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Understanding Video Standards for VHS Conversions

Modern devices like USB dongles and even standalone capture card boxes allow us to re-record our camcorder, VHS and dvd footage on to digital files for sharing through email, social media or simply storing without tape degradation! These modern digitisation devices have to be compatible with both the old media from our camcorders and cassettes, but also with new formats like MP4.

So why are those formats so different, and why does one VHS to DVD converter not work for every tape universally? That's because of "Video Standard".

What is Video Standard?

Video Standards are a short code which identify the exact parameters a piece of film was made in. The idea was that if all media used a standard set of resolutions, frame rates and aspect ratios that media would be more reliably broadcast-able and accessible. This is a fine idea, however in reality we ended up with many of these standards simultaneously existing!

The three we'll cover today are PAL, SECAM and NTSC:

PAL - PAL Video Standard is 576p at 25fps with YUV colour

SECAM - SECAM Video Standard is 576p at 25fps with YDbDr colour

NTSC - NTSC Video Standard is 480p at 30fps with QAM colour

(Don't worry if you don't understand those differences, the main thing is to see that they are different!)

So, while a single video standard will still define the frame rate, resolution and aspect ratio of a piece of media, that isn't the be-all-and-end-all as there are entirely different standards which a device might also have to read!

Which Video Standard Are VHS Tapes?

When capturing your old memories on to modern digital formats you will need to know which Video Standard your tapes are in. This is most easily identified by the country of origin for the tape / film.

I mentioned earlier that not everywhere uses the same video standard, but the standards were still implemented across entire countries. This means that while a French tape might be a different standard to a UK one, all the UK ones should be the same!

There's a complete list of standards-by-country here (Thanks Sony Support!) but overall if you are in the UK you can safely rely on a "PAL" video standard. For France and other European Countries it's "SECAM" video standards. For the US, it's "NTSC" Video Standards.

These are all, themselves, umbrella terms which have further specifics beyond but the overall layout is generally all you'll need to know.

Why Does Video Standard Stop Capture Cards?

This entire wind-up is vital to understanding why converting VHS tapes is intrinsically tied to Video Standard. If you are converting a tape from the UK, for example, you will be converting PAL video to MP4. This means the capture card has to take in PAL video standard data and output modern MP4 data.

For this conversion to work the capture card needs the right firmware to recognise the PAL video is actually video! This might sound odd but this problem dates back to the original technology. If you put a French (SECAM) tape into a UK (PAL) VHS player, the player won't know what to do with it. Even before software and apps and files became a thing, Video Standard was still a dividing factor for analogue media.

This division continues to modern devices, which can only convert tapes if they're set up to work with that video standard. We can see in the list above that PAL uses YUV colour encoding while SECAM uses YDbDr, and so if a capture device is trying to decode YUV (expecting a PAL video) and gets given YDbDr (SECAM) instead, the colours will look entirely wrong or not playback at all!

Double-Check Compatibility

Some modern conversion devices use a downloaded software to manually select the Video Standard. For example, the Honestech app allows you to do this every time you make a recording so that you can record PAL one day and SECAM the next! If you are having recording woes with VHS tapes then Video Standard might well be the answer you are looking for.

Without the correct video standard on your media, player, and capture then the entire system will fail to communicate and could cause a failure in playback entirely.

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