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FEATURE

 

COMPLETE GUIDE TO HOME TAPING

 

BOX 1 -- TAPING TV

The next time you come home to find your VCR has recorded three hours of Open University instead of Match of the Day don’t blame the video recorder, it was almost certainly your fault. Time-shifting is the main reason why most people buy a VCR but for some unfortunate souls timer programming remains a mysterious a black art they can never hope to master. But it doesn’t have to be like that, once you understand how your timer works you need never miss another programme again, probably...

 

Barring late schedule changes, power cuts or an exceptionally rare timer fault there can only be two possible reasons why a time-shift recording fails: the timer wasn’t programmed properly, or the video recorder’s clock is wrong. VCR timers need to know just three things, the channel the program is on, the date it will be shown, and the time it is on. It sounds simple enough but you may be forgiven for thinking that video recorder designers have little human contact and blithely assume that VCR owners read instruction books, and secondly are capable of doing things in a logical order.

 

You’ll be pleased to know that it’s getting better and VCR timer are slowly becoming easier to use, but if you’re hanging on for the foolproof timer you’ll have a long wait. The best you can hope for right now is to get a machine fitted with a Video Plus+ timer. All you have to do is enter a string of numbers (two to eight digits long) into your VCRs remote handset. The numbers, known as Plus Codes, appear alongside programme schedules in newspapers and listings magazines, they’re the key to a computer algorithm which tells the VCR timer when to make the recording. Almost nothing can go wrong, the human element has been virtually eliminated at almost every stage of the process, including the publication of the Plus Codes, which are generated by computer and typeset automatically. Well, that’s the theory...

 

Who are we kidding;  people still forget to switch their machine to the timer mode after it’s programmed, they forget to load a blank tape with enough space left, they forget to correct the VCR clock for British Summer time, they forget to leave the VCR plugged in, they forget to tune the channels in the correct order...

 

There is now a system that can overcome most of those problems, including power cuts, schedule changes, and wrongly set clocks. It’s called programme delivery control or PDC. Once the VCRs timer has been programmed, either by Video Plus+ or other methods.  The VCR constantly monitors all TV channels for a unique ‘go’ code associated with the programme to be recorded, and it will not start to record until it has been received. That means the broadcasters effectively control the VCR, and will not send the code until a few minutes before the programme actually begins, they can even instruct the machine to record on another channel. PDC video recorders also self correct their clocks, using teletext data, and will automatically reset the clock after a power failure.

 

It sound’s perfect, and it would be if all the broadcasters adopted the system. However, at the moment only C4 are transmitting the necessary codes, on an experimental basis, the BBC and the other independent TV companies are still dithering and have not, as yet committed themselves to PDC. Until then you’ll just have to read the instruction book, or get a ten year-old to program the VCR for you...

 

BOX 2 -- TAPING FROM SATELLITE

In an ideal world it should be no more difficult to tape satellite TV programmes than BBC or ITV channels, but you won’t need reminding that this is not an ideal world.

 

Basically there are two ways of connecting a satellite receiver to a VCR. The most obvious one is to ‘daisy-chain’ the satellite receiver’s aerial (RF) output to the VCRs aerial input, with the roof-top aerial lead going to the satellite receiver’s RF input. The alternative is to connect the satellite receiver to the VCR by a SCART AV lead. In the first case it is necessary to tune in one of the VCRs spare channels to the STV receiver’s output. Care needs to be taken to ensure the output from the satellite receiver doesn’t clash with any other channels. This can generate patterning or interference, or wipe out the picture altogether, however, most VCRs and STV receivers have a little adjusting screw on the back panel, which allows you to re-tune the output to prevent this happening.

 

SCART hook-ups are more straightforward, though you will normally have to buy the necessary lead from a video dealer. Unless the VCR has at least two SCART sockets you will have to compromise on picture quality and connect the VCR to the TV by the aerial lead, fortunately most sets do these days. Instead of taping from a numbered TV channel the VCR needs to be set to ‘external’ input; picture quality should be a lot better as the signal from the STV receiver doesn‘t have to go through so many stages of processing.

 

It sounds simple enough but there are two problems: first the VCRs timer cannot  control the satellite receiver, so in an extreme case the Satellite receiver may have to be left switched on, and tuned to the relevant channel whilst the recording is being made. That’s okay if you’re there to supervise, but what if  you want to make a time-shift recording? It could mean leaving the STV receiver switched on for days at a time, and what happens if you want to record more than one programme on different channels? Leaving the STV receiver switch on isn’t dangerous, pretty well all of them are rated for continuous operation, but it’s clearly not very satisfactory. Most recent STV receivers now have their own built-in timers which will do the necessary for you, but that means programming two timers, but if you thought VCR timers were difficult to use...

 

A couple of VCR manufacturers, notably Ferguson and Toshiba have developed machines that can operate STV receivers by sending out infra-red control commands, to switch the receiver on and set it to the right channel. The latest ones have Video Plus+ timers, which makes them a good deal easier to use. The only thing to watch out for is compatibility; these VCRs have a limited library of control codes and may not work with some STV receivers, so check first with the dealer that it will work with your equipment.

