Lots of people have stacks of old VHS tapes they want to convert to digital. The process is less overwhelming than you might expect. You just need your VHS tapes, a VCR, a computer, and a capture card.
Update, 9/2/21: Checked content to ensure accuracy. Updated Kodak’s per-tape conversion cost.
People convert their VHS tapes to digital for different reasons. Maybe you want to save some old family movies, or you hate the new Star Wars digital remasters. Either way, VHS tapes degrade over time, so the best time to convert your tapes to digital is right now.
But that seems a little overwhelming, right? Don’t you need some expensive hardware or a giant nerd brain to convert tapes to digital?
No, not really. You just need some tapes, a VCR, and a capture card. Once you’ve got everything together, tape conversion is a breeze. And it shouldn’t cost you much more than $30 to complete this project ($15 if you already own a working VCR).
Some companies, like Kodak, will convert your VHS tapes to digital for you, but they charge about $35 per tape. That option isn’t really worth it unless you only want to convert one tape to digital.
You need a working VCR to convert tapes to digital files. For many people, this is the hardest part of the process. It’s not difficult to find a working VCR; it’s just a bit time-consuming (you’ll have to buy one secondhand).
Here’s the best way to buy a VCR and set it up for tape conversion:
- Find a VCR and buy it: Goodwill is probably your best (and cheapest) bet. You could also ask to borrow a friend’s VCR or spend a little extra to buy one from Craigslist or eBay (watch out for those shipping fees).
- Test the VCR: Once you’ve got a VCR, test it on a tape that you don’t care about—even if it was tested by someone else. Accidents happen, and you don’t want to risk losing your valuable footage.
- Clean the VCR: Once you know the VCR is working, you’ll want to clean it. The 25 years of dust that’s accumulated on its tape heads can ruin the picture. To do this, run a cheap tape head cleaner through the VCR once or twice.
If you happen to buy a VCR that doesn’t work, don’t bother trying to fix it (unless you know how). Instead, see if you can return it and buy a new one.
Now that you’ve got your VCR set up, it’s time to get your tapes together.
There’s a good chance you’ll run into some problems with your tapes. They’re probably at least 20 years old, after all. So, it’s time to go through each tape and look for problems.
Look through the “windows” of your cassette tapes for any obvious problems, like mold. Then, open the top of your video cassettes to get a good look at the exposed tape (you might need to press a button on the side of the cassettes to open the top). If the tape looks crunchy, tangled, moldy, or broken, it might need some TLC.
Here are some common problems you might encounter and how to fix them:
- Crunchy or bent tape: This isn’t usually a huge issue. You can wind the tape by turning one of the sprockets with your finger and assess the extent of the damage. If it’s only a small area, gently straighten it with a microfiber cloth (paper towels leave behind fibers). If the whole thing’s bent, you’re probably out of luck.
- Tangled or broken tape: To fix this, you open up the tape with a screwdriver and repair it manually. It’s an easy but time-consuming process.
- Yuck! Moldy tape: This is not uncommon for old VHS tapes. Don’t stick moldy tapes in your VCR, though, or you’ll end up with a mold-infested VCR. You can either clean the tapes by hand or build an automated tape cleaner. If you plan to throw away the VCR and tapes after they’re digitized, you can skip cleaning. The video might look a little funny, though.
Now that your tapes are ready to be converted, it’s time to set up your computer with a capture card and some software.
Your computer needs a way to receive and decode the video signal from your VCR. This is a two-step process:
- Buy a capture card: This sends your VCR’s video and audio signals to your computer via USB. A capture card that supports s-video gives you the highest quality digital transfers (s-video puts out a better picture than RCA). As a side note, don’t buy a VHS converter—they’re just overpriced capture cards.
- Download recording software: When the VCR video is fed into your computer, it has to be recorded in real-time by software. Capture cards come with their own software CD or a download link, but you can use OBS Studio if yours doesn’t.
So, now you’ve got your capture card, VCR, and tapes set up. It’s time to start converting that giant stack of VHS tapes.
This process happens in real-time, so it might take a while. If you don’t have a lot of time at present, you might want to set aside a day in the near future to convert all of your tapes to digital files.
To start recording some VHS tapes, plug the capture card into your VCR and computer, fire up the recording software, and begin the arduous process of digital conversion.
Your capture card software should include all the instructions you need. If it doesn’t, don’t sweat it! Here’s what you need to do:
- Open a new project: Poke around the software until you see the option to open a new project file.
- Set the canvas size: There’s no reason to record your tapes at Blu-ray resolution. Set the canvas size to 320 x 240, and you’ll get a better picture.
- Turn on Interlacing: Poke around the software until you find the interlacing option and turn it on (this emulates how tapes are displayed on a TV). In most cases, this option is available when you start a new project file.
- Set the Refresh Rate: Ever heard of NTSC and PAL? These are two different TV standards, and they dictate your tape’s refresh rate. If you set the wrong refresh rate, the picture will look like crap. If you’re in North America (NTSC), set the rate to 60 Hz; if you’re outside North America (PAL), set it to 50 Hz.
- Follow the recording instructions: Now that your file is set up, use the instruction manual to guide you through recording. Remember, tapes are recorded in real-time, so don’t fast-forward through anything.
And that’s all there is to it! While this process might sound complicated, it’s pretty straightforward. If you run into any problems using the capture card software, consult the instruction manual or email the manufacturer for help.
Don’t leave your digital files on your computer’s hard drive unless you want to risk losing them forever (or putting yourself through this time-consuming process all over again).
As for your tapes, if you want to keep them, be sure to store them in a cool, dry environment. You can also go the extra mile and throw them in some plastic cases or a tape storage bag. These prevent mold buildup, dust accumulation, or water damage.
Lastly, if any of your tapes contain television broadcasts or advertisements, please upload them to the Internet Archive. Most of television history has been lost, so any contribution to this archive is extremely valuable.