Sunday, January 25, 2015

VHS to digital

Happy post holiday!  Yes, Christmas and New Years were great and it was nice to have 2 of the 3 kids back from college (the other is in high school and also home).  Early in December, I had my epiphany – if I scrambled, I could burn all those VHS tapes (mostly of my kids from baby to 6 or so) onto DVD and give them as Christmas gifts.  Further, I was scanning the Craig’s list electronics items and I found a new listing for a DVD recorder from a seller in my home town which I scrambled and purchased.  Unfortunately, this turned out to be one of those situations where haste made waste.  In my excitement, I didn’t do any research on the specific DVD recorder nor did I research and consider the best way to convert my cherished memories to a modern format.

The DVD recorder fizzled – it was a combination DVD / VHS recorder and advertised as being able to dub, meaning record onto DVD from VCR or vice versa.  I read and re-read the user manual and many other references and after many hours of frustration, gave up on using this device.  After a fresh look at how to accomplish my goal of recording my VHS tapes to DVD, two (2) primary routes appeared;  1.  Pay someone to do it or 2.  Purchase a video capture recorder.  Since time was short, I investigated the first option and called a local service provider.  They advised that their fee was $10 per DVD plus $5 each time they changed a tape.  Like many of my vintage, I had purchased a VHS-C recorder for about $700 back in the day.  VHS-C tapes (the “C” being for compact) are small in size and also tend to be shorter in duration – mine being around 30 minutes or so).  VHS-C translated into having more (quantity) tapes that would need to be changed and thus, the cost of my project could easily climb to the $250 - $300 range.  This cost was not the sole driver of my choice to purchase a video capture recorder.  A second driver for me was that I also had a significant number of “mystery” tapes – yup, I had bouts of laziness where I didn't mark on the label what was on the tape and additionally had been given tapes from family members that were likewise vaguely identified.  This project clearly was going to require a level of effort and with the holidays closing in I made a smart choice to purchase the video capture recorder, but defer the effort until after the holidays.
  1. Selecting a Video Capture Recorder.  No shocker here, I recommend reading the reviews on Amazon and purchasing through Amazon.  I selected (and recommend based on my experience) the Elgato video capture recorder.  It wasn’t the cheapest, but I felt the reviews justified the extra cost.  After my disappointment with the DVD recorder that I purchased I wanted something that was simple and reliable.  The Elgato seemed the best choice to meet both these criteria.

  2. Setting up your VHS environment.  Ugh – If you’re like me, you probably have retired that old VHS dinosaur.  Lucky for me, my dinosaur was still in the house, albeit perhaps a bit dusty.   (If you have dumped your machine, but now need one to perform a similar task, you can usually pick one up cheap of Craig's list, lawn sale or a local thrift store).
    This step can be trickier than may appear.  While VHS is old technology, there definitely was a wide range of VHS devices out there.  I happened to have several (considering that I also recently purchased the DVD/VHS recorder).  In general my observations are that the early VHS models tend to be more mechanical and straightforward, but have less output options.   Note in the picture below, the older model (top) has minimal outputs – mostly for cable in and out; while the newer VHS device (bottom) had a greater array of output including audio/video (red, white, yellow plugs).  
    You will need the audio/video output to use the Elgato screen capture device.  However, if you have an older VHS recorder, don’t throw it out – yet!  I found that the newer VHS device sometimes had trouble rewinding (and playing) some of the VHS-C tapes that I had.  Let me point out that these VHS-C tapes are around 15 years old.  My theory is that the newer VHS devices are more electronically sophisticated and the down side is that they seem to have a sensor that triggers when the tape winding (or unwinding if you will) reaches a certain tension.  Simply stated the machine believes that the tape has ended and stops playing or rewinding.  I found that the old VHS player was much more effective in playing and rewinding these tapes.  Generally, I used the old VHS player as a backup to provide a fresh winding of the VHS-C tape when needed which then seemed to allow the newer VHS to play the VHS-C.  Thankfully, I encountered this problem with only a very few VHS-C tapes.

  3. Install the Elgato video capture software on your computer.  Note:  Do this before you plug it into your computer's USB (regardless of what the directions may tell you).  I have found this generally to be true of any USB device that has an install CD… sometimes you are told to plug in the device and then put the install CD in when Windows prompts you, but at times Windows seems to have a mind of its own and will install the driver Windows' thinks is correct.  To ensure that the CD driver is used, always run the install CD before plugging the device into the USB port.  I installed both the driver and the Elgato application (program) from the CD before connecting the Elgato device to the computer.

  4. Attach computer, Elgato and VCR player and start the Elgato program.  Use an audio/video cord (red, white, yellow plugs) and attach to your VHS player and the Elgato device then plug the Elgato device into a USB port on your computer then start your Elgato software (program).  The Elgato software is a snap and easily walks you through the process.  The only gotcha that I encountered on my first attempt was that I didn't click the “Start Recording” button.  After a run or 2, I felt like a pro and would quickly advance to the recording screen, insert the VHS tape and start it playing then quickly click the “Start Recording” button in the Elgato software.  You can watch your recording within the Elgato software.  After a few runs, I was comfortable starting the recording and then working on other tasks while the recording played through.

  5. Save your digital recordings to your desired media.  Once your VHS is converted to digital, it can easily be saved to a DVD, thumb drive, external hard drive or online storage.  As an example below, I used Elgato to digitally copy the VHS tapes on the left (below) and saved them all to a 16gb USB drive on the right.

    I also uploaded my family tapes to Microsoft OneDrive which will provide a great backup as well as an easy way to share these treasures.  Down the road, I hope to experiment with Windows Live Movie Maker to see if I can edit my digital recordings to remove some of the boring and “crap” recordings – so that the digital memories is focused on concentrating on the smiles and cuteness of family and kids – in other words, the stuff I want to actually remember.  If it merits, I will try to add a post on using Windows Live Movie Maker after I do this.   Until then, I’m thrilled to have my memories out of dusty boxes and at my fingertips to share.