From VHS to DVD

A few weeks back, I was trying to tidy up the dumping ground of old technology known as my attic. While digging through this graveyard of old PCs and cables that no longer plug into anything, I found some VHS tapes containing movies I shot years ago. In the spirit of spring cleaning, I decided to put these movies onto DVD.

I offered some tips for putting old movies onto DVD last year, but readers have since asked for more of a step-by-step approach. Here is exactly how I did it.

Getting started

The first thing I needed was a VHS player. Though we replaced our VCR with a TiVo some time back, I still had an old VHS deck lying around. But I didn't just stick the VHS tapes I wanted to copy in there; instead, I connected the VHS recorder to the TV and recorded and played back some TV on a blank tape. That way, I was certain that the device was still working and wasn't going to destroy the tapes I wanted to preserve. Mechanical devices like VCRs can chew up a tape if they haven't been maintained, and ones that haven't been used in some time are especially prone to this.

Next, I had to decide how to copy the video to DVD. The simplest solution would be to connect the output of the VHS recorder to the input of a set-top DVD recorder. But I wanted to take video from several different tapes and compile it onto one DVD, which is awkward to do with a set-top device. It's possible -- you just record each video as a separate video on the DVD -- but you can't easily edit the result. And you can't improve the quality of the videos you're transferring.

I decided to use a video capture device instead. This would allow me to copy the video onto my PC, then edit it and output it to DVD. Plenty of these devices are available; I decided to try out ADS Tech's US$100 DVD Xpress DX2.

The DX2 has a video converter that can accept composite or S-Video signals. It converts these to digital format and sends them to a PC via a USB connection. It comes with Ulead VideoStudio 9 SE DVD software for editing the video.

After installing the software and connecting the DX2 to my PC, I connected the composite video and audio outputs of my VHS recorder to the appropriate inputs on the DVD Xpress device using the set of cables that came with it, and started the Ulead VideoStudio software.

Capture the video

VideoStudio offers two ways to capture and output the video: the Movie Wizard and a more conventional VideoStudio Editor approach. The step-by-step wizard is great if you just want to capture and output video without fuss: It guides you through the process of capturing the video, creating menus, and then writing it to DVD.

Since I wanted to improve the quality of my video, I used the more complex and more powerful VideoStudio Editor.

My first step: capturing the video. I set the videotape to a point just before the video began. Then, with the software displaying the capture screen (which shows a preview of the video), I hit Play on the VCR and clicked on the Capture Video button. When the video finished playing, I stopped the capture. I repeated this process for each of the clips I wanted to put on DVD.

One thing to remember: You should always use the highest quality setting possible. The software offers a variety of video format settings, and you might be tempted to use a lower quality setting -- especially since you're dealing with what may be low-quality video from an old tape. After all, if the video is already low quality, why bother with the high-quality setting, especially since that video takes up more disk space? Well, low-quality video will end up looking even worse if you compress it again using a low-quality setting, and the amount of disk space you would save is minimal: An hour of video in the DVD format takes up about 1.5GB, while the lowest quality setting would take about 400MB. For the amount of space you would save, the cost in image quality would not be worth it. If you don't have enough space on your PC, you can add a cheap external hard drive.

Edit and transfer the video

Once all the video was captured, I began editing it. Using VideoStudio's Edit screen, I dragged the video clips I had captured onto a timeline in the order in which I wanted them to appear. Next, I applied the Auto Exposure and Auto Level filters to a problem clip. With some tweaking, I was able to correct the poorly shot video so you can actually see the subject. It still doesn't look great, but it's better than it was.

Next, I created the disc. I disabled the menu creation feature, but did want to create chapters. Using the Add/Edit Chapter option, I created a new chapter for every one of the clips that I had captured.

Finally, I wrote the whole project out to a DVD-R using my PC's rewritable DVD drive. The discs I use for projects like this are high-quality Memorex discs, but I'm going to start using archival quality media. Discs like the Kodak Preservation DVDs are made of gold, so the video should still be playable for years to come, long after the VHS tape has degraded into dust.

And that's it: In about 3 hours, I copied several home movies from the fragile media of VHS video to a much more robust DVD. It might take a bit longer if you are copying longer videos than mine, of course. It's not difficult to do, however, and making a DVD copy of your home movies keeps them safe and makes them easier to send to family and friends. Now, if only I could find all of the embarrassing videos of me out there and stick them in my attic, where nobody but me will ever find them again.

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Richard Baguley

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