Simple VHS digitization that still satisfies a video nerd's lust for quality
December 14, 2010 12:28 AM   Subscribe

This year for Christmas, I'd like to get my parents the gift of converting all their VHS tapes to digital format. I'm a sometime video editor and effects artist, so I need a solution that's a) cheap, b) not too involved, workflow-wise, and c) meets my video nerd half's demand for quality. What's the best solution that fits all three?

I just want my parents to have digital copies of the video on the tapes: we don't need to edit the footage. So I'm guessing that high-quality H264 is my likely final target format.

Tooling around on MeFi, I've found a few options:

1) A DVD recorder. These are also a bit pricey; worse, DVDs are a dead format, and the DVDs themselves would have to be backed up in a few years time anyway, as DVD-Rs don't last that long, and I know from experience that MPEG-2 is a pretty inefficient compression format.

2) The various Canopus converters. Most of these are more expensive than I'd like to pay, and I'm guessing that I'd have to first capture the tapes to DV (or other high bitrate format), then transcode to H264, which seems like a hassle -- I'm going to be digitizing a few dozen tapes over the holidays, and I'd rather be eating cookies than spending all my time wrangling video.

3) A push-button consumer solution. Cheap, but many of them produce very low-quality video. The best-reviewed I've found so far is the Elgato Video Capture Device. If the quality produced is up to snuff, this looks like the sweet spot -- it's easy, flexible, and produces H264 -- but I'm concerned that the fact that cheap and done over USB will mean that the video quality will be poor.

So: Does anyone have any experiences, good or bad, using the Elgato? Basically, I'm looking for video good enough that I won't see any compression artifacts at full resolution.

posted by tweebiscuit to Technology (12 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: An alternate way to answer this question: What difference can I expect to see in the video quality of the Canopus ADVC 55 versus the Elgato? Is it worth paying double the price and the extra transcoding headache?
posted by tweebiscuit at 12:32 AM on December 14, 2010

The biggest difference between the Elgato and the Canopus solutions is that the Canopus shows up as a dv input source in QuickTime, IMovie, Final Cut Pro et al.
posted by mhoye at 1:14 AM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

I snagged a used high-end Canopus for 1/2 list on Craigslist - $200 IIRC - and it was very easy to use. Put in the tape, tell iMovie to record, and press play on the VHS deck.

Easy peasy.

Going from DV to whatever format in iMovie is pushbutton easy, but having the footage in DV allows you to change the brightest or do some color correction.
posted by zippy at 1:43 AM on December 14, 2010

For VHS, I think it's a bigger difference that the Canopus is more likely to have a time base corrector available. I have many tapes that are undigitizable without one.
posted by rhizome at 1:50 AM on December 14, 2010

Oh, AVDC55. Nevermind.
posted by rhizome at 2:02 AM on December 14, 2010

One way to get the price way down is to buy a 5-10 year old Sony Handycam off eBay that needs repair and is described in detail as working and turns on, but has a broken lens or a purely mechanical issue (i.e. $20-40) AND which has Firewire (IEEE 1394). You use it as a passthrough device by playing videos through composite video/audio (and ideally S-Video cable) and running the camcorder output on Firewire to the computer. This records in Panasonic AVI/DV format on the computer (using WinDV) with no compression (about 10 GB per hour) and you can compress using your tool of choice. I do this with a TRV-730 (10 years old) and it works great, and since it works in "playback" mode without a tape inside it doesn't involve any of the motors or lenses.

However if you're looking for quality, I'd say take a close look at your VHS playback unit, because a lot is at stake in maximizing the quality of this signal since it's not much to work with. Just getting a VCR with S-Video out will make a huge difference, since the chroma (colors) are split up to provide a better signal. I would buy as much VCR as I could afford, like a used Panasonic AG-1980 or JVC-9600/9800 off eBay... the going price here is $100-300 (I got a good -1980 for $60 recently) and that gives you time base correction and stellar playback.
posted by crapmatic at 2:07 AM on December 14, 2010 [4 favorites]

and you can compress using your tool of choice = AFTER you capture, using AVIDemux, VirtualDub, or whatever
posted by crapmatic at 2:08 AM on December 14, 2010

I bought a Canopus ADVC-300 about two years ago to convert several hundred hours of analog video that was on Hi-8, SVHS and VHS. The device worked fine once I was able to figure it out. The documentation sucks in its lack of depth.

