Transferring VHS tapes to Digital - JVC HR-S9800U SVHS VCR

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If you're like me, your family has a TON of home movies from the Eighties and Nineties.

And they're priceless. Those movies can transport you back across the years, back to your youth. 

They're also long and unwatchable. 

Cut it down to just the good stuff! That's why we have iMovie!

It's not uncommon for my parents' home movies to have 30 minute takes. Entire high school choral concerts. A Christmas morning with the camera sitting on a table, recording us opening presents for an hour. 

We will NEVER watch that stuff. 

But there are good moments scattered throughout! Action shots. Funny poses. Someone looking particularly good for a moment. 

When you watch a professionally produced TV show, you don't realize how many cuts and edits take place. Most shots last only a few seconds. 

When you edit down your home movies to a series of 5-10 second clips, they go from "unwatchable" to "compelling".

The trick is converting all of that film and video into digital files. 

Film is relatively easy. It's analog, so you aren't limited by the # of lines in the source material. You can get high-def video (or even 4K) from them. 

That's why you can see those "WWII in HD" shows on TV. Do a high-def video transfer, and you've got some fantastic footage. 

Then, in the late Eighties, we all switched to VHS camcorders. Uh-oh. 

VHS was 480 lines of resolution. That's not great - and that's your best case scenario. 

Even worse - it's interlaced! That means that each frame of that source material is actually half a frame. 

We only have 240 lines of resolution at any moment. Yikes. 

Frame 1 is lines 1, 3, 5, 7..., and Frame 2 is lines 2, 4, 6, 8.  

That interlacing is going to lead to artifacts and "jaggies".

There are a number of things that we can do in an attempt to improve our source VHS material. 

We can de-interlace, to try to create single progressive-scan frames.  We can use computers to analyze the video data and try to "fill in" the missing information. 

But first, we have to get a really, really good VCR. We need to get the best possible read of our tapes, with the best possible output, in order to get the best copy of the source data. 

JVC 9000 Series SVHS

By the end of the 1990s, the writing was on the wall - VHS was on its way out, and DVD was ascendant. 

DVD offered 480p resolution - not high-def, but still, twice the resolution of VHS. 

The final "good" VCRs that were ever produced were made in this timeframe. 

And really, the 9000 series SVHS players from JVC were the best of the best. 

They were EXPENSIVE. As much as $700-800, for a VCR, during a timeframe when everyone was moving to discs. 

But they offered a fantastic feature set. 

For starters, all SVHS players had an S-Video out. That means that the black-and-white information (the luminance) is kept separate from the color information (the chroma).  

Even more important, SVHS provided for a much better luminance signal - a full 420 lines of vertical resolution. 

(Chroma remains kind of lousy on SVHS, just as it was with VHS. Think about the "color bleed" you remember from your old VHS tapes, especially when things were moving). 

The late-model JVC SVHS 9000-series VCRs also offered time-base correction.  TBC means that each frame of video would be buffered by the VCR, and released at a steady rate - even if that means allowing for a variable delay in the video stream. 

Think about it - we're pulling video information off of a magnetic tape that is being pulled across a reader. The original tape was CREATED by a mechanical device pulling tape across a different writer. 

Things get messy if the speed of either machine varied at all - and it almost certainly did, in both cases. TBC helps clean that up. 

Where do I find one of these VCRs?

To be blunt, it's not easy. VCRs were always fragile and finicky, even when they were our primary method for watching video. 

Moving mechanical parts break. Some parts are made from rubber that wears out. 

The last VCRs were even more complex - tons more circuitry. More things that can fail. 

And now those devices have been out of production for 15 years!

To be blunt, if you expect to find a working JVC 9000-series SVHS player, you are going to pay for the privilege. 

Check the eBay auctions - it's typical to see auctions ending in the $300-400 range. 

Over the weekend, I picked up a JVC HR-S9800U - Put simply, it's one of the greatest VCRs ever produced.

I think it was a steal at $150, and I didn't have to worry about shipping. Cosmetically, it looks absolutely perfect. We'll see how it works. 

Even if it needs some repair, I'll be able to get my money out of it once I'm done. 

I'll update this project as we move forward - obviously, getting the VCR is just step one. But it was a huge step. 

1 comment :

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