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Restoration tips: analog capture

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What is analog capture?

It is the process of acquiring analog signals (in our case, audio and/or video) in the digital form, to manipulate it in different manners; here, I'm going to talk mainly about VHS and LD, but could be applied also to S-VHS, Beta, Video2000, CED, VHD... actual film scanning is beyond the scope of this guide.

Why I should do this?

The analog audio/video sources are obsolete nowadays; it's more difficult to find out VHS tapes or LD discs today, a lot more than a DVD or BD; the best way to restore somehow an analog source in the analog domain is to use proper pieces of hardware, and record the result on an analog tape (like S-VHS); recordable analog video discs are almost impossible to find, cost an arm and a leg and more, and need a more difficult to find compatible recorder/player... so, it's way easier to "import" the analog signal in the digital realm, because at the end the final result could be obtained as a DVD, a BD, or a digital file.

But aren't all movies/concerts/etc. available in digital form?

Sadly not... there are many movies, concerts, series, documentaries etc. still not released on DVD, BD, or any other digital form, for many reasons; the original sources are lost, the rights are helded by some studios which do not want them to be released, some are not interesting enough (for economic or artistic reasons)... so, our mission is to "port" that movie/concert/etc. in digital form, "as is" or eventually restore it.

Well, I would like to do the best capture; what do I need?
  • try to get the best version available - and different copies of the same title if possible
  • try to get the best player you can afford - and service it if needed
  • try to get the best capture device - think a very good used one is really cheap nowadays!
  • try to use the best hardware and software - newest if fastest and better *USUALLY*
Best version available:

first be sure there are NO digital versions ALL around the world; and when I say digital version, I mean DVD, BD, HD-DVD, DVB and HDTV recordings, digital downloads, previous captures... it's frustrating to discover that, after you have spent the last three months (and a lot of money) to find, buy, ship, capture, restore the most exclusive laserdisc version of your favorite movie, an extreme high quality and highly acclaimed japanese BD version exists... so, DO your research online, ask your friends, investigate in this and other forums... do your homeworks!

After you are 100% SURE THAT NO DIGITAL VERSION of the material you would like to capture exists, it's time to get the analog source...
  • LD: the best analog format, the last one produced at the very beginning of this century... more than 50,000 titles available, could be found used - and sometimes new - quite easily online; many times it's the only way to find a specific video version, or different audio mix, commentary, soundtrack; it's possible to capture digital audio tracks bit-pefect, in all their formats - PCM, AC3, DTS
  • VHS: the last resource; difficult to find new, used tapes could be warn and/or have drop outs (very probable) that will ruin the capture; do not forget that in some rare cases, an analog recording of a TV airing made on VHS could be the only way to obtain a certain material!
  • Other analog sources on physical support: S-VHS titles are very few, and they should be all available on other formats; VHD and CED are old analog disc format, and they need related players; there are some titles still not available on other formats, though; don't forget MUSE laserdisc, the only analog HD disc format (that need a proper HD capture card)
Now, try to find out as many copies as possible (three will suffice); it will help A LOT capture three or more different copies of the same title, to have an averaged version that will take out noise, drop-outs etc.; also, using different players with the same copy usually give great results, too; at the end, if it's not possible to get more than one copy, capture it at least three times (in particular if you would like to use tapes) - it could help.

Best player you can afford:

at the contrary of digital disc players, where a really cheap player plays a disc with a video and audio quality really close to a top player, analog tape and disc player quality differs a lot from one to another... for example, the best laserdisc player could play a good disc with a quality near to a good non-anamorphic DVD disc, while a very cheap and slightly out-of-alignement player could reveal an image quality worst than a VHS...

So, be prepared to spend a certain amount of money in a good player; try to get one new (even if it's almost impossible today); if used, try to find out a barely used player - even if it's quite hard to know it, you could have good hints just looking at the player itself... if it has missing/broken parts, it's dirty, the cosmetic appareance is not that good... probably it was heavely used, so stay away from it, unless it's one of those rare standard player, like Video2000, VHD etc.; in this case, be sure to find a good technician who could service it, and remember it will cost quite a bit.
  • Laserdisc: the best ones are the MUSE players, which could also play NTSC laserdiscs; after them, the best ones are the Pioneer, Elite in particular, but other brands could be great as well.
  • VHS: try go get a good S-VHS player/recorder; Panasonic and JVC are the best ones; also, industrial players, even VHS, are great, but it could be hard to find out a new one, or one with low usage.
  • Other standards: find a specialized website/forum, and investigate which could be the best ones.
Best capture device:

there are a lot of analog capture cards, so it's quite difficult to say which is the best ones... please take a look at these threads, where I did my homeworks and found great products; maybe you could find them useful, too!

