VIDEO CAMERA 1998

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THE 1997 BLANK TAPE SURVEY, PART TWO

 

STANDFIRST

This month, in the concluding episode of our annual tape survey, we’re looking at a selection of top quality high-band and digital blank cassettes

 

COPY

Whilst the camcorder market in Europe remains relatively flat there has a marked increase in the number of high-band and digital machines sold over the past year, which is a little bit of good news for blank tape manufacturers, who have been having a bit of a rough time lately.

 

High-band and digital cassettes are at the leading edge of tape technology, they cost more, but the benefits of Hi8, S-VHS and digital recording systems are clear to see, where it counts, on the screen. Obviously it pays to use the best possible tapes for a master recording; remember, every time you press that record button you’re capturing a one-off event, a slice of time that can never be repeated. It’s equally important not to skimp when it comes to editing or copying treasured recordings.

 

Analogue high-band tapes fall into two general categories, Hi8 and Super VHS/C (precisely the same tape is used in both full size and C-cassettes). Super VHS tape is based on the same ferric oxide formulations used on standard VHS tape, but relies on finer magnetic particles, packed more closely together, and they’re normally manufactured under more stringent conditions, to ensure greater uniformity and quality. We have found there’s less variation in noise levels on S-VHS/C tape but dropout (flaws in the tape’s magnetic layer) does vary from make to make, and between batches. As ususal try several different types, some machines can show a preference.

 

There are two categories of Hi8 tape. The original specification called for metal evaporated (ME) tape, where a microscopically thin metal film was deposited on the base film in a vacuum chamber. However, ME tape is expensive and difficult to manufacture; early samples were prone to faults and exhibited higher than average levels of dropout. Several manufacturers -- Fuji were the first -- showed that it was possible to use 8mm metal particle (MP) tape in Hi8 camcorders, with only a small drop in performance.  Further improvements mean there’s now comparatively difference between MP and ME tape. In fact MP tape can be used for almost all routine applications, nevertheless the higher cost of ME tape is justified on top-end and semi-pro machines used for critical master recording.

 

Last year we included Mini DV tapes in our survey for the first time, and the results were quite interesting. The information on the tape is recorded as digital data and as we discovered there was virtually no variation between the different makes of tape. Generally speaking tape noise is not factor in digital recording, in fact only quite serious faults in the coating will affect picture quality. Digital camcorders have sophisticated error correction systems, that try to compensate for loss of data. The picture tends to freeze, or show blocky artefacts, but there’s none of the white dots or flashes that are associated with dropout on an analogue tape.

 

And so we come to this years batch. There’s not as many as previous surveys, mainly due to the disappearance of Scotch; more tapes appear to be sourced from the same factories, but there’s still plenty of choice. We use the same testing methods outlined last month, and results are compared with previous surveys, to weed out any anomalous results. We’re pleased to report there’s been no big surprises, and not one iffy tape.  

 

RUNNERS AND RIDERS

Hi8

 

BASF PROFI MASTER

There’s been a small reduction in dropout, compared with last years samples, and noise levels remain very low. Worth considering on fussy high-end machines, and for important master recordings.

Noise                *****

Dropout *****

 

FUJI HI8 MP

The first and still one of the best Hi8 metal particle tapes. The tiny increase in picture noise on MP tape -- compared with a top ME formulation -- is just about visible on a high performance machine, otherwise it’s a great tape for almost every type of recording job.

Noise                ****

Dropout *****

 

MAXELL XR METAL

No change from 1996, or the previous year. It remains a capable all-round performer with average to good noise and dropout, that’s ideally suited to most everyday recording applications.

Noise                ****

Dropout ****

 

MAXELL XDME

Noise levels stay at more or less the same level as last year but our samples showed a small but worthwhile reduction in dropout, putting it back in contention for more demanding jobs, on high performance machines

Noise                *****

Dropout *****

 

SONY SUPER HMP

Sony claim a 12% increase in ‘quality’, though they don’t go into details. In spite of the marketing hype it is an excellent tape, with zero dropout and very low noise levels, making it worth considering for master recording on just about any type of machine.

Noise                *****

Dropout *****

 

SONY SUPER HME

A repeat performance from last year. Quite simply this is a superb tape with no dropout and minimal noise. Once again the tape of choice for all critical applications. Recommended.

Noise                *****

Dropout *****

 

SONY Hi8 MASTER

Another outstanding set of results, and it comes in a hard library case. It has one of the lowest noise levels of any tape we’ve tested, though you’ll need a semi-pro machine to appreciate it, but if you want the best, this is it!

Noise                *****

Dropout *****

 

TDK MP POSITION

Low noise and minimal dropout. MP Position has turned out to be a very reliable tape that doesn’t change from year to year. Ideal for all but the most critical applications, suitable for all types of camcorder.

Noise                ****

Dropout ****

 

TDK ME POSITION

Zero dropout and minimal noise, the same as last year; this is another very consistent tape that’s well suited to high-end machines used to make master recordings. Recommended.

