U-matic

U-matic (Low-Band, High-Band, SP) ¾" video tape in PAL, NTSC & SECAM
dark grey plastic cassette, rectangular with bevelled upper corners

Sony XBR 60 minute U-matic video cassette

introduction to U-matic cassette transfer

U-matic is an analogue recording videocassette format introduced in the early 1970s which became widely popular, particularly in media and news-gathering contexts. According the Preservation Self-Assessment Program, U-Matic video tape ‘should be considered at high preservation risk’ due to media and hardware obsolescence: in the long term there is likely to be far more undigitised U-matic tape in the world than working machines capable of playing it back.

At Greatbear we have a collection of U-matic machines, including the late model Sony BVU-950 with internal Time Base Corrector, and are able to offer preservation-quality U-matic transfer of all variations and standards of U-matic video tape. This includes, PAL, NTSC and SECAM, Low Band and High Band SP U-matic to any digital file format.

We offer a range of delivery formats for our video transfers. We use the International Association of Sound & Audiovisual Archives Guidelines for the Preservation of Video Recordings, delivering FFV1 lossless files or 10-bit uncompressed video files in .mkv or .mov containers. We create viewing files as H264 encoded .mp4 files or DVD. We can deliver any other digital video files,  according to your needs. 

We can provide the appropriately-sized usb media for your files, or use media supplied by you, or deliver your files online. Files delivered on hard drive can be for any operating system MacOS, Windows or GNU/Linux and filesystems (HFS+, NTFS or EXT3).

Due to varying tape durations and their gradual physical degradation, it’s not always appropriate to create fixed prices for our services. We’ve found that assessing tapes prior to confirming costs a more accurate and fair method.

We offer free assessments please contact us to discuss your project.

U-matic video machines

  • Sony BVU 950P x 3 (Hi Band SP built in TBC board)
  • Sony BVU 800 NTSC (Hi Band / Low Band) x 2
  • Sony BVU 850 NTSC (Hi Band / Low Band)
  • Sony VO-9600P (Hi and Low Band)
  • Sony VO-9850P (Hi and Low Band) x 2
  • Sony VO-9800P (Hi and Low Band) x 3
  • Sony VO-7630
  • Sony VO-7030

Many Sony U-matic machines featured a ‘Dub’ connector that can offer a higher quality than composite connection between machines, similar to the y/c connector. We have the correct cables and equipment to utilise this connection.

We can do motion compensated standards conversion, so if the video tape you have is in NTSC format we can deliver your digital file in PAL (and vice versa), and are equipped for video noise reduction and overscan removal.

 

U-matic format variation

Video StandardUmatic RecordingComposite Transfer SupportedDub (y/c) Transfer SupportedPreservation of LTC and VITC timecode Supported
PALLow Band✓ (LTC only)
PALHigh Band
PALSP
SECAMLow Band✓ (LTC only)
NTSCLow Band
NTSCHigh Band
NTSCSP

Small U-matic cassette shell, open to show ¾ inch inch tape inside

Sony VO-9600P and Sony Sony BVU 950P U-matic machines

U-matic cassette dimensions: 21.9 x 13.7 x 3 cm. We also transfer the smaller 18.5 x 12 x 3 cm tapes

U-matic tape risks & vulnerabilities

At ¾ inch / 19mm, U-matic video tape is wider than almost all other video cassette formats and has a reputation of being quite tough. The polyester or PET-based tape is relatively thick compared to later Betacam and early digital formats.

We can resolve most problems that occur with U-matic tape:

  • Given the age of U-matic tape, and its widespread use over the years, it can and does degrade. Certain brands such as Ampex 187 and 197 suffer from binder hydrolysis and need 'baking' before it's safe to replay these.
  • Mould can grow on the unflanged edges of the tape pack and will stick the layers of tape together, needing treatment and manual unwinding, and usually re-shelling.
  • The clear leader at the beginning of each tape can become separated from the rest of the tape as the glue in the splicing tape dries up. The process of unwinding and rewinding tape can cause / exacerbate the problem.
  • Some early Sony brands can degrade in a way where the RF (radio frequency) off tape is very low in level causing severe visual artefacts. Tapes like this often have a distinctive smell of wax crayons.

U-matic recording history

The U-matic  analogue recording videocassette format was first shown by Sony in prototype in October 1969, and introduced to the market in September 1971. It was among the first video formats to contain the videotape inside a cassette, in contrast to the various reel-to-reel formats of the time.

When introduced by Sony they originally intended it to be a videocassette format oriented at the consumer market. This proved to be a failure because of the high manufacturing and retail costs. U-matic was however affordable for industrial and institutional customers, and it became very successful for business communication and educational television. As a result, Sony shifted U-matic’s marketing to the industrial, professional, and educational sectors.

U-matic is no longer used as a mainstream television production format, but it has found lasting appeal as a cheap, well specified, and hard-wearing format. The format permitted many broadcast and non-broadcast institutions to produce television programming on an accessible budget.

Keeping a U-matic machine running well will become more and more difficult in the near future. Sony in particular has discontinued or run out of many key spares, such as pinch rollers. Happily, Greatbear have a good supply of new spares and service items so are confident we can continue to offer high-quality U-matic transfer and restoration services for some time into the future.