Stories from the Past – 2″ Video Tape [u]

[Updated Feb. 26, 2024, with a second story.]

Last week, Gary Weimberg posted a tribute to Robert Dalva, the man who invented the video editing timeline. That sparked a whole series of comments about the early days of editing. Not surprisingly, many were from film editors making the transition to digital.

But I am not a film editor, I began my career working with video tape, starting with a 1/2″ black & white Ampex deck. I then moved into broadcast television and video workhorses of RCA 2″ color quad (quadrature) machines. Then on to Ampex 1″ decks with essentially instant response, to Sony 3/4″ UMatic to, finally, digital.

While digital is amazing, I still have a deep love for those 2″ machines of my youth; though I have no wish to go back to those days.

NOTE: Here are more stories from the days of 2″ video tape.

Two RCA TR-70’s at WHA-TV, Madison, Wis. in 1974. Dave Graham, Chief Engineer, on left. The other engineer is resting his hand on a Sony U-Matic 3/4″ video cassette deck. The U-Matic was used for off-line review and editing. Dave is holding a cassette box.

Each of these behemoths required a rack of equipment to run, a team of highly-trained engineers for maintenance and operations, a raised floor for cabling and a city’s worth of air conditioning. They were heavy, loud and required eight seconds after pushing Play for all that heavy iron to get up to speed and the image to stabilize.

They also cost upwards of $250K (that’s about $1.8 million in today’s dollars), and we needed three of them to edit!

The video tape was 2″ wide, traveled through the system at 15 inches per second, cost more than $300 per reel and each reel weighed 15-20 pounds, depending upon how much tape they contained.

All that gear, yet they could only record an image that was standard definition in size. (Roughly 640 pixels by 480 pixels today; and, no, I don’t want to get into a discussion of the rectangular pixels of NTSC and PAL vs. today’s square pixels.)

Story 1

The day in 1972 that I started as a production assistant at WHA-TV, I was touring through the machine room where the giant film chains and video tape machines were located.

Attached to the top side of one of the video tape decks was a small, slotted, aluminum block with a fingernail polish bottle perched above it. The bottle was filled with a purple solution. I asked one of the operators what this was for.

“Well,” he said holding up the small, fingernail-polish bottle, “up until last week, the only way we could edit video tape was to paint the magnetic side of the tape with this purple solution. The magnetic particles in it were attracted to the magnetic stripes on the tape. By looking closely at the pattern, we could see the frame boundaries between two images which is where to cut the tape with a razor blade to make an edit. Then we scotch-tape the two pieces together.

“It’s like editing film, except we couldn’t see the picture. Rowan & Martin’s ‘Laugh-In’ (a very popular show at the time) is entirely edited this way.”

I had just missed the opportunity to watch video tape edited with a razor blade. The week before I started the station took delivery of a new video tape machine that could do manual assemble edits on the fly… and all the razor blades were retired to the trash.

Story 2

At the time, these machines could record live television and play it back, but they were very poor at editing. These early systems lacked a “flying erase head,” which meant that when you performed an edit, the edit point was accurate plus or minus a second. Once you started the edit you couldn’t stop until the rest of the show was recorded. Insert edits were not yet technically possible, so we couldn’t just cover the edit with a cutaway.

Which brings me to my story. As a young, hot-shot director who had no clear idea of how much he didn’t know, I was directing a lovely holiday music special. Lots of color, candles and music. Except, we had a problem with either the singer or the shot coverage and needed to make an edit long after production had wrapped.

The problem was that these were manual recording decks. They recorded timecode, but were not controlled by timecode. So, we cued up the playback system as best we could, started both machines at the “same” time – as determined by a mechanical counter – and at approximately the correct moment, the tape operator mashed the record button and punched in an assemble edit.

An assemble edit cuts in cleanly but destroys the recording at the out. This meant that we could not see the results of our edit until we finished transferring the remaining 45 minutes of the program.

So, all we could do was hope that our edit was reasonably close.

After waiting the required 45 minutes for the transfer to complete, we checked the edit. We missed the punch by about a second and a half. But production time was – and is – expensive, there was no time to try again and no assurance that it would be any better. So we went to air with an almost-two-second hole in Handel’s Messiah.

There were multiple lessons learned from this, but the biggest was that creative types will always push gear up to and over its limit. Partly because we can and partly because we need to.

– – –

Now, I’m interested in reading your stories. Share them in the comments.

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25 Responses to Stories from the Past – 2″ Video Tape [u]

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  1. Great overview of the “glory days” Larry, I LOVE reading about this stuff. My experiences with TAPE have been more on the audio/music side of the equation. In fact, AMPEX had a huge impact on what would be the future of NLE/DAW recording, and you can thank Les Paul for some of that:

    “…Among the notable individuals impacted by AMPEX tape recorders was the legendary Les Paul. As a close friend of Bing Crosby and a regular guest on his shows, Les Paul received an early portable AMPEX Model 200A tape recorder from Crosby. Little did anyone know that this gift would pave the way for a groundbreaking recording technique.

