Digitizing the entertainment media in my house hasn't just been about audio CDs and vinyl records, as I've written about previously (here and here). Paula and I also had a couple of bookcases holding several hundred VHS tapes. A motley to be sure, including VHS, S-VHS, commercially purchased movies and TV series, and over-the-air recordings, the tapes running anywhere from two to eight hours, recorded over 25 years.
Remarkably, all were entirely viewable. But, with VHS machines becoming increasingly difficult to find and increasingly unreliable, there was pretty clearly a "sell by date" on the assemblage of entertainment, even if we didn't know just what that date was. Besides, I really wanted that bookshelf space back.
What was conceptually simple was not physically so. It was physically easy to move my turntable and preamp into the office where the computers work in order to digitize my vinyl. Not so for a VHS machine and a TV monitor. I didn't relish the idea of stringing several dozen feet of cable through the house, signal quality issues aside. Moving one of the computers into the living room where the TV lived was inconvenient and impractical. Finally, digitizing the VHS tapes was going to be a much bigger drain on my computer resources; the data bandwidth demands were substantially higher and I had several times as many hours of tape as of vinyl.
The solution I hit upon was to transfer everything to DVD first. We already owned a DVD recorder. I could plug the S-VHS output of the VCR directly into the input of the DVD recorder and turn all those tapes into platters. Them, I could digitize at my leisure on the computer using tools like Handbrake, and I'd even have the backup archive I wanted on those DVDs.
The really smart thing I did was to buy a factory-refurbished JVC HM-DH40000U D-VHS machine to play the tapes on. D-VHS was a fabulous technology; it's a shame it came along too late. Any tape, no matter what sort, looks immensely better played back on a D-VHS machine; ahh, the wonders of digital signal processing.
It was really simple. Pop a VHS tape into the JVC. Pop a blank DVD into the recorder and set the recording length to match whatever the length of the tape was (the bandwidth on a DVD is so much higher that there was negligible loss doing this). Press "play" and "record" and leave it be. Spot check the DVD to make sure it really recorded (always did). Repeat until done. Because of the miracles of D-VHS signal processing, these "second-generation" recordings looked just as good or better than the original tapes played on an ordinary S-VHS machine.
The two machines ran the better part of 24 hours a day. In a few months I had almost all the tapes converted to DVDs. Except, I'd hit a big pothole called "Macrovision." A few studios copy-protected their videotapes. My DVD recorder had copy-protection detection built into it and behaved accordingly. It was a very small fraction of the total number of tapes, maybe 30, just enough to be annoying, but enough that I didn't really feel like going out and buying new DVDs of all of them.
This one had me stalled for a good nine months. I inquired about the well-known digitizers like Dazzler and Toast, but they all seemed to be designed to detect Macrovision. Then Fry's had a sale on this.
With rebate, it was $14.95. So I figured what the hell, give it a try. Maybe I could figure out a way to hack around the Macrovision protection. Well, it turns out I didn't have to; this device was so primitive and the capture software so crude that it didn't even see the Macrovision signal!
So, an afternoon spent lugging the iMac into the living room, getting it set up, fiddling interminably with the settings in the ultra-primitive video capture software until the capture look decent, and finally I managed to transcribe a videotape.
Then it hit me. There was a much simpler and more elegant solution. I couldn't believe I hadn't thought of it months earlier.
I launched my torrent client software, Vuze, and had it run some searches. Sure enough, 26 of the 30 uncooperative videotapes were freely available in pirated form as torrents! I cranked up my download rate to a megabyte per second, my upload rate down to under 1 kB per second (I'll happily take advantage of pirates; I'm sure not going to support them), and told Vuze to make it so. A week and many gigabytes later, I had digitized copies of almost all of my uncopyable tapes.
No doubt some of you are getting ready to launch fiery missives castigating me for blatant piracy. Too bad, but I don't see it that way. I own the videotapes. I just want to be able to continue watching them. I understand and appreciate the studios wishing to prevent pirating of the content; piracy is a serious problem and I am not on the side of the pirates. I very much doubt that the studios' intention was to make it impossible for me to watch, in the future, the movies I had purchased; I doubt that even entered their thoughts. (If it did, screw 'em.) It was an unintended consequence, and I feel entirely justified in circumventing it.
As for the tapes themselves? Well, no legal or ethical questions here about reselling them. Nobody wants VHS tapes! I just recycled the media.
Ctein's media adventures and sundry flirtations with pirates are published on TOP on Wednesdays.
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Ken Tanaka: "As a devoted classic film collector for (gasp) over 30 years, I feel your pain. I started in the Sony Beta era and have schlepped through each medium, yes, including LaserDisc.
"More to the recent point several years ago I, too, found myself with a couple of dozen films on VHS tape but not available on DVD. (I really do have a strong bias toward purchasing commercial films rather than trying to copy them. Better quality and the expense is negligible compared to the enjoyment of seeing good quality.) I purchased two Panasonic DMR-EZ47V dual VHS/DVD recorders to smooth the transfer to DVD. Best decision I ever made.
"But, no, there are indeed some films that are simply copy protected. In facing this hurdle I have been fortunate in two ways:
- At my age I am no longer subject to the obsessions of my youth. I can take two giant steps back and ask myself just how important this is. Answer: Not very. I can always watch the film from the VHS side of those Panny units.
- Enter Netflix and Amazon. There are quite a few films in Netflix streaming catalog that are not available on DVD at all. Voila! A new technology saves part of the day.
"Moral of the story: Don't drive yourself nuts."