Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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I CAN HAS VHS

1104 words on

I quite like VHS.

OK, now shut up technophiles: I know that there’s better video quality than VHS will give you and there’s better audio quality than VHS will give you and rewinding kind of sucks as well. Allegedly even the tapes wear out. Yet, whenever I have to use a DVD player I realise in how many respects my modest VCR is much better than they are. In terms of user experience at least.

This starts when inserting the tape. You can only insert it in one direction, it will be promptly swallowed by the machine and despite the somewhat elaborate mechanics in the machine it will start playing within a second or so. Very few DVD players can match that speed. And even fewer will pick up playback at the same location you stopped it at before ejecting the DVD (out of a different player).

Once you play the video it just plays, no silly menus nothing. You can forward and rewind whenever you want as well. My machine even does the dual channel or stereo thing, meaning that you can even watch bilingual versions of films and switch between two languages there. That was quite rare even in the mid-1990s when I got the device and only became common shortly before the demise of VHS shortly afterwards.

But however much I appreciate VHS, its time is pretty much over. While my VCR is one of the few technical devices I own which hasn’t FAILed me in the many years I had it, it won’t last forever. And those video tapes take up a lot of space as well - with many of them containing stuff I won’t ever look at again anyway. And hence the plan was made to figure out the few recorded films that I really want to keep and copy them over to the computer using an EyeTV hybrid stick [Buy at amazon .com, .uk, .de].

That USB stick doesn’t come with analogue and DVB-T tuners alone, it also has a little socket into which you can insert a tiny plug that extends into the typical red, white and yellow plugs as well as a S-Video one. Now I just had to feed the signal from the VCR into those. Luckily we have a little SCART to coloured plugs box thingy sitting around. I tried that ages ago - and it didn’t work. To be honest I just thought one of the little contacts in the eyeTV was broken, leaving me looking stupid.

But when I realised that I could feed an anlogue signal in there (doing silly self-referential things with the computer’s video output…), it was clear to me that the problem was SCART once again. Really, I can’t remember a single setup in which it was possible to connect various devices to a VCR or telly using SCART. Often one device would work perfect, while another wouldn’t. Or one would be black and white while the other appeared in colour as it should.

Those problems could usually be ‘fixed’ by resoldering some of the wires in the sockets to different contacts, but that’s hardly the Just Works™ approach I prefer. In fact, it’s just horrible. But there I was again, trying to clumsily ‘re-wire’ some of the contacts in the hope of finally getting my videos into a digital format (I tried copying via an antenna cable using the VCR’s tuner output but the quality of that is just horrible). And - by sheer coincidence - I realised that the VCR’s output made it into the computer just fine when I semi-unplugged the SCART cable. Not that that makes any sense to me but technology isn’t supposed to make any sense. Frequently things working at all are Good Enough™.

And there I went… running into hard drive space problems shortly after because those gigabytes are filled rather quickly with the MPEG2 files EyeTV writes. Now I have to recompress the stuff. Which in itsself is a complete PITA. While the EyeTV folks made an effort to give you a nice program guide, they still use QuickTime for exporting.

And QuickTime’s settings dialogues are - and have always been - straight from GUI hell. As well as buggy. Previews won’t work, the format settings you choose will be ignored, or at least sometimes randomly ignored - which you will only see after the multi-hour exporting process has finished. There are plenty of settings you can make for image cropping or de-interlacing or encoder settings. Each of those settings can have a huge effect on the result and as a non-expert on these issues it’s hard to find a reasonable compromise between the quality of the result, the size of the file created and the time needed to compress it.

Tasks like recording stuff from VHS look like they are pretty common tasks for a software like EyeTV. Why not ship it with a export preset for the common 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios and compression settings that don’t degrade the quality but don’t waste too many bits on what ultimately comes from VHS? I’m simply not that good at remembering things like 704×396 and entering them into the friggin’ QuickTime window over and over again. (The same shortcoming exists for ‘modern’ DVB-T recordings, btw. And I cry when the incapabilities of EyeTV and the bugs of QuickTime become one, say when wanting to use thrid party plugins like x264 which is supposedly better than QuickTimes H.264 importer - and more significantly quite a bit faster as well. That can completly fuck things up, so it’s argh all over again.

My latest idea on this was to use the magical HandBrake (I can’t help it - it’s pineapple icon always makes me think of Spongebob) for the task. It has yet differently strangely quirky cropping options and - unfortunately it seems to have a taste for crashing when handling them. My final question for all of these cases is how much of a difference muti-pass encoding makes quality-wise.

Another surprising thing you can discover when doing these things is that it’s hideously complicated, if not impossible, on a multimedia savvy computer like a Mac to separate the two audio channels of a stereo recording with the software shipping with it. [And it’s similarly non-obvious why EyeTV doesn’t export films with dual sound tracks.] I’ll leave that as a little exercise for the reader to figure out: Given a film with a single stereo sound track, turn it into a film with two mono sound tracks which you can easily switch between… Shouldn’t separating audio channels be the most trivial of audio tasks?

VCR playing into the MacBook

May 19, 2008, 23:06

Tagged as eyetv, software, vhs.

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