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Convert VHS to MP4

Ok if you’re like me you’ve got a bunch of old VHS video tape laying around that is inching closer and closer to a final death. Not only are the tapes slowly decaying with age, but I’m down to my last working VCR. For example, scuba diving videos shot back in 1995 are already showing color degradation and increased playback noise. The question is, what do to? How to quickly and easily convert those old VHS tapes into something more modern like MP4 videos.

There certainly are any number of inexpensive USB video digitizers on the market, but reading the comments they all seem to be a case of “you get what you pay for”. People with problems with the drivers, problems with quality of the video, problems with audio sync. The list goes on and on. I figured there had to be a better way….

The answer for me turned out to be the Panasonic PV-GS250 MiniDV Camcorder. Here’s what you need:

  1. VHS player
  2. Panasonic GS250
  3. PC with WinDV capture utility
  4. DV to MP4 encoding utility, like AVIDEMUX
  5. Associated Fire-wire and AV cables
VHS to DV convert

VHS to DV convert

I was already transferring video from the PV-GS250 to my PC over the fire-wire interface. So this seemed a reasonable place to start.

Sure enough, digging through the GS250 manual I found that I could dub external AV sources to DV tape. That’s a bit of a trick to set up. The first thing I found is that I had to set the AV Jack to In/Out. The GS250 menus change depending on what function the camcorder is set to, but… in Video Playback, buried in the menus, I found the option to set up the AV Jack as both an output (the default state) and an input. Yes, and you thought that AV jack was only for playing back video you shot!

AV Jack Setting

AV Jack Setting

Once that was set, I connected the AV cable from VHS player to the Panasonic GS250 AV jack (a Composite video + Aud-L + Aud-R cable), hit play on the VCR and I saw the VHS playback come up on the GS250 LCD screen. Yes, if you play a DV tape it will show the DV tape output on the LCD not the AV input, leave the GS250 paused.

Now… actually dubbing to DV tape was more interesting. Buried in the Video Playback menu under Advanced options, is the REC STDBY option. I set this to YES.

REC STDBY setup

REC STDBY setup

When set to YES then an on-screen Rec option turns up. Press the small joystick up to select Rec and then whatever is currently playing will be recorded to DV tape. Do note that you have to reset the REC STDBY option each time as it doesn’t stick.

Standby Rec

Standby Rec in progress

I could have stopped here, this works, but… for any VHS longer than an hour, it takes multiple DV tapes which then in the DV to MP4 conversion process must be appended together. Also the work-flow is a lengthy 3 step process. VHS to DV, then DV to PC, then convert DV to MP4. It takes a looooong time.

There is a better way.

Buried down in the Video Playback menu under the Advanced options on page two I found the DV Out option. When this is set to ON, then while the GS250 is playing the incoming AV signal it will at the same time output the AV signal as a DV stream via the GS250 Fire-wire port.

DV Out setting

DV Out setting

Done in this manner, I could simply use WinDV on the PC to record the incoming DV stream. So, VHS to an AVI file on a PC all in one step. With the DV file in hand, just use the normal AVIDEMUX processes to convert the DV to MP4 adding any necessary Deinterlacing, Resizing, or Noise removal filters.

One final trick to make this work. When WinDV starts capturing, it also sends a “Play” signal down to the attached MiniDV camcorder. Normally, this is exactly what you want it to do, but here I wanted to record the incoming AV stream, not the contents of the DV tape (remember hitting play means the GS250 plays the DV tape, not the incoming AV signal). The simple solution was to remove the DV tape from the camcorder! Everything works fine without a tape in the camcorder.

Yes the GS250 is more expensive than one of those cheap AV to USB converters, but if you already own a DV camcorder the cost is zero. And I’ll bet that other DV camcorders also have the same capability. It’s just deeply buried in the 100+ page manual.

Happy conversion!!