 

The other little difficulty is that you cannot record one satellite channel whilst watching another, unless you happen to have one of the very few TVs on the market with a built-in satellite receiver, as well as a second STV receiver connected to your VCR. You can, of course still record satellite TV programmes whilst watching a terrestrial broadcast, and vice-versa, as the UHF tuner in the VCR operates quite independently of the TV and satellite tuner.

 

How about VCRs with built-in satellite tuners, they would seem to solve all of the problems? Not so, they certainly simplify time-shifting, the VCR can make multiple timed recordings on any STV or terrestrial channel without difficulty, but there’s still no way of recording one STV channel whilst watching another, and until TVs are fitted with satellite tuners as standard, it’s not going to get any better; don’t hold your breath...

 

BOX 3 -- TAPING FROM TAPE

Copying video recordings from one VCR to another is no more difficult than copying audio tapes; all you need are two machines, and the appropriate connecting leads, though it’s worth saying that the any tape-to-tape copy made on domestic VCRs will result in a significant reduction in picture quality. The simplest method is to connect the aerial lead from one machine to the aerial input of the other, and tune the record machine into the replay VCR’s RF output. Picture quality will normally be quite poor though, as the audio and video signals have to be converted up to UHF frequencies, then back down again. It’s far better, and usually a lot easier to connect the two machines together using their AV (audio-video) sockets, which normally involves the use of a single SCART to SCART lead costing around £10.

 

Both methods will work when copying material you have recorded yourself, either on a camcorder, or from an off-air broadcast, but problems may arise when you try to copy commercially pre-recorded tapes which often feature some kind of anti-copy protection. You will of course need no reminding that it is illegal to duplicate copyright material, and that issue is dealt with in more detail on page XX, however, it’s worth looking at how the various systems operate, and some of the techniques that have been developed to overcome them.

 

Most ‘anti-piracy’ systems work by modifying the synchronisation pulses on the video signal in one way or another. ‘Synch’ pulses are there to ensure picture stability, they’re the electronic equivalent of sprocket holes on movie film, and they tell the TV when and where to start each picture line. The earliest systems deliberately degraded the synch pulses so that the VCR would not be able to lock on to them, resulting in a rolling or wobbling picture. TVs generally have more sophisticated synch detector circuits than VCRs, designed to cope with weak TV signals and they use a system known as ‘flywheel synch’ which can compensate for corrupt or missing pulses. That means a protected recording will appear relatively stable when replayed on a VCR, through a TV, but cannot be copied by another VCR. However, there were problems with this method and rental shops often had to stock unprotected tapes to placate owners of older TVs or VCRs that had difficulty replaying protected tapes.

 

Most of the current systems work by increasing the size of the synchronisation pulses, well beyond their normal range. Again this won’t normally affect VCR replay on a TV but when an attempt is made to re-record the modified signal the automatic gain controls in the copying VCR’s recording circuitry is fooled into believing the video signal is much bigger that it really is. It will usually over-compensate, resulting in a dark and unstable picture. VCR manufacturers could easily incorporate circuitry to get around this sort of protection but for obvious reasons they choose not to, and that includes the companies who market twin-deck machines with tape to tape copying facilities. Older VCRs, made more than ten years ago, are often more tolerant of anti-piracy systems.

 

Various gadgets have appeared on the market that can overcome anti-copying measures, these are euphemistically known as ‘enhancers, or ‘processors’ and they’re generally designed to synch pulses to their correct level, however, there’s no guarantee they will work on all of the various systems, and to use one for duplicating copyright material would clearly be illegal.

 

 

BOX 4 -- TAPING FROM LASERDISC

For those who take picture quality seriously there’s simply no substitute for laser disc, unfortunately the choice of software is limited and it can take quite a while for movies, even top-rated blockbusters, to make it onto disc. Many never do, disc duplication is expensive and the relatively small number of machines in the UK may not justify the cost of producing PAL encoded software.

 

Many laser disc players can replay NTSC coded discs, and this has led to a small but thriving trade in imported discs from the US, where many more movies are released on disc, often several months before the same movie is released on tape in the UK. Laser disc recordings do not normally have any anti-copy protection, so disc to tape copies are not only possible, they’re generally a lot better quality than copies made from tape. At first glance this would appear to be a heaven-sent opportunity for piracy, however it’s not quite that simple. Taping from PAL discs is no problem, apart from the obvious illegality of duplicating copyright material, but making a tape from an NTSC disc is another matter. Laser disc players which have NTSC replay facilities work in one of two ways.

 

The first is called modified PAL, and this works in a similar way to the feature now fitted to a lot of VCRs sold in this country. The NTSC signal is partially converted to PAL by the disc player, processing circuits in the TV do the rest. Most recent PAL sets will display a good quality NTSC picture, though on some older TVs the picture height may need adjusting. However, the video signal from the disc player cannot be recorded on a VCR, as they do not have the same kind of multi-standard colour and video processing microcircuits as TVs.

