Video, Audio Recordings and 8mm Films – FAQ
by Christopher Dicks, former Assistant Audio and Video Conservator, Library and Archives Canada, Music Division, and edited by Joe Iraci, Senior Conservation Scientist, Canadian Conservation Institute.
At some time or another, we have all had problems with our video and audio recordings. Sometimes, the VHS cassette will not play properly. Many people also have treasured vinyl record albums that they want to be able to listen to and preserve. This FAQ will answer questions on formatting, conservation, storage and transference of media.
Table of Contents
Why will my VHS tape not play properly?
Perhaps the problem lies with the cassette itself or with your VHS player. Try to play another cassette on the same machine. Or, try playing the cassette in another player. If you are sure that the cassette itself is to blame, the tape could be rehoused in a new cassette shell. This may be a tricky procedure. Use a similar, discarded VHS cassette housing to practice on.
After extended storage, a VHS tape may lose its proper winding tension. To restore the tension, play the tape once through and then rewind it.
If the problem tape is new, the reason it will not play may be somewhat surprising: was the tape recorded using the NTSC format? If it was recorded using another standard, such as PAL or SECAM, it is unlikely to playback in a VCR machine produced for the North American market. In this situation, the content of the tape would have to be converted to the NTSC format. In North America, the NTSC standard is used; in Britain, Australia and most of Europe, PAL is used; and in France, Russia and parts of Africa, SECAM is the television standard. If you choose to change the format of your tape, check the Yellow Pages under "Video Production" or "Videotape Duplication Service."
What do I do with my 8mm camcorder tapes or VHS tapes?
Any videotape can be copied to any other videotape or digital medium provided you have the right connectors and the same video format on both ends (NTSC, PAL or SECAM). You should choose the highest possible quality format, the highest possible quality of tape stock, the highest quality machine and the machine type that you believe will survive the longest. Try to assess the market trends and choose a format that you expect to endure.
The easiest method (although not the best for quality) for most users is to transfer their tapes to VHS tape. For VHS tape, using a good-quality duplicator or two recording machines is a possibility. Note that there is some loss of quality when making copies from one analog format to another, such as 8mm to VHS, or VHS to VHS.
Nowadays, the recommended path is an analog to digital conversion, instead of analog to analog, because analog technologies are on their way to becoming obsolete. To prevent quality loss when digitizing an analog format, use digitizing software without data compression, and store the file on your computer. Alternatively, you may decide to choose other digital formats, such as recordable DVD, Blu-ray or the DV/miniDV tape format, which can produce good-quality reproductions but use compression. Compression means that some image information is thrown out in order to save storage space. This may or may not result in a noticeable loss of detail or the addition of visual artifacts (that is, effects not present in the original image). Also, remember that digital formats have serious longevity issues, which are described in our FAQs CD Formats and Their Longevity and Computer Hard Disks and Diskettes.
If you do copy your tape, keep the original. Improved technologies may come along in the future, allowing you to make a better copy than is currently possible.
If you no longer have a playback machine, look in the Yellow Pages under "Video Production" and under "Videotape Duplication Service" for a company that offers commercial copying. However, keep in mind the points discussed above.
Is it necessary to periodically rewind my VHS tapes?
It may be necessary to periodically rewind tapes in storage to return them to their ideal tension. If the tapes were wound properly initially, if storage conditions have been good (close to 23°C and 50% RH) and if there are no signs that the wind is loose (visible gaps) or irregular looking, it is best to leave the tapes alone and not rewind them. A poor wind is recognizable because the tape wind on the reel is not perfectly round or perfectly flat; for example, the edge of some sections of tape may stick up higher than the rest of the reel, or loose sections of tape may create an oval rather than a round shape. If the tapes are not stored in an ideal environment, they are more likely to expand or contract, causing winding problems. Also, tape layers may stick to one another if they have been exposed to high temperature and humidity conditions and if the tape layers have been in contact with one another for a long time. Visually inspect your tape through its clear plastic window. If the wind looks problematic, you should consider rewinding the tape and then playing it through to the end. Every 5 to 10 years, reinspect the tapes and rewind only if the tape winds looks problematic. If you decide to perform this procedure, ensure that the equipment is clean and properly aligned to avoid stressing or damaging the tape. Otherwise, you may be causing more harm to the tape than good.
How do I preserve and store VHS tapes?
