Best way to convert VHS tapes to digital files?
January 12, 2015 11:29 AM   Subscribe

I've got more than 40 family home videos on VHS tapes that I want to convert to digital on my Windows 7 PC. I realize that I'm probably overthinking this but I want to do a good job. My goal is to capture the VHS tapes at the best possible quality for posterity, and for online viewing and maybe DVDs, too. At the same time I don't want to chase after rapidly diminishing returns, as VHS quality isn't the best to begin with. My problem is that I don't know where to draw the line.

During a past attempt at this project I struggled with a crummy ION VHStoPC MkII dongle. When I finally got it to work, I had an issue with annoying tracking lines, frequent frame drops, and audio not staying in sync (though perhaps this is adjustable in editing?). I want better. My questions follow.

VCR: Should I get a nice VCR, such as a JVC or Panasonic, with time-base correction and s-video? As far as the s-video stuff goes, I'm wondering if it matters so much when I don't even have S-VHS tapes. Even so, is it a noticeable advantage? Any disadvantages such as worse color quality? Along with this, should I have a standalone time base correction device? Right now I have a 4-head Sharp VC-A410 VCR that works, has composite video but nothing else special.

CAPTURE DEVICE: Would a high-end consumer firewire capture device such as a Canopus ADVC110 be ideal? I've got a 6-pin firewire port on my PC, and I like that this device has got locked audio and a decent resale value. However, I've noticed that it can only capture into DV format. I know that this is a lossy format, with the YUV going to down to 4:1:1. Not sure if this is a big deal or not, but I'd like to do some editing. Not that hard drive space is a huge issue, but if I go this route should the resulting DV file take up about 13GB per hour of footage?

Another potential approach was to get a video capture card for my PC, such as a Hauppage one. I don't know exactly how this would be connected to a VCR, as I'd prefer a fast connection such as firewire. Apparently a video capture card on my PC could capture at a lossless HuffYUV or FFV1 format. I'm not sure if that would be overkill or prudent since I want best possible quality. I've been reading also about capturing files in the ProRes or DNxHD codecs in MXF Op1a containers, but don't know a whole lot about it other than they're very lightly lossy formats.

Thanks for reading.
posted by FelineoidEntity to Technology (8 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: S-video is not likely to make a noticeable difference if you don't have any SVHS tapes. However, a good TBC will make a big difference, especially if you have marginal tapes. Not all TBCs are created equal, of course, so do research on the model(s) you're considering buying. The problem I've run into with this project is finding quality VCRs that actually work. I've actually gone through three high-end VTRs on eBay, and none of them worked right, plus the shipping on heavy industrial VTRs is ridiculously expensive. Most of the machines I found on eBay (granted, it's been a couple of years) were very well-used, and the sellers didn't have the technical background to truly test them and make sure everything works the way it's supposed to. If you have a good source of one of these machines, I think it would be worth grabbing (and if they have two, let me know....).
posted by primethyme at 12:21 PM on January 12, 2015

COSTCO Film and VHS to DVD service. Then edit that.
posted by Freedomboy at 12:24 PM on January 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

Video Transfer Service! They have invested capital in the higher end equipment so you don't have to. I few years ago I used a company called Scan Digital to put all my old photos, slides, negatives and VHS into digital format and they did a great job for a reasonable price.

And there's a $29 for $100 worth of service or $250 for $75 Groupon right now.
posted by crayon at 1:08 PM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Definitely use a transfer service.
posted by radioamy at 4:25 PM on January 12, 2015

Response by poster: I appreciate the replies, but I'm not interested in a transfer service. Some of the reasons for this are that they're expensive, especially with 40 or more tapes, and if I do it myself I can probably recoup a lot of my expense by later reselling my equipment. I want 'raw' file formats and not just DVDs. I've got time, and I don't like the idea of sending my family's home videos out in the mail.
posted by FelineoidEntity at 4:39 PM on January 12, 2015

Quite a few years ago I bought a combo vcr and DVD player/recorder. I used it to record all of my family vcr tapes. I don't know if they still make them but it was only $100. The brand is unknown but the model is SV2000. Toshiba makes a dedicated dvd recorder that all you need to do is connect it to a vcr to make those copies.
posted by OkTwigs at 4:49 PM on January 12, 2015

Best answer: Oh wow, ok, 40+ tapes. I was coming here to champion the "pay someone else and dont bother it's a fucking hassle" route before i saw that.

I'd say, do what i did with audio capture. Find a really nice commercial interface from 10-15 years ago for the PC side of this. Do not buy consumer grade stuff. Like, it should have rack ears.

Alternatively, what i'm about to link is probably a good resource for interfaces.

Now head over here and buy one of the top ones of those. People still want these, you'll be able to resell it no problem.

This is not something i'm am expert on, but i have the memory of an elephant when it comes to weird technical things and i was able to dig up a thread from ages ago somewhere else where this was discussed. The systems people were using were basically VCRs from that list, and various pro interfaces.

The best setup for the money may end up being some shitty old windows XP box, a capture card that requires a weird PCI card, and one of those VCRs. I have a very similar setup so that i can use my favorite audio interface ever. I've helped people maintain home setups so they can use the Best Scanner Ever or some other piece of odd hardware as well.

I did the math and if you "cheated" and someone else in your family bought one of those groupons(or even better, two other ones) plus you then this could get down to $400 or less to pay someone to do it. If you had 3 coupons, and it was under $400, would it still be worth it to do it yourself?

I'd think long and hard on that. But if the coupons do not come in to play, yea, you could probably do this for $400-ish in hardware(and lots of fucking around! yay!) and make almost all of that back minus ebay/paypal fees.

Personally, i'd be working on my groupon fraud right this very moment, but this also does NOT sound like a fun project to babysit 40-50 tapes through some gonzo workflow.
posted by emptythought at 5:03 PM on January 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have something similar to what you suggest (vhs, ADVC110) all hooked up via SVideo. I don't archive, this is for general use and since it is I would only passingly recommend it since DV video sucks: it's huge and 4:1:1 colorspace is poor.
posted by wcfields at 2:06 PM on January 13, 2015

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