Digitizing Laserdiscs

Back in the prehistoric times of 1978, the Laser video disc (LaserDisc) had just been released to market. It offered consumers a very high quality of video in the comfort of their own homes for only slightly more money than hiring the actors of their favorite show to come over and perform an episode live. In hindsight it was little surprise that the superior picture over the also-new VHS standard wasn't enough to offset the massive costs.
Or the short playing times.
Or the lack of a record function.
Not to mention the fact that the discs were large enough to be visible from space.

But somehow the format marched bravely onward with only the support of hard core videophiles and the Japanese to keep its head above the water. For around 20 years LaserDisc managed to remain an obscure but alive format, until finally the very DVDs which owe their existence to it brought about its death.

Okay, great, but so what?
Well, it turns out that a large number of movies were released on this format, at a time when the only other alternative was the much lower quality VHS tape. Since VHS tapes were the spawn of Satan, and have been getting slowly erased by the Earth's magnetic fields, gunked up with sticky kid fingers and eaten by shoddy VCRs from the day they were made, the LaserDisc suddenly shines in comparison for collectors of rare videos.

But all is not perfect. The CDs, DVDs, Blu-Rays, etc which followed were all digital formats. They stored their information as a series of zeros and ones which could, assuming no funky copyright mechanism were involved, be copied perfectly from disc to disc or disc to computer. A copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of a CD will sound precisely the same as the original, barring severe damage.

LaserDiscs, like the infernal VHS tape and all other consumer A/V formats of the era, were analog. The way they store information leaves much more room for interpretation. The line between signal and noise is not so clear. As such a great deal of the resulting playback quality is determined by the LaserDisc player and the condition of the disc. This also prevents the perfect bit-for-bit copy we're so used to making on computers.

So how do we get this analog video onto our digital computers? We use an analog to digital converter, of course. I talk about the type I used in the writeup below, and offer some more suggestions at the end.

What follows is not so much an ideal how-to guide, it is merely the setup I created based on the equipment available to me for prices I was willing to pay. As I mention at the end of this article there is plenty of room for improvement if someone wanted to do this sort of work professionally.

To start with you need some LaserDiscs worth the time to transfer. In this case I was motivated by collections of early computer generated videos, such as The Mind's Eye and State of the Art ofComputer Animation. Great examples of cool videos which never saw DVD re-releases. A lot of this sort of thing is available on EBay for very little money now that no one knows how to play them; the first one I bought was still sealed in its shrink wrap!

Next I set out to get a suitable LaserDisc player. At first I was using a friend's slightly broken Pioneer something-or-other for the simple reason that he gave it to me for free. But it quickly became clear that quality of it was very poor, and there was little point of going through all this work if the results wouldn't be markedly better than the existing YouTube-VHS-TV Tuner specials. So I bought a second from a thrift store. It was a bit better, but I was still not impressed. Finally I heard word from a friend of mine that he was moving and selling his LaserDisc collection. For $100 I got a big box of LaserDiscs and a really superb player. By the time I sold half the discs and my previous player, I had just about got the stuff for free.

What did I get, you are no doubt wondering? A 1997 Pioneer DVL-700. This was the very first combo LaserDisc and DVD player on the market, and one of the first DVD players of any kind. Furthermore, it appears to have been based on the world renowned Pioneer Elite series, minus the faux wood paneled case. To save $2200 and not only retain the superb 3D digital adaptive comb filter and Gamma laser turning mechanism but also gain DVD playback? This machine was a bargain when it came out for $1200. I'm very fortunate to get one for effectively free.

Now what about that A-D converter? Well, if you worked in a professional video studio you'd probably have a dedicated capture system. Perhaps you'd be using an Avid mac, or a Media 100 set. But for most people this sort of gear is far out of reach. Instead we have to look at consumer TV tuner cards and other such dreary devices. Or I should say, you do, because once again I got lucky.

In amongst a big load of scrap computer stuff sent to Free Geek by one of the local schools was a VCR. Now Free Geek has a strict "No VCRs!" policy, but it was buried under a bunch of other junk so no one saw it until it was too late. As a result everyone was moping about wondering what it would take to get rid of the damn thing. I happened to be walking through the warehouse around this time, so I asked to have a look at it.

What the? Super VHS? Mini DV? FIREWIRE?!

I tried to hide my excitement as I offered to make this problem disappear for them. Either I succeeded or, more likely, they were so happy to see it go away that they didn't care. Whatever the case I rushed home and hooked it up. Sure enough it was as I had suspected. This was a JVC SR-VS20, which could record/play back VHS, S-VHS, Mini DV tapes, dub between them, and most importantly, output either or any of its inputs via industry standard Firewire. To your common video editing applications (Adobe Premiere, Virtual Dub, etc) it showed up as a Firewire DV camcorder. Now I could create a digital copy of whatever would plug into the composite/s-video connectors on the back.

Now that I had all the hardware it was a simple matter of plugging everything in, hitting play and uploading to YouTube.

Yeah, Right...

Check back later and I'll talk about how it really went. Until then, here's a shot of my setup

Things they come in different shapes and sizes