Best VHS to digital for under $500?
March 8, 2010 11:34 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for a way to convert old VHS tapes to digital. I have archival material and want the highest quality transfer I can get for under $500. I'd prefer to use a Mac to store and edit the resulting digital file before burning the output to a DVD.

So I've got a few VHS tapes and I want to do a superb job of transferring them to DVD. I want no audio hum and minimal video artifacts. I want the highest resolution and highest quality digitization possible with < $500 of hardware hooked up to my Mac if that's the best way to proceed. For all I know VHS to DVD copiers from CostCo rock. But see my hardware below.

I'm OK with giving this job to a company that does great conversions to something suitable for editing (whatever RAW mode for video is called). I'm definitely going to want to fiddle with the material ... I mean edit it ... mainly to select the scenes I want, once I've got it on my computer.

I only have three tapes. I don't intend to do this conversion for a living. I just want this one job done right.

When I photograph, I shoot in RAW mode before converting to JPEG. I'd like to do the same here if possible. Digitize the source with a minimum of artifacts, and do it right before converting to a standard burnable DVD.

The source is a professionally made studio VHS recording circa 1997 (not studio as in Macrovision, studio as in some friends with a high-quality small studio made this).

So, it's a 12+ year old VHS tape or a copy of a 12 year old master that probably hasn't been viewed in a decade. I'm expecting non-perfect source material here, and I want a converter that can deal with this without choking.

Hardware budget: $500 or less

Available hardware:

1) Mac Mini with 50GB free, no firewire
2) 2007 Macbook Pro with 20GB free, Firewire, Parallels (so I imagine VirtualDub is an option)
3) Some extra USB and Firewire drives lying about

What video capture device will be rock solid and give me excellent audio and video? Will it let me fiddle and also let me have a simple workflow when I'm tired of fiddling?

I'm planning on borrowing a VHS player with component video output if I can find one.

Are there questions I should be asking, but am not because I'm a newbie? What are they?
posted by zippy to Technology (18 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Correction to my hardware list. I was wrong. The Mac Mini is relatively new (3 months old) and has Firewire (Firewire 800, I believe).
posted by zippy at 12:21 AM on March 9, 2010

Best answer: hades: VHS records what is essentially S-video, with separate luma (freq modulated) & chroma (analogue in the baseband) on the tape.

Personally, unless you plan on doing this more than occasionally and want to spring for something like the ADVC300 (I'd suggest the filtering and TBC is necessary, unless you have access to a pro/prosumer VHS deck with in-built filtering & TBC), I'd suggest a DVD recorder as best 'bang for the buck' - particularly if you can borrow one ;-)

Cheap computer video capture devices are fine, but…
  • The frame/field/line timing of consumer videotape is terrible - jitter abounds, and is only made worse by the tendency of consumer-level capture cards to require impeccable timing. A decent time-base corrector is almost a necessity, particularly for older tapes
  • High-frequency noise - tape noise, not present in the original video - means a lot of spatial and colour noise in the resulting capture. This can somewhat be removed by digital filtering/processing, but it's often better handled with analogue filtering.
  • VHS tape is hardly high-res - at best you've got about 250 lines vertical resolution (horizontal resolution is not really applicable to analogue video, but it's effectively also halved compared to broadcast TV) - so there's little point in digitising at better than DVD resolution (720x480|576). Arguably, you can often be better off digitising at half-D1, or even quarter-D1.
Which is to say - there are limits as to what you can get off pristine VHS tape (although your source may be pretty good since it was done on studio-quality gear, it's still limited), digitising at a quality way above those limits is largely wasted time/money/effort/space, and to do it properly at those levels requires professional, or at least prosumer, equipment.

As it turns out, good consumer DVD recorders - particularly ones with HDD recording - have reasonable TBCs built-in to stabilise the video signal, have fairly good analogue filters, and can achieve 95%+ of the quality of a decent video capture device with TBC & filtering. Record at the highest quality available, rip the resulting DVD, edit, re-encode to target (if you organise this right, with the right software you don't even have to re-encode the whole thing - just around the edits), and master your DVD with menus, etc.

Caveats: iMovie doesn't support MPEG-2 file import unless you've got QTPro installed. It's also fine for short clips & home videos, but I don't know if I'd want to do a real production with it. Figure in the cost of a real NLE and DVD mastering software either now or somewhere down the track. Personally, since I don't do much video these days, I still use EditStudio & DVDLab Pro under Parallels.

