VHS

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, 0 comments

VHS – Re-appraising Obsolescence

VHS was a hugely successful video format from the late 1970s to late 1990s. 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.

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-500P and Panasonic AG-650 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 cheaper, domestic VHS machines.

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.

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.

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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 Video Tape, 0 comments

Phil Johnson’s the Wild Bunch VHS video

wildbunch-arnolfini-screen-grab-dancing

Screen shots from the Wild Bunch film

As a business situated in the heart of Bristol, Greatbear is often called upon by Bristol’s artists to re-format their magnetic tape collections.

Previously we have transferred documentaries about the St. Paul’s Carnival and films from the Bristol-based Women in Moving Pictures archive. We also regularly digitise tapes for Bristol Archive Records.

We were recently approached by author Phil Johnson to transfer a unique VHS recording.

As Bristol countercultural folklore goes, the video tape is a bit of a gem: it documents the Wild Bunch performing at Arnolfini in 1985.

For the uninitiated, the Wild Bunch were the genesis of what became internationally known as trip-hop, a.k.a. ‘the Bristol-sound.’

Members went on to form Massive Attack, while Tricky and producer Nellee Hooper continue to have successful careers in the music industry. And that’s just the short-hand version of events.

Want to know more? This documentary from 1996 is a good place to become acquainted.

 wildbunch-arnolfini-vhs-screen-grabThe newly transferred video will be screened at B-Boys, B-Girls, Breakdancers, Wannabees and Posers: ‘Graffiti Art in Bristol 30th Anniversary Party’, a free event taking place on Sunday 19 July 2015, 14:00 to 23:00 at Arnolfini.

We are delighted to feature a guest blog from Phil Johnson, author of Straight Outta Bristol: Massive Attack, Portishead, Tricky and the Roots of Trip-Hop, who filmed the event.

Below he beautifully evokes the social and technical stories behind why the video was made. Many thanks Phil for putting this together.

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In 1985 I was a lecturer in Film and Communications at Filton College with an added responsibility for running the Audio Visual Studio, a recording room and edit suite/office that had dropped from the sky as part of a new library and resources building. There was also kit of variable quality and vintage, some new, some inherited. I remember a Sony edit suite for big, chunky u-matic videos and another JVC one for VHS tapes, with a beige plasticky mixer that went in the middle by the edit controller. This also allowed you to do grandiose wipes from one camera to another, although we rarely used the camera set-up in the studio because you really needed to know what you wanted to do in advance, and no one ever did. What students liked using were the portable cameras and recorders, JVC VHS jobs that together with the fancy carry cases and padded camera boxes, plus regulation heavy pivoting tripod, weighed each prospective al fresco film-maker down with the baggage-equivalent of several large suitcases. I remember one aspiring Stanley Kubrick from Foundation Art&Design setting off to get the bus into town carrying everything himself, and returning sweatily later that day, close to collapse. He was wearing a heavy greatcoat, obviously.

We had a ‘professional’ u-matic portable recorder too, and that was seriously heavy, but we didn’t have the requisite three-tube camera to get the quality it was capable of, never entirely understanding the principle of garbage in-garbage out, with the inevitable result that almost everything anyone did was doomed to remain at least as shoddy as the original dodgy signal it depended upon. But hey, this was education: it was the process we were interested in, not the product.

wildbunch-vhs-screen-grab
It was a JVC portable VHS recorder I was using on the night of the Wild Bunch jam at the Arnolfini on Friday 19 July 1985, the case slung over my shoulder while I held a crap Hitachi single-tube camera with a misted-over viewfinder whose murky B&W picture meant you were never entirely sure whether it was on manual or auto focus. There was no tripod, and no lighting; just me and a Foundation student, Jo Evans, helping out. The original camera tape, which I recently found after presuming it lost, is a Scotch 3M 60-minuter and the video document of the event, such as it is, lasts only until the single tape runs out, which is just about the time the Wild Bunch’s rappers, Claude and 3D, are getting started.
The image quality is terrible but when there’s some light in the room – the Arnolfini’s downstairs gallery – you can just about make out what’s happening. When it’s dark – and it generally is – the image is so thin it’s barely an image at all. As this is the camera tape – unimportant in itself, and usually only considered as the raw material for a later edit – the significance of what is shown is very provisional. What I meant to focus on, and what was only being picked up because it was easier to keep recording than it was to switch to ‘pause’, is impossible to say. But what the tape does show – when, of course, there’s enough information there to make out anything at all – is now the stuff of history: a Mitchell and Kenyon type document of the yet-to-emerge ‘Bristol Sound’, and a weirdly innocent time that existed before the camera phone. And there it all is: graffiti on the walls, funk, electro and rap on the muffled boominess of the mono soundtrack, with dancers breaking acrobatically on the floor as rockabilly quiffed boys, big-haired girls and lots and lots of very young kiddies look on. As to why I filmed the event in the first place: it was partly for my master’s dissertation (Black Music, the Arts and Education’ – classic lefty teacher getting down with the kids) and partly for the Arnolfini’s new video library.
If you go down and see it on Sunday July 19: enjoy.
Posted by debra in Video Tape, 0 comments

Digitise VHS Tapes – Bristol’s Meet Your Feet

We recently digitised some VHS tapes from when Bristol-based band Meet Your Feet performed on HTV in 1990. Meet Your Feet

‘formed in 1988 as a result of three of the women getting together to start a women’s music workshop, Meet Your Feet played its first gig in June 1988, when asked to get a set together for a Benefit Gig against section 28. This gig was so successful that the band decided to stay together and gradually the original line-up of the early years of the band evolved: Carol Thomas, vocals; Diana Milstein, founder member, bass and lyricist; Diggy, percussion; Heie Gelhaus, founder member, keyboards and songwriter; Julie Lockhart, vocals; Karen Keen, sax; Sue Hewitt, founder member, drums and songwriter; Vicki Burke, sax’ (taken from the  Women’s Liberation Music Archive).

