How we convert old video tapes to MP4 and DVD

By | 27th January 2017

In this article we explain how we convert your family video tapes to a modern digital format including MP4 on a USB stick, DVD or editable video files for Windows or Mac computers. We aim to avoid jargon and use plain English descriptions wherever possible.

Most home video tapes were recorded on domestic camcorders rather than professional grade equipment. Often, especially in the case of VHS, footage was copied from a camcorder cassette onto a VHS cassette. Each time an analogue videotape is copied there is some loss in quality.

Shows USB MP4 Digital Video Transfer Service

When we convert old analogue video tapes to a digital file format we must retain as much detail as possible from the original recording. There are several ways we can help preserve detail and clarity:

  • Good quality, well maintained playback equipment
  • Best quality connections and cables to ensure a good signal
  • Time base correction to stabilise poor analogue pictures
  • High quality digital video recording (also called digitising or video capture)
  • Remove distortion around the edges of the frame
  • Well designed & optimised conversion (compression) of the final viewing format

What follows is quite a detailed explanation but we hope it be helpful in understanding the what we do. We will be happy to answer questions in the comments below. You can also reach us by phone or email via our contacts page.

Assessment of tape condition

shows a badly contaminated video 8 cassetteWe photograph and note the condition of all video tapes on arrival. We look at the physical condition of the cassette housing to check for any damaged or missing parts. On most tapes the reel spools are partially visible through the windows on the cassette. We inspect the reels for signs of contamination such as mould spores. The dust flap is opened and the tape surface is checked to verify the tape is not broken and that it’s free of crinkles.

The Video 8 tape shown in the image above was in quite poor condition but we were able to recover the footage successfully.

Digitising the tape

When we transfer your tapes we use good quality video players. Our machines are either the highest grade consumer format or a professional grade deck depending on the type of the tape. For VHS capture we use Super VHS video players (SVHS). These machines are capable of recording and playing SVHS tapes which are a much higher quality version of normal VHS tapes. Super VHS players are better engineered than regular players and often include additional technological features designed to improve the playback quality of normal VHS recordings.

SVHS machines are also fitted with a special type of video connection – the technical name is an S-Video connector. The letter S in S-Video means ‘separate’ because it carries the colour information separately from the rest of the video signal resulting in a better image quality than a standard composite (yellow socket) on a normal video recorder.

The signal from our machines is usually very good but old video tapes sometimes have wear or other defects which may result in an unstable image which is difficult for a digital recording device to lock onto properly. For this reason we route the S-Video output from our players into a time base Corrector (TBC). These devices are bit like a shock absorber for the video signal – rough signal comes in – smooth signal goes out. The output from the TBC is a component signal rather than S-Video. Component analogue, sometimes called RGB meaning red, green and blue, sends the video signal over three separate connectors and is the best available connection type for analogue video.

Getting the footage into a computer

Our computers are fitted with specialist video capture cards which have component video inputs with analogue audio connectors. We record the video signals into the computer using capture software designed for the capture card. At this stage the video files we record into the computer are of a much larger sized files than we need for delivery on either DVD or a USB stick. These are effectively a digital master file from which working copies can be made. They contain the entire frame including any rough edges that would not normally be seen when playing the tape on a television. The video in the files is also what’s known as interlaced. All analogue videotapes use interlacing as a method to display smoother motion on screen. In simple terms it was a technical trick to get smoother video footage. Later in the process we will need to remove the interlacing because it causes distortion on most computers and digital players.

Making good quality files that will work in modern devices

There are dozens of digital video file types including AVI, MOV, MPG and many more. These are known as container formats. They vary in size and contents. You can think of these file types as gift wrapping paper. The wrapping paper doesn’t tell you exactly what’s inside – you need to open it to find out. Just like a wrapped gift an AVI or MOV file could contain a wide variety of gifts.

The vast number of file types (container formats) and contents has caused a lot of confusion over the years with files that look similar but are completely different and may or may not work in your computer. Thankfully a good, reliable standard has been around for quite a while that is supported almost universally across all computers, portable devices and SmartTVs. The file format is H.264 MP4 and that’s what we use for the vast majority of people who want digital files.

