending on your PC, see point 1 above).  You may as well spend the former watching the movie you’re copying before you waste time on the latter, lest you want to end up scratching your head to ask yourself, “why the fuck am I doing this again?”

VHS rips of popular Hollywood movies are about as pointless as nipples on a Batman suit.

Go the easy route and get the DVD/BD. They’re physically smaller and the picture/sound quality is far superior. Unless it’s a uniquely personal or private recording, just ditch the damn thing and look for a copy on eBay or your local car boot sale. Don’t waste your time.

A bunch of video tapes and the ripping PC

Gawd, VHS, how I hated you! Big and clumsy, you were a necessary evil.

As much as I love movies, VHS was not the way to enjoy them. There is not a single attribute of a VHS tape that was, in the slightest, interesting. Manufacturers knew this; you may have noticed that, unlike the myriad of playful designs of audio cassettes, VHS tapes almost all looked uniformly alike and were utterly devoid of personality. Ironically, this is the very trait that was put to use in an art installation named “Life Span” in 2009.

Life Span is a physical representation of what a human being can see from its birth, to the day it dies.

Other, even older media formats have survived you and still remain in production. Not VHS, though, you have next to no resale or collectability value (unless you’re a copy of “Speed”, which Ryan Beitz from Idaho wants to have every single one of).

Nobody wants you.

VHS = Trash. Rubbish. Garbage.

It is August 2014. You’ve been here for 25 years. You’ve overstayed your welcome.

Go well, but please go!

Image credits: All photos by hmvh DOT net except “Life Span” via drugoi.livejournal.com

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