Antiquities: Incredible Video Cassette

    Now, in 2019, the video cassette has lost all relevance. When a year ago I decided to digitize my old recordings, and not without difficulty brought a picture from a VCR to a modern meter LCD panel, it was an experience comparable to listening to 78-speed gramophone records. Perhaps no old analogue medium shares this abyss with the modern version: you can achieve very decent sound from audio cassettes, some reel tape recorders consider the standard of warm-tube sound. Photo and film are still used by photographers and mainstream directors.

    Therefore, the main reason to write this article was memory. The VCR in many families in the nineties was the first artifact of the new world. A VCR, and someone else also had a video camera, recorded moments of our lives, the media of that time, and now, a quarter of a century later, for the first time I was watching these recordings not with a slight sense of awkwardness, but with interest. Enough time has passed so that it would be interesting to brush off the dust from the abandoned cassettes, get a working apparatus and briefly give a soapy video a second life. For comparison with modern digital video, and to capture the details of this unique experience in interacting with analog technology (have not been forgotten yet). Well, just like that, for nostalgia for young times.

    The diary of a collector of old pieces of iron I keep in real time in a Telegram.

    My acquaintance with home video equipment begins in 1992, and this means that I missed half the history of the format. Video Home System tape recorders went on sale in 1976. VHS successfully survived the format war with Sony Betamax and the less well-known Video 2000 standard (there is good video about it on the Techmoan channel ), it replaced the older cassette technologies of the early seventies. The reasons for the success of VHS - originally used for lshaya recording time per cassette, as compared to the Betamax, and successful business decisions, for example - the rental market video recorders (not just the tapes). This option made the expensive device more affordable, and most importantly - the manufacturer took the risk of failure of initially not the most reliable devices.

    The development of all these formats, in principle, became possible after solving the problem of recording a large amount of information on magnetic tape. Early attempts to adapt the mechanism of a reel tape recorder with fixed magnetic heads to this task were unsuccessful: the tape had to be passed through the mechanism literally kilometers per hour. A rotating drum with two (or more) magnetic heads, located at an angle, allowed more efficient use of the entire area of ​​the magnetic tape. The oblique-line recording method , invented in the fifties, is still used in tape drives.

    In the nineties of the last century, VCRs reached us in a mature form: compact, functional and quite reliable. An example of “how it used to be” was the legendary Soviet VCR Electron VM-12 : a huge, not inferior in size to Soviet TVs, with a vertical loading of the cassette (horizontal requires more moving parts), with manual tuning of the received channels and mechanical switches between them. I also had a high-quality four-headed Toshiba V-312G video recorder , with fast rewind of the tape (important for regular customers of video rental) and wide programming capabilities for recording offline.

    But the TV was still Soviet, which caused two problems. Firstly, this “Horizon” did not have a composite video input, and the tape recorder was connected to the antenna input, with a slight loss in quality. Secondly, the image was black and white: the TV understood only the French (and Soviet) SECAM color TV standard , while most video tapes were recorded in the PAL standard. The purchase of the PAL / SECAM decoder was funded through the sale of vouchers .

    In comparison with on-air TV, the quality of the picture on the video cassette seemed divine. But the biggest thing was the new horizons of content consumption: You can watch any kind of movie, anytime, and no longer depend on the program guide. Video rentals that appeared at the same time offered a typical assortment of 3-4 hundred cassettes, each usually had two films, and for the first few weeks it was normal to take three cassettes at once (and watch them until the morning). Recording your own video was initially in the background, although it was thanks to it that a video cassette became a mass home video format in the late twentieth century, and not laser video discs .

    Later, films on TV began to be recorded on blank tapes (or how lucky), and here it was possible to experiment with the "long" recording format. Compared to standard SP quality (tape speed 2.34 centimeters per second, slightly faster in countries with NTSC format), LP mode doubled the standard cassette capacity - instead of three hours, six could be recorded, with a tolerable loss in image quality and a significant deterioration in quality sound. The process took place in real time: you had to remember to pause recording during ad units. Now the priorities are different: the same films and music programs are usually available in much better quality, and commercials would be more interesting to watch.

