Home Video Hints: Get Those Tapes in Shape

No matter how casual you are about video, there’s one place where you should be as meticulous as any pro tape management and preservation. For 20 years, proud grandpas and mothers of the bride have been saddened and appalled as irreplaceable video images faded into smudged ghosts and finally vanished. You can avoid that fate in today’s digital world, but only if you prepare tapes to begin with, warehouse them with care, and copy them every few years or so.

We’ll tell you how to do all that, and while we’re on the subject, we’ll also cover a simple procedure called "blacking the tape," which can reduce the tedious parts of video editing by 90 percent. Trust me, you’ll like it. So, let’s talk about getting tape ready before shooting and then archiving it afterwards. Finally, we’ll explain what blacking the tape is, why you want to do it, and how to go about it.

Preparing New Tapes

The first step in readying a new tape for use is to open it. "Well, duh!" you say. But, wait. Tape packaging was designed by sadists to shred nerves and reduce fingernails to stumps, especially when you try to switch tapes in the middle of a shoot while the action is getting away from you.


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The trick is to have at least a few tapes open and accessible. And while you’re doing that, label each one, because there’s nothing like starting to edit with a pile of equally "blank" cassettes. Also, you can pick up a full "blank" tape and mistakenly use it again, wiping out its original recording.

Start by applying face and edge labels to the cassette. Then, give the tape a unique number. Since it’s hard to remember a number sequence if you’re not looking at the previous tapes, simply start with today’s date and then a cassette number, for instance, "06/13/0201."

Incidentally: don’t omit the leading zero in the tape number. Without it, your editing database may reorder your tapes 1, 11, 12, 13 and so-on, up to 2, 20, 21, 22, etc…..

How about those tiny Mini DV labels? Anyone who can use them effectively could also engrave the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin. So, here are some strategies for evading this problem. First, number the paper log in the tape storage box to match the cassette, and do your writing on that more capacious surface. Though tape and container may get separated, you can re-match them by their numbers later on.

Next, note recording endpoints on the cassette face label, to ensure that you start on a fresh tape the next time you use it. (Since it’s common to play back the footage you’ve shot, you may not always leave the tape at the very end of the recorded material.) By the time the tape’s full, one of my labels may look like this:

06/13/01–01 (vacation)




Again, the storage case insert can carry more details. Note that this is just one approach, and Videomaker would love to hear about your own ingenious system for writing on postage stamp-sized cassette labels.

With tape and box opened and labeled, the next step is to limber up the contents. To do this, simply fast forward the tape to the end and then rewind it to the beginning. This will free up any minor sticky spots and discard bits of loose oxide that could hang up on your record heads and cause problems later. (You won’t leave your tape there, for reasons we’ll explain in a moment.)

Finally, a word about archiving. Always store tapes in their boxes to keep dust away, and stand them upright, on end. Stashed in an environment of moderate temperature and humidity, your precious records should last for years. But they won’t last forever.

Ill-informed folks insist that digital tapes will last as long as Kodachrome transparencies; but in fact, the digital signal-storage system is no different from the old analog method. In both formats, magnetizing bazillions of metallic particles encodes information, and, over time, progressively demagnetizes and degrades the signal.

The digital advantage is not in permanence, but in copy quality. Like a floppy disk, you can duplicate a digital tape through many generations without any quality loss. Moreover, even if the parent tape has just barely enough signal left to read, the copy will be as pristine as the camera original. The moral: Duplicate your stored programs every few years. How few? The jury’s still out on that one, so I’ll take a risk and guesstimate that every five years should do it.

About Blacking a Tape

Blacking a tape means recording its entire length with no video or audio information, resulting in a tape that is, paradoxically, fully recorded and at the same time blank.

There are two reasons for blacking an analog tape. First, playing back the first part of the tape will usually reveal stretched tape, misaligned record heads or similar problems. The screen will show giveaway lines and other artifacts, instead of the expected black. (I once had to redo an entire morning of an expensive professional shoot because a roll of bad tape was not caught before use.)

A more important purpose is to lay down an uninterrupted reference track that always reveals exactly where you are in the tape and how to return to any shot located previously. Whenever you press Record, whether blacking the tape or making a shot, you lay down a reference track along with the picture, sound and sync information.

Digital and hobbyist analog camcorders create two quite different reference tracks. An analog track, called a control track, simply carries a pulse recorded once every second. A camcorder or VCR computes elapsed time on a tape by counting and adding these pulses. It is important to note that these counter numbers are not recorded onto the tape and will reset at zero each time a tape is ejected or inserted. In an analog system, the playback time-counter will stop when it has no more pulses left to count.

A digital camcorder, by contrast, uses time code to assign a unique address to every video frame. In a digital system, the recorder will start assigning time code from zero when it finds a codeless (blank) section of tape. This can result in duplicate time code numbers on a single tape and would make tape logging difficult, and computer editors could find batch capture operations do not work. It is a bit of a myth, however, that DV camcorders perform insert edits when recording, leaving existing time code untouched on the tape. It may appear that this is true, since the new time code exactly matches the time code that is over-written.

In both systems, the solution to these problems is to lay down an uninterrupted reference track before shooting any video by blacking the tape, thus guaranteeing continuous numbers.

Tape Blacking Procedures

With analog VHS or VHS-C formats, the simplest way to black a tape is by putting it in a VCR and pressing Record when there’s no signal coming in from any source. However, most hobbyists using 8mm, Digital8 or Mini DV will need to black their tapes by recording them in the camcorder.

Here’s the procedure:

1. Connect AC power, so your camcorder isn’t running on batteries.

2. Place the lens cap over the lens. (If your model has an internal cap that disables recording, retract it and press the lens against a soft pillow.)

3. Insert a stereo mini plug that is not connected to anything into your external mike input, if you have one. This will disable the built-in microphone. If your unit lacks an external mike jack, adapt that same pillow to cover the mike as well as the lens.

4. Insert a tape, rewind to start, if necessary, and press Record.

When recording is complete and the tape has been rewound, play back about a minute, looking for glitches that indicate a tape problem. Then leave the tape at the one-minute mark, ready for shooting. Rolling past the first minute bypasses any tape that might be stretched by frequent rewinding, further minimizing any future tape gliches.

If you edit on a computer, cable its audio and video outputs and record the tape without feeding it a signal. You’ll get a single, uninterrupted reference track. Speaking of which Good shooting!

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