Machine Obsolescence

Video Art & Machine Obsolescence

multiple stills from BBC documentary showing Jim Moir and Greatbear video equipment in a mock-up studio

Stills from BBC4's "Kill Your TV: Jim Moir’s Weird World of Video Art", showing vintage video equipment from the Greatbear studio with researcher Adam Lockhart and artists Catherine Elwes and George Barber © Academy 7 Productions 2019.

At Greatbear we have many, many machines. A small selection of our analogue video players, CRT monitors, cameras, cables and tapes recently found work as props (both functional and decorative) in the BBC documentary “Kill Your TV: Jim Moir’s Weird World of Video Art”, on BBC iPlayer here.

From the BBC website: “Jim Moir, aka Vic Reeves, explores video art, revealing how different generations hacked the tools of television to pioneer new ways of creating art."

Our obsession with collecting and restoring rare video equipment is vital for our work. As technology developed through the latter half of the 20th century, dozens of different formats of video tape were created - each requiring specialist equipment to play it back: equipment which is now obsolete. The machines have not been manufactured for decades and the vast majority of them have been scrapped.

Those that remain are wearing out - the rotating head drums that read video tape have a finite number of working hours before they need replacement. Wear to the head drum tips is irrevocable, and the remaining few in existence are highly sought-after.

Even TV companies, where U-matic, Betacam and countless other formats of VTR machine were once ubiquitous, no longer have access to the machines and monitors we provided for “Kill Your TV”.

It is a similar conundrum for the artists who produced work with older video technology, and for the galleries and museums who hold collections of their work. We have recently been working on a fascinating project with specialist art conservator for time-based media, Brian Castriota and the Irish Museum of Modern Art, transferring important video artworks produced between 1972 - 2013 from multiple video tape formats, by artists including Isaac Julien, Gillian Wearing and Willie Doherty - more on this in a future blog post!

conceptual immateriality & the material device

In "Kill Your TV", Jim Moir describes a demonstration of David Hall’s "Vidicon Inscriptions" (1973) as “an electronic image that doesn’t really exist in a physical space” which nevertheless relies on the quirks of (very physical) vintage video equipment for its enactment.

Artist Peter Donebauer refers specifically to immateriality inherent to his 1974 video art piece “Entering” (broadcast via the BBC’s arts programme “2nd House”). PD: "Technically, the real core of this is the signal. It made me think about what this medium was, because it’s not material in the same way as painting, sculpture or even performance, dance, film - almost anything that has physicality.”

But for a signal to be perceived, it needs to be reproduced by a physical device capable of reading it. The dangers facing video artwork preservation lie not only in the fragility of the tape itself, but in the disappearance of rare playback machines and the specialist tools for their maintenance and repair; of the service manuals, calibration tapes and the expertise needed to set them up.

The 'tools of television' relished in "Kill Your TV" are the material devices we are striving to save, repair and maintain.

links & further reading:

Read about our facilities to transfer video made with the Sony Portapak system featured in the documentary: Sony 1/2 inch Portapak (EIAJ) / CV2100 / CV2000 open reel video tape

Our work with Videokunstarkivet, an exciting archival project mapping all the works of video art that have been made in Norway since the mid-1960s, funded by the Norwegian Arts Council.

“Kill Your TV: Jim Moir’s Weird World of Video Art” was made for BBC4 by Academy 7 Productions

 

Posted by melanie in video tape, video technology, machines, equipment, 0 comments

VHS – more obsolescence threats

S-VHS-Machine-Great-Bear-Analogue-Digital-Media

Earlier this month we wrote an article that re-appraised the question of VHS obsolescence.

Variability within the VHS format, such as recording speeds and the different playback capacities of domestic and professional machines, fundamentally challenge claims that VHS is immune from obsolescence threats which affect other, less ubiquitous formats.

The points we raised in this article and in others on the Great Bear tape blog are only heightened by news that domestic VHS manufacture is to be abandoned this month.

It is always worth being a bit wary of media rhetoric: this is not the first time VHS’s ‘death’ has been declared.

In 2008, for example, JVC announced they would no longer manufacture standalone VHS machines.

Yet Funai Electric’s announcement seems decidedly more grave, given that ‘declining sales, plus a difficulty in obtaining the necessary parts’ are the key reasons cited for their decision.

To be plain here: If manufacturers are struggling to find parts for obsolete machines this doesn’t bode well for the rest of us.

The ‘death’ of a format is never immediate. In reality it is a stage by stage process, marked by significant milestones.

The announcement last week is certainly one milestone we should take notice of.

Especially when there are several other issues that compromise the possibility of effective VHS preservation in the immediate and long term future.

