HOW TO: Video Conversion Part II – VHS

One of the greatest challenges for an instructional technology professional, faculty member, or media producer is determining the best video encoding workflow for their source media content. In this six-part blog series, video guru (and Ensemble VP of Marketing And Sales) Scott Nadzan will discuss some common video sources uploaded/ingested into Ensemble Video, and help you figure out which video workflow/encoding recipe will ensure videos are optimized and ready for playback on iPads, iPhones, computers and other devices.

Welcome to the second installment in our six-part “summer school crash course” on video conversion, brought to you by Scott Nadzan. This week’s post focuses on VHS conversion. If you missed anything, or would like more information on this series, click here for the cheat sheet.


So you have some great content trapped on one of those old video cassettes, do ya? Before we talk about digitizing the content, I feel obligated to ask a question: Do you have a legal right to copy and/or digitize the VHS tape? I’m going to assume you made a good-faith effort to contact the copyright holder and secure permission to convert the and stream it securely. You may want document the process.

With a VHS tape, there are many ways to capture and digitize the content, but I’d like to go over the steps.Purchase an external or internal capture card

STEP 1: Purchase a capture card or capture device. You will need to purchase an internal capture cards or an external devices plug into the computer via the FireWire or USB ports. This is just a piece of hardware that converts analog content (either audio or video) to digital, for use on a computer. Manufacturers such as Diamond Multimedia (Diamond VC 500), Hauppauge (USB-Live2), Pinnacle (Dazzle DVD Recorder HD) and Grass Valley (ADVC110) produce high-quality video capture devices. I have had a lot of experience with the ADVC110, I’m big fan of that little white box, the only issue is it requires Firewire not USB.

videoconversion-ADVC110 videoconversion-USBLive2
Click to View Full Size Image
Click to View Full Size Image

STEP 2: Install the capture card or device. You will need to install the capture card or attach the device to your computer.

STEP 3: Attach the VCR. Connect the VCR to the capture card with the RCA cables.

STEP 4: Insert tape. Insert the VHS tape into the VCR.

STEP 5: Open video creation/capture program. You will need to use a video creation or capture program on your computer to capture the input signal.

STEP 6: Capture video in digital format. Open the capture feature of the video creation or capture program, and capture the footage by pressing play on the VCR and record in the capture window of the video creation tool or capture program.


One option is to capture a high-quality intermediate file that will be transcoded to a single streaming file in Ensemble Video. Another option is to capture and encode a mid-quality .mp4/h.264 file that is ready for streaming and does not need to be transcoded when uploaded into Ensemble Video. Some of the video creation or capture programs you will use can create an .mov, .avi, .mpeg, .mp4, or .wmv file. We all have our preferences, and I’m a big fan of QuickTime (.mov), but you should experiment with some short files and figure out which format produces the best results for your audience.


When you look at the resolution of the file, try your best to not to stretch or shrink the file. If your capture software says it’s 640×480, then keep it at 640×480. Also, if you have the option to control the pixel aspect ratio (not the display aspect ratio), make sure it’s set to “1:1″ or “1.00″ (sometimes referred to as “square pixels”). I’ve seen many people try to stretch it to 800×600, and all they are doing is stretching pixels. Think about it like one of your favorite t-shirts with a graphic and print on it. What happens when you stretch that out? Does the graphic and text look better or clearer? Nope. The same rule applies for video pixels — stretch them and you will lose quality.

Bitrate (Amount of Data in File)

This setting controls both the visual quality of the video and the file size. In most video editors/programs, this is done in terms of kilobits per second (kbps). You can go a couple ways with this. If you’re aiming for a relatively standard-definition copy that will be encoded, I recommend creating the video with 1200kbps – 2Mbps of data in the file. This way, you’re at least attempting to create a DVD-like copy of the legacy content. You can try to create the digital copy with 3-4 Mbps of data in the file. I just don’t think you’ll see any results on the quality side, and you’ll be uploading and storing a larger file.

Now, if your tool or software will create an MP4 (H.264) file,  you could just make a single streaming file with 500-1200 kbps of data in the file. I’m recommending a range because some people are more conservative or aggressive with their streaming content. Also, I don’t know who your audience is and where they’re watching your videos. If you do crank out the MP4, you are reducing the need to transcode in Ensemble Video, which will reduce your processing time in Ensemble Video.

