VIDEO PRESERVES: ARCHIVING VIDEO TAPES
Note: Archiving DVDs is part of the booklet
Interactive Video", that comes free with my 4th ed. of
Today's Video. Now for archiving video tape:
Cherished moments on videotape: we make them
we try to make them last. Through this magic ribbon called
videotape, we can laugh at ourselves as infants, remember the
sweet joy of Grandpa's smile, or record the antics of our
children to show to their children. All over the world family
histories are being archived, but some of these priceless tapes
will not survive. The laws of physics and the ravages of time
and environment all conspire to transform our pretty pictures and
sound into bands of snow and wavy lines. We cannot break the
laws of physics but we can mitigate against many of tape's
enemies: heat, humidity, magnetism, dirt, pressure, shock, and
poor recording practices.
Not an archival medium -
Let's get the bad news over with: videotape is not an
archival medium. Videotapes made thirty years ago are barely
playable, even in the tender, loving hands of an experienced
technician. Common videotapes recorded and played back on common
VCRs by common nontechnical people, may last about 15 years.
There are some unknowns in this estimate; tape is made better
than it used to be. It may last longer than 15 years but we
won't know until enough time goes by to see how it survives.
Most experts agree, however, that tape cannot endure generation
after generation like slides and photographs do.
More bad news: The videotape is not your big problem, your
VCR is. Video recorders change over the years, each type
incompatible with the format that came before.
Think back to your super 8 movies. Do you still have a
projector to play them on? Those of you with long gray whiskers
may remember regular 8 movies. Those projectors are so old that
nobody makes parts for them, so you'd better treat them like the
precious antiques that they are. And remember Great Grandma's
stereopticon, a 3-D viewer to display postcard-like photos?
No matter what method you use to record your magnetic
memories, you will have a hard time finding a machine to play
them on twenty or thirty years from now. If you record your
children on VHS, you may want to buy a "spare" VCR and keep it in
mint condition along with your tapes. And if it does break
thirty years from now, there surely won't be parts for it.
Hopefully, someone somewhere will have a VHS machine that works.
Copying is no solution-
You paid $700 for that Betamax video recording of your
wedding 15 years ago. The original tapes were edited down to a
beautiful 30 minute masterpiece (second generation) which was
copied (third generation) to share with your friends. Since
there are not many Betamaxes around, you figure it might be wise
to copy your beta tape over onto a VHS tape (fourth generation,
if you do it from a copy). Fifteen years from now, when VHS VCRs
are rare, maybe you'll find an old one and duplicate your VHS
tape onto your new digital videodisk recorder (fifth generation).
What do you suppose you'll see? Most likely mush. Your
grandchildren will wonder why you made a tape of penguins
mumbling in a snowstorm and titled it "Our Wedding."
Eighteen Do's and Don'ts of Tape Care -
Okay, you took all that bad news pretty well. Fortunately,
there are some things you can do to preserve your tape treasures.
1. Don't store your tape in a hot place such as the dashboard of
your car on a sunny day, or atop a heating radiator. The
cassette shell will warp and shrivel up like bacon.
2. Do keep your tape in a dry place. Tapes enjoy the same
temperature and humidity that people do. Leaving a tape in a
damp basement will cause it to absorb moisture. Mildew may even
grow inside the cassette, instantly causing head clogs. Also,
high humidity promotes binder hydrolysis causing the tape to act
3. Don't play the tape in a malfunctioning VCR. When a VCR
"eats" a tape, that part of your tape will be gone for good.
4. Don't store tapes near electromagnetic fields like those
around electric motors, high intensity lamp bases, televisions,
computers, power transformers, and loudspeakers. Leaving your
tapes lying atop your TV set will slowly erase them.
5. Don't place your cassettes on a carpet or slide their boxes
around on a carpet. Carpets create copious static electricity
which attracts dust, just the thing your videocassette doesn't
6. Do keep videotapes away from small children. Sticky, curious
fingers can deposit head-clogging oils on the tape, or cause
folds and bumps in the tape. Goodness knows what teething saliva
does to a videocassette.
7. Do keep the temperature and humidity steady. Wide
environmental swings cause the tape to expand and contract,
causing stresses that stretch the tape.
8. Do acclimate tapes before playing them. They should be the
same temperature as the machine that plays them. If you bring a
cold tape into a warm room, it will collect condensation just
like a glass of iced tea. Seal the tape in a plastic bag and let
it sit for a few hours and it will warm up while staying dry.
