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Capturing VHS

Posted on 2011-09-30
Medium Priority
Last Modified: 2013-11-08
I have dozens of VHS tapes (home videos) recorded in SP mode (i.e. 2 hours per tape).  I want to store these on a hard disk and create family DVDs with clips from the VHS tapes and menus, special effects and transitions.

My first attempt was to buy a 4-head VCR/DVD combo player for $90.  I used StarTech.com's Composite to USB capture cable (SVID2USB22) which does mpeg1 and mpeg2 recording.

I then used Adobe Premiere Elements 9 (PRE) to author a DVD.

The quality of the video on the authored DVD was mediocre.  Part of that may be due to the circa 1987 Hitachi consumer VHS camcorder that recorded the tapes; but I wonder how much of the mediocre video on the DVD is because of:
1) The cheapo VCR/DVD combo player I just bought (although I suspect that a cheap 2011 VCR player will exceed the recording quality of a 1987 VHS camcorder?)
2) the quality of the StarTech capture cable
3) that the VHS video was captured to mpg instead of another format which I believe is relevant because I then combined the mpg clips to author a DVD which I assume PRE rendered before burning the DVD and I believe rendering source mpg files results in degradation?

Would appreciate comments that help me understand the issues outlined above and that offer recommendations on how to get the best quality VHS capture for $250 or less.

My objective is to capture all the VHS tapes and then to clip segments from the resulting files to author DVDs.

Question by:SAbboushi
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LVL 29

Assisted Solution

by:Dr. Klahn
Dr. Klahn earned 800 total points
ID: 36894977
You are correct in thinking that the quality of the capture is related to the quality of the capture hardware and the quality of the playback hardware.  Unfortunately, this is a complex subject and there are many interrelated factors affecting the quality of the finished product.

Now that NTSC video has become "legacy," it is possible to buy excellent quality video capture gear at reasonable prices.  The Pinnacle DC50 is an example of professional grade capture equipment that now goes quite cheap.

The source video quality must be as good as possible.  NTSC composite is acceptable in most cases; if you can get a player that delivers Y/C, that is even better.

Video capture should be done to uncompressed format, if possible.  This eats up a lot of disk quickly, but every transfer in and out of a compressed format degrades the image even further.  If uncompressed capture is not possible, capture using the highest quality codec available.  Ideally, compression should be applied only when going to the final medium, and only to the extent required.

Adobe Premiere was the standard for video editing, when I was involved in building video editing systems.  I found it overly complex, but that is purely a personal opinion.
LVL 70

Expert Comment

ID: 36895076
There are basically three major factors here -- two of which you can control ...

(1)  You're recording from (apparently) 20+ year old tapes.   Tapes degrade over time .. and there's nothing you can do about it with consumer grade equipment [Major studios have VERY expensive equipment to help with video restoration ... but that's almost certainly beyond the scope of what you want to do].

(2)  The quality of the VCR you played the tapes on - a higher quality unit can do a much better job of tracking the tape and getting the best possible signal quality for your recordings.

(3)  You recorded (captured) the tapes in compressed form (MPEG).    Do it over ... and store them in uncompressed AVI files.    Use the best capture equipment you can afford/are willing to buy.   The Pinnacle DC50 suggested above is a reasonable mid-range capture card.    The Canopus line is higher quality, but is also a good bit pricier => I've used this one, but it requires a firewire input on your PC:  http://www.tigerdirect.com/applications/SearchTools/item-details.asp?EdpNo=5491878&CatId=4680  

Once you have better quality uncompressed captures, the editing software and DVD authoring software can also make a difference -- as can the amount of time you're willing to dedicate to "cleaning" the videos [most good editors have some basic video "cleaning" tools -- not studio quality restoration, but they can usually remove at least some of the "noise" in the old video].     This part can definitely be a "labor or love" ... as you can spend HOURS cleaning up a few MINUTES of video.    Whatever you use, don't compress to MPEG until the LAST step when you're actually authoring the DVD -- keep everything uncompressed while you work on it.
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Expert Comment

ID: 36902668
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LVL 70

Expert Comment

ID: 36904556
I usually also suggest a VHS-DVD recorder, which makes the conversion process very simple, and avoids A/V sync issues which can occur during recording .... HOWEVER, for old, deteriorated tapes a higher-quality VHS recorder and a high-quality capture card, together with an uncompressed capture will produce much better quality results.     The VHS-DVD recorders are basic VHS players -- often without even good tracking controls -- and they record directly to DVD, which means the video is compressed to MPEG during the recording process.     Definitely the best way to go if your tapes are in good condition ... but not so much if they are deteriorated and you need to do a bit of clean-up before compressing them to MPEG.