Frames Per Second (FPS)

The FPS setting is a difficult one for me to predict. Honestly, if there’s an option that says “keep the same”, I would choose that for simplicity sake. Or, if you know the frame rate at which you shot the video, it’s best to encode at that same frame rate. Your options will likely be 24, 25, or 30 FPS (frames per second). All of these look great streaming. 29.97 also works, but can sometimes cause audio sync issues.

If the frame rate of your video exceeds 30 FPS, you should encode at half that frame rate. For example, if you shot 60 FPS, you should encode at 30 FPS. If you were to choose 15 FPS or lower, you will likely lose some full-motion movements. Remember those flipbooks we made when we were kids? Reducing the frame rate of your video is similar to reducing the number of pages in your flip book. Go too far, and you lose that smooth, full-motion illusion.

The Encoding Recipe

If you created a 2Mbps intermediate source file, here are two encoding recipes you could try along with the ingredients:

Single File Workflow Recipe

FORMAT: MP4 (H.264)
RESOLUTION: 640×480 (4×3)
BIT RATE: 900kbps
FPS: 29.97 fps

Adaptive Bit Rate Workflow Recipe

MP4 (H.264)

RESOLUTION: 320×240 (4×3)
BIT RATE: 400kbps
FPS: 29.97 fps

MP4 (H.264)

RESOLUTION: 640×480 (4×3)
BIT RATE: 900kbps
FPS: 29.97 fps

MP4 (H.264)

RESOLUTION: 640×480 (4×3)
BIT RATE: 1500kbps
FPS: 29.97 fps

Remember, if you created an MP4 (H.264) when converting/capturing, you could skip encoding in Ensemble Video. You would choose an “Upload and Stream – No Transcoding” preset.

I hope this article helps you convert those old legacy VHS videos to streaming format! Check back next week for the third installment in this series, when we will focus on “Prosumer” HD Digital Video Cameras. You can also go back to the series introduction for more information.

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HOW TO: Video Conversion Part I – Introduction

One of the greatest challenges for an instructional technology professional, faculty member, or media producer is determining the best video encoding workflow for their source media content. In this six-part blog series, video guru (and Ensemble VP of Marketing And Sales) Scott Nadzan will discuss some common media sources uploaded/ingested into Ensemble Video, and help you figure out which video workflow/encoding recipe will ensure videos are optimized and ready for playback on iPads, iPhones, computers and other devices.

Articles in this six-part “summer school crash course” on media sources and video conversion will be released Monday mornings for six weeks, beginning July 28:

  1. Monday, July 21: Introduction
  2. Monday, July 28: VHS
  3. Monday, August 4: “Prosumer” HD Digital Video Camera
  4. Monday, August 11: DVD
  5. Monday, August 18: Screen Recording Software
  6. Monday, August 25: Video Editing Programs (Adobe Premiere, Final Cut Pro, Avid, etc.)
  7. Monday, September 1: Wrap-Up

Without further ado, let’s turn it over to Scott for some video conversion wisdom:

PART I: Media Sources and Video Encoding Terms


Have you ever tried to count how many different ways people create and obtain media on your campus or in your organization? I know I have, and there are hundreds. Here are few off the top of my head:

    • iPhone Captures
    • Camtasia Studio
    • Adobe Premiere
    • Digital Rapids Encoder
    • Adobe Premiere
    • VHS

  • DVD
  • Digital Video Camera
  • iMovie
  • Telestream Screenflow
  • Final Cut Pro
  • Collaaj

I could go on for days. There are just so many hardware and software tools at our fingertips, from very simple (and affordable) camera phones to very complex (and expensive) editing suites. Depending how you look at it, all these options can be exhilarating or exhausting.

Thanks, I’ll Have Another!

If you’re like me, I get intoxicated with this stuff. I love that a user can choose a software tool or acquire a low-cost video capture device that they prefer and easily produce a video, then upload it into Ensemble Video in a matter of minutes. At Ensemble, we work with a lot of customers that allow their users to choose a video creation tool that they are comfortable with, whether it’s super simple or cheap, or they don’t want to learn a new way to make a video.

These customers enable their users, and typically this reduces friction because the users are just happy a new video tool isn’t being shoved down their throat. With that said, there is some risk here. The users may be happy, but it may be very difficult to control the control costs, support the variety of tools and there are unique training needs.

You are cut off!

I can also can appreciate the other perspective, as the number of non-standard video creation tools in an organization increases, so does the work for instructional technology staffers, technology support is more complex and usually it means more money is spent. Some Ensemble Video customers make strategic investments in video tools and product eco-systems so all of their users are using the same video tool to create video content Basically, the leadership believes they need to limit the choices to control costs, reduce the variety of support requests and simplify training efforts. This strategy certainly can work for all parties involved, we just hope the users participated in the selection process, if not, the leadership will spend a lot of time selling the new product(s) to users and I’ll bet you their will be some friction in that sales process.

