Converting your old home videos into a modern, digital format can be a time-consuming task, but it is certainly worth your while. Many people do not realize that time is of the essence in this scenario– every day these old VHS tapes continue to lose picture and sound quality. Many people even lose their VHS tapes entirely as a result of forgetfulness, an accident, or perhaps even a nasty storm. A woman in Florida even found her family’s home videos at a Goodwill!
There are services that offer to convert these tapes for you, but often come at a cost of about $20 per tape. There are definitely some cheaper options out there, such as Southtree or Legacybox, but they require you to send in your tapes via the mail. I haven’t used these services personally so I’m not sure if they are worth it. If your family has as many VHS home videos as mine does, $20 per tape can definitely add up, so I opted for a cheaper route anyway.
I just finished converting all of my family’s old home videos and it only took a couple of specialized tools that I was able to purchase for under $30, a bit of my time, and a few tricks I discovered that sped things up. In this article, I’d like to briefly outline the procedure I used so you can also ensure that these priceless family memories are saved for good.
What you’ll need
Video Capture Device
The most important tool in getting this job done is a video capture card, which converts your component cable into a USB connection that you can plug right into your computer. There are a lot of these available for sale online, but you don’t need a fancy one to get the job done. I chose the UCEC USB 2.0 Video Audio Capture Device which is available on Amazon.
It probably goes without saying that you will need an actual, working VCR as well. Fortunately, pretty much everyone has one of these now-prehistoric machines sitting in the basement collecting dust. If not, I’m sure you can find one for $20 or so on Craigslist. Check the ‘Free and For Sale’ section as well!
(Optional) VCR Head Cleaner
This is definitely not required, but I was only able to get through a few tapes before I saw the familiar blue screen with ‘HEAD NEEDS CLEANED’ plastered across. Some VCRs won’t even warn you this way, and instead you’ll just get a progressive reduction in quality throughout your recording process.
Given the already-deteriorated state of most of these VHS tapes, regularly cleaning your VCR head is probably a good idea. I definitely noticed a difference, and for such a low cost, it was worth it. Here’s the brand I went with in case you’d like to do the same.
To operate, just insert it and let it play for 20 seconds. That’s it!
Most of these video capture devices like the brand I linked above appear to be very similar. They probably all come out of the same factory in China and are rebranded for different retailers. Regardless, they all claim that the device will come with software that you can use to actually capture the input from your VCR. This is not true. The software may have existed at one time, but it is now no longer compatible with most modern operating systems. It’s not much of a loss though, because it seems like everyone who has been able to get it installed says that the software is quite buggy and dysfunctional.
Fortunately, there is a great option that is very easy to set up. Install Open Broadcaster Software Studio (OBS) which is available on all modern operating systems. In the next section, I’ll walk you through setting OBS up to recognize the input and everything else you’ll need to know to record these VHS tapes.
Plug in your VCR and make sure it’s still working! Rewind the VHS tape you’d like to record all the way to the beginning.
Take your video capture device and hook up the component cable output to the device. Note that the input to the capture device is a female input, so you’ll need some component cables if they aren’t with your VHS any more, as the VCR output will be female as well.
Insert the video capture device USB end into your computer. You will notice the green LED light up.
Now, open your OBS software.
At the bottom of the screen, you will see a section titled ‘Sources’. Click the plus (+) icon at the bottom of this section. This will bring up a menu where you will see ‘Video Capture Device’. Select that option.
This will bring up a new window and you want to stick with the default settings. Just hit ‘OK’ to Create a New Video Capture Device.
At this point, you should see yet another window, and you should also see some output from your VCR — most likely the famous blue screen if you have the VCR paused. If you don’t see anything yet, click the ‘Configure Video’ button which will bring up a new window. Again, leave the default settings and click ‘OK’.
Click ‘OK’ again to get out of the properties editor screen. You will see your ‘Scene’ with the video output from your VCR. By default, this will be in the top right corner. Click on the VCR output section and you will have the ability to move and resize the window so that it take up the entire screen.
In the bottom of the screen, you will see a ‘Mixer’ section that lists all of the available audio devices in the scene. Make sure you drag the volume settings all the way down for every device EXCEPT for ‘Video Capture Device’. That way, no audio from your computer, an internal microphone, etc. will have an impact on your recording.
To start recording, click the ‘Start Recording’ button in the bottom right section of the screen. Hit the play button on your VCR after the recording starts. You can always go back and edit to remove portions of the video.
When you are done recording, hit the ‘Stop Recording’ button.
To specify where videos are saved to, go to File -> Settings (in the top menu) and click ‘Output’ in the left side menu. On the right, you will see a series of tabs. Click the ‘Recording’ tab. Here, you can select the folder where you’d like to save videos. You can also change the output format here. I usually save in .MP4 as it is the most versatile and you can easily convert from that file type to another if you need to.
Specifying Recording Lengths
Another useful feature with OBS is the ability to specify how long you’d like to record for. With these VHS tapes, some of them are extremely long and it just makes sense to hit play, and tell OBS to record for a certain amount of time. This way, you can even start recording and go to sleep or work, knowing the recording will stop on its own.
To do this, you can select Tools -> Output Timer in the top menu, and modify the time listed in the ‘Stop Recording After’ section. Hit the start button to start the recording.
This is a really useful trick, but it requires you to know how much footage is stored on your VHS tape, and the quality setting that the footage was recorded in. Look at your VHS tape to see the type of tape it is. The most common tape is a T-120 tape. T-120 tapes can be recorded to in three quality settings: SP, LP, and EP, which stand for Standard, Long, and Extended Play modes. Extended Play is the lowest quality setting, and can record for the longest. Each of these quality settings have a determined amount of playback time on a given tape. For a T-120, recording in EP, you will get a playback time of 360 minutes, or 6 hours. If you set the timer to record for 6 hours, you know you will not miss anything due to the recording being cut short. Of course, these times will change based on what kind of tape you are recording from, so make sure you look up the playback time. Most of this information is usually available on the tape itself or on the tape case. However, since recording in EP was extremely rare, you will end up with a lot of blank footage from your capture device. This is fine, as we can always edit the video later to exclude blank footage.