Noise                *****

Dropout *****

 

TDK ME PRO

A classic tape from past surveys and this year’s results confirm its status as one of the best Hi8 cassettes on the market. We have no hesitation recommending it for all applications, including critical mastering in high-performance camcorders

Noise                *****

Dropout *****

 

 

S-VHS-C

 

BASF PROFI MASTER

Minimal dropout and noise, in fact no significant change to previous years results. Once again worth considering for all routine recordings.

Noise                ****

Dropout ****

 

JVC XG

Back on top form after a small reduction in dropout, compared with last year’s samples. Even so it was then, and is now the best of the bunch, and the tape we’d try first for all jobs, including critical mastering.

Noise                *****

Dropout *****

 

MAXELL XR-S BLACK

Maxell’s highest rated formulation and another tape that seems to change little from one year to the next. A repeat performance with near zero dropout and very good noise results, definitely worth a try.

Noise                *****

Dropout ****

 

PANASONIC XD

This has to be one of the longest-lived formulations, it’s been around since the year dot, even the packaging hasn’t changed since 1991. Performance varies little from year to year as well. Fine for all routine applications

Noise                ****

Dropout ****

 

TDK XP PRO

No change from last year, reliable and consistent as ever with lower than average noise and dropout. A very close  runner up to JVC’s XG tape and ideal for all applications, including master recording

Noise                ****

Dropout *****

 

SUPER VHS

 

JVC XG

The same low noise, and near zero dropout formulation used in the XG C-cassette, dependable and well suited to every type of recording, including mastering in S-VHS camcorders

Noise                *****

Dropout *****

 

KONICA DOUBLE COATING

A good all round set of results from this double coated tape. Very clean, dropout is at a commendably low level. A useful everyday tape for editing and copying

Noise                ****

Dropout ****

 

SONY VXSE

One of last year’s top performers and once again it manages to show most of the others a clean set of heels with near zero dropout and below average noise. Worth considering for all jobs, including master recording.

Noise                *****

Dropout *****

 

TDK XP

Low noise, very little dropout, overall a good tape that is fine for high-band editing and copying. Very consistent, with no significant change from last year, worth considering.

Noise                ****

Dropout ****

 

TDK XP PRO

Last year’s top performer, and a regular finalist in previous surveys. As expected there’s been no change this time around, so once again it we’re pleased to recommend it for all recording jobs, and in particular critical mastering.

Noise                *****

Dropout *****

 

MINI DV

First appearance in our survey. No defects noted

FUJI 

Noise                *****

Dropout *****

 

JVC

Another newcomer for the 1997 survey. No defects noted

Noise                *****

Dropout *****

 

PANASONIC (CM 4k)

Fitted with memory chip for data storage, on suitable machines. No defects noted

Noise                *****

Dropout *****

 

TDK

Same as last year. No defects noted

Noise                *****

Dropout *****

 

THE VERDICT

If you’re looking for controversy or surprise results we’re going to have to disappoint you. Apart from one or two very minor changes, that could easily be accounted for by batch differences, this year’s tapes confirm there’s been little if any changes in formulation or performance in the past twelve months. Not that we expected any, analogue video tape is now a very mature technology. Differences in digital tape are even harder to spot as they’re effectively masked by the way the data coming off the tape is processed, so we’ll begin by saying that as far as Mini DV cassettes are concerned, we’re happy to recommend them all.

 

If you look very hard it is possible to see small differences in the various types of Hi8 tape, though we suggest that most of them will only be of consequence to owners of semi-pro machines, who demand zero dropout and the lowest possible levels of noise. On most mid-range models such differences as there are can be very difficult to see. However, if money’s no object and you simply want the best then it’s a toss-up between Sony Hi8 Master and TDK ME PRO, though we suspect even the most critical users will be hard pressed to spot any difference between those and Sony Super HME and TDK ME tapes.   

 

JVC XG takes the top slot once again in the S-VHS-C group, though we would still be perfectly happy to use the TDK XP PR, with Maxell XR-S Black a close third. It would have been another repeat performance for the two companies on the Super VHS cassettes, but for a whisker less noise on the Sony VSXE tape, which came in just behind JVC, and a little ahead of TDK.

 

BOX COPY 1

BUYING TIPS

* Only buy blank tapes from a reputable source. You can be reasonably confident they haven’t been pinched, and they should have been stored correctly, away from sources of heat, dust and moisture

 

* Metal particle and metal evaporated tapes can be damaged by high levels of humidity, always keep them in a cool dry place, and away from direct sunlight

 

* You can safely purchase blank tapes whilst abroad, though be aware that the running times for analogue cassettes meant for use in NTSC equipment will actually last a little longer when used in PAL machines

 

* Multipacks are almost always better value than buying tapes singly, and they’re more likely to include freebies, promotions and competitions

 

* Try as many different makes and types of tape as possible, some machines -- particularly Super VHS/C models -- can show a liking for a particular brand

 

* Some people are concerned that recordings can be affected by airport x-ray machines. It is extremely unlikely to happen in the ‘microdose’ machines used in most major international airports, if in doubt ask to have your tapes hand-checked  

 

* It’s highly unlikely you’ll come across counterfeit, bootleg or duff high band and digital tapes on sale in the UK but stay on your guard, someone somewhere is bound to try sooner or later

 

---end---

Ó R. Maybury 1997 1311

 

 


 

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