How to Digitize Your Old VHS Tapes Before They Decay

You probably didn’t realize that those old VHS tapes that you haven’t touched in years are undergoing decay. Research shows that magnetic tapes such as VHS tapes can experience 20% loss in quality after just 10 years, and that’s assuming they are properly stored. In order to avoid complete loss of your precious memories, you should digitize your old VHS tapes as soon as possible.

How to digitize your old VHS tapes before they decay

This tutorial will walk you through the steps of digitizing your VHS collection. The process entails recording your VHS tapes to your computer’s hard drive by using an analog/digital video converter that can be plugged into your laptop or desktop computer.

You will need the following hardware:

You will need the following software installed on your computer:

Connect Your VCR to Your Computer

  1. Plug one end of the RCA connector into the OUT ports on the back of the VCR.RCA plugged into the back of the VCR
  2. Connect the other end of the RCA connector to the L – AUDIO IN – R and the VIDEO IN ports on the front of the Canopus ADVC110.Canopus ADVC110 RCA cable
  3. Plug one end of the Firewire IEEE cable into the DV IN/OUT port on the back of the Canopus ADVC110.Firewire plugged into Canopus ADVC110
  4. Connect the other end of the Firewire IEEE cable to the Firewire pngbase64de21fe7fa9f5f163 port on the left side of the MacBook.Firewire plugged into Macbook
  5. Check that the ANALOG IN light is blue on the Canopus ADVC110. If not, touch the silver toggle button above to switch the input.
    Canopus ADVC110 analog in
  6. Connect the portable hard drive to the USB USB icon port on the left side of the MacBook.External hard drive plugged into Macbook
  7. On the MacBook laptop’s desktop, you should see the hard drive mount to the desktop. In this case, the hard drive is called VHS-HD.Screen shot 2015 01 08 at 5.53.03 PM

Log the VHS Tape Information

  1. Turn on the VCR by pushing the Power button on the front of the VCR.
  2. Pick a VHS tape.
  3. If this is your 5th tape, the number is 005. If this is your 101st tape, the number is 101. Write this number in the upper right hand corner of the label of the VHS tape in red ink.Numbered VHS tape
  4. Open the a tracking spreadsheet and fill out the next row.  Log the VHS Tape Number, Size of Tape, Date, Time, and what is written on the Label.
  5. Take a picture of the label with a camera.
  6. Insert the VHS tape into the VCR.
  7. Rewind the VHS tape to the beginning by pressing the REW button on the front of the VCR.

Prepare the Project in Final Cut Pro

  1. Open Final Cut Pro Final cut Pro iconFinal Cut Pro new project
  2. If you see the following message, make sure everything is hooked up properly by going to the beginning of this tutorial. Otherwise, continue to the next step.Final cut Pro unable to located the following external devices Apple FIreWire NTSC
  3. In Final Cut Pro, click File > Save Project As….Final cut Pro file save project as
  4. Save the project as VHS-###.fcp where the ### corresponds to the number that you wrote in red ink on the label of the VHS tape. In this case, the project is called VHS-001.fcp because this is the 1st VHS tape that I’m capturing.  Click Save.Final Cut Pro save VHS project
  5. In Final Cut Pro, click File > Log and Capture.Final Cut Pro File menu select Log and Capture
  6. You should see a blue screen. This is the output from the VCR. Below the blue screen, it should say VTR OK.Final Cut Pro window showing VTR OK
  7. If you see the following colorful screen that says Preview Disabled, push the triangle shown. Otherwise, continue to the next step.Final cut Pro preview disabled
  8. To hear sound while recording, click on the Clip Settings tab and select the Preview box under Audio.Final cut Pro clip settings preview
  9. To set a few more options, click on Capture Settings and then Scratch Disks….Scratch Disks found under Final Cut Pro's Capture Settings
  10. Make sure that your Scratch Disks window looks like the one below. VHS-HD will be the name of your external hard drive.Final cut Pro scratch disks
  11. If everything looks the same as above, Click OK and go to the next numbered step. If you don’t see your external hard drive, click on Set… and Choose your external hard drive from the DEVICES section on the left. Final cut Pro choose scratch disks folder

 Record the VHS Tape to the Hard Drive

  1. Click on Now in the bottom right hand corner of the Log and Capture window and immediately after push the PLAY button on the front of the VCR.Final cut Pro capture now VHS
  2. A new window should open and  you should see the video playing and hear the audio.Final cut Pro now capturing VHS
  3. When the tape has finished playing, press the esc key on the keyboard to stop recording.
  4. Pick another VHS tape and go back to the Log the VHS Tape Information section. Repeat.