 

The second system is full NTSC replay, whereby the player will replay either PAL or NTSC discs, but the video output will be in the original format. Clearly this cannot be recorded on a normal PAL VCR, in fact the only way of recording an NTSC signal is on an NTSC VCR, though the tape could theoretically be replayed on a PAL VCR with NTSC replay. The only way to produce a PAL tape from an NTSC disc would be to pass the signal though a piece of equipment called a standards converter. Generally speaking these are well beyond the means of even the most well-heeled pirate, though a couple of low-cost solutions do exist. Both Aiwa and Panasonic have produced VCRs with on-board standards-converters. The Aiwa system is fairly basic and although relatively cheap the picture quality is quite poor. The Panasonic NV-W1, on the other hand, is capable of excellent results  but it costs in the region of £2,000 and is not very widely distributed in the UK. Copying from NTSC laser discs is thus pretty much a non-starter, unless you’re really determined, in which case you have to ask yourself is it really worth the effort, expense and potential risk?

 

WHAT ELSE DO YOU NEED?

Although you can make watchable tape to tape copies by connecting two VCRs together by their aerial leads there really is no substitute for using proper AV interconnections. These days that means a SCART to SCART lead, which carries the audio and video signals between the two machines. The quality of SCART leads can be quite variable so it’s worth paying a little extra for ones that will last and not degrade the signals in any way.

 

Straight VCR to VCR copies are usually okay if you’re starting out with a good quality original but older recordings and home video movies can cause problems, in which case it’s worth investing in a video processor. Video processing is a broad term applied to any piece of equipment that modifies or controls a video signal, that includes everything from the special effects units used in video movie-making, to gadgets that overcome piracy protection systems.

 

Those most appropriate to tape copying have controls for adjusting the brightness, colour saturation and contrast of the picture, and some form of video gain control or ‘enhancement’, to boost the level of the video signal, to compensate for the effects of any extra noise. Many also have audio mixers as well, so you can dub or mix a new soundtrack at the same time. However most processors are not fitted with SCART connectors, the RCA or phono connector is the most widely used. That complicates matters somewhat when it comes to connecting everything up, so it’s normally necessary to buy a pair of SCART to phono leads as well.

 

TOP  TAPING TIPS

 

1. The right connections

When buying a SCART lead make sure it’s the right type! There are quite a few variations on the SCART theme and using the wrong one can cause problems. Some SCART leads can be directional, if so make sure they’re connected the right way around. Fully wired SCART leads -- where every pin is connected -- are usually the least troublesome. When connecting AV equipment using phono plugs observe the colour conventions, red and black (or white) for audio, and yellow for video.

 

2. Tape quality

Video tape is cheap, so cheap in fact that there’s no excuse to use anything but the very best when copying. High grade tape has a more efficient  magnetic coating, which results in less noise, clearer and sharper colours and a longer life. Good quality tape will also run more smoothly, resulting in a more stable picture and better stereo sound; there’s likely to be fewer dropouts or imperfections in the magnetic layer, which produce small white streaks in the picture.

 

3. Keep it clean

Over time dirt and grime clogs the heads in a VCR leading to a gradual reduction in picture quality and an increase in noise. Many newer VCRs have built in automatic head cleaners, which give the head drum a quick brush over every time a tape is inserted. However, it’s still a good idea to give your machine a run-through with a good quality head cleaning cassette every few months, especially if you watch a lot of rental movies. Dry head cleaners are good for regular maintenance, ‘wet’ cleaners, which wipe the heads with isopropyl alcohol, are good for removing stubborn deposits.

 

THE BEST VCRS

 

JVC HR-J205 £340

As they keep telling us JVC invented the VHS format, so they should know what they’re doing. The 205 isn’t loaded down with gadgets or gimmicks but it has everything you’re going to need to make good off-air recordings, or watch movies; picture quality on the 205 is better than some machines costing up to £100 more.

 

SHARP VC-H90 £450

Sharp have a knack of producing sensible machines at realistic prices. The H90 is their latest stereo hi-fi mid-ranger, designed to meet the needs of a broad cross-section of VCR applications, from home cinema to video movie-making. Headline features include an easy to use timer, with program delivery control, audio dub and a front-mounted AV terminal.

 

PHILIPS VR-727 £460

Sometimes idiosyncratic, usually stylish, normally good value and always different; that just about sums up Philips VCRs which at their best rank alongside the top Japanese brands. The 727 is well worth shortlisting if you’re mainly looking for a home cinema machine or fast and efficient time-shifter that looks good and is easy to use.

 

PANASONIC NV-HD100 £530

This is Panasonic’s first Video Plus+ machine, but it’s fairly a crude by current standards, and you can forget the HD100 if you’re only interested in gadgets and gimmicks, but if AV performance is at the top of your shopping list this is the one to look at first. It’s not the cheapest, or the best-looking VCR on the market but you’d be hard pressed to find one that gives a better picture

 

MITSUBISHI HS-M68 £600

A rare combination of performance and features, this one is loaded! Some clever ideas for regular movie renters, and a useful assortment of features to appeal to video movie-makers and home-cinema buffs. Picture and sound quality are above average and it’s easy to use. It’s reaching the end of the line now, its replacement, the HS-M60 is well worth seeking out as well.

 

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