High-end video capture cards - http://forum.fanres.com/thread-83.html
High-end audio capture cards - http://forum.fanres.com/thread-82.html

Best hardware and software:

usually, the newest and faster computers are the best choice, but for analog video/audio capture, you don't need the latest and most powerful computer; an used one will cost you not that much, and the capture quality will be exactly the same. My advice is to go for a desktop PC, with at least a dual core fast processor (1.5Ghz or more), Window XP, PCI and PCI-E free slots; the best solution will be to have one computer just for the capture purpose!
The only software I use for video AND audio capture is VirtualDub: free, quite easy to use, and, with a powerful enough hardware, you will get a perfect capture, with no dropped frames - of course, the settings should be carefully chosen; also, a lossless codec MUST be used; HuffYUV and Lagarith are the most used, and of course you should set them, too, with the proper settings.

Any other hint? 
  • avoid cheap players, even if they are new... better a great high-end used player than a new entry level one
  • avoid DVD recorders... I agree they are useful and easy to use, but they record in a lossy format, that reduce overall quality of the capture
  • avoid USB capture cards... even if they are cheap, you could find a better PCI capture card for the same price
  • cables are important in the analog realm... a lot more than digital cables; it could make a lot of difference
  • set the proper brightness, contrast, color settings before capture... yes, you could always tweak them after, but it's better to start with the best material
  • calibrate your hardware - display and player - using a proper software, and optimize your computer for the best performances
  • capture only using lossless codec... so be sure to buy a capture card that allows that, because there are some which could capture only in MPEG2!
Sadly my projects are lost due to an HDD crash... Sad
Fundamental Collection | Vimeo channel | My blog
while you are capturing, close EVERY other software, even if they seems "light"; it happens that Virtualdub does report that any frames were dropped/skipped, when it actually could be true if some other software is used, in particular the ones which write/read files in the same hard disk used to save the capture.
Sadly my projects are lost due to an HDD crash... Sad
Fundamental Collection | Vimeo channel | My blog
Very informative for those that are new to this realm of things, however, there are a couple of things I would like to add to this when it comes to the "other hints" sectionWink

NOTE: (my comments are based on personal experience and relate to VHS only, although some of these points will apply to LD as well and I will mention this when they do)

- To the best of my knowledge, all VCRs and LD players are now "used" and there are no new models made anymore. That being said, PRICES VARY largely and are NOT always an indicator of the QUALITY of the player. Granted, for capturing, you don't want to get a "cheap" player BUT understand this means "cheap at time of player being NEW." Sometimes you can get a fantastic deal on a decent player, while an "inferior" model will cost 2-3 times more. It is VERY hard to gauge the actual quality of the player until you have it physically in front of you. Keep in mind that the tape is in constant motion (thus causing friction and wear) when playing in the unit, which wears down the tape AND the tape heads in the player. Even a top-end player can have inferior PQ/AQ, if the tape heads are really worn out (back in the day, I "killed" three VCRs over the course of a few years, due to extensive daily use) If possible, try to get a VCR that has "diamond heads" as they are a lot more durable and produce better PQ/AQ. Also, for best results, make sure the unit is equipped with TBC (time-based-correction) and this helps minimize "picture wobble" and other issues.

- Although I fully support the idea of "lossless capturing/editing" when possible to retain the best quality with minimal/no degradation, in the case of VHS capture my experience has shown me that this is not really necessary. The native-resolution of VHS is so low, that when capturing with a stand-alone DVD recorder in XP mode (highest quality, fits about 1 hour on DVD5 with a bitrate of 8000-9000kbps [depending on unit]) produces nearly IDENTICAL results to doing a lossless capture. HOWEVER, in THIS case, being cheap is NOT the way to go and you want to get a mid to high-end burner (do NOT get one of those $40 walmart burners as they SUCK - speaking from experience) OR you can get a better model USED, as in this case the argument made for VCRs and the wear does NOT apply.

- When it comes to cables, this can affect your capture as much as the quality of the player you are using (and in some cases, cables are the ENTIRE problem, where I've seen horrible PQ from a high-end player because of crappy cables) Here, I HIGHLY recommend using cables that have gold-plated ends and that are a thicker gauge of wires. The thinner the wires, the weaker the signal is and the more prone it is to interference. Also, try to keep the cables as SHORT as possible because the longer the cables, the more the signal gets distorted.

