Checking old MiniDV Tapes

MiniDV tapes aren’t old in the grand scheme of things, but they’re getting up there. I owned and used a Sony Handycam HC-48 from roughly 2007 to 2010 give or take, getting only about 14 hours of video. I think this is when I found out that as a family, we’re more photo than video oriented. It also dovetailed into smartphone video capabilities ramping up, and for me, action cams.

But enough about that new fangled stuff, let’s talk about some MiniDV, and how I’ve been re-digitizing them over the last few weeks.

MiniDV is a standard definition format meaning for NTSC, the HC-48 was giving me a 720x640 image (interlaced!), with uncompressed 16bit audio. The MiniDV format tape is quite small, and as a digital format, holds around 13GB of data for about an hour of video footage. Tapes were not really expensive, and for years you could even pick them up in convenience stores.

Just to go into some of the technology involved, there’s the recording method itself behind DV and then the DV-DIF stream behind that.

So for those who never got to use these cameras, they work like this. You record onto the MiniDV tape in the camera. No shocks there. However, you then connect the camera to your computer via a FireWire cable to copy the data. This system was also known as IEEE 1394, or if you were Sony, i.Link. Back in the day, it was mainly Macs had FireWire, and for PCs you had to buy an additional card - which is what I’ve done for this recent round.

In my case then, I connected the camera via the FireWire cable to my old MacMini, fired up iMovie to import from camera, make sure the tape was at the beginning, and then since the FireWire is a two way control system, initiate the import. In real time. What this does is play the tape, which sends the digital data as a DV-DIF bitstream, and each recording session is seen as one ‘.dv’ file on the Mac, so there’s no generational encoding done, just a straight bit transfer. That said, due to the format, not all frames when captured or transferred are perfect, and being tape, two transfers may be different. We’ll come on to that later.

Back when I used this camera, I would usually run a tape to capacity over a couple of months, then per above, connect to the Mac and import via iMovie.

A decade later in 2020 when I decided I want to check the health of the tapes (and by extension, the camera) my MacMini was newer but needed an adapter for FireWire 800 to hook up my camera, and my Windows desktop was where I did most of my video editing, so I bought a cheap PCIExpress FireWire card based around the Via VT6307 chipset. I should say, there is a little work to do getting Microsoft’s Legacy IEEE1394 driver installed on Windows 10 before you can use it - see this Microsoft Knowledge Base article for that little gem.

That left software to get it imported. Most modern video editing applications no longer support importing from tape, such as Premiere Elements, or the one I use DaVinci Resolve.

However, there are a few specialised, if old, applications you can use. Here’s a quick round up with the caveat that YMMV depending on tapes, player etc.:

WinDV (freeware - 2003)- an old yet tiny import utility which worked fine for me on Windows 10.

Scenalyzer (freeware - 2010) - a more fully featured import application, which you might need to tweak but seemed more accomodating.

I used both of the above, and they do give different results. In fact, that’s something worth remembering - despite being digital, it is tape, so two play throughs may give slightly different files. However, I found my tapes even 13 years, on were functional and gave good results from one or often both of these applications. If you want to test there’s another useful free application called DV Analyzer to give you an idea of how good or bad a file may be. Don’t expect every file on every tape to be perfect, and that seems to be somewhat inherent to the format.

I saw a lot of variation with one tape especially, and got much better results with WinDV. No idea why. I basically compared copies from both, and kept the better ones. An odd glance back to history really. I also made sure I still had a tape head cleaner just in case, since the camera/player hadn’t really been fired up for a decade and has been living in a sealed box in the loft during that time. I’m actually impressed it gave no complaints.

So all done then, I confirmed that my player still works, my tapes all seem functional, and I could cross compare rips from the iMovie copies made at the time against 2 versions now, and keep the best of those. Since this is for family archives, I think it was a worthwhile exercise, though the digital copies on my archive server are now effectively copied themselves to 3 separate drives locally, and an offsite backup.

I also learned a lot more about the DV format, even if it might not seem so here. When I first copied them to the Mac all those years ago, I just thought it was a digital file, a digital copy, so no reason to check. Interestingly, there’s a lot more to it, and I’m sure there’s plenty more for me to read up on for MiniDV and archiving the memories on them. As a taster of that, there’s a few documents about how to correctly archive and store the tapes themselves.