Archive for March, 2009

Old Tapes deserve old equipment. Or, how my best gear came from a garage sale!

Friday, March 6th, 2009

OLD, REALLY OLD VHS Tapes that don’t play

Here’s one that just happened to me. A client came with a batch of really oldVHS tapes from the early 80’s They were shot on one of those big honkin’ 1st generation VHS camcorders, before VHS C – the smaller cassettes, were invented. Remember those camcorders? Most people shot their wedding or kids birth, then the cameras died and that was it. Or in some cases, those cameras lasted long enough to shoot the kid’s first day of kindergarten. But after that, it was clear that Hi-8 was the way to go.

Those tapes of precious memories went on the shelf and came out to be played every couple of years whenever their was a large family reunion. Someone would either pay for editing or they would hook up two VCRs together and make clones for their grandma’s present. Cool.

As the years rolled by, and finally the decades, the tape would be played on fewer and fewer occasions because new tapes were being shot of new babies in the family. The original stars of the VHS days have now lost their luster… kind of like when the talkies ruined plenty of giant silent stars’ careers. William S. Hart may have been a cowboy celebrity, but when sound came, he was forced to get out of Dodge.

Not to get too morbid here, but as life would have it, Uncle Frank’s health is rapidly deteriorating. As a birthday present, someone wants to make a tape of his late wife. But all the shots of her are on those old VHS tapes.

So the tapes came to me to be transferred to a Quicktime movie for editing in Final Cut Pro. I handled each tape like a Faberge egg, carefully tensioning the reels before putting them in the deck, dusting off all the edges, peeling off the half raised labels where the ancient adhesive had failed about 5 years back.  Then I rewound the tapes by hand to insure the least amount of tape wear on the heads and spindles. I got everything patched to Final Cut Pro and started capturing long before starting the tape, because there often isn’t a second chance to capture the footage once the tape deteriorates with a horrific sound in the machine.

Most of the tapes worked great. Once captured, I never rewound them.

But on one particular tape, when I hit “play” the thing showed no image except various screwy raster. Crap. That was the main tape of Aunt Barbara.  I carefully stopped the tape and ejected it.

It has been my experience that every VCR has different tensions and tolerances, especially old once. So I knew suspected another deck might yield a better playback.

I tried the same careful tape playing routine in another VCR. The results were more encouraging. The picture looked fair, but it only popped on in 10-15 second chunks, with the strange raster in between. At least I knew there was still something on the tape and that the oxide hadn’t all disintegrated off the tape.

I tried a 3rd VCR and had variations of the same results. But I was still encouraged because different images were popping up.  But I was out of VCRs. My next door neighbor had long since given their up for DVD.

Since it was Saturday, I decided to hit a couple garage sales and see if I could find a VCR that would play the tape. I know it sounds goofy, but hey… I also found a wetsuit hat I needed.  After about 20 minutes, I came back with a stack of 5 VCRs that cost… get this…a total of 11 dollars!!

When I got back to my Final Cut Studio, I was pretty deflated when decks one, two, and three, were a bomb. But on number 4… Bingo!   It was beautiful. I almost wept when I saw a healthy and …ahem… sexy Aunt Barbara from back in the day.

The tape was a winner all the way through. I captured her and still had one VCR to spare. Now I can have my own garage sale and get my $2 back.

The moral of the story is that old, very old tapes are as fickle as the old machines that are supposed to play them. So before freaking out and grieving over the loss of a certain old tape, be sure to try a few playback decks first.

So if your tape won’t play, the best technical advice I could give you is to hit the flea market for a new, old VCR. But you might not want to tell the client.