Video and Audio Recordings - FAQ

by Christopher Dicks, Assistant Audio and Video Conservator, Library and Archives Canada, Music Division and edited by Joe Iraci, Senior Conservation Scientist, Canadian Conservation Institute.

At some time or another, we have all had problems with our video and audio recordings. Sometimes the VHS cassette will not play properly. We do not know the best storage conditions for these types of media or how to transfer them to other media, or even what media is best for long-term copies. Many people also have treasured vinyl record albums they want to be able to listen to and preserve. This FAQ will answer questions on formatting, conservation, storage and transference of media.

Table of Contents


Why won't my VHS cassette play properly?

Perhaps the problem lies with the cassette itself or with your VHS player. Try to play another cassette on the same machine. Or, try playing the cassette in another player. If you are sure that the cassette itself is to blame, the tape itself could be rehoused in a new cassette shell.

After several plays and extended storage, a VHS tape may lose its proper winding tension. To restore the tension, play the tape once through and then rewind it.

If the problem tape is new, the reason it won't play may be somewhat surprising: Was the tape recorded using the National Television Standards Committee (NTSC) format? If it was recorded using another standard, such as Phase Alternating Line (PAL) or Système Électronique Couleur Avec Memoire (SECAM), it is unlikely to playback in a VCR machine produced for the North American market. In this situation, the content of the tape would have to be converted to the NTSC format. In North America, the NTSC standard is used; PAL is used in Britain and Australia and most of Europe and SECAM is the television standard in France and parts of Africa. If you choose to change the format of your tape, check the Yellow Pages under "Video Production" or "Videotape Duplication Service".

Table of Contents

What do I do with my 8mm camcorder tapes or VHS tapes?

Any videotape can be copied to any other videotape or digital medium provided you have the right connectors and the same video format on both ends (NTSC, PAL or SECAM). You should choose the highest possible quality format, highest possible quality of tape stock, the highest quality machine and the machine type that you believe will survive the longest. Try to assess the market trends and choose a format that you expect to endure.

The easiest method (although not the best for quality) for most users is to transfer their tapes to VHS tape. For VHS tape, using a good-quality duplicator or two recording machines is a possibility. Note that there is some loss of quality when making copies from one analog format to another, such as 8mm to VHS or VHS to VHS. Loss of quality is not automatic with a digital format, but attention must be paid to the resolution and compression characteristics of the format selected.

If you want the best looking and best sounding recording, then transfer your data to a digital format using digitizing software without data compression and store the file on your computer. Alternatively, you may decide to choose other digital formats such as recordable CD or DVD or the DV/miniDV tape format, which can produce good-quality reproductions, but uses compression. Compression means that some image information is thrown out in order to save storage space. This may or may not result in a noticeable loss of detail or the addition of visual artifacts (that is, effects not present in the original image). However, remember that digital formats have serious longevity issues, which are described in our FAQs # 1, 2 and 3.

If you do copy your tape, keep the original. Improved technologies may come along in the future, allowing you to make a better copy than is currently possible.

If you no longer have a playback machine, look in the Yellow Pages under "Video Production" and under "Videotape Duplication Service" for a company that offers commercial copying. However, keep in mind the points discussed above.

Table of Contents

Is it necessary to periodically rewind my VHS tapes?

It may be necessary to periodically rewind tapes in storage to return them to their ideal tension. If the tapes were wound properly initially, if storage conditions have been good (close to 23°C and 50% relative humidity) and if there are no signs that the wind is loose (visible gaps) or irregular looking, it is best to leave the tapes alone and not rewind them. A poor wind is recognizable because the tape wind on the reel is not perfectly round or perfectly flat; for example, the edge of some sections of tape may stick up higher than the rest of the reel, or loose sections of tape may create an oval rather than a round shape. If the tapes are not stored in an ideal environment, they are more likely to expand or contract, causing winding problems. Also, tape layers may also stick to one another if they have been exposed to high temperature and humidity conditions and if the tape layers have been in contact with one another for a long time. Visually inspect your tape through its clear plastic window. If the wind looks problematic, you should consider rewinding the tape and then playing it through to the end every five to 10 years. If you decide to perform this procedure, ensure that the equipment is clean and properly aligned to avoid stressing or damaging the tape. Otherwise, you may be causing more harm to the tape than good.

