High quality. Extra high quality. High grade. Extra high grade. Super high grade. Premium Grade. Only one item in the videomakers arsenal can claim such a bewildering range of superlatives in such a seemingly banal product: blank tape.

Listening to the marketing hype can give you the idea youre choosing from varying levels of greatness–which is, of course, not always the case. Nonetheless, the blank videotape industry continues to offer new and innovative solutions for videomakers, with advances in technology providing a better product year after year.

To give you a better idea of whats currently on the market, we’ll run down a few manufacturers’ tape product lines. We’ll also take a quick look at what’s new on the professional market as we try to sidestep the technical jargon.

When you finish reading this, you’ll be better able to make an informed purchase and to pick the grade of tape that will fit your application. Maybe you’ll also be able to save a buck or two along the way.

It’s Only Money

Prices vary widely on consumer tapes. They differ almost as much as grade names of the tapes themselves. Even though youll probably never pay the manufacturers’ suggested retail prices for tape, we will use those prices here for the sake of continuity. Unless otherwise noted, the prices given in this article are suggested retail prices for 120-minute VHS and 8mm tapes or for 30-minute VHS-C tapes. Also, its good to bear in mind that street prices are often 25 to 40 percent lower than suggested retail prices.

Packaging differences account for wide price swings. Three or four tapes bundled together usually result in a substantial savings. If you do not buy in quantity, at least check out the special package prices. Also, you’ll save money by checking prices of the tape you want in at least three types of stores.

Check industrial suppliers’ bulk tape prices, too. They carry almost any length tape you could want, in varying grades.

Almost everyone agrees with the simple logic of using better tape and arguments against this advice are not easy to come by. But its sometimes difficult to notice the difference between images shot on high- or standard-grade tape. Why, then, spend the extra money?

Maxell Corporation’s guidelines for videotape use suggest choosing a high-grade tape for long-playing (LP) recording because these tapes “pack more recording particles in the same space, making for better images at slower recording speeds.” Use a tape that “matches your equipment’s capabilities,” says Peter Brinkman, Maxell’s national marketing manager for Audio/Video Products. “Don’t skimp on quality.”

Its also true that higher-grade tapes will better withstand the test of time than their cheaper brethren. Its a sad fact of life that analog videotapes have a maximum life span of under ten years, and using cheaper tape will greatly reduce the amount of time youll have to enjoy your cherished videos.

The Right Mix

Pros understand that their clients’ needs and goals are the first step on the road to choosing the best tape for the assignment. What is the shoot? Where will it take place? How is the lighting? What is the audio program? Which of these is most important?

Ask yourself the same questions before you rush to the store to pick up a tape for your next project. If you are trying to do a family history, capture a child’s birthday party or record your next vacation, you’ll plan out your project before you know what equipment youll need. Think of your tape as highly specialized equipment and buy accordingly.

Say you will be shooting a church christening of a friend’s child. Before you choose a tape, consider the following questions: what is the shoot? A short christening. Where will it take place? Inside the old church. What is the lighting? Very dark inside. What is the audio? A lavalier mike on the minister. Which of these is most important? If it’s taking good video of the baby in the dark church, the choice of tape on this shoot is clear.

Your best choice of tape will be one that gives you the greatest odds of success. If you are shooting the event with a high performance camcorder offering low-light recording and hi-fi audio capabilities, use high performance videotape. Using anything less in tape quality defeats the recording mechanisms inside your camcorder. Perhaps a metal evaporation process tape if you use Hi8, or a high grade iron oxide tape if you are shooting VHS.

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What’s New

New products in the professional field often make their way to the consumer market quite rapidly. Fuji, for example, announced their Double Coating Technology with a brand new professional tape named Hi8 M221E. It took only eight months for its counterpart, Hi8 ME Position, to reach the consumer tape market.

The big news in technology on the consumer level is digital videotape. Even bigger news is the agreement among manufacturers for a standardized format known as DV. You read about it first in Matthew York’s "Viewfinder" column in the September 1994 Videomaker. Now, this format is available in two "mini" tape lengths–30 and 60 minutes–with a slightly larger, longer-playing VCR tape to come in the near future.

Other news: Ampex has offered two new tapes that qualify them for entry in this years blank tape buyers guide. Their new product number 288 ($16.21) marks their first entry into the professional Hi8 tape market. They’re also marketing a new VHS tape ($5.69). Ampex spokesman Russ Novy says the firm wants to provide the professional videomaker with all possible tape options.

