This is a three-part series. In this first post, I’ll discuss the equipment and other considerations necessary for converting old home movies into digital videos on a modern-day Mac computer. I’ll also share what I decided to buy for the project and why.
Part 2 will explain how to do the initial conversion using my particular setup. And Part 3 will walk you through the process I used to clean up the captured footage.
In March of 1998, my father purchased a handheld Sony camcorder. That year consequently became what is possibly the best documented in the history of my family.
(The camera got plenty of use in the ensuing 7 years as well, but the frequency certainly trailed off.)
Besides capturing the typical array of school plays, dance recitals, and family vacations, this video camera provided hours of entertainment for my sisters and cousins and I. Since it was small enough for even a child to operate it, that we did, filming ourselves being the weird and wonderful kids that we were, occasionally producing what might roughly be categorized as sketch comedy shows (of both the scripted and ad-libbed variety), and capturing plenty of footage of random nothingness.
I don’t know what one of those things cost way back when, but it was clearly a worthwhile technological investment.
But as time passed, the world transitioned away from the simple pleasures of sitting around waiting for an analog cassette to finish rewinding and on to the hyper-frenetic pace of YouTube clips and Snapchat…snaps? (Is that what they’re called?)
And thus, the collection of 8mm tapes born of that simpler era began to gather dust in various boxes, closets, and drawers, hopping from house to house, state to state—until they finally ended up in a storage bin under my living room couch.
I’ve had a long-standing back-burner project in mind to finally bring this familial time capsule into the modern age by digitizing the collection, but the thought of it always just overwhelmed me.
I actually did manage to convert two or three tapes about a decade ago, but the project got derailed by the fact that I wanted to actually edit the footage into something more digestible, not to mention the fact that in those days, burning the videos to DVD was the only viable method of distribution. All of this proved far too complicated.
And thus, the cassettes continued to sit around as the clock continued to tick and the magnetic film inside continued to degrade. My deepest fear about all this was that the camcorder, still necessary for playback, would cease functioning before I ever finished the project.
Here We Go Again
Which brings us to today. Over the past few weeks, I finally did it. I finally created a 20-hour chronological collection of home movie nostalgia perfect for reliving all of that endearing awkwardness and heartfelt togetherness.
And so, for the first of what I hope to be a series of how-to posts on this here blog, I’m going to walk you through how I got it done in case this is something you’ve been considering, too.
A Word (or 150) of Caution
Before we get started, I should mention a few caveats. As with many of the projects I’ve dabbled in over the years, I am by no means an expert on this subject. There are real experts on A/V forums like this one across the internet. If you’re the sort of person who wants to do things The Exactly Right Way,™ please by all means consult with them.
What I’m going to show you here is the solution that worked for me. I’m sure (nay, certain) that with a better combination of software, equipment, time, and budget, I could have created digital videos of closer-to-archival quality. But I’m happy with what I’ve got and learned plenty along the way.
So here goes…
Step 1: Find the Right Playback Device
This might seem obvious, but here’s the deal: No matter what process or equipment you use to do the actual transfer, the quality and success of this endeavor depends tremendously on being able to produce a decent video signal at the very outset.
A casual perusal of video forums and especially product reviews will turn up countless stories (and sometimes rants) from people who just couldn’t get the process to work. You’d think that not a single video capture device out there works as advertised—except for the mystery hardware owned by those aforementioned experts.
Well, the experts often do own some great hardware, but what my research has shown me is that most trouble can be traced to either bad source material (e.g. seriously degraded tape) or a playback device that cannot produce a reliable signal. Even some of the most expensive capture setups (in fact, especially the expensive ones) will choke on a bad signal.
This is one step of the process where there’s only so much I can offer. In my case, I just used what I already had—that old Sony camcorder. It was never anything special, but you can’t really play back 8mm tapes on anything but one of those cameras. And thankfully, after all these years, the thing still works! (Did I mention what a great technological investment it was?)
Now, if you’re trying to capture from VHS, given the likely age of the source material, a better-than-average VCR (ideally one that has some built-in image stabilization circuitry) will save you a lot of headache.
If you have access to a combination VCR/DVD-recorder, I’ve read that there’s a decent chance it’ll be up to the task since those things are designed for digitization.
In fact, if you have one of those, you could stop the project right here and just record your videos straight to DVD. I tried this and only felt so-so about the quality. Plus, who wants to have more physical media lying around? But plenty of folks out there say it’s a perfectly passable quick-and-dirty approach (and there’s nothing stopping you from then ripping those DVDs to your computer if you have the know-how).
But assuming you’re interested in the straight-to-computer approach, when it comes to finding a playback device, do some research; see what’s out there on eBay. But at some point, you may just have to use what you’ve got. Like I said, that’s what I did.
Step 2: See If You Can Stabilize the Signal
What I have probably spent the most time researching on and off over the years related to this project is the issues surrounding image stabilization. As I mentioned above, it starts with the playback device and the original media, but you often don’t have much of a choice there.
So, if possible, you want to try to clean up the signal immediately after it leaves the original device.
Apparently, the best way to do this is with something called a Time Base Corrector. These devices break down the crappy signal that leaves your camera or VCR and rebuilds it into something much smoother and far less likely to cause hiccups on the computer end.