As for audio: clean it up separately, if needed. Audacity is your friend. (Again, I use Cool Edit Pro under Parallels.)
posted by Pinback at 2:20 AM on March 9, 2010 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Pinback, that's a good suggestion. You've got me strongly considering ditching the raw edit requirement just because the DVD recorder apparently handles so many of the hardware and noise issues.

Do you have particular models you could recommend, or features that I should look for to distinguish good consumer DVD recorders from bad?

I assume these devices are just a DVD recorder and a video input jack, with a lot of smarts between the two, and that I'd plug a separate VHS player into the video in on this.
posted by zippy at 2:44 AM on March 9, 2010

Best answer: I did the thing you want years ago with doing the family movies conversion. I specified getting the conversion on 8mm digital tape. I moved analog 8mm film to 8 mm digital tape. They did a nice job quality wise. They can convert any which way.

I already had a 8mm digital Sony vidcam with firewire. If you don't have a digital vidcam, see about borrowing one or renting one

Put the cassette into the vidcam, ran it into Mac to iMovie via Firewire. Saved to large capacity HD. Edited the vid in iMovie to my heart's content.

Burned final project to DVD. I put the original mini DV tapes in to home safe. I saved raw video and finished project on external HD.

You should be able to get the conversion done well under $500 w/o buying much in the way of hardware.

The real expense will be time spent editing.

Good luck.
posted by looknevada at 4:31 AM on March 9, 2010

Can I get in on this question?

related to this:

"I did the thing you want years ago with doing the family movies conversion. I specified getting the conversion on 8mm digital tape."

My home movies are starting as 8mm digital tape, and I want to wind up with something probably on an SD card that I could stick into my PC and then edit. What file format should I tell the conversion people to convert them to? I just want to do simple cut 'n paste, probably with Windows Movie Maker (yeah, I know). Would .avi be the right type of file for this?

thank you
posted by DMelanogaster at 5:16 AM on March 9, 2010

There's way too much info, reviews, arguments on AVS Forum. Consensus seems to be that the currently-available combo units are not so great. After a long search I found a refurb Toshiba 670 on ebay for around $150 shipped. Haven't tried VHS to DVD-R xfer yet.

I also have an older ADS "Instant DVD for Mac" box that I'm going to put up on CL or ebay soon as I locate the original packaging and accessories. Contact me if interested.
posted by omnidrew at 8:22 AM on March 9, 2010

You can send your tapes off to these guys and they'll be able to convert the video into digital files, DVDs, or pretty much anything else you want.
posted by spilon at 8:27 AM on March 9, 2010

Best answer: I'll second the recommendation of the Canopus ADC boxes. I have an old (now discontinued) one of theirs, and it's very nice. It's one of those gadgets that does its job and does it well, and does it with a minimum of screwing around. You plug S-Video or Composite in one end, and it spits out DV over FireWire on the other. (Or in reverse.) No software/drivers/B.S. needed.

That said ... what's going to affect your VHS conversion is mostly the stuff on the analog side; the VCR. It's never going to look great, just because VHS isn't a great format, but using a good deck can take it from truly crappy to at least decent. If the tape was recorded with HiFi audio, you'll definitely want a deck that supports this; other than that you'll just one one that's clean and in good repair, holds tracking well, and doesn't introduce noise.

I disagree on the recommendation to use a home DVD recorder, if you are shooting for quality and editability. (If your major concern is just getting a digital copy as quickly/easily as possible, then sure.) I would use a Canopus ADC box — maybe get a used one and then sell it? — to convert to DV-over-Firewire, and then record the Firewire stream to MiniDV tape using any consumer camcorder. The quality of the camcorder really doesn't matter, since you're just using it as a glorified tape drive. Although the DV format and MiniDV tape isn't perfect, it'll last a long time (probably longer than writable DVDs) and is widely playable. Plus, it's easy to bring into iMovie or any other editing program using any computer with a FireWire port.

I copied all my VHS and Hi8 home movies to MiniDV tape this way, and then I also dumped the tapes to iMovie projects (which are just containers holding .dv files) and put them on an external hard drive. The tapes go into a safe place, alongside the old analog masters, and then I use the hard drive when I want to edit or burn a DVD, to avoid wearing out the tapes.

It's trivial to make a DVD from a DV tape using iMovie and iDVD, but it is not trivial (and involves some quality loss) to take a DVD, convert it back to an editable format, and edit it. If a combination DVD-R/VCR deck is all you have then it's certainly better than nothing, but it wouldn't be my first choice.

