|I've spoken before of my father's VHS
tape collection, but I don't think I've ever communicated
the scope of how big it is. The truth is I might have not
been aware of its true size myself until recently.
I started digitizing my dad's tapes in 2005 when VCR-to-DVD combo machines started hitting the market. Longtime readers know I've mined the collection for various articles like the Chico and the Man page. The shrinkage in required storage space was dramatic, but eventually, even this wasn't enough: I had to stop for a few years because I simply had accumulated too many discs, and I wasn't even 5% finished.
I couldn't resume again until technology advanced further, and spacious portable hard drives became affordable. Now that I'm seriously knee-deep in his collection, you deserve an update. The short of it is that it's completely and absolutely bonkers, but for the full story....
My dad was (and still is) a hoarder,
and not just one of junk mail and plastic cups, but of
media. He taped every single thing he ever watched. He
was one of the early adopters of VHS, starting in
September of 1980, and recorded something every day since
then. (Dad claims he started earlier, but the earliest
tape I've ever found in his basement was recorded
9-1980.) He'd stick a Post-It on the sleeve, write in
pencil the contents and the date, label it "TIME
CAPSULE" and start another one.
I asked Dad a few times why he did it
-- it wasn't like he would ever have time to watch a
collection like this. His reasons varied over the years,
but one thing he said was that he originally assumed
nuclear war was going to wipe out the country and that
his tapes could be the only record of our culture. I said
in response I could see him in a bunker, finally
preparing to watch all these tapes, and then trip over
his VCR and break it. "No, no, that's not fair!
That's not fair -- there was TIME NOW! There was
What it took to make saving all of Dad's tapes practical was 2TB portable hard drives becoming small enough to fit in the palm of your hand and affordable enough to be had for less than $100 apiece. The moment that happened, I stockpiled my apartment with VCRs from flea markets and garage sales, because results tended to vary between them. One tape might have better tracking on the Sony machine I got for $5 from a neighbor's yard, while another might play better on my parents' old VCR-DVD combo unit (the one that required warming up for a half-hour or the picture would be slightly distorted).
I've been digitizing almost daily now. I record them in two-hour blocks, then play each block back at 10x speed and make notes on anything interesting that pops up. You might think it's a chore, but it's not. Sometimes the highlight of my day is popping in another one of Dad's tapes. You can go to YouTube and look up old VHS stuff, sure, but the feeling does NOT compare to picking up a mystery box, sticking it in a machine and having no idea what it's about to produce. Ever since I started converting my dad's life's work to digital, every day has been Christmas. I've borne witness to a whirlwind of pop culture, rare moments of history, intense nostalgia, and insane kitsch the likes of which you could not fathom in your wildest dreams. This is some of what I've found THIS WEEK ALONE:
If you don't think weird TV moments
like these are as awesome as I do, we can never get
He really claims to have every single Entertainment Tonight going back to the show's beginning in September 1981. I haven't found proof of this yet, but I have found ETs going back many years, whole episodes and partial episodes, from nearly every day. And it's interesting...you couldn't pay me to watch a current episode of ET, but boy, do they age well. Seeing your favorite movies open for the first time, hearing news about celebrities knowing what's in their future (whether good or horrific), all the stories and lines that become hilarious in retrospect....it is an absolute BLAST.
In fact he didn't just tape
Entertainment Tonight, but CNN's Showbiz Today (for as
long as it lasted), the nightly news both local and
national, and whatever else he found interesting. He
didn't tape very many prime-time network shows because he
was more of a PBS man. But just so you don't accuse him
of being highbrow, he's also got every America's Funniest
People. (I missed the Jackalope more than I realized.)
The partial episodes are a real bear. Sometimes Dad was gifted at guessing which moments would be historical treasures, and sometimes he wasn't. As if to torment me in twenty years, he always taped the opening segment of a newsmagazine show even if he did not tape all the individual segments advertised. A PM Magazine from 1990 had an early interview with Matt Groening, right when The Simpsons started airing. Dad cut the segment out (but he left in the weekly restaurant review!) Another local show had a 1993 episode featuring a tour of Nintendo headquarters. I do not have it, because at the same time on another channel, Hard Copy was running a story on a nudist colony. Yeah.
Then there's the period from 1990 through 1992, in which Dad would tape a few days' worth of material, then come back two months later and tape over portions of it with other material. He says he's forgotten why he did this, but whatever the reason, it resulted in a tangled mess that can only be navigated through the instant access and search capabilities of digital video. On tape it would have been impossible.
I wonder who Ann was.
Technology has finally made storing
10,000 VHS tapes' worth of video possible. Now the
problem has become getting them there.
Most people would probably throw it out, which is a mistake, because it's not that big a deal. I don't know what this white stuff is, all I know is that it grows on VHS tape spools if they're left in the basement for a long time. Google tells me nothing, so I've never attempted to eat it. I clean them by using a "dummy" VCR to rewind the tape thoroughly, which gets the crud off the spool. Then I open up the top and dust off the excess powder. The tape now works.
I've even saved tapes where the end snapped off after rewinding. Opening them up and rethreading them is very easy once you know how; this YouTube video will make you an instant expert. Out of the hundreds of VHSes I've borrowed, only a handful have been too far gone to save.
The best-quality era I've found by far
is 1988. I put Dad's 1-1-88 Entertainment Tonight tape
into the Sony, clicked "RECORD" on the PC
capture software, and was suddenly blown off my ass by
the theme song in razor-sharp, perfectly clear stereo.
