We couldn’t let the news that ‘Japan’s Funai Electric has announced it will end production of home videocassette recorders in July’ go by unnoticed.
Earlier this month we wrote an article that re-appraised the question of VHS obsolescence.
Variability within the VHS format, such as recording speeds and the different playback capacities of domestic and professional machines, fundamentally challenge claims that VHS is immune from obsolescence threats which affect other, less ubiquitous formats.
There is, however, a huge degree of variation within VHS. This is even before we consider improvements to the format, such as S-VHS (1987), which increased luminance bandwidth and picture quality.
Complicating the preservation picture
The biggest variation within VHS is of recording speed.
Recording speed affects the quality of the recording. It also dictates which machines you can use to play back VHS tapes.
Domestic VHS could record at three different speeds: Standard Play, which yielded the best quality recordings; Long Play, which doubled recording time but compromised the quality of the recording; Extended or Super Long Play, which trebled recording time but significantly reduced the recording quality. Extended/ Super Long Play was only available on the NTSC standard.
It is generally recognised that you should always use the best quality machines at your disposal to preserve magnetic media.
VHS machines built for domestic use, and the more robust, industrial models vary significantly in quality.
Richard Bennette in The Videomaker wrote (1995): ‘In more expensive VCRs, especially industrial models, the transports use thicker and heavier mounting plates, posts and gears. This helps maintain the ever-critical tape signal distances over many more hours of usage. An inexpensive transport can warp or bend, causing time base errors in the video signals’.
Yet better quality VHS machines, such as the SONY SVO-500P and Panasonic AG-650 that we use in the Great Bear Studio, cannot play back Long or Extended Play recordings. They only recorded—and therefore can only play back—Standard Play signals.
This means that recordings made at slower speeds can only be transferred using cheaper, domestic VHS machines.
Domestic VHS tape: significant problems to come
This poses two significant problems within a preservation context.
Firstly, there is concern about the availability of high-functioning domestic VHS machines in the immediate and long-term.
Domestic VHS machines were designed to be mass produced and affordable to the everyday consumer. Parts were made from cheaper materials. They simply were not built to last.
Used VHS machines are still available. Given the comparative fragility of domestic machines, the ubiquity of the VHS format—especially in its domestic variation—is largely an illusion.
The second problem is the quality of the original Long or Extended Play recording.
One reason for VHS’s victory over Betamax in the ‘videotape format wars’ was that VHS could record for three hours, compared with Betamax’s one.
As with all media recorded on magnetic tape, slower recording speeds produce poorer quality video and audio.
An Extended Play recording made on a domestic VHS is already in a compromised position, even before you put it in the tape machine and press ‘play.’
Which leads us to a further and significant problem: the ‘press play’ moment.
Interchangeability—the ability to play back a tape on a machine different to the one it was recorded on—is a massive problem with video tape machines in general.
The tape transport is a sensitive mechanism and can be easily knocked out of sync. If the initial recording was made with a mis-aligned machine it is not certain to play back on another, differently aligned machine. Slow recording complicates alignment further, as there is more room for error in the recording process.
The preservation of Long and Extended Play VHS recordings is therefore fraught with challenges that are not always immediately apparent.
Variation of recording time is the key point of distinction within the VHS format. It dramatically affects the quality of the original recording and dictates the equipment a tape can be played back on. With this in mind, we need to distinguish between standard, long and extended play VHS recordings when appraising collections, rather than assuming ‘VHS’ covers everything.
One big stumbling block is that you cannot tell the recording speed by looking at the tape itself. There may be metadata that can indicate this, or help you make an educated guess, but this is not always available.
We recommend, therefore, to not assume VHS—and other formats that straddle the domestic/ professional divide such as DVCAM and 8mm video—is ‘safe’ from impending obsolescence. Despite the apparent availability and familiarity of VHS, the picture in reality is far more complex and nuanced.