What needs to be done?

As ever, careful assessment of your tape collection is recommended. We are always on hand to talk through any questions you have.

Posted by debra in video tape, video technology, machines, equipment, 0 comments

VHS – Re-appraising Obsolescence

VHS was a hugely successful video format from the late 1970s to early 2000s. It was adopted widely in domestic and professional contexts.

Due to its familiarity and apparent ubiquity you might imagine it is easy to preserve VHS.

Well, think again.

VHS is generally considered to be a low preservation risk because playback equipment is still (just about) available.

There is, however, a huge degree of variation within VHS. This is even before we consider improvements to the format, such as S-VHS (1987), which increased luminance bandwidth and picture quality.

Complicating the preservation picture

The biggest variation within VHS is of recording speed.

Recording speed affects the quality of the recording. It also dictates which machines you can use to play back VHS tapes.

2 large, light-coloured professional video machines with digital counters, needle gauges and multiple dials

SONY SVO-500P and Panasonic AG-650

Domestic VHS could record at three different speeds: Standard Play, which yielded the best quality recordings; Long Play, which doubled recording time but compromised the quality of the recording; Extended or Super Long Play, which trebled recording time but significantly reduced the recording quality. Extended/ Super Long Play was only available on the NTSC standard.

It is generally recognised that you should always use the best quality machines at your disposal to preserve magnetic media.

VHS machines built for domestic use, and the more robust, industrial models vary significantly in quality.

Richard Bennette in The Videomaker wrote (1995): ‘In more expensive VCRs, especially industrial models, the transports use thicker and heavier mounting plates, posts and gears. This helps maintain the ever-critical tape signal distances over many more hours of usage. An inexpensive transport can warp or bend, causing time base errors in the video signals’.

Yet better quality VHS machines, such as the Sony SVO-5800P and Panasonic AG-8700 that we use in the Greatbear Studio, cannot play back Long or Extended Play recordings. They only recorded—and therefore can only play back—Standard Play signals.

This means that recordings made at slower speeds can only be transferred using domestic VHS machines, such as the JVC HM-DR10000 D-VHS or the JVC HR-DVS3 EK.

Domestic VHS tape: significant problems to come

This poses two significant problems within a preservation context.

Firstly, there is concern about the availability of high-functioning domestic VHS machines in the immediate and long-term.

Domestic VHS machines were designed to be mass produced and affordable to the everyday consumer. Parts were made from cheaper materials. They simply were not built to last.

JVC stopped manufacturing standalone VHS machines in 2008.

Used VHS machines are still available. Given the comparative fragility of domestic machines, the ubiquity of the VHS format—especially in its domestic variation—is largely an illusion.

The second problem is the quality of the original Long or Extended Play recording.

silver and black slimline VHS machine

JVC Super-VHS ET

One reason for VHS’s victory over Betamax in the ‘videotape format wars’ was that VHS could record for three hours, compared with Betamax’s one.

As with all media recorded on magnetic tape, slower recording speeds produce poorer quality video and audio.

An Extended Play recording made on a domestic VHS is already in a compromised position, even before you put it in the tape machine and press ‘play.’

Which leads us to a further and significant problem: the ‘press play’ moment.

Interchangeability—the ability to play back a tape on a machine different to the one it was recorded on—is a massive problem with video tape machines in general.

The tape transport is a sensitive mechanism and can be easily knocked out of sync. If the initial recording was made with a mis-aligned machine it is not certain to play back on another, differently aligned machine. Slow recording complicates alignment further, as there is more room for error in the recording process.

The preservation of Long and Extended Play VHS recordings is therefore fraught with challenges that are not always immediately apparent.

(Re)appraising VHS

Aesthetically, VHS continues to be celebrated in art circles for its rendering of the ‘poor image’. The decaying, unstable appearance of the VHS signal is a direct result of extended recording times that threaten its practical ability to endure.

Variation of recording time is the key point of distinction within the VHS format. It dramatically affects the quality of the original recording and dictates the equipment a tape can be played back on. With this in mind, we need to distinguish between standard, long and extended play VHS recordings when appraising collections, rather than assuming ‘VHS’ covers everything.

One big stumbling block is that you cannot tell the recording speed by looking at the tape itself. There may be metadata that can indicate this, or help you make an educated guess, but this is not always available.

We recommend, therefore, to not assume VHS—and other formats that straddle the domestic/ professional divide such as DVCAM and 8mm video—is ‘safe’ from impending obsolescence. Despite the apparent availability and familiarity of VHS, the picture in reality is far more complex and nuanced.

