Rescuing DVD-RAM Recordings from Obsolescence

I bought my first video camera more than 30 years ago. I went for Hi8, a higher resolution version of Video8, as opposed to VHS or VHS-C which was also popular at the time. Since then I have switched device and formats several times. There was always the worry that I would lose access to my recordings as devices able to read the old media become obsolete or die or the recording media themselves fail from old age. Losing irreplaceable videos of our kids when they were little is something I really didn’t want to experience. Here is a short summary of how I have been dealing with these challenges.

Hi8 (PAL) – early 1990s
I bough my first camcorder when I still lived in Germany so naturally it used the PAL standard (625 scan lines, 50 Hz). I did a lot of analog video editing using an S-VHS VCR, which could interface to the camcorder using S-Video cables. Even after I moved to Japan which uses the NTSC standard (525 scan lines, 60 Hz) I kept recording in PAL. A Samsung multi-standard recorder allowed me to record from the camcorder to NTSC VHS tapes. I also bought a multi-standard analog TV that could display PAL, SECAM and NTSC. However, for many years I just collected the Hi8 PAL master tapes in a cardboard box.
Along came Digital8, a successor to Hi8 that as the name indicates used digital recording but was backwards compatible with Hi8 and could play the old tapes. So eventually, as Hi8 camcorders were already becoming obsolete, I bought a second hand one off eBay when I was visiting Germany. It had an IEEE 1394 (Fireware) connector that made it possible to copy digital video to a computer equipped with that interface. I experimented with PCs with plug-in IEEE 1394 cards, but ultimately it was a Mac mini that allowed me to copy the old Hi8 PAL tapes to a hard disc using the German Digital8 camcorder, a Firewire cable and iMovie which was bundled with macOS. The output files were “.dv” files. Some tapes were difficult to load and took many tries before the camcorder would even play them, but I was largely successful.

Hi8 (NTSC) – late 1990s
When my kids started going to kindergarten I finally switched to a Japanese camcorder, still a Hi8 model but for the NTSC standard (US/Japan). Like with the PAL camcorder I saved all the tapes in a box. The Samsung multi-standard VCR developed issues and we bought a new S-VHS VCR equipped with a DVD drive. It supported DVD-R, DVD-RW and DVD-RAM, the latter with caddies (cartridges). It also supported S-Video. It was relatively easy to use the S-Video interface to copy from the Hi8 (NTSC) camcorder to double sided DVD-RAM media. About 2 hours of video would become one 4.2 GB file on DVD-RAM. I chose DVD RAM because it supposedly was more robust than DVD-RW (especially with the protective case), but as Blu-ray came along DVD-RAM became less and less common, with many DVD multi drives not supporting it any more. In 2008 and 2010 I made a stack of 6 double sided DVD RAM media that held video from 21 Hi8 NTSC tapes, but when the DVD section of the VCR died, I no longer had anywhere to play them.
This year I finally bought a USB 3.1 DVD drive that also supports DVD-RAM, though without support for caddies. I went for the BUFFALO DVSM-PTV8U3-BK/N (2180 yen, about US$21). It worked very well once I removed the DVD-RAM disks from their protective caddy. I hooked it up to a Windows 10 machine, plugging the two USB cables into different USB ports (USB 2.0 for power, USB 3.1 for data). I copied the entire folder structure on each side of the media to a separate new folder on the server hard disk. The actual video information on a DVD RAM disk is in a file called VR_MOVIE.VRO which is found inside a folder called DVD_RTAV. The open source VLC player will play this .vro file, as well as the .dv file captured on the Mac mini from the Hi8 recorder.

MPEG (NTSC) hard disc recorder – 2000s
After the various Hi8 recorders I moved from tape to a hard disk based camcorder, a Toshiba Gigashot GSC-R30. This used a Toshiba-made 1.8″ notebook hard disk. It also had a USB 2.0 interface and could be connected to any PC. The MPEG files would play on any MPEG player with support for its audio codec, including VLC. Therefore backing up and preserving these videos was pretty painless.

Smartphones – 2010s and beyond
The Toshiba GSC-R30 was the last camcorder I ever bought. Occasionally I still shot video on my Nikon D3300 DSLR camera, but mostly I moved on to mobile phones which may not have had an optical zoom or as much recording capacity, but they were always in your pocket and so easy to use and the quality improved with each generation.

Don’t lose your media!
If you value the images and videos you recorded over the years, make sure to migrate them to recording media that you can access for years to come and keep doing that. Also make sure you have backups. Tapes, DVDs, hard disks and SSDs will all become unreadable at some point. Don’t keep irreplaceable files on one laptop and hope that it will work forever because it won’t. At the very least, buy a USB drive and make a backup copy. Even better, buy another USB drive, make another backup copy and give it to someone else in your family. It’s better to have your valuable data saved in more than one place.
I am a great fan of the VideoLAN VLC media player. You can throw just about any video or audio format at it and it will be able to play it. I highly recommend it! 🙂