It outputs DVD via 1394/Firewire.

Forget trying to use the controls on the device itself as they are a nightmare of "press button 4 five times to turn on x." Instead, there is a Canopus utility that I ran on windows allowing me to set up the canopus remotely. Also, and very important, there are a couple rows of dip switches on the underside of the device that are very important to have set for your particular situation.

It isn't a miracle worker so don't expect your video to look all that great. It's probably been a while since you've seen VHS and it'll look especially horrid on a modern high-resolution monitor. You'll see the head switch in the bottom of the screen and all of the jitter and clamp streaking and dropout common in old tape playback on a VHS machine. The Canopus does the best it can and the time-base correction is sufficient to deal with most problems.

I suggest you use the best VHS deck you can get your hands on. The SVHS was a problem for me as I was unable to find a new deck for sale anywhere. I finally ran an ad in craigslist asking if anyone had one I could borrow and found a very kind person willing to let me borrow his machine.
posted by bz at 3:14 AM on December 14, 2010

Buy a good VHS to DVD recorder you will get the best picture quality and the workflow is the easiest.
#1 MPEG 2 allows for interlacing H.264 does not. This is in my opinion the most import issue in regards to quality, when where and how that interlaced footage gets de-interlaced. Recording to dvd gives you the option to watch the video on an good old NTSC CRT in its Native interlaced format.
#2 you will loose color depth with any of the FireWire boxes DV Chroma sub sampling is 4:1:1 MPEG2 is 4:2:0
#3 if you have a lot of VHS tapes this is by far the easiest workflow.
#4 If you choose to convert the DVD to H.264 the A to D conversion is already done and now its a D to D job the work flow is much easier the quality loss at this point is negligible and if you chose to convert then you will still have a digital backup.
#5 VHS will Still look like VHS its not going to get better the best you can hope for is not to make it look any worse
posted by jmsta at 3:59 AM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

At my old job, we used a ADVC 110 to go right from video input to digital with no intermediate step. The quality was fine. It has firewire out, which we got to reduce latency, etc. I would choose that again.
posted by reddot at 6:00 AM on December 14, 2010

jmsta has some great points especially regarding interlace. I've not ever tried a VHS to DVD recorder but, if DVD is the target you want, it'd probably be hard to go wrong following that advice.
posted by bz at 11:52 AM on December 14, 2010

jmsta: "#1 MPEG 2 allows for interlacing H.264 does not."

Well, that's just not true.

"#2 you will loose color depth with any of the FireWire boxes DV Chroma sub sampling is 4:1:1 MPEG2 is 4:2:0

I'm not sure whether that's an extreme oversimplification, just wrong, or somewhere in between.

Aside from that: any format is going to be a compromise; any way of getting there is also going to be a compromise. The first question I'd ask myself is "how are my parents going to watch them?", or maybe "what are my parents going to do with them". That'll help you figure out which target format you end up with (e.g. MPEG-2 or 4 for just watching; DV or similar if they're going to want to turn them into their own home movie productions). Then you can start thinking about how to get there.

Agreed, though, that you'll want some sort of TBC for a VHS source. Many PAL DVD-recorders have fairly decent TBCs built-in (or, at least, lock well to reasonably unstable source timebases), so keep them in mind; apart from that, look to a converter that does. The Elgato & similar-style devices typically don't - they work OK for straight from camera or off-air recording, but can be problematic for VHS. If you don't have a TBC you're largely at the mercy of the stability/quality of the original recording (and VHS is typically 'good enough, but not good').
posted by Pinback at 12:59 AM on December 15, 2010

« Older Traffic noise reduction from Condo.   |   A job like you should wear a warning Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.