Video Out: VHS: Still the King of the Hill

Youve probably heard a lot of people raving about how great DVD and the Internet are for distributing video. DVDs have amazing picture and sound quality, and dont cost much to mail across the country. Internet video can be distributed to millions of Web-savvy geeks without having to pay a dime in shipping. But the most popular way to distribute video productions is still on good old VHS tape. Wonder why?

Why VHS?


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The number one reason to use VHS to distribute your videos is the plain fact that VHS VCRs are everywhere. Everyone from grandmothers to little kids is familiar with VHS tape. Almost every American home has a TV connected to a VHS VCR. Many homes have two or more! Even if your viewer has another type of video playing machine in his house (whether it be a DVD or laserdisc player, Internet-connected computer or a VCR of another format), hell also have one of the ubiquitous VHS machines somewhere in his entertainment system. Add to this installed base of VHS VCRs the additional benefit of the inexpensive cost of mastering to VHS. VHS tape is cheap. It costs the producer only about $1 per hour of VHS tape.

There is a group of people (maybe you are one of them) who shudder every time you mention VHS. They loathe the format, citing the argument that VHS only became popular for its long record time, not its marginal picture quality. Most of those people are probably former Betamax owners. Theyre right in a way. VHS has a low-grade picture. And when you compare it to Hi8 or Mini DV, it can look downright ugly.

As a videographer, you might be tempted to think that distributing your video in a higher quality format such as Mini DV, S-VHS or Hi8 is a good idea. However, unless you are sending your tape to another videographer who owns playback equipment in that format, your tape will be useless. Even if your viewer owns a camcorder of the same format, your tapes will more likely gather dust than wear out from overuse. People dont like the hassle of having to hook up a camcorder to their TV just to watch one video. Even people who have high-end gear like to watch videos on their TVs, the same TV that already has a VHS VCR attached to it. Regardless of arguments about its poor resolution, viewers have come to accept VHS. When the tradeoff is picture quality for ease of use, ease of use wins.

Perhaps the worst part of distributing a VHS tape is the mailing cost. VHS tape weighs quite a bit, and mailing off those tapes, especially a number of them, can cost a pretty penny.

Shooting for Success

The first thing that you need to keep in mind when putting out a tape for public consumption is that to get a high-quality distribution copy of a VHS tape, you need to have a high-quality master tape. Your video needs to be well-lit and have crisp sound. A dark master copy of a video will only result in darker distribution copies. Hopefully you shot your original footage in DV, Digital8, Hi8 or S-VHS. While VHS, VHS-C and 8mm are fine for making personal videotapes, if you are going through the trouble of editing and distributing the tape – even if it is just going to friends and family – youll want to shoot it in a format that will look good on a second generation copy.

Rolling Your Own

If you are making your own VHS copies to distribute, there are a few things that you can do to make sure that your viewers get the best quality possible. First, make sure that the VCR you are recording with is in good condition. Making multiple copies of your video will put some wear and tear on your heads, so make sure that they are clean before you start rolling hour after hour of tape. Next, youll want to use the highest-quality cables for duping your tape. If your decks support it, use S-video cables for cleaner copies. Finally, record at SP speed rather than the faster LP, SLP or EP speeds.

Many videographers are editing with nonlinear systems these days. If you are using a nonlinear editing system, make your copies directly off the computer. That way, everyone will receive the cleanest possible copy, rather than a second generation dupe. Alternately, if you shot with a digital camcorder and edited with a nonlinear system, make a master copy back to the camcorder on DV tape, and dupe your copies using your camcorder as a play deck. Your VHS copies will look great.

You might want to consider making a distribution rack if you are planning to make a number of copies of your video. To make a distribution rack, you combine a play deck with multiple record decks. That way, you can make multiple copies of your tape at a time. Besides the decks, the key to making multiple copies at once is a piece of equipment called a distribution amplifier.

A distribution amp will take the signal from the play source and boost it, giving all of the record decks downstream a signal that is as good as the one coming from the play deck. You can get a 3-deck distribution amp for as little as $100 from mail order companies and other sources of professional video gear.

And remember, whenever you make a VHS copy be sure to break off the copy protection tab. This will prevent your viewers from accidentally recording over your masterpiece.

Getting a Super Duper

If you plan on making hundreds or thousands of copies of your tape, you might want to enlist the services of a professional duping company. A duper will take your master tape and make as many copies as you pay for. Many will also print custom sleeves for tapes, adding the final touch that makes your tapes look more professional.

The upside to using a duper is that you dont have to spend hours making all of those copies of your tape yourself. The downside to using a duper is that these people are in the duping business to make money, and they will charge you for the service. Most dupers will want a master tape on S-VHS, Beta SP or DV. You send them a copy of the master, along with your payment, and theyll make copies and ship them back to you. Many dupers offer very good prices on bulk tape, so it might be cheaper in the long run to use one.

The Future of Video Distribution

The future of video distribution isnt VHS. In a few years, DVD players will have penetrated the market enough that making DVDs will not only be an option, but a necessity. CDs didnt instantly replace vinyl records and analog cassettes, but today, you have to shop in a specialty store if you are looking for a record. The future will hold the same for VHS. Perhaps in 20 years, people will give you an odd look if you tell them that youre mailing them a VHS tape. Today however, good old VHS is still your best bet for distributing video.


There are downsides to using new technologies like DVD and Internet video too. First, the average home video producer isnt using the Dolby Digital AC-3 sound available on the DVD. In fact, many home videographers are lucky if they shoot their video using a camcorder that can come close to DVDs video resolution. If your video isnt gonna be looking like a slick Hollywood production, DVD owners might be a bit disappointed when your soundtrack doesnt rattle the windows, or the picture isnt as sharp as Toy Story.

Internet video, with all of its futuristic promise is still held back by a couple of problems. First, full-screen Internet video is only viable to those people that have a high-speed Internet connection. This high-speed connection could be a cable modem or DSL connection, but if your viewers still use a phone modem to connect to the Internet, they wont get a decent full-screen picture without a marathon all-night downloading session. Second, you limit your audience by distributing your video exclusively on the Internet. Lastly, there is the Web-centric notion that information wants to be free. A video distributed solely through the Internet is just that: information. Youll have a rough time getting people to pay to see a Web video. If you distribute through VHS though, there is a tangible piece of hardware – the tape itself – to sell, not just the information contained on the tape. This is not to say that you shouldn’t use the Internet to market your VHS video. You can use streaming video previews to show off your production, and help drive potential customers towards your video. Also you can assemble lists of e-mail addresses for potential customers to let your target audience know that your tape is available.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.