***

As ever, Greatbear are more than happy to discuss specific issues affecting your collection.

Get in touch with us to explore how we can work together.

Posted by debra in digitisation expertise, video tape, 1 comment

SONY’s U-matic video cassette

Introduced by SONY in 1971 U-matic was, according to Jeff Martin, 'the first truly successful videocassette format'.

Philips’ N-1500 video format dominated the domestic video tape market in the 1970s. By 1974 U-matic was widely adopted in industrial and institutional settings. The format also performed a key role in the development of Electronic News Gathering. This was due to its portability, cost effectiveness and rapid integration into programme workflow. Compared with 16mm film U-matic had many strengths.

The design of the U-matic case mimicked a hardback book. Mechanical properties were modelled on the audio cassette's twin spool system.

Like the Philips compact audio cassette developed in the early 1960s, U-matic was a self-contained video playback system. This required minimal technical skill and knowledge to operate.

There was no need to manually lace the video tape through the transport, or even rewind before ejection like SONY's open reel video tape formats, EIAJ 1/2" and 1" Type C. Stopping and starting the tape was immediate, transferring different tapes quick and easy. U-matic ushered in a new era of efficiency and precision in video tape technology.

Mobile news-gathering on U-matic video tape

Emphasising technical quality and user-friendliness was key to marketing U-matic video tape.

As SONY's product brochure states, 'it is no use developing a TV system based on highly sophisticated knowledge if it requires equally sophisticated knowledge to be used'.

'The 'ease of operation' is demonstrated in publicity brochures in a series of images. These guide the prospective user through tape machine interface. The human operator, insulated from the complex mechanical principles making the machine tick only needs to know a few things: how to feed content and direct pre-programmed functions such as play, record, fast forward, rewind and stop.

New Applications

Marketing material for audio visual technology often helps the potential buyer imagine possible applications. This is especially true when a technology is new.

For SONY’s U-matic video tape it was the ‘very flexibility of the system’ that was emphasised. The brochure recounts a story of an oil tanker crew stationed in the middle of the Atlantic.

After they watch a football match the oil workers sit back and enjoy a new health and safety video. ‘More inclined to take the information from a television set,’ U-matic is presented as a novel way to combine leisure and work.

Ultimately ‘the obligation for the application of the SONY U-matic videocassette system lies with the user…the equipment literally speaks for itself.’

International Video Networks

Before the internet arrived, SONY believed video tape was the media to connect global businesses.

'Ford, ICI, Hambro Life, IBM, JCB...what do these companies have in common, apart from their obvious success? Each of these companies, together with many more, have accepted and installed a new degree of communications technology, the U-matic videocassette system. They need international communication capability. Training, information, product briefs, engineering techniques, sales plans…all can be communicated clearly, effectively by means of television'.

SONY heralded videotape's capacity to reach 'any part of the world...a world already revolutionised by television.' Video tape distributed messages in 'words and pictures'. It enabled simultaneous transmission and connected people in locations as 'wide as the world's postal networks.' With appropriate equipment interoperability between different regional video standards - PAL, NTSC and SECAM - was possible.

Video was imagined as a powerful virtual presence serving international business communities. It was a practical money-saving device and effective way to foster inter-cultural communication: 'Why bring 50 salesmen from the field into Head Office, losing valuable working time when their briefing could be sent through the post?'

Preserving U-Matic Video Tape

According the Preservation Self-Assessment Program, U-matic video tape ‘should be considered at high preservation risk’ due to media and hardware obsolescence. A lot of material was recorded on the U-matic format, especially in media and news-gathering contexts. In the long term there is likely to be more tape than working machines.

Despite these important concerns, at Greatbear we find U-matic a comparatively resilient format. Part of the reason for this is the ¾” tape width and the presence of guard bands that are part of the U-matic video signal. Guard bands were used on U-matic to prevent interference or ‘cross-talk’ between the recorded tracks.

In early video tape design guard bands were seen as a waste of tape. Slant azimuth technology, a technique which enabled stripes to be recorded next to each other, was integrated into later formats such as Betamax and VHS. As video tape evolved it became a whole lot thinner.

In a preservation context thinner tape can pose problems. If tape surface is damaged and there is limited tape it is harder to read a signal during playback. In the case of digital tape, damage on a smaller surface can result in catastrophic signal loss. Analogue formats such as U-matic, often fare better, regardless of age.

Paradoxically it would seem that the presence of guard bands insulates the recorded signal from total degradation: because there is more tape there is a greater margin of error to transfer the recorded signal.