As ever, Great Bear are more than happy to discuss specific issues affecting your collection.
Below he beautifully evokes the social and technical stories behind why the video was made. Many thanks Phil for putting this together.
In 1985 I was a lecturer in Film and Communications at Filton College with an added responsibility for running the Audio Visual Studio, a recording room and edit suite/office that had dropped from the sky as part of a new library and resources building. There was also kit of variable quality and vintage, some new, some inherited. I remember a Sony edit suite for big, chunky u-matic videos and another JVC one for VHS tapes, with a beige plasticky mixer that went in the middle by the edit controller. This also allowed you to do grandiose wipes from one camera to another, although we rarely used the camera set-up in the studio because you really needed to know what you wanted to do in advance, and no one ever did. What students liked using were the portable cameras and recorders, JVC VHS jobs that together with the fancy carry cases and padded camera boxes, plus regulation heavy pivoting tripod, weighed each prospective al fresco film-maker down with the baggage-equivalent of several large suitcases. I remember one aspiring Stanley Kubrick from Foundation Art&Design setting off to get the bus into town carrying everything himself, and returning sweatily later that day, close to collapse. He was wearing a heavy greatcoat, obviously.
We had a ‘professional’ u-matic portable recorder too, and that was seriously heavy, but we didn’t have the requisite three-tube camera to get the quality it was capable of, never entirely understanding the principle of garbage in-garbage out, with the inevitable result that almost everything anyone did was doomed to remain at least as shoddy as the original dodgy signal it depended upon. But hey, this was education: it was the process we were interested in, not the product.
It was a JVC portable VHS recorder I was using on the night of the Wild Bunch jam at the Arnolfini on Friday 19 July 1985, the case slung over my shoulder while I held a crap Hitachi single-tube camera with a misted-over viewfinder whose murky B&W picture meant you were never entirely sure whether it was on manual or auto focus. There was no tripod, and no lighting; just me and a Foundation student, Jo Evans, helping out. The original camera tape, which I recently found after presuming it lost, is a Scotch 3M 60-minuter and the video document of the event, such as it is, lasts only until the single tape runs out, which is just about the time the Wild Bunch’s rappers, Claude and 3D, are getting started.
The image quality is terrible but when there’s some light in the room – the Arnolfini’s downstairs gallery – you can just about make out what’s happening. When it’s dark – and it generally is – the image is so thin it’s barely an image at all. As this is the camera tape – unimportant in itself, and usually only considered as the raw material for a later edit – the significance of what is shown is very provisional. What I meant to focus on, and what was only being picked up because it was easier to keep recording than it was to switch to ‘pause’, is impossible to say. But what the tape does show – when, of course, there’s enough information there to make out anything at all – is now the stuff of history: a Mitchell and Kenyon type document of the yet-to-emerge ‘Bristol Sound’, and a weirdly innocent time that existed before the camera phone. And there it all is: graffiti on the walls, funk, electro and rap on the muffled boominess of the mono soundtrack, with dancers breaking acrobatically on the floor as rockabilly quiffed boys, big-haired girls and lots and lots of very young kiddies look on. As to why I filmed the event in the first place: it was partly for my master’s dissertation (Black Music, the Arts and Education’ – classic lefty teacher getting down with the kids) and partly for the Arnolfini’s new video library.
If you go down and see it on Sunday July 19: enjoy.
Jeanie wanted us to deliver her digital files as Quicktime Pro Res files, an apple codec often used in professional film production because it offers a good compromise between quality and data size.
We are also digitising material for another of Jeanie’s films, ORION, which is currently in production. ORION is the story of Jimmy Ellis, an unknown singer, who was plucked from obscurity and thrust into the spotlight as part of an audacious scheme that had him masquerade as Elvis back from the grave.
We have a series of US NTSC US VHS tapes to digitise for the film which includes copies of out takes, interviews and concert footage of Orion. The tapes were sent to us by the official (and only) Orion fan club based in Norway.