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Salvaging VHS tapes

February 18, 2011

VHS - by macwagen

Many of us have a collection of VHS videotapes, both personal and work-related; libraries and departments also have them. Unfortunately, videotape players are becoming hard to find. Classrooms at Notre Dame no longer provide a VCR as standard equipment; one must be requested ahead of time.

Our VHS tapes are also getting old. The material is relatively brittle, so we worry that our media will become physically damaged. The library at Notre Dame has a plan to replace its tape collection with DVDs where possible, but what do you do in the meantime? What happens if replacement media can’t be found? How do you convert your personal videotapes to a digital format?

Disclaimer: I’m going to assume you know the legal and ethical issues that may be associated with copying media. At a minimum, copying copyrighted media purely for convenience is a bad idea.

One way to preserve a VHS tape is to digitize it – that is, convert it from analog format to something a computer can use. The process requires two kinds of technology:

  1. Hardware that feeds video from your VCR into your computer – this means cables and some kind of “black box”
  2. Software that captures the incoming video feed and saves it as a computer file

I have used an analog-to-digital converter box to connect a VCR to a Mac through a firewire cable. I then capture the video feed with an old version of Apple’s iMovie software. This does the trick nicely, but newer and snazzier systems are available. For example, the “Elgato Video Capture” system (Mac and Windows) costs $85 at Amazon and gets good reviews there (here’s a YouTube video on the Elgato device).

6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 21, 2011 6:47 pm

    I’m not old enough to know this VHS of which you speak…

  2. Gary Wise permalink
    April 19, 2011 2:44 pm

    The problem with many of these inexpensive video capture devices, is that the video can get very pixelated or”soft” and the audio invariably goes out of sync with the video. This is especially true of longer videos (ie., commerical movies made on VHS). What I have used is the ADVC300 made by Grass Valley. It is a professional digitization encoder that costs around $350. So, it will not break the bank, but costs more than the Dazzles and Elgatos that are out there. It is pretty simple to use and can be used for either Mac or PC. The old adage applies: You get what you pay for.

  3. Chris Clark permalink*
    February 19, 2011 10:29 am

    The Elgato mentioned at the end is for Mac and PC.

  4. Catherine permalink
    February 19, 2011 12:53 am

    Great article, thank you! Is there any good software for PCs?

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