STEREO! I've NEVER run across a VHS recording in stereo
this early! I was too used to muffled mono representing
this time period. It turned out Dad had bought a new
high-end VCR with Christmas money at that point, and
according to him, he never had any knowledge he was
taping in stereo. But he was!
The tracking lines I could deal with, the bad audio was another entirely. Hi-fi recordings actually taped the sound twice: once in the hi-fi section of the track (which could pack more data into a smaller space) and once on the original mono section. The mono track is much less prone to degradation, but it meant losing the precious stereo. I looked around online for any other option, but turned up empty. I had to use the mono track -- which, as it turned out, not every VCR was good at reading well!
Often I would have to pick between bad
sound or bad tracking. The Sony was best at finding a
balance between the two, but it also was the worst at
displaying on-screen text. Every minute or so on one of
the Sony-captured videos, the word "MONO"
appears, just to let you know YET AGAIN what mode the
sound output is currently in. There was no method of
turning it off.
At this point, with no end in sight, I thought it might be a good idea to make a serious investment and buy a new VCR (they still make them, after all) instead of wrestling with flea market units all the time. So I did a little research and found out....it would do me no good, because they don't really MAKE "good ones" anymore. To get the best picture out of a VHS tape, especially the EP variety, you need a rarely utilized technology called TBC, or Time Base Correction. TBC automatically stabilizes the picture and keeps it from jumping, among other things. And it's something they only put into a few high-end VCRs before the format became obsolete.
I Googled a list of best VCRs in existence and found one being sold on eBay in a town next to mine. One trip to Scappoose later I was now the owner of a big, shiny JVC DH-30000U, whose powers are demonstrated by the British chap in the video above. It was created to serve the experiment of high-definition VHS, which was an actual thing I did not know existed until I bought a machine that played them. It not only does TBC, but a ton of other acronyms. It's possible to get an EP-recorded picture to look close to DVD quality with this. It's about as advanced as a dedicated VHS player got.
Problem solved, right? Ha ha, no. The picture was great; I couldn't complain. It was the sound that was still giving me trouble. It was too quiet on the tapes I was transferring, and I asked the guy who sold it to me what the problem was. He suggested, "Try connecting the VCR to a TV and see if it's still that quiet." He was right -- on the TV, it sounded much better. On a test recording made by the $80 capture device, it still sounded quiet. It was the capture card, dangit.
What to do now? The man said he knew exactly what I needed: the ADVC 110, the most advanced video capture device on the market. Great....MORE money to spend. I scoured eBay desperately for one under $200, but upon closer inspection, noticed something important: the device would only connect via Firewire, which was a port they stopped putting into PCs years ago. It also, apparently, had NO competitors near its level -- unless I was willing to take the chance on an experimental device that required a USB 3.0 port and didn't work on half the PCs in the world. If you want to do this right, they do not make it easy!
Upon hearing how obsolete the ADVC 110 was, the guy said "Sorry, that's the extent of my advice. You'll just have to experiment." And he knew a lot, so this was bad.
I took a trip to Best Buy and purchased the video capture device that was $10 more than the one I was relying on. If it didn't work, I could just take it back, I guess. It worked well enough -- the main difference was there was a volume level control on its software, so if a tape's mono track was too quiet, I could fix that in real time. It was also glitchier than the previous capture device and gave a pop noise every three minutes in the audio. But all other options are worse!
What I've found is that, aside from this one obscure box that I can't plug in, nobody puts any effort into making a high-quality VHS capture card because the number of people that would demand a spotless performance are niche enough for everybody to slack off on it. So, thirty years from now when the best options become even older, when not a single JVC DH-30000 works in the world and somebody finds an old VHS they need to digitize...sucks to be them. The window is only going to get smaller.
One final development. On my most recent trip to Dad's to get some more tapes, I discovered something new: he was moving. Dad hasn't done a thing to improve his house in 30 years -- combine that with his hoarding habit, and the sight (and smell) inside would make anyone let out a Tress MacNeille scream. I had been dreading the day when I had to inherit this house because I figured nobody on Earth would buy it....that is, until gentrification.
It's a wreck, and it's also two blocks from a major street that was a dive in the 70's when my parents bought the house but is now a tourist mecca in one of the trendiest cities on Earth. Combine this with a ridiculously inflated housing market, and unbelievably, we've hit the one moment in history where Dad stands to earn so much from the sale of this house, he'll be able to buy ANOTHER house with the profits. And, he tells me, the dwelling he has his eye on has an even bigger basement than his current one!
I was worried about losing the tapes before I was done, but it shouldn't be a problem, right? Well. Dad also told me some volunteers would be coming over at some point to clear out all the trash he's hoarded over the decades. Alarms went off in my head and I told him, "You need to tell them to CHECK EVERY BOX and if the box has tapes inside, to LEAVE IT ALONE. Seriously. This is very important. Tell them NOT TO THROW OUT ANY TAPES." I repeated this several times, and when I left I repeated it again. There was still a chance he would forget to tell them, or that he would be asleep or something when they showed up.
Did it happen? Would thousands of hours of priceless footage be lost? Was all my work and expense finding the best digitization method spent for nothing?
Dunno. That was last Monday. This is where we leave this story. Sorry for the cliffhanger.
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