The Magnificent Seven: Choosing a Video Format


In 1954, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai filled the silver screen with swords flashing and heroes saving the less fortunate. In 1960 the seven came to Hollywood in true western form and became The Magnificent Seven. Now in the new millennium the Magnificent Seven ride again, this time into our VCRs and camcorders in the form of the seven consumer video formats. These formats are available to videographers for the creation of their own star-filled productions. VHS, VHS-C, S-VHS, 8mm, Hi8, Mini DV and Digital8. This alphabet soup of formats can get rather confusing. The Magnificent Seven are here to help us, but as video victims, we are often puzzled as to which member of the troupe to call on in our hour of need.

If you are buying a new camcorder, and are considering changing from the format you are using now, this article will take you through the flying bullets to reach the ultimate goal of finding the format that best meets your needs. We will look at the seven formats in terms of the size and length of the tape, differences in resolution and overall video and audio quality, audio flexibility and the inherent strengths and weaknesses of each format.


Setting the Stage

The quality of video and audio is an important point to ponder when choosing a format. Video resolution and generation loss are important aspects for consideration. Resolution is the amount of detail possible with the particular format. The higher the number, the better the picture quality. Generation loss refers to the inherent loss in signal quality that occurs when you make analog copies. You can define a generation as a copy of a copy. If you dont edit tape-to-tape, or extensively copy your videos, a format with a lower resolution may work fine for you. If however, you plan on editing your footage in a linear fashion and/or making multiple copies, resolution and the ability to withstand generation loss are important things to look for in a format.

Another area to look at concerns audio, namely the formats ability to dub sound onto a tape without damaging prerecorded video. This is very important if you will be editing in the camera, not so much if youll be digitizing your footage and editing everything on your computer.

Editing protocols are concerns for those of you who use linear editing systems. Youll have to match the protocol used by your camcorder to that of your edit controller and record decks so that your equipment can talk to each other. Not all systems are equal and outside of the DV format, the manufacturers of equipment rarely agree on anything. Choose a format that best matches your current set-up.

It is important to note that nonlinear editing, which involves digitizing or capturing video to a hard drive for random access editing, has made terms like generation loss, audio insert and edit protocols nearly extinct. Nonlinear editing allows you to rearrange audio and video segments electronically without spending multiple generations. As a result, videographers are no longer as bound by the limitations of the format on which they shoot. In the end, edited footage is nearly identical to camera quality. In any case, both linear and nonlinear editors want to begin with the best quality footage possible.

Price may be a determining factor when choosing a format. It used to seem that the higher the video and audio quality, the higher the price. However, with the advent of digital equipment this is no longer as true. As time goes by, the prices of digital formats will continue to drop. In our last all-camcorder buyers guide (December 1999) we saw digital camcorders, both Mini DV and Digital8 models, with MSRPs less than $1,000, significantly cheaper than some Hi8 and S-VHS models.

Now that we have prepared you for the various ways to look at these seven formats, lets saddle up and take a closer look at videos Magnificent Seven.


VHS

(Big Hoss)

VHS is the time-tested hero of old who is as reliable today as he was 20 years ago, when the other formats were just twinkles in the eyes of distant Japanese video engineers. Though hes not as pretty to look at as some of the newer, stronger formats, he remains a favorite of American consumers.

Most homes have at least one VHS VCR, typically used for recording TV shows or viewing rented movies. VHS is the most used yet lowest quality format available. The formats low resolution makes it susceptible to generation loss, and a bad choice if you are planning to edit anything for copying or broadcast. But, because VHS VCRs are so common, the VHS format is ideal for making distribution copies of your video productions.

You can find VHS tapes in a variety of lengths, providing up to two hours of record time in standard (SP) record mode. Blank VHS tapes are the cheapest, and most available of all formats. A two-hour tape can cost as little as $2 to $4, and you can buy them virtually everywhere. At just $1 to $2 per hour of footage, the cost of blank VHS tape is quite a value.

The VHS format records two tracks of linear audio (See Figure 1). VHS records these audio tracks on a separate portion of the tape than the video information, and you can edit them without affecting the visual image. The VHS format also includes a stereo hi-fi audio track, but this high quality, stereo audio track is recorded on the same part of the tape where the video is recorded, embedded deeper into the tapes magnetic particles (see Figure 2). While this track holds a solid, high-quality audio signal, you cannot edit the hi-fi audio track without also replacing the video on that portion of the tape.


VHS-C

(Little Joe Video)

VHS-C, or compact VHS, as hes often called, is the good looking younger brother in the VHS family. While hes from the same gene pool as his big brother, he comes in a smaller, sleeker package.

Engineers created VHS-C to meet the demand for smaller camcorders. This format is also inexpensive, but you can expect to pay more for VHS-C tapes than their full-sized VHS counterparts. A 30-minute tape will cost you around $4. Not too expensive, but adding up to around $8 per hour of footage. One limitation of VHS-C tape is its limited length: 40 minutes max in standard mode. With an adapter, VHS-C tapes will play in your standard VCR.


S-VHS

(The Muscle-bound Maverick)

Super VHS is the strongest member of the VHS family. He has all the experience of his brothers, but super strength to boot. He is a favorite of linear editors and holds his own as a legend of consumer video.

Its video quality is very good, with a fair generation loss rating. The hi-fi tracks it uses for audio provide quality audio reproduction. Being in the VHS family, it allows the user to dub both audio (linear tracks) and video, a variety of editing protocols and the ability to record time code information. In the linear world of consumer video, it has become the ideal editing format. This format is a workhorse in corporate and educational video production. However, its size and price may be its ultimate demise.

