Drawing a Blank

So blank media isn’t the most exciting topic you could read about, but you know it’s important. Blank media is also a contentious topic, surrounded by myth, superstition and tales of woe. This isn’t terribly surprising, considering the devastating effects of media failure: Thousands of dollars of equipment and hundreds of hours of practice, all thwarted by a defective tape. Videographers are notoriously superstitious about blank media. How can you know that the blanks you use won’t let you down? It’s actually very logical. So, put away your voodoo talismans, rattles and shakers and we’ll try to put you at ease.

Tape Brand

Should you always use the same brand of tape? There is a long-standing rumor that you should not mix different brands of tape in your camcorder. The purported reason why has something to do with lubricants from Sony interacting with lubricants from Panasonic, combining together to form some sort of gunk that will ruin your camcorder. Some versions of the legend suggest that this was a one-time problem that was corrected by Sony. We have been unable to verify this story, in whole or in part, and don’t understand how the chemistry was supposed to work, but we have heard first-hand anecdotes from professionals in the field.

On the other hand, the vast majority of consumers have never heard this tale and have been wantonly using whatever tape is on sale with no problems whatsoever. This leads us to a real-world and pragmatic solution to this sticky problem, whether the legend is true or not. If you are a professional, with money on the line, you should do everything you can to make sure nothing goes wrong. Sure, using the same brand of high-grade tape costs more money, but you’ll include that in your production costs and charge your clients accordingly anyhow. In the end, if you get stuck on a remote shoot without enough tape, we wouldn’t worry at all about substituting another brand.

Tape Grade

It is also fairly difficult to tease out which brand of tape is the best. We can say that Panasonic is the OEM of a significant percentage of all videotape sold, whether under their own brand name or rebranded by someone else. Sony, TDK, Fuji and Maxell are some other major brand names that you’ll see on the shelves. We have not encountered any consistent problems with any particular brand.

For analog recording, the quality of the tape can determine the quality of the recording. For digital media (e.g. Mini DV), the quality of the video is not an issue. Digital bits are digital bits and you either have them or you don’t. Overall, this is a good thing, since even the cheapest digital media must be perfect. On the other hand, analog video errors can be difficult to spot and quality can be hard to judge, whereas a rectangular pink flash in a single frame is jarringly easy to spot in DV.

Manufacturers do grade their tapes and the grade is a good rough indication of quality. "Master Grade" tapes are of higher quality than a standard tape from the same manufacturer. It might be that the tape itself is stronger or that the magnetic particles are more dense or that the tape has a higher carrier-to-noise ratio, but there is a difference. We know very well that words like "Premium" and "Professional Grade" are marketing terms that don’t have an objective definition, so between brands, they are meaningless.

How Many Minutes?

Some consumer camcorders allow you to select an SP (slow play or standard play) mode for recording 60 minutes of video to a 60-minute tape or an LP (long play) mode for recording 90 minutes of video to that same tape. This is made possible by running the tape through the camera more slowly, which in turn means that the camera will place more data on less tape. For Mini DV, the quality is the same in both modes, since the data is the same, but the greater data density has the potential to cause more problems. Although you might save a little money recording in LP (or even EP) mode, we recommend that you only do this if you absolutely must. Not all cameras have an LP mode, so watch out for compatibility problems if you play your tapes back in a different camera or VTR.

Also watch out for longer duration tapes. The size of the cassette itself is the same, so to stuff more feet of tape into the package, the tape itself needs to be thinner, and thinner means weaker.

Discs

The situation with optical media is simpler but less familiar to most of us. There are only a few manufacturers of blank DVDs and quality is more standardized. The quality of the disc is defined by its reliability, which is the ability to make a recording successfully, and by its durability, which is the disc’s ability to store and replay that recording over time. Reliability is usually a factor during the burning process, so errors will be immediately apparent. Which brings us to a critical difference between the importance of our blank tapes versus blank discs. When we burn DVDs, we are either burning for archival purposes or for distribution. You can deal with problems and failures immediately, then re-burn. Tape failure on a shoot, however, can be an unmitigated disaster.

You don’t have to worry about "Master Quality" or "Professional Grade" with optical media. (Note: Authoring media is a different format and is not a higher quality version of DVD. See the General vs. Authoring sidebar.) Instead, you might buy a name-brand disc because the company performs quality control and has a lifetime warranty. Or you might go with generic discs straight from the original manufacturer (e.g. Ritek) in order to save some money. We have noticed one important indication of quality to look for: certified media. When you buy a blank DVD, look for the words "4X Certified" on the package or in the marketing material. Although some dishonest distributors have printed those words on their packaging when the disc is not a 4X disc, you can trust the claims of reputable manufacturers.

Durability: Longevity and Archives

Although it is a good idea to backup your critical master tapes, and DVD is a good media to use for this purpose, never throw away your master tapes. The solid plastic construction of a DVD, the less complex motion of the disc and the fact that it is optical and not magnetic all suggest that DVDs will be more durable than tape in the long term. However, there is serious concern that the organic dye used in burned media will fade over time. This is a possibility that has not yet been proven; only time (and more testing) will answer this question. Backing up your important data and media to disc is a good idea, but nothing lasts forever. To be safe, we recommend keeping important projects on tape and DVD.

Failure is not an Option

Signal loss over time is an issue with magnetic tape, as the tape itself deteriorates a little every time it is used. Still, videotape is much more stable and robust than most people think. Tapes played often will deteriorate much more rapidly; however, historic audio and videotapes at the Library of Congress have proven that tape is very durable. Properly stored in a cool and dry location, there is no reason your videotape will not last for decades.

The story might be similar with DVDs, but it is too early to tell. Leaving your DVDs on the dashboard of your car in the Sahara desert (or the grocery store parking lot) will not only cause them to warp, but may cause the dye to decompose. Again, stored in a cool and dark location, home-burned DVDs should last for years.

Buying Bulk

Most of us balance the quest for quality equipment (including blank media) against our budgets. You can definitely save money buying bulk. Prices drop dramatically in quantities of 10 for videotape. You’ll see more significant savings with 50-count or even 100-count spindles of blank optical media. Don’t forget to buy tape sleeves and jewel cases separately for distribution of bulk-purchased media.

[Sidebar: General vs. Authoring DVDs]

Authoring media is not a higher quality version of general media. Authoring DVDs use a different laser wavelength (635nm, as compared to 650nm for general discs). You cannot burn authoring discs in drives meant for general media, and vice versa. Designed for professional use, authoring DVDs can hold information that general discs can’t. For example, you can submit an authoring DVD with standardized Cutting Master Format (CMF) to a duplication house instead of a DLT (digital linear tape). Authoring burners are, of course, significantly more expensive than the general burners discussed in this article.

[Sidebar: Playback Problems]

We’ve all experienced tracking problems with videotape and burned discs that will not play, but these are rare events and it is difficult to identify specific causes. Unless, of course, you left the cassette or DVD on the dashboard of your car. Another factor might be your recording and playback heads. It is easy enough to keep them clean. Another important consideration is the rest of the tape mechanism. Dust and goo on the tape rollers and other parts of the inside of your recorder can eventually migrate to the tape or recording heads themselves.

Clean heads every 50 hours or so of record/playback time and follow the instructions carefully. Failure to do so can result in head damage. Use the same brand of tape cleaner as the tapes you use. Do not over-clean your heads, since head cleaning does increase wear and tear on your heads.

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