Pinback: VHS records what is essentially S-video, with separate luma (freq modulated) & chroma (analogue in the baseband) on the tape.

I have to take a certain amount of issue with this statement. I understand the point you're getting at, but the luma/chroma in VHS aren't really "separate" — there's a lot of filtering that happens in order to cram them into the available bandwidth on the same signal path. The entire point of S-VHS was to eliminate the low-pass filtering of the luma (giving it more bandwidth) by recording the color-under subcarrier separately. VHS is better seen as a clever way of cramming color NTSC broadcast (which is itself a clever, backwards-compatible hack on top of B&W broadcast) into a very limited recording bandwidth, rather than as a way of recording S-Video (which came after VHS anyway). Admittedly nitpicky.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:37 AM on March 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you're still in the Bay Area, there are both places that could convert it to DVD for you (though I couldn't recommend one offhand) & someone with a VCR & MiniDV camera (that's me, volunteering, but uncertain about the relative quality).
posted by Pronoiac at 8:46 AM on March 9, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you, collective Metafilter wisdom.

OK, so there are four paths so far if I'm summarizing correctly.

1. Get a Canopus ADVC110 ($205) or a Canopus ADVC300 ($400).

Both boxes convert from analog video to DV. Only the more expensive box includes time base correction, which given my old tapes and my own fussy nature, is something I will want.

2. Have a service convert the VHS to 8mm DV tape, then borrow a DV player/camcorder and edit away.

3. Use a consumer DVD recorder as the ones with a HD often have time base coding built in.

4. Borrow DV recorder, hook up to VHS player, do the conversion in Option 2 myself or with aid of MeFites (wow, thank you).

Re (1): Are TBCs by themselves inexpensive? Could I find one for say $100 and pair it up with the ADVC110, or would going with an integrated unit be the better choice?

(2) is probably the most economical. I doubt anyone is paying much attention to the transfer, but I assume they use good gear which makes up for this. Is this correct? Are there any local to SF / East Bay places that have a good rep?

(3) is still tempting, but I'm unsure which DVD recorders would do a good job (that is, have TBC and generally handle what is probably a flaky source).

(4) Are DV camcorders in general tolerant of flaky input (old VHS tapes)? Any specific models worth considering? I am in the market for a Costco-level DV recorder, so it's OK to go over budget here.
posted by zippy at 9:44 AM on March 9, 2010

Best answer: I started typing this up this morning but was interrupted. In any case, this is mostly pedantic, since it looks like you dropped the "raw" restriction. So I'll put this in a smaller font:

To answer one of your side-questions, the functional-equivalent to RAW here would be "uncompressed" video, which means that unlike the MPEG-2 on a DVD every frame is described as an independent image (i.e., no temporal compression), and unlike DV (or pretty much any codec out there, including MPEG-2) each pixel in the image is described as an independent set of color/brightness values (i.e., no spatial compression).

But I'm not seeing how you can fulfill this requirement at your budget without a favor from someone at a post studio.

Since your source material is standard definition -- rendering your concern about high resolution moot -- the digital tape format that would satisfy the uncompressed requirement is DigiBeta. To store the video as an uncompressed digital file you'll need about 1Gig per minute of footage. You don't mention how much footage you have, but if we assume 1-2hrs per tape, that means you'd need 180-360 GBs of free space, and without a digibeta master as backup, you'd likely want those files backed up on another drive, so you'd need to double that.

This is what it would take to have an uncompressed digital master, but that's likely overkill.

It looks like you're leaning toward converting to DV (one way or another -- either to DV tape or directly to file using one of those converter boxes), editing/color-correcting there, and then compressing to DVD. This might be just fine for your purposes, but note that DV, while extremely convenient for editing (and cheap for tape storage), isn't such a great format.

Assuming you have Final Cut Pro on your macs, if you're going to have a transfer-house do the conversion for you I'd look into having them digitize directly to a hard drive in another format, possibly the Apple ProRes 422 (HQ) codec with a standard-def frame-size (720x486 is one of the presets, I think). This would be a compromise between Uncompressed video (~1GB/minute) and DV (~5GB/minute). I think going this route would mean you'd need a little less than gig of space for every two minutes of source material.

(You could shave this down further by using the version of the codec without the "(HQ)" next to the name -- "HQ" stands for "high quality" -- but I'm not sure what the quality loss or hard drive space saved would be.)
posted by nobody at 4:15 PM on March 9, 2010

zippy: I'm in a PAL country, so any specific recommendations would be largely pointless in NTSC countries. Very generally, I've found the higher-priced Panasonic and Sony units to be quite good.

