Digital Betacam tapes

As well as analogue tape, at Greatbear we also migrate digital tape to digital files. Digital media has become synonymous with the everyday consumption of information in the 21st century. Yet it may come as a surprise for people to encounter digital tape when we are so comfortable with the seemingly formless circulation of digital information on computers, at the cinema, on televisions, smartphones, tablets and other forms of mobile media. It is important to remember that digital information has a long history, and it doesn’t need to be binary or electronic – abacuses, Morse code and Braille are all examples of digital systems.

Digital Betacam tapes were launched in 1993 and superseded both Betacam and Betacam SP. Betacam remains the main acquisition and delivery format for broadcasting because there is very little compression on the tape. It is a very reliable format because it has a tried and tested mature transport mechanism.

Sony Digital Betacam video tape

While Digital Betacam is a current broadcast format, technology will inevitably move on – there is often a 10 year lifespan for broadcast media, as the parent company (SONY in this case) will cease to support the playing machines through selling spare parts.

We were sent some Digital Betacam tapes by Uli Meyer Animation Studios who are based in London. Uli Meyer make 3 and 2 D commercials, long and short films and TV commercials. 5-10 years ago the company would have had Digital Betacam machines, but as technology develops it becomes harder to justify keeping machines that can take up a lot of physical space.

Sony J-3 digital betacam SDI playback machine

Workflow in broadcasting is also becoming increasingly ‘tape less’, making digital tape formats surplus to requirements. Another issue facing the Digital Betacam is that it records information in Standard Definition format. With broadcasters using High Definition only, the need to transfer digital information in line with contemporary technological requirements is imperative for large parts of industry.

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Digitising Betacam SP video tapes

We have recently been digitising Betacam SP (‘superior performance’) video recordings, a cassette based component analogue format that is used extensively in the broadcast world. Betacam SP offered fantastic video and audio quality from its introduction in 1986, and a very similar digital cassette,  Digital Betacam, is still used now.

Betacam SP was commonly used throughout the ’90s and ’00s and was not threatened with obsolescence as many older formats are. However Betacam VTR machines will soon become very hard to find spares for, thus becoming another threatened video tape format. Luckily at Greatbear we have every type of Betacam machine (PAL and NTSC) available, as well as spare parts (such as head drums), so we are able to migrate analogue formats to digital so they can be utilised by current media practitioners.

A Betacam SP tape in its case with the case open so you can see the contents.

The tapes that have inspired this post are public domain tapes from the National Archives in the USA. They feature the tension filled politics of the Cold War, including footage of President John F. Kennedy, missile silos, Stalin, B29s taking off, graphics of the Iron Curtain, air raid warnings and people running into shelters. Collectively they give a powerful impression of Cold War international relations from the perspective of the American government.

The tapes were sent to us by renowned investigative journalist Paul Lashmar and were the raw material for his BBC Timewatch programme Baiting the Bear: How the real life Doctor Strangelove brought us close to Armageddon, aired in 1996.

Paul has covered many of the main news stories of the past 30 years related to terrorism, intelligence, organised crime, offshore crime, business fraud and the Cold War. He has written for newspapers such as the Independent on Sunday, the Guardian and the Evening Standard, is a regular TV and radio broadcaster and a lecturer in journalism at Brunel University.



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