Here's How You Can Transfer Your VHS Tapes into Digital Files
It's time to take your analog past into the digital present.
So you want to start digitizing your life, or maybe your life’s work? Perhaps you have some old family videotapes gathering dust or even of some old films you made; either way, digital is the way to go!
Once digitized, you’ll be able to view, share, and edit that old footage with ease. In order to help you with your digitization projects, I've put together a guide to walk you through the process. But before you get started, you’re going to need a few things.
Step 1A: Building Your Rig
The most important step in the process is building your rig. This means setting up your capture devices and software to allow the video transfer process to occur. Going forward I will mainly be talking about setting up for transferring VHS tapes-to-digital as it’s most common. However, this video transfer process can work with any type of consumer tape you may have, including VHS-C, 8mm, Hi-8, MiniDV, MicroMV, or even Betamax.
You’re going to need a device that can play your tape, in this case, a VCR. VCRs can be a bit expensive these days, especially for a good one; but the difference between a $50 VCR and a $300+ VCR will become extremely apparent when trying to capture quality footage. Sure, the $50 VCR will get the job done, but it’s most likely going to look a little grainy or darker than intended with audio feedback problems. I suggest coughing up the extra change and getting yourself a professional player to get the best quality possible.
You’re also going to want to get a Time Base Corrector (TBC), as this will help keep your picture stable and clean.
Next up on the order list is going to be an analog-to-digital converter. This handy device will plug into your computer via USB port and allow you to plug the VCR into it. The converter will take the analog signals from the VCR and convert them to digital signals that your computer can interpret. Make sure you have the proper wires to do this, as you’re going to need standard red/white composite audio cables and an S-Video cable. Plug these into the VCR where it says “Output” and plug the other end into the converter.
You’re also going to want to get a Time Base Corrector (TBC), as this will help keep your picture stable and clean. These devices usually require their own power plug and you should connect the S-Video from the VCR directly to the TBC and then run a second S-Video wire from the TBC’s output to the converter.
Get yourself some capture software. The converter will make it so your computer can recognize the analog signals and display them, capture software will allow you to capture those displays into digital video files.
Once everything is plugged in and installed, you’re ready to get started.
Tapes will often have tons of dust and grime on them from years of storage and/or deterioration.
Step 1B: Cleaning Your Rig
Once you have your VCR, you’re going to want to clean it. Most of us who used VCRs regularly a few years ago never cleaned them. However, properly caring for your equipment is crucial to completing multiple transfers efficiently. To clean the VCR, you’ll have to remove the screws both on the sides and in the back that keep the casing on. Slide this casing off carefully and you should see several spike-like things along with a circular spinning device. That device is the video head, and those spikes hold the tape in place as it moves throughout the VCR.
All surfaces that the tape touches need to be cleaned. Tapes will often have tons of dust and grime on them from years of storage and/or deterioration. Once you’ve identified the surface areas that need to be cleaned, get synthetic cotton swabs and some isopropyl alcohol. Make sure you’re using synthetic cotton swabs because real cotton will tear and get stuck, possibly preventing playback. Dip the swab in the alcohol and wipe the swab on the lip of the bottle to remove excess alcohol (no need for the swab to be dripping). Now carefully wipe down the spikes with the swab. Once that’s done, you can move on to cleaning the video head, preferably with a fresh swab.
If using equipment besides a VCR or similar device, look into dry cleaning cassettes.
Carefully place the swab against the video head with one hand and use the other to spin it around. Don’t move the swab while the video head is spinning but instead pause and reposition the swab multiple times to ensure you’ve cleaned the whole video head. Do this for a minute or two (or until the swab stops getting dirt). Finally, put the case back on and screw everything into place.
Whew, that was a lot of work, but now that it’s done you can be sure that you’re getting a great quality transfer. Just be sure to clean your equipment every 50 hours or so of playback. If using equipment besides a VCR or similar device, look into dry cleaning cassettes. Be careful using the cassettes though, as extended use (or use on a fragile system) could damage the video heads and ruin your device.
Step 2: The Prep
Unless you plan on watching your tape as it transfers, since the transfer happens in real time— 2-hour tape = 2-hour transfer— you’re going to want to set your software to record for a specific amount of time. To get this time, simply put your tape in the VCR, rewind it all the way, pop it out so that the counter resets, put the tape back in, fast forward to the end of the tape, and write down the timecode the VCR shows.
Once you have the timecode (which is the length of footage on the tape), rewind the tape to the start and enter the timecode into the software. Be sure to leave yourself a few seconds at the start and end of the transfer time as tapes often have defects causing them to stutter or playback at a reduced quality which won’t register on the time code, thus making your time window incorrect.
To convert your files, you will just need to buy a video conversion program and convert the MPEG-2s into your format of choice.
Step 3: Hit Play
Press Record on the software and press Play on the VCR, and that’s it. Come back when the tape should be done and save it out as whatever name you want. By default, most software will save the video file as an MPEG-2, which may not be the right format for everyone; some programs won’t play it. Typically, people use MP4 or MOV these days.
To convert your files, you will just need to buy a video conversion program and convert the MPEG-2s into your format of choice. Rendering the files could take a long time depending on the strength of your computer and the size of the file.
And just like that, you’ve transferred your first VHS tape-to-digital format! Now you’ll have that file for as long as you can keep track of it.
You will need to acquire the appropriate deck to playback the tapes.
Broadcast Tape Transfer-to-Digital
The process for transferring broadcast tapes is similar but requires higher-end hardware and software. Broadcast tape varieties include Betacam, Digital Betacam, DVCAM, DVCPRO and 3/4 U-Matic. Again, you will need to acquire the appropriate deck to playback the tapes (Note: these can cost thousands of dollars).
Most decks will utilize an IEEE 1394 firewire for output, which will connect to the back of your computer with the appropriate card adapter. For software, you will need something a little more robust such as Premiere Pro. Once everything is connected, just open your program, adjust the settings to your liking, and start capturing.
Transferring 8mm and 16mm Film
When it comes to digitizing 8mm or 16mm film, whether it’s old family footage or your senior thesis, you’ll have to go through a completely different process. If you’re really looking to keep it cheap and simple. find a film projector, load up your film, project it on a wall, and capture it with a digital camera. After that, just download the files to your computer. This is a very low-quality way of doing things though, so be warned.
In order to achieve the highest quality film transfer, you’ll want to opt for a process called Frame by Frame Capture. This uses specialized scanners that scan each frame as a separate image, which are then compiled to create a video. Depending on the rig, film can be scanned in standard definition, HD, 2K or even 4K. This is much more expensive and time-consuming, and it has a steep learning curve to get it right. If the film is damaged or has vinegar syndrome, prepare for a lengthy headache-inducing process of cleaning and splicing.
Unless you plan on making a career out of transferring film, I would recommend outsourcing this project to a professional company. It will cost you a few cents-per-foot, but it will be worth every penny. And if you have damaged film, the money you’ll save in ibuprofen costs alone will probably make up for the costs of the transfer.
As I said before, this guide is mainly geared towards transferring VHS-to-digital using a VCR, but this process will work for transferring camcorder tapes as well. The only difference is that you will need the appropriate device to play your tape (deck or camcorder) and the proper wires to connect that device to the digital converter and your computer.
If you have projects still stored on analog media, start transferring them to digital as soon as you can before they deteriorate and fade away any further. If all this still sounds like too much to do yourself, look into video transfer services, as they’re pretty well priced these days. Good Luck!