Split Your VHS Tapes

Your VHS tapes probably have multiple sequential videos back to back.  Final Cut Pro captures the VHS tape as a single video file.  We will now take the output video files from Final Cut Pro and further split it into multiple files.  This tutorial will also be useful for describing how to trim static from the beginning and end of the video.

Download & Install MPEG Streamclip

  1. Download and install MPEG Streamclip. Version 1.9.2 is used in this tutorial.
  2. Launch MPEG Streamclip.

Split Video File into Multiple Clips

  1. Drag a video file onto the blue dice.MPEG Streamclip blue dice
  2. A preview of your video file will appear.MPEG Streamclip window after dragging video file
  3. Push the I key on the keyboard to mark the beginning of the clip you want to extract.
  4. Find the end of the clip that you want to extract by watching the movie or seeking to the desired frame.
  5. Push the O key on the keyboard to mark the end of the clip you want to extract. Notice how the timeline bar below the video is darkened where the clip will be extracted.Split video file into clips using MPEG Streamclip
  6. Click File -> Save As  and name the file as described here. Save all clips originating from a single VHS tape into another corresponding VHS numbered folder. For example, if the input video file is within the folder /VHS-HD/Capture Scratch/VHS-002/, you will want to save each extracted clip within a new folder called /VHS-HD/Raw VHS Split/VHS-002/. Since the input file is MOV, you must keep the output file as MOV. At this point, we do not want to do any encoding to the video to preserve the original quality as much as possible. Click Save.MPEG Streamclip save dialog
  7. Repeat this process to extract all clips from the video file.

Encode Your VHS Tapes

By now, you’ve probably noticed that each video clip is HUGE in size. This section will describe how to batch compress these files without losing too much quality. File sizes will be reduced by an average of 90% with minimal loss of quality! With the 343 video files that I’ve encoded, the reduction in file size is shown below:

90% reduction in size by encoding VHS clips

Download & Install Handbrake

  1. Download and install Handbrake. Version 0.10.0 is used in this tutorial.
  2. Launch Handbrake.

Create Encoding Preset

  1. In Handbrake, select the MP4 File format and check the Web Optimized box. The Web Optimized option allows for smoother streaming over the internet. It doesn’t effect the quality of the video. Keep all other settings on this page as default.
  2. Click Picture Settings and in the resulting dialog, select the Decomb radio button and select Bob under the Decomb drop-down.Handbrake dialog with the Decomb Bob option selected
  3. Click Presets > New Preset. Name the preset VHS, select Source Maximum for picture size, and put VHS Conversion for the description. Click Add.Handbrake dialog showing our VHS preset
  4. Click Presets > VHS to load your preset. The main Handbrake window should look like this:Handbrake dialog showing VHS encoding options

Batch Encode Your VHS Files

For each /VHS-HD/Raw VHS Split/VHS-### folder that contains the raw split files from the previous section:

  1. Click Source and select the VHS-### folder containing the files that you want to batch encode. Click Open. The potentially multiple video files will be scanned. This shouldn’t take too long, but there will be a reasonable delay.
  2. In the main window under the Destination section, click Browse. Save all clips originating from a single VHS tape into another corresponding VHS numbered folder. For example, if the source video files are within the folder /VHS-HD/Raw VHS Split/VHS-002/, you will want to save the encoded clips within a new folder called /VHS-HD/VHS Final/VHS-002/.
  3. Next, click File > Add All Titles to Queue.
  4. If not already open, clicking on the Show Queue button will reveal that your files are added to the queue.

In the Queue window, click Start. This will begin to encode the video files. This process will take some time. Repeat until all of you video clips are encoded.

Handbrake dialog with VHS queue

Final Steps

After all of this hard work, I recommend that you backup your VHS files. This can be as easy as uploading them to Google Drive or Dropbox, or you can buy USB thumb drives to distribute to your family.

Upload VHS Clips to Synology Video Station

In my case, I uploaded my video files to Synology DiskStation DS214play. If you would like to do the same, you can drag and drop your encoded video files within each VHS-### folder to a VHS folder in the video share on your server at this point; however, I’ve written a script that will do just that while deleting the source files off of your local machine upon a successful copy. This works on a Mac because Mac automatically mounted the video share when I had previously navigated to it in Finder.

