What could be so complicated about buying blank videotape that we devote an entire buyer’s guide to the subject, you ask? Different types of tape can make a difference in the image and sound quality that you record and play back. In addition, the quality of the videotape you purchase can have a negative effect on the internal components of your camcorder and record decks. Furthermore, the quality of tape you buy affects how the recorded image holds up over time and in storage as well as the longevity of the edited master.
So, we’ve compiled these seven tips and the accompanying buyer’s guides to help you find your way through the videotape jungle.
1) Don’t Judge a Tape by its Grade
There are many marketing terms applied to tapes to signify their quality. One might think that a label of "professional," "high grade" or "pro" automatically indicates superior quality. This is not always the case. There are no industry standards when it comes to what a manufacturer uses to qualify one tape as being standard and another as professional. The only way to know what you are getting is to compare the values of coercivity, retentivity and signal-to-noise ratio yourself. Learn more about these features in the following tips.
2) Determine Duration
Tapes come in an assortment of lengths. Longer tapes (120, 160 and 180 minute), marketed toward consumers, generally cost less than shorter length, better quality (60 or 30 minute) tapes which professionals tend to use.
The two main advantages of longer running tapes are getting more for the money and the ability to record longer on a single tape. You would not want to record a one-hour event on two 30-minute tapes if you didn’t have to. The main disadvantage is that long tapes tend to be a little thinner, allowing more tape to fit onto the reel. This can cause stretching and sagging.
Shorter tapes cost more per foot, but are generally higher quality. Short tapes are nice for distributing short videos. No need to waste an entire two-hour tape for a two-minute video. Shorter tapes are also lighter, making them cheaper to mail in the post.
3) Consider Coercivity
Coercivity measures a tape’s ability to record the magnetic pattern as it is transmitted from the camcorder’s record heads. Tapes with higher coercivity ratings can record higher frequencies, and therefore, greater detail. If you have a high-quality camcorder, this rating will be important to you. Using this rating is easy: the higher the coercivity rating the better the tape’s ability to record audio/visual information.
As you might expect, VHS generally rates the lowest, close to 8mm. Hi8 and Super VHS require an even stronger magnetic strength and, as you might expect, digital tapes rate the highest. When looking for tapes in the format of your choice, look for a high rating in this field to indicate superior acquisition quality. (Note: Hi8 has an important differentiation between its Metal Particle and Metal Evaporated tapes to learn more about MP and ME tapes, see the Hi8 Sidebar on page 75).
4) Linger on Longevity
Retentivity measures how well a tape holds the magnetic charge and thus its ability to preserve a recording for an extended period of time. This is an important thing to take into consideration when archiving or using footage accumulated throughout the years. As with coercivity, there are different ranges for the varying formats. If durability and longevity are important factors, look for high number in the retentivity column.
5) Beware of Signal-to-noise Ratio Ratings
Measured in decibels (dB), this is the ratio of the pure video (luminance) and/or color (chrominance) to the background "noise" added by the tape. Noise is any unwanted electrical signal in the form of moving specks of color or light in the picture. However, a buyer-beware warning goes along with this spec because there isn’t an industry standard. Often in the case of video and color signal-to-noise ratios, manufacturers compile their statistics by comparing them to their own reference tapes. Only when choosing between tapes of a single manufacturer will these ratios help you find the lowest rating.
6) Buy in Bulk
Buying your videotape in quantity can save money and keep you stocked for any last minute occasions. There’s nothing more inconvenient than having to stop off at the store before heading to a shoot. Eventually, you’ll find a brand and model of videotape that suits your needs the best, and having a rich supply makes good sense. Additionally, the bulk suppliers frequently offer professional grade tapes that you can’t find on drug store shelves. If you have a short program that you want multiple VHS copies of, these suppliers are virtually the only way to purchase 5-, 10-, 15- or 20-minute tapes (see the Tape Suppliers sidebar).
7) See for Yourself
Camcorders differ. Their optics differ. The CCDs that produce the signals differ. The type of equipment you use make your tape needs different from everyone else’s. The only way to know what will work best for you is to buy a few tapes and test them. Shoot some footage with each tape, then compare color, clarity and sound quality on playback. Gather your results and buy the tape that gives you the best results.