Videotape is composed of magnetic particles (metal oxides) incorporated into a binder layer on a polyester base, or for newer digital tapes, a thin magnetic film deposited on a plastic base without a binder. The metal oxide particles store or record the signals, and the binder layer keeps the particles where they belong. The binder layer may hydrolyze (a chemical reaction with water), which renders the binder soft and sticky over time, or it may lose its integrity and begin to flake off, leading to loss of information as the magnetic particles are lost. Videotapes in this condition will not play properly because they clog VCR heads. To prevent this degradation problem, cooler and drier storage is best, but try to keep the conditions at least below 23 °C and 50% RH and avoid large fluctuations in these conditions. Avoid storing tapes in basements, attics or garages, and keep them away from sources of heat such as vents and baseboard heaters or strong sunlight.
The polyester base can be damaged by uneven winding from recording or playback; this results in tracking problems when the tape is played. To prevent this from occurring, before storing your tapes, play them through (using the Play mode) and do not rewind. This produces tapes with the ideal winding tension. Using Fast-forward or Rewind modes produces wound tape with uneven tension.
Protect the tapes from contact with dust and other debris and contaminants as much as possible. Store tapes in polypropylene rigid storage boxes or at least in clean, dustproof containers when they are not being used. Do not leave tapes in the VCR. Dust and debris can scratch tape and damage equipment. Do not touch the tape with bare hands. Use lint-free cotton gloves if the tape needs to be handled.
Only play your tapes on clean and well-maintained equipment. Avoid placing the player on "Pause" for long periods when playing the tape or shuffling between "Fast-forward" and "Reverse" modes without stopping the tape first, as these actions place stress on the tape. Store your tapes upright (vertically) and on end. On older tapes, if you see evidence of magnetic particle debris or of a sticky build-up on the play head of the player, this indicates that the tape should be handled carefully and perhaps that it is time to consult a professional to recover the recording.
Keep tapes at least 7.5 cm (3 inches) away from magnetic sources such as stereo speakers, tape head demagnetizers, electromagnets used in electric drills, etc. This amount of separation is enough to protect tapes from most magnetic fields that a tape will encounter.
How long will VHS be around?
No one can predict how long a format will be around. Consumer habits, to some extent, will determine this, as well as technological advancement and profit. Vinyl records took approximately 10 years to disappear in the face of CDs. New movies are not being issued on VHS format anymore. Blank VHS tapes can still be purchased but brand selection is very limited. The VHS format is definitely on its way to obsolescence. However, millions of VHS machines exist now, meaning that the format will probably still be viable for some years. You might consider buying a few new VCRs today (they are very inexpensive and still available, albeit with a limited selection) if you have a large VHS collection — in order to keep the collection accessible. Do not use these machines until your present machine fails. Archives around the world often keep failed equipment because it might later be a source of parts for identical machines. It is also a good idea to consider migrating your VHS collection to a digital file now, while machines to play the tapes are still readily available.
A digital file on a computer is likely to have better longevity than the analog VHS recording. The computer probably will not be replaced and the tendency is toward standardizing file formats. All other formats for audio and video storage are more likely to come and go. Another benefit of computer storage is that the longevity of the hard disk is a separate problem from the availability of the software used to read a file. A file can easily be copied to another hard disk as disks age or disk types change. Meanwhile, a file could be converted to a newer format and, with any luck, a format that has been designed to be "open," or standardized across the industry, regardless of the differences between PC, Mac and others. In machines such as VHS players, the extinction of a machine format will effectively end the life of the recording since the recording must be played on its related machine.
How can I mark VHS tapes and their black cases?
White grease pencil will probably last the longest, longer than the adhesive on a label or on masking tape.
Look for VHS boxes that come with a transparent soft plastic sleeve around them into which you may insert acid-free paper labels. It is a good idea to write some matching details on the VHS tape cassette itself. It is best not to store materials other than the tape (for example, regular paper) inside the case.
How can I reuse audiotapes?
This answer pertains to both digital audiotape and analog audiotape. You must erase the tape first by using a magnetic bulk-eraser, which brings the magnetic particles on a tape back to a neutral state of charge, a state of equilibrium. Usually only a professional or a person who has learned to erase tapes professionally will know which strength of eraser is needed for what type of tape. A much stronger magnetic field is usually required to erase digital tapes thoroughly; therefore, it would be a mistake to try to use an analog bulk eraser on a digital tape.
If a bulk eraser is not available, turn your record volume to minimum and record silence over the entire tape. Now you are ready to record sound or voice on the tape. Each time you record on a tape, it becomes noisier (the hiss increases). Returning it to a quiet state requires bulk-erasing.
It is not recommended to reuse digital audiotape because errors are likely to occur. Errors are less likely to occur if proper bulk-erasing has been performed; however, reusing tapes is not a reliable way to safeguard your memories.
