Ready? It’s throwback time. Recently I had a relative pass away – sorry to kick things off on a downer – and inherited 27 VHS tapes from the late 80’s that hadn’t seen the light of day in decades. Naturally I wanted to see what was on these relics and use them in the memorial video. Having lived in the machine room of a trailer house for a couple of years as an assistant editor, I’m no stranger to digitizing tapes, but came to realize that using prosumer equipment to digitize old tapes can have its issues. After persevering, here’s a post on how to convert VHS tapes to digital video.
VHS Glitch Effect Pack
Halfway through capturing these tapes I kept noticing some really cool glitches. So I recorded them and built Premiere Pro presets around them. I realize glitches – VHS ones in particular – are in vogue, but hey, it was fun to do. I ultimately ended up with 47 organic glitch effects and presets, as well as 6 static loops. Snag a copy for yourself and you’ll also help my local food bank with their Covid-19 response effort.
The Parts List
Capture [ 1 ]
When capturing, the most important thing you need is a solid capture device. There are a lot of options on the market for this job (see AJA), but Blackmagic’s Intensity Shuttle has been around for a while and is a bang-up choice for capturing video from VCRs, DVDs, Blu-Rays, video game consoles, you name it. I like that it’s a bit of a swiss army knife and can flip the other way and display content from your computer onto screens and other devices. The shuttle comes in USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt flavors and is very budget friendly. If going the Thunderbolt route, you may need a TB2 to TB3 dongle.
Another solid choice is Blackmagic’s H.264 Pro Recorder. This sweet little square piece of hardware converts your captured video directly into a space-saving, easy-to-watch, H.264 .mov file. No transcoding necessary.
Playback [ 2 ]
This is obvious, but you’ll need something to playback the VHS tapes (see, obvious). A VCR is a great (and the only) choice, but you might hit a slight roadblock when trying to land a VCR though. The last one was made in 2016… Thank you eBay!
Compute [ 3 ]
Another obvious piece – you’ll need a computer. Mac or PC, it doesn’t matter.
Cables [ 4 ]
Composite RCA cables are a must and you might even need a HDMI cable. Why HDMI you ask?
Surprise [ 5 ]
After initially trying to record VHS tapes straight through the Blackmagic Shuttle, I saw a lot of dropped black frames.
At times the black frames were so bad the video was basically unwatchable. The dropouts also seemed tape dependent and cleaning the VCR didn’t help. I hit the internets in full on research mode, discovering this is an issue caused by damaged timecode on the tape. That’s overly simplified, but serves you well enough to know there didn’t seem like an easy fix. After puzzling on the issue for days I wanted to try converting the analogue RCA signal to a digital before it entered the Shuttle, so I picked up one of these little guys for a whopping $12 and it saved the day.
The GANA AV2HDMI converter/scaler changes the SD analogue signal into either a 720p or 1080p HD signal. The only downside, is it stretches the video into a new aspect ratio. If you don’t mind this, great. If you do, it’s easy enough to squeeze it back in the edit bay. So if you see black frames when capturing from a VCR with the Blackmagic Intensity Shuttle, this is the fix for you.
To run any of the Blackmagic hardware, you’ll need to download and install Blackmagic’s Desktop Video software bundle. It’ll come with a couple of programs – Desktop Video Setup for changing the settings of the capture device and Media Express for recording.
All NLE’s have the ability to capture from tapes, with the right hardware, but Blackmagic’s Media Express software is bare bones and easy to use – that’s why I opted to use it.
After connecting all the equipment together, I set the GANA converter to 720p, and my capture settings on both Desktop Video and Media Express to 720p60. A good codec option for the capture is any flavor of Motion JPEG or Apple Prores, if available.
Insert tape. Push play. Hit capture.
It really is that easy. A couple of notes on the Media Express software: You create a clip name by typing in the “Description” field then clicking the plus icon, and you select what you’re capturing by clicking “V”, “1”, “2”, etc on the bottom right of the program window for video, audio channel 1 and audio channel 2, respectively.
Yes, this post wasn’t exactly editing-centric, but you can use this principle to capture media from just about any source and turn it into video that you can edit to your heart’s delight. Thanks for reading and please don’t forget to grab the Better Editor VHS Glitch Effects and Presets Pack to help support Tarrant Area Food Bank!