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VHS to DVD... let ye saga begin

August 2007, with VHS rapidly going obsolete in favour of DVD and before my recorder goes bang (they've never been the most robust of things now) thought I'd transfer the few videos of things I'd like to keep over to DVD. After all if the machine does go up in a puff of smoke I won't be buying a new one. Now there are outfits which will do this process for you but hey I thought, I'm an engineer, this shouldn't be too difficult in this day and age. 4th December 2007..... I finally cut a workable DVD image. It really shouldn't have been that difficult, so whilst this is a bit of a rant at the world in general you might find these notes of use.

Video Capture

For me, the easiest approach was to get hold of a USB capture card that I can use with my laptop - the TV/video is in the lounge so it's simplest to hook everything up there. For this I bought (on a whim) a Pinnacle DVC-130 USB pod with supporting software. This comes with S-Video and composite capture inputs. I also bought a video/audio breakout adaptor (from Maplin electronics)  which can sit inline with my existing SCART connections to easily tap into the necessary signals.

On connecting everything up, the first issue of note is that all I received (from the S-Video source) was a black and white picture. After a bit of web research it transpires though that S-Video through Scart is an extension to the original standard - you either get RGB/composite or S-Video/composite. Now the general articles I found on the web tended to gloss over this whole aspect of is it really worth worrying about this. Initially I didn't and resorted to using the standard composite video outputs. However I did have a chat with a few people around here, some fairly versed in video who strongly recommended going down the S-Video route if possible. Composite video effectively crams all the information for a signal down two wires, S-Video is a step up from this - it breaks out the brightness and colour into two distinct signals. As such the video quality is better and doesn't suffer from potential distracting patterns "herringbone effects" etc. Interestingly it's also very close to the format that the video is stored on the tape so it makes sense to try and get as close to this as possible - it was also suggested the compression applied (as part of the DVD authoring process) would be better as less noise would be present.

My VCR however did not output any S-Video on either of it's two Scart connectors, neither did 3 other machines I tried. More research was called for, whereupon it became apparent then in general it's very rare for standard VCRs to provide S-Video at all. In fact, about the only machines which do are S-VHS recorders - possibly explaining why S-Video is often confused with S-VHS. So I had a web search to try and buy a machine which provide S-Video - and failed. It's not helped by the fact most mainstream retailers don't provide this sort of technical information (I mean, it's not even detailed in the manual for my machine) and also the market for video recorders is rapidly tailing off. All you can really get nowadays are very cheap machines or DVD-combos. The concensus of opinion seems to be these are actually of lower quality than machines you could buy say 5 years ago. You might be able to get a 2nd hand S-VHS machine on EBay (or similar) but odds are it probably won't be cheap.

At this point, I took a slightly different approach - if I can't get S-Video out then it should be possible to take the RGB Scart outputs and convert them to S-Video which should *still* be better quality than composite. I dithered about this one for a while because it still seemed like a painful route to go but in the end found and bought an RGB to S-Video box which worked out around £50. Mere days after I ordered it the thought ran though my head - I've assumed that my VCR does output RGB here...... More research was required - there is a pin it seems on the Scart connector (Pin #16) which is used to indicate the presence of the RGB component signals or just composite. I had a quick probe with a multi-meter and sure enough, no RGB on the video outputs, contrasted with the DVD player which did provide true RGB. A bit of web research indicated this is pretty much the norm, VCRs generally don't output RGB.

In the end, a friend of mine leant me his S-VHS deck, a nice Panasonic unit which is about 5 years old. The video quality *is* better than my machine but I think this is more down to it being just a better player than mine. To be honest I remain unconvinced if it was all worth it - the captured (compressed) files are smaller from the S-Video source but only fractionally, its also worth remembering based on this that the picture you see on your TV is and has always been the composite signal which probably meets most people's expectations for home VCRs. Also if you've not got access to a video with S-Video output you're going to be a bit stuffed trying to buy one these days anyway.

Makes you wonder if we've been sold a bit of a lemon here with this SCART thing, considering how long this standard has been around, until recently with the coming of DVD, digital TV etc,  for 99% of us it's only carried composite video & a bit of audio - something which could be handled a lot more cheaply with a set of phono leads.

DVD Authoring

Having finally got some captured video it was time to start putting the DVDs together. I felt my needs were quite simple, the Pinnacle software (Studio 10 QuickStart) had the potential to do all sorts of whizzy stuff like add custom sound effects, pictures, subtitles etc. However on closer inspection it suffered two distinct drawbacks, the first being it only supported a single menu (effectively chapters only) unless you upgraded to 'Studio 10 Premier' (I wanted to put a number of programmes on one disk, fairly reasonable). The second issue being it catastrophically crashed at the drop of a hat. No I mean seriously, I've not seen software that prone to crash/lock ups since the heady days of Windows 3.1. In a way I shoudn't have been surprised, I bought a similar USB Pinnacle capture 'pod many years ago - it was a fairly basic thing, limited to 320x240 resolution but adequate for creating movies to put onto websites. That came with a piece of software called Studio Plus which also had an alarming tendency to crash, but you'd think having reached version 10 they'd have ironed out most of the bugs by now. Still, the software does very helpful generate an error report which is then emailed along so they've got a good few of mine to wade through now along with some choice words of my own.

In parallel with all this, I bought a DVD re-writer for my desktop machine - originally I was just going to borrow a USB one from work but the price has gone through the floor now (~£20 for a bare IDE one) so it just made sense to get one. In line with this, I had to upgrade my copy of Nero (around £50 which I thought wasn't too bad) and in the process of doing this discovered Nero Vision. - their DVD Authoring software. Marvellous I think, just what I need. It's a bit more basic than the Pinnacle stuff but did have everything I needed and was a lot easier to use. Time to burn a disk, although to start with I thought I'd burn it as an ISO Image and make sure it looked okay. Nero comes with tools which allows you to mount ISO images as a disk so they behave (on a PC at least) identically to a burnt image.