The benefits of the H.264 MP4 standard are:

  • Good image quality
  • Small file sizes due to efficient compression
  • Universal playback compatibility
  • Easy to back up and copy

We also convert tapes to DVD Video. It’s a format that’s been around for 20 years and the discs we make work in pretty much all DVD players sold for most of that time. DVDs use MPEG2 rather than the newer MP4 format. In broad terms MP4 is twice as efficient as MPEG2 – so that means the same quality quality video but only half the file size. In the digital world efficiency is paramount.

Preparing the footage for conversion to MP4

This section only applies to MP4 video conversion. The first thing we need to do is trim off the rough edges of the frame. Analogue videos weren’t perfect and can have ugly, fuzzy borders which are not seen when viewed on a normal TV. This is called the overscan area – think of it as the rough bit of a canvass hidden by a picture frame.

In the digital world – especially on a computer we will see the ugly edges of the frame – it looks a bit messy and can be distracting. We crop (trim off) the rough edges to provide a nice clean border around the image.

The next step in preparation is to de-interlace the footage. This is essential because most MP4 players (hardware or software) either cannot handle interlaced footage correctly at all or required the user to dig around in the settings.  If it isn’t de-interlaced the footage will appear jagged and juddery on most players. If de-interlacing is done badly then motion in the image may appear to flicker. Quick and easy de-interlacing methods are not very good. The most advanced method of de-interlacing produces very good, smooth motion but requires much more computing power and is therefore slower to process. We use the slower, most advanced de-interlacing method.

Once we have cropped and de-interlaced the footage we can covert it to MP4. The files we capture from tape are enormous and don’t work on all platforms. We need to make those files smaller so that they don’t take up as much space and convert them into a format that will work on most devices. This stage is called video compression. The exact settings we use for making MP4 files were developed by ourselves following extensive testing. Put simply we worked out the optimal settings for retaining high quality images and sound then increased them a bit whilst keeping the file sizes reasonable.

Conversion to DVD and why it’s different than MP4

DVDs are digital and can hold either interlaced footage or progressive footage (non-interlaced). DVD players are normally connected to televisions which crop off the edges automatically. Therefore when we copy analogue video to DVD we don’t need to de-interlace it or crop off the edges.

Whilst we can use computers to make DVD we don’t need to. Standalone DVD recorders are designed for the purpose . The better quality DVD Recorders have timebase correction on the inputs to stabilise poorer signals. If the machines are set up correctly with good quality connections then they do a very good job. If we are only doing DVD transfers we will usually use a DVD Recorder. It takes less resources and is a more efficient workflow. However, if we’ve been asked to make both MP4 files and DVDs then we may decide to make the discs using a computer instead.

Important information about MP4 file on USB sticks

Most people ask for their videos on either USB or DVD. Some people are comfortable downloading files via the internet. If we supply video files on a USB stick there are some important things to know about them.

Firstly, whilst it is possible to buy very large USB sticks that will hold dozens of hours of footage there are limitations about what will actually work. In order to be universally compatible a USB stick needs to be formatted using a file system called FAT32. Any USB stick you purchase new comes in that format.

FAT32 has one major drawback when it comes to storing digital video files. There is a maximum file size limit of 4GB. The equates to around 2.5 hours of good quality video footage. For example, if you have a 4hr video tape then it will need to be split into 2 parts in order to fit onto the stick.

It’s perfectly possible to reformat a USB stick to another file system such as EXFAT which will allow larger individual file sizes. EXFAT formatted  USB will work in computers but won’t work in many SmartTVs. Some modern TVs do support it but not all of the do. Therefore we use FAT32 as it’s universally compatible.

To recap a large USB stick – say 32GB can store several 4 hour tapes but if you want it to work in most devices then the 4hr files will need to be divided into sections no greater than 4GB each. We will do this as part of the compression process unless you have discussed it with us in advance.

If we supply a USB stick it will be a well known manufacturer such as Sandisk, Lexar or Toshiba. We purchase all our USB sticks directly from the same industry source ensuring that we get genuine products. This has proven to be reliable. Be very cautious of buying USB sticks from market stalls or auction websites as there are many unreliable fakes around.

Infomaiton about the DVD discs make

DVDs are familiar to most people. We print the name of the video on the disc surface. The discs we use are inkjet printable DVD-R. This type of disc is part of the official DVD standard and hold up to 2 hours of good quality video. Again we buy good quality discs from a trusted source.

For detailed price and ordering information please see our profession video transfer page.

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