I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but the unfortunate truth is that your analog tapes are dying, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Whether you play them, exercise them, store them horizontally or vertically, tails-in, tails-out in an air-tight temperature-controlled bunker deep in Kansas, it doesn’t matter. The best you can do is prolong the inevitable. Eventually the material on them will degrade and be lost.
Even if time stands still, technology marches on. Were you able to preserve your tapes with optimal quality and minimal loss, it’s still getting harder and harder to find the machines on which to play them back. It was just yesterday that Betacam SP or Hi8 was all anyone wanted. Today, one is little more than a castaway, and the other is a minor footnote in history. If nothing else, these reasons alone should be enough incentive to update your archives, even if you will just convert VHS to DVD.
The most important reason to convert all your tapes to a digital format is that it will, in essence, stay the degeneration of your video. Digital media provides a means of near-exact duplication and offers greater allowance of error before compromising quality, so even if your digital tape is nearing the end of its shelf life, it will often still be able to provide an output comparable to when its media was first recorded. In most cases, it’s also manufactured with more recent technology, which means greater quality and longevity. These factors allow for a continuous and virtually lossless archival path that far exceeds that of any analog format. Converting all your materials to digital is a time-consuming process that is totally devoid of any upfront satisfaction. Depending on compression and your source and destination formats, the conversion process itself may be a cause of lost information. It’s easy to get discouraged, but the benefits far outweigh the effort. The trade-off is a more stable picture, and greater recreation accuracy over time. Each day you postpone it is another day the quality of your materials degrades, and the worse your footage looks when you start the process, the less benefit you’ll receive in the end. If you have any 3/4-inch tapes, chances are you’ll already have trouble getting many of them to show a stable image. This means they’re virtually useless for any future projects. This is one project that is unwise to postpone.
It’s best to transfer everything you want as one big project. Don’t piecemeal, or transfer only the footage you need for your latest upcoming project. This will create a mess with no end. Look at your analog tapes, and say to yourself, “Do I need to transfer everything?” If you’re like me, you’ll want it all simply for posterity. Consider the following arguments, though, when determining what to transfer:
Con: Forget ever needing any of this footage; the reality of it is that you will probably never even look at much of the material ever again.
Pro: The “Murphy’s Law” of post production says, “The minute you don’t have access to a particular piece of footage is the very minute you’ll desperately need it.”
Weigh the costs. If you have only a small amount of footage, by all means transfer every last frame. On the other hand, if you have hundreds of hours of raw footage, be selective. Keep in mind, though, that all your old footage is going to be standard definition. If you work strictly in high definition these days, even your past “epic” shots will be severely limited in their usability.
Take the time to organize your sources, either by topic or by original project. It’s best to group tapes with similar material onto the same set of destinations, on a source-by-source basis. Don’t bother breaking it down further as the added sorting isn’t worth the effort, and you’ll likely saturate your destinations with time code breaks, as well as ruining any edit logs you’ve done in the past. The only time you should ever further subdivide is to correct those times when you put the final product on the same tape as the source material.
Destinations are a different story. Don’t be afraid to make compilation archive tapes. There’s no reason to put only one master per tape, but refrain from mixing finals with work tapes or raw footage. Efficient transferring will also allow you to regain some much-needed storage space.
All Things In Their Place
Process your masters first. They’re not only your portfolio, but, when you’re working on a new piece and need a stock shot, your mind will first and foremost remember images in your past products. It’s rare that you will remember, let alone want, a shot that you’ve previously rejected from your earlier works.
Second, process any source footage that appears in a work that is still in progress, and all recent, good-quality sources for use in future projects. After that, move on to source materials from previous projects. Finally, process whatever leftover footage you want. This is usually your unusable, yet sentimental footage. Be sure to account for ownership as well. Anything you don’t have rights to use in a future project should take a back seat to something you can potentially use or sell.
When done, I would recommend you keep your analog tapes around for at least six months after transferring, or until you confirm that your transfers are of equal quality, whichever comes first. Pack them in ready-to-dispose boxes, though, so when the time comes, you can just toss them out without further hassle.
Conversion to digital also provides an excellent opportunity for getting organized. If you have no other urgent business, logging the footage as it transfers will provide great benefits later on. If the analog source has time code, you should duplicate it to the new system as well, especially if you have used this footage in past work. If your sources don’t possess time code, add it in a logical manner, perhaps changing to a new hour for each source tape. Finally, take the time to develop a logical labeling standard for all your tapes.
Take the time to accurately log your destination tapes into a database. Also, mark each transferred source with a bright sticker, containing date and order transferred. For non-time coded sources, consider advancing the time code on your destination tape to a new hour each time you put in a new source. Make a standard label to use for every destination tape, and standard menus if you are creating DVDs. It makes your library look organized and well-cared-for.
