One of the things we have been asked about at lot over the years here at DVC is how to get video material from VHS tapes onto DVD discs.
As most people know, after 30 years of (semi) solid service, the VHS format has basically been retired. You cannot buy new VHS players any more and the ones that do exist – or the tapes – are not going to last forever.
When we also take into account the day-to-day wear and tear that analogue tape formats are susceptible to (the very act of playing the tapes gradually degrades them), it makes a lot of sense to transfer all of those tapes to something a little more durable.
DVD is the obvious destination – in the last 15 years it has rapidly overtaken VHS as the home video format of choice, thanks to its superior video and audio quality, ease of access and sturdiness (if manufactured and cared for properly, a DVD will play back perfectly every time).
Blu-ray - there is actually not a lot of point using Blu-ray disc for VHS recordings. Despite improvements in scaling over the year "upscaling" a VHS picture to HD does not generally result in a better picture than you can get off a DVD. Blu-ray players can play both DVD and Blu-ray discs.
So you’ve got your pile of VHS tapes ready to go – what’s the best way to go about getting them onto disc?
Option 1 – No computer?
If you don’t have a video-capable computer, and don’t particularly want one, your best bet is a standalone DVD recorder deck.
This is by far the fastest and simplest method for making a DVD from an analogue source – just connect your VHS player to the analogue inputs on the DVD recorder, play your tape, and press ‘record’ on the DVD.
The transfer will be entirely real-time – an hour long programme will take an hour to copy. At the end of it, the disc will need to be finalised, which takes a few extra minutes – after that, your DVD is finished. All done.
Of course, this method has some fairly significant shortcomings. For one, the encoding (the process of converting the incoming analogue video into the digital MPEG-2 video files that are recorded to the disc) is handled by a hardware chip, designed to achieve this encoding on-the-fly.
This is obviously a necessity with a real-time recorder, but the quality of conversion can be considerably inferior to computer-based software encoding (see later). Firstly, the quality of encoding chips will vary enormously, depending on the manufacturer. Secondly, the more that you want to record to the disc, the lower the amount of data going into the video file for each second of your footage (or ‘bit rate’) will have to be. If you’re only recording an hour or so onto a disc, you can set the recorder to maximum quality, and the results are usually quite good. However, durations of 2-3 hours will require lower quality settings, which quickly show up the limitations in the encoding hardware.
The other main compromise with recorder decks is more of a creative one. If you’ve seen a few commercial DVDs (feature films or TV series), you’ll be familiar with the kind of carefully designed and eye-catching menu systems that they often use.
On computer-based DVD authoring systems, you have free rein to create interactive discs that look and work exactly as you want them to.
With a DVD recorder, you’ll get a very basic list of contents at best. This will obviously concern some people more than others, and will depend very much on the type of project that you’re working on, but if you’d like the flexibility to give your discs an extra bit of showmanship, computer-based authoring is the only way to go.
So in summary, what you gain in speed and convenience, you can potentially lose in quality and creativity. If these factors are important to you, it’s probably time you looked at taking the computer route…
Option 2 – I have a computer, but no way of getting VHS into it…
To get your VHS into the computer you will need a way to convert the picture from analogue (through a SCART or SVIDEO socket) to digital (how the computer stores it). To do this you will need extra hardware. There are a variety of cheap devices available but pretty much all the sub £100 devices are not very good.
If you have a FireWire socket you could use an analogue to digital converter. These were the best way to encode video for later putting on a DVD, however, as High definition has taken over, and as more and more computers no longer have FireWire sockets these devices are disappearing. Our favourite convert was called the Grass Valley ADVC110, but we can no longer get these and if you follow the above link you will see that the range is quite small and composed of fairly expensive devices.
Buy a PCIe or USB3 devices for capturing footage
The best option is to buy a card to put inside your computer tower case. The device we would recommend is the Blackmagic Intensity Pro 4k, which is a 4-lane PCIe device, which can capture through SVIDEO and composite as well as handle all video resolutions up to 4K if needed. It is also quite cheap.
You will need the right kind of socket inside the computer to install it as it does not fit in the very common small PCIe sockets. Most decent computers should have the right kind of socket free however.
