by Thomas Watson
A General Guide to Converting Your Tapes into Digital Files
You’ve gone through storage boxes and stumbled across a massive collection of home videos. You may not remember what’s on them, and a fine film of dust covers the surface. As you read the labels, a flood of nostalgia excites you, and soon you’re looking for a VCR or HI8 Player.
You blow off the dust and begin to wonder how long your video tapes will last. Unbeknownst to you, the iron oxide which makes up the sounds and pictures stored on your tapes is slowly separating itself from the plastic substrate where it resides. This change is occurring because the binders used in video tape production are defenseless against humidity and excess temperature change. Even relatively low levels of moisture in the air have seeped into the oxide and caused irreparable separation. While the deterioration that has already occurred cannot be reversed, immediately transferring what’s left to a digital format prevents further data loss. Transferring your video tapes to a digital format isn’t just for ease of viewing; it is the only way to preserve your footage.
You could enlist the services of a professional video tape conversion studio. (I can recommend a good one!) However, because you like to get your hands dirty and you have some experience with a computer, you could decide to tackle this project on your own.
Step 1: Get Organized
The first step to digitizing your boxes of memories is to inventory what you have—index it, organize it, grasp it—whether it’s 5 VHS tapes or 45, whether it’s 10 miniDV tapes or a small army of hi8’s. Maybe your collection has some of them all. Look at what you have to gauge the time and equipment it’s going to take to digitize them all.
Step 2: Get Equipped
You’ll need very specific tools to properly digitize your video tape collection. If you’re lucky, you will have much of what you need on hand. However, you may have to purchase a few items to get started.
First, you’ll need a decent PC or Mac. While less expensive stock computers are great for what they’re designed to do, they aren’t built for capturing analog video and rendering large digital files. At the very least, you need a computer equipped with a decent graphics card, a firewire card, and plenty of hard drive space. It will also be a good idea to bulk up on RAM before you get started. While you work through your tape collection, let your computer focus on the task at hand. It isn’t recommended to multitask while capturing video. Jump to the bottom of this article for a tidy list of equipment recommendations and prebuilt PCs that require no customizations. Remember, many computer retailers can outfit your PC for you.
You will also need a capture card, a device that converts analog footage into a language that your computer understands. Capture cards that can handle the job without dropping frames go for between $100 and $1,500. We recommend Canopus, Matrox, or Black Magic.
Once you’re armed with a good capture card, it’s time to think about the capture software you’ll use. We recommend Adobe Premiere Pro or Apple’s Final Cut. Both offer uncompressed capture of analog source material without dropping frames. If you prefer a free option that’s a bit easier to use, consider iMovie (Mac) or Windows Movie Maker. You should take time to learn how to perform the various functions in the software. If you are new to video editing, we suggest taking a quick course on Lynda.com or watching tutorials on YouTube to learn Premiere Pro, Final Cut, Movie Maker, or iMovie.
Last, you’ll need a nice clean VCR or camcorder that fits your tapes. If you take time to clean the video heads using 99 percent isopropyl and a lint free cloth before you get started you’ll get much improved results. There are several concise videos on this topic on YouTube.
Step 3: Get to Work
Plug your VCR into your capture device via composite cables or an S-video cable. Plug your capture card into your PC or Mac via firewire. Open your capture software, and start its dubbing function. Load your tape into your player, press Record on the software, and then press Play on the deck.
Settle in, the tape, —however long or short it may be—must be played in real time. What you see on the capture software is what you’ll see in the final file. When the tape finishes playing, simply push Stop in both your software and on your deck.
The post production process begins. Cut out the parts and pieces of the recording that you don’t want or that are no good. Once editing is complete, it’s time to compress your huge files into something useable. We recommend using MP4 files and the H.264 codec for compression. You can export to those settings directly out of Premiere Pro, Final Cut, iMovie, or Windows Movie Maker. You can expect your computer to take anywhere from an hour to a few hours to finish encoding a file each tape. Once it has finished, test your file. It should playback on any PC or Mac.
Step 4: Make Copies
There is a lot to be said about backing up your family videos. Create at least three copies of your media. Copies can be made by uploading the files to your favorite cloud service, creating DVDs, or making additional copies on thumb drives or external hard drives.
We’ve helped thousands of families save their memories by transferring video tapes to digital formats. We’ve also helped families set up their own video capturing stations at home. Whether you choose to have it done by professionals or to go it alone, make sure you get it done. Video tapes have a shorter shelf life than almost any other medium that’s ever been produced. If you want to preserve your family history, make sure you’ve had your video tape collection properly digitized and backed up.
Thomas Watson is the cofounder and CEO of Roots Family History, a boutique shop based in Boise, Idaho, and Brooklyn, New York, devoted to preserving human history. Thomas has dedicated himself to finding accessible solutions for digitization, conservation, and preservation. If you thought of him as the Batman of media preservation, he probably wouldn’t object.
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