October 15, 2010

Technology History -- Courtesy of the Betamax Videotape Extraction Lab

Greetings. It's always fascinating to view technology through the prism of many years ago. What did we think would happen? What actually did occur? Which predictions were on the mark? Which products were heavily hyped, only to go poof?

In the long ago days before the empire, I rather compulsively videotaped all manner of technology-related (yes, and other) goodies, on the theory that they might be interesting or useful some day in the far future.

Unfortunately, as former videotape aficionados know all too well, the half-life of videotapes (both Beta and VHS) can make CD and DVD physical decay seem positively charming by comparison.

This was especially true for many of my oldest tapes in Sony Beta (Betamax) format, many of which are now over three decades old. Over ten years ago, I discovered that these old tapes were not playable at all in any equipment available to me at the time, due to the tapes' long period of deterioration. The situation looked rather hopeless.

However, I very recently obtained a number of ancient Beta decks that were about to be trashed by their owners, and I decided that if the tapes were going to be saved for posterity (and my own amusement), now was the time. Any further delay in this process would likely have resulted in the tapes being completely unplayable on any equipment anywhere ever -- without resorting to a pact with Satan that is. And while I love YouTube, there's only so far I'll go in the name of content creation.

This is the setup I'm using to extract video from my grizzled Betamax tapes.

I've hobbled together this nightmare arrangement from three different Beta VCRs. The resulting hybrid deck (as shown) includes a number of major modifications (definitely not in the service manuals and possibly hazardous to the spacetime continuum) that I've been forced to improvise, resulting in a mechanism more or less capable of tracking decayed tapes -- at least with the help of some manual assistance -- that no individual VCR deck could track at all.

In fact, frequently during the transcription of these tapes, I'm actually mechanically riding the tape path tracking adjustments with a long screwdriver throughout playback to maintain tracking sync lock -- the trick to this is both the visual video cues on the monitor screen, and listening to the sound of the drum rotation servo lock oscillators as they go in and out of phase. Yeah, the technique is something of a lost art, to say the least.

[ Update (10/17/10): To deal with some of the most intensely damaged tapes, I additionally deployed this secret weapon with significant positive effects -- full explanation some other time! ]

Even with all this, while I could then display the videos on a monitor, my usual video digitizing cards would not reliably sync and track most of these tapes at all. Can anything else go wrong? So I switched to feeding the video output to a very stable camcorder A/D that also provides direct DV data -- rather than trying to encode to MPEG on the fly. This provides for maximum quality archivals for later processing. Years ago disk space costs would have made this prohibitively expensive. Now disk space just isn't an issue.

Interestingly, some of the oldest tapes are in somewhat better condition (relatively speaking) than newer ones. The reason is that the former were L-500 tape stock (2 hour tapes) instead of the later, more popular L-750s (3 hour). The 500s had thicker oxide backings, and so time/temperature/humidity-related stretching, print-through, oxide damage, and other effects were somewhat reduced -- a bit at least. Also the conventional linear audio tracks on all these tapes, though of comparatively limited fidelity, have held up much better than the Beta Hi-Fi audio that was encoded on subcarriers via the video heads. The latter are now much more subject to continuing dropouts.

If anyone is interested in more information about this entire process, feel free to drop me a line.

The results of this work should start appearing on YouTube soon. The collection of technology and other segments likely to materialize is perhaps somewhat eclectic -- but much of it is now pretty rare or likely one of a kind. Some will be in pretty poor condition, but at least should be watchable, and hopefully will be informative and enjoyable.

I'll notify as interesting items go online. Stay tuned.


Posted by Lauren at October 15, 2010 12:58 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein