How I used a VHS-video recorder for sound recording, or you need to play beautifully
What do we know about VHS other than it’s scary to watch on the big screen right now? In the underbelly of old and useless VCRs, you can find a sensible audio recording tool.
The passion for “analogy” sound began to take on more and more disturbing forms. I wondered if there was any other way to experiment with analog audio other than buying one hundred dollar reels, hunching over the arm, or squeezing all the juice out of snot less than 4mm wide on the Nakamichi deck?
Something everyone has forgotten that history has preserved (and sells inexpensively) a chic solution. A sturdy chrome band that you can roll up a few hours of music on without running around flipping your sides. Impressive characteristics of the stereo path. The level of saturation and coordination of the work of mechanical units, unthinkable in modern times. There is only one thing missing – a proper appearance, arrows, bulbs. Will you try to guess?
When is VHS better than DVD?
I remember very well the gorgeous impression of “Bolshoi Lebowski” on a licensed VHS cassette. It was played by my Panasonic NV-HP10 player, which had a Hi-Fi Stereo mark on its face. Since then, it seems, I have never heard on digital editions of “Lebowski” such a smooth, rolling bass, which could be so realistically cut through by the ringing of Jeff’s keys. And yes, I’m still not used to the widescreen version of the film, which was made by cutting out the top and bottom of the open matte picture presented on the VHS.
It also happens that the widescreen frame is less informative than the VHS version.
The sound of the first DVDs did not please me at all and it is not surprising. Compared to the full range (20 – 20,000 Hz) of a VCR stereo path, Dolby Digital offered essentially MP3 at 192 kbps. Plus you had to wait for a decent DVD player to listen to music on. This happened to me only with the top-end Philips DVD 963 SA with an Analog Devices AD1955 audio chip and SACD support. With the move to more modern video formats in the face of the Dune media player, the idea of a Blu-ray source with normal analog exhaust was delayed long before the announcement of Oppo components.
By the way, it was SACD that reminded me of the old sound of VHS Hi-Fi Stereo back then. Unlike them, the CD did not lay as softly and was more persistent at high frequencies. I have already spoken about the comparison with DVD. Well, the same compact cassette, with which everyone is worn today, did not lie next to it in comparison with VHS. Plus this noise in the pauses, in which the tails of the songs were drowning …
DVD / SACD-player Philips DVD963SA.
The Hi-Fi Stereo system appeared already in the 80s, much later than the announcement of the VHS format itself. Unlike standard mono sound, which was originally intended on tape with a linear track at a speed of 2.3 cm / s, Hi-Fi Stereo was recorded along with the video signal on transverse tracks – between the luminance and chrominance frequencies. And the speed of data reading by the rotating head unit was radically different – as much as 5 meters per second! And how was this audio information presented? Yes, just like a video picture – with a frequency-modulated signal. Have you heard about FM-broadcast and walkie-talkies? Here is the same principle.
The number of technical frequencies in such a system is no longer per kilo, but per megahertz. FM (or FM – frequency modulation) refers to analog coding, where the audio signal controls the carrier frequency. We can say that the description of a sound wave by a mathematical function is no longer a “not entirely analogous” procedure. Well, yes, the FM demodulator is not a needle that runs along the furrow and vibrates the electromagnetic circuit. But frequency modulation in VHS Hi-Fi Stereo is not a “digital” decoding based on binary code 0 or 1.
The difference can be understood if you compare analog and digital radio, or even radio – conventional and satellite. All of them use transmission on electromagnetic waves, but the principle of working with sound is fundamentally different for them. In general, analog transmission is less protected from interference and data loss, but many users admit that voices sound more familiar over the old walkie-talkie. By the way, if you go further, you can call a CD an analog device. The binary code in it is formed not by some abstract “numbers”, but by quite itself the levels of analog voltage. In short, all these “digital-analogue” reflections can drive you to madness. Better to talk about good and bad in VHS Hi-Fi Stereo.
A film that doesn’t care
Although the videotapes use chrome tape, its composition no longer affected the “pounding” or “humming” of your soundtrack. It should be understood that VHS Hi-Fi Stereo is not a tape recording in the form in which we are used to – with dances around the bias current. The modulated high-frequency signal did not care where it lay – on the BASF or SKC. Even on a rootless videotape, you can be calm about the quality of high frequencies. If something suffers on an inferior medium, then only the picture, which will be dull. This is because the brightness level of the video signal is set by the uppermost border of the modulation corridor. As part of the audio experiment, these problems do not concern us in any way. All troubles with sound will be determined not so much by technology as by a specific instance of a VCR.
A high saturation of electronics can lead to switching noise – crackling, 50 Hz hum, which, however, is easy to catch on a vinyl path. Do you also remember how soft “trrr” sometimes slipped on the video? This enabled auto-tracking of the head when it lost synchronization with the data on the tape.
Attention: recording! Red areas in analog technology are not a big deal.