    Back to the Future

    Last year, I bought the relatively modern LG L274 VCR. The model of the beginning of the two thousandth era of a sharp decline in the popularity of video tapes. This is noticeable: a simple design, in principle, there is no display on the case, information is displayed only on top of the video on the TV screen. At the same time, on the technical side, this is a very perfect implementation of the VHS standard. Connecting to a modern LCD TV at first was unsuccessful: the image regularly disappeared, as if there was a bad contact somewhere. But that is not the point: inherently digital devices expect accurate frame synchronization. To output to new TVs, an additional device known as Time Base Corrector is required . In fact, it re-synchronizes the video signal, so that modern devices (including video capture cards) do not go crazy.

    In fairness, some devices for capturing analog video (and TVs too) correct errors in the signal themselves, but not in my case. Professional proofreaders are expensive, but there is a simple and budgetary way to combine the old and the new: a DVD recorder. They are now sometimes sold cheaper than VCRs, and completely solve the problem. I had to add the LG DRK898 DVD recorder to the collection of rarities, which is now completely irrelevant due to the lack of an HDMI output. I did not use it for recording: I just connected a VCR to it on the one hand, and on the other a TV and an external Blackmagic Intensity Shuttle video capture card. I used OBS Studio to digitize the video .

    Before enjoying a warm tube video, let's take a look inside. It is interesting that nine years ago I already posted an article on Habré about analysis of a VCR - but then it was still a little useless piece of iron from the recent past, without a special nostalgic component. A feature of the mechanism of the VCR (and any device with a drum rotating head for writing and reading) is the need to pull the tape out of the cassette to provide the necessary area for the heads to fit on the tape.

    Inside, in addition to the main head, there is one more (not counting the uninteresting erasing head in front of the drum). She writes tape and a technical track to synchronize the video signal. Due to the fact that the speed of the tape is slower than even a compact cassette, the sound quality of VHS never differed (especially in Long Play mode), until the invention of VHS Hi-Fi.

    I wanted to compare the quality of modern video, and the quality of VHS is the same as I did for the old camera on floppy disks . Take high-quality digital video in 4K format, record it on a video tape, digitize it back, and compare. There is one more problem here: now we shoot and watch video in 16: 9 widescreen format (for cinema, it can be even “longer”). VHS was created under the television frame ratio of 4: 3. To write video with black stripes on a video cassette means to reduce the already low vertical resolution (576 visible lines for the PAL standard). Because of this, most of the branded video cassettes with movies was a version adapted for the TV, where part of the “wide” frame was simply discarded. As a source I took from here free video:

    The size of the source file is 95 megabytes, the duration is 32 seconds, the resolution is 4K. Enough details to make the comparison clear. There is no sound in the video, so I not only trimmed it to 4: 3, but also added a music track from a free library. In the video above, the frame is divided into two parts. On the left is the original, on the right is export to MPEG2 in DVD quality with a fairly high bitrate. A drop in resolution is already noticeable, but believe me, it will be much worse further. I cut a disc from a DVD source, insert it into a DVD player and rewrite it onto a tape recorder.

    Here it is, our soapy youth! In the process, I probably made some mistakes that slightly affected the quality. First of all, the difference in the refresh rate of the frames is noticeable. The source at 24 frames per second is transformed into the standard 25 frames per second for the PAL standard, digitized with a frame rate of 60 frames per second. Because of this, in the process of digitization and further upscale to 4K resolution, these twitching artifacts appear on the VHS half of the video. But to compare the quality of the "video now" and "video then" is quite possible. Despite the shoals of my method, this is probably one of the best options for recording on a tape.

    In the reality of the nineties, we either rewrote one tape to another with a mandatory loss of quality, or we wrote from an on-air TV that did not differ in quality at all (a separate quest is to place the antenna correctly relative to the nearest TV tower). The highest-class videocassette video was considered a copy from a laser disc, not a digital format, but at least not subject to degradation. "Laser copies" were separately advertised by movie tape sellers. In video rentals, usually something like a tenth copy from the screen was available, with people walking in front of the screen, offscreen laughter and a one-voiced creative translation.