Have You Tried Flexible Video Workflows?

If you get intoxicated with all these tools, or if the idea of non-standard video tools makes you cringe, YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Luckily, I think I can help you define a small number of video workflows that will be compatible with your all your video sources. What I’m saying is I’m going to try to simplify your worklife! Don’t believe me? I guess you have to take my word for it, but the truth is many of our customers uses Ensemble Video because it offers a wide variety of flexible video workflows to simplify video creation and video ingestion with usually does simplify user support and training needs.

It’s Not Miller Time, It’s Workflow Time

Again, my goal is to help you determine video workflow processes that will ensure your videos are prepared properly for playback on iPads, iPhones, computers and other devices. Keep in mind these workflows will always including an “encoding” step. Whether you know it or not, all of the videos we watch on our iPads, laptops and mobile phones go through an encoding process to convert the original “source” video to a streaming format.

If the word encoding throws you off, this process is also referred to as “transcoding,” “converting” or “video conversion.” In our case, on the output/streaming side Ensemble Video requires MP4 files (encoded with the H.264 codec). Also, I’m going to assume you have a pretty good idea how to capture and edit video, but when we start digitizing and encoding you’ll need to pay close attention to the format, resolution, bitrate, and fps of the output file.


Before we begin, lets cover some of the basic video encoding terms:

Aspect Ratio: The ratio of the width of the picture to the height. Displays commonly have a 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratio. Program material may have other aspect ratios such as 2.35:1, resulting in it being “letterboxed” on the display.

Bandwidth: The speed and amount of data that can be transferred in a given period of time. Higher bit rates mean higher quality media can be streamed or played back. Overall bandwidth depends upon the processing speed of your computer, along with the network or Internet connection.

Bit/data rate: This is the amount of data that each second of video uses. Typically, this is measured in kilobits per second. Bit rates can be either Constant or Variable. A constant bit rate stays the same throughout the video, which can lead to larger video files. A variable bit rate changes depending on the amount of action on the screen, which will lead to smaller files. Variable bit rates can decrease quality if the bit rate does not change dynamically enough with the video. Experiment with both bit rates to find a balance between size and acceptable quality.

Codec: Compression-Decompression. Highly specialized algorithms that analyze content of the media, using a variety of rules to remove or exclude redundant information within the video or audio material to greatly reduce the size for storage, transmission and playback efficiency. There are many CODECs, each designed for specific purposes. Virtually all digital media used in consumer applications are compressed.

Encode: Often used in the same context as compression. Taking one media format and making it into another. e.g., used to change original content from a Non-Linear Editing system (NLE) to a new format in a smaller size to save space and play on a different type of system such as DVD or Blu-ray. Also referred to as Transcoding.

File Format: A general term that is often used interchangeably to mean the container format or (incorrectly) a codec itself. Common formats include: AVI, MP4, WMV, 3GP, QuickTime, SWF, MPEG, M4V, RM, DVD, DVR-MS, MKV and FLV.

Frames per second (FPS) or Frame rate: this is the number of frames per second. Videos are typically shot in 24 or 30 frames per second. Keep the compressed copy’s frame rate the same otherwise playback will be affected and audio may not sync properly.

H.264: A codec which is part of the MPEG-4 standard for high definition video. H.264 is very efficient and enables delivering very high quality at relatively low bit rates. This is especially useful for Internet content and use on mobile devices. It is also one of the mandated standards for Blu-ray, being capable of encoding video at high bit rates.

MP4: A popular container format, which can carry the H.264 codec for very high quality video at low bitrates.

Resolution: For digital video, measured by the resolvable detail given the number of the vertical and horizontal pixels on a display device. This is the size of the outputted video. It is measured in pixels, width x height.Other factors such as spatial (still images), temporal (moving images or objects) and the perceived resolution of the viewer makes this more than a numbers game.

Streaming: Continuous transmission of media content over the Internet, instead of the media file being sent first as a file and then opened after it has been downloaded.

Transcode: Used interchangeably with encode and conversion. Typically changing one media format to another. Usually involves compression to make the final product into a smaller delivery package.

Come back next week for the second installment of Scott’s video conversion blog series, focusing on digitizing your VHS tape library and preparing those files for streaming!

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