How to watch Archival VHS tapes on a Windows PC

One of the best things about being an archivist is that we get to problem solve. How are we going to watch these VHS tapes when we don’t have a dedicated VCR or a TV? This tutorial is my current working answer. It will involve links to a few external sites, so proceed with caution and remember that this is just one solution. Your needs will vary and so will your answers.

VCR decks and test tapes

I set out to solve a few basic needs:

1. Safely view VHS tapes – what’s even on these things?

2. Could we watch them through our PC? (We didn’t want to buy a TV)

3. Make a very rudimentary access copy (instead of a preservation copy) if someone off-site wanted to review the contents.

4. Better describe our contents to a professional digitization vendor (* if chosen)

Archivists – bear with me – this is an *access only* solution, but it’s better than no access!

SUPPLIES NEEDED

  1. VHS tapes
  2. VCR deck
  3. Test Tapes (* if your original tapes are irreplaceable)
  4. Composite video cables (or S-video, depending on needs)
  5. USB converter
  6. Admin rights to a computer (demo will be a Windows 7 machine)

I got very luck and was able to find all of these items at a charity sale. Major props to Tim Swast for his hilarious and endearing selection of test tapes (two of the cartoons are still in their original wrappers!). We picked Sony decks because they looked reliable, although any brand would work.

Sony VCR decks

Here are our two decks, with five test tapes:

VCR decks and test tapes

After reading MANY reviews, I selected the “StarTech SVID2USB2 USB S-Video and Composite Video Capture Cable with Audio TV Tuners and Video Capture” and ordered it from amazon.com

USB Converter

Here’s a shot of the back of our VCR’s with the output cables plugged in, to be run into the converter unit. You will notice that these are composite cables, so the video is yellow and the audio is shared between the white (left) and the red (right audio).

Composite Output

TECHNICAL INSTALLATION

When you plug the USB converter, nothing will happen at first. The installation DVD that comes in the box is fine but mostly useless. I installed it, then started looking for updates. You’re going to want the latest version of GrabBee AND its driver, which I found here as GrabBee_V2.0.0.0.zip and the charmingly named eMPIA_BDA_20110307.zip

http://www.videohome.com.tw/eng/support-dl.php?page=4

There are a LOT of options on that page, my best advice to browse, download, try and try again. If the page numbering changes or breaks, go to¬†VideoHome’s site and choose English > Technical Support > Download, change Product Name to USB Grabber, then scroll. I’d like to give a special thanks shoutout to this amazon reviewer who went to great lengths to explain how to get the converter working. Solid advice.

I also updated the DirectX on my computer, although you might be able to skip this step.

Finally, I added the always-useful VLC player to support file playback.

Here’s what my working folder looks like for all these add-ons and installs, if I need to repeat this process at another workstation:

Folder_ScreenShot

 

PART TWO of this post will discuss the process of viewing the tapes on your PC and making tiny captures.

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