Then There Was the Time – 2″ Video Tape

Posted on by Larry

I’ve been in the video industry since, well, since before video cameras had zoom lenses.

In those days, the workhorse video tape recorders were made by RCA or Ampex. 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!

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. These were used for off-line review and editing. Dave is holding a 3/4″ cassette box.

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, I might add, to record an SD signal!!)

Those of us in production thought they were the pinnacle of video quality. The team of engineers that it took to maintain and run them had less lofty opinions.

Anyway, Warren (“Butch”) Nelson remembered those days as well. Here’s his story.

Oh, the 2″ stories I could tell! LOL!!

One of my favs was the night (the show I worked for worked the graveyard shift to save money) we were half way through assembling our show and all of the sudden there was a loud BANG in the machine room (we were separated from the machine room by a large window).

The editor, the prod/dir and I jumped and looked up to see the machine room full of 2″ tape confetti! A controller in the BIG Ampex machine had failed and sent the source reel and the take up reel speeding in opposite directions at full speed. As you no doubt remember these machines used compressed air to move these reels and that speed and power, literally, fractured the tape exposed in the machine to little bits.

Suffice it to say, we were done for that evening, well, early morning, anyway.

And then there was time…ah, ok, I’ll spare you the rest of the stories for now.

It occurs to me there might be a small but highly interested group who would love to share these experiences that our millennial co-workers will never hear otherwise. Just a thought.

NOTE: Here are more stories from the early days of video tape. Enjoy!

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19 Responses to Then There Was the Time – 2″ Video Tape

  1. Mike Janowski says:

    IMHO, everyone who wants to be an editor should be forced to take a semester of “Multi format analog editorial technique”, and run a CMX or GVG interformat room with serial control DVE and GPU triggers in the M/Es…so they appreciate what the NLE wizards have wrought, as I do.

  2. mark suszko says:

    I remember the time the E1 failed to lock a hub on the quad recorder and it came off the machine during high speed rewind, digging a trench in the linoleum as it did an expensive version of the yo-yo trick “walking the dog”, before scooting across the floor at high speed, into a stack of cardboard cartons of blank umatic dub stock. He turned to me looking sheepish, and I just raised a finger to my lips in the “shhh” sign signifying I wouldn’t mention it. Until today.

  3. Philip Snyder says:

    The very popular NBC comedy, “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” in the ’60s, was edited
    on these machines. For those who remember the show, there were literally hundreds of edits on each program. I can’t imagine the nightmare it must have been to cut one of these episodes on a weekly basis.

    • Larry Jordan says:


      The show aired with all those edits scotch-taped together. Dubbing the program would have decreased the image quality dramatically.

      I spoke with one of their editors years ago and he told me the editorial crew stayed in the video tape room during live network playback praying all that scotch tape held.


    • Mark Landman says:

      I worked with an engineer in the early 80’s who used to edit on those machines when they first came out. He told me they physically cut the tape to make edits. They had something they brushed on the tape that ‘developed’ the signal recorded on the tapes so that they could see where the sync pulses were and know where to cut the tape.

      • Larry Jordan says:


        Yup. I saw it. It was purple and stored near the tape heads in a fingernail polish bottle containing a small brush. You painted this on the oxide side of video tape and the magnetic particles in the purple solution would be attracted to the magnetic scan lines in the tape.

        By studying the lines, combined with a Ouiji board and reviewing the entrails of goats, a skilled engineer could determine the frame boundary. Putting the tape in an aluminum (i.e. non-magnetic) splicing block he would slice the tape with a razor blade, cutting the tape at a very specific angle to preserve the image. The two pieces of video tape – scene 1 and scene 2 – were then spliced together with scotch tape.

        This whole Rube Goldberg assembly was then played back in real time with everyone in the room holding their breath and praying the scotch tape held. Most of the time it did.


  4. Gretta Wing Miller says:

    1975-ish, I was a ‘production intern’ at PBS in St.Louis, hadn’t yet thought about ‘editing’ as a career, but while putting together a local show, the engineers always wanted numbers from us! After several bad cuts, I went storming down to the machine room, “He finishes the sentence, dissolve! Can’t you feel it? Can’t you feel the rhythm? Why do you need a number??” (I probably did not ‘storm’, but that’s what I felt.) Couple months later I discovered someone working on a 6-plate Kem, and that did it for me! I was off to NYU to become an ‘editor’! No more engineers for me!

