If the tapes don't work, is the player worth it?
August 22, 2021 11:44 AM   Subscribe

I am thinking about buying a Sony VO-5600 U-matic 3/4" player/recorder. This technology from the late 80's/early 90's was the television & production industry standard before Beta, SVHS, then Mini DV and finally, digital cameras. But I want to have a conversion service for old formats to digital and my assumption is there are bunches of old U-matic tapes out there with video people want saved, but with no players.

But I've heard that after about 30 years, the iron oxide starts coming off tapes. I've sometimes seen stations pulling out footage from stories on 1" or 3/4"" tapes when they look back at the anniversaries of some event. I assume that video has already been transferred. But my question is, are those original U-matic tapes out there that people may want converted even able to be played? Have they held up well enough for transfer over all this time or is it not worth it to spend the money on the player?
posted by CollectiveMind to Technology (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I transferred some 3/4" footage about three years ago. It worked out fine. That was on Vancouver Island -- a small home operation (basically a guy with a bunch of old video decks which he's kept well maintained).

I'd recommend doing a google search (video 3/4 inch to digital transfer) for your particular region.
posted by philip-random at 1:04 PM on August 22, 2021

Do you do other format conversions? There's already a bunch of established companies that offer this that you'd be competing with and most of them offer a lot of formats so places with lots of old tapes they want to convert probably have an established relationship with them.

It looks like the going rate for conversion is around $40. How much does a working deck cost? What's your time worth? How long would it take to pay off? Do you have experience fixing and maintaining old tape decks? When I worked in broadcast video, we pretty much always had at least one deck on the bench for repairs or maintenance and we were a pretty small shop.

Are there things like digital restoration that you're experienced with and can upsell?

Tape glue does go bad over time and to some extent can be temporarily and partially halted by baking them at a low temperature but if you're not experienced with doing that, I'd be hesitant about taking what is likely the only copies that exist of a video and learning the hard way.
posted by Candleman at 1:11 PM on August 22, 2021 [5 favorites]

I rescue 3/4" tapes pretty regularly, as part of one of those conversion services Candleman references (very small-scale rig, mostly I do work for small local-ish cultural-heritage orgs with tiny A/V collections that wouldn't be able to interest or afford the big shops). Much the same as any other videotape format I've run into so far -- can usually get a capture, quality varies.

Candleman's questions are absolutely spot-on. The repair question is a big one -- there's a reliable place in my town that fixes nearly everything, but I'm looking at $400-800 per deck for them to do a proper overhaul. They're absolutely worth it! But don't underestimate the expense, is what I'm saying.
posted by humbug at 2:07 PM on August 22, 2021 [2 favorites]

Oh, and you won't just be buying the deck. You'll need a capture card or similar (look at BlackMagicDesign or AJA), a time-base corrector, a genlock gizmo, and maybe a waveform monitor / color-corrector thingy whose name I have temporarily forgotten but an old Tektronix combo unit should do you fine.
posted by humbug at 2:13 PM on August 22, 2021 [3 favorites]

Also to the repair question, unless you have an explicitly stated potentially long turnaround time, you really need to buy two decks, because a single one will fail at the worst possible moment 99% of the time.
posted by Candleman at 3:55 PM on August 22, 2021 [2 favorites]

...and my assumption is there are bunches of old U-matic tapes out there with video people want saved, but with no players.

U-m, personally I can't really conceive of a lot of demand for this particular niche if you are considering this as a cost-effective feature in a small video conversion business. U-matic was a common industrial-video format for a time, but it was a bit of an ugly ducking in video-duplication-land, between the home and professional videos.

But hey, if you're just obsessed with vintage videotape technology, and you really wanna funky old toy (that will definitely need a bit of, um, tech-love) for your stable, then sure (if fits in with the budget). Presuming that you're already comfortable with maintaining and tinkering with the insides of various kinds of videotape machines.
posted by ovvl at 4:24 PM on August 22, 2021 [2 favorites]

Vectorscope! That's the name. Gah, that was driving me around the bend.
posted by humbug at 4:59 AM on August 23, 2021

For what it's worth, an acquaintance is involved in a local television archive (MARMIA). Apparently her org owns and maintains their own decks, and offers digitization service for material in their archive, and tape transfer service for material not in their archive, using those decks. I'm not sure if this is evidence that demand may exist (a lot of materials in their collection are on U-Matic) or evidence that the demand is already being met in-house, so buying and maintaining your own U-Matic deck may not have the ROI you're after. Might be worth reaching out to them to ask, since it sounds like you're looking to do a similar thing in a different geographic area.
posted by Alterscape at 10:27 AM on August 25, 2021 [2 favorites]

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