During the 80s the band achieved great success and performed at prestigious festivals such as Glastonbury and WOMAD, as well as appearing on Radio 4’s Women’s Hour. They played together until 1992 before disbanding, reformed in 2010 and continue to play shows in Bristol and beyond. Meet Your Feet’s style, which draws from Latin, Jazz and Soul influences, interspersed with passionate, upbeat political lyrics, align them with other ‘women’s music’ bands from the 1980s, such as The Guest Stars and Hi-Jinx.

Meet Your Feet from Adrian Finn on Vimeo.

The video clip we digitised is interesting because it indicates how novel women’s bands were in 1990.

After the band finish performing their new single, they take part in a short interview where they are asked:

‘Its an obvious question, but I am going to ask it, why all women?’

Julie Lockhart, one of the singers, responds wittily, but not without a tinge of bewilderment, ‘Um, we were born that way!’

Can you imagine an all male group being asked a similar question in a television interview, either now or in the early 1990s?! It just wouldn’t happen because no one notices if all the members of a group are male, it just seems completely normal.

The interview goes on to emphasise gender issues, rather than focus on other aspects, such as themes in their music or that it is a large group (there are nine people in the band after all, which is a lot!)

This is not a criticism of the interviewer’s questions as such. Yet the fact it was necessary to asks them about their gender speaks volumes about how surprising it was to see women playing music together. The interview continues as follows:

Presenter: Are there any real advantages to being an all female group?

Sue Hewitt: We listen to each other more, and spin ideas of each other a lot more easily

Julie Lockhart: We giggle a lot more

Presenter: Do you row a lot because you are on the road, its a hard life isn’t it, very intense?

Julie Lockhart: No, that’s the obvious difference we never row!

Presenter: Do you find it hard to be taken seriously by men who come to see an all girl band?

Sue Hewitt: Well no, not all the time. I think initially some men take the view of ‘oh well, its just a bunch of girls on stage’ but when we get up there and start playing they think, ohhh [they can play as well]

It is frustrating that such questions had to be asked, and maybe they wouldn’t be now – although it is still often the case that in music, as in other areas of cultural life, women’s gender is marked, while male gender is not. We have all heard, for example, the phrase ‘female-fronted band’. When do we ever hear of bands that are ‘male-fronted’?

It is really valuable to have access to recordings such as those of Meet Your Feet, not only as a documentation of their performances, but also to demonstrate the attitudes and assumptions that women faced when they participated in a male dominated cultural field.

It is also good to know that Meet Your Feet are still performing and undoubtedly upsetting a few stereotypes and expectations along the way, so make sure you catch them at a show soon!

Posted by debra in Video Tape, 0 comments

VHS / Hi8 video tapes digitised for The Great Hip Hop Hoax

Silibil n' Brains on MTV

For a while now we’ve been working with film maker Jeanie Finlay on various projects, digitising archive video footage in varying tape formats and standards.

Her latest project, soon to be premiered in the US:

…is a film about truth, lies and the legacy of faking everything in the desperate pursuit of fame. The American dream, told by people who’d never even been to America.

We digitised a collection of VHS and Hi8 camcorder and full sized tapes and delivered Apple ProRes files for the edit.
See the trailer here:

The Great Hip Hop Hoax from Jeanie Finlay on Vimeo.

www.hiphophoax.com / www.facebook.com/hiphophoax

Posted by greatbear in Video Tape, 0 comments

VHS-C and full size VHS (NTSC and PAL)

‘We’re not sure what on here’ is a common phrase used by customers who send tape to the Great Bear. Spurred on by curiosity or creative necessity, they contact us to help them solve the mystery.

This is exactly what documentary film maker Jeanie Finlay did when she sent us VHS-C and full size VHS tapes that were used in her forthcoming film The Great Hip Hop Hoax (2013).

Jeanie wanted us to deliver her digital files as Quicktime Pro Res files, an apple codec often used in professional film production because it offers a good compromise between quality and data size.

We are also digitising material for another of Jeanie’s films, ORION, which is currently in production. ORION is the story of Jimmy Ellis, an unknown singer, who was plucked from obscurity and thrust into the spotlight as part of an audacious scheme that had him masquerade as Elvis back from the grave.

We have a series of US NTSC US VHS tapes to digitise for the film which includes copies of out takes, interviews and concert footage of Orion. The tapes were sent to us by the official (and only) Orion fan club based in Norway.

Posted by debra in Video Tape, 0 comments