Like other formats, such as the SONY EIAJ, certain brands of U-matic tape can pose problems. Early SONY, Ampex and Kodak branded tape may need dehydration treatment ('baked') to prevent shedding during playback. If baking is not appropriate, we tend to digitise in multiple passes, allowing us to frequently intervene to clean the video heads of potentially clogging material. If your U-matic tape smells of wax crayons this is a big indication there are issues. The wax crayon smell seems only to affect SONY branded tape.

Concerns about hardware obsolescence should of course be taken seriously. Early 'top loading' U-matic machines are fairly unusable now.

Mechanical and electronic reliability for 'front loading' U-matic machines such as the BVU-950 remains high. The durability of U-matic machines becomes even more impressive when contrasted with newer machines such as the DVC Pro, Digicam and Digibeta. These tend to suffer relatively frequent capacitor failure.

Later digital video tape formats also use surface-mounted custom-integrated circuits. These are harder to repair at component level. Through-hole technology, used in the circuitry of U-matic machines, make it easier to refurbish parts that are no longer working.

 

Transferring your U-matic Collections

U-matic made video cassette a core part of many industries. Flexible and functional, its popularity endured until the 1990s.

Greatbear has a significant suite of working NTSC/ PAL/ SECAM U-matic machines and spare parts.

Get in touch by email or phone to discuss transferring your collection.

Through-hole technology

Posted by debra in digitisation expertise, video tape, video technology, machines, equipment, 0 comments

1″ Type A Video Tape – The Old Grey Whistle Test

Sometimes genuine rarities turn up at the Greatbear studio. Our recent acquisition of four reels of ‘missing, believed wiped’ test recordings of cult BBC TV show The Old Grey Whistle Test is one such example.Old Grey Whistle Test Ampex reel

It is not only the content of these recordings that are interesting, but their form too, because they were made on 1” Type A videotape.

The Ampex Corporation introduced 1” Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) type A videotape in 1965.

The 1″ Type A was ‘one of the first standardised reel-to-reel magnetic tape formats in the 1 inch (25 mm) width.’ In the US it had greatest success as an institutional and industrial format. It was not widely adopted in the broadcast world because it did not meet Federal Communications Commission (FCC) specifications for broadcast videotape formats—it was capable of 350 lines, while the NTSC standard was 525, PAL and SECAM were 625. (Note: upcoming conference ‘Standards, Disruptions and Values in Digital Culture and Communication‘ taking place November 2015).

According the VT Old Boys website, created by ex-BBC engineers in order to document the history of videotape used at the organisation, 2″ Quadruplex tape remained very much the norm for production until the end of the 1970s.

Yet the very existence of the Old Grey Whistle Test tapes suggests type A videotape was being used in some capacity in the broadcast world. Perhaps ADAPT, a project researching British television production technology from 1960-present, could help us solve this mystery?

Old Grey Whistle Test ReelFrom Type A, to Type B….

As these things go, type A was followed by Type B, with this model developed by the German company Bosch. Introduced in 1976, Type B was widely adopted in continental Europe, but not in UK and USA which gravitated toward the type C model, introduced by SONY/ Ampex, also in 1976. Type C then became the professional broadcast standard and was still being used well into the 1990s. It was able to record high quality composite video, and therefore had an advantage over component videos such as Betacam and MII that were ‘notoriously fussy and trouble-prone.‘ Type C also had fancy functions like still, shuttle, variable-speed playback and slow motion.

From a preservation assessment point of view, ‘one-inch open reel is especially susceptible to risks associated with age, hardware, and equipment obsolescence. It is also prone to risks common to other types of magnetic media, such as mould, binder deterioration, physical damage, and signal drop-outs.’

1" Type A Machine

The Preservation Self-Assessment Programme advise that ‘this format is especially vulnerable, and, based on content assessment, it should be a priority for reformatting.’

AMPEX made over 30 SMPTE type A models, the majority of which are listed here. Yet the number of working machines we have access to today is few and far between.

In years to come it will be common for people to say ‘it takes four 1” Type A tape recorders to make a working one’, but remember where you heard the truism first.

Harvesting several of these hulking, table-top machines for spares and working parts is exactly how we are finding a way to transfer these rare tapes—further evidence that we need to take the threat of equipment obsolescence very seriously.

Posted by debra in video tape, 1 comment

1/2″ EIAJ video tape – aesthetic glitches

In an article on the BBC website Temple reflected on the recordings: ‘we affectionately called the format “Glorious Bogroll Vision” but really it was murksville. Today monochrome footage would be perfectly graded with high-contrast effects. But the 1970s format has a dropout-ridden, glitchy feel which I enjoy now.’ 