- when capturing, leave all color/contrast/brightness setting at their "neutral" default, unless something is OVERSATURATED, where the reds really like to "bleed" over and then you DE-saturate the signal before capture. If something looks a little "washed out" color-wise, it's best to leave it as-is and then alter that in post in the digital realm unless the problem is really bad. Still, it's nearly always better to have a capture slightly under-saturated for VHS and with the brightness/contrast neutral to get as much of the "raw" video that is present on the tape.

- if capturing on a computer, I agree that you want to have EVERYTHING that's unnecessary turned OFF. My solution to this for when I need to do video/audio capturing or when encoding my projects, is simple... I created an "extra" account/login on windows, that has NO programs running on start-up (but has access to all of my apps) and is OFFLINE. This last thing (especially in combination with ANY anti-virus/spyware/malware software) is what can make the difference between a proper capture and one that will have glitches, sync issues, frames dropped, etc. Do NOT save the capture to the system drive and use ANY other drive instead. (this last point applies to LD captures as well)
I like NTSC VHS Quality!  These were upscaled to 720p through Panasonic DMR-EH585 DVD Recorder and captured at 40000 kbps mpeg2. I am using professional Panasonic AG-MD830 VCR Smile




(This post was last modified: 2017-02-02, 03:49 AM by Soundman.)
Nice captureOk

I wasn't necessarily saying that VHS quality is shit, just that it's physically limited to only so many lines of resolution originally and this is the reason I believe that it's okay to capture VHS tapes on a stand-alone DVD burner instead of a lossless computer capture. (Technically, you're making my point for me, since your set-up involves a stand-alone DVD recorder, LOL)
Jerry, agree with any word you wrote, except "DVD burner"... you were talking about "DVD recorder", right? I'll "steal" some of your tips and add them to the first post... sooner or later! Big Grin

Soundman: nice captures! Ok

ADDENDUM: there is two ways to increase the quality of an analog capture: you can do it BEFORE actual capture, using best hardware (not only player, more about this later) and AFTER, using software to denoise, derainbow, upscale etc. - and, of course, combined efforts will get the best result.

HARDWARE: TBC (Time Base Corrector) is a must if a VHS (or any other tape) should be captured, not needed for LD; as they are quite expensive usually, the best alternative is to use a DVD recorder as "pass through" (indeed, the recording capability could also be not working, and you can get them for dirty cheap nowadays, in particular if the drive is not working!). What a DVD recorder could offer is a better comb filter (many have advanced 3D ones), line or frame TBC, noise reduction and other interesting features that could help to stabilize and clean a less than stellar signal. There are also many other so-called "video processors", that enhance the video quality in several different way; they could be also chained to get better result, but take in account that you are dealing with analog signal, that degrades in every passage. As usual, avoid the then-cheaper hardware, and try to get a great deal on used high-end gears.

Warning: remember that, at the contrary of software enhancement, where is possible to eventually change settings in any moment, maintaining the original source, once you have captured the video passing through hardware processors, you will be stuck with the result unless you will capture again; so, make the necessary tests and comparisons to see if a given gear effectively increase the quality of the "plain" signal.
Sadly my projects are lost due to an HDD crash... Sad
Fundamental Collection | Vimeo channel | My blog
Does it have to be a capture card? Could I use a device to capture the TV output? Just, I don't want to have to splash out on an expensive capture card that I might not use very often.
(2018-03-23, 12:09 PM)FrankT Wrote: Does it have to be a capture card? Could I use a device to capture the TV output? Just, I don't want to have to splash out on an expensive capture card that I might not use very often.

There are some very good inexpensive older capture cards available on ebay, the only downside is that some won't work in newer Windows systems. Alternatively there are some good USB devices. You'll just have to do a bit of homework that's all.
(2017-02-02, 12:08 PM)spoRv Wrote: TBC (Time Base Corrector) is a must if a VHS (or any other tape) should be captured, not needed for LD; as they are quite expensive usually, the best alternative is to use a DVD recorder as "pass through"
That's funny. I've got a couple of VHS tapes with Macrovision that my Hauppauge HD-PVR couldn't capture. I've also tried to copy them to my DVD-recorder, but it detects the Macrovision and refuses to record. But, if I pass the signal through the DVD-recorder and capture it with the HD-PVR, everything works fine.
I use a Panasonic AG1980 Super VHS to play and a Panasonic DMR EA18 for recording. As far as I know, it does not do automatic upconverting. I have had great captures using these 2 machines in tandem.
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