How to Get the Best Images Digitizing SD Video

Posted on by Larry

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:

  1. The audio and video output from the playback device
  2. The quality of the timebase corrector between the output device and the recording device
  3. The device used to convert analog to digital images
  4. The codec used to record the newly-digitized images

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.

AUDIO OUTPUT

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.

VIDEO OUTPUT

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.

DIGITIZATION

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.

SUMMARY

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. ]


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14 Responses to How to Get the Best Images Digitizing SD Video

  1. Tod Hopkins says:

    Assuming you already have computer-based edit system, you can simplify this scenario using the Blackmagic Intensity Pro ($200) which has component and SPDIF inputs. This replaces both the Teradex Mini and the Hyperdeck. You will still want a VHS with component out and TBC if you can get your hands on one. If you can’t, take the composite output of any deck(VHS is actually composite native) and run it through a stand-alone TBC or “VHS Stabilizer.” Even the cheap versions of these will significantly improve the signal.

    • Larry says:

      Tod:

      Thanks for this tip. The Teranex provides two big benefits: TBC (time-base correction) and high-quality up-rezing).

      I can’t stress enough the importance of using a TBC when digitizing analog media.

      Larry

  2. Richard Chambers says:

    Thanks Larry. Very helpful as usual. But I’m a little confused on the issue of whether to convert interlaced video to progressive. I recently converted a couple of hundred Hi8mm tapes to ProRes files using a Digital 8 camcorder. I found one of your old articles on converting interlaced videos and you said to leave them interlaced or lose half the quality which I found to be true. So today’s advice to make them progressive makes me wonder? Are you talking about this only when using the Teranex converter? I always enjoy your weekly newsletters, thanks.

    • Larry says:

      Richard:

      One of the benefits to the Teranex, as I understand it, it that it interpolates, using hardware, the missing lines of video.

      You are correct, most software simply removes every other line, then duplicates the line above it. Some software attempts to guess at what the missing lines are, but I have not found their results particularly successful.

      The Teranex is legendary for its ability to deinterlace video. It started life as a $90,000 “magic box”. Then, Blackmagic acquired it and made its power much more reasonably priced.

      Larry

      • Kym says:

        Good and relevant article – thanks. But… I have started “processing” some 170 PAL DV tapes. Now… From FCP v1.2 and beyond – including your days of “The DV Guys” – the task was to digitise the footage as a DV stream onto storage as .DV or .mov. Then you could edit.
        Soooo… that’s what I have started to do for my tapes – FireWire out of a DV deck to an aging MacPro as PAL SD 720×576 interlaced .mov files with the DV codec – about 12gb per hour. The thinking was to retain the original stream – and work from there – deinterlace with software – maybe upres to ProRes 720p as a master – for viewing and/or editing at some point.
        From your article my question is – what now?
        Do I abandon my original thinking and re-run all of the tapes as per your advice? So component out of the DV deck etc to ProRes 720p25 files.
        OR
        Do I continue with my thinking – digitise all tapes from DV deck to .mov 576i25 DV codec – and then deinterlace and upres these files in software? And if so – can ANYONE help with software (paid or free) that does this job really well? I have struggled with Google searches on this – lots of options and claims – but little clarity.
        Help. And thanks in advance. 🙂
        (Sorry for long post)

        • Larry says:

          Kym:

          DV is not the same as VHS. VHS is an analog signal. DV is already digital. Firewire is simply a transfer protocol to move the files from the DV deck to your computer.

          What you are doing is perfect. Though you will be unhappy with up-resing these files. De-interlacing will reduce image quality. Up-resing will reduce it further. Experiment to see what works for you.

          But I totally agree with how you are transferring files from DV tape to your computer.

          Larry

  3. Craig Seeman says:

    As an alternative to the gear you mention I wonder how this Magewell AIO device faires. It’s about $619 at B&H and seems to have some TBC like functions.
    http://www.magewell.com/products/usb-capture-aio#detail_feature

    • Larry says:

      Craig:

      My deepest regret about not being vastly wealthy is that I can’t buy all the gear that’s out there. (Though my wife would point out that I sure do have a lot…)

      Anyway, I have not played with the Magewell. Perhaps another reader has an opinion.

      Larry

  4. Larry says:

    Hi Larry,

    Can you recommend a Mini DV deck that would be compatible with the 2 Teranex units you indicated in the article. I don’t know of any with composite or XLR outputs. Thanks in advance.

    • Larry says:

      Larry:

      Yup – it’s tricky. The Sony DSR-11 (which I used to own) has S-video output. There are converters (for about $70) that convert S-Video to Component. eBay has several DSR-11s for around $500.

      But, if you can rent, or buy, a higher-end DSR unit, like the Sony DSR-3500, that provides component and XLR outputs. That would be my recommendation.

      Larry

  5. Boyd Hillestad says:

    If we are talking about component video from VHS or S-VHS, for clarity the best you will find is S-Video or Y/C.

    One thing that has not been addressed is extended play tapes, here a separate TBC needs to be used with a deck that has the ability to play it back and you will be connecting via composite. It should be noted that decks with built-in TBC’s are for Standard Play (2 hr. record time setting on T120 tapes) recordings only, I have yet to come across a deck with the ability to play long play or extended play tapes with this feature.

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