How do I deal with mouldy reel-to-reel audiotapes?
Most people should not attempt to clean mould from audiotapes. Rather, they should leave this task to a conservator. Munters in Montréal, Vidipax and Specs Bros. in the United States are two companies that commercially remove mould and offer other audio and videotape restoration services. The health of the person cleaning may be at risk if proper procedures and facilities are not used.
To remove mould, mould growth is first forced into dormancy and then the dried growth is vacuumed away. The final stage is to run the tape through cloth pads, which might contain alcohol and water, to kill and remove microscopic mould spores. While freezing is used successfully for forcing the mould on papers into dormancy, freezing may damage magnetic tapes. Freezing may also cause the tape lubricant to separate from the magnetic particle binder compound; therefore, freezing is discouraged for magnetic recordings of all types.
Ideally you would not perform an inspection indoors, but if you do, use the following precautions: first of all, protect your mouth, nose and lungs from inhaling mould spores. This requires latex gloves, a clean HEPA mask, which has been professionally tested for proper fit on your face, and a scientific fume hood that removes any mould from the air as it is dislodged. Long sleeves, sleeve covers and lab coats are also recommended. Immediately launder any clothing worn during this cleaning. Again, this type of work is best left to a professional.
Can I restore my damaged tapes?
There are several ways of restoring a tape. Each method, however, should be performed by experienced professionals. Tape is made of a plastic base coated on one side with a binder compound that holds magnetic particles, which, in turn, hold the recorded signal.
Sticky-tape syndrome occurs when a tape’s binder layer degrades and becomes sticky and may also begin to flake off the base, making the tape difficult to play and leading to loss of magnetic material. This syndrome sometimes responds well to baking. Properly identified sticky tapes can benefit from exposure to elevated temperatures (less than 50°C) for several hours. Those higher temperatures reduce the tape stickiness and consolidate the binder so that it does not fall apart. This treatment allows a previously unplayable tape to be played and allows the information to be copied onto a more stable format. Baking tapes is an extreme measure that irreversibly modifies the tape itself and thus the recording. The results are not always successful and are rarely permanent. This treatment is a last resort. Also, please note that a household oven cannot limit itself to the prescribed temperature, but must cycle between overheating and overcooling. Therefore, this procedure should not be attempted at home because the chance of success is low and the complete loss of the tape is likely.
Hand or machine cleaning a tape with a special tissue (Pellon) is the safest way to clean chemical residue and debris off a tape. Solvents should be avoided unless the tape has been submerged in water as a result of a flood or other disaster, has been infected with mould or has been exposed to debris that is difficult to remove. There are very specific guidelines on how and when solvents should be used. Cleaning the tape with sapphire blades that scrape the tape surface as it passes can cause physical damage to the tape, especially if it has been weakened or damaged. The process of bringing a tape back to playable condition can be a complicated procedure and should be dealt with by professionals.
What types or brands of videotape and audiotape are most suitable for preservation copying?
The longevity of magnetic tape used for video and audio recordings depends on the materials used to make the tape, careful and accurate manufacturing processes, proper storage and handling procedures, and correct recording practices. Buying a brand name does not guarantee a good-quality product, but increases your chances of having a product that was properly manufactured with good materials. Even then, you might buy a bad batch, so test one first by recording and then view or listen to the tape. Always buy the top of any product line.
Preservation copying should be performed on a technology that has been widely adopted by consumers (illustrated by high numbers of units sold) and by the industry (illustrated by a large number of manufacturers offering products based on the same technology). Avoid new products that are produced only by a single manufacturer. Stick with products that adhere to widely adopted industry standards.
Are there any specific recording formats that I should avoid?
Most importantly avoid any formats that are already obsolete or that are clearly losing popularity in the marketplace.
With digital formats, it is important to understand both the advantages and the disadvantages offered by new technologies. For example, DAT is not as stable as many analog tape formats are. Digital errors resulting from improper voltage, from reuse or from particle drop-out can render a DAT tape unplayable or severely distorted. Some users have found that DAT tapes only remain playable for a maximum of 10 years. Perhaps an equally pressing issue is the fact that the DAT format is obsolete and that a buyer will have trouble finding a machine for sale, if not now, then in the near future.
While you do not need to avoid using CD-R discs, avoid low-quality CD-R blanks and low-quality CD-R recorders. You should avoid improper handling of your discs and avoid CD-R production software that has low technical standards. CD-Rs can be very reliable if you choose a good-quality product and record properly.
