How to Turn Old Tapes Into Digital Video Files

Technology is constantly changing. As digital storage options have become more accessible, those old home movies we painstakingly recorded while peering through heavy cameras have been left to languish in the back of the closet.
 
Are these memories lost forever? Not at all. There are a number of ways you can make those great moments more accessible. 
 
Using a Conversion Service
 
If you’re not technically inclined, the easiest and least frustrating method is to pay someone else to perform the conversion for you.  Many large retailers with photo departments have the capability to transfer old tapes to DVDs, such as Walmart, Costco, and the like. You can find a list of some of these retailers here.
 
A quick internet search should also reveal a number of independent local retailers who also offer this service. 
 
Just a heads up - expect to pay anywhere from $10-$30 per DVD.  If you don’t have a large number of tapes to convert, or you value your time and sanity, this can be an attractive option.
 
Do-It-Yourself Conversion
If you have some time, patience, and the right tools, you may be able to convert the videos yourself.  Digitaltrends.com has an excellent article that describes a number of ways to accomplish this.  I’ve provided a high-level overview of the various options available.
 
A word of caution – these instructions are not exhaustive, so always consult the user manuals that accompany your devices. 
 
Option 1: VHS/DVD Combo Recorder.
 
It is possible to use a VHS / DVD combo recorder to convert your files to a DVD disk.  These contraptions have a VCR and DVD slot in the same unit, and have the ability to record to DVD (this is important – if you have a combo player only, this method will not work. It must be able to record).  Once you have recorded the cassette to the DVD, you will have to rip the DVD on your computer to extract the digital files. 
 
If you don’t have already have a VHS/DVD combo recorder, you can expect to pay around $200 for a new one, but you may find a used one for less with a little searching.   Digitaltrends.com recommends the Toshiba DVR620. 
 
Consult the combo recorder manual for exact conversion instructions.  But, generally the process happens like this:
  • Insert the cassette and a blank DVD.
  • Locate the point in the tape that you’d like to start capturing.
  • Record the material over to the DVD as per the method described in your manual.
  • Stop the recording at the end of the clip.
  • Check the DVD to see if it captured properly.
  • Celebrate (or curse and try another method)
 
Or, Rip DVD to Digital
 
Once you have the movie on DVD, you can use software to rip the DVD to your computer.  Lifehacker.com has a great article on how to do this.  They recommend using a program called Handbrake.  
 
In broad terms you will:
 
  • Download Handbrake.
  • Insert the DVD into your computer.
  • Using Handbrake, select the “Source” button in the top-left corner and select your DVD drive from the list.
  • Next, click the “Title” dropdown and select which part of the DVD you’d like to rip.
  • On the right side of the window, click “Browse” and select where you’d like to save the file.
  • The presets area can be used to control the format of the output (this determines the quality and size of the clip).
  • Click the “Start” button at the top of the window.
  • Handbrake will do its thing, and an .MP4 will be created.
This Youtube video provides a quick overview on how to use the program.
 

 
 
Option 2: VCR to DVD Recorder
 
If you have a DVD Recorder (not combo unit) and a VCR hanging around, you may be able to connect them together to record from one to the other.  The harder piece to come by will be the DVD recorder, as they have fallen out of fashion in recent years.  If you need to buy one, Digitaltrends.com recommends the Toshiba DR430.
 
Generally, the process happens like this:
 
  • Connect the VCR to the DVD recorder using an RCA cable (the red, white and yellow ended cable).You will plug the RCA cable into the outputs on the VCR and connect the other end to the matching colour inputs on the DVD recorder.
  • Insert the cassette into the VCR and a blank DVD into the recorder.
  • Locate the point in the tape that you’d like to start capturing.
  • Record the material over to the DVD as per the method described in your manual or as per the manufacturer’s website (typically you would start playing the cassette tape then press the record button on the DVD recorder).
  • Stop the recording at the end of the clip.
  • Check the DVD to see if it captured properly.
  • Celebrate (or curse and try another method).
Once you have your DVD, you can rip it to your computer using Handbrake (see above).
 
 
Option 3:  Analog to Digital Adapter
 
The last option at your disposal is to use an analog to digital adapter.  This handy gizmo connects from your VCR directly to your computer.
 
Finding the adapter is the trickiest part of this method.  Digitaltrends.com recommends the Roxio Easy VHS to DVD 3 lus (Windows & Mac) or the Diamond VC500 (Windows only). 
 
Consult the digital adapter manual for exact conversion instructions.  But, generally the process happens like this:
  • Plug the adapter into your computer (USB), and connect the adapter’s cables to your VCR (you can use the RCA cable end or the S video cable).
  • Install the necessary software that came with the adapter.
  • Insert the cassette into your VCR.
  • Capture the video as per the method described in your manual. Video is captured in real time, so you will need to sit at the computer while this happens.
  • Stop the recording at the end of the clip.
  • Save the clip or burn it to a DVD if you’d like.
Then celebrate (or curse and try another method).
 
Wrap up
Old video footage is an excellent addition to your capsules.  If you need to convert old cassette tapes to digital files, it can be done! (maybe keep your tech-savvy friends and offspring on speed-dial just in case).
 
Have you had success with any of these methods?  Let us know in the comments!