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HD Today: In Defense of Tape
Posted Jun 27, 2006 Print Version     Page 1of 1

Much of the online coverage I read following this year's NAB espoused the tapeless workflow and disparaged tape, which has served us rather admirably for 50 years. Let's examine some of these claims.

Gone are the failed shoots due to condensation or rampant dropouts from conventional videotape. I've been shooting tape for 20 years. I've worked with 3/4", VHS, VHS-C, SVHS, 3/4 SP, S-VHS-C, 8 mm, Hi8, Betacam, Betacam SP, DV, DVCAM, DVCPRO, DVCPRO-50, and HDV. I can count on one hand the times condensation interfered with my tape system. In most cases, the cause was operator error—bringing the camcorder out from an air-conditioned location to a hot, humid environment. As for rampant dropouts, I use new stock for shoots so I've never had this problem except for one desert-dry shoot with Hi8 before we learned to change the tape in a film camera bag and tape the door shut to keep out the Alaska backcountry silt. Not your average shoot.

Gone are the need for long capture sessions and the $25,000 to $30,000 hardware that go with them. Real-time used to be something we looked forward to achieving as we waited for computers to catch up. But now, if we can't capture hours of video in mere minutes, or directly access it on the media in which it was captured, the medium is too slow. Are we that impatient? If we are, why didn't Sony's Edit Station and Panasonic's NewsByte, which were both capable of 4x real-time in the late 1990s, really take off? Panasonic's still-unavailable AJ-SPD850 P2 edit deck, announced at NAB 2005, and promoted on Panasonic's P2 section of their website, is listed at $15,000. Sony's PDW-F70 XDCAM HD deck is $15,200 on the street. Compare this to two HD tape decks: there's JVC's HDV deck at $2,900, and Sony's HDV deck with a nice-sized LCD monitor built in at $3,800. It seems that new HDV tape formats are much cheaper than solid-state and disk-based decks.

Gone, too, is the limited shelf life of traditional Mylar. Limited compared to what? How do you archive P2, or any video acquired on hard drive or flash media? Back it up onto tape? Maybe you archive it onto optical media. I have a whole zippered case of 20 properly stored DVD-R discs. On these discs are TV shows (two per disc) I transferred years ago from tape. I recorded these at 1X in Panasonic's professional DVD-R deck. Today, I am lucky if I can watch an entire show all the way through without playback grinding to a halt. It glitches, freezes, and eventually, the player just gives up. What does this say about home-burned optical media as a true archival medium?

Maybe we archive onto hard drive. But now consider how much computer technologies have changed over the last ten years. I remember using Syquest and Bernoulli drives. Then there was the Zip 100, Zip 250, and Jazz drives. Anyone regularly use any of these magnetic formats any more? How about parallel drives? SCSI? SCSI Fast or Wide? And what about our IDE drives? The latest computers are already rendering these obsolete with SATA connections.

What is the shelf life of a sitting hard drive? We know the MTBF of working, spinning disks, but what about after sitting idle for five years? Will Windows Vista 2, have another support cutoff and render these drives obsolete? What is the shelf life of videotape Mylar? Ask companies that specialize in playing back videos from the dawn of videotape. Tapes from 40 years ago can still be played back. In a few years we'll see how DVDs and hard disks compare.

Panasonic's HVX200 is capable of recording to P2 in 81 different HD and SD modes from 12fps to 60fps, and exhibits a range of capabilities in multiple resolutions that are only possible via a tapeless recording medium. Actually, tape can record whatever is put to it. There are savvy people out there writing apps like Filestreamer, which allows you to write any kind of data from your computer onto a standard DV tape. Back up Word files onto MiniDV. There's nothing stopping camcorder manufacturers from making a camcorder that records data to tape. Yes, it happens to be a DV-sized tape, but just as easily it can be DV or DVCAM at 25Mbps, HDV 1080i at 25Mbps, HDV 720p30 at 19Mbps, or HDV 720p24 at 19 Mbps. There's nothing stopping manufacturers from putting whatever they want onto a tape.

How much does a good hard drive cost? About $1/GB? We're not even going to think about P2 media costs here. HDV tape is currently about 23¢/GB. It's far easier and cheaper to shelve 50 events a year on tape than on any other media.

I know pros who still don't trust digital media archivability at all. They'll shoot digital and edit nonlinear, but master to Betacam SP, because with analog you can still recover image and sound despite improper storage practices and damage. With digital, it either works or it doesn't. Imagine a hard drive where just the header bits on the drive get corrupted. Or the "end of file" is written on a bad sector and now those files don't work anymore. A few bad bits can render everything into the digital abyss of nonusability. On HDV tape, that's a dropout that will, at its worst, last a few frames. With solid-state or disk-based systems, data errors can end up causing much worse problems than visual dropouts.

While the geek inside us lusts after whiz-bang gear, the responsible person must look at everything required to make it work. However tempting tapeless storage may seem, tape offers almost all the same features—plus archivability—for considerably lower cost, and looks to have a lot of life in it yet.

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