CD-Rs can last for 100 or more years. To guide you in choosing a product that has a greater longevity, choose disks that:
- use a phthalocyanine dye layer
- are a brand name
- have a gold metal reflective layer (if possible)
- have an extra tough top protective layer
- are reported to record with a low error rate
By using discs recommended by the manufacturer of the recorder, you should be able to produce discs with low error rates.
Digital videotape formats change so quickly that if you value your footage, you should transfer it into a standard, widespread, enduring format as soon as possible. Avoid new, untested digital video formats if you are trying to capture memories that you will be able to play back in the long-term. With that said, it may be appropriate to record in a new format as long as you "store" your work in a format that will last, such as a computer file.
How do I clean vinyl record albums?
You may remove dust and debris with a velvet brush or cloth or with a carbon fibre brush. If there is a lot of static on the record, lightly spraying the cloth or velvet brush with distilled water should help dust cling to the cloth fibres.
If stains or oils are on the vinyl records, then you may need the help of a professional conservator to clean them. Conservators often use a wet vacuum-type record cleaner.
Some professional audio cleaning methods are described on Graham Newton's Audio Restoration Website.
If you are mechanically inclined, you may also be able to build a reasonable facsimile of a professional cleaner using a wet vac and a turntable. A delicate touch during cleaning is crucial.
Professionals use distilled, deionized water to clean vinyl records. They may add a surfactant or isopropyl alcohol to the water. If surfactants or solvents are used, it is necessary to rinse the record with deionized water. Triton is one currently recommended surfactant.
An alcohol/water mix would be at a ratio of 80 water to 20 alcohol, or even less of the alcohol (90 water to 10 alcohol). This will not dry records out chemically if a clean water rinse follows. A clean, lint-free cloth could be used to wipe on the water, or a solution, while the record rotates and another clean, lint-free, dry cloth could be used to absorb the water. This is less effective than wet vacuuming. A velvet or carbon fibre brush is still needed to remove lint and dust afterward. Always wipe in a circular fashion, starting at the centre and working out to the edge.
Visit the American Library of Congress website for further instructions.
What is the best way to store 33 1/3 record albums? How do I conserve vinyl record albums?
Store vinyl records upright, close together and fully supported at each end of the row. The support should be as tall as the record. Records should not be stored too tightly together. Store records in the coolest and driest room available, aiming for conditions below 23°C and 50% RH. Be sure to remove the shrink wrap from the cardboard sleeve, which can cause a vinyl record to warp.
Handle vinyl records only by their edges. Balance your tone arm and then add tracking force to your cartridge only in the amount recommended by the turntable cartridge manufacturer.
If you do not trust your current playback equipment to last as long as your vinyl records, then you may want to record them onto your computer or onto a CD-R. Currently, most turntables come with USB output for digital transfer.
How can I transfer some of my old records and get away from that technology, but make it less noisy?
Moving a recording into a new format is usually referred to as transferring or migrating. The reason to do this is usually aging of the tape or other medium or upcoming obsolescence of the old technology. However, copying to another medium may reduce space requirements. It may also allow you to make a copy that has less unwanted noise upon playback.
There are several audio software programs on the market that can record music or voice from 78 rpm records or 33 1/3 rpm records and, once recorded, reduce the unwanted surface noise automatically. These programs include "Cool Edit" with "Audio Cleanup," "DART Pro" and "Sound Forge" with "Noise Reduction." These programs require a good quality sound card in your computer and may require a computer technician to set them up. If you are not comfortable with connecting stereo components, this may be more of a challenge than you might want.
Once you have recorded audio files, you have the option of leaving them on the computer or recording them onto a CD-R. Be sure to keep your original record. Some collectors also keep copies of the original digital recording before subjecting them to the noise filtering process. Remember that technological advancements in the future may enable you later on to create a better recording than is possible today.
I have old 8mm films. Can they be transferred to videotape? Which tape is best? Is videotape the best choice?
The three ways of transferring film to analog or digital videotape are:
- Project the film as usual and videotape the screen as the film runs.
- Pay a film/video duplication company that either has an integrated film projector/video recorder machine or that will videotape from a screen as in the first example.
- Purchase or rent a film scanner and piece each scanned frame image into a digital movie, which you can then send to a VHS or other videotape recorder. This can be a laborious process. If there is sound on the film, this will complicate things immensely.
While these methods are available, film tends to be more stable and have greater longevity than VHS or other magnetic tapes. If you are going to copy film to VHS or a digital video format, do not throw out the original film because it may actually last longer than the copy.
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