This technique applies in the winter when you take your tape from
a cold car to the house, or in the summer when you take your tape
from the air-conditioned indoors to the humid outdoors; sealing
the tape keeps it dry.
9. Don't store your tape half played; it leaves a bump in the
tape. Winding the tape to the beginning or end will place the
bump harmlessly on the tape leader.
10. Store tapes upright rather than flat. Sometimes the tape
winds or unwinds unevenly leaving tiny ridges sticking out from
the roll. When the tape lies flat, those ridges rub against the
sides of the cassette fraying them.
11. Do "exercise" tapes once every year or so by winding them to
the end and rewinding them. This relaxes the tape, reducing
stresses that build up over time. Before playing a tape that
hasn't been played for years, also wind it to the end and rewind
it to the beginning before you play it; the relaxed tape is less
likely to exhibit flagwaving and tracking problems.
12. Do handle tapes gently. Banging cassettes around will
damage exposed edges, affecting your sound or tracking. Keep
precious tapes protected in hard, vinyl boxes, the kinds used at
video rental stores. These will keep your cassettes dust free,
and safe from being squashed.
13. Do make a copy at the first sign of tape degradation.
Although you go down one generation in quality, you may be able
to salvage the recording before the original tape becomes totally
14. Do label your tapes lest you accidentally record "Mork and
Mindy" reruns over Baby's first steps.
15. Do record important events on new, high-quality videotape.
Although the words "high grade" does not guarantee that the
videotape is superior, with a little reading and experimentation,
you can settle on a brand and type of tape that works well for
16. Record important events at the standard play (SP) mode.
Tapes recorded at the extended play (EP) speed have their
magnetism jammed too tightly together to yield an optimal
picture. Also, age causes slow-playing tapes to exhibit
flagwaving and mistracking. In addition, EP tapes play poorly on
VCRs that are not perfectly adjusted.
17. Avoid the super thin, long-play tapes. Use standard
thickness (T120, or their 120 minute HI8 counterparts) to assure
that the tape will stretch the least amount.
18. When possible, use a super VHS or HI8 VCR with its
corresponding super tape to record the sharpest and smoothest
No matter how well you care for your tape, the machine you
play it on is crucial. A well-maintained VCR will treat your tape
gently and play it accurately. If you are really planning to
keep a video archive for twenty years or more, you may want to
purchase a good quality VCR and seal it in a cool, dry time
capsule along with your tapes. Run the VCR a couple times a year
just to exercise the rubber parts and distribute the lubrication.
Select a tape machine with direct drive motors that don't have
rubber belts to dry out and slip or snap. And if you are really
serious about archiving your videotape, ask your local repairman
what parts you should buy (while they are still available) to
place in the time capsule with your VCR.
HOME VIDEOTAPE RECORDERS THROUGH THE AGES, NEARLY ALL
INCOMPATIBLE WITH EACH OTHER.
See-Hear Home Video System - Announced by RCA but was never
seen or heard of again.
1965 Ampex Signature VI VCR - Featured longitudinal recording to
record 25 minutes of video on a reel of tape. The 1/4"
tape moved at a whopping 100 inches per second.
Sony Consumer Video (CV) System - Reels of half-inch tape
stored a black-and-white picture. Using a "skip field"
recording system, every other video picture was skipped.
Akai - Two systems using 1/4" tape on open reels. One made
black-and-white, the other color recordings.
Electron Video Recording - Video cartridge system that
played back images on a TV set from film. It couldn't
record, just play.
Cartrivision - Two reels of 1/2" tape were stacked one on
top of the other in a clunky cassette roughly the size of a
hardcover book. Also used "skip-field" recording, but at
least it was in color.
U-Matic - Three-quarter inch tape inside a cassette the
size of a box of candy. This is the only "old" format that
is still in use, although superseded by U-Matic SP
Panasonic's Omnivision I - Housed a single reel of tape in
a cartridge and wound the tape onto a take-up reel inside
the transport. This meant that you could never remove a
cassette in the middle of a program.
Betamax - Sony's color videocassette recorder capable of
recording one hour. First popular home VCR.
The Great Time Machine - Using the VX format invented by
Matshusita, recorded 2 hours on 1/2" tape in a cassette
that was a mechanical nightmare. Faye Dunaway used a Great
Time Machine in the 1978 movie The Eyes of Laura Mars.
V-Cord I and V-Cord II - Black-and-white V-Cord I stored 20
minutes of black-and-white tape in a cassette. V-Cord II
added color and introduced a slower speed to extend
recording time and was one of the first formats to offer
freeze frame and slow motion.