Sony’s news for pros is a new tape formulation process they refer to as Diamond-Like Coating or DLC. The DLC process adds another level of Hi8 videocassettes known as HMEAD. This new formulation addresses a common complaint of Hi8 ME (metal evaporated) tapes–namely, that they tend to be too fragile for the rigors of editing. According to Sony, HMEAD tapes have a smoother surface and a “sealed-in” metal evaporation formula that makes them more rugged for professional editing requirements.

The Best Tape for You

Professionals’ livelihoods depend upon quality tape. I don’t know a single pro who would deliver a completed assignment on a standard grade tape. Pros want higher grade tape. Period.

How much higher? The best answer I can come up with is, “it depends.”

Pros buy a tape product because they feel it is best for their application. They also buy a tape because they trust the manufacturer and because the tape works with their equipment. Some combinations of tape and equipment fit perfectly while others just don’t make it. Pros test new tape products on the equipment they use day in and day out.

Do the same thing yourself. Match up the grades and recommendations of a few different tapes as best you can. Give them a test and see how they work for you in your camcorder, through your VCR or on your editing equipment.

Camcorders differ. Their optics differ. The CCDs that produce the signals differ. Every piece of equipment you use helps make your own tape needs different from someone else’s. Your test will likely produce a tape that performs better for you than the others do. If you do, congratulations; you just found the best tape for you.

You’ll have to switch to another grade or another brand from time to time as your shooting plan dictates. You’ll also want to check out the new stuff as it comes along. But once you know which tape is right for you, buy in quantity; itll save you some money and keep you stocked for emergencies.

What’s Old

What’s old after another year is the same problem of trying to make sense out of the multitude of grades and grade names of tapes on the market today. Expect the same problems you have had in the past as you cut your way through the verbiage to decide if a tape is right or wrong for your application.

Although tape comparisons are confusing at best, it’s probably good to mention just a few of the technical terms used in judging one tape against another. You won’t have to deal with these terms in this article again. From now on, we’ll refer to the entire following list as “video performance.”

  • Coercivity–a measure of the tapes magnetic strength.

  • Remanence or retentivity–a measure of a tape’s ability to retain magnetism.

  • Video signal to noise or luminance S/N–a relationship of the luminance signal (black and white) of a tape to its residual noise.

  • Color signal to noise or chrominance S/N–a relationship of the color signal to residual noise.

The higher number given for these statistics, the greater the difference between one tape and another. This makes it easy to chose between tapes and brands, right? Wrong–in the case of two crucial attributes, video and color signal-to-noise, most manufacturers compare these statistics to their own reference tapes, not an industry standard. (For more on this, see the sidebar "Wheres Scotch?" in the buyers guide grid.)

A Handful of Companies
Now that weve covered the basics, lets get into the specific tape offerings of the companies themselves. Remember, unless otherwise noted, all prices are for 120-minute lengths (with the exception of VHS-C and S-VHS-C, which are in 30-minute lengths).

TDK refers to its standard 8mm as High Standard (HS). They offer it in lengths from 30 to 150 minutes in standard speed (SP). They recommend HS ($14) and the next grade up, E-HG ($17), for general camcorder use. With sizes ranging up to two hours, E-HG is further recommended for editing and for low-light shooting because of its better video performance ratios.

As you read this, TDK will already be shipping an 8mm tape in a new three-hour length with a suggested retail price of $20.

The two TDK Hi8 tapes carry the designations MP ($20) and ME ($38). The MP is a metal particle alloy tape coming in lengths of 30, 60, 90 and 120 minutes. They recommend their top of the line ME tape with its Metallox Coating for stereo recording, low light and editing.

All of TDK’s VHS line uses ferricobalt magnetic particle formulation. The line starts with their HS formulation ($7); they recommend HS for VCR use and supply it in an array of lengths: 30, 60, 120 and 160 minutes.

Then comes E-HG which they also offer in a VHS-C cassette. The lengths are 120, 160 and 180 minutes for VHS and 30 and 40 minutes for VHS-C. TDK suggests E-HG for low light camcorder work.

The next two grades of VHS tape, HiFi ($11) and HD-XPRO ($16), boast super smooth backcoatings. HiFi is the tape TDK suggests for special audio/video systems. Packaged in a special hard case, HD-XPRO is the top of the line. It’s a good tape for both SP and EP modes and for editing. Both of these tapes earn higher video performance ratios and come in 60 and 120 minutes.

