The Problem with Video Tapes


We get lots of video tapes in for transfer to DVD these days, almost as much now as the older cine film format! Unfortunately, many of the tapes we receive have not fared as well as the older but more robust cine film.

Most of the problems we see could have been avoided if the films had been stored in more favorable environmental conditions. However, many of these old tapes eventually find themselves being stored in an attic, damp basement, or a cold wet outbuilding where the extremes of temperature and damp conditions provide an ideal environment for mold production. Depending on the type of mold, the damage done to the surface structure of the tape can be sever and render any attempt at recovery useless.

We’ve also seen tapes that have been in floods, seawater, and much more.  Sometimes these tapes, or at least a portion of them, can be rescued depending on how long they were submerged and what type of contaminants they were exposed too. If it’s dirty contaminated water the best course of action is to quickly rinse the tapes in a clean bucket of distilled water to remove the harmful effects of the contaminants before they have time to react with the tape. Then leave the tape to dry out naturally in a warm environment such as an airing cupboard. In some cases, even after you have done this, the tape will simply stick to itself much like a reel of cellotape, which makes it impossible to recover the recording, however, if you are lucky, you will be able to play the tape again once it is dry.

Under normal circumstances, tapes of any kind should be kept well away from any form of moisture. This includes any kind of Video or Audio tape.

The simple truth of the matter is that if your tape has been been exposed too or stored in damp conditions for any length of time and shows signs of mold you really need to get it transferred ASAP before the mold gets to work on your tape. Unfortunately not all mold damaged tapes can be salvaged and it very much depends on the kind of mold and even the kind of tape used. Many of the old Scotch Video tapes were extremely susceptible to mold damage.

So, if you find your tapes have white, tan or brown mold growing on the reels, get them transferred ASAP.

Does viewing my Tapes damage them?

We recently received a question from a reader asking what he should do with some tapes that hadn’t been played in many years. Was there any risk to the tapes themselves if they were used in a normal manner?

All tapes have a thin layer of lubrication on their surface that allows the tape to flow smoothly over the heads of playback equipment and protects the surface from etching in normal conditions.  Over time, even in the very best of storage conditions, this lubrication can start to break down, becoming tacky and causing issues ranging from intermittent static interference to preventing playback entirely.

With all Video tapes lubrication issues will normally be revealed by a high-pitched squealing sound as the VCR struggles to play the sticky tape, and it may even prevent the tape from being played or wound at all if the problem is severe enough. The same condition can be responsible for the tape sticking to itself on the reels, thus causing it to snap apart over and over again.  There is no solution to this problem once it has got to this stage.

If you suspect that your tapes might be suffering from lubrication issues DON’T CONTINUE TO PLAY THEM! Deteriorating lubrication will quickly clog the heads of your VCR player, preventing you from actually viewing your footage and you will almost certainly need the heads cleaning, sometimes professionally, before it is usable again.

In many cases we are able to re-lubricate the tape in order to recover it’s content, so all is not necessarily lost in these circumstances.

So, to answer our customers question:  If the lubrication on the surface of your tape is deteriorating, don’t worry about the tapes, worry about your VCR and send the tapes to us!


Why can’t erased footage be recovered?

This is a question we get all of the time. We mostly get them from husbands who have inadvertently recorded a football game over their wedding video!  Unfortunately, they don’t always like the answer because it is impossible to recover an image that has been recorded over.

The reason is that when a camcorder or VCR is records footage, the recording heads are aligning the magnetic particles on the tape’s surface, laying down analog information that can be read and interpreted later during playback.  If new video footage is re-recorded over the existing data the particles are realigned in a new pattern that has no relation to the original, so there is no longer any trace of the original footage remaining.

Hopefully you aren’t reading this because you’ve just erased something important, and if you have I am really sorry.

If you haven’t yet lost some footage, I highly recommend breaking off the write-protect tab on your VHS tapes, and making sure the slider on your other media is switched to read-only.

Comments are closed.