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Saving tapes from time

During his tenure as a Crutchfield staff writer, Marshall Chase wrote about home theater receivers, sound bars, and in-wall and in-ceiling speakers.

More from Marshall Chase

Do you know where your memories are?

Most of us have video and audio tapes stored somewhere because we just don't want to get rid of them. We assume that just because we moved them out of the attic or the basement that they will be in good shape when we want to watch or listen to them. The problem is that the clock has other ideas.

Your tape is becoming unglued

The magnetic veneer of recording tape does not remain stable forever. Over time it loses adhesion, making tapes difficult to play at best and at worst, the crucial material falls off altogether. If you are like me then you not only have a lot of music and movies on tape, but you may also have recordings of friends and family. While I could survive the loss of my Blood, Sweat and Tears cassette, the unraveling of a tape with my late father on it would cause real grief.

Saving history 101

The first step in this process is to try and stabilize the medium so it doesn't degrade further. You can take it all the way to an archival level of preservation if you wish. You may want to visit the Council on Library and Information Resources. At the very least, you will want to be sure that your tapes are in a good place until you are ready to back them up. Taped media should be stored in a place that is clean, and dust free, with low humidity, and a temperature that doesn't go below freezing or much higher than 74°F. It seems that they are most happy with a temperature between 68°-76°F and at a relative humidity of about 40%. Tapes should be not be kept lying down flat.

VHS rescue

Many of us have irreplaceable content on old video tapes. This could be family movies or even a special TV show that you just can't find any more. The best way to archive this is to transfer them onto a more stable medium, like DVD. For ease of use I recommend using a DVD/VCR combination unit like the Toshiba DVR620.

It's fairly simple to place a tape in one slot, a recordable disc in another, push a few buttons and just like that, you're saving a copy. The beauty of this is that you will not only have your recording on a more stable form, but also in a format that is easier to play back. If there has already been some noticeable degrading of the original, there won't be much you can do to improve it. Hopefully you will feel sufficiently glad just to have saved something that was about to come apart. 

Copyright Caution: I have spoken with many customers who have a large movie collection on VHS that they would love to copy to disc. The problem with this is that a "copy guard" signal was placed on many commercial VHS movies that can prevent you from making a good copy.

Other video tape formats

There have been lots of changes in video tape formats over time. Many will remember the VHS/Beta wars. But beyond this there have been lots of different kinds of video cameras and their specific tape flavors. While dubbing to a disc is possible, it will require that you have a camera that works with the old format. Since this is not always possible, you may think you're out of luck. The truth is that there are many commercial services available that can make such transfers. If you choose to go this route it's a good idea to do some research on customer satisfaction in addition to price shopping before choosing a service.

Audio cassette

For many years preceding the advent of the CD, the audio cassette was king of portable music. While it's possible to find replacements for your cassettes in other formats, it's hard to stomach buying music over again. It may be more economical to dub into digital. And for personal recordings, what you have on tape may be irreplaceable. There are two approaches to this puzzle. Both require a cassette deck.

The lowest tech solution is to simply dub older tapes onto newer ones. While that's okay, I think the better and more permanent solution is to convert tapes to digital format. For quality sound and versatility I recommend using the NAD PP3i Phono Pre-amp.

This particular phono pre-amp serves a dual purpose. It can be used to convert a signal from any analog source, cassette, turntable or something else into one that can be saved on a computer via USB. It even comes with software to help you do this. You will probably want to adjust the different parameters on the software to get the results you like best. When you're not using it for this purpose, it can simply serve as a phono pre-amp, so you can play most any turntable through a receiver or amplifier that doesn't have a dedicated phono input.

Care and cleaning of equipment

When you play tapes, it's likely that you will leave some of the old glue and material behind. To make certain that you maximize playback quality and minimize damage to your equipment and other tapes,  be sure to do some preventive maintenance. There are commercial cleaning systems available on the market.

For video tape, I recommend reading your owner's manual (if you can still find it) to confirm the use of a "wet" or "dry" cleaner. There are also commercial systems available for audio tape equipment cleaning. For both system types you can do a pretty good job of cleaning by using isopropyl alcohol and pure cotton swabs to gently clean the heads. Do NOT use rubbing alcohol. It can leave residue behind and cause rubber parts to crack and dry. Gently rub each head with the damp end of the swab. Use the other end to dry the head off when you're done cleaning.

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