How to archive and store video tapes digitally

By | 25th September 2012

Store video tapes digitallyWhy your video tapes are at risk

Many people have discovered that their old camcorders which worked perfectly when stored away just a few years ago have completely failed either electronically or mechanically when the time comes to try them out again.  A camcorder which no longer works isn’t the end of the world but it’s important to know that the tapes containing your home video recordings are also prone to failure.

During manufacture metal particles (or oxide) is bonded onto a substrate layer to create magnetic videotape. The binder which is used to hold the particles in place degrades and becomes weaker over time. The breakdown process is progressive and will happen irrespective of whether the tape has been used or not. Mold, heat, stray magnetic fields and physical damage present additional risk factors for all magnetic tapes.

Store video tapes digitally

The risk of loosing recordings stored on old videotapes can be virtually eliminated by moving the contents onto a more modern digital storage medium. For the majority of home video recordings the most practical and cost effective option currently available to store video tapes digitally is DVD. The discs don’t take up a great deal of space, each can hold a couple of hours of footage and offers picture and sound quality which is comparable to that of the original. Identical backup copies can be made cheaply and easily.

Lifespan of DVDs

While DVD is a very good choice there’s no point in pretending that transferring your home videos onto the format is a permanent solution. We made our first DVD recordings over ten years ago and those discs are still going strong. Likewise we have never had a customer call us to say the home video discs we made for them have stopped working.

If a disc is handled properly you should expect it to last for many years but there is no guarantee that a disc won’t fail at some stage. Put simply DVD-R discs are two bits of plastic with very thin reflective foil and coloured dye sandwiched in the middle. When a DVD-R disc is written or “burned” a laser beam changes the state of the organic dye to either block light (off) or allow it to pass through to the foil layer and be reflected (on). These “off – on” states represent your data when the disc is read in a DVD player. We have successfully recovered lots of footage from damaged video tapes but the inherently fragile structure of recordable discs mean it doesn’t take much to damage them permanently.

Even though we have “Archival Grade” DVDs with theoretical lifespans of over 100 years who can say that DVD players will be around to play them? We’re already seeing optical disc drives being dropped by major computer manufacturers in favour of memory cards, USB sticks, streaming media and downloads. Right now DVD does offer the convenience of being viewable in most of our homes. But perhaps more importantly it can take copies of your old tape based media and store it in a “good enough” quality digital format that can be moved onto newer types of media (or Cloud based storage) as technology advances and becomes more affordable.

Try to think of DVD as a convenient storage wrapper for your digital data (in this case your family videos). In technical terms the video footage is encoded as an MPEG2 video stream usually alongside a Dolby Digital AC3 audio track with an AV data rate of up to 9.8Mbit/s but more usually recorded between 4Mb/s and 7Mb/s. It’s perfectly possible to extract the Audio and Video from a DVD as an MPEG file that can easily be stored, copied and moved on a computer just like any other type of data file.

Online video storage

For some people Cloud based storage might still seem like a new concept but online storage of Email, documents and photos has been around for many years. It has already found its way into many of our everyday lives whether we realise it or not (think Gmail). The trouble with video files is that even short clips can be significantly larger than emails, text documents, spreadsheets or photographs.

Online storage services are improving all the time. Internet connections in the home are becoming faster and more reliable. It’s also possible to compress your videos to shrink the size of the files to a certain extent without noticeably affecting the picture quality. This can reduce the amount of data transfer and storage required but at present storing hours and hours of footage using an online video service for most home users isn’t there yet in terms of ease of use, convenience and cost.

5 tips to help you preserve your home videotapes

So, what can you do to preserve and store your videotapes? Here are five recommendations based on what’s practical and possible right now:

  1. Have your old videos transferred to DVD-R Video.
  2. Store at least one spare copy of each disc in a safe place (dry/dark).
  3. Make a back-up copy of the video files from the DVDs onto a hard drive or memory card.
  4. Check your DVDs and back-up copies are working periodically.
  5. Keep your original tapes – just in case.

Backing up your videotapes onto DVD now means that you will be fully prepared when Cloud based storage does become a more reasonable proposition.  You will have your family videos in a digital format ready to upload them or transfer onto your digital media player of choice when the time comes. It’s worth pointing out that nobody can ever really be certain how safe any online service might be. For that reason you should always consider keeping your own back-up copies of everything – just in case.

We hope that you have found this article to be helpful and informative. We welcome your comments and feedback in the box below or visit our contact page. Keep up with Manchester Video on Facebook and Twitter.

Related pages: VHS to DVD, 8mm & Hi8 to DVD, Video to DVD Service: Order Information

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