Capture analog video using a digital camcorder

Introduction: Why Use a Digital Camcorder for Analog Video Capture?

Many people have 8mm/Hi8 tapes (and even VHS tapes) filled with movies that we recorded with our analog camcorders. There is concern is that the tapes will degrade with time so there is a desire to "digitize" the material, perhaps producing VCD or DVDs which can be played on standalone DVD players.

One approach to capture the video on the computer is to use various capture cards (Dazzle, ATI, Hauppauge, etc.), as described elsewhere on this site. You may run into some of these limitations of the capture card approach (as I did):

- you might have a laptop (which won't take a standard PCI card) or you may have no extra slots for an additional PCI card on your desktop PC
- you may not have a computer that is fast enough to capture analog video from capture cards. Many people feel that the cards will produce the best quality when capturing raw AVI output but this output is VERY big. Raw AVI is up to five times bigger than the DV AVI that digital camcorder produce and it can take a high-spec computer (both CPU and disk speed) to keep up with this capture rate.
- you may find that the capture card doesn't faithfully reproduce the colour and/or motion of the original

The Digital Camcorder Alternative

There is an alternative to the capture cards. You can use a Digital Camcorder to capture your analog video.

Broadly, there are two approaches that you might use:

1. You can use a Digital8 Camcorder to directly play 8mm and Hi8 analog tapes and output them to your computer via firewire -> Capturing 8mm/Hi8 with a Digital8 Camcorder

2. You can use the analog passthrough or capture ability of many digital camcorders to capture your analog video (8mm, Hi8, VHS) and convert it into an equivalent digital video which is easy to send to your computer via Firewire -> Capturing Various Analog Video (VHS, Hi8, 8mm) with a Digital Camcorder

The Benefits of Using your Digital Camcorder for Analog Capture

Most Digital Camcorders (but not all) have hardware converters that take analog video and convert them to DV AVI (digital video AVI). Most people will agree that the quality of this conversion is very good. My personal experience was that the DV Cam's analog-to-digital conversion ranged from being somewhat better to much better than the three capture cards that I tried. I was still hesitant to invest in the Digital Camcorder (since they cost more than most capture cards) but other peoples' experience posted on forums consistently supported the fact that they felt that the quality of capture via DV Cam was much better.

As mentioned above, Digital Camcorders will output DV AVI at about 3.3 MBps. DV AVI is a good format to work with since it is much smaller (and more manageable than RAW AVI). On the other hand, it is not so compressed (like MPEG-2) that it is slow to work with in video editing packages.

Capturing 8mm/Hi8 with a Digital8 Camcorder

Sony has a line of Digital camcorders that use the same Hi8 tapes that earlier analog camcorders used. These Hi8 tapes are bigger than the mini-DV tapes that are used by pure digital camcorders and therefore Digital8 camcorders tend to be larger than other digital camcorders.

Many Digital8 camcorders will play 8mm and Hi8 analog tapes directly and output them as DV AVI over a firewire connection. Nearly all early Digital8 camcorders had this capability, however Sony has lately been limiting this feature to its middle-to-higher end Digital8 models. If you want this capability, make very certain that the camcorder that you are considering actually has it.

If your old analog camcorder has already died leaving you with orphaned 8mm/Hi8 tapes, the Digital8 may be the perfect bridge solution for you. Even if your analog camcorder still works, you might prefer to playback your tapes in a Digital8 camcorder for capture purposes. The middle-to-higher end Digital8 players have:
- TBC -- Time Base Corrector which is used to correct jitter in the tape (especially useful for older tapes)
- DNR -- Digital Noise Reduction.

This means that the Digital8 players can often play back your analog tapes better than the analog camcorder that produced them.

The Capture Process with your Digital8 Camcorder:

1. Put your 8mm/Hi8 tape into your camcorder and try to play it. The camcorder should generally automatically sense that the tape is analog. If it does not, you may have to go into the menus and manually tell the camcorder that it is an analog tape. When dealing with a poor quality analog tape, you may have also have to turn off the time-based-correction and/or digital noise reduction (in the case of a very poor tape, these features can do more harm than good).

2. Once you now that tape will play, attach a firewire connection (called iLink by Sony) between your camcorder and your computer and use standard video capture software to capture the output -> How to capture DV Cam using a firewire/DV card

Issues with the Capture using Digital8:

When I captured analog tapes with my Digital8 camcorder, I found that a got a thin line of distortion at the very bottom of my capture. The explanation that I got was:
"you're seeing the head switching. 8mm analog tapes are recorded using two heads on the drum and you're seeing the point at which the heads switch over. It's deliberately placed before the end of the picture so that the video is stable in the synchronising interval which follows on from it."

As pointed out, this distortion did NOT show on a TV during playback (because of overscanning). I could have left this distortion but I chose to put a black line over it using video editing software.

Capturing Various Analog Video (VHS, Hi8, 8mm) with a Digital Camcorder

Most (but not all) modern digital camcorders provide a analog-to-digital "passthrough" capability. This feature lets you feed an analog input signal (usually via S-Video, sometimes RCA) into your camcorder and output a standard DV AVI signal. The camcorder converts the analog signal on-the-fly using a hardware encoder. Your input device could be your old analog camcorder (playing 8mm or Hi8 tapes), a VHS video player, etc.

The DV AVI output signal is the same encoding as standard digital camcorder output so you can attach a firewire connection (also called iLink) between your camcorder and your computer and use standard video capture software to capture the output -> How to capture DV Cam using a firewire/DV card

Some digital camcorders do not support simple "passthrough" but they will capture an analog signal and convert it as you record to the digital tape. The digital tape can then be rewound and played over the firewire connection to computer as described above. Clearly, the passthrough capability saves time and effort but if you already have a digital camcorder (without passthrough), then you still might use the analog signal-to-tape capture capability.

Not all new digital camcorders necessary accept analog input (watch the lower-end models). If you have old analog material, then think about adding "analog-to-digital passthrough" to your list of requirements when choosing a digital camcorder.

Written by James Woodger

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