VHS to Digital

I kept seeing it advertised: a program to convert VHS-tape-recorded video to DVD discs. Now, like many families back in the 1980s, we had purchased a VHS camcorder  and recorded many family events, e.g., birthdays, Christmases, trips, you name it. We maintained a library of these tape cassettes; but new technologies came along and I was overwhelmed by the steep learning curve required just to stay up with digital still photography, let alone digital video. As a result, that video library soon got sidelined in the basement along with all the analog 35mm still-photo slides and negatives. Since still-photography always took priority with me, I first looked to digitizing those slides and negatives.

But slowly the guilt kept building. As I read each ad, I realized  our VHS tapes were not getting any younger or more secure (tapes deteriorate over time, especially if not kept cool and under moderate humidity conditions). So, I knew it was time to either convert the tapes or leave them to our descendants to worry about (as if they would have the time to do it).

Now, the only problem with leaving such a project for others to handle is that the devices that play the tapes (Video Cassette Recorders or VCRs) may not be around. Fewer and fewer of these machines are being made (those currently being made are often in combination with DVD players). And as the years go by, those that do exist may require repair and specialists capable of making those repairs.

So, after much online research, I bought Roxio easy VHS to DVD (for Mac, a version is also available for Windows), which included cables and an adapter to convert VHS analog signals to USB digital signals suitable for computers to understand. A couple of weeks ago, I finally found some time and set up my VCR in  front of my computer, hooked up the cables and the USB device, and fired up the software. Well, I have to hand it to the developers, the program works pretty slick. It steps you through the hookup process and soon you see your video on the screen with clear instructions as to how to record it in digital format.

I first tried transferring a commercial tape of a long out-of-date program and was impressed with the quality of the DVD that was made. Now, that quality includes the fact that these tapes were made with analog data from old equipment that did not capture the images as efficiently as modern digital cameras do today. We are talking images that are not quite as crisp as modern images and that are displayed in a 4:3 screen ratio. But the quality that is there does hold even on modern large screens.

However, commercial material was not my objective. What I wanted to do was preserve that which was not replaceable, our family memories. So, into the VCR went our original, unedited tapes. The images appeared on the screen and I recorded them as they appeared. However, I did not send these images directly to DVD. One of the options presented after the recording is finished is to send the data to a video editing program, in my case iMovie. This I did and soon found myself in a very impressive editing suite where I could clean up the videos and put them together to tell a story in an entertaining format.

My only complaint with Easy VHS to DVD is that after you have digitized the video the choices they provide you at the end are one-time only. So, if you decide to burn your video directly to DVD that is what you do and there is no return to the original data. Yes, the data is still there but my video program cannot access it and Easy VHS to DVD will not return to it (at least as far as I can see); but of course you can always re-record it. If you want to edit the video, then you should do that first, and then make your DVD from the editing program. If you understand that going in, you will be all right.

The process does take time. The video is recorded as it is played and of course it is a good idea to watch it to understand what you have and decide what you want to do with it. As well, editing the video takes a lot of time; but personally I enjoy the creative process—it’s just finding enough time to do it right that can be an issue.

Hiccup

One problem did crop up. As I was checking out some old unmarked VHS cassettes—fast forwarding and rewinding to see what might be on them—the VCR suddenly quit working and  “ate the tape” when I tried to eject it, rendering the cassette useless. Panic set in as I feared I had waited too long.

I quickly searched the web for information on VCR repair and found an article about what might be wrong, and how to repair it. As it turned out, once I opened the bottom of the machine I found a rubber belt had slipped off a pulley. I inspected the belt and found it to be in good shape (no deterioration evident). So, I put it back on the pulley closed the machine and tested a tape that I was willing to sacrifice. The machine was back to its old self. However, the experience did reinforce the fact that these machines are indeed old and that some of the parts (notably rubber and plastic) will age faster than others and could require replacement. (Apparently there are sites on the web that offer these parts.)

Now, of course there are commercial services available to do the transfer for you. These tend to be expensive ($25 to $50 or more per VHS cassette) but if you don’t need to do any editing and you don’t have too many of them to do, these services might be right for you. As well, there are other programs and cassette/DVD combination machines that will do the job (shop around!) However, I do find the transferring and editing of our tapes to be a welcomed walk down memory lane that challenges my creative instincts.

Once I have all the raw originals digitized, stored and backed-up, I will begin making DVDs for family members to keep and play when they are feeling nostalgic or otherwise in need of a good laugh or cry.

So, what’s wrong with that?

www.donmeredith.ca

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out  The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

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About Don Meredith

I am a writer and biologist living in Alberta, Canada. I write a monthly column for the Alberta Outdoorsmen magazine.
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