Note the visible drop out in the image

Note the visible drop out in the image

The glitches of 1/2″ video were perfect for Temple’s film, which aimed to capture the apocalyptic feeling of Britain on the eve of 1977. Indeed, Temple reveals that ‘we cut in a couple of extra glitches we liked them so much.

Does the cutting in of additional imperfection signal a kind-of fetishisation of the analogue video, a form of wanton nostalgia that enables only a self-referential wallowing on a time when things were gloriously a lot worse than they are now?

Perhaps the corrupted image interrupts the enhanced definition and clarity of contemporary digital video.

Indeed, Temple’s film demonstrates how visual perception is always produced by the transmission devices that playback moving images, sound and images, whether that be the 1/2″ video tape or the super HD television.

It is reminder, in other words, that there are always other ways of seeing, and underlines how punk, as a mode of aesthetic address in this case, maintains its capacity to intervene into the business-as-usual ordering of reality.

What to do with your 1/2″ video tapes?

hitachi_reel_to_reel_eiaj_vtr1

While Temple’s film was made to look worse than it could have been, EIAJ 1/2″ video tapes are most definitely a vulnerable format and action therefore needs to be taken if they are to be preserved effectively.

In a week where the British Library launched their Save Our Sounds campaign, which stated that ‘archival consensus internationally is that we have approximately 15 years in which to save our sound collections by digitising them before they become unreadable and are effectively lost,’ the same timeframes should be applied to magnetic tape-based video collections.

So if your 1/2″ tapes are rotting in your shed as Temple’s Clash footage was, you know that you need to get in there, fish them out, and send them to us pronto!

Posted by debra in video tape, 0 comments

Future tape archaeology: speculations on the emulation of analogue environments

At the recent Keeping Tracks symposium held at the British Library, AV scoping analyst Adam Tovell stated that

‘there is consensus internationally that we as archivists have a 10-20 year window of opportunity in which to migrate the content of our physical sound collections to stable digital files. After the end of this 10-20 year window, general consensus is that the risks faced by physical media mean that migration will either become impossible or partial or just too expensive.’

This point of view certainly corresponds to our experience at Greatbear. As collectors of a range of domestic and professional video and audio tape playback machines, we are aware of the particular problems posed by machine obsolescence. Replacement parts can be hard to come by, and the engineering expertise needed to fix machines is becoming esoteric wisdom. Tape degradation is of course a problem too. These combined factors influence the shortened horizon of magnetic tape-based media.

All may not be lost, however, if we are take heart from a recent article which reported the development of an exciting technology that will enable memory institutions to recover recordings made over 125 years ago on mouldy wax cylinders or acid-leaching lacquer discs.

IRENE (Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etc.), developed by physicist Carl Haber at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, is a software programme that ‘photographs the grooves in fragile or decayed recordings, stitches the “sounds” together with software into an unblemished image file, and reconstructs the “untouchable” recording by converting the images into an audio file.’

The programme was developed by Haber after he heard a radio show discuss the Library of Congress’ audio collections that were so fragile they risked destruction if played back. Haber speculated that the insights gained from a project he was working on could be used to recover these audio recordings. ‘“We were measuring silicon, why couldn’t we measure the surface of a record? The grooves at every point and amplitude on a cylinder or disc could be mapped with our digital imaging suite, then converted to sound.”’

For those involved in the development of IRENE, there was a strong emphasis on the benefits of patience and placing trust in the inevitable restorative power of technology. ‘It’s ironic that as we put more time between us and the history we are exploring, technology allows us to learn more than if we had acted earlier.’

Can such a hands-off approach be applied to magnetic tape based media? Is the 10-20 year window of opportunity described by Tovell above unnecessarily short? After all, it is still possible to playback wax cylinder recordings from the early 20th century which seem to survive well over long periods of time, and magnetic tape is far more durable than is commonly perceived.

In a fascinating audio recording made for the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, Nigel Bewley from the British Library describes how he migrated wax cylinder recordings that were made by Evans Pritchard in 1928-1930 and Diamond Jenness in 1911-1912. Although Bewley reveals his frustration in the preparation process, he reveals that once he had established the size of stylus and rotational speed of the cylinder player, the transfer was relatively straightforward.

You will note that in contrast with the recovery work made possible by IRENE, the cylinder transfer was made using an appropriate playback mechanism, examples of which can accessed on this amazing section of the British Library’s website (here you can also browse through images and information about disc cutters, magnetic recorders, radios, record players, CD players and accessories such as needle tins and headphones – a bit of a treasure trove for those inclined toward media archaeology).

