How to digitally encode VHS home movies

One of our readers recently contacted us wondering how best to store her collection of VHS home movies. My response to her was simple — Don’t.

Well, at least don’t store the memories as VHS tapes. I recommended that she have the tapes digitally encoded and store the videos on a hard drive. VHS tapes deteriorate over time and are prone to breaking, and preserving the videos in digital format will help ensure that the memories won’t accidentally be destroyed. Additionally, digital data on a hard drive takes up considerably less physical space than a bunch of VHS tapes.

How do you turn VHS tapes into digital data? Well, there are two ways you can do it: you can have someone else do it, or you can do it yourself.

Someone Else

For $20, Costco will transfer two hours of VHS, S-VHS, VHS-C, Hi-8, Digital 8, 8mm videotape, MiniDV, or Betamax tape to DVD. Once you have the DVD in hand, you just save the files to your computer’s hard drive (assuming your computer can read DVDs). Costco also has a service that transfers 200 feet of 8mm, Super 8, 16mm movie reels to DVD for $20 and another that scans 50 slides to create digital photographs for $20.

There are dozens of other companies out there doing the same thing that Costco is doing, but many require you to ship your tapes to them. If you’re okay with putting your tapes in the mail, here are a couple websites to explore: Family Memories to DVD and The Photo Archival Co.. Be sure to give your local camera shop a call, too, because often they offer these services.

Yourself

If you’re going to go the DIY route, you’ll need either a video capture card or an external capture device to allow you to connect your VCR to your computer. We use the Canopus ADVC110, an external capture device, which has some nice features that help accurately maintain synchronization between audio and video. We’ve had poor luck with less-expensive devices in the past, so be careful when choosing a capture device and be sure to read reviews.

Once you’ve plugged in the ADVC110 and connected it between your VCR and your computer, you’ll need to launch either Microsoft Movie Maker if you’re on a Windows PC or iMovie if you’re using a Mac.

The Canopus will export DV footage just like a camcorder, which will allow you to easily import the footage into the editing program. From there, you can edit the video, create titles, or add music.

When you’re done editing your video, you’ll probably want to burn your movie on a DVD. Follow these directions if you’re using a PC. If you’re using a Mac, just launch iDVD from inside iMovie.

Also, after you finish encoding your collection of VHS tapes, you can sell your capture device or let your friends borrow it.

50 Comments for “How to digitally encode VHS home movies”

  1. posted by Heather on

    This is really helpful, thanks! I have a copy of our wedding on Hi8 film and have not had it transferred. The Coscto service was not one I knew about and will provide a quick solution before the quality degrades any further.

  2. posted by sarah on

    3rd option – get or borrow a DVD recorder and set up a dumping station with your vcr. I didn’t want to tie up my PC (nor was I going to edit the footage, just dump the things I wanted to keep onto DVDs and deal with them later). It was easy to just get a recording started and walk off, whenever I remembered to go back I could finalize the recording and start a new one. Once done, the tapes and VCR all left the house.

    In our case we replaced our old (big) dvd player with the nice trim dvd recorder, but I’m sure I could have easily sold it or given it away.

  3. posted by Misty on

    I can’t find where on the Costco site the service is detailed. Can you help?

    Thanks!

  4. posted by Alena on

    Thanks for this tip! I have a bunch of VHS tapes to get rid of, and I’d like to transfer a couple to DVD.
    Related question… what’s the best thing to do with my VHS tapes? They’re all in decent shape, still work… is there somewhere I can donate them?

  5. Avatar of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @Misty — I couldn’t find it on the site, either. If you call they can give you more details. I spoke to someone in the store, which is how I learned about it. The number for your local Costco can be found on the Costco site.

    @sarah — The only problem is that DVDs degrade, too. You’ll want to save the DVD information to a hard drive still to preserve the quality for the long term.