VHS - Introduced by JVC and Matshusita, put two hours on a
tape. Throughout 1977, tape speed wars saw Beta II counter
with a three hour tape, VHS followed with a four hour
length, Beta III then offered five hours, and VHS mopped up
the competition with six hour recording.
VCR - Invented by the Dutch electronics giant Philips.
They also invented the name VCR but could only register the
trademark in Europe. The name caught on much better than
the machines which stacked one reel of tape above the
Video 2000 - Using 1/2" videotape, this Philips and Grundig
machine played 1/4" of the tape in one direction. You would
then flip the tape over and play the other half in the
8mm - Proffered by Sony and 127 other leading consumer
electronics manufacturers. Introduced high density
recording on audiocassette-sized 8mm tape.
Video Showcase - Japan's Funai joined forces with
Technicolor to create the compact videocassette (CVC)
system, the lightest and most portable recording system of
its time using 1/4" cassettes that could record 30 minutes.
VHS-C - Miniature videocassette the size of a deck of cards
that holds regular VHS tape that requires an adapter to
play the miniscule tape in a regular VHS VCR.
SVHS - JVC's improved VHS recording system made a sharper
picture but required special tape. SVHS VCRs can also
record and playback VHS tapes.
ED-Beta - Improved version of Betamax offered by Sony to
outdo SVHS. A fine machine but too expensive.
DV - Digital Video, available in $2000 - 3000 camcorders
and a few professional decks. Professional DVCAM and
DVCPRO models can play consumer DV tapes, but consumer
decks can not play the pro tapes.
What new, incompatible format will next year bring making
our tape libraries obsolete? Maybe HDTV videotape?
HOW VIDEOTAPE WORKS (Or Doesn't Work)
Videotape is a plastic ribbon impregnated with a
magnetizable metal powder. Before recording, the particles are
oriented randomly. During recording, the video heads create
magnetism that orient the particles in certain directions. Thus
video signals are converted into magnetic patterns on the tape.
When the tape is played back, video heads again pass over the
magnetic powder and sense the magnetic vibrations and convert
these vibrations back into a video signal.
Video signals consist of millions of electrical vibrations
each second. Each vibrations represents a tiny piece of your
picture. If you lose just one vibration for any reason, you will
see a momentary speck on your screen rather than the piece of
picture that belonged there. This momentary loss of picture is
called a dropout.
Tiny particles of dust, dirt, smoke, loose powder from the
tape, or debris from the cassette housing can get between the
spinning video heads and the magnetic coating, losing the signal
for a moment. Dropouts also result when some of the magnetic
surface flakes off the tape, taking a piece of picture with it.
A fold or a scratch on the tape is a million times larger than a
dust particle and can cause picture disruptions lasting several
seconds. A scratch or fold along the length of your tape could
ruin your whole program. Playing chewed-up tape is also
hazardous to your heads. The delicate spinning video heads could
snag on a "pothole" in the tape and become chipped. You will see
a half snowy or totally snowy picture, and the only cure will be
to replace the VCR heads, probably costing $35 for the heads and
$75 for the labor.
Less serious, but the symptoms are the same, are clogged
video heads. Here dirt or shedding magnetic powder jams itself
inside the tiny gap in the heads that senses the magnetism. This
rather common condition can usually be cured by playing a head
cleaning videocassette that, hopefully, wipes away the dirt.
Hi fi sound is sometimes recorded along with the video, and
it can drop out too. Normal, low fidelity sound is recorded on a
linear track along the edge of the videotape. Damage to the edge
of the tape can mangle this sound.
On the opposite edge of the tape is the control track, a
series of magnetic pulses that guide the spinning video heads so
that they precisely follow the magnetic paths on the tape (and
don't play between the paths). Damage to this edge of the tape
will cause your picture to roll or mistrack; a band of hash may
run across part of your picture.
Tape, being a long plastic ribbon, can contract and stretch
depending on temperature, humidity, cassette tightness, and
tightness of your rollers inside your VCR. When the tape
stretches or contracts even a tiny amount, it changes the
positions of the magnetic paths, making it hard for the tape
heads to follow. This sometimes causes your picture to jitter,
especially at the top, or to flagwave, flopping back and forth at
the top. As the condition worsens, your picture folds into
diagonal lines. Sometimes tape stretching causes your video
player to mistrack, again causing a band of hash to run across
part of your TV screen.