There are many digital options to transfer to. Each has its positives and negatives, but there is a generally-agreed-upon course of action. Remember, for archiving purposes, your priorities should always be quality, longevity and accessibility, in that order. Let’s look as some options.
Transferring to a hard drive is about as efficient as it gets when you need to use your footage down the line; however, it’s also a risky archival medium. Hard drives are prone to both mechanical and physical damage, as well as electromagnetic faults and degradation. It’s also easy to delete, alter and/or lose files by mistake. Hard drive storage is also technically annoying, as, to archive content correctly, you’d need at least two specialized arrays of drives holding duplicate material, stored as far apart as possible. For these reasons, they are not recommended as a primary archival destination.
Options like XDCAM, DVCPRO, D-1 and D-5 can allow for transfers with virtually no discernible information loss, but can be cost-prohibitive. Also, their use is not widespread, so outside of the broadcast elite and those who own cameras using one of the formats, they become difficult to gain access to.
Optical media such as DVD might seem like a viable and widespread alternative, but it is very prone to physical damage, and the compression involved can become ugly. P2 and other Flash-memory solutions are prone to misplacement and currently have capacities that can be limiting for archiving. It’s also never a good idea to store anything long-term using a method that spans a segmented medium.
This leaves us back with good old tape media, which, despite all the new storage technologies, is still considered the best medium for archiving. Backing up your media hard drives to Digital Linear Tape (DLT) is a great option, but its use is time-consuming and often more expensive than most people are willing to pay for. Additionally, access to the stored data is highly inconvenient.
For these reasons, DVCAM and Mini DV are recommended by most as the best storage option for inexpensive analog-to-digital conversion and archiving. Both the medium and hardware are cheap and easily obtained, and they have a widespread user base, ensuring support long after the next “best” option comes along. Finally, many stations and networks accept DV format as broadcast quality. If you have only Mini DV, go with that, but I would encourage DVCAM. It’s a more solid design, has a slightly better recording methodology and greater-capacity stock.
Obviously you’ll need to tailor this information to your own needs. If you already have DVCPRO or XDCAM systems, they should play a part in your conversions. Likewise, if you own a Digital Betacam deck, use that for Betacam SP and similar sources. There’s no reason to put your VHS on such a large and expensive medium, though.
Paths to the Future
Refrain from tying up your edit system with archiving tasks whenever possible. This will allow you to convert without interrupting your other business operations. It’s best to set up a dedicated transfer system. Always use the highest-quality connection common to both your source and your destination. Transfer uncompressed whenever possible, at the best quality offered by your recorder.
Resist the temptation to pass the media through filters, mixers and processors. More stops on the way means more opportunity for problems. If your image was stable, and your audio was clear to begin with, it should remain so. Still, you may want to employ a time base corrector (TBC) with source players that don’t take a reference signal. This can help stabilize images and maintain color and levels, but good ones are generally expensive. For audio, a mixer or attenuated adaptors may be needed when taking RCA outputs from one machine into XLR inputs of another, to match impedance correctly. Be sure to reduce or boost levels subtly during recording, if you must, and watch your entire transfer for over-modulation. If your analog audio is too loud, it will get distorted, but, in digital form, a signal overload means unrecoverable loss.
If you decide to go straight to hard drive, standalone conversion boxes can often provide superior quality with less interference. Also, use an add-in sound card rather than your computer’s onboard audio to minimize electrical interference on your audio tracks. When your transfer is complete, do a test recording to verify quality and make sure there’s no hum or other interference coming through.
Spot-checking your outputs should be sufficient, but consider watching the occasional piece in its entirety. Maximize efficiency by noting the approximate duration of your source and setting an alarm clock for a few minutes before it will end to minimize your downtime for tape changes.
If you don’t practice the method of making both masters and a protection masters, now is the time to start. Your masters should be accessed only when there is no other choice, leaving the protection master for everyday access. Protection masters are where your other media can come into play. If your budget allows, make an identical master and backup tape. If not, use your hard drive or DVDs for protection copies. Duplicating your footage across multiple storage options provides the safety of tape storage and still provides easy access for editing and screening. Remember that you can always make media files or DVD copies from your tapes, but you will not always be satisfied with the quality if you try to go in the opposite direction. If possible, bring your masters to an off-site location for storage.
Analog-to-digital conversion of your archives is truly a daunting task, especially when you consider all the potential irrevocable choices that could lead to future problems. With a little care and consideration, you can turn this venture into a new age, not only for your media, but also for your work habits.
The Ultimate Medium
So just what would the ultimate video format be? In a media utopia, the picture might be described like this: A reasonably-priced and readily-available medium capable of flawless re-creation of content, storing up to 24 hours of uncompressed “double-Imax” resolution and true “spherical.1” surround sound, able to withstand absolute zero, nuclear radiation and 3000 degrees Fahrenheit. It is portable, easily-reproduced, doesn’t scratch or wear with use, lasts at least 100 years without degradation and contains a gigabyte of metadata. It is stackable, 100% environmentally friendly and possesses an RFID tag so it can be easily located when needed.
