promotion material

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

Philips N-1502 TV Recorder

The front page of the Philips N-1502 TV Recorder catalogue presents a man peering mournfully into a dark living room. A woman, most probably his wife, drags him reluctantly out for the evening. She wants to be social, distracted in human company.

Philips-N1502-marketing-catalogueThe N-1502 tape machine is superimposed on this unfamiliar scene, an image of a Grand Slam tennis match arises from it, like a speech bubble, communicating the machine’s power to capture the fleeting live event. The man’s stare into the domestic environment constructs desire in a way that feels entirely new in 1976: a masculinity that appropriates the private space of the home, now transformed as a location where media events are transmitted and videotaped.

The man’s gaze is confrontational. It invites those looking to participate in a seductive, shared message: videotape-in the home-will change your life forever.

In the 1970s Philips were leading figures in the development of domestic video tape technology. Between 1972 and 1979, the company produced seven models of the N-1500 video ‘TV recorder’. It was the first time video tape entered the domestic environment, and the format offered a number of innovations such as timed, unattended recording (‘busy people needn’t miss important programmes’), an easy loading mechanism, a built in TV tuner, a digital electronic time switch and stop motion bar.

The N-1500 converged upon several emergent markets for video tape. While SONY’s hulking uMatic format almost exclusively targeted institutional and industrial markets, the N-1500 presented itself as a more nimble alternative: ‘Compact and beautifully designed it can be used in schools, advertising agencies, sale demonstrations and just about everywhere else.’

Used alongside the Philips Video Camera, the N-1500 could capture black and white video, offering ‘a flexible, economic and reliable’ alternative to EIAJ/ porta-pak open reel video. Marketing also imagined uses for sports professionals: practices or competitive games could be watched in order to analyse and improve performance.

Philips N1502-marketing-brochureAlthough N-1500 tape machines were very expensive (£649 [1976]/ £4,868.38 [2016]), the primary market for the product was overwhelmingly domestic. In 2016 we are fairly used to media technologies disrupting our intimate, every day lives. We are also told regularly that this or that gadget will make our lives easier.

Such needs are often deliberately and imaginatively invented. The mid-1970s was a time when video tape was novel, and its social applications experimental. How could video tape be used in the home? How would it fit into existing social relationships? The marketing brochure for the Philips N-1502 offer compelling evidence of how video tape technology was presented to consumers in its early days.

One aspect highlighted how the machine gave the individual greater control of their media environment: ‘Escape from the Dictatorship of TV Timetables’!

The VCR could also help liberate busy people from the disappointment of missing their favourite TV programmes, ‘if visitors call at the moment of truth don’t despair. Turn the TV off and the VCR on.’

In the mid 1970s domestic media consumption was inescapably communal, and the N-1500 machine could help sooth ‘typical’ rifts within the home. ‘You want to see a sports programme but your wife’s favourite serial is on the other channel. The solution? Simple. Just switch on your Philips VCR.’

Owning the N-1500 meant there would be ‘no more arguments about which channel to select – you watch one while VCR makes a parallel recording from another.’ Such an admission tells us a lot about the fragility of marriages in the 1970s, as well as the central place TV-watching occupied as a family activity. More than anything, the brochure presents videotape technology as a vital tool that could help people take control over their leisure time and negotiate the competing tastes of family members.

N-1500 transfers

As the first domestic video tape technology, the Philips N-1500 ‘set a price structure and design standard that is still unshaken,’ wrote the New Scientist in 1983.

In a preservation context, however, these early machines are notoriously difficult to work with. Tapes heads are fragile and wear quickly because of a comparatively high running tape speed (11.26 ips). Interchange is often poor between machines, and the entry/ exit guides on the tape path often need to be adjusted to ensure the tapes track correctly.

Later models, the N-1700 onwards, used slant azimuth technology, a recording technique patented by Professor Shiro Okamura of the University of Electronic Communications, Tokyo in 1959. Slant azimuth was adopted by JVC, Philips and SONY in the mid-1970s, and this decision is heralded as a breakthrough moment in the evolution of domestic video tape technology. The technique offered several improvements to the initial N-1500 model, which used guard bands to prevent cross talk between tracks, and the Quadruplex technology developed by Ampex in the late 1950s. Slant azimuth meant more information could be recorded onto the tape without interference from adjacent tracks and, crucially, the tape could run at a slower speed, use less tape and record for longer.

In general, the design of the N-1500’s tape path and transport doesn’t lend itself to reliability.

As S P Bali explains:

‘One reason for the eventual failure of the Philips VCR formats was that the cassette used coaxial spools—in other words, spools stacked one on top of the other. This means that the tape had to run a skew path which made it much more difficult to control. The tape would jam, and even break, especially ageing cassettes.’ [1]

Philips N1500 (top) & Philips N1702 (bottom) machines in the Greatbear studio

Such factors make the Philips N-1500 series an especially vulnerable video tape format. The carrier itself is prone to mechanical instability, and preservation worries are heightened by a lack of available spare parts that can be used to refurbish poorly functioning machines.

If you have valuable material recorded on this format, be sure to earmark it as a preservation priority.

Notes

[1] S P Bali (2005) Consumer Electronics, Dehli: Pearson Education, 465.

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