What’s in a Professional Video Workflow to Convert Analog Videotapes?

Our forum is frequently used to discuss video, and a common topic is the video workflows needed to transfer old VHS, Hi8, Video8, Betamax, and even DV digital tapes. But most video hobbyists, and sometimes even pros, have never had the term “workflow” enter their vocabulary until they came here.

In fact, I think there’s a misconception about what a workflow actually is, what it’s supposed to do, and what one looks like. So let’s fix that…

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What is a video workflow?

The dictionary defines a “workflow” as a process comprising multiple sequential steps to go from initial raw materials to the final product. Furthermore, each step in that sequence may require different tools for completion.

And that’s exactly what a video capturing workflow is ― the tools (hardware) needed to capture tapes to digital.

Note that I wrote “video capturing workflow”, and not just “video workflow”. When discussing converting tape to digital, and hardware required for said capture, it’s only a capturing workflow. And its usually only the first step in the overall video project/workflow. In addition to capturing, you also have editing workflows, restoration workflows, and output/delivery-format workflows [encoding, authoring, etc].

What does a basic capturing workflow look like?

A basic/minimalist/essential workflow is

  1. the tape player or camera
  2. something that does timing correction and/or frame sync
  3. digital device (computer capture card, DVD recorder, DV capture box/camera)

Again, workflow = sequential steps. The analog signal is played, then corrected/prepped for digital acquisition, and then captured, in that specific order. And the middle TBC step is required, not optional.

But since analog video signal are chaotic, it’s not as simple as using any VCR, any capture card, or any device claiming to be a “TBC” (or have TBC functionality). Therefore, the suggested minimal workflow is:

  1. JVC or Panasonic S-VHS VCR, with internal TBC (to the clean image quality)
  2. external TBC (to clean the signal quality); usually DataVideo TBC-1000 or green Cypress AVT-8710
  3. internal ATI AIW card, known-good USB capture card, or LSI chipset-based DVD recorder

But sometimes people act as if those 3 items are “overkill” (translation = “too expensive”). It’s almost always due to not wanting to spend the money. Yes, that sort of setup generally costs up to $1k. And the common response from the person is “I don’t want anything fancy, I just need the basics”. But it is the basics! That’s an entry level workflow. It’s not a “fancy” professional one, and not even close!

How a basic workflow differs from professional

When you’re building a capturing workflow for yourself, you’re allowed to be selfish and myopic. By that I mean that you only have to worry about your own videotapes. If a tape gives you problems, you can set it aside until later, or send it somewhere for professional servicing.

And therein lies the issue at hand… not all tapes cooperate with all playback hardware.

When you’re a professional, you don’t have the luxury of setting it aside until a later unknown date. And you can’t just not do it ― or at least shouldn’t. [See also my article on video professionals vs. video hobbyists (and hacks).]

So, for that reason, you need to prepare for every contingent. For example, for VHS:

  • SP, LP, SLP/EP tape mode differences
  • misaligned tapes
  • reused tapes
  • unclean/dirty tapes
  • camera recordings vs. VCR recordings

All of these aspects factor in to how a tape will play.

Those determine:

  • what deck will and will not work
  • what sort of corrective filtering is needed ― TBC, proc amp, detailers, mixers, anti-tearing passthrough (ES10), etc.
  • and sometimes even what capture card will work

No single VCR, TBC, or capture card will work with every tape.

Generally speaking:

  • most consumer VHS VCRs play about 50% of all tapes (at best)
  • the best/recommended S-VHS VCRs (with internal TBC) play maybe 80-90% of all VHS tapes
  • but it’s only when you pair specific non-identical brands of high-end equipment together (for example, JVC SR-V10U and Panasonic AG-1980P) do you approach 95-99% playback
  • and of course, that leave a 1-5% margin of error, and you make that less yet again by adding a 3rd VCR to your arsenal!

So, already, we have 3 VCRs. But now that adds another dimension to the equation/problem: Not all gear in a workflow plays nice with other gear in the workflow. So now you’re adding more TBCs, and more capture cards. And that’s just for VHS!

For other formats, other/more hardware is required ― and sometimes in duplicate yet again. (Though thankfully most are not as chaotic and stubborn as VHS.)

What does a professional capturing workflow look like?

So what you end up is something that looks like this:

  1. Playback VCRs/cameras:
    • JVC S-VHS VCR with internal line TBC (usually SR Professional line)
    • and Panasonic S-VHS VCR with internal field TBC (usually either AG-1980 or AG-1970)
    • and JVC S-VHS VCR with internal line TBC (usually HR-S7x00 or HR-S9x00 model, because it has transports that differ from SR line)
    • Hi8/Video8, MiniDV, DVCam, MicroMV cameras
  2. Timebase correctors (TBCs):
    • DataVideo TBCs (usually TBC-3000/4000 with proc amp)
    • and Cypress/AVToolbox TBCs
  3. Capture card:
    • ATI All In Wonder AGP/PCI capture card
    • and USB capture card from ATI, Pinnacle, Tevion
    • and JVC LSI-based DVD recorders
  4. Optional hardware, as needed, rotating between workflows:
    • Panasonic DMR-ES10 for anti-tearing passthrough
    • SignVideo/Studio1 detailer for SP non-destructive sharpening
    • Elite BVP-4 Plus proc amp for severe color problems
    • Behringer/Tapco/Mackie audio mixer boards

So, in review, a professional workflow is:

  • at least 3 high-end VCRs
  • at least 1 camera
  • at least 2 TBCs
  • at least 2 capture cards
  • and likely several other devices that rotate in as needed

A PAL workflow will repeat all this will PAL equipment. (Or NTSC, for those of you across the ponds.)

And it overlooks the computer setup: calibrated IPS monitor, reference or near-reference grade speakers. Plus dozens/hundreds of terabytes of workspace.

Finally, don’t forget backups. It’s similar to the photo concept of a “backup body” and “backup lenses”. You’ll want/need a closet full of backups for those devices essential to your business. If lightning struck, would you be out of business? Or would it just be a nuisance? (ie, you have a backup plan in place)

Every company/freelancer will vary some, different items in their workflow toolbox, but the key point here is redundancy. It’s not a simple matter of 1 of these, and 1 of those, and calling it day. Professionals have multiples of everything, while your typical personal workflow does not.

Closing Thoughts

This is the sort of setup I built out for The Digital FAQ more than a decade ago. That’s what we use to convert customer videotapes. Each workflow cost at least $5k to build out, and doesn’t include the $2k+ to build the computer where the stack of hardware sits. Routine maintenance/cleaning and repairs add a few more dollars annually.

This is also what my personal workflows look like, for hobby and family stuff.

And it’s why I had a seemingly endless supply of hardware when selling my excess hardware (from a different chapter in my life). One of my professional workflows can easily build 2-3 basic workflows.

I also want to mention this: While spending huge sums of money gives you the illusion of being in control, you must realize it’s still the tapes that determine what works. You can’t force a square tape in to a round s-video/composite hole! Tapes are often like a fickle princess, and you as servant must do all you can to make it happy.

Hopefully you’ve found this insightful. If you have questions, or want to know more, you’ll find me in our video help forum. Just ask for lordsmurf, and I’ll be sure to respond. There’s also a thread for this topic, so feel free to post there.

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