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Transferring Old Video Tapes to DVD

By J.P. Regalado

When Jenny's 1st birthday party has been attacked by dust bunnies, and the wood-paneled VCR eats your Grand Canyon vacation, it's time to resurrect your dusty stacks of VHS tapes and convert them into a few, sleek DVD's.

Fortunately, high prices and intimidating learning curves have been replaced by cost-effective, user-friendly editing solutions. Features previously available to professional editors only are now in the hands of the everyday consumer. Even with the most basic video-editing software and hardware, you can convert analog tapes to a variety of digital formats easily, including DVD.

There are two basic methods to capture VHS to DVD:

1. with a stand-alone DVD recorder/player;

2. Capture, edit, export, and author to DVD with a computer and video-editing software.

For either method, you'll need a solid VHS Player for playback and output. If your VCR is of the wood-paneled variety, consider an upgrade to a VCR that supports composite outputs (yellow, red, and white connectors), or better yet, S-Video (one multi-pinned connector).

Method 1 – VHS to DVD, Quick and Simple

The Sony DVDirect MC5
The Sony DVDirect MC5

The fastest, easiest way to transfer VHS to DVD is with a standalone DVD recorder, like Sony's DVDirect MC5 Multi-Function DVD Recorder. With this option, you don't need a computer. Just hook up your VCR deck directly to the DVD recorder, pop in a VHS tape and press record on the DVD recorder. A built-in LCD monitor allows you to preview the videos as they record. Direct VHS-to-DVD recording, however, doesn't allow you to edit the video. If you want to edit your video before burning to DVD, read on.

Method 2 – Flexible Video-Editing Option

Have Aunt Suzy and Uncle Gary's exhaustive slide shows made you see ZZZZ's behind your drooping eyelids?

Edit out the ZZZZ's and flubs, and focus instead on the highlights of your vacation. Although video editing is more labor intensive and requires a little more technical know-how, its flexible options allow you to engage your audience with dynamic transitions, pyrotechnic special effects, and a killer soundtrack to keep the snoozers alert and engaged.

A computer loaded with basic non-linear editing software, DVD authoring software, and a DVD burner is essential. Entry-level editing software such as Apple iMovie, Adobe Premiere Elements, or Pinnacle Studio will do just fine. We'll use iMovie and iDVD to demonstrate, but the same concepts can be used on PC-based video editing and DVD-authoring programs.

Essential Equipment

RCA Composite Cables

•VCR and cables: use the best VCR and cables you can get your hands on. Comprehensive manufactures a slew of high-quality cables to ensure high-quality video image transfer and better-sounding audio.

Grass Valley ADVC-110 – Analog to DV converter box
Grass Valley ADVC-110 – Analog to DV converter box

•Analog to DV converter box: This box converts the VHS analog signal to a digital signal that your computer will be able to recognize and convert to a digital file. Alternatively, some Mini DV cameras can be used as a digital/analog converter, by routing your VCR through a camcorder. Make sure the camera is set to "Pass Through" mode.

G-Tech External Drives Lacie External Hard Drives
G-Tech External Drives Lacie External Hard Drives

•An external/internal hard drive dedicated solely to video files: Keep your software applications separate from your video and media files. Using the same hard drive for both software applications and media files can slow down or confuse your computer.

Your old VCR is hungry and dirty

Old VCR's like to eat tapes, so here are a few precautionary measures to take to ensure that your memories aren't digested by tape heads.

•Pop a dummy tape into the VCR first to make certain your VCR doesn't eat an irreplaceable tape.

•If your tapes have been in a humid attic or dungeon, let them sit at room temperature to acclimate.

•Fast-forward the VHS tape all the way, then rewind it all the way. The tape might have loosened up over the years. Doing this first ensures that the tape is taut, preventing your hungry VCR from snacking on it.

•Clean the tape heads.

Regardless of what software package you choose, 4 basic steps are involved:

1. Capturing (digitizing) footage into the computer

2. Editing your video clips

3. Exporting video for delivery

4. Authoring the DVD

1. Capturing (digitizing) or importing your footage

A video editing program is similar to a video recorder. You're basically recording analog VHS footage into a digital file that the editing program can use. For this article, we will be using Apple iMovie.

• Connect your VCR with cables according to the following schemes:

VCR → Digital/Analog Converter → Computer

VCR → Digital Camcorder → Computer

Test your hardware-software connection. Your video-editing program should be "online" and recognize the VCR or camera connection. Cue the VHS tape up to start point.

Now you are ready to import your footage into the computer.

Open the "Import From" window by clicking on the video camera icon and choose the analog-to-DV converter or camera from the drop-down menu in the bottom left corner. Click "Capture" to start capture.

iMovie will prompt you to save your video clips to a specific hard drive. Make sure your disk has enough available storage space. Create a new Event, (for example "Jenny's 1st b-day") in the "Create new Event" field. Click "OK" to begin capture. Leave a couple of minutes of buffer before hitting play on your VCR. When you're finished recording a clip, click "Stop." The clip is automatically added to the iMovie library. When you're finished all recording, click "Done."

Alternatively, you can dub your VHS tape directly to a mini-DV camcorder. Then import from the mini-DV tape directly to the "Import From" window.

iMovie has a 9-minute capture limit. If you let your tape run longer than 9 minutes, iMovie will automatically create a new clip. Be mindful of this for continuity. An interview or scene, for example, might get cut prematurely.

2. Edit your video clips.

Here's where you can let your creativity shine. Build your movie from the ground up with drag-and-drop simplicity. iMovie '08 significantly revamped its interface for easy access to video clips, audio, and photos.

Move captured clips from the Event Library to the timeline. Skim quickly through your video clips frame by frame, and cut out the fat by trimming your clips. Add a soundtrack from your iTunes music collection, still photos from iPhoto, sound effects, transitions, and titles.

3. Export your video clips to a compact format for DVD authoring.

Exporting video will incorporate transitions into a compact file facilitating DVD authoring, at the appropriate resolution.

• Click "Share" > Export Movie

• Give your movie a name in the "Export As" window

• Choose an export size. "Medium" resolution (640x360) should suffice.

• Click "Export."

4. Author DVD – Bring into iDVD

Authoring a DVD is another opportunity to let your imagination run wild. Choose from 10 new widescreen animated themes, or design your own. Go to the "Movies" tab to access your finished movie, then simply drag and drop it into a "drop zone."

Build your DVD further by adding media from Audio, Photos, and Movies tab in the top right corner. Under the file menu, click "Burn DVD", pop in a DVD and your project's done!

An even easier option is to use iDVD's Magic iDVD. Simply choose a theme, drop movies into the wells underneath "Drop Movies Here" and iDVD will make the DVD menu for you. Click "Burn" and you're done.


In just a few hours, you've finally shaken the dust off of those VHS tapes, converted them to compact DVD's, and taken a walk down memory lane. Your home movies will no longer be relegated to that cardboard box in the attic. Jenny's first birthday can be saved for posterity, and easily shared with Grandma and Grandpa across the country. Now you can focus on memories instead of fishing footage out of your tape-eating VCR.

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