Author Comment

ID: 37084476
DrKlahn / garycase: thanks --
>> Video capture should be done to uncompressed format, if possible.
>> keep everything uncompressed while you work on it.
I would prefer capturing to uncompressed, but my intent is to store all the vhs tapes for FUTURE processing (i.e. over the next 30 years, I plan to author DVDs -- or whatever the then current media is -- by combining clips from the vhs-converted-to-digital files).  It seems uncompressed would require a staggering quantity of TB... so any thoughts on the next best option?  Store in DV format?

>> the quality of the playback hardware
>> a higher quality unit can do a much better job of tracking the tape and getting the best possible signal quality for your recordings
>> for old, deteriorated tapes a higher-quality VHS recorder and a high-quality capture card, together with an uncompressed capture will produce much better quality results.

The research I have done leads me to conclude that I may need to spend up to  $400 - $500 to get a high quality VCR player, and that since these are not made any more, that I will need to buy a used one.  My concern then becomes how to determine that the player is in good shape?  I currently lack to knowledge to even know what to check.  e.g., I have read that it is important to check that the heads and other components are in good shape, that capacitors are not partially melted, and other such examples.  I am a serious techie, but not in VCR player electronics - so would need guidance on how to know what a good head looks like vs. a pitted one(?) or worn out one, etc...

Would appreciate feedback on my thinking re: buy a used hi quality VCR player.

LVL 70

Accepted Solution

garycase earned 1200 total points
ID: 37084572
Uncompressed 525-line (NTSC) video uses about 70GB/hr (or 25% more if you digitize with 10 bits instead of 8, as some higher quality units do).    While that IS a lot, with modern high-capacity drives it's not unreasonable => a 3TB drive will hold over 40 hours of video -- about 20 SP tapes (more if they're not full).     A few 2 or 3 TB drives, and a few DriveBox storage containers [http://www.amazon.com/WiebeTech-DriveBox-10-pack/dp/B000YNVSMW ] would let you store all of your video in uncompressed format.

A reasonably good quality player is indeed a good idea -- primarily for the better tracking controls;  but the top-of-the-line units add features for better quality recording and for more playback features (higher quality freeze frames, etc.) that have nothing to do with the quality of the playback.   Remember:  you're dealing with 20-year-old tapes that have undoubtedly deteriorated.   That deterioration isn't going to be offset by a better recorder.    As long as you get good tracking, any future "cleanup" of the material can be done in the digital domain (i.e. with the recordings on your hard drive).    The key at this point is to get them out of the analog domain, so there's no further deterioration.

Author Comment

ID: 37084749
Thanks - uncompressed it is!

>> As long as you get good tracking
I still don't know how to go about selecting a worthy player...
LVL 70

Expert Comment

ID: 37084932
"... I still don't know how to go about selecting a worthy player... " ==> That can indeed be a problem.

No guarantees ... but I used to have a Sony unit that did an excellent job with older tapes and had manual tracking controls.    I THINK it was this model (but it's been a few years since I had it, so I'm not positive):  http://www.ebay.com/itm/BRAND-NEW-OPEN-BOX-SONY-VHS-PLAYER-RECORDER-SLV-775HF-W-ALL-ATTACHMENTS-/190594316570?_trksid=p4340.m444&_trkparms=algo%3DCRX%26its%3DC%252BS%26itu%3DSI%252BUA%252BLM%252BLA%26otn%3D15%26ps%3D63%26clkid%3D3962096026320024083

Here's the manual for that model, and as you can see on page 66, it does allow for manual tracking adjustments:   http://www.docs.sony.com/release/SLV775HF.PDF

Author Closing Comment

ID: 37107003

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