  6. posted by Aimee on

    We are doing this very thing ourselves right now, and to be honest… I almost want to take them to Costco instead. Doing it yourself takes time and hard drive space. So, if you have a monster computer with tons and tons of gigabytes, you will be fine. :)

  7. posted by Aimee on

    @Alena- most places will accept VHS tapes. Not sure what you have in your neighborhood, but Goodwill, Savers, and the like are good places to dump your tapes.

  8. posted by Max on

    The Costco tip is a great suggestion, but you should keep in mind that the transfer process from VHS (or any video tape) to DVD involves a data compression scheme. Technically, some data is lost in the process. Practically, the quality of VHS vs DVD is so low, that the loss is probably not noticeable.

    The problem occurs if you ever want to edit the footage at some point in the future. Converting the movie on the DVD to a format for editing requires another conversion step, which can result in more loss of quality.

    To get around this, your only choice is to follow the “Yourself” portion of the tip, and archive the raw video files: Burn the DV files to data DVDs. You won’t be able to play them in a home DVD player, but you can return to files at any time to edit or convert to another format without further reduction in quality.

  9. posted by Andrew on

    What is the best AV to USB solution for a Mac?

  10. posted by Alexandra on

    What about all those VHS cassettes of Disney classics I bought and saved for when I had grandchildren and now I have grandchildren and VHS is no longer state of the art. Can they be copied to DVD?

    (Not that anyone would do such a thing.

    [except for personal use.]

    Just asking….)

  11. posted by Malcolm on

    Another advantage of DVD (or other digital file format) is that you can, and definitely should, back it up. Unlike VHS, your backup copies are as good as your originals.

    Make sure you get high quality DVDs. Depending on the manufacturer, DVDs on the shelf can decay in as little as 5 years. DVDs that you actually use can get scratched faster than that.

    If you are using a professional service, make sure they don’t encrypt your movie (almost all commercial DVDs are encrypted). That way when the formats change again in another decade, you have a higher chance of still being able to read it.

    If the contents is really important to you, make sure you have an off-site backup. With DVDs you could get an external hard drive (those are relatively cheap, and very small these days), backup your collection to it and leave it in a waterproof container at a friend/relatives house. The chances of a drive-destroying disaster (fire, theft, etc) at both locations should be sufficiently low as long as you aren’t neighbours.

  12. posted by Jenna on

    I just called Costco and they said they do nothing pertaining to VHS of any sort and do not make DVDs of any sort. How did you find this out?!

  13. posted by Melissa on

    Some DV cameras with a firewire connection will also work as analog to digital converters. Hook one end up to your VCR and the other up to the computer. Sometimes you might have to record onto the DV tape first and then into the computer, depends on the camera. But it’s a cheap solution if you already own a video camera. This one usually works on Macs and PCs.

  14. Avatar of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @Jenna — I am holding in my hand a flier they gave me in my local Costco. Does your store have a photo processing center? Maybe only the stores with photo processing centers do them?? The number off of the flier is: (866) 463-7694

    I talked to the photo person in the store to learn about the other types of tape and was led to believe this was a nationally offered service.

  15. posted by supersocco on

    Great idea. I have boxes of VHS tapes to get rid of. Would be interested to hear the best ideas for backing up any Cassette tapes as well.

  16. posted by Donnovan Knight on

    @supersocco – Cassette tapes are pretty easy, just use the audio out on a tape player(headphone jack) and the audio in on your computer. You’ll probably need a particular cable with two male ends, they should be under $10 from RadioShack, you also might need an adapter to get the correct size for the jack. (This process also works with the mini-cassette recorders, I’ve done this with both mini and regular cassettes.)

    Then use audio software to capture audio when the tape is playing. I use Audacity (http://audacity.sourceforge.net/) which is free and it worked great for doing this. I ended up just saving the recordings as MP3’s, so they are relatively small in size.

  17. posted by Tim B on

    I am in the process of doing this at the moment, I have found the Pinnacle Video Transfer very good as it records to a Hard disk drive without needing a pc, see http://www.trustedreviews.com/.....ransfer/p1 for a review.

