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I have some old VHS home videos that I'd like to digitise to preserve them, and I'm looking for the "best" way to do that with my setup. The videos were recorded around 1990, in the USA. I'd say they are in NTSC format, but I've also heard that VHS don't have NTSC or PAL, so I'm not sure. They play on my PAL VHS device, even in color. I am guessing that it converts the video to PAL60 for playback. The colors are slightly dull, but I don't know whether this is a feature of the camera, the old tapes, or any conversion. Another issue is that there is a bit of clipping in very bright/dark areas, but I think nothing can be done about that.

What I have right now is the following: German (PAL) VHS with the old tapes, connected via SCART->white-red-yellow cables to generic USB digitalization device, connected to the computer.

A couple of questions:

  • The documentation of the USB device says that a S-Video cable will improve the quality, should I use one?
  • Would I get a big improvement from using a different VHS player? NTSC devices are hard to come by here and probably pretty expensive. I found that sometimes the USB device or its driver corrects the colors (that I assume suffer from the NTSC/PAL thing), but I'm not sure whats going on there.
  • While I'm at it: the signal seems interlaced. I was planning on recording it via VirtualDub, and then possibly deinterlacing it. A test worked pretty well, and removed any jaggy artifacts. I can generate 60Hz, but I've read that I should either not deinterlace it or convert it to 30 Hz.
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Slightly related...… –  AJ Henderson Mar 27 '14 at 17:59
VCRs can play back whatever type of signal is on the tape as it just reproduces the signal on the tape on to the output line. Your capture device is able to process the NTSC video that was recorded on the tape. –  AJ Henderson Mar 27 '14 at 18:00
@AJHenderson: Ah OK, that makes sense, thanks. My recording software seems to recognize the signal as NTSC, but only sometimes. I think there is still some kind of conversion going on, as supposedly my VCR can play NTSC videos to a PAL TV. I wonder if the S-Video connection gives the "raw" signal, as opposed to the composite (yellow) connection... –  jdm Mar 27 '14 at 18:22

3 Answers 3

For VHS, the signal will be kept highest quality if you connect via s-video, so yes, you should use an s-video cable if your VCR has an s-video output.

Depending on how good your VCR is, you may get a significant improvement from a better deck. Quality of the read heads on various VCRs can vary a fair bit and while the majority of the difference was in recording quality, there were difference in playback quality as well. That said, finding a good VHS deck in good condition is probably difficult these days.

I'm not sure about the color correction, most likely it is something specific to your capture device.

The signal is most certainly interlaced. Both NTSC and PAL were interlaced formats. NTSC video should be 29.97 frames per second. That is the NTSC standard. The resolution should ideally be 720 by 480 using oval pixels with a .9 pixel compression.

You didn't ask about it specifically, but using a DV codec should give the maximum quality though it will also be quite large. Once you have a DV codec capture of the VHS tape, then using a traditional 2 pass transcode to either h.264 (viewing on computer or blu-ray) or MPEG-2 (DVD) should work well.

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Thanks, the bit about codecs is also helpful! –  jdm Mar 28 '14 at 9:07
If your capture computer is fast and has plenty of storage space, capture with a lossless codec like UTvideo, or lossless x264. I don't see how running your stuff through (lossy) DV compression is a good idea. (better than trying to make the final encoded in realtime, though, if that's all you meant. Because good deinterlacing is slow. And then you can spend more CPU on the h.264 encode, too.) For the final encode, x264 works just as well in one-pass mode, as long as you're using crf (target quality) instead of abr (target bitrate). –  Peter Cordes Feb 4 at 18:59
Also, NTSC VHS can have stereo audio. Not all VHS decks play back stereo audio. –  Peter Cordes Feb 4 at 19:11
@PeterCordes that's a valid point. I was thinking that dv would be an ideal balance of size and quality as it is designed for that kind of video and very common, but if space and data rates are sufficient a pure lossless format is better. –  AJ Henderson Feb 4 at 19:35
I've never heard the term "oval pixels" before. Do you have a reason for calling them oval instead of rectangular? –  stib Feb 4 at 23:44

Get the video into some kind of file (digitize) like avi or mpeg. Use DVD flick to burn it to dvd disk, its free and can convert NTSC and Pal playable disks. Honestech made a $10 box (Bought at BigLots) to usb converter that converts VHS to DVD it makes them fit a 4.7 gig single layer disk (new $79 USD). No brainer. Since VHS is 640 x 480 its low rez compared to most types today. I'm in the USA and convert to UK to send to relatives,never had an issue with either method.

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Hi Steve, welcome to Video Production on Stack Exchange. It does seem like what you are suggesting may be a viable way to get from VHS to digital or even DVD, however it's rather difficult to follow your answer. For example, you mention a $10 box but later comment about something being new $79. If you could clarify what you are suggesting as to how to digitize files from a VHS tape to files on the computer, it would greatly increase the benefit of this answer. Thanks. –  AJ Henderson Mar 31 '14 at 3:36

As far as deinterlacing: With a good deinterlacer (QTGMC, or at least ffmpeg's yadif=3,mcdeint=2), you can get smooth video at 60000/1001 (NTSC) fps. If your source has quick motions that you'd like to look smooth, even in slo-mo, then deinterlace 640x480i60 -> 640x480p60. If you really need small files, you can drop every other frame of the deinterlaced output to go 640x480i60 -> 640x480p30. Check if your capture is top-field-first or bottom-field-first before deinterlacing, as yadif -> mcdeint needs to be told.

With a higher frame rate, each frame has more similarity with the previous frame, so it takes less than twice the bitrate to get the same image quality from a good lossy codec like x264. I got very good results from deinterlacing a NTSC DV recording of a musical theatre show my brother was in, making the final output 720x480p60. (actually 60/1.001, thanks NTSC...) I used ffmpeg -i vid.ts -vf yadif=3:1,mcdeint=3:1:10 -c:a copy -c:v libx264 -qp 0 -preset ultrafast deint.lossless.mkv to do the slow deinterlace to a lossless scratch file, and from there I could play around with -vf framestep=2 to go from 60p to 30p, and with various bitrates and encode settings to make a final encode. I settled on a 60p encode at crf=25, nr=250. (x264's built-in noise reduction is nothing fancy, but my source didn't need much since it wasn't an old VHS tape :P)

If you aren't 100% happy with the deinterlace, you could always keep the original capture as an archive, along with the command you used to deinterlace, so you can redo it again without change if you don't have any better ideas next time you want to work with it. Something like x264 in interlaced mode (since you'll feed it 60i content packed as 2 fields per frame, 30fps). crf = somewhere between 10 and 14 or something should be far enough beyond visually transparent that you'll still get good results deinterlacing that. But still with a low enough bitrate that it's not too hard to keep forever.

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