1 — Analogue & Digital Conversions and Transfers

VIDEO FORMATS: A BASIC PRIMER

Home movies are often archived on various media formats that span the history of home video, with tapes ranging in size, recording speeds, and recording lengths. Here’s a simple guide (with video examples) to help identify what’s what:

Betamax – Sony’s consumer format derived from its broadcast format Betacam. Betamax debuted in 1975 and was popular around the world and featured three speeds (Beta I, II, and III), with the longest tape capable of holding up to 5 hours of material in Beta III speed (NTSC).

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VHS – JVC’s rival format, which debuted in 1976 and ultimately eclipsed Betamax’s popularity among the broad consumer base. The tapes were bigger, and similarly had three speeds (SP, LP, and EP / aka SLP), with the longest tape initially holding up to 6 hours of material in EP / SLP until a thinner tape was developed, and pushed the capacity to 8 and later 10.5 hours (NTSC).

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S-VHS – Introduced in 1987, JVC’s prosumer format yielded higher picture and sound quality than VHS, but could only be played on S-VHS players or VHS players with ‘Quasi S-VHS’. The format was widely used for local and sometimes national electronic news gathering (ENG), corporate videos, weddings, videophiles, and filmmakers of SOV (shot on video) movies. The tape sizes and speeds are identical to VHS, but are branded S-VHS and can hold up to 6 hours of content. VHS tapes could be played in VHS VCRs.

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VHS-C and S-VHS-C – as an answer to Sony’s Video 8 format, in 1982 JVC brought out a compact version of its consumer and prosumer formats which was ideal for camcorders. You still needed an adapter to play the tapes in conventional VHS and S-VHS VCRs; some were battery powered, others a combination of lever or coin crank.

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Video 8 – Sony’s attempt (around 1984 / 1985) to replace Betamax and compete against JVC’s VHS-C format with a smaller 8mm tape roughly the size of an audio cassette. The two recording speeds (SP and LP) could yield a maximum of 2 and 4 hours of content, and the format was popular with Sony Handycam users because of its size and portability. Big con: the smaller tape width made it susceptible to nicks and dropouts.

Hi8 – Like JVC’s S-VHS, Sony upgraded their 8mm tape for the same prosumer market (round 1989) with a format more or less equal in quality to S-VHS. The tapes were still plagued by dropouts, but Hi8’s portability and recording capacity made it attractive for ENG and corporate filmmakers. Video 8 tapes will play on Hi8 machines, but not visa versa.

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Digital 8 – In 1999, Sony sought to bring affordable digital video to the hobbyist and professional with this format that used the old Hi8 tape to record in two speeds (SP and LP again) with a 2 hour Hi8 tape yielding 1 hour in SP and 90 mins. in LP. Digital 8 (which cannot be played in a Video8 nor Hi8 VCR and camcorder) was a bridge between Sony’s shift from analogue to digital, and is ostensibly the same as miniDV (introduced in 1995) – a much smaller tape that records in two speeds (SP and LP again). A 60 min. tape will yield 90 mins. in LP, and an 80 min. tape will yield 120 mins. in LP.

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VIDEO STANDARDS: ANOTHER PRIMER

You may have noticed the term NTSC in some of the prior sections on video formats, so here’s a compact explanation of NTSC, and its European counterpart, PAL.

Just as North America has its own voltage of 60Hz / 120V, Europe has 50Hz 220V, and each continent uses a different video standard system – or rather, used them back in the era of analogue television broadcast and home video.

Before broadcasters switched to digital, there existed NTSC for North America, PAL for most of Europe, and SECAM for France, and many former colonies of certain countries had either PAL, SECAM, or native variations. Some VCRs sold in Europe and parts of the Middle East were multi-standard and could play back all three major systems.

Analogue video is technically obsolete, but for anyone that still uses analogue video – for video art, VJ’ing, or unique productions – the choices are PAL for Europe, and NTSC for North America.

You still need a NTSC, PAL, or mult-standard VCR or camcorder to play back tapes recorded in these systems, but there are a number of prosumer VCRs and boxes that were designed to convert one system to another.

Analogue to digital converters can send straight NTSC and PAL signals to a hard drive for digitizing as MP4 and MOV files, and during that transition period when Sony was offering Hi8 and Digital8 camcorders, some models and standalone players would send audio & video via firewire to computers for capture and editing in software like iMovie, Final Cut Pro, and Premiere.

Firewire is similarly obsolete, but the technology still works in allowing software to capture analogue video using legacy gear and connectors, hence the reason some gear retains value in online markets like Ebay.

Depending on the project, I use combinations of prosumer and former broadcast gear to digitize analogue video, and for film & video art projects, bounce footage from an editing timeline to videotape, played through assorted analogue processors, and bounced back to a digital environment for re-capture and layering.