Tapes are made from plastic, glue and iron filings.
There are three problems with video and audio tapes:
- Mould growth,
- Sticky tape shed and
- 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 binder absorbs moisture and the tape will stick to itself, leaving a residue on the oxide side. This will clog the playback head and stick to it and the rollers, making a screaming noise. It can quickly wreck a video recorder. Heat treatment can be effective, although is controversial (130F for 4 to 10 hours.) We have had some amazing successes (and I should add, failures). A low humidity environment can also be helpful.
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.
Physical damage is 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. Optimism is misplaced and it is too easy to promise recovery when it can’t be done.
Before use, let the machine and tape come to room temperature (at least 2 hours). Condensation is another enemy.
All this then needs a realistic discussion about how to proceed and the cost involved.
These days, before transferring to a digital file, unless the tape is in perfect condition, 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 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 so actually, it is good advice.