  1. Copy this script into a text file without an extension called copy_to_ds.
    #!/bin/bash
    input=$(find . -maxdepth 2 -type f -name *.mp4)
    for i in $input
    do
            echo $i
            rsync --remove-source-files --progress $i /Volumes/video/VHS/
    done
  2. Save it at /VHS-HD/VHS Final/copy_to_ds
  3. Execute it in Terminal
    $ chmod +x copy_to_ds
    $ ./copy_to_ds

VHS Tagging

This section of the VHS digitizing tutorial is written for those who will plan to keep their converted VHS video files into the Video Station application on a Synology Diskstation running DSM 5.0 or higher; however, the naming conventions in this section may be useful for anyone.

VHS Naming Conventions

The following are the naming conventions I used when naming my VHS video clips. You don’t have to follow these conventions at all. The only suggestion I have to to be consistent with how you name your VHS video clips.

  •  Sports
    • Actor_Sport_at_School_[Competition]_YYYY-Mth-DD
    • Examples
      • Tony_Swimming_at_Muhlenberg_2015-Aug-19
      • Tony_Janelle_Outdoor_Track_at_Wilson_2000-June-08
      • Tony_Swimming_at_Loyola_MAACs_2009-Feb-31
      • Andrea_Outdoor_Track_at_Bucknell_States_2007-Mar-04
  • Other
    • Event_at_Location_YYYY-Mth-DD
    • Examples
      • Lunch_at_Cabin_1991-Jul-04
      • Christmas_Lights_at_Sutters_Mill_1992-Dec-25
  • Date Ranges (where month is 3 letters: Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May, Jun, Jul, Aug, Sep, Oct, Nov, Dec)
    • YYYY-Mth-DD_to_DD
    • Example
      • Janelles_Birthday_at_Eisenhower_2015-08-19_to_20
  • Multiple Actors
    • Actor_Actor_Actor…
    • Examples
      • Tony_Janelle_Outdoor_Track_at_Wilson_2000-June-08
      • Andrea_Tony_Janelle_at_Cabin_June-10-2001
  • Multiple video files for the same event on the same day
    • Event_at_Location_YYYY-Mth-DD_Part_#
    • Examples
      • New_York_World_Trade_Center_2002-Oct-12_Part_1
      • New_York_World_Trade_Center_2002-Oct-12_Part_2
  • News/TV
    • Channel_Event_at_Location_YYYY-Mth-DD
    • Examples
      • WFMZ_Christmas_Lights_at_Eisenhower_2001-Dec-12
      • WGAL_Andrea_Track_at_Penn_Relays_2008-Apr-10

VHS Recording Date

    • If the exact date of the recording is known, fill in the proper date and choose time of 00:00:00Tag VHS clip where date is known
    • If partial date is known such as only the year, fill in as much of the date as you know and for the part you don’t know, set to 1. Choose a time of 23:59:00.Tag VHS tape where partial date is known
    • If no date is known, choose a consistent and obviously wrong date. USE THE SAME WRONG DATE FOR ALL VIDEOS THAT YOU DON’T KNOW THE DATE OF. This will help to easily detect which dates are wrong. Choose a recording start time of 00:00:00Tag VHS tape where no date is known

Edit VHS Summary

  1. After uploading the video files to Video Station, the Title of the video will be named as the filename. Replace the underscores with spaces in the Title for readability purposes. If there were multiple actors separated by spaces, replace with a comma separated list and use an ampersand if desired. For example if the filename was Tony_Janelle_Swimming_at_Muhlenberg_2004-Jan-17, the title will become Tony & Janelle Swimming at Muhlenberg 2004-Jan-17. Another example is if the filename was Andrea_Tony_Janelle_Outdoor_Track_at_Wilson_2014-Jan-10, the title will become Andrea, Tony, & Janelle Outdoor Track at Wilson 2014-Jan-10.
  2. Fill in the full name(s) of the Cast member(s). Use first and last names or if the actor has a unique common nickname such as Pappy or Nanny, use that.
  3. On the first line of the Summary text box, put the VHS tape number that this file originated from in the form of VHS-###. On the next line, put the original file name.

Conclusion

Now that you’re done digitizing your VHS tapes collection, you can choose what to do with your VHS tapes. You may choose to declutter and throw them out along with your VCR and camcorders, or you may still feel a sentimental connection to your VHS tapes and hold onto them for a while longer.

Whatever the case, you can now have the peace of mind that your precious and irreplaceable memories are now digitized, backed up, and will live on forever without the risk of decaying.

If you have questions about any of the steps in this VHS digitizing tutorial, be sure to let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best to help you out.

Good luck and happy digitzing!

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With a strong software engineering background, Tony is determined to leverage the internet to positively impact as many people as possible. Discover why Tony quit his dream job to pursue this mission. You can send Tony a message here.

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