Table of Contents

How do I preserve and store VHS tapes?

Before storing your tapes, play them through (using the play mode) and do not rewind. This produces tapes with the ideal winding tension. Using fast forward or rewind modes produces wound tape with uneven tension.

Store tapes in polypropylene rigid storage boxes or at least in clean, dustproof containers when they are not being used. Don't leave tapes in the VCR. For storage, cooler and drier is best, but try to keep the conditions at least below 23°C and 50% relative humidity and avoid large fluctuations in these conditions. Protect the tapes from contact with dust and other debris as much as possible.

Only play your tapes on clean and well-maintained equipment. Store your tapes upright (vertically) and on end. On older tapes, if you see evidence of magnetic particle debris or of a sticky build-up on the play head of the player, this indicates that the tape should be handled carefully and perhaps that it is time to consult a professional to recover a recording.

Table of Contents

How long will VHS be around?

No one can predict how long a format will be around. Consumer habits to some extent and also technological advancement and profit will determine this. One estimate, given the popularity of DVD sales and rentals, is roughly two to three years for recorded VHS tapes (movies), but no one can say for sure. Vinyl records took approximately 10 years to disappear in the face of CDs.

VHS has lasted longer as a recording technology than other less popular consumer formats (Betamax, Hi-8, various digital camera types). Regrettably, you are wise to choose a format that is the most popular rather than the highest quality.

On the other hand, blank VHS tapes (unrecorded) are likely to remain for about five to eight years because they are the only inexpensive method currently available for recording from television. Millions of VHS machines exist now, meaning that the format will probably still be popular for some years. You might consider buying a few new VCRs today (they are very inexpensive) if you have a large VHS collection. Don't use these machines until your present machine fails. Archives around the world often keep failed equipment because it might later be a source of parts for identical machines.

Perhaps the format most likely to endure is the computer file. The computer probably will not be replaced and the tendency is toward standardizing file formats. All other formats for audio and video storage are more likely to come and go. Another benefit of computer storage is that the longevity of the hard disk is a separate problem from the availability of the software used to read a file. A file can easily be copied to another hard disk as disks age or disk types change. Meanwhile a file could be converted to a newer format and, with any luck, a format that has been designed to be "open", or standardized across the industry, regardless of the differences between PC, Mac, Unix and others. In other machines such as VHS players, the extinction of a machine format will effectively end the life of the recording.

Table of Contents

How can I mark VHS tapes and their black cases?

White grease pencil will probably last the longest, longer than the adhesive on a label or on masking tape.

Look for VHS boxes that come with a transparent soft plastic sleeve around them into which you may insert acid-free paper labels. It is a good idea to write some matching details on the VHS tape cassette itself. It is best not to store materials other than the tape (for example, regular paper) inside the case.

Table of Contents

How can I reuse reel-to-reel audio tape?

This answer pertains to both digital audio tape and analog audio tape. You must erase the tape first by using a magnetic bulk-eraser, which brings the magnetic particles on a tape back to a neutral state of charge, a state of equilibrium. Usually only a professional or a person who has learned to erase tapes professionally will know which strength of eraser is needed for what type of tape. A much stronger magnetic field is usually required to erase digital tapes thoroughly; therefore, it would be a mistake to try to use an analog bulk eraser on a digital tape.

If a bulk eraser is not available, turn your record volume to minimum and record silence over the entire tape. Now you are ready to record sound or voice on the tape. Each time you record on a tape, it becomes noisier (the hiss increases). Returning it to a quiet state requires bulk-erasing.