Perhaps the development of the IRENE technology will mean that it will no longer be necessary to use such ‘authentic’ playback mechanisms to recover information stored on obsolete media. This brings us neatly to the question of emulation.

Emulation

Insides of a beta-hi-fi machine

If we assume that all the machines that play back magnetic tape become irrevocably obsolete in 10-20 years, what other potential extraction methods may be available? Is it possible that emulation techniques, commonly used in the preservation of born-digital environments, can be applied to recover the recorded information stored on magnetic tape?

In a recent interview Dirk Von Suchodoletz explains that:

‘Emulation is a concept in digital preservation to keep things, especially hardware architectures, as they were. As the hardware itself might not be preservable as a physical entity it could be very well preserved in its software reproduction. […] For memory institutions old digital artifacts become more easy to handle. They can be viewed, rendered and interacted-with in their original environments and do not need to be adapted to our modern ones, saving the risk of modifying some of the artifact’s significant properties in an unwanted way. Instead of trying to mass-migrate every object in the institution’s holdings, objects are to be handled on access request only, significantly shifting the preservation efforts.’

For the sake of speculation, let us imagine we are future archaeologists and consider some of the issues that may arise when seeking to emulate the operating environments of analogue-based tape media.

To begin with, without a working transport mechanism which facilitates the transmission of information, the emulation of analogue environments will need to establish a circuitry that can process the Radio Frequency (RF) signals recorded on magnetic tape. As Jonathan Sterne reflects, ‘if […] we say we have to preserve all aspects of the platform in order to get at the historicity of the media practice, that means archival practice will have to have a whole new engineering dimension to it.’

Yet with the emulation of analogue environments, engineering may have to be a practical consideration rather than an archival one. For example, some kind of transport mechanism would presumably have to be emulated through which the tape could be passed through. It would be tricky to lay the tape out flat and take samples of information from its surface, as IRENE’s software does to grooved media, because of the sheer length of tape when it unwound. Without an emulated transport mechanism, recovery would be time consuming and therefore costly, a point that Tovell intimates at the beginning of the article. Furthermore, added time and costs would necessitate even more complex selection and appraisal decisions on behalf of archivists managing in-operative magnetic tape-based collections. Questions about value will become fraught and most probably politically loaded. With an emulated transport mechanism, issues such as tape vulnerability and head clogs, which of course impact on current migration practices, would come into play.

Audio and video differences

On a technical level emulation may be vastly more achievable for audio where the signal is recorded using a longitudinal method and plays back via a relatively simple process. Audio tape is also far less propriety than video tape. On the SONY APR-5003V machine we use in the Greatbear Studio for example, it is possible to play back tapes of different sizes, speeds, brands, and track formations via adjustments of the playback heads. Such versatility would of course need to be replicated in any emulation environment.

helical scanThe technical circuitry for playing back video tape, however, poses significantly more problems. Alongside the helical scan methods, which records images diagonally across the video tape in order to prevent the appearance of visible joints between the signal segments, there are several heads used to read the components of the video signal: the image (video), audio and control (synch) track.

Unlike audio, video tape circuitry is more propriety and therefore far less inter-operable. You can’t play a VHS tape on a U-Matic machine, for example. Numerous mechanical infrastructures would therefore need to be devised which correspond with the relevant operating environments – one size fits all would (presumably) not be possible.

A generic emulated analogue video tape circuit may be created, but this would only capture part of the recorded signal (which, as we have explored elsewhere on the blog, may be all we can hope for in the transmission process). If such systems are to be developed it is surely imperative that action is taken now while hardware is operative and living knowledge can be drawn upon in order to construct emulated environments in the most accurate form possible.

While hope may rest in technology’s infinite capacity to take care of itself in the end, excavating information stored on magnetic tape presents far more significant challenges when compared with recordings on grooved media. There is far more to tape’s analogue (and digital) circuit than a needle oscillating against a grooved inscription on wax, lacquer or vinyl.

The latter part of this article has of course been purely speculative. It would be fascinating to learn about projects attempting to emulate the analogue environment in software – please let us know if you are involved in anything in the comments below.

Posted by debra in audio tape, audio technology, machines, equipment, video tape, video technology, machines, equipment, 0 comments

Repairing obsolete media – remembering how to fix things

A recent news report on the BBC website about recycling and repairing ‘old’ technology resonates strongly with the work of Greatbear.

The story focused on the work of Restart Project, a charity organisation who are encouraging positive behavioural change by empowering people to use their electronics for longer. Their website states,

the time has come to move beyond the culture of incessant electronics upgrades and defeatism in the face of technical problems. We are preparing the ground for a future economy of maintenance and repair by reskilling, supporting repair entrepreneurs, and helping people of all walks of life to be more resilient.

