Tuesday, November 28, 2017

A Beginner's Guide to Ripping VHS to PC

In this article, I'll touch upon the more important aspects of ripping VHS tapes, from picking the right hardware, to doing maintenance, to the VHS-to-digital process and archiving. All without breaking the bank.

Tape in question: a NTSC-J VHS in color with Hi-Fi stereo sound.

For this job, my only requirements as far as features go were a VCR that had stereo sound and Hi-Fi, common features in later decks.

This is the hardware that I used
VCR: Panasonic AG-2580
Capture device: Diamond VC500
Accessories: composite cables

Software: VirtualDub for capturing and editing

Other resources: internet archive for VCR manuals

My initial goals: to improve on the mistakes I made when I first made a digital copy of the AC3E Mission Zero tape back in 2014. Among the problems I wanted to fix were the appearance of OSD during the recording process, reducing the resolution from 720x540, which was overkill, to 640x480 and thus also reducing the final file size.

My video and audio codecs of choice remained the same as last time: FFV1 for lossless compressed video and 48Khz 16-bit PCM stereo for uncompressed audio.

After getting the gear comes maintenance, in other words, making sure that your VCR is in its best condition. This kind of hardware has moving parts, and some of them come in direct contact with the tape itself, so you have to make sure that the VCR is clean, especially if you're already experiencing playback issues.

There is nothing that I can say here that isn't said better and more in depth elsewhere, so I recommend you look for video tutorials on YouTube to see how to go about cleaning your player. It's basically about cleaning all the parts that come in contact with the tape. All you'll need are a few Q-tips, rubbing alcohol and a sheet of copy paper.

The parts to clean, the one on the far right was very dirty in my case

Do not underestimate the cleaning part. At the end of the ripping process I compared my original rip with the new one and found that lines that were previously fuzzy, almost like double vision, were now more clearly defined, colors looked slightly better and the image was all around less blurry making on-screen text easier to read.

With the VCR ready to use, it is now time to connect it to my PC with my USB video capture device and opening VirtualDub to begin capturing the video. You can find tutorials online too but here's the process I went through step-by-step, explained as simple as possible.

Don't forget the best part: rewinding the thing.
In the Video->Compression menu you can choose the codec you want to use as well as any post-processing, such as resizing, which is what I did in this case, from 720x480 to 640x480 in order to get the correct 4:3 aspect ratio as the video is captured.

Another very important thing to look at here are making sure that you're not dropping frames. There's a counter for this on the bottom left. It should stay at 0 for the duration of the recording.

For this part, I had to find a way to disable the OSD this time around so that my video would be free of VCR text overlays. The words "Auto-Picture" would always show up at least once, usually twice during my recording attempts so to keep trying to get an OSD-free recording wasn't feasible. I looked for the manual online and was lucky enough to find a way to disable this overlay without having to use a remote, which saved me some extra cash.

After I finished recording, I went on to edit a few seconds of black screen out with VirtualDub. Remember to check "Direct Stream Copy" under Compression, so you don't recompress your file. The picture quality won't be compromised and it's way faster too.

All did not go smoothly all the time though. Because I aimed to keep my budget low (vhs, vcr, capture), I encountered some issues during playback, like an instance of audio dropout and flickering colors due to this particular VCR model's tracking problems, even when Auto-Picture was on. This thankfully did not occur every time, so I was able to get a clean copy with another attempt. It is also important to note that I had no problems with copy-protection so I didn't need to use a Digital Video Stabilizer during this process.

The real reason for all this trouble.
The end result, while not perfect given my budget, is a Lossless Digital Master with a bitrate of about 31'000kbps at a resolution of 640x480 suitable for VHS rips, interlaced video, uncompressed audio, weighing in at a total of 7.98GB, more than a GB less compared to my previous rip. This is in line with, and in some ways exceeds, the old fansub standard for High Bit-Rate Digital Masters from back in the day, which was simply the DVD standard of MPEG2 encoding with a bitrate of 5000kbps or more at a resolution of 640x480 or 720x480 (NTSC).

In the end, I managed to achieve all my goals and then some, with the small increase in video quality being a welcome surprise and proof of the difference that proper maintenance of a VCR can make.