Kadin2048: Agreed - I over-simplified; I probably should have said it records the chroma and luma separately in a similar fashion to how S-video carries it, although the chroma bandwidth is still severely restricted compared to actual S-video.

In practice, it highlights one of the differences between PAL vs NTSC on VHS - the higher subcarrier of PAL allows for better filtering of chroma from luma (and so, less visual effects resulting from mixing of the chroma signal & any residual chroma in the luma), but the lower tape speed of PAL means an overall lower chroma bandwidth. So PAL VHS has less chroma noise/patterning (which is a bear to deal with in compressed digital formats, as it effectively eats bits), but also less chroma resolution (which sounds bad, but in practice is less noticeable).
posted by Pinback at 6:40 PM on March 9, 2010

One last thing:

2. Have a service convert the VHS to 8mm DV tape, then borrow a DV player/camcorder and edit away.

Nix the "8mm" part. What you want is almost certainly MiniDV. Not 8mm.

There is/was a "digital 8mm" format called Digital8 created by Sony as a transitional format between Hi8 and DV. Basically it let you record DV to Hi8 tapes, and also play back analog Hi8 tapes. It was clever for its time, and not a bad idea if you had a lot of Hi8 material, but it's not a very popular format anymore and unless you happen to already own a Digital8 camcorder, I'd avoid it. I'm not even sure that there are any D8 camcorders or decks in current production anymore, and even if there are there probably won't be in the next few years ... not what I'd want for archiving. (And if I did have any Digital8 tapes, I'd be moving them to MiniDV and disk storage now.)

MiniDV is a much more popular format — although it is slowly being displaced by solid-state or disk-based camcorders — and is almost certainly what you want. Even though the world may be moving away from magnetic tape in general, you won't have much trouble finding a playback device for quite a while. (On a sidenote: while technically the tape inside the case is quarter-inch, I've never heard anyone refer to it that way.)

But aside from that, I think you've pretty much summed up your options pretty well. It's all up to you which road you want to go down; they each have their own tradeoffs.

nobody: DV, while extremely convenient for editing (and cheap for tape storage), isn't such a great format.

Very true, but he's coming from VHS source material shot on (presumably) a consumer camcorder. Chances are it'll "fit" within the quality envelope of DV just fine, although there's nothing wrong with going to ProRes 422.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:27 AM on March 10, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you all for bringing me up to date on so many issues. I feel like I just got the best distilled essence of AVS Forums, without the arcana flamefests. And thank you for gently but directly correcting my misunderstandings about digital video.

Upthread someone asked about how many hours I'm converting. It's probably 3 - 6 hrs total. The video was probably shot on prosumer or pro equipment of its day (circa 1997). I've only gotten a verbal description of 'VHS' but what's actually on the tape could be VHS or S-VHS. I won't know until I have it in my mitts (and is there an easy way to tell one from the other on looking at the physical tape, or is this something I would need an S-VHS player to detect?).
posted by zippy at 10:46 AM on March 10, 2010

Response by poster: Now have access to S-VHS deck with HiFi audio.
posted by zippy at 12:25 AM on March 12, 2010

Response by poster: Update: I got a used Canopus ADVC300 on Craigslist for $200, and it does exactly what I want. I went from: VHS, Mac, Canopus to DV on hard drive in minutes. The Canopus software lets me tweak several of the things that I'd be tweaking if I were in the equivalent of photography's RAW mode, including exposure.

This is on a Mac with Firewire. But the box behavies similarly on a PC too.

Thank you for helping me figure out a path through the n-dimensional decision space of possibilities.
posted by zippy at 8:26 PM on March 30, 2010

Response by poster: Now working on the audio with Audacity, specifically removing 60Hz hum and some noise. Audacity's UI is a little awkward, but it's free and capable of the job. This suggestion was a good one.
posted by zippy at 10:36 PM on April 1, 2010

Response by poster: One important tip about the Canopus ADVC300. There's a dip switch on the converter that selects whether your computer, running Canopus's software, or the converter's own physical buttons, control the conversion settings.

Canopus's software doesn't warn you when it's unable to talk to the box.

I spent a few runs futzing with video noise reduction and seeing no effect at all before I realized what was going on. So do read the manual's section on dip switch settings, if nothing else.
posted by zippy at 10:46 PM on April 1, 2010

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