It is not recommended to reuse digital audio reel tape because errors are likely to occur. Errors are less likely to occur if proper bulk-erasing has been performed; however, reusing tapes is not a reliable way to safeguard your memories.

Table of Contents

How do I deal with mouldy reel-to-reel audio tapes?

Most people should not attempt to clean mould from audio tapes. Rather, they should leave this task to a professional conservator. Munters in Montreal, Vidipax and Specs Bros. in the United States are three companies that commercially remove mould and offer other audio and videotape restoration services. The health of the person cleaning may be at risk if proper procedures and facilities are not used.

Mould growth is first forced into dormancy, then the dried growth is vacuumed away. The final stage is to run the tape through cloth pads, which might contain alcohol and water, to kill and remove microscopic mould spores. While freezing is used successfully for forcing the mould on papers into dormancy, freezing may damage magnetic tapes. Freezing may also cause the tape lubricant to separate from the magnetic particle binder compound; therefore, freezing is discouraged for magnetic recordings of all types.

Ideally you would not perform an inspection indoors, but if you do, use the following precautions: First of all protect your mouth, nose and lungs from inhaling mould spores. This requires latex gloves, a clean HEPA mask, which has been professionally tested for proper fit on your face, and a scientific fume hood that removes any mould from the air as it is dislodged. Long sleeves, sleeve covers and lab coats are also recommended. Immediately launder any clothing worn during this cleaning. Again, this type of work is best left to a professional.

Table of Contents

What types or brands of video and audio tape are most suitable for preservation copying?

The longevity of magnetic tape used for video and audio recordings depends on the materials used to make the tape, careful and accurate manufacturing processes, proper storage and handling procedures and correct recording practices. Buying a brand name does not guarantee a good-quality product, but increases your chances of having a product that was properly manufactured with good materials. Even then you might buy a bad batch, so test one first by recording and then view or listen to the tape.

Always buy the top of any product line. Preservation copying should be performed onto high coercivity (difficult to erase) tape. Read the tape package for information on coercivity or ask a knowledgeable clerk. Buy a known name brand. Quantegy (formally Ampex) may be the only source left that produces professional analog quarter inch reel-to-reel audiotape in North America.

Preservation copying should really be done onto analog tape because of its higher stability. If you choose to copy using a digital format, it is recommended to copy files to a computer where you can check data integrity easily and copy the data quickly and often.

Whichever format you choose, make sure it is a technology that has been widely adopted by consumers (illustrated by high numbers of units sold) and by the industry (illustrated by a large number of manufacturers offering products based on the same technology). Avoid new products that are produced only by a single manufacturer. Stick with products that adhere to widely adopted industry standards.

Table of Contents

Are there any specific recording formats that I should avoid?

Most importantly avoid any formats that are already obsolete or that are clearly losing popularity in the marketplace.

With digital formats, it is important to understand both the advantages and the disadvantages offered by new technologies. For example, digital audiotape (DAT) is not as stable as many analog tape formats are. Digital errors resulting from improper voltage, from re-use or from particle drop-out can render a DAT tape unplayable or severely distorted. Some users have found that DAT tapes only remain playable for a maximum of 10 years. Perhaps an equally pressing issue is the fact that the DAT format is obsolete and that a buyer will have trouble finding a machine for sale, if not now, then in the near future.

While you do not need to avoid using Compact Disc Recordable (CD-R) discs, avoid low-quality CD-R blanks and low-quality CD-R recorders. You should avoid improper handling of your discs and avoid CD-R production software that has low technical standards. CD-Rs can be very reliable if you choose a good-quality product and record properly.

CD-Rs can last for 100 or more years. To guide you in choosing a product that has a greater longevity, choose disks that:

  • use a phthalocyanine dye layer

  • are a brand name

  • have a gold metal reflective layer (if possible)

  • can play for 74 minutes

  • have an extra tough top protective layer

  • are reported to record with a low error rate

By using discs recommended by the manufacturer of the recorder, you should be able to produce discs with low error rates. If you are not able to find CDs with a gold layer, which is chemically inert, then your second choice would be a silver layer, which is more reactive.