They sound pretty great, right? Unfortunately, they’re pretty hard to find these days. And from what I’ve read, the brands that are still available at a reasonable price can be spotty. But if you come across one, it certainly can’t hurt to give it a try. You just connect the video output from your VCR/camera to the TBC, and then you connect the video output from the TBC to your capture device (more on that later).
But what if you can’t find a TBC? Well, I’ve seen more than a couple suggestions out there on the ‘net that some DVD recorders (and especially DVD/VCR combo recorders) can serve as a sort of poor man’s TBC for the same reasons mentioned earlier (namely, they’re designed for dealing with old analog media without requiring any external user intervention).
This is the approach that I ultimately decided to use. I happened to have an old combo recorder lying around. Because my particular model is able to take a composite video input and then output the signal in the slightly newer component video format (more on formats later), I figured that maybe the signal would be passing through enough internal circuitry to clean it up a bit. This wasn’t a particularly scientific hunch, and I’m not even sure it’s true. But I figured it was worth a try. Your results may vary!
Step 3: Get a Capture Device
The capture device is where the magic happens. This is the thing that translates the source material’s analog signal (think of it like the grooves on a vinyl record but read by magnets instead of a needle) into the digital stream of 1s and 0s that your computer understands.
There are a range of products to choose from, from super-cheap $25 adapters to $500+ professional grade boxes. The professional equipment tends not to fare well with moldering consumer-grade video cassettes (unless you clean it up with a TBC or other fancy hardware), and the really cheap stuff can have driver issues and/or insufficiently robust/stable software. (The heyday of analog-to-digital conversion, which I define as the mid-aughts, has passed. That’s my theory as to why there are so many reviews suggesting that the cheap equipment isn’t working well on modern computers.)
Some of the best devices for consumer-grade analog video capture were the kind available in the mid-aughts that hooked up to computers via the now largely defunct FireWire interface. That’s what I used when I first attempted this project many years ago.
Because I don’t even have a FireWire port on my current computer and I have since lost that capture device anyhow, I decided I would try something that would split the difference between the hit-or-miss cheap stuff and the too-complicated-for-my-own-good-and-likely-to-fail-anyway expensive stuff.
So after looking at what was currently on the market, I decided to go for a video game capture device. As it turns out, video game footage is seriously popular these days on YouTube and other sites like Twitch, which (if you haven’t heard of it) is an entire platform devoted to video game streaming. I figured if “all the kids are doing it,” the hardware probably works pretty well. And most importantly, it probably works with the computers and operating systems available right now.
I ended up going with the Hauppauge HD PVR 2 Gaming Edition Plus. That’s a mouthful of a product name, but this box had two key features going for it: (1) It was compatible with relatively old-school component video cables used by my VCR/DVD-recorder and (2) it could be used on a Mac.
Step 4: Make Sure You’ve Got the Right Wires
Remember, signal quality is everything. So make sure you’re using the best available connections. Don’t worry about expensive, high-end cables (e.g. Monster brand). They don’t actually make much of a difference. The key here is to use the best output technology your device is capable of.
Most old video cameras and VCRs attach to televisions and other devices with three “RCA style” connector cables—one yellow, one white, and one red. This format is called composite video. (Technically, the white and red connectors are for audio; only the yellow connector carries the video signal.)
Some VCRs and cameras are compatible with a slightly better format known as S-Video. You can recognize this format by the much larger jack with spaces for four tiny pins instead of a single prong. If your playback and capture devices are both capable of S-Video, you should use that instead of composite. (The HD PVR 2 can handle S-Video, but you need an adapter sold separately.)
In my case, I used the standard red and white audio cables to connect my camera to the VCR/DVD-recorder. For video, I opted for S-Video since both the camera and the VCR/DVD-recorder supported it.
To connect the VCR/DVD-recorder to the capture device, I opted to use component video cables, which are the next step up in terms of quality (right before the now-ubiquitous HDMI on the spectrum). As I mentioned above, the HD PVR 2 supports this format out of the box. And, somewhat to my surprise, my VCR/DVD-recorder is able to take in a composite video signal and re-output it as component. (This is interesting because it can’t output its own VCR signal in this way. For that, you must use composite.)
Anyway, you can recognize component video by the color of its jacks/connectors: red, green, and blue. In most setups, these three connectors are combined with the traditional red and white audio connectors for a total of five cables. I connected the combo unit to the HD PVR 2 using these five cables (which I already had and are probably still available at most electronics stores) and the included component video adapter.
(Hint: If all you’ve got around the house/apartment are a random bunch of mis-matched cables, the colors on the cables themselves don’t actually matter. As long as you always connect the same color jack on one device to the same color jack on the other, it’ll work out just fine!)
Finally, you’ll need a USB cable to hook the capture box up to your computer. This will probably come in the box. The HD PVR 2 connects via a standard USB-A port (the old-school rectangular kind). If all you have on your computer are USB-C ports (the small kind that people frequently complain about on Apple’s laptops), you may need an adapter.
At this point, you should have all the equipment you need. Your next steps will depend on what capture box you chose and what kind of software it comes with. From here on out, I’ll assume you’re using the same equipment as I am: an HD PVR 2 connected to a Mac.
I’ll explain all the gritty details of how to capture and clean up your videos in my next two posts!
Until then, good luck shopping and/or sleuthing!
Do you have a capture device that worked well for you? Tell folks about in the comments!