I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but the unfortunate truth is that your analog tapes are dying, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Whether you play them, exercise them, store them horizontally or vertically, tails-in, tails-out in an air-tight temperature-controlled bunker deep in Kansas, it doesn’t matter. The best you can do is prolong the inevitable. Eventually the material on them will degrade and be lost.
Even if time stands still, technology marches on. Were you able to preserve your tapes with optimal quality and minimal loss, it’s still getting harder and harder to find the machines on which to play them back. It was just yesterday that Betacam SP or Hi8 was all anyone wanted. Today, one is little more than a castaway, and the other is a minor footnote in history. If nothing else, these reasons alone should be enough incentive to update your archives, even if you will just convert VHS to DVD.
The most important reason to convert all your tapes to a digital format is that it will, in essence, stay the degeneration of your video. Digital media provides a means of near-exact duplication and offers greater allowance of error before compromising quality, so even if your digital tape is nearing the end of its shelf life, it will often still be able to provide an output comparable to when its media was first recorded. In most cases, it’s also manufactured with more recent technology, which means greater quality and longevity. These factors allow for a continuous and virtually lossless archival path that far exceeds that of any analog format. Converting all your materials to digital is a time-consuming process that is totally devoid of any upfront satisfaction. Depending on compression and your source and destination formats, the conversion process itself may be a cause of lost information. It’s easy to get discouraged, but the benefits far outweigh the effort. The trade-off is a more stable picture, and greater recreation accuracy over time. Each day you postpone it is another day the quality of your materials degrades, and the worse your footage looks when you start the process, the less benefit you’ll receive in the end. If you have any 3/4-inch tapes, chances are you’ll already have trouble getting many of them to show a stable image. This means they’re virtually useless for any future projects. This is one project that is unwise to postpone.
It’s best to transfer everything you want as one big project. Don’t piecemeal, or transfer only the footage you need for your latest upcoming project. This will create a mess with no end. Look at your analog tapes, and say to yourself, “Do I need to transfer everything?” If you’re like me, you’ll want it all simply for posterity. Consider the following arguments, though, when determining what to transfer:
Con: Forget ever needing any of this footage; the reality of it is that you will probably never even look at much of the material ever again.
Pro: The “Murphy’s Law” of post production says, “The minute you don’t have access to a particular piece of footage is the very minute you’ll desperately need it.”