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Digital8 adventures


We have a bunch of old Digital8 tapes at home, and so far they have been mostly sitting around on shelves. Since I had nothing else to do and realised they were not getting better with age, I set out to back them up onto our network storage.

The tapes were recorded using a late-90s Sony camcorder, which we still have. It is an absolute juggernaut, still working flawlessly, still feeling like a device from a more civilized age, and even though it uses tapes, the recordings are stored digitally using DV, enabling lossless transfer to the computer!

I had already undertaken a similar endeavour in 2010: after discovering that both the camcorder and the HP Pavilion train wreck posing as our PC featured a FireWire port, I connected them to each other and tried to record video using Windows Movie Maker.

Back then, this used to work out of the box, and I was amazed by this rock-solid technology. You could even control tape playback remotely from your computer! That’s so cyber.

Most of this also applies to (Mini-)DV. On a superficial level, Digital8 is the same thing, and Sony’s legacy camcorders even behave identical to DV devices.

Now, ten years later, I wanted to take a serious and somewhat professional shot at storing these memories for eternity. Or at least until our NAS melts down in a fire.

picture of a clock on a run-down building
I included this frame grab since it is kinda pleasant to look at and demonstrates the format's picture quality. In fact, I didn't expect it to look this good.

Why am I even surprised?

Remembering my 2010 childhood memory of working with DV, I went ahead thinking “well, it’s legacy technology so there will be lots of fleshed-out drivers and hardware support in general, right?”, but then it turned into the typical Linux-kernel-meets-crappy-hardware odyssey that still manages to hit me by surprise, even though I should know better at this point.

I started off with my main notebook, the Lenovo X230T. It doesn’t feature a FireWire port, but at least there is an ExpressCard slot. So I bought an old FireWire expansion card. When dmesg listed VIA as the chipset manufacturer, I should have known better. Yet, somewhat naively, I stayed optimistic.

Doing some research, I noticed that dvgrab might be an ideal solution for my task, and I tried it out. It did not recognize any kind of FireWire device, and in true Linux fashion, I spent the next two days and nights reading about everything I didn’t want to know about FireWire support in the Linux kernel. That didn’t help.

I then tried to use the Lenovo T400 – it too has an ExpressCard slot! That didn’t work either.

I installed Windows onto the machine and tried to use the secret video capture tool that comes with Sony Vegas. After all, it’s proven Win32 baby boomer software! That, too, did not work.

Noting that the T400 has a dedicated FireWire port built into it, I tried to use that one, and it actually worked! But the capture tool dropped frames every now and then, even though the Core2Duo should have been fast enough.

At that point, I was close to having a nervous breakdown, and had probably bought three to five different FireWire cables, even paying my local electronics store a visit, because they always have legacy garbage in stock (but none of the things you actually need.) They eventually told me their whole FireWire stuff had been thrown out just two weeks ago.

Luckily, another FireWire PCI card arrived via parcel just in time. I put it into my Windows desktop computer, and… it too featured a VIA controller. You know what? It didn’t work.

I switched back to the T400, installed