One of the things we get asked about the most here at DVC is how to get video material from VHS tapes onto DVD discs.
As most people know, after 30 years of (semi) solid service, the VHS format is finally on its way to retirement. And while there are still VHS players in most homes in the UK, neither they – nor the tapes – are going to last forever.
When we also take into account the day-to-day wear and tear that analogue tape formats are susceptible to (the very act of playing the tapes gradually degrades them), it makes a lot of sense to transfer all of those tapes to something a little more durable.
DVD is the obvious destination – in the last 10 years it has rapidly overtaken VHS as the home video format of choice, thanks to its superior video and audio quality, ease of access and sturdiness (if manufactured and cared for properly, a DVD will play back perfectly every time).
High Definition formats may be gaining popularity now, but regular DVD discs will be made and available for many years to come (and supported for many years more), and for standard-definition sources like VHS tapes, DVD will give you preservation of your footage in as high quality as you could want.
So you’ve got your pile of VHS tapes ready to go – what’s the best way to go about getting them onto disc?
Option 1 – No computer?
If you don’t have a video-capable computer, and don’t particularly want one, your best bet is a standalone DVD recorder deck.
This is by far the fastest and simplest method for making a DVD from an analogue source – just connect your VHS player to the analogue inputs on the DVD recorder, play your tape, and press ‘record’ on the DVD.
The transfer will be entirely real-time – an hour long programme will take an hour to copy. At the end of it, the disc will need to be finalised, which takes a few extra minutes – after that, your DVD is finished. All done.
Of course, this method has some fairly significant shortcomings. For one, the encoding (the process of converting the incoming analogue video into the digital MPEG-2 video files that are recorded to the disc) is handled by a hardware chip, designed to achieve this encoding on-the-fly.
This is obviously a necessity with a real-time recorder, but the quality of conversion can be considerably inferior to computer-based software encoding (see later). Firstly, the quality of encoding chips will vary enormously, depending on the manufacturer. Secondly, the more that you want to record to the disc, the lower the amount of data going into the video file for each second of your footage (or ‘bit rate’) will have to be. If you’re only recording an hour or so onto a disc, you can set the recorder to maximum quality, and the results are usually quite good. However, durations of 2-3 hours will require lower quality settings, which quickly show up the limitations in the encoding hardware.
The other main compromise with recorder decks is more of a creative one. If you’ve seen a few commercial DVDs (feature films or TV series), you’ll be familiar with the kind of carefully designed and eye-catching menu systems that they often use.
On computer-based DVD authoring systems, you have free rein to create interactive discs that look and work exactly as you want them to.
With a DVD recorder, you’ll get a very basic list of contents at best. This will obviously concern some people more than others, and will depend very much on the type of project that you’re working on, but if you’d like the flexibility to give your discs an extra bit of showmanship, computer-based authoring is the only way to go.
So in summary, what you gain in speed and convenience, you can potentially lose in quality and creativity. If these factors are important to you, it’s probably time you looked at taking the computer route…
Option 2 – I have a computer, but no way of getting VHS into it…
Most modern PCs and Macs come equipped with DVD writers and DV/firewire sockets. This will equip you well for making DVDs of your current home movies (shot with a digital camcorder), but it won’t give you everything that you need for dealing with analogue sources such as VHS.
This is where analogue to digital converters come in. There is a huge range of converters on the market, designed for taking a video signal of one kind and converting it into another – the ones that concern us here are those that can convert a basic analogue signal into DV/firewire.
The simplest and most inexpensive converter that we can recommend is the Grass Valley ADVC-55. This is literally a box with analogue inputs (to receive the connections from your VHS player) on one end, and a DV output (to connect to your computer) on the other.
The result will be a high-quality conversion from the VHS source into a DV signal that your computer can ‘capture’ – it’s then just a matter of employing the right software to do the capturing, editing (if necessary) and DVD creation.
Other converters in the range include the ADVC-110, which also offers conversion in the opposite direction (DV back into analogue, useful for displaying a video preview on a TV while editing).
For guides on the best software to use, see our separate sections on video editing and DVD authoring – your options range from basic all-in-one editing/DVD creation packages such as Edius Neo, all the way up to comprehensive creativity suites such as the Adobe Production Studio Premium.
The lower-end packages will have simpler tools for encoding video and creating tailored menus (while still a great deal superior to the facilities offered by hardware DVD recorders), whereas the more advanced applications will provide everything that you need to make commercial quality DVDs!
Option 3 – I want to do this right, which computer should I buy?
If you don’t have a suitable computer for the job, but you’d like to take advantage of all of the benefits that computer-based DVD creation can offer, a dedicated video PC could well be the best solution.
At DVC we build a range of editing and DVD authoring systems, based on a variety of software and hardware packages.
These systems are also particularly beneficial for video projects that require extensive editing – the video hardware works in tandem with the editing software to provide real-time effects which can be monitored through analogue outputs, and accelerated encoding to MPEG-2 is often provided for when you want to make your DVDs.
DVD writers and authoring facilities are built into all of our video PCs, so a DVC system is your best ready-made choice for all of your DVD creation requirements.
Our most popular systems are those based on Grass Valley’s Edius, and Adobe Premiere Pro working in conjunction with Matrox capture cards.
The best blank discs that we have found, in terms of both problem-free writing and a long lifespan, are Verbatim’s DVD-Rs and DVD+Rs. DVD media is no longer expensive, so it makes sense to pay a little extra for a disc that’s going to last longer!
Though we should stress at this point that even DVDs won't last forever, so if your archived video is important and irreplacable, you should take extra steps to preserve it - make spare copies, or keep a copy on a hard drive as a backup. To maximise the lifespan of a DVD, it's best to keep it in an airtight container, in a cool dark place - if your footage is important to you, you can't be too careful!