Like VHS, S-VHS is a full-sized format, making S-VHS camcorders large and heavy. While the tapes look just like standard VHS, and will fit in a standard VHS machine, they will only play back in S-VHS VCRs. S-VHS tapes are harder to find than VHS or VHS-C tapes, and you can expect to pay $10 to $15 dollars per two hour tape.


8mm

(Junior)

Standard 8mm is the wiry little guy who came on the scene as the new hero several years ago, delivering both the extended record time of full size VHS and the small size of VHC-C. With his comfortable and easy personality he has won the hearts of casual shooters for nearly a decade.

The first difference of note between the VHS and 8mm formats is the lack of a linear audio track on 8mm tape. The camcorder records the audio as an audio frequency modulation (AFM) signal on the same track as the video. The quality of the AFM audio is similar to the VHS hi-fi. While this provides great audio, the inability to dub audio makes this format a poor choice if you are going to edit your productions in the camera. The video signal, while a little better than VHS does not hold up as well and has even worse generation loss problems.

The small size and low price of standard 8mm camcorders make it ideal for casual shooters. These camcorders fit into tight spots and are light, for carrying around all day at the zoo. You need to keep in mind that 8mm will not play in VHS VCRs, and 8mm VCRs are extremely rare. You can count on using your camcorder as a VCR whenever you want to play a tape, and youll need to cable your camera to your TV to play tapes for an audience. If you want to edit your footage, youll want to do so digitally, or master to another format.

Like full size VHS, 8mm tapes come in lengths up to two hours. They are available in most stores for $8-$10 per video tape.


Hi8

(Little Big Man)

Hi8 is a tough little character. He has all the charm of his standard 8mm brother, and though you wouldnt know it to look at him, he has the heart of a wild stallion.

This Hi8 format is the big brother of 8mm. Industrial and educational facilities have used Hi8 as an acquisition format for many years. While the cost of Hi8 tapes is a bit high, about $15 for a two hour tape, its small size, low equipment price and high quality picture make it ideal for intermediate and advanced shooters. Its video quality is a little better than S-VHS but it has problems holding on to that quality as it faces generation loss. This format also has a limited number of editing protocols and there are no Hi8 consumer camcorders that record time code.

Like standard 8mm, Hi8 records AFM audio under the video on the tape. Some models include an additional audio track called PCM Audio (see Figure 3). The camcorder records this information as stereo right and left on its own audio tracks. The true benefit of PCM audio is that it allows for the editing of audio without destroying the video. Since PCM audio has its own separate tracks, you get a high-quality audio signal without the limitations of hi-fi VHS or 8mm AFM. The one drawback with this audio is that as you edit, you cannot listen to the audio in slow speed to find your edit points. The digitizing of the audio signal makes it very hard to hear the beginning and end of words as you slowly scroll through the tape.


Mini DV

(The Sharpshooter)

Mini DV may sound cute, but dont let his name fool you, hes one mean cowboy. He can out gun any of the other consumer formats and has even begun to challenge some of the pros. He has single-handedly changed the face of consumer video, and the Magnificent Seven may never be the same.

For the first time in the history of the video industry, a consumer format, DV, has begun to trickle up to the professional ranks of video producers. Why? It could be the nearly loss-less broadcast-quality video picture, the digital dual mode audio capabilities (recording 12- or 16-bit digital audio). Because the tapes are so small, just 3×2", manufacturers have been able to produce camcorders that are literally pocket-sized. Its ability to export lossless digital images through FireWire to your computer make it a favorite of advanced videographers. This format records DV time code, supports a number of editing protocols, and is the only format that all video equipment manufacturers support. The format also includes additional data tracks called insert and track information (ITI) tracks. These tracks, found on certain models, contain date and time information as well as pilot tone information which control playback (see Figure 4).

Mini DV has two audio recording modes: you can record a single stereo track that does not permit dubbing, or you may record two stereo tracks independently from the video. Both of these methods produce near CD-quality audio. DV tapes come in lengths up to 60 minutes and sell for around $20 per one hour tape.

If you are a serious videographer who will be editing the footage you shoot and making copies to broadcast or exhibit, this is the format to use. While this format is more expensive than others, the quality is far superior, and prices have been steadily falling in the market place.


Digital8

(The Young Gun)

Digital8 is the newest member of the posse. The offspring of a marriage between 8mm and DV, he arrived with loud whoops and guns ablaze. And since day one, people havent stopped talking about him. While many arent sure what to think of this untested rookie, none can doubt that he has taken his place in history as a wild child to keep your eye on.

This format records a Digital Video (DV) signal on a Hi8 tape. Because Digital8 records digitally, the quality is extremely good and copies are virtually loss-less when you use the IEEE 1394 (FireWire) port to make copies to another digital camcorder or VCR. It records DV time code, making it easy to find shots when editing, and some models will take digital stills. The audio is CD-quality.

The major drawbacks of Digital8 are the lack of playback decks (youll have to use the camcorder), the inability to dub audio in the camera, and the uncertainty of its future. Sony is the only company to manufacture Digital8 camcorders. However, if you are looking for a digital acquisition format that is downward compatible with Hi8, and youll be transferring your video from the camcorder to your computer through FireWire, this may be the way to go.


Moving On

Whatever your video plight; there is a format out there for you. Carefully evaluate your needs, then pick the format (or formats) that will give you the best results. Do you shoot long programs that need 120 minutes of tape? Do you use linear or nonlinear editing equipment? Do you want to do in-camera dubbing? Do you already have some equipment and have to choose a format that will be compatible with it? All of these questions and more should run through your mind as you decide on a video format. While DV and Digital8 are the hot new heroes, all seven formats have some fight left in them.

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