We love 3/4″ U-Matic

Care is needed when handling and digitising ageing 1970s master videotapes.

SimplyDV’s Colin Barrett has recently been involved in running test captures of a unique set of TV transmission masters that form part of an archive of material created at Milton Keynes’ experimental cable TV station, Channel 40, over three decades ago.

Loading a Sony U-Matic Master Tape to a VO-9850P VCR

Loading a Sony U-Matic Master Tape into a professional grade Sony VO-9850P VCR

The monochrome studio master tapes, which date from 1976 to 1979, exist on the now-obsolete 3/4″ Sony U-Matic videocassette format that was widely used by corporate and educational production facilities in addition to mainstream broadcasters right up to the mid-1990s. Many of the TV station’s edited programme tapes – in whose production SimplyDV’s Colin Barrett was originally involved – still survive and provide a unique glimpse into a key period in the development of the new city that is Milton Keynes.

The tapes represent a new-generation of TV stations here in the UK that were the first to use only video in all areas of production at a time when the major companies were still using 16mm film in many areas of production. The Milton Keynes production centre of Channel 40 was designed to facilitate shooting, editing and transmission using the cassette-based 3/4″ U-Matic format – one that, by 1976, was already revolutionising low-cost production and was yet to be fully embraced by broadcasters like BBC television.

Recordings now showing their age and in need of TLC

The big problem is that many of the tapes are now showing signs of age, and it’s important that if they’re to be brought into the digital domain they need to be handled very carefully. That means employing properly aligned and functioning equipment – such as the Sony VO-9650P U-Matic VCR (pictured above) and also the broadcast-standard BVT-500 Digital Timebase Corrector as pictured underneath the VCR.

The collection is currently held in the secure vaults of the County Museum at Aylesbury, Bucks, but it is hoped to bring the whole contents into a new digital age before the recordings become unplayable and are lost forever. These tests are designed to assess whether the whole collection can be digitised without any major problems.

The timebase-corrected clips are converted using a high-grade Canopus ADVC video digitiser module prior to capture and processing using both Adobe Premiere Pro and Apple Final Cut Pro on an Apple Mac digital video editing system. Audio is treated using a Soundcraft mixer prior to digitisation, with further digital processing undertaken using Apple Soundtrack Pro professional audio post-production software.

Screen capture: Editing Milton Keynes band "The Moles" from a digitised 1978 U-matic Master Tap

Editing Milton Keynes band "The Moles" from a digitised 1978 U-matic Master Tape

“It’s been fantastic to be able to look at some of the recordings again after 33 years” remarked project manager Colin Barrett. “Take the studio recording session by Milton Keynes band The Moles, for instance; I produced the studio session on the 9th July 1978 and watching the master tape again makes it seem like it all happened yesterday. I’m really excited to be involved in this project!”.

It is hoped that the final collection – whose completion depends very much on funding being available to complete the many months of meticulous work involved – will be made available via a special online portal in addition to popular social media sites and even as video podcasts. “Once it’s properly digitised and processed, ” commented Colin, “it will have a thousand potential uses – not to just to younger residents of the city but also to local historians and researchers interested in gaining an impression of a new city’s development as seen through the eyes of the people who came to live and work in it”.

Do you have a collection of low-band U-matic, BVU, BVU-SP or even Betacam-SP recordings that require digitising? Please get in touch right now by using our Contact page.

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