  18. posted by Bridget S on

    Called my local Costco (Seattle) and learned that they do do what’s described here, but not in house. They ship to a company in California (with tracking numbers and the like).

  19. posted by supersocco on

    Thanks Donovan for the tips. Gotta first find a cassette player, heheh.

  20. posted by Fuji on

    Can someone describe how to back up dvds to a hard drived? Don’t you need some special software to do that? My computer will play DVDs, but not allow me to upload them – any tips? I would like to back up my family dvd collection.

  21. posted by AV on

    so…$20 per movie or that and more for hardware and such? i’m a poor college student, this isn’t very useful for people like me. $20 is also about 25% of my bi-weekly pay.

    eh, maybe in a few years when i have a real job. but for now, really: a useful strategy for the money-tight?

  22. posted by Mike on

    For a Mac, the easiest way is to convert through a firewire camcorder. Many miniDV units from the past few years will do the trick… get a Canon ZR55 or 65 or 70 or whatever on discontinued discount for $100-150 and go to town. They even have built-in time-base correctors to take care of tape flagging and video sync.

    PC video capture cards are a bit more powerful, but the camcorder option works if your PC supports firewire. It’s just that the final video you get at the end won’t be as good as if you had done the whole thing on a Mac.

  23. posted by Martin on

    I’m about to start a similar project, but I’ve set up a queue at netflix containing the movies that I own on VHS. This way, I can transfer them to a hard drive with equipment that I already own. It’s longer-term project, but at the end of it the only clutter that I have to deal with is the tapes themselves.

  24. posted by Martin on

    Oops! I missed the important point of “home movies”! My idea doesn’t help much for that.

  25. posted by sarah on

    @erin – totally true, DVDs are not going to be the final format; but if you don’t have time to babysit and edit transferring them into your computer (we had about 200 VHS tapes) it’s a quick way to get the boxes out of your house and be left with one small box of DVDs to transfer and edit properly as time allows.

    re: Costco, my brother and I had a talk with a rep for the film/video transfer place a few months ago. They are not associated with Costco, they just set up there and give Costco a cut of what they make, the way the phone services do. That’s probably why only some stores have the info.

  26. posted by Andamom on

    I just had my dear husband read this posting — Why you ask? Well, we’ve got a ton of tapes that he’s promised to convert for a few years. I’m hoping that this gives me the prod he needs to get started again…

    That said, we also have my mother-in-law’s slides from when she lived in Japan back in the late 60s/early 70s. I wanted to convert them, but using our slide scanner, it is taking forever. I haven’t been able to determine if there is a faster, easier way to do it… in lieu of paying someone.

  27. posted by Daniel on

    I bought an ADS DVD Xpress USB box, which does the converting. It works very well, and so does the packaged software…when it works. It required a few uninstall/reinstalls before I got it to work, and I transferred my irreplaceable karaoke tapes, as well as the 1993-ish Star Wars LD box set (before Lucas started “tweaking” them with special f/x clutter).

    Regular DVD’s have a 2 hour storage limitation, but if you try to extend (<3 mpbs bitrate), it just looks awful. I haven’t found much benefit to the variable bit-rate option, and encoding to Video CD format doesn’t make sense.

    I went from a 6 foot bookcase filled with video tapes to a single CD album that’s not much bigger than a textbook!

    Just as a warning, purge before you backup. I had kept 10 years worth of Motorweek (~180 hours worth) and other crap. Let go!

    Good luck.

  28. posted by Melinda on

    Hard drives can deteriorate over time too. I suppose if I was doing this…and I will eventually, I would be storing on hard drive and having some dvds that I would store in a cool dark part of my cupboard as a back up.

  29. posted by Charles Laughlin on

    I’m the founder of The Photo Archival Company. A staffer alerted me to this article since our company was mentioned.