    Using the AMPEX recorder, Les Paul pioneered the “Sound on Sound” recording technique. By adding an additional playback head before the conventional erase/record/playback heads, he could layer multiple tracks together, opening up new possibilities in music production. Les Paul’s innovative approach not only showcased the capabilities of AMPEX tape recorders but also revolutionized the recording process, inspiring generations of musicians and producers to experiment and push creative boundaries.”

  2. Reminds me of editing on Panasonic 1/2″ reel to reel decks. We found the edit point on each machine. Then backed up each machine 10 seconds. Started the Gralab timer at 20 seconds, when it hit 10 seconds we’d rolled both machines and at 0, we mashed the edit button. If you were lucky the editing deck found the vertical interval and the edit was clean. Then I was hired by the local TV station as a “trainee” news photographer. They were the first shop in Indianapolis to shoot video and all the “old” photographers hated video because they had to give up a relatively small film camera (CP16) and use a 3/4 system that was so heavy we needed a golf cart to tow it around. I loved it because the 3/4″ machines did the back timing automatically.

  3. Barry says:

    I started my ENG/EFP (only a few will know these acronyms) cameraman career with an Ikegami camera cabled to a record deck hanging on my shoulder. When men were men!

    Betacam was a godsend. And now you can get 6K in the palm of your hand: Blackmagic G2.

    Just for fun, my audio history: AM radio, vinyl, reel-to-reel, 8-track, cassette, CD, USB. I don’t stream.

    • Scott Fien says:

      Seconding Barry’s experience with the two-part camera system. My career has been in corporate comms, starting out in health care where I had a two-piece VHS camera + record pack with two S-VHS decks and an edit controller in between. At my next gig, the company had just upgraded to “non-linear editing,” while still capturing on Betacam. They kept the A-B tape editing setup just in case. Now, it’s Final Cut and a Sony FX-3 cinema camera. I never want to go back.

    • Larry Jordan says:


      For the young among us…

      ENG: Electronic News Gathering
      EFP: Electronic Field Production

      I worked on those crews too.


  4. mark suszko says:

    In my junior high TV production class, we used EIAJ reel-to-reel decks with Sony port-a-pack cameras in black and white. We edited machine-to-machine by marking the cut point with a china marking pencil of all things. And we used the footage counters and manually positioned the tape for pre-rolling. That was hard enough for simple editing but one kid in our class was imitating the techniques of the 1966 semi- animated Marvel cartoons, and he attempted stop- motion animation in this manner. Took him all semester to “animate “ thirty seconds. If you blew the edit point, our machines required the next try be slightly earlier to get a clean cut, coming out of insert edits “clean “ with good synch was akin to witchcraft. For all the difficulty of making the edits though, the process fascinated me and that class sent me onto the 35 year career in TV production.

    • ALAN FEINBERG says:

      I used that reel to reel Sony to record my own wedding in 1968. I borrowed a second one and a mechanical switcher – one camera focused on the congregation and the other on the bride and groom, run by a cousin from the balcony. I ran a mic cable down the stairway and up to the podium – then went home to get dressed.
      From EAIJ to VHS to DVCAM to DVD and now lives on Vimeo, which we watch every August 18 for the past 55 years. Snowy and fuzzy but great audio!

      • Larry says:

        Congratulations on 55 years!

        Your comment proves – yet again – that people will happily watch video of any quality as long as the audio is good.


  5. By the early 1980s I worked in marketing communications in Hawaii. We had accumulated a nice range of promotional footage in U-Matic, one-inch, two-inch, and beta format masters (plus even some 16mm film and, of course, 35mm transparencies) — none of which was practical for our sales guys and travel agents who then needed VHS copies to show clients and display at trade shows.

    Fortunately, we worked closely with the adjoining university whose main campus in Utah had very sophisticated video and film production capabilities. They could dub anything we needed to VHS, or any combination of the above, and we relied on them for the coming decade.

    By early 2000 I started doing my own digital video on a personal computer. When I asked my local university counterpart what NLE app he recommended, he said Avid, but I chose Final Cut Pro v1, and find its versions still fit my needs.

    • Larry says:


      Thanks for your comment! (By the way, all comments are moderated, which is why yours did not appear immediately.)

      You point out a sad fact of life. It seems like every two years, physical media changes to a new, incompatible, standard. Smile, I’ll bet you aren’t creating VHS tapes anymore!


  6. I still have the 2″ video tape of a documentary I produced for the Los Angeles public television station, KCET in 1978.
    I remember the tension during the editing session as to whether a certain sequence was going to be included or not——with no real possibility of changing your mind. Maybe the decision made was the right one because the documentary, a celebration of Yiddish, won a local Emmy.
    Congratulations, Larry, for including some history on your site, though it’s hard to be nostalgic about those days…

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