Digitising VHS Tapes
The Simple Method
This guide will help in giving tips in how to convert your VHS tapes to digital.
You can get reasonable quality without it costing lots of money especially if you have a computer and VHS player.
Tapes degrade over time so the earlier you copy what you want off them the better.
A simple digitisation setup with a PC, VCR and audio mixer.
Why Do It?
You may want to copy over your personal videos or you have some content recorded from the TV that you just never see broadcast again. It is always a good idea to make a digital copy while still possible.
Sometimes even the studios themselves loose their own recordings be it from recycling media to save money, destroying media to reallocate archive space. Or even accidental destruction such as the 1937 Fox vault fire, MGM vault fire and the 2008 Universal Studios fire.
I have been told that Network Ten Australia do not have any content before 1992.
Video Cassette Recorder
A 6 head Hi-Fi VCR is preferred as more heads means the video quality will be better and the player will be able to track the tape much better too.
Hi-Fi units will have left and right outputs. If you recorded on a mono recorder then it will only play back mono but if you are playing a stereo tape on a mono system you won't be able to get stereo.
VCRs with S-Video or better are harder to find and more expensive but reasonable video can be had from composite output with a quality cable.
A remote is also handy as sometimes functions are only accessible on the remote control.
You don't need a crazy fast PC so if you have a spare old computer it should be fine. Depending on the type of capture device you use you may want one with a spare PCI or PCIe slot. Anything from a Pentium 4 to the latest hardware should work.
Windows XP and Windows 7 are the most compatible since VHS was still around when they were released but newer operating systems will depend on working drivers, codecs and software.
Most products made today do not process the video signals correctly and stretch or upscale the video for modern displays. They are generally used for connecting game consoles to monitors or televisions.
The golden period of products for capturing analogue TV and AV content was between the year 2000 and 2010. A lot of this older hardware can be found for very cheap or free these days.
Leadtek made a lot of models over these years and work well for this type of work. Other brands are also available, many used Conexant or Phillips/NXP chips for AV processing.
Leadtek Models and Drivers
A remote and IR receiver included made controlling the capture device and included software easy just like controlling a TV or VCR.
Some models require an AV cable adapter for analogue input.
Some models are low profile and included a low profile bracket so they can be used in small form factor cases.
Audio Mixer Console (optional)
An audio mixer is a great way of making sure that the audio from the VHS player is at the correct level when being digitised in real time. Sometimes tapes have quiet audio from signal loss or only one channel has audio.
In some cases recordings may have been made where the volume of the source was turned down by accident.
A simple mixer where you can control the levels and balance is all that is really needed. Plug in the mixer to your sound card or if it has USB you can let the mixer process the ADC for the computer directly.
If you need to do any post editing it is much better to have a good source first then trying to make up for it later.
Sound Card (optional)
On-board audio is usually sufficient with most computers made in the last 10 years. As long as you use good quality cables and your sound card has at least 90db ADC then it should be fine.
If you have one you may want to use a dedicated sound card over on-board. If you have a mixer console with USB you wont need a dedicated sound card as the ADC will be done by the mixer.
You can try out the software that came with your capture device or look for alternatives but a lot of them are more focused on being used in a media centre PC in a home theatre setup.
If you have a Leadtek capture device the WinFast PVR2 application works well and supports the remote included with some models.
For playback and codecs there is VLC, PotPlayer and Media Player Classic combined with K-Lite Codec Pack Mega.
You can use any video editing software you like. Even the free Windows Movie Maker will work fine for simple editing which was included in Windows Essentials 2012 if you can still find a copy.
You can change the volume slider in Windows to show decibels instead of percent.
Right click the the level you want to change to switch.
This works from Windows Vista on wards.
VHS cassettes should be stored in a cool dry place.
Tapes are prone to mold over time especially older tapes. This can look like white power which you can see in the window of the cassette.
There are commercial made tape cleaning units but they are hard to find.
Contaminated tapes even after treatment should be played with caution. Having a spare VCR especially for playing contaminated tapes that you can manage to clean and maintain is better so that you reduce contaminating a good clean player.
This video belongs to: The Walt Disney Company.
VCRs will need cleaning. When it struggles to track the signal it is time to clean the unit.
Hardware Secrets has a great article how to do this yourself. How to Manually Clean Your VCR Heads.
Once you are happy with your conversions you can get rid of tapes in a safe way.
Some places accept recycling VHS tapes. It would be best to contact your local government for more information.
In South Australia there are various locations where you can drop off electronics including tapes.