Footage on videotape doesn't last for ever. I know this having recently looked at some Hi-8 footage shot around a decade ago to discover all sorts of glitches and fall out in the images, which I remember being virtually pristine. I'm not sure whether this is a case of seeing with the fresh eyes of an era where image quality has improved significantly, or I selectively edited out of my memory all the glitches in the footage, or the footage is just aging. Probably all of the above.
Footage shot on videotape deteriorates - from wear and tear when running the tape back and forth, changes in room temperature, dust or excess humidity, magnetic interference (maybe even that old computer monitor) - and it seems to do so fairly rapidly. Videotape is fragile, with a reliable lifespan of only ten to fifteen years.
If you have a large archive of analogue videotape that you wanted to back up you could buy another ten to fifteen years by connecting a couple of decks and running off copies of all your tapes. Or you can be more selective, running through the tapes and choosing which footage to capture and output to tape, or disc for posterity. Clearly, both are quite time-consuming but I don't see a way round that.
In either case, you may need another component to digitise your old footage whether it be direct to tape or disc. While firewire has now become de rigeur in new computer systems, many don't have a video card capable of capturing analogue video (i.e. VHS, Hi-8, video 8), which is what many of us have old footage on. There's a number of ways of getting analogue footage into your computer: a video capture card is one way. If you are happy with the image quality of DV then another, often less costly way, is an analogue-to-DV converter such as the Pyro A/V Link.
Little black box
The Pyro A/V Link has been around for a while now. The particular package I looked at comes comes with Adobe Premiere Elements 2.0, the lite version of Adobe's fine video editor Premiere Pro (see Adobe Premiere Pro 2.0 review and Adobe Premiere Elements 2.0 review).
It was interesting for me to compare the Pyro with the Miglia Director's Cut 2 (another analogue-to-DV converter is the Canopus ADV100 I've yet to look at), to see if one had the edge over the other. So far it's difficult to see the difference in the results, but then both models are converting analogue to a standard DV format so that's probably not surprising.
The immediately obvious difference is that the Pyro A/V Link is a small, slick black box or "break out box" - smaller than the cigar box sized Miglia Director's Cut.
The compact square box that sits on your desktop houses connections for standard analogue RCA composite jacks, S-Video, and a four pin DV-in port. A firewire cord comes with the Pyro A/V Link which connects to the back of the box and the firewire card in your computer. There's a button on the front of the Pyro for toggling between digital (i.e. DV) and an analogue source.
A set of four switches on the back allows you to change between PAL or NTSC modes, although the Pyro is not an PAL-NTSC converter. The other dip switches are for specifying your source and computer operating system and for synching audio (at 16-bit, 48kHz).
You also have output for RCA composite and S-Video connections, which means that you can output a stream direct to a monitor.
Setting up was relatively straightforward, although I found the Pyro didn't immediately detect my connected camera. I had the same problem with the Miglia and in both instances the problem was solved by restarting my video capture program (Adobe Premiere) and camera.
The most frustrating aspect of capturing my old footage was that the Pyro would break off whenever the signal weakened - no doubt, because the tape is in poor condition after all these years. I wish the Pyro was a bit more forgiving in that respect. Typically, on my older Hi-8 tapes it would break off after a minute and a half. So it required me nursing the footage during capture - whenever the signal was lost I'd have to stop the tape, rewind to point where the capture stopped and start again.
The Pyro didn't always break off during capture when encountering a problem with the signal as the footage of Iona shows. In the clip with the Royal Mail post box a horizontal line runs down the picture where there was a problem with the signal - I suspect the battery on the camera was weak - but the Pyro does not break off.
When the Pyro didn't break off prematurely, the quality of the footage after conversion is quite acceptable. I've posted a couple of clips online here - an almost timeless clip from the Western Scottish isle of Iona and a short clip of director Mike Figgis talking about his preview of Liebestraum - laughing off what sounds like the preview from hell - at a meet-the-filmmaker event at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 1994. In normal circumstances I'd probably crop the edges footage, especially to clean out the line of electrical noise at the foot of the picture. I left it in here for the purpose of this article.
Both clips were shot with a Sony VX1, 3-chip, Hi-8 PAL camcorder - some years ago now and (I'm guessing) the audio was recorded using the camera's omni-directional microphone.
The video was compressed for the web using Adobe Premiere Pro's Media Encoder as Windows Media files (.wmv) and are being streamed off a dedicated Windows Media server at Easystream aimed at a 300kbps audience.
The ADS Tech Pyro A/V Link in brief
Converts VHS, video-8, hi-8 tapes to DV. Import the footage into your computer, edit and output to DV, disc, or web.
For PC Windows: PYRO A/V Link Minimum Requirements: IntelÂ® PentiumÂ® III 800MHz or AMD Athlon XP processor
Adobe Elements 2 Minimum Requirements: IntelÂ® PentiumÂ® 4, M, D, or Extreme Edition or AMD Opteron or Athlon 64 (SSE2 support required) MicrosoftÂ® WindowsÂ® XP Professional, Home Edition, or Media Center Edition with Service Pack 2 (Adobe applications on Windows XP with Service Pack 2)
256MB of RAM, 1.2GB of available hard-disk space for installation, CD-ROM drive (compatible DVD burner required for export to DVD) Microsoft DirectX 9 compatible sound and display drivers DV/i.LINK/FireWire/IEEE 1394 interface.
For Mac: All iMac, iBook, Powerbook or G4 with FireWire port, OS: OS 9.x, OS 10, OSX Jaguar, PYRO A/V Link is compatible with Final Cut Pro and iMovie. * Adobe Premiere Elements is for PC ONLY.
Manufacturer's web site ADS Tech
Miglia Director's Cut 2