Digital videotape formats change so quickly that if you value your footage, you should transfer it into a standard, widespread, enduring format as soon as possible. Avoid new, untested digital video formats if you are trying to capture memories that you will be able to play back in the long-term. With that said, it may be appropriate to record in a new format as long as you "store" your work in a format that will last, such as a computer file.

You should avoid having only digital copies of your valued records. If possible make analog copies of records as well as digital copies and store the two in separate locations.

Table of Contents

How do I clean vinyl record albums?

You may remove dust and debris with a velvet brush or cloth or with a carbon fibre brush. If there is a lot of static on the record, lightly spraying the cloth or velvet brush with distilled water should help dust cling to the cloth fibres.

If stains or oils are on the vinyl records, then you may need the help of a professional conservator to clean them. Conservators often use a wet vacuum-type record cleaner.

Some professional audio cleaning methods are described at: Graham Newton's Audio Restoration Website

If you are mechanically inclined, you may also be able to build a reasonable facsimile of a professional cleaner using a wet vac and a turntable. A delicate touch during cleaning is crucial.

Professionals use distilled, deionized water to clean vinyl records. They may add a surfactant or isopropyl alcohol to the water. If surfactants or solvents are used, it is necessary to rinse the record with deionized water. Triton is one currently recommended surfactant.

An alcohol/water mix would be at a ratio of 80 water to 20 alcohol, or even less of the alcohol (90 water to 10 alcohol). This will not dry records out chemically if a clean water rinse follows. A clean, lint-free cloth could be used to wipe on the water, or a solution, while the record rotates and another clean, lint-free, dry cloth could be used to absorb the water. This is less effective than wet vacuuming. A velvet or carbon fibre brush is still needed to remove lint and dust afterward.

Visit the American Library of Congress Web site for further instructions.

Table of Contents

What is the best way to store 33 1/3 record albums? How do I conserve vinyl record albums?

Store vinyl records upright, close together and fully supported at each end of the row. The support should be as tall as the record. Records should not be stored too tightly together. Store records in the coolest and driest room available, aiming for conditions below 23°C and 50% relative humidity. Be sure to remove the shrink wrap, which can cause a vinyl record to warp.

Handle vinyl records only by their edges. Balance your tone arm and then add tracking force to your cartridge only in the amount recommended by the turntable cartridge manufacturer.

If you do not trust your current playback equipment to last as long as your vinyl records, then you may want to record them onto audiotape, onto your computer or onto a CD-R. Currently 78 rpm records from as early as 1900 right up to vinyl LPs from the 1970s and later are still playable, but it is becoming more challenging to find consumer equipment to play them on.

Table of Contents

How can I transfer some of my old records and get away from that technology, but make it less noisy?

Transferring or migration is usually referred to as moving a recording into a new format. The reason to do this is usually aging of the tape or other medium; however, copying to another analog medium or to a digital medium may reduce space requirements. It may also allow you to make a copy that has less unwanted noise upon playback.

There are several audio software programs on the market that can record music or voice from 78 rpm records or 33 1/3 rpm records and once recorded, reduce the unwanted surface noise automatically. These programs include: "Cool Edit" with "Audio Cleanup", "DART Pro" and "Sound Forge" with "Noise Reduction." These programs require a good quality sound card in your computer and may require a computer technician to set them up. If you are not comfortable with connecting stereo components, this may be more of a challenge than you might want.

Once you have recorded audio files, you have the option of leaving them on the computer or recording them onto a CD-R. Be sure to keep your original record. Some collectors also keep copies of the original digital recording before subjecting them to the noise filtering process. Remember that technological advancements in the future may enable you later on to create a better recording than is possible today.

Table of Contents