After our dog passed away, my boyfriend asked me what are the options for digitizing Video8 recordings that he had made of her when she was younger. I gladly looked into the task, since I am very fond of digitizing analogue recordings. This write-up is here to help those of you who want to do the same thing.
Using a video capture card (video grabber) and an analogue playback device
If you still have a Video8/Hi8 camera, or any equipment capable of playing back Video8/Hi8 recordings, then you can simply play your tapes on it and capture the result via the A/V outputs of this device connected to a video grabber plugged into your computer. Of course, this is a generic solution that works for any equipment with analogue outputs, so it’s not strictly limited to 8mm tapes. There is a myriad of video grabbers, ranging from the absurdly cheap EasyCAP USB adapters that you can get for a few bucks off Amazon or eBay, to professional-grade hardware cards produced by Blackmagic, Advantech or Pinnacle that connect to the computer via PCI, PCI-E, or FireWire.
It is very important to note that, if you have any tapes recorded in LP mode, it is very preferable to play them back on the same camera (not just the same make/model, but the exact same camera) as the one that recorded them. If you don’t have that camera anymore, you may be out of luck – other cameras might not be able to play back the tape at all. Or they might be – LP mode is very dependent on the hardware for a reason that I’m not really sure of.
This solution is probably just good enough for most people, and taking into account the limited quality of home movies made with consumer-grade equipment coupled with the limited resolution of Video8, it might just be good enough. If you connect the playback equipment to the video grabber via the S-Video port, you can be pretty sure that you’re getting the best quality possible with such a setup. However, you have to remember that the quality is still dependent on a number of external factors :
- the quality of A/V outputs in the playback equipment – some of the cameras don’t even have an S-Video output port (mine doesn’t),
- external interference to the analogue signal during playback,
- the quality of the capture card, which is probably the most important thing of these three.
Having all that in mind, I opted for a different solution to which the rest of the article will be devoted. This does not mean that you should, too : if you don’t have the time or money to play around with some other legacy hardware, get a USB grabber and you’re good to go.
Using a Digital8 camera capable of Video8/Hi8 playback
Back in the day when digital audio and video were a relatively new thing on consumer-grade camcorders, there were two physical formats to choose from : MiniDV and Digital8. MiniDV was rather widespread, with lots of different manufacturers offering their own camcorders which recorded stuff onto MiniDV tapes. Digital8 was introduced by Sony, who was also the main manufacturer of Digital8 camcorders, with Hitachi making a few models for a short time, and possibly others. The formats did not differ on the logical level at all : both stored raw DV (Digital Video) compressed content on magnetic tape. However, there was a big advantage of the Digital8 format from the point of view of users who had had their recordings stored on Video8 and Hi8 tapes : the physical dimensions of the tapes were exactly the same, and a lot of camcorders were capable of playing back Video8/Hi8 recordings and outputting digitized content into their DV (aka iLink, or simply 4-pin FireWire) output port.
I think this solution is superior to the one presented before, mainly because the sole responsibility of digitizing the content lies on the camcorder. In my opinion, it is quite reasonable to expect the circuitry inside a Digital8 camcorder to produce somewhat better quality digitized content than a video grabber and a Video8 camera. Additionally, Sony equipped some of its Digital8 camcorders with two important features : DNR, Digital Noise Reduction, which aims to (duh) reduce noise in the analogue recordings, and TBC – Time Base Correction, which helps it track the analogue tape correctly. Thus, I find it rather rational to expect a Digital8 camcorder to perform better in terms of playback than a normal Video8/Hi8 one. Assuming that the tape is in SP mode – read above for my remarks concerning LP mode tapes.
However, not all Digital8 camcorders are created equal. It seems like Video8/Hi8 playback was considered by Sony to be an important feature only at the start of Digital8 : while practically all early camcorders have this capability – as well as TBC and DNR – it only appears among the higher-end models produced later on (say, 2004-2007, when the format was retired).
In order to aid you in choosing a good Digital8 camcorder for digitizing analogue content, I compiled this list that you can use as reference. It is by no means complete and may be incorrect. Whether the camera supports analogue playback (and TBC+DNR) was inferred by reading the manuals available from Sony.
Digital8 camcorders with NO Video8/Hi8 playback capabilities
Digital8 camcorders with basic Video8/Hi8 playback capabilities
Digital8 camcorders with Video8/Hi8 playback, supporting TBC and DNR
You will also find that all these camcorders come in two flavours : NTSC and PAL. PAL ones have an E at the end of the model name. If the analogue recordings were recorded in PAL, you obviously need a PAL Digital8 camcorder to play them back. I found that analogue playback capabilities don’t differ between NTSC and PAL models, but it never hurts to check : the Sony support website still has manuals for all the models. Update : a comment from one of the readers, Evillen (see below), reports that NTSC analog tapes cannot be played back on TRV120E.
You should also note that some of these camcorders are capable of digitizing any analogue input signal (aka „passthrough”), not just analogue tapes. This way, you could connect a VCR or some other analogue device to the camcorder, and use it to digitize the content. This may or may not be better than simply hooking up the VCR directly to the computer via a video grabber, but your mileage may vary.
Check Amazon, eBay, and your local pawn shops for these models. Unfortunately, the ones capable of analogue playback are still quite pricey. I was lucky enough to find a TRV120E for 250zł (~$70). It was a bargain, since these models usually go for higher prices around here.
Once you get your Digital8 camcorder and make sure that TBC and DNR are enabled, play a Video8/Hi8 tape, hook it up to your computer via a FireWire port, and start capturing. If you’re on Windows, I remember WinDV working pretty great back in my MiniDV days, and according to various reports from around the net it still works well even on Windows 8. If you’re using Linux, use dvgrab – it even has an interactive mode so you can control the camera via the FireWire interface. It is a commandline program, but there’s nothing stopping you from having live preview if you want it – just pipe the output through tee and to your favourite video player : something like dvgrab - | tee dvgrab.dv | vlc - will work.
Hope you have fun reliving your past memories! Hopefully they’re as cheery as you remember.