Tape transfers again

Tapes are made from plastic, glue and iron filings.

There are three problems with video and audio tapes:

    1. Mould growth,
    2. Sticky tape shed and
    3. Physical stretch and general mechanical deterioration.

There is only so much we can do about these. If the tape is unplayable in some ways that is easy, nothing can be done, or if it is in good mechanical condition we can do a lot electronically to get the best out of the recording. It is the middle ground that causes grief.

Mould leads to destruction of the tape so makes it difficult to play but usually we can get something. Sticky tape shed is where the binding absorbs water and the tape will stick to the play back head and make a screaming noise. It can quickly wreck a video recorder. Heat treatment can be effective, although is controversial. We have had some amazing successes (and I should add, failures). Physical damage is the most difficult as this leads to tracking errors, that no machine can cope with, but you hope that with fiddling you can solve – actually you can’t. Your optimism is misplaced and it is too easy to promise recovery when it can’t be done. Related is oxide shed when the recording medium comes away from the tape. This is easy to spot, usually you get a couple of minutes playback then video head clog and white snow. This then needs a realistic discussion with the client about how to proceed and the cost involved.

These days, before transferring to a digital file, we have found it best to produce a digital intermediate tape. The reason being that the computer capture card and software can’t cope with a poor quality signal.

There are very specialist firms that can attempt recovery, but the cost is prohibitive for the normal user and the results disappointing. They are most often used in a forensic setting where the actual information is critical, and the artistic elements rather less so.

So there we are, I know lots of firms advertise a doom and gloom message, to encourage you to transfer your tapes to a digital domain, and it might seem just a marketing gimmick. The trouble is that majority of our transfer work involves tapes with the problems I’ve outlined. And that becomes a tough sell.