LabGuy's World: Most Frequently Asked Question #1

Q. I  have an old video tape from many years ago. How can I copy it to a modern format like VHS or DVD?

A. You essentially have three options and they are:
  • 1. Find and restore the proper VTR and copy the tape yourself.
  • 2. Seek the assistance of a knowledgeable individual who has the necessary equipment and skills.
  • 3. Send your tape to commercial tape restoration service.
        Having listed these choices, the problem is not even as simple as that! Even if one or all of these options is acceptable to you, the biggest show stopper of them all is rotten tape! It turns out that magnetic tape is NOT the long term storage medium it was once believed to be. Time has shown that magnetic tape formulations of the 1960 and 1970s were not stable. Tapes that are stored for extended periods of time suffer deterioration. The result is a tape that is too sticky to move smoothly through the machine transport and simultaneously loses magnetic oxide resulting in almost continuous video head clogging. This is called Sticky Shed Syndrome. It can't be felt with your fingers. It shows up after the tape has been run for a short while and has enough time to accumulate a film of binder on all of its contacting surfaces. To understand what is happening, let's look at how magnetic recording tape is constructed.
        Magnetic tape consists of three components. These are the base, the binder and the magnetic medium, usually in the form of a ferrous oxide (finely ground rust). The base is simply the plastic film that the magnetic medium is attached to. Polyester and mylar are common base films. The magnetic medium is held to the backing by the binder, a kind of glue. When the binder absorbs moisture it breaks down and migrates to the surface of the oxide layer. As the tape runs on the machine, these binder fragments accumulate on the surfaces of the tape path such as the guides  and rollers, the surface of the head drum and the faces of the fixed heads. The fragments of binder are very sticky and eventually will build up until the tape can no longer move through the transport. In extreme cases, this can be accompanied by a high pitch squealing noise and in the worst case, the video heads can be physically damaged!
        There are processes available to restore tapes to temporarily playable condition. These include baking the tape at moderate temperature for a long time to drive out moisture and / or washing the tape in some combination of chemicals and reagents. Most of the chemicals I have had recommended to me are very hazardous and or extremely flammable! My advice is: Leave this to the professionals! No video program is worth the cost of what can go wrong. 'nuf said.
        Returning the list of three choices, the first one can be the most difficult. You will need to know the particular model number or tape format of the VTR you are seeking. Of course, then you must find one. Once obtained, be prepared to rebuild the machine get it operational. This requires technical skills beyond that of the average person. Having solved all of those issues, and assuming your tape is one of the lucky few that will play as it is, you can then make the required copy(s).
        Choice number two is better and (probably) cheaper, but not yet hassle free. First you must locate the person with the facilities, skills and willingness to do the job. You must then decide if you trust the individual, that they are competent to perform the task and that at the very least will return your original tape in a condition that can still be recovered if they have failed. ASK FOR REFERENCES! There are many people who do great work and a few who do not. LabGuy's World honestly admits to falling somewhere between those two extremes.  Out of approximately ten attempts in five years, I have been successful at dubbing some tapes only one time. Upon request, LabGuy's World can recommend reputable individuals who have delivered the goods in the past. But, I still prefer choice number three.
        I now ALWAYS recommend choice number three, a Commercial Magnetic Tape Restoration Service.  There are several reputable companies listed on my [LINKS PAGE] under "Tape Restoration Companies". They are not inexpensive and there is no guarantee that the tape can be recovered. But, of the three choices listed above, these services have the highest success rate. They have the experienced personnel, the proper equipment, and the necessary experience needed to do the job right. I can't quote exact rates, but be prepared to pay over $120 per hour of recovered recordings. There may or may not be set up and evaluation fees as well as fees for any extra effort to clean up a particularly rotten tape.

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Last updated: January 11, 2005