    First, I wish to thank the author for the kind mention. Secondly, I wanted to take the opportunity to clarify some of the Costco questions that are posted in this blog.

    Costco does not perform the 8mm film, slide scanning or videotape conversions in house. The Costco member drops off their media at the local warehouse and it gets forwarded to another company for processing, namely YesVideo. All of this has been communicated through recent press releases, as of April 2008, both through Costco and YesVideo channels.

    Costco has accepted videos for conversion at select warehouse locations (i.e. Seattle area) to prove out their conversion vendor for over one year. They are currently going through a national roll-out.

    I’m aware of the Costco status as The Photo Archival Company has been talking with Costco, for better than a year, in hopes we could become their exclusive conversion partner.

    In the end, Costco had already rolled out their single market test program with the other conversion company by the time we got our foot in the door — so the decision was already set by the time we came to the table. Hopefully, Costco’s contract with YesVideo will be a fruitful one. Certainly congratulations are in order for both companies.

    About The Photo Archival Company
    ——————————–
    While we would have surely liked to have been selected by Costco, business must move on. The Photo Archival Company continues to expand our business. We now have 5 processing locations across the US, with a 16,000 square foot facility just outside of Atlanta and a new location opening in Salt Lake City in May 2008. A Chicago opening is slated for the summer pending approval from the state of Illinois.

    Our services are bulk/wholesale priced and available to the general public. We charge less than larger retailers because buying from us is buying direct. We perform all work in house.

    Family media preservation is the bulk of our business. But we have also performed work for the US government, “independent” 1-hour photo labs, universities, a Hollywood studio, a NYC theater group, television stations and many more.

    One of the Fortune 500 CEOs was so delighted with the work we did for their company; he hired us to convert his own personal video collection.

    No matter how large or small, we are delighted to work personally with each customer to meet their own unique and personalized needs. I humbly invite you to visit our website (http://ThePhotoArchivalCo.com). We’d love a chance to earn your business and help you preserve, share and archive your own media collection.

    To the posters who are concerned with media longevity: perhaps our archival program is for you?

    With Regards,
    Charles

  30. posted by Tony on

    Recordable DVDs and CD’s are available as “archival media.” These are not typically the ones you buy at your local store. The cheap CD’s have been known to lose bits in a year or so. In general, an archival quality DVD will outlast a hard disk. (They are used by the Library of Congress to archive video and audio.) So transferring to a cheap media is a mistake. You are more likely to lose data than if you kept it on a magnetic tape, which degrades rather than becomes potentially unreadable.

    Tony

  31. posted by Nico on

    To use Vista’s movie maker to make a DVD all you have to do is click the publish button and select DVD. It then opens your project up in Windows DVD Maker. Windows DVD maker is pretty idiot proof and easy to use

  32. posted by Charles on

    I’m digitising a bunch of VHS tapes today. I have an old Pinnacle “Studio Deluxe” system that came with a PCI analogue video interface (called Pinnacle AV/DV or something?). I have a computer with that card set up with a VCR and I save the tapes as raw DV.

    Since the computer is quite old I move the DV files to my macbook for encoding. I have to make DVDs for my family, but I keep a good quality h264 version as well. I use visualhub for the encoding. I have some scripts set up to encode to various formats on my linux box but I visualhub was worth it for me to avoid hassle on the macbook.

    The only problem I have is that some *really* old VHS tapes cause problems with tracking, I’m going to try a different VCR today to see if I get better playback. A small issue is that the volume always seems very low from the VCR.

  33. posted by Weird Harold on

    Here’s the best plan. Go to Best Buy – pick up a $200 VHS to DVD recorder. It’s got a slot for a VHS tape, and a slot for a blank DVD. Put the tape in, put the DVD in, hit record.

    You’ve got thirty days to try out the recorder at Best Buy. So if you’re not satisfied after dubbing all of your VHS tapes to DVD, return it.

  34. posted by Zippo Lighters on

    Good article, I’m going to be doing this to some old VHS tapes soon and I’ll be referring back to this guide when I get there. Thanks for the tips.