One very useful thing about the Blackmagic Intensity Pro 4k, is that it has a timebase corrector (TBC) on board. This is a device that "cleans up" bad signals and makes it possible to capture them. Given that any VHS tapes you are trying to capture will be quite old, and have deteriorated, and that any surviving VHS decks will also be used you are quite likely to have an imperfect signal to capture. Nearly all i/o cards do not have a TBC and if presented with a slightly "dodgy" signal will either capture it badly or not at all. As the Intensity Pro 4K has a TBC built-in it can capture signals when other devices cannot.
I have captured the footage, now what?
The devices mentioned above capture the footage but do not make the right kind of files for a DVD. You will need to edit the footage, and at the same time can also try and "clean it up" and possibly edit it into a more interesting video.
For guides on the best software to use, see our separate sections on video editing and DVD authoring – your options range from basic all-in-one editing/DVD creation packages such as Grass Valley EDIUS, all the way up to comprehensive creativity suites such as the Adobe Creative Cloud Suite.
The lower-end packages will have simpler tools for encoding video and creating tailored menus (while still a great deal superior to the facilities offered by hardware DVD recorders), whereas the more advanced applications will provide everything that you need to make commercial quality DVDs!
Option 3 – I want to do this right, which computer should I buy?
If you don’t have a suitable computer for the job, but you’d like to take advantage of all of the benefits that computer-based DVD creation can offer, a dedicated video PC could well be the best solution.
At DVC we build a range of editing and DVD authoring systems, based on a variety of software and hardware packages. One of the benefits of dedicated systems is that they often feature in-built facilities for dealing with both analogue and digital video – you can just connect your video source directly to the PC, and you’re on your way.
DVD writers and authoring facilities are built into all of our video PCs, so a DVC system is your best ready-made choice for all of your DVD creation requirements.
Our most popular systems are those based on Grass Valley’s EDIUS, and Adobe Premiere Pro.
See the relevant sections of our site for some sample system prices, or alternatively contact us for a personal quotation on a system to suit your needs.
- Use the best VHS deck you can lay your hands on. Stereo (Nicam) decks give a proper 2-channel output, which is of course absolutely essential if your tapes are in stereo!
- If the tape that you are trying to transfer is old, and the playback is noisy or jumpy, there are a couple of things that you can try. The first, and simplest, is (if possible) to play the tape with the same deck or type of deck that recorded it. This is particularly advised when dealing with 'long play' recordings, which are notoriously intolerant of playback in different decks. If the problem is simply as a result of the tape having been worn or degraded, you might try a timebase corrector, which can 'iron out' the analogue video signal on its way to conversion to give a much steadier image.
- Use the best possible analogue connection from deck to computer/converter. Basic VHS decks will have a simple composite video output (which might only be available through a SCART connection – you can buy an adaptor that will turn this into the more standard RCA phono connector, which usually has a yellow colour coding).
- S-VHS decks usually have a 4-pin SVIDEO (aka Y/C) output, which is considerably superior – indeed, this will improve the quality of transfer for even standard VHS tapes, so an S-VHS deck is a worthwhile investment!
- If you want to retain as much quality at possible when transferring your analogue footage to its digital destination, avoid cheaper USB-based analogue to digital converters. These devices cannot transfer data fast enough to produce a digital version with the best resolution and bit-rate, unlike those that use proper DV/FireWire connections (a connection that was specifically designed for transferring video).
- Use the best possible DVD media. While DVDs are more dependable than VHS for preserving the quality of your video material, their longevity is not guaranteed, particularly not with cheaper discs.
The best blank discs that we have found, in terms of both problem-free writing and a long life span, are Verbatim’s DVD-Rs and DVD+Rs. DVD media is no longer expensive, so it makes sense to pay a little extra for a disc that’s going to last longer!
Though we should stress at this point that even DVDs won't last forever, so if your archived video is important and irreplaceable, you should take extra steps to preserve it - make spare copies, or keep a copy on a hard drive as a backup. To maximise the life span of a DVD, it's best to keep it in an airtight container, in a cool dark place - if your footage is important to you, you can't be too careful!