Videotape is manufactured under exacting conditions. A
precise amount of magnetic powder is impregnated into the tape
(or in the case of metal evaporated --- ME ---tape, just the
right amount of metal is evaporated onto the tape). The
particles of powder are small and are packed tightly in a certain
orientation to maximize their magnetizability.
Greater magnetic density is one of the major differences
between the various grades of videotape. High grade tape uses
smaller particles in a greater concentration than normal grade
cassettes. This results in a smoother (less grainy) picture and
a stronger retention of the magnetic patterns. High grade tapes
often deliver truer colors, smoother pictures, and better sound
than their normal grade brothers, even when recorded at the
slower EP speed.
Super VHS and HI8 formulations pack the magnetic particles
even more densely, and use particles that hold more magnetism,
resulting in sharper, smoother pictures than their high grade
brothers. It takes a super VHS or HI8 VCR to record on these
Although various tape formulations differ somewhat in how
well they record hi fi sound, there is no such thing as "hi fi"
videotape. Manufacturers just put the words on the box to
The actual difference between the performance of one
manufacturer's "hi grade" tape and other manufacturer's "normal"
tape may be very small. It is hard to separate the hype from the
facts when it comes to "hi grade" tape. Even from batch to
batch, one manufacturer's tape may have some cassettes that out
perform others. Although there are laboratory tape tests
appearing in various video and consumer magazines, the test don't
always take into account how the tapes will play on your machine.
For instance, a tape that gives a very sharp picture on one
person's machine may yield a slightly grainy picture on
another's. The best bet is to try several types of name brand
videocassettes on your VCR and judge for yourself which ones look
the best. Avoid the "off brand" and "white box" cassettes found
at discount stores. Some may be okay, but they are less reliable
than the major players such as Fuji, JVC, Panasonic, Scotch (3M),
Sony, TDK, Denon, and Maxell.
THE 8MM STORY
When 8mm and Hi8 mm tape first came out, it immediately
suffered a bad reputation, especially the metal evaporated (ME)
formulations. There were stories of massive dropouts, headclogs,
stretching, and the inability to stand up to the rigors of
editing. Even to this day, some manufacturers describe 8mm tape
as an "acquisition" medium (where the tapes run through the
camcorder once while recording in the field), rather than an
editing or archival medium (where the tapes are shuttled back and
forth, still framed, rethreaded, and replayed many times).
So what's the story today; can 8mm tape be trusted with
your family memories?
According to several manufacturers I called, recent 8mm
tape formulations have surmounted all of the problems experienced
in the early days. The magnetic surface has a smoother, harder
protective covering, and the tape stock itself is stronger and
less likely to stretch. All agreed, however, that MP (metal
particle) tape is little hardier than its ME (metal evaporated)
counterpart. ME affords better specs (stronger signal retention,
higher signal-to-noise ratio, sharper pictures, purer colors) but
may be too flimsy for editing. Sensing a niche, Fuji has
introduced an "ME Position" tape that has the high performance of
ME tape, but is really souped-up MP tape with the durability of
Not trusting the manufacturers unconditionally, I called a
couple heavy 8mm users to see if they had experienced any
Pat Navagato of Nova Video Productions in Harrisburg, VA,
who does a lot of industrial and wedding recordings in Hi8 felt
that the format "performed much better than the bandwagon of
negative publicity would lead you to believe." On his Sony and
Fuji stock, he typically sees only 3 or 4 tiny dropouts every 2
hour tape. His 4 year old ME and MP tapes still play well,
although his ME tapes look better to him. Any problems he's
seen, he attributes to his camcorder, feeling that if you run the
tape through a clean, good quality, well-adjusted camcorder, you
should get good results.
David Rapp of Custom Video Services in Reno, NV, runs
thousands of Hi8 tapes through his editing and film transfer
service each year. He recommends mastering on 8mm ME tape
1. The high energy tape is harder to erase (thus holds its
2. Is small enough to conveniently archive in a safe
3. Because Hi8 is a bit rare, his clients come back to him
to make duplicates from the masters (no fool, Dave).
Custom Video shoots and edits in Hi8 using ME tape and "has
no problem with it holding up." He uses Sony ME and Fuji M221E
(the new Fuji "ME Position" formula) tape with a Sony V5000
camera and Sony CVD1000 source editing deck. He too had some
trouble at first with 8mm, but attributes it to the equipment,
not the tape. Contrary to popular opinion, Dave feels that MP
tape has more dropouts than ME. As for longevity, Dave's been
using Hi8 tape for 4 years and says "every time I pull out an old
tape, it's fine."
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