  35. posted by Scott Kraft on

    Lets not forget that many digital video cameras like my Canon Elura 100 have video trough put or input. That means I can hook the digital video camera up to the VCR and record from VHS to DV tape (then easily put that on the computer) or even hook the VCR up to the camera and the camera up to the computer at the same time and record directly onto the computer (in iMovie, for example).

  36. posted by Lynda on

    Windows Media Center (which comes with XP or Vista) has the capability to record from a video card. The video card I have has standard RCA jacks that any VCR or camcorder can plug into. Once the video is recorded, I use a program called VideoReDo to make the edits, as it can edit the Media Center format, the MPEG formant used on newer digital camcorders and edit straight from .VOB files you’d find on a DVD (like, if you used a VHS-to-DVD recorder, which I do sometimes).

    VideoReDo has a joiner feature, so more than one file can be joined (like three-tape parties), and then I use VSO’s ConvertXtoDVD to make a DVD with or without a menu to play in any player that can take DVD-Rs (or +Rs, or +RWs, you know what I’m saying.)

    I don’t ever throw away my own home videos, however, as VHS or 8mm tape can get dropout but still play, where a DVD can fail for any number of reasons and it’s gone. I realize that’s crazy talk for declutterers but it’s also common sense until someone can prove that the dyes used in DVD-Rs will hold up for generations.

    (I do home movie-to-DVD conversion, btw, it’s one of my jobs, so…anyone who doesn’t want to bother doing themselves…*ahem* Hi!)

  37. posted by mylar jorgen on

    Simplest ans safest way is to borrow a DVD recorder and record your VHS tapes onto good quality DVDs using the relevant cable, then download a good DVD ripper from a big freeware site and rip them to a plug-in external Hard-disk saving them as an ISO (vob files) which DVD disc players can read, or convert them to something else like WMVs which windows media player can read, any DVD rippers he;p files will explain it, or WIKI. Then check they all play ok and store the Hard disk and DVDs away in seperate places. There are also places online you can store stuff but i don’t know much about that. If you have no decent DVD player program on your PC, download VLC media player, it plays every type of audio and video file, is free and doesnt try to do or install anything else. Hope that helps. mylarjorgen@yahoo.com

  38. posted by Marc on

    I have Samsung DVD Recorder VHS Player DVD-VR357 that can upconvert VHS to an HDMI output. I also have a Black Magic Designs Intensity PCIe card with HDMI in/out. Converting VHS-to-DVD(MPEG-2) is simple using the Samsung stand-alone unit, but the MPEG-2 format is not the best for editing (as mentioned above). I have yet to audition the ‘upconverted’ VHS HDMI output (from the Samsung Combo player) and route it to the HDMI ‘in’ (on the Intensity PCIe card) and then capture to my PC’s SATA Drive/RAID to an .AVI format (to edit/compress to any desired format afterwards). I also have a Canopus/Grass Valley TwinPact100 that accepts DV in (from a camera),
    Composite(not component) in, VGA in, and connects to PC via Firewire, but I think taking composite ‘out’ from the Samsung would be a step backwards quality-wise. Incidentally, the Samsung plays MPEG4 files ending in .avi, .divx…if only it would rip VHS to .AVI as well as MPEG-2.

  39. posted by Michael on

    I discovered a great company about 2 months ago called iMemories. They converted my VHS tapes and 8mm film reels, and did a really professional job. This firm allows you to see your home movies online before they are put on DVD. That way you can organize and label the DVDs the way you want.

  40. posted by Retired Film Guys on

    We are a small 8mm and Super 8mm film transfer to DVD company that provides highest quality frame by frame transfers. Great price, fast services, and highest quality for the local Chicagoland area. Call us with any questions.
    Your films never leave our hands and are returned to you as you gave them to us.

