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Other Tape Any analog format other than cassette or reel to reel; 8-track, Elcaset, microcassette, VHS, etc.

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Old 04-08-2012, 11:39 PM
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My VHS hifi Digitizing Project

I used to be a DJ and I recorded myself ALL the time using an RCA VHS hifi VCR, including a college radio show that won national awards and of which I am very proud. It's time to digitize and archive those tapes, as well as share them with others. I'm planning to make a retro podcast of the old college radio shows (around 350 of them), and maybe get with my old co-host to record some commentary to go with each podcast. But anyway....

Thought it might be fun to describe my project workflow here, and see if anyone had comments or ideas, so if you're bored or curious, here goes.

The radio tapes start in late 1994. I had an RCA VR671HF hifi VCR purchased in 1990 (for $360.. OUCH!) recording from a Panasonic rack system (SD-3620) bought in 1987 (for around $425). The tuner and cassette deck on that system were separate components, but they had proprietary cable connections to the amp. The Panasonic system specs were quite decent for the time and money, and the owner's manual has an unusually extensive list of specifications (Tuner: sensitivity 10.8 dBf, s/n stereo 0.3%, freq. resp. 20 - 15kHz: +.5dB ~-1.5, 19kHz carrier leak -35dB). I used to set the VCR to record line inputs for 3 - 6 hours at a time, depending on my shift & what station, etc., on EP speed. I was using nothing more than the typical "T" shaped twin-lead antenna, tacked up on my bedroom wall.

The VCR's audio specs were apparently a perfect match for recording from the tuner, because I can clearly see the 19kHz carrier in a software spectrum analyzer, and "audio" down to 20 Hz. The original RCA VCR was set to automatic level control since a radio signal is fairly compressed and consistent anyway, I couldn't see going through the trouble back then to set levels manually. The great majority of the tapes have no video signal on them, although I recall a few exceptions which I will get to eventually.

Today I have a very snazzy JVC HR-S9911U S-VHS VCR, with about as many bells and whistles as you could get on a consumer VCR. Seems like I got it maybe in 2004. To play these old audio-only tapes, however, I turn off every type of processing except for the time base corrector. The TBC probably isn't doing anything since there's no video, but it's been on since I started this, and it's been working well. ;-)

Here's where I have decided to do something a bit odd: I put in one of the old tapes, let it automatically optimize the tracking, then turn off the auto-tracking. Then I rewind, start it playing again, and start a timed recording on my computer. I do this because I noticed that tapes recorded on the ol' RCA will, rarely, have brief tracking issues. Maybe little stretches or dropouts or speed issues on the RCA, who knows. But auto-tracking on the nice JVC is actually too sensitive, and even the briefest of tracking errors will cause it to auto-track again and ruin the sound for several seconds, which is worse than the vast majority of tracking problem occurrences (usually just a quick buzz).

The signal goes line-level through my Panasonic SA-HE200 receiver, then into a Sound Blaster Live 5.1 card line-in. I'm using Adobe Audition because that's what I have and for this project it's good enough. The specs of the sound card are better than these recordings, so I doubt I'm losing any quality anywhere in the chain. I'm recording in 16-bit, 44.1kHz, because I can see no reason for anything better. I'm setting levels to give me 3-5dB over most audio peaks. I'm saving as .wav uncompressed since storage is cheap and I want the most faithful audio for any future use / processing / mp3 encoding. I have two 2TB drives in a RAID configuration, and am making a data DVD with the .wav files for each VHS audio tape. There are probably a few hundred tapes. I let 'em roll at night, and clip the resulting HUGE files into whatever shift I was doing that day. Most of the tapes are two 3 hour shows, so I create two 3 hour .wav files, which is just under 2 gigs.

So far, the tapes are doing better than I would have expected after 18 years (and I'll get to some even older ones after I'm done with my radio show tapes). The only real limitation seems to be the quality of the original broadcast, and how well the station's signal was doing that day. I've always been amazed at the quality you can get from a VHS hifi, but nowadays I have better equipment for playing and listening, and I'm REALLY glad I went through the trouble and expense back in the day.

So.... any comments, ideas, questions, or have I bored you to tears? Sorry, I just needed to share with strangers who might find it interesting. :-)
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Old 04-09-2012, 12:10 AM
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Ghitulescu Ghitulescu is online now
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I don't know your VCR, but htis is how I do it on my Panasonic (well, being a pro unit it has VU-meters for each channel) - I don't care about the automatic tracking, I simply set it that the audio is maximized, that means it follows the HiFi-tracks at best as it can. Sometimes, with tapes recorded on cheap consumer VCRs, the video level drops out very much, indicating a misalignement of the heads. Auto-tracking is set using the video track, not the audio, thus you have those issues.
Hope it helps.
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Old 04-09-2012, 07:32 AM
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i've been doing something similar here at work. i'm using an optimus hifi vhs with the video going to a usb frame grabber and the audio going to a yamaha audiogram3.

i recently digitized a copy of pinkfloyd pulse that was in hifi vhs and that was interesting. great audio with the typical lousy vhs tape picture. its fine though for viewing on a tablet when killing time. i have a huge collection of video discs from the jukebox network i need to digitize eventually as well.
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Old 04-09-2012, 09:21 AM
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Ghitulescu: The old RCA VCR I mentioned did have head alignment issues, especially after several years of use on the slower speeds. A couple of years ago I was digitizing video in particular where I had to adjust the tracking on the JVC for the video, which gave noisy audio, then go back for a second pass and adjust for clear hifi audio. I matched up the two on the computer afterward. At least with audio-only tapes I only have to get it right once.

ke4mcl: Don't you wish VHS picture quality matched hifi audio quality? I suppose on S-VHS it almost does. And when you say "video discs," do you mean laser discs or DVD? I have a few old laser discs, and a REALLY old laser disc player. It's a Pioneer top loading one from 1980, complete with wood grain side panels!
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Old 04-09-2012, 09:41 AM
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im talking laser discs. i have about 100-150 filled with music videos.

those old top loading pioneers are cool. been looking for one for a while but they are rare nowdays. most got robbed of their laser back in the early 90's.
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Old 04-09-2012, 09:59 AM
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ive never had a top loading LD player with wood sides. PLEASE post some pics of that!!
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Old 04-09-2012, 08:10 PM
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I have 3 Hi Fi VCR's and one old RCA stereo VCR which was an early attempt at stereo and the RCA has true analog audio with dolby. However it simply does not sound anywhere near as good as the true HiFi VCR's. My Sony's sound amazing and the format was much better than most appreciated.
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Old 04-10-2012, 09:34 AM
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stereorob: I'm lazy, so I'll just link you to some info on my laserdisc player. It's the Pioneer VP-1000, made in November 1980. It's a helluva thing. Heavy and ugly. The video outputs are composite, but via a coax cable, so you have to use a coax to RCA adapter. Still works, but there is some crosstalk on CLV discs. It was Pioneer's first, and the first one to be called "laserdisc."
http://www.laserdiscarchive.co.uk/la...er_vp-1000.htm
http://www.blamld.com/DiscoVision/VP-1000_12-80.htm
There are some videos on YouTube as well.

Lance Lawson: The "stereo" VCRs with Dolby use stationary heads and narrow linear tracks , whereas the VHS "hifi" system uses audio heads mounted on the rotating head drum and records with the video, thus the MUCH better sound.
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