    • Larry Jordan says:


      Ah… the curse and blessings of timecode. I did all my editing on video tape and learned to think in numbers instead of beats. Took me a long time to figure out how to translates between the two of them.


  5. This is the sort of ‘blurbs’ we like. Thank you! Regards, Old Fart, me that is!

  6. Scott Newell says:

    Boy do these tales ring true. Made me think of the old film editing days as well. These days, the term b-roll gets thrown around a lot and I always love asking the 20-something producers what they think the origin of the term is. Never had any one of them get it right.

  7. The first video equipment I used was in high school and college in the mid 1970’s. It was Sony 1/2inch black and white reel to reel recorders and cameras. The machine had no flying erase heads so we had to crash edit. We did a 30 minute documentary by doing just that. We had the 1/2inch portable with a camera. Also we had some studio cameras with a switcher. I used all of that to produced this documentary. We just crash edited the segments together. To do a voice over overdub, I bypassed the audio erase head by threading the tape around it. Here is part 1.

    When I was hired at KCOY-TV to be the first news cameraperson in the Santa Barbara / Santa Maria / San Luis Obispo market, we were the first to go to with 3/4 inch tape. They had a Hatchi 3030 video camera and a JVC CR-4400 video recorder. To edit what I shot, I would connect the 4400 to a JVC CR-5850 Editing recorder. The 5850 had a built-in 5 second pre-roll when you hit edit. I would use a stop watch and time the 4400 player scene. Then back up the tape before 5 seconds and play to the 5 second point and then hit the Edit button on the 5850 so it would edit at 5 seconds later. We did not even have a player in our edit system. We added a player soon after as it was putting a lot of wear on the 4400 but I still had to do this stop watch method to edit. It was not until we got a Sony BVU-200 edit system that I finally had machine controlled editing with an edit controller. Before this, I edited 16mm film durning my internship at KSBY-TV.

    • Larry says:


      Thanks for your stories. While I never had to deal with 5 second pre-rolls on 1/2 tape, I am VERY familiar with the “hope-and-pray” effects of crash edits.


  8. Rey Garza says:

    Eee the good ol’ back breaking days. Never had access to 2″ but we used Sony 2610 U-Matics with 3/4 inch Ampex tape with a little red button you had to remove so you didnt accidentally record over your unlabeled master. We did NASA 3/4 dubs at JPL one summer for our on air cablecast. California back then had State Buys of Educational Progam content. We paid a subscription from our County office of education and we bicycled 3/4 masters and used a For-A time base corrector to stabilize video and grab freeze frames. After 1984 Olympics, we acquired a BV-110 and a Sony M3a three tube camera and a Sennheiser 416 shotgun mic. and 6 batteries for the recorder and 3 bricks for the M3. We produced a lot of K-8 teacher demo lessons. Hardest part was getting your gear to the classroom. We would master to 3/4 and dump to 1/2 Ampex VHS and edit cuts only with a Panasonic NV-8500 VHS Video Cassette Recorder. We also got a Sony 5850/5800 3/4 cuts only edit deck — life was good all rack mounted we got from US Navy Surplus. Then we got JVC A/B roll edit bay that if you interfaced with a Panasonic WJMX30 Switcher you cross dissolve on the fly. I Always carried a stop watch to help time effects/edits. This was back like 40yrs ago. Today the school district may be doin video production but I haven’t seen much content being played back. It was fun building an Atari Controller to do Auto VHS Playback for the On-Air content. We would build 2hr vhs program blocks with Station ID’s, Coming up next cards all timed to match On-Air program schedule…Lotsa plates spinning but we made it with a micro staff. It saddens me that people think cable tv is obsolete. We had 5 PEG channels that are all dark except for the City Govt Channel which just got its HDTV signal On-Air. For me, I got to play TV for 35yrs, in my rural city, Only going to LA (Walt Davis Enterprises) for that Ampex media and to wish for gear.

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