Back in college I was in an a cappella band and my parents used to come to one or two concerts each year. My father loved to justify the money he spent on his camcorder by taping every performance I was ever in (I did quite a bit of performing growing up - shows, musicals, piano competitions, choruses, etc.) Needless to say, over the years, he has built up quite a collection of VHS tapes.
Now, many years later, those tapes are starting to seriously degrade. In fact, VHS tapes degrade every single time they are watched. Another 5 - 10 years and they will be unwatchable and these precious memories will be gone. I decided to do what any computer savvy person should do - get these videos onto my computer in a digital format. And then, with video sharing sites such as YouTube, Facebook, and many, many others, I will be able to share these videos with others who might be interested (my family, other people in the performances, etc.) Just a few years ago an endeavor like this would be prohibitively expensive. Today, the cost of doing this is mostly just in my time.
I mentioned on Facebook a few days ago that I was going to spend part of my weekend digitizing these tapes and several people emailed me asking me how I was doing it. So, rather than respond to everyone individually, I thought others could learn from my experience as well and I'd post on my blog.
Step 1: Get the needed equipment
The first thing to know is that most standard VCRs are only equipped for analog output. Ultimately you need to get the video signal input to your computer, which will only accept a digital input. So we have a mismatch. In order to convert an analog signal to digital, you need an analog/digital converter. Luckily, many modern camcorders have these built-in.
I have a Canon ZR40 camcorder my wife bought for me nearly 5 years ago. You can probably get something comparable for just a few hundred bucks. Of course, if ALL you want to do is analog/digital conversion, you can do that cheaper than this, but of course owning a video camera has other benefits.
Step 2: Set up the connections
Connect the VHS output to the camcorder with regular RCA cables. You will need one of those 3-way cables that have video and left and right audio cables. In the case of my camcorder it came with a cable that on one side has the 3 plugs for the VHS, and on the other side has a tiny phono jack that plugs into the camera's "AV" port. See your camcorder's manual for your specific details.
Next, connect your camcorder to your computer. In my case, I used a standard firewire cable to connect the camcorder to my iMac.
The camcorder itself should be plugged into the wall (rather than running on batteries)
Step 3: Make sure your camcorder settings are correct
There is a specific setting on my camcorder that tells the signal to go directly from an outside source through the analog/digital converter and then to an outside destination (in this case, the computer.) Again, check your camcorder manual to see if you need to do this. In my case, I also had to make sure there was no actual DV tape in the camcorder.
The camcorder should be in "playback" mode (not in "record" mode).
Step 4: Start up the movie software and VHS tape and record
Once I was this far, all I had to do was start up the iMovie software (free with all Macs, though any standard video editing software should work fine for this), select "Import from Camera" from the file menu, and then start the VHS tape (just click 'play'), and the digitizing begins. From this point on, the specifics really depend on your video editing software. In my case, all of the frames of the video were brought into iMovie where I could edit them to my heart's content.
iMovie also has a great feature that allows me to easily upload videos to YouTube, which I used to upload my a cappella videos.
Basically, I had everything up and running in about 10 minutes. The time-consuming part was the actual import (the VHS tape has to actual play through in full - the recording is in "real time").