Extending the Life of Videotape Masters

Magnetic videotape has a limited lifespan but that lifespan is not predetermined. It usually depends on the format, type and the manufacturer’s batch. However, one factor that is definitely related to the longevity of magnetic tape is the environment in which tapes are stored.

We tend to overlook simple things. For example, storing your valuable masters in an office located underneath a built in A/C unit is a bad idea because of potential leaks. Keeping tapes in a rental storage shed could also backfire as you have no way of ensuring proper air temperature.

The life of valuable tapes can be prolonged by a clean, dry and cool storage vault. Temperature oscillation should be kept to minimum. Minimize direct sunlight and exposure to electromagnetic fields. Store tapes in upright position like books and provide a bit of space between each tape if possible. Take all reasonable precautions.

Tape vaulting need not be a daunting task if you break it into simple steps.

1. Identify which tapes are good candidates for long time preservation.

Some tapes are more valuable than others. Edited and color corrected masters are of particular importance if you’re interested in continuing to exploit your product in the decades to come.

Any camera reels that contain footage of exceptional value are also important to keep.

2. Examine the selected videotapes for any signs of deterioration.

Look for signs of water damage or excessive dust inside tape boxes. Examine the way the tape is winding around the spool. Is the tape packed in an egg shape around the core? Does it appear the tape is sticking to itself? Are there loose parts inside the cassette? Does the tape smell like vinegar?

If you suspect anything may be wrong with the tapes do not attempt to play them back. Consider using a specialized video/audio tape restoration service.

3. Rent a vault space or make one yourself.

Now that you have a clear picture of how many masters need to be preserved you can price out the cost of a professional film and video vault. The advantage of climate controlled vaults is that they adhere to the best guidelines when it comes to long term storage. Of course, they can be expensive.

You could allocate an office or even part of an office for videotape storage as an alternative to a professional vault. Follow the simple guidelines and your tapes will be happier there than sitting in a garage.

4. Migrate Content

It is difficult to locate playback VTRs for old tape formats. 2″ VTRs are harder and harder to find and 1″ is to follow suit soon. Yet, there are vast libraries of open-reel videotapes in decent condition out there.

Migrating tape content before a format becomes obsolete not only ensures that you can find a playback deck easily but also extends the life of the material for another 15-25 years (as long as the new format chosen sticks around that long).

It is also possible to commit the content to non-tape media by digitizing it into a computer. This option reduces the vault footprint and simplifies future content migrations. However, it costs more and does not completely address the format obsolescence, as computer video software and hardware change rapidly.

Long-term preservation requires some kind of future playback capability. Whether it is a VTR or a specific computer system, try to understand the playback mechanism’s longevity before you commit. Simpler solutions tend to outlive the complex ones. One needn’t look further than motion picture film to find a 100 year-old projection practice that is still in place because it’s simple, cheap and it works.

5. The Leftovers

What about all the other tapes that didn’t make the cut? If they have some value but not enough to warrant VIP treatment, put them in a place that’s as dry and cool as possible. Put them in a garage if you must but at least wrap the boxes in sealed plastic bags to keep the dust out. Silica desiccant bags placed inside storage boxes will minimize moisture damage.

If the content of your tapes has no value you can sell them to a tape stock recycler or degauss and reuse them.