We are all familiar with the pressure to adopt new technologies and throw away the old, but what are the consequences of living in such a disposable culture? The BBC report describes how ‘in developed nations people have lost the will to fix broken gadgets. A combination of convenience and cultural pressure leads people to buy new rather than repair.’

These tendencies have been theorised by French philosopher of technology Bernard Stiegler as the loss of knowledge of how to live (savoir-vivre). Here people lose not only basic skills (such as how to repair a broken electronic device), but are also increasingly reliant on the market apparatus to provide for them (for example, the latest new product when the ‘old’ one no longer works).

A lot of the work of Greatbear revolves around repairing consumer electronics from bygone eras. Our desks are awash with soldering irons, hot air rework stations, circuit boards, capacitors, automatic wire strippers and a whole host of other tools.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We have bookshelves full of operating manuals. These can help us navigate the machinery in the absence of a skilled engineer who has been trained how to fix a MII, U-Matic or D3 tape machine.

As providers of a digitisation service we know that maintaining obsolete machines appropriate to the transfer is the only way we can access tape-based media. But the knowledge and skills of how to do so are rapidly disappearing – unless of course they are actively remembered through practice.

The Restart Project offers a community-orientated counterpoint to the erosion of skills and knowledge tacitly promoted by the current consumer culture. Promoting values of maintenance and repair opens up the possibility for sustainable, rather than throwaway, uses of technology.

Even if the Restart Project doesn’t catch on as widely as it deserves to, Greatbear will continue to collect, maintain and repair old equipment until the very last tape head on earth is worn down.

Posted by debra in audio tape, video tape, 1 comment

Collection of obsolete of audio and video tape machines for digitisation

Over a several years, Greatbear has been collecting and restoring old audio and video tape machines. By trawling through the online car boot sale that is ebay, or travelling round the country to visit real ones, the collection has built up over time and now constitutes over seventy working machines and forty other machines that are used for spare parts and testing.

Amazingly, a good amount of the machines we have acquired have cost absolutely nothing: its all about having the canny knack of being in the right place at the right time, and knowing the right people. On several occasions we have been given fully functioning machines by film production houses who have been forced to make the latest technological transition because of changing industry standards. So what happens to these machines when their built-in obsolescence comes home to roost? They are either chucked in a skip, sold on ebay to a limited and sometimes lucrative market, or they are given to people like us who are continuing to make good use of them.

To  give you a picture of how quickly technological and, consequently, monetary value changes, consider this brief example. In 1991 the value of a Sony BVW D75 was $32,000 (or $52,037/ £32,920 in today’s money), but today it is worth absolutely nothing. Despite their lack of monetary value in today’s market economy, videotape machines from the 70s, 80s and 90s are exceptionally well made. They were built to last and were designed for heavy use in editing suites, where tape was freeze framed, rewound and played back again and again on a daily basis.

Yet as technology develops, there is no more need for the AMPEX BVW 75, Panasonic MII, Sony U-matic VTR BVU-800 and others like them. These machines become inoperable artifacts, casualties of a market and quality driven, technological evolution .

Posted by debra in video tape, 1 comment

video tape obsolescence – spares supplies disappearing

Greatbear protects tape-based analogue and digital media from the wave of obsolescence faced by these formats. The speed of technological change in the 20th and 21st centuries has been, and continues to be, breathtaking. Consider the amount of tapes and machines that have been made since the invention of magnetic recording tape by Valdemar Poulson in 1894. Since then, the drive for efficiency and better quality has fueled the development of numerous formats which become eclipsed as each new product hits the market.

Close up of a V-MAG Head off an AMPEX 1" Machine

Close up of an individual V-MAG Head off an AMPEX 1″ Machine

Obsolescence for video tape is an issue for a number of reasons. Firstly the knowledge of how to repair older video machines is disappearing: as technology changes, people are no longer trained in the maintenance of such technology.

Another crucial issue is the lack of spare parts. For video tape machines, the most sought after parts are often drum heads. Video drum heads are difficult and expensive to make, they can’t be refurbished and there is no commercial market for them, which makes them rare and sought after.

The nature of recording an audio signal is different from recording a video signal. Because of this, video heads and the video tape transport had to be designed in a different way to audio heads. Audio drum heads are in fact easier to make and they can also be ‘relapped‘ (a sophisticated form of sanding down), so it is a fairly straightforward process to refurbish them.

Because of the specific problems facing video tape obsolescence we have to rely on ‘New Old Stock’, although sometimes it is possible to use parts from scrap machines. These are however less reliable because the drums heads are part of a mechanical process and if used extensively, they will inevitably be worn down.

