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Video Recording FAQs

Why do commercially made video tapes start 30 seconds (or more) into the tape? Why can't they start immediately?

The maximum drop-out on tapes occurs in the first half-minute, where the tape flexes and is snapped tight when fast rewound. By not recording on the first minute of the tape, you avoid this problem.

Why do some brands of video tape cost more than others?

Simply because the tape they are made of uses better materials, they have better storage cases or they offer a better guarantee.

But I have tried them all and apart from the rubbish brands with unfamiliar names, I find the bargain brands work just as well as the premium ones.

That’s what Which? magazine said too, but it’s not the full story. Yes, the cheaper tapes do work as well as the dear ones to begin with. Come back to them in ten or fifteen years time, however, and you will be able to detect a difference. The binder mechanisms which ‘bind’ or ‘glue’ the oxide (on which your programme is recorded) to the flexible plastic tape are much better on the dearer tapes. The result is far fewer drop-outs (white flecks on the picture) where tiny particles of oxide have parted company with the tape.

Why do old tapes squeal?

Audio and video tapes suffer from the dreaded ‘loss of plasticiser’ problem or something akin to it and in consequence lose their suppleness and flexibility, causing poor contact with the record/playback head as well as a binding action and squealing noise. An alternative explanation names hydrolisation is named as the culprit, stating that the binder compound used to stick the magnetic particles to the plastic backing - has absorbed water from the air (possibly replacing the lost plasticiser). The water molecules actually make the tape expand a bit, so it doesn't fit the machined tape-guides properly anymore; and they can interfere with the lubrication impregnated into the tape; and it is theorised they can even interfere with the polished smoothness of the tape surface.

Why this should affect some tapes and not others depends on the formulation of the plastic backing and binder. Tapes of the 1950s and 60s are unaffected but these were made using whale oil (it is asserted) and the problems occurred when manufacturers started to look for a synthetic substitute. In the mid-1970s, 3M (Scotch) and Ampex, both major tape manufacturers, started experimenting with their formulas. They thought they were introducing major improvements, but instead created a tape much more prone to hydrolisation than anything had ever been. Because the problem did not show up for years, the formulas did not get corrected until sometime in the mid-1980s. Theoretically any tape could get hydrolised over a long period of time, especially if stored in a high-humidity situation, but in practice most squeaky tapes were made (roughly speaking) between 1975 and 1985.

One fix is named by Richard Fish on the Internet. He cites a method of baking the tapes in a convection oven for eight hours at 130 degrees Fahrenheit. It is entirely possible to bake a tape twice if the first time doesn't do the trick. You get about a three-week 'window', says Tom, before the tape starts to re-absorb water. So the best deal is to bake the tape and immediately make a copy. But if you forget to do it and it re-hydrolises, you can bake it again. There are other fixes for squealing tapes, involving water baths and lubricating films. At one time Sony in the UK had a special lubricated transfer suite for copying squealing video tapes onto new stock.

When did home recording of television programmes begin?

That’s not an easy question to answer. From the mid-1950s onwards some people with home tape recorders made audio recordings of the sound portion of television programmes and a few took 8mm or 16mm home movies off the screen. Film was extremely expensive so in the main, these were no more than fragments. Finding any of these recordings would be no more than chance.

The first video system intended for the home was Sony’s U-Matic system, with large tape cassettes containing -inch tape and extremely bulky and heavy machines. Its price meant that only millionaires and film stars could afford it. Sony’s next development was a cheaper, open-reel product and when the company launched its CV-2000 recorder here in 1966, noted hi-fi writer Gordon J. King named it 'a Japanese miracle'. Sold complete with a dinky little 9"-screen portable television, it was an instant hit with the press and other opinion formers. Its price didn't exactly translate into huge sales, though. The recorder and TV cost £365, whilst the camera, lens and tripod cost an additional £131. A portable recorder and lightweight camera together with sound and vision mixers were also available, but this was in an age when you pick up a brand new car for £600. As a consumer product it was a failure, although a fair number of outfits were sold into industrial and educational use. Today these equipments are highly collectable and tapes recorded at the time have yielded several lost television programme treasures but they are few and far between.

The first ‘real’ video recorder for the home using cassettes came in 1974, when Philips launched their model N1500 VCR or Video Cassette Recorder as 'a landmark in the history of television and the start of a revolution in home entertainment' (the 1974 launch was in Britain; it had been released in Germany in 1972, in time for the Olympics). Cost once again meant this machine was only for the well-to-do; the recorder cost £388 in 1974 money, whilst blank tapes cost £25 an hour. A succession of video machines and formats followed – Betamax in 1975 UK, VHS in 1976 (the UK launch for Beta and VHS came in 1978), N1700 in 1977, V2000 in 1981 – with no obvious winner in sight for another decade.

The home video revolution started for real in the early 1980s, when television rental companies made VHS recorders available to the public at large but even then, the weekly rent was not cheap and three-hour tapes cost £15 at full price. The temptation to wipe tapes for re-use was great, so home recordings from this period are also thin on the ground. Only when tape prices started to fall in the mid-1980s did recording for keeping (rather than watch-and-wipe time-shifting) begin in earnest.

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