For S-VHS and S-VHS-C users, TDK offers XP-SP ($19 for VHS 120s and $13 for compact 30s). XP-SP tapes use a special multi-layer construction of TDK’s ferricobalt formulation. The company recommends these tapes “for all S-VHS/S-VHS-C applications.”

Without reading the technical data TDK has available, you may find it difficult to really separate one tape from another. If you take a close look at the uses that the company recommends, though, you’ll find some significant differences between their tape grades.

The videocassette product line manufactured by BASF Magnetics Corporation is smaller than most. At the same time, though, it contains the longest tape available–a 200-minute SP tape that goes up to 10 hours in EP mode. BASF’s Leslie Vaughn says you should experience no reliability problems with their longer videocassettes.

Two products constitute the 8mm line: a 60-minute Super High Grade and a 120-minute High Standard (each $5). BASF does not make a Hi8 tape.

In VHS, BASF makes Extra Quality in lengths from 120 ($3) to 200 minutes ($8), and Super High Grade in lengths of 120 ($3.50), 160 ($4.49) and 180 ($8) minutes. Their VHS-C cassettes, also Super High Grade, are available in 20 minutes ($4.49) and 30 minutes ($5).

Maxell Corporation affixes easy to remember names to their VHS line: silver, gold and black. GX-Silver ($3.59) starts the group. HGX-Gold ($4.49) is next. For increased audio reproduction and higher video performance ratios, Maxell gives us XL-HiFi ($5.79). Their S-VHS offering, XRS-Black, carries suggested prices of $12.49 for a 120-minute cassette and $12 for a 30-minute S-VHS-C.

Maxell, like most other manufacturers, produces two grades each of 8mm and Hi8 videocassettes. 8mm is available in GX-MP ($6.29) and HGX-MP ($8). You can also buy HGX-MP in lengths of 150 and 180 minutes. Hi8’s two grades are a metal particle tape, XR-Metal ($10.89), and a metal evaporated tape, XD-ME ($35).

Allison Colucci at Fuji Photo Film USA furnished technical data on her firm’s full tape lines in both consumer and professional grades. For our purposes here, we’ll concentrate on the consumer grades.

Fuji has four double-coated 8mm consumer tapes. All four come in special Extraslim cases. The two regular 8mm tapes are Standard ($10) and Super High Grade ($12). Super HG earns somewhat higher video performance statistics when compared against Standard grade. Both come in 30, 60 and 120-minute lengths. Standard also comes as a 150-minute tape.

The two Hi8 tapes are MP ($18) and ME Position ($26). Both are metal particle tapes and both are available in 30-, 60- or 120-minute lengths. As you read earlier, ME Position is supposedly the MP tape that acts like an ME tape. It is the tape Fuji recommends for “recording your most memorable occasions.”

You have three choices in VHS videocassettes: HQ ($6), Super HG ($7) and A/V master ($15). Fuji suggests using HQ for TV taping and for time-shifting (recording in an extended play mode).

Super HG earns somewhat better video performance ratios that Fuji says enhance its audio signal handling. Both HQ and Super HG come in 60-, 120- and 160-minute lengths with Super HG also being available in VHS-C sizes of 20 and 30 minutes.

A/V Master, an enhanced hi-fi tape formulated from superfine-grain magnetic particles, gets Fuji’s recommendation for camcorder and mastering uses. A/V master comes only in a 120-minute length and includes a protective plastic slip case.

S-VHS videocassettes come with a slightly thicker backing than other Fuji VHS tapes. The tape is offered in S-VHS-C cassettes of 20 and 30 minutes and in S-VHS lengths of 30, 60, 120 and 160 minutes ($18 for either VHS 120s or VHS-C 30s).

For their 8mm customers, Sony makes the Metal MP Series ($5.49). This is the standard tape that is “recommended for all-purpose usage.” Cassettes come in 30-, 60-, 120- and 150-minute lengths. Sony’s other 8mm tape is the Metal HG series ($6.49), a “high-resolution advanced metal technology.” Metal HG comes in 30-, 60- and 120-minute lengths.

In Hi8, Sony produces its Metal-P Series in two grades: HMPB ($11) and HMPX ($16). Their Metal-E Series is available in two grades: HME-B ($19) and HME-X ($38.75).

Sony discontinued its VHS ES series, but continues its “V” line with a “new Hi-Packaging Density” videocassette ($2.25).

The Bottom Line

Almost every tape maker I talked with repeated the dual advice to avoid inferior tapes completely and use the best videocassette grade possible when you are dealing with important memories. That advice may sound self-serving, but after researching this article, I have come to believe it wholeheartedly.