Betacam Head Drum

Betacam Head Drum

One company – Video Magnetics Inc – remake video drum heads and specialise in the repair and alignment of Betacam SP, Digital Betacam, Betacam SX, DVCAM and DVC PRO recorders, cameras, camcorders and dockables. They do not however cover all the machines we use at Greatbear.

Luckily we are well stocked up with lots of spare parts, mainly through careful collecting with an eye to work in the future.

U-matic Head Drum

U-matic Head Drum

Posted by greatbear in video tape, 6 comments

broken DAT / degraded mouldy tape

Early tape based digital formats such as DAT, Tascam DTRS and ADAT, etc are often problematic now, partly with tape issues and also reliability and spares availability. In 20 or even 10 years time these machines will be much less serviceable than the analogue tape machines of the previous generation and as a result more obsolete and a higher priority to migrate to a file based digital format.

We’ve also started to see a particularly nasty problem with some, and usually the 120 minute length, DATs. The first symptoms are a broken DAT tape usually on wind.  The tape pack seems to become slightly sticky, with intermittent tension between the layers of tape and with the thinner tape in 120 lengths this can sometimes break the tape on wind.

TDK 120 DAT sticky tape layers

You can see in the above image how the tape sticks slightly to the pack and then releases when hand wound. With the greater tension of a machine wind and the tape also wound around the head drum this becomes risky.

With large transfer jobs checking each DAT by disassembly is a mammoth task, but the permanent damage and / or part loss of a section of audio caused by a break is not feasible either!

Posted by greatbear in audio tape, 1 comment

how to transfer video to dvd

loose half inch vhs video tape

So how do you do it?

Contact us, of course! No seriously, how to transfer video to dvd or any other digital format is a very simple concept but the reality can be pretty complex. As with much mature technology, the domestic video formats and machines were often made pretty straightforward to use and hid much of the complexity of analogue video from us.

The simplest methods are to use the few machines ready made for the transfer purpose but these were only made for the most common video formats. Several manufacturers made VHS to DVD units and these can work well if MPEG2 DVD Video is the only format you require.

The problems come for the less common formats and when the tapes themselves start exhibiting physical problems.

Times are changing though and even the most common domestic formats like VHS will soon become harder to work with. While it’s still possible to buy older video machines that may work and your old video machine at home or in the attic may still work this situation is changing fairly quickly.

Very few manufacturers carry a full range of spares for their older machines anymore and often what stock they have, once sold is never remade. Even in the professional and broadcast markets companies like Sony only guarantee spares support for equipment up to 10 years from manufacture.

What this all means is that to support a range of legacy, analogue video formats as we do, constant sourcing of parts, parts machines, obsolete service manuals and older specialist knowledge is vital. This isn’t always easy or cheap and highlights one of the key issues in digitising video tape.

Read an introduction to our processes here: Video Tape Transfer

 

 

Posted by greatbear in video tape, 0 comments

Sony PCM 7030 DAT repair

Sony PCM 7030 DAT machine

We have several of these large, wonderful machines. It’s not often we need or want to get involved in DAT machine repair as generally they are not easy to service machines and many key transport parts are becoming unavailable. The Sony 7030 DAT though has been designed with easy servicing in mind. There’s alot of room in these things and each section is clearly marked and separated into distinct boards much like Sony Broadcast video machines.

These are timecode DAT machines and were once common in video post production houses and the more well funded recording studios. The problem with some of this well built kit though is exactly that it works too well and gets left on for long periods through it’s life and this can take a toll on certain components, especially electrolytic capacitors. Heat builds up in electronic circuits, especially in switch mode power supplies that larger broadcast items often use. Capacitors have a rated life at 85°C or 105°C at several thousand hours. With hotter environments, substandard parts and long operating hours these capacitors can soon outlive their original design life.

Our 7030 DAT had started behaving oddly and at first the display would flash on and off after a short while powered on. Another machine would power up for 30 secs then just die. Before delving into the enormous service volumes it’s always worth replacing the Switch Mode Power Supplies (SMPS). These like many broadcast machines use supplies that are sometimes generic made by other companies and which can be bought at Farnell or RS. We did it the harder way and desoldered all the old capacitors in the power supply and replaced these with high quality low ESR Panasonic ones which should give us another 6000 hours of running time. So far this machine has worked perfectly although you do need good soldering and desoldering technique on these boards. A powered air desoldering station is a good idea, much, much better than a hand solder pump.

Posted by greatbear in audio tape, audio technology, machines, equipment, 4 comments