Sounds sweet, doesn’t it? If this is the “ultimate” goal, however, our current video technology could be considered as far along on the path to video nirvana as the third brick placed during the construction of the Great Wall of China
Peter Zunitch is an independent broadcast media professional who has worn the hats of editor, cameraman/DP, audio recordist and producer/director on numerous film and television projects.
Side Bar: THE FUTURE OF STORAGE
DVCAM tapes aren’t perfect, especially considering there will be some information loss when coming from higher-quality sources, but they’re the best choice in lieu of more-expensive and less-accessible formats or formats that are easily damaged and corrupted. The future shows promise, though, with new technologies looming on the horizon. One popular hopeful is holographic data storage, which allows information to be protected inside an enclosed medium, making scratches less of a nuisance. With holographic technology, information is stacked in all directions and can be randomly accessed, providing gross amounts of capacity with improved speed. It also finally allows for abandonment of electromagnetic-based storage in favor of phase change. Development of this technology has run into several roadblocks recently, so its arrival is still quite distant. It’s likely we will see another hybrid storage method first, that of laser-based hard drives, even though the core technology was announced mere months ago. The drives will use laser light to switch the polarity of the magnetic media, a feat long thought impossible.
Expect one or both of these to make waves within 5 to 10 years. Their arrival – or that of something similar – will hail another great step forward for video storage. Until then, we will have to be content with our current digital storage. At least there’s no longer any excuse to be tied down to analog.
Side Bar: THE DIGITAL DIFFERENCE
Correction of errors
The most important reason to convert all your tapes to a digital format is that it will virtually stay the degeneration of your video. In reality, it will always be subject to data loss, but digital material will hold up far better than its analog older brother. This is due to digital error correction technology.
Every time a tape is played back, some of the tiny magnetic particles that contain the information fall off. Likewise, on a hard drive or optical media, similar small errors may occur every time the file is copied or duplicated. On an analog tape, this will result in little white dropouts all over the screen, large “glitches” that make the image jump, or even in an unstable picture.
When a digital file is played back, though, the machine will detect if data is missing and try to re-create it based on the information before and after. So, if your digital copy loses a little data, your player can fill in the blanks, and your picture will still play back just fine.
There are limits to digital error correction. It will not eliminate problems that are already present at the time of recording. Also, if a large-enough section of data is lost, the machine will not be able to compensate, and the resulting video distortion will be much more disruptive than its analog cousin. A viewer who sees a bad analog picture might ignore some wavy edges and snowy movement. A person watching a digital picture will undoubtedly be startled when the entire screen breaks into big colorful blocks. Digital audio is equally as unforgiving. Overloading an analog recording will mean varying amounts of distortion based on volume. Digital audio is far more destructive, and the very instant you over-saturate you’ll hit a wall of pops and crackles.
Side Bar: CASE STUDY – AN EXERCISE IN COMPROMISE
At a previous employer, a client came to us and asked if we could archive over 500 source tapes to DVD for archival (not editing) purposes. These sources included everything from 16mm film to 1-inch video reels and from U-matic (3/4″) to VHS.
For long-term archiving, I advised against using DVDs, as they’re simply too vulnerable to damage and the passage of time (especially recordables). I instead recommended DVCAM tapes. Their situation was a little unique, though, in that they didn’t want the footage for editing, but only for possible screening and reference in the future, and had access to only a DVD and VHS player. They also couldn’t afford to transfer such a huge volume to tape media. For these reasons, we eventually settled on using gold archival-grade DVDs (discs specially designed for increased durability and longevity) for masters and standard DVD-Rs for protections.
We had to subcontract out the film and 1-inch reels, which were put on DVCAM by a company specializing in duplication. Companies with the ability to play back these “ancient” formats are hard to come by these days, but we found a few. We also found that the prices varied wildly between them, so shop around.
The DVCAM intermediates were then used to make the DVD archives as normal. We created a standard menu for all discs, and only the titles were changed from one DVD to the next. We found our standalone Pioneer PRV-LX1 recorder (with a hard drive and two burners) invaluable in this process
Pricing was tough, though – we averaged the cost for one transfer based on an hour per source, one source per DVD. Media, ink, packaging and a 30% profit margin were standard, and the sources that were farmed out were based on cost incurred plus profit. Labor became a confusing matter, though. While the transfers took up hours straight of machine time, an employee was needed for only about 5 minutes every hour. We also had to account for label printing and design and the sorting and coordinating time. Ultimately, we tended to be a little generous, as it was a huge job, and the client was a good one.