  41. posted by Dan on

    I am the production manager at http://www.FamilyMemoriestoDVD.com, a website that is mentioned in this posting. I would like to thank Unclutterer.com for mentioning our services! When it comes to old tapes, reels, and slides, there is no substitute for converting them into a digital format. This can come in the form of a DVD/CD, or a data file on a computer.

    Family Memories to DVD has been producing quality conversions for years and is about to roll out our sleek new website in the coming weeks. Please check out our services if you are in need any any transfer work! We have been the exclusive vendor for many MotoPhoto franchises in New Jersey and New York, and we also provide services for many others. Please don’t hesitate to call us at (908) 789-1005. Thank you!

  42. posted by Erika on

    Hmmmm do you think encoding these things will lead to more being stored? I mean, if one has more room, one tends to store more stuff. Don’t you think?

  43. posted by Linda N on

    If you are looking to donate any store bought VHS movies before they are no longer playable, our local library take them for others to checkout, and there is also the battered women’s shelter, and daycare centers to check with.

  44. posted by Patrick on

    I have a Hauppauge 1600 (I needed a PCI card). Works great for recording HDTV, SDTV, or an external video source like VHS. It has coax input, S-video input. It comes with a RCA to S-video converter cable if your external video source doesn’t have SVideo (a lot of VCR’s only have RCA jacks). I bought mine for $70 but that was awhile back. probably cheaper now.

  45. posted by Bill on

    I have used this Costco service (Mayfield Heights Ohio). The company they use in California does an OUTSTANDING job. All the old old reel footage came back with amazing clarity resolution and enhanced color. I had a duplicate transfer from a local company near my house and the Costco service blew it away. I’m still in awe in how much better the DVD looks by using this service. They (company in California who costco uses) obviously has expensive equipment and professional experience to get the job done right. AND THE PRICES…. you can’t beat ‘em.

  46. posted by video_archiver on

    With proper care, VHS and 8 tapes will long outlast digital files (DVD, MPEG, etc.).

    Keep the original files (VHS, 8, etc.)!

    Archiving home movies has two steps:
    1) Preservation copy: Always keep the original. There are still old home movies from the early 1900s that still work today. Try equating that with digital– how many old floppy disks still load for you today? How about larger disks or zip drives? VHS and similar solid state tapes are time proven. Keep them if you care about them.

    2) Access copy: You don’t want to keep watching your preservation copy (VHS, 8, etc.), as viewing them multiple times puts wear on them. Back them up to DVD and hard disk for regular viewing. (I can’t stress this enough: KEEP the original preservation tapes!)

  47. posted by ambitiousionizer on

    Multiple VHS at Once

    How would one copy as many VHS tapes as possible, in a limited time, to digital format. Is there a way to automate a system that could go through a whole stack of tapes, even boxes?

  48. posted by Georgi on

    I’m working on copying all my old mini VHS tapes from the 80’s 90’s to present. I gather I should keep the tapes after getting them on DVD. I understand that the DVD will not work forever. So, if I got some Sony DVD+Rs, this quality if well cared for is not expected to last more than 5-10 years? I have Pinnacle Studio MovieBox Deluxe (never used), with all the orginal software. I guess there is a way to play the VHS and plug into my computer and copy to my Terrabyte? Not sure how this works, but anyone out there that may know a website link or the steps to take? Thank you! Georgi

  49. posted by Lynda on

    Georgi, once you take a look at the MovieBox, you should see where the VCR gets hooked up. Good luck!

    Lynda
    unforgettableimaging.com

  50. posted by Matthew on

    If you had your 8mm, Super 8mm and 16mm films converted to VHS tape years ago, consider re-transferring your actual films to DVD or BluRay instead of transferring your VHS tapes to DVD. The quality is much better, and you will be able to create custom DVD’s and edit the digital files for multiple uses. Using a company like Costco (which sends it to YesDVD) will not allow you to customize your transfers, get the digital files, or guarantee quality control.

    Matt
    bluecloudvideo.com

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