Media Conversions

I’ve been fretting for a while now about what to do about the collection of family related media I have – this would be slides, negatives, video, audio and prints. Of course, I’m not the only person to be thinking about this – David Pogue whom I enjoy reading, and who writes for the New York Times has written on this topic at least a couple of times recently as have many others. I suppose that there are at least two schools of thought to which you can subscribe: you can view all of your accumulated media history as being of interest only to yourself, and so it should all be tossed in the bin when you pass on, or you can take more of an archivists approach and try to collect and pass it along for the potential interest of future generations. When it was all paper this was simple – these days it isn’t quite as easy.

Two things happened recently that drove this home for me personally. I have become the keeper of my wife’s parent’s photo collection since they passed away, and so I’d like to catalogue it before all family memory fades as to the who, when and where the photos are of, and then when I recently checked back through my own collection for a photo of a motor bike I used to have, I found that the image was so faded I could no longer make out if it was a motorcycle or a bicycle ! My 8mm video tapes are just over 20 years old and as other’s have noted, finding a way to easily play them back has become more difficult of late, as new devices that are able to read the format have become few and far between. My understanding is that 8mm video record/play devices will soon no longer be available at all, so its fortunate that I don’t actually have a lot of tape to worry about – just a half dozen or so.  I’ve decided to get serious and do something.

The ‘something’ in itself is a bit of a problem – while you can contract out scanning etc., the effort and consequent cost really is in the cataloguing and sorting. And then, how do you store it ? Put all of this onto a computer hard drive, and when it crashes – as it will eventually – it’s all gone for good. CD’s and DVD’s are not really an assured storage medium and who’s to say you’d still have a device that will read them anyway in 10 to 20 years ? How many computers do you see today that still have 3 1/2 inch stiffy disks ? Or better still, 5 1/4 inch floppy’s ? Leaving the material on a hard drive should allow you to be able to copy the files easily from one media to another, but as I found out the hard way you can’t count on this working properly either as file corruption during transfers is a common issue with Windows systems. And if you do manage to get good copies on some sort of playable media – who will know who or what it is in 20 years time ? This whole area of data storage, migration and conversion David Pogue calls ‘data rot’ which I think sums it up nicely.

For my video’s then, what I’ve done is just transfer them directly to digital form and saved the raw footage ‘as is’ on our home server for the moment. This was a journey in itself, which took me some time to sort out – nothing is ever easy. I have an ATI TV tuner card in my XP PC, and it has a few input options that I can hook up the output off my 8mm camera to – the software that comes with the ATI card however is useless, so I decided to try an open source solution called Media Portal which I like to use for television watching and recording on the PC. The thing is, the format Media Portal saves in is ‘.ts’ which is a wrapper for standard .mpeg. When I went to edit these I found a couple of problems – the first being finding an easy to use editor as I had several applications that played back the ‘.ts’ files just fine, but had nothing to edit them. I tried converting the files into an .avi or standard .mpg format, and then found that I had all sorts of audio synchronisation problems. I wasn’t about to go out and buy a Mac (which would have just introduced a load of other problems, but does do this sort of thing quite well), and so in the end I gave up and looked elsewhere. I happened to have a Hauppauge WinTV-HVR 950 USB connected TV tuner, and thankfully it worked right out of the box when connected to my XP machine (but not any of my Linux boxes) and I was then easily able to save files from the camera in .mpg format which I could then edit using Nero Vision 5. I did try using Windows Movie Maker, but the version I had would only save in Windows formats and when I tried to convert those I again had audio/video synchronisation problems as well as video quality issues. I don’t especially like the Nero products as I find they usually crash a lot, often just as you finish working for several hours with a large file, but this time around it worked OK for a change.

After a week of wallowing about, I had fully converted all our home family video tapes and I was happy with the results – now what to do with them ? For the moment, I have the 66 GB of files, saved  on to two different hard disks. While I have thought about uploading them to my Amazon S3 storage, I suspect the upload time will take too long. While Shaw (my internet provider here in Calgary) tell me they don’t throttle uploads and downloads I think they are being less than truthful, as I have many times noticed that uploads and downloads start to transfer quickly and then progressively (regressively ?) slow down till they are practically crawling and you can almost see the bits as they are being transferred. I think instead that I will edit the video down to two or three director’s cut versions, with lots of text in them to give the who, what where and when information, and just ensure I have my usual three copies in three places (external hard disk in our safety deposit box, on the household server and on an external drive I keep in the house).

On to photos next time ……..

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