    VHS sunset and ghosts from the past
    The digital standard DVD (went on sale in 1997) is considered to be the killer of VCRs, but in my case, the computer video of the beginning of the two thousandths immediately replaced the video cassettes. First, on a CD in Mpeg4 format, a little later, with the advent of dedicated Internet, it became possible to completely abandon the physical medium. The second decade of the twenty-first century makes even the storage of videos offline optional: everything can be viewed directly from the network.

    I simply skipped several stages of the development of the video cassette. This is, for example, the 1987 S-VHS Enhanced Format . Unfortunately, I was not able to use the popular system for recording data on the Arvid VCR , and if you examine this side of VHS, then it is definitely worthy of a separate material. At the very sunset of the format, at the beginning of the two thousandth, there was a rather exotic standard D-VHS . The Super VHS mechanism was used in the tape recorders of the system, but data was written to the tape - up to 50 gigabytes per tape. This, before the advent of Blu-ray and HD-DVD in 2006, was the only way to watch movies in high definition (not counting the even more exotic MUSE LD format on laser discs).

    Perhaps the most useful upgrade for a traditional VCR was stereo recording support. To do this, two more magnetic heads were added to the drum of the tape recorder (six in total), which wrote high-quality sound in parallel with the video. The VHS Hi-Fi standard specifications are listed here : a dynamic range of up to 80dB is less than the theoretical ceiling of a CD (96dB), but noticeably higher than that of a compact cassette. The most interesting thing is that VHS Hi-Fi is an analog audio recording format that, by its characteristics, approaches good reel tape recorders. It is cheaper, but in reality, the implementation of the electrical circuit in a particular VCR can affect the sound quality. But they were not created in order to rewrite vinyl on them. But there is an opportunity!

    Well, in my case, the VCR is primarily a time machine 25 years ago. Sorting out old cassettes is a rather time-consuming process. There is no way to quickly scan the recording, and the contentfor the most part not interesting: films and television series in rather dull quality. If they are recorded neatly, then in your hands most likely there will be a bad copy of what can be downloaded on the Internet. The most interesting part begins when some kind of malfunction occurs during the recording process 25 years ago. On one tape I have recorded the air of one channel with sound from another. How did it happen? Secret! On the other - a recording of the series, made autonomously, which means there is brain-breaking advertising and other interesting artifacts of the nineties. The video above is an example of such an “oversight” of the operator. It allows you to evaluate the quality of recording on a frail antenna, and in the end there is an example of what happens when one record is written on top of another. It is useful to look at all the cassettes closer to the end - there may be a fragment of the previous record, which will be more interesting than the main content.

    Of course, the most interesting are your own recordings from a VHS-camcorder. Unlike competing standards ( Video8 , for example), recording from such a camera could be viewed at home directly on the VCR. A small cartridge lasting 45 or 60 minutes was inserted into the adapter, where the tape was pulled out for use in a home device. In practice, all that is preserved is the second and third copies from the original. The compact VHS-C cassette was usually available in a single copy, and after the next session it was necessary to reset the survey to a large cassette. In the video above, I cut out pieces from my own video. The sound removed, it is terrible.

    For a long time, these records were not of particular interest. They shot videos because there was a video camera, and did not think abouthow to shoot . As a result, the archives contain feasts, vacation shots with long panoramas of beauty and excessive use of zoom. My cartridges needed to lie down, and now it’s interesting: a city without cars, and if they come across, it’s mainly domestic production. Houses without siding, streets without advertising. Apartments with Soviet furniture, and relatives, young, and you yourself are not old.

    Analog media has a big advantage: if you do not throw them thoughtlessly, they lie and wait in the wings, and accidentally spoiling such a record is very difficult. There is no culture of storing digital sketches of our lives yet, we often rely on popular social services, which, alas, are not eternal, and certainly are not concerned about the storage of your data for many years. A video cassette in our country has gone from an insanely expensive toy to a universal standard for home video. Then for many years she was gathering dust in a closet, and only now it is turning into an incredible time machine. A quarter century is a long time. Looking through notes from the past, I made many discoveries, found pictures that I had already completely forgot about. And now I’m thinking about whether it’s possible to create an analogue of such a time capsule in a digital environment, record time, and leave it in storage,

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