SAVING YOUR FAMILY VIDEOS
The common denominator
There are plenty of vendors equipped and ready to transfer your family videos to
DVD. The first thing you need to do is inventory what you have, research the
available vendors, pick a few and do the math to find out what it will cost.
The vast majority of the vendors you come across will offer the results on DVD.
DVD uses a compressed video file format known as MPEG-2. Because it is a
compressed format, MPEG-2 is not considered an archival format. The good
news however is that MPEG-2 is a scaleable format, meaning that the amount of
compression can be varied and this is where this discussion is going. If you are
going to accept your video transfers on DVD, use the least amount of
compression, which amounts to a one-to-one transfer. Put another way: Make
sure that your DVD’s are configured so that one hour of video on the disk equals
one hour of the videotape source. This may cost more (2 or more hours of video
on a DVD is the usual) but the results can be worth it. Particularly if your video is
on Beta, Hi-8 or any of the DV-Cam formats.
I’ve done some testing on my own, transferring VHS to DVD at different amounts
of compression and came up with interesting results. I tried three different
amounts of compression; 60 minutes (1:1, or a one hour DVD), 90 minutes (1.5:1)
and 120 minutes (2:1). I tried edits with three different video editing programs and
made edits on a still room scene with only talking in the background and a soccer
game to try some fast motion. Working with the one-to-one (60 minute) file was no
problem for any of the three programs I tried. One of the editing programs had
problems making good edits on the soccer game on the 90 minute file and two of
the three had problems making edits on the soccer game with the 2 hour video.
All three editing programs worked well with the still scene at any of the resolutions
Some vendors will offer the digital files on other media as well such as a Hard
Drive or a USB drive. This allows you the possibility of getting your transfers in a
digital video file called AVI. The AVI video format also has several resolutions
available, but anything from NTSC broadcast quality (720X480) and above is
considered more archivable than the MPEG format. The potential downside is that
AVI files are considerably larger in size than the MPEG format. Going this route
will generally cost more, particularly if you want DVD’s as well. AVI is most useful
for those who intend to edit their video but MPEG isn’t going away anytime soon
so saving your video at the highest MPEG resolution should be fine for those who
aren’t editors or tweakers.
Do it yourself?
If you are considering transferring your old videotapes to digital files, the first thing
is to ascertain what video format(s) you have. The older analog formats can be
the most troublesome. Those include early Beta, Hi-8 and VHS. Beta is the most
obsolete and a working player may be hard to find. Some of the early tape
formulations of Hi-8 are becoming unstable and reports are surfacing that some
brands of VHS tape are showing signs of instability as well, so those of you with
home video on the older analog formats need to take action NOW. If you have
your original camcorder and it still works you can use it as a playback source.
VHS, often known as “the cockroach of all video formats” because of its lesser
quality picture and sound, has been the most survivable and the thrift stores are
overrun with VHS decks so equipment sourcing for VHS is not a problem (yet).
All of the analog formats require
orrection when being converted to a
digital format. Time base correction (known as
) is the process of precisely
aligning each video frame and is accomplished by a specific (and expensive)
piece of equipment. The process was necessary during the analog era of
broadcast video production where the final show to be aired was assembled from
two or more videotape sources. Most VHS-to-DVD recorders have built in TBC
and will accept external inputs so it should be possible to use your original Beta or
Hi-8 cameras as a playback source into one of these gadgets. There are a few
manufacturers who make video to computer interfaces that have time base
correction built in but, as you can imagine, they can get expensive starting at
around $400.00 or so. The alternative for analog video tape is to have it done
professionally or invest in a professional setup.
If you are among the fortunate ones who have been taping your family events with
a video camera that uses one of the digital tape formats or a camera that stores
the video on a disk or internal hard drive, life is simpler when it comes to archiving
your family videos. If you are a Mac user, you can probably plug your camera
directly into your computer and transfer away. PC users might have to purchase
an interface for your camera format but this can be done for less than $100.00.
You can also save your video as an AVI file, edit your heart out and transcode it to
DVD. There is plenty of software available and both Mac and Windows PC’s have
simple editors built into the operating systems.
Before You Start
You need to inspect the tapes to be played. Consider where the tapes have been
stored. If your tapes have been stored inside your house, in a relatively climate
controlled environment, chances are your tapes will play just fine after a cursory
inspection. However, if the tapes have been stored in an attic or basement with no
climate control, then inspect the storage box and the tape boxes themselves for
any signs of mold or extreme dust. If signs of mold are present, protect yourself
with rubber gloves, an adequate breathing mask and, proceed with the inspection
process outside. Better yet, seek professional advice. Your local library or college
may be a place to ask for advice about mold remediation regarding your tapes. If
a layer of dust is the only visible problem, remove it carefully and completely
before removing the tape from its container. Once the tape cassette has been
removed from its container, inspect the casing carefully for any obvious
and carefully remove them. Some tapes have a clear inspection
window that allows one to see the tape pack as part of the inspection process. Be
as thorough as possible. The smallest dust particle can clog the rotary head of a
camcorder or VCR, causing playback problems or no playback at all.
Fast-forward and then rewind each tape before playing it. This will exercise a tape
that has been stored for a long period of time. While the tape is being exercised,
listen to the transport. You will quickly learn to hear when a tape is not fast-
forwarding or rewinding properly which, is an obvious indication of problems to
come. If you do hear something out of the ordinary during the exercising process,
try the process a second time. If the suspicious sounds persist, set that tape aside
and try to play it last.
What I did
We have 57 VHS tapes (and counting) of family videos going back to the dawn of
VHS. This meant over 100 hours of video to be archived. The cost estimates
started at around $450.00 (plus the cost of materials and shipping) for transferring
direct to DVD at the standard two hour per DVD format. My first attempt was to
get one of those inexpensive video-to-computer thingies to transfer the tapes
myself which would give me AVI files I could later edit. After all, I own an
expensive S-VHS deck with built in time base correction, freeze frame and all of
the whistles and bells. Wrong! Without centralized time base correction connected
to each device (the VHS deck, The A/D converter and the computer), the result
was numerous frame drops per minute of video being transferred which rendered
my AVI files useless.
The cheapest and ultimately the most effective way out was to purchase a VHS-
to-DVD recorder for $179.00 and do the transfer work using the one-to-one
setting which was called “best quality” by the particular recorder I purchased. The
whole project took about a year of spare time, but I enjoyed watching our children
grow up again. So, in the end I saved a few hundred dollars, wound up with
usable MPEG files on DVD-R’s and the project is ongoing because random old
video tapes will periodically turn up. Eventually, I extracted the video and audio
from the DVD’s (called “Ripping”), saved the extracted files to a couple of hard
drives and separated them geographically.
Archiving your family history yourself can be both rewarding and less expensive in
the long run. However, the process can be time consuming to the point of
becoming a temporary hobby. Once you have your video in the digital domain,
remind yourself to make copies of everything and store a copy or two off site. You
are only as safe as your last backup! I talk more about this in “
Your Digital Data is
© Corey Bailey Audio Engineering
DO IT YOURSELF?
BAKING AUDIO TAPE
A Little About Sound
Optimizing your PC
Packing Records for
People I have Known
Saving Your Family Video
Your Digital Data is at Risk