John sent me a question:
I need to convert old VHS and personal DVDs to digital files that I can edit in Final Cut or Premiere. What hardware do you advise so I can get the best quality. I have a 2013 Mac Pro and plenty of storage.
Legacy media is still part of our daily life. But converting analog video to digital is getting increasingly difficult as the gear we need to play it slowly dies. Still, there is great technology out there that allows us to convert and capture older media, so I thought it would be worthwhile to revisit this topic.
There are lots of inexpensive ways to digitize home movies. But, I wanted to concentrate on getting the BEST images – which can’t be done cheaply.
It is easy to get confused with all the choices out there, but, if preserving and maximizing audio and image quality is your goal – and I think it should be – here’s what affects image and audio quality when doing these sorts of transfers, listed in priority:
Everything else is a wash; well… assuming the VHS deck doesn’t eat your tapes.
Quality starts at the beginning of the chain, not salvaged at the end. As well, you need to look at each step and make sure you are maintaining quality.
VHS decks were designed as consumer gear. They tend not to have high-end connectors. Still, XLR connectors provide higher-quality (i.e. no hum or buzz) than RCA connectors.
XLR connectors use shielding to prevent hum and noise from entering the audio signal. RCA connectors are more popular, but tend to be noisy – especially when the length of the cable is more than a few inches. XLRs connect directly into the digitizing device, which I’ll cover shortly. (RCA connectors need a special cable with RCA on one end and XLR on the other.)
DVD decks may have XLR connections, but AES/EBU connections will also work. Either of these deliver the highest quality audio, with no hum or buzz added to it.
There are four popular video connections:
Ideally, use gear that provides component connections, because this means that each color channel – red, green, blue – has it’s own dedicated “pipe.” S-Video pretty good, too, but avoid, if at all possible, composite video.
HDMI signals can easily be converted into media files using inexpensive converter boxes. However, most VHS decks were released before HDMI was invented. So, while you’ll often find HDMI on DVD decks, you won’t find them on VHS.
Component or S-Video signals require a bit more gear but yield great images; well, as great as VHS can reproduce. Remember, you are working with source images that are 720 x 480 pixels – so there isn’t a lot of there there.
TIMEBASE CORRECTORS (TBC)
This is the essential component. VHS signals are inherently unstable. The decks were designed, remember, for casual consumer consumption.
A timebase corrector stabilizes the signal, gets rid of the jitter at the bottom of the frame, cleans up color fringing, decreases the blur around moving objects and, in general, turns a really poor image into something worth watching.
I used a deck with a built-in TBC when I transferred most of my VHS library to digital a few years ago and the difference when using a TBC was amazing!
Some VHS decks include a built-in TBC. Since no one is making VHS decks anymore, that I know of, they can be rented from many video rental houses or purchased on eBay. I don’t have a recommendation for a deck.
Blackmagic Design Teranex Mini – link.
But, in the event you can’t find a VHS deck with a TBC, consider using a Blackmagic Design Teranex Mini Analog to SDI converter. This converts component video to SDI, cleans up the signal, and, if necessary, up-converts it to 720p or 1080p.
NOTE: For the best images, always convert SD video, which is interlaced, to progressive.
If you are recording an HDMI source signal, use the Teranex Mini HDMI to SDI (link). In both cases, the XLR cables from your VHS/DVD deck connect directly into the Teranex. The Teranex can also handle AES/EBU audio.
NOTE: SDI combines the audio and the video elements into a single, high-quality, digital video stream.
There are a number of low-cost digitizers on the market. The problem is that they all convert video into H.264. H.264 is a codec with even less color than SD video. So, after working to get great image quality out of the VHS or DVD deck, you throw it away by converting into H.264.
If all you want is to preserve home movies, H.264 is fine. If you want to do more with the video – especially if you want to edit it – H.264 is insufficient. A much better format to use is ProRes 422. This preserves all the image and color data from the source, while providing an easy-to-edit media file that can be edited in any NLE for both Mac and Windows.
NOTE: Storing one hour of NTSC or PAL SD video using ProRes 422 requires 18 GB. SD video plays at 5.25 MB/second, so high-speed storage is not essential.
Blackmagic Design Hyperdeck Studio Mini – link
If you are using the Teranex Mini, take the SDI out and connect it to a Blackmagic Design Hyperdeck Studio Mini. This will record a ProRes 422 signal which can be transferred when recording is complete via USB-C to your computer.
NOTE: I used four HyperDecks in my video studio a few years ago and liked them a lot.
Once the ProRes file is recorded on your Hyperdeck, its a standard digital media file, like the kind you work with everyday.
The hardest part of this process will be finding a VHS deck with component outputs. After that, the Teranex Mini costs $495 and the Hyperdeck Studio Mini costs $695.
Yes, you can do this cheaper and for many cheaper is fine. But, if you want the best possible audio and video, this would be a conversion system I recommend.
As with all media projects, test your workflow and talk with the folks at Blackmagic to be sure that what you want to do can be done.
[ General disclosure: This isn’t a review. Blackmagic did not ask me to write it and I have not directly tested all this gear. No money changed hands. John asked me an interesting question and I spent a fun couple of hours researching the answers. ]
NEW & Updated!
Edit smarter with Larry’s latest training, all available in our store.