ABOUT THE FORMAT
Up until the early seventies, the only viable VCR format was Sony’s ¾-inch “U-Matic” system. The revolutionary video cassette design was based on the automated threading of magnetic tape as it’s pulled out of a dual reel cassette and wound in a U-shape around a tilted fast spinning head drum that scans the tape in precise helical or angled passes. U-Matic machines and cassettes were expensive and could only handle a limited amount of recording time, so it was primarily used by professional institutions.
Then came Betamax. For several years, Sony had already been working on a new compact ½-inch VCR system to succeed their popular ¾-inch system that would be equal in picture quality. The scaled down ½” tape design was built upon the successful ¾” U-Matic system, where the tape is threaded into the machine around a helical scan head in a “U” configuration. After its successful introduction in the professional market, Sony released the first Betamax VCR for the consumer market in May of 1975. These machines also included a tuner and timer for off-air recording of television shows. Combining this with the extended recording times helped it quickly grow in popularity for home use*.
There was great interest by other companies to also enter the emerging home VCR market, but Sony had always kept tight control over their U-Matic technology, and once again tried to dictate how companies could use their Betamax system in an attempt to dominate the industry. In response, The Victor Company of Japan (JVC) decided to risk developing its own technology and released the Video Home System (VHS) in October of 1976. Incompatible with Betamax, this design threads the tape around the head-drum in a different “M” configuration and uses a slightly larger (wider) sized cassette, which allowed for even longer recording times. However, even at top speed, the VHS 240-line picture quality was inferior to Sony’s 250-line picture. But in spite of this, the VHS system eventually won over more consumers because of their “all-in-one” approach to system design that allowed for easier integration of home movies from camcorders with playback interoperability of rental movies. Sony responded with its own improvements including Beta Hi-Fi, Super-Beta (290-lines), and the very compact Video8 (8mm wide tape) format for the home movie market.
By the late 80s, VHS went on to win in the ½-inch VCR consumer market with Sony conceding thru the production of its first VHS machine in 1988. But Sony would have more success in the professional market after refining the ½-inch system for broadcast television applications. Sony’s success came after some re-design of Betamax and the introduction of the broadcast quality Betacam system in 1982. Incompatible with its predecessor, Betacam soon became the most popular ENG (Electronic News Gathering) system in the world, totally replacing the ¾-inch U-Matic recording system. The popular Betacam was followed by Betacam-SP, Digital Betacam and Betacam-SX until Sony stopped production of all Beta tape in 2015.
With the development of an early Betamax audio innovation, Sony was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the digital audio revolution that followed in the 1980s. The key innovation was a special PCM digital audio recording system initially intended as an adapter for an early 1973 professional Betamax recorder. Pioneering digital recording engineers started using this same system to create the first digital audio master recordings. Learning from their previous marketing missteps, Sony worked closely with Philips to develop this PCM technology into the Redbook digital audio standard of the Compact Disc digital audio system released in 1982.
*See also video home recording court case: Sony Corp. v. Universal City Studios (1984, the “Betamax case”)
ASSESSING THE FORMAT
While 1/2″ VCR tape formats were created as a temporary format and not for archival purposes, they are still considered at very low risk for data loss and tend to be low priority for digitization for anything other than access purposes. Assessing the tapes is therefore important to help prioritize digitization, track degradation, and budget for the possible repair of a tape in a collection that might otherwise be low priority. We check each tape for dirt, odor, mold, container damage, crystallization, poor tape pack, and signs of oxidation. For a complete list and further descriptions, read BAVC’s “The Identify Guide”.
Like all magnetic tape mediums, 1/2″ VCR formats are at risk of degrading. The magnetic particles gradually lose charge, can be accidentally demagnetized, and the lubricant binder layer erodes with each playback. In addition, the backing can become stretched and the binding layer may become sticky in humid environments, something we refer to as sticky-shed syndrome (for more information on how we treat sticky-shed tapes, look here).
While we do repair and treat a variety of different problems with our tapes, there is one simple thing anyone can do to prevent losing the information on their VHS or Betamax tapes; remove the record tab. The record tab is a small piece of plastic that when removed or slid aside will prevent accidental erasure or recording over in a playback machine. On Beta cassettes this takes the form of a red plastic button that needs to be pressed down to protect the tape. In VHS it is a plastic tab that must be broken off. For a complete guide to record tabs check PSAP’s Record Protection page.
One of the biggest challenges of preserving 1/2″ VCR formats is maintaining a fleet of playback machines for each format. This requires a dedicated technician with enormous amounts of legacy knowledge and experience. Video engineers need to constantly clean contact points and playback heads inside the machine, and have several backups for the inevitable breakdown of each machine.
For BetacamSP our machine of choice is the SONY BVW-70. When mounted on a sliding rack, it is very easy to access the playback head and clean it between tapes. It has a built in timecode generator/reader, responsive shuttle dial, and the picture quality had become an industry standard.
Video cassettes should always be stored upright and never stacked or laid flat. The main concern with storing these tapes is humidity, which should be constant and less than 25% RH. Temperature should also be consistently below 70°F and away from direct sunlight.
While you can find VHS and Beta tapes across most all departments and collections of our library, the largest portion of them can be found in the University Archives. From the late 1970s to the late 1990s University Communications were recorded primarily on 1/2″ video formats. MSU Libraries’ Course Reserves and a large amount of rare VHS tapes can be found at the DMC (Gerald Kline Digital and Multimedia Center) that are otherwise not available streaming or on DVD. MSU Library patrons can check out playback machines or digitize materials by request.
The video below which is from the Stephen O. Murray and Keelung Hong Special Collections’ manuscript collection, Between the Lines was originally digitized from Betamax.