My personal tape buying game plan from now on consists of six steps. For TV recording or a simple copy of something for a friend, standard grade VHS tape will do the trick. If a client will receive a copy of something on VHS, the tape will be a professional grade or a top of the line consumer level.

For 8mm shooting, I use standard grade tape. For Hi8, metal evaporated will be my choice. If I’m going to do lots of editing, Ill use professional MP instead.

You will certainly pick different tape combinations than mine for your own needs. That’s great. You’ll make your own choices on a more informed basis–which is what reading this article was all about, right?


SIDEBAR

Budget Relief–Two-dollar Tape is a Reality

When doing nothing more serious than making a copy on the VCR that will receive only limited playing at best, I confess to buying large amounts of VHS tapes based upon advertisements in the Sunday newspaper. Here are the sale prices that watching newspaper ads for just two consecutive Sundays produced.

What’s On Sale?

One discount store advertised a three-pack of BASF tape for $4. Included were two T-120s and one T-130. Another discounter sold a Sony three-pack for $6 that contained two T-120s and one T-160.

A third store was selling a JVC package for $10 that contained a mix of five T-120 tapes (three standards and two higher grade tapes) plus a beverage cooler that would fit a 6-pack.

The local Target department store ran a close-out sale of five of their Target HQ T-120s for $7 “while quantities last.”

For one week, Kmart featured their entire stock of blank videotapes at 20 percent off. The choices included Kodak, Maxell, Scotch, Sony, 3M, TDK and their own Focal brand tapes.

Someone else charged $7 for your choice of a four-pack of TDK standard T-120s or a two-pack of Sony 8mm 120s. It was the only advertisement for 8mm tape in the entire two-week period.

The Ad Space Winner
The most highly advertised brand was Scotch. A department store had Scotch’s High Standard 120s in a four-pack for $8. They were also selling Scotch’s Performance High Grade (PHG) 120s in a three-pack or a two-pack of PHG 160s, all for the same $8 price.

At another store the next week, you could buy four Scotch HS tapes or three PHG tapes for $7 and you’d receive a free kid’s toy with either. Two drug stores also featured Scotch specials. One sold a three-pack containing two HS 120s and a PHG 120 for $5. The competing store advertised a single Scotch HS at $1.79 or $2.79 each for PHG grade.

If you use standard VHS tape, you can watch the Sunday newspapers and pick up all you need at an average cost of $2 or less for a reputable manufacturer’s product. Chances are you’ll get a few higher grade tapes for the same price, too.

–R.W.


SIDEBAR

How Tape Sizes Differ

Almost everyone with a VCR makes a copy of a TV show on VHS tape at one time or another. Camcorder owners record directly onto VHS or copy to it from their own smaller camcorders. Collectively, we use one heck of a lot of VHS tape.

Simply stated, consumer VHS tape comes in three main types: standard, somewhat higher than standard and one or more premium grades. The differences in these tapes usually come down to how thick the magnetic coating (metal oxide) is on each grade of tape. The small and more closely packed the magnetic particles, the clearer and truer the recording.

S-VHS is the same size as VHS but makes use of special equipment to render a better picture. The number of lines of resolution in an S-VHS picture is greater, thereby producing a sharper picture. S-VHS tape, likewise, has better performance characteristics than regular VHS.

The difference between 8mm and Hi8 is much like that between VHS and S-VHS. Hi8 requires special equipment to record and to show its higher grade images. 8mm is much smaller tape than VHS and, while it takes 410 feet of VHS to run for an hour at standard speed, the smaller 8mm uses only 177.

ME and MP Videocassettes

Metal evaporation (ME) tapes contain particles of metal bound on the tape backing by a special evaporation process. TDK calls their process Metallox Coating. They describe this as a coating technology that “employs a vacuum-chamber metal evaporation technique.” ME tapes are generally advertised as being more sensitive to both normal and low light. ME tapes are only available for Hi8 and DV formats.

Metal particle (MP) exist in both 8mm and Hi8 formats. Although they also contain metal particles, their formulation is not the same as the ME tapes. As a result, they cost from a third to a half less than the top-of-the-line consumer ME tapes.

Fuji sells what they refer to as Super Double Coated metal particle consumer tape. The non-magnetic bottom layer is overcoated with an ultra thin metal magnetic top layer. Fuji has named this tape ME Position saying that it “combines the durability of MP tape with the superior picture quality of premium ME videocassettes.”

–R.W.

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Mike is the Editor-in-Chief of Videomaker and Creator Handbook