Hi-Fi video recorders used the so-called ARUZ (automatic recording level control), which itself decided when it was necessary to limit the volume surge, which means that the dynamic range of the phonogram could decrease. Therefore, we are only interested in models with the ability to switch to manual setting. This narrows down the choice considerably.
As a rule, we are talking about semi-professional S-VHS video recorders with the possibility of some editing. Even such advanced specimens are not very difficult to find today. The price range is in the region of a hundred bucks, or even cheaper. For this money, you also get a headphone amplifier (high-quality, if you’re lucky) and an electronic clock. And the prices for videotapes are generally penny – if only they took and emptied the pantry. Not at all the same as with conventional audio cassettes, for which today some deranged citizens ask for the price of a branded CD.
The GV-464 Remote Commander has an LCD display and a pop-up accessory panel with controls for other Grundig equipment.
For the experiment, a Grundig tape recorder, a 6-head model GV-464, was found. This time it was decided not to get involved with Panasonic products. Firstly, they often did not want to record sound without video (the frequency of its scan played the role of a sync signal, according to which the operation of the entire tape was adjusted). In principle, the video feed for Panasonic was not difficult to arrange. At least start a “snowball” of TV air from the antenna connector, which was equipped with each video recorder. And the beloved gray design also testified in favor of Grundig.
S-VHS tape recorder Grundig GV-464 has a block of 6 heads and supports Hi-Fi Stereo.
Working with the GV-464, like any above-average VCR, was easy and enjoyable. Apparently, someone was nostalgic behind the dial indicators even then, so at Grundig we see their stylization on the FL-display. The hinged cover opens a view of the controls and the ingenious element of the 80s – the round “shuttle”, which is also duplicated on the two-level system remote control. Turn the “wheel” slightly clockwise or counterclockwise – the cassette obediently rewinds forward or backward. Now, in the era of the touchscreen, this element has completely disappeared, but in vain. Controlling through a physical encoder is as comfortable as typing on the keyboard instead of the glass panel of the iPad.
Preparing for recording looks trivial. We connected tulips to the input, pressed Hi-Fi on the remote control and switched the level control to manual mode. The instructions indicate that the maximum level should be set at +1 dB, i.e. on the first division of the red mark. This is not digital clipping – you are not afraid to climb above zero decibels. But the headphone amplifier in this model, alas, turned out to be weak, purely for monitoring. The recording is on! An exciting moment after the stop, when the shuttle starts rewinding the cassette to learn about the results of our experiment.
Nothing … Nothing signed up? Nothing new! The result sounds indistinguishable from the signal that was fed to the input of the VCR. I deliberately roughened the experiment with the most budgetary wires and did not notice any degradation that would rush into my ears. I recorded the GV-464 with CD, turntable and SACD signals. Then I listened to the resulting phonogram on VHS and transmitted it to digital recording with a Sony PCM-D100 PCM recorder in high resolution. This was done in order to be able to examine the nature of the results in an audio editor. You can evaluate some of the audio examples digitized in this way by downloading them from the links below.
Despite the formal compliance with the specification (20 Hz – 20 kHz), the bandwidth of VHS Hi-Fi is not limited at all from above. She calmly captured even technological noise shaping over 30 kHz from the SACD. Disappointing or not, I didn’t notice any additional analog fat enrichment when recording on VHS. Timbre and in other senses, everything remains in place. Perhaps this happened because all my sources from vinyl to cinema receivers are brought to approximately the same sound standard and do not oppose each other. And this Grundig GV-464 fits into it absolutely organically.
Vinyl on VHS (Judy Collins – Colors Of The Day, LP 1972). The sample can be downloaded here.
Vinyl record on VHS (Thompson Twins – Into The Gap, LP 1984). The sample can be downloaded here.
Quiet VHS levels from -40 dB to -70 dB (Sheffield Labs – A2TB Test Disc, CD 1994).
Of course, the audio section of the GV-464 is somewhat noisier compared to the digital source, and 50 Hz hum can be found there. But this is only on the charts and below the sanitary permissible levels. In real life, more noise in the room will be delivered by the chatter of the VCR mechanics. At the beginning of the recording, it is better to start up 10 seconds of empty space, while the head unit is adjusted to the desired film tension, and only then give a signal with music. Otherwise, the first chords may be damaged by noise. The only bottleneck in FM modulation is that it doesn’t seem to like rapidly alternating high-frequency notes – trills. This rarely happens in music, but one of the technical test signals suddenly “overgrown” with artifacts. And in other aspects, even in the more economical LP mode of the tape drive, I did not notice anything criminal for the quality of the audio recording. This means that on one E-240 videotape, you can manage to drive an entire discography of a musician.
So for those who are afraid of computers and do not believe in digitization, archiving someone else’s SACD and vinyl to VHS is quite a working idea. In addition, it is practically harmless to the wallet.
Based on materials from “Stereo & Video” magazine, March 2017 www.stereo.ru