We’re not beaten by temperamental U-Matic tapes!
Dusting off and digitising those old promotional and training videos and making them available for a new generation to enjoy seems like a great idea – until it’s discovered that the tapes can only be played with lots of TLC. That’s a problem we had with a 1987 Marshall Amplification video.
Back in late 1986, Marshall – the world-renowed guitar amplification maker – commissioned a video to celebrate the anniversary of its first 25 years the following year.
The video was devised, shot, scripted, edited and delivered within a very short timespan on the professional standard BVU-SP 3/4″ U-Matic videotape format.
Once copies were distributed, the edited master was put on the library shelf where it sat until Summer 2010, when it was decided to revisit the production ahead of the upcoming 50th Anniversary celebrations.
However, there was a problem. It was mastered on Ampex 197 videotape (see picture) and, due to a problem with Ampex tapes dating from the 80s, was now virtually unplayable. Its contents were priceless and the only alternative would be to digitise from one of a number of VHS copies that were made direct from the master. However, that was a last resort only!
Thankfully, the original production was one of ours and (as is our practice where possible) most of the original source tapes – both video and audio – that were used in the final edit had been archived. And so the process of creating a new, high quality, digital master began.
After coaxing the master tape to play in short bursts of 60 seconds or so, it took a whole day just to digitise its 11 minute duration – with several passes being made of each section. We fed the output from our well-maintained Sony VO-9850P U-Matic-SP videotape machine to our ex-BBC TV digital timebase corrector (a Sony BVT-500) and onwards to a set of professional video capture and editing applications on an Apple Mac via a Grass Valley Canopus Analogue-to-Digital converter.
Grading and re-building the video track
The first task in the digital domain was to assemble the video track clip by clip, using a digitised VHS copy as our template. The quality off the BVU-SP master was surprisingly good, but occasionally it was necessary to go back to any available (and playable) camera original tapes when there was tape dropout (the product of tape degradation). Each sequence was colour balanced and adjusted.
Once the video assembly was completed, it was time to rebuild the sound tracks.
Creating a new stereo sound-track
The edited Ampex U-Matic SP master tape consists of two stereo linear tracks – each of which contained separate elements of the sound (music, interview voices, sound effects, commentary) in a “chequer-board” assembly which needed to be stripped out and re-assembled into a properly balanced stereo track. Previously, individual sound components would appear either left or right in the output – and it was for this reason that final VHS distribution copies were made with mono sound back in 1987.
Thankfully, Chromium-Dioxide Audiocassette tape copies of the music master tape, created by Geoff Whitehorn, resided in a box with the others so it was decided to digitise these using a TEAC professional Audio Cassette Player via a Soundcraft EPM8 mixer and insert them into the timeline. The audio was completely re-built and mixed using Soundtrack Pro on an Apple Mac. The finished stereo file was then laid back to the edited video master in sync with the video track.
The final new version will join other related video materials being assembled on DVD for presentation to Jim Marshall in the year of the company’s 50th anniversary. These include the original (and very rare) unedited interviews with Jim and his co-founder Ken Bran plus a video recording of the surprise celebration party held in Jim’s honour at London’s Dorchester Hotel on June 1st, 1987. This included a specially-shot tribute by Rick Parfitt and Francis Rossi of the rock band Status Quo in which they appeared to blow up a whole line of Marshall backline amps on stage!
We’re very honoured to have been involved in the process of preserving part of the colourful history of a British company whose brand is iconic in the eyes of musicians throughout the world.
Note: SimplyDV’s Colin Barrett wrote and directed “Marshall – The Video” in 1987 for Videovision Associates. It was produced by Steve Baker.
Related link: Marshall Amplification PLC