Several things occurred to me during the burn process - the first being that it appeared to be transcoding the video which I didn't think was necessary (more on that in a moment) and secondly the preview window kept dropping video for the odd second. Initially I put this down to the preview phase and let it finish the 3hr burn process only to find the finished video had drop outs (both video & audio) and slight sync problems between the audio/video.

Clearly the transcoding process wasn't working properly OR there was a problem with the captured video itself, this was quickly discounted as it played fine in several video players. Also (as previously mentioned) I was a bit confused as to why it was transcoding in the first place. The Pinnacle USB pod itself appeared to be a hardware MPEG-2 compressor which is the underlying format used by DVD anyway so this seemed a wasteful process both in time and the end result being degraded further from the original source. I tried changing various options inside Nero all to no avail, it always insisted on transcoding. A bit of web research indicated that it is very picky about the source format and tends to always transcode, it also indicated that there have been past problems with syncronisation betwee video/audio. Since I'd just bought the software I tried the technical support route. This proved fruitless, despite sending along a number of log files and detail about what I was trying to achieve (including an offer to supply the original source MPG file) I got the impression I was being fobbed off with suggestions about "damaged frames in the source", this despite their own media player software being able to play the source flawlessly.

At this point I was in a bit of a quandry. I resented giving Pinnacle any more of my money for their dodgy software but that would probably prove the best route in dealing with video produced by their hardware. I could opt to try out another DVD authoring package but that could exhibit the same or different issues particularly if there was something funny about the video captured by the Pinnacle card.

Fortunatly, another mate of mine came to the rescue (it's not what you know....) and suggested I try popping round to try burning the DVD using his copy of Roxio Easy Media Creator (v10). As with Nero, the software proved easy to use and it was soon transcoding away (minus the drop outs) creating the image. The video in this case came out fine however the menus seem to suffer to distinct problems - firstly the menu highlights were misaligned with the underlying image in some instances being skewed significantly to the right of the display and secondly, the bottom of menu when viewed on my DVD player was off the bottom of the screen. Roxio has a 'TV safe zone' option which highlights the areas of the menu that should always been on screen and on-checking this, they were "in the zone". Closer inspection revealed that the area of menu on the TV didn't quite line up with the 'safe zone', whilst it was the same size it was slewed to the top right.

Oddly enough, the menu highlight displacement and the transcoding issue (at least as it effects the Roxio DVD authoring software) resolved thesmelves together after I did a bit more web research on the Roxio forums and came across this article regarding the menu highlight alignment. In essence, if you leave the software in it's DVD 'fit to disk' mode, as you add the video files to a disk, two things happen. Firstly, the free space bar at the bottom of the page drops but also so does the 'quality' setting (ranges from HQ, SP, LP & EP). Internally this process seems to drive two settings - the bitrate and the stored image size, the more video you put on the smaller the image size gets. Hence although I recorded by video at 576x720, the settings convert this to something like 320x480. This is all odd because the source MPEG files I used comfortably fit onto the disk without needing to apply this conversion. It's this resize which causes the transcoding process to occur and also (as the chap in the forum discovered) seems to give you a menu which doesn't line up properly. What he found (along with me) is that by disabling the fit to disk option, you can manually adjust the bitrate & image size yourself. This not only fixes the menu alignment issue but then stops the transcoding process from occuring - instead of the normal video display, the preview window simply displays a grey screen with the word 'MPEG' along the bottom. My belief then, is that the original source video is simply being transfered to the DVD - it certainly takes significantly less time to create the disk now.

One thing this hasn't fixed is the menus themselves falling off the bottom of the TV screen, it might be an artifact of my DVD player but it's something I can live with.

Update: 29/05/09

Also see my article on Linux video capture/transcoding.

DVD Formats

I'm sure there is plenty of stuff on the 'net about this one but anyway.....

I've not really delved into DVDs until recently but I remember the whole "competing standards" discussions going on around me years ago. I thought it'd all been resolved by now so paid no attention to the type of DVDs I bought for all this lot aside from buying pack of 10 single layers (4.7GB) and 10 dual layers (8GB). First DVD I burnt and stuck into my player just said 'Error'. More research..... The upshot of it is that DVD originated with DVD-ROM - the writable equivalent of this is DVD-R and it you want your videos to work with all flavours of DVD player, it needs to be of this format. I think most modern players will deal with either format (I'd bought DVD+R) however my machine, being a few years old is of the era where it doesn't. DVD-R disks have the 'proper' <DVD> logo on them, the logo for DVD+R is a stylised 'RW' (patently stupid in my mind as it suggests the disk is a read/writeable).

As it turns out I didn't need any dual layer disks but at the time (mid way through the authoring fiasco) I thought I did. In general, computer shops seem to be stocking similar amounts of single layer disks in both formats but my local PC-World only had dual layer +Rs. Not thinking anything of this, I visited the litle computer shop down the road who also had a distinct lack of -R dual layers and on questioning had never stocked them. In fact trying to find any in this format online proved scarce as well and those I did were significantly more expensive. Quite why this should be I have no idea. I'm know DVD+R/DL was available first and is predominatly going for data backup rather than video however you would think for compatibility reasons -R/DL would still have a market. One thought does occur though and that is with DL technology being a fairly recent thing I have a nagging feeling someone told me once that dual layer DVD-ROM is NOT the same as DVD-R/DL. I can't find any evidence of this mind but it would explain why my player (which almost certainly pre-dates DL  home writing technology) can still handle movies which when examined on a PC have an 8GB capacity and therefore reduce the demand for -R/DL

Jon Bird, 17/12/07


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