Blank Discs and Tapes: Your Memories Start Here

As audio and video content producers, we use more blank media than most normal people do. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with information on everything from grades of tape to gauss all the way to reflectivity and lifespan estimates when dealing with optical discs.

What you might not know (but may well have suspected), however, is that a surprising amount of media sold at different prices is actually cut from the same cloth. Let’s shed some light on the information you need to find your best deals for the media that will store your most important memories.

Not Sticky Tape

When it comes to tape, everyone seems to have their own opinion on which type or brand is best. Some producers have done a lot of experimentation to find their favorites. The best tape depends on your equipment and how much you’re willing to pay.

Some equipment (mostly higher-end VHS and S-VHS VCRs) can actually give you a performance figure on the tape that you just inserted into the machine, and report back the results. When purchasing in volume, it is a good idea to get out your notebook and test a selection of tapes and you can come to decisions on the tape you want to buy rather quickly. For digital camcorders, this isn’t as much of a consideration: after all, digital data is digital data. As long as the tape is sturdy enough to stay together and the magnetic substrate is robust enough to resist flaking off the plastic film base, you’ll be fine. It isn’t an issue of image quality at all.

Anecdotally, we have found that bargain lines of tape sold by major manufacturers (manufacturers that appear in our manufacturer listing) tend to perform very well, especially compared to so-called master grade tapes. Of course, your mileage may vary and circumstances frequently arise where only the best tape at any cost will do the job.

Optical Media

The continuing evolution of the Internet has leveled the playing field when it comes to optical media. While a huge number of companies are marketing discs, only a handful of companies actually manufacture discs. These manufacturers (known as OEMs, for Original Equipment Manufacturers) sell bulk to the brand-name companies you know, who then package and distribute them through the channels where we find and buy them. This works for the manufacturer, who often doesn’t have the retail channel experience, and for the brand, who doesn’t have to build new factories.

There are a few utilities on the Internet that will show you the actual manufacturer of the disc you have. From this, you can draw some quick conclusions. If you know that your burner chokes on a few particular brands of media (rare these days, but it does happen), you can narrow your disc selection a little further. On the other hand, if there are brands with which you have consistently had good luck, you can probably find another disc out there for a little bit less that will perform just as well.

A major factor driving prices is how much testing the discs have undergone. More testing drives up prices, but also helps to ensure a more satisfactory experience. The actual discs are the same, though. The testing just roots the bad discs out of the system. Major brands are extremely protective of their brand name and thus specify standards and test their media. Buying generic or house brand discs can be a bit of a gamble (we could contract with a manufacturer to sell Videomaker blank discs, for example). On the other hand, we have empirically had very good results with generic discs, with only very rare failures (< 1%), so the risk is usually worth the cost savings. This is especially true for “slower” speed discs; 4x; 8x, 12x and 16x discs are much more finicky. Again, data is data–as long as it lands on the disc correctly, it’ll be the same data (i.e. same image quality) coming off of the disc when another device tries to read it.

Where to Buy

Certainly, we all find ourselves having to make a mad dash to the nearby big-box store, drug store, discount store, electronics store or supermarket (really!) to buy media from time to time. However, if you’re serious enough to maintain an inventory of media, the place to acquire your media is via the Internet. There are some tremendous deals out there, especially when you buy in case or 100-count spindle quantities. As usual when shopping online, though, you have to watch out for whether you will be charged sales tax up front and how much shipping will cost.

If you’re patient, you can find some outstanding deals (especially on discs) in the Sunday tabloid supplements in your local newspaper. You usually have to deal with rebates on these, though, so your results may vary depending on how meticulous you are in jumping through all of the inevitable and annoying rebate hoops.

We hope you are better-prepared for your next media purchasing experience. Let our manufacturer list get you started in the right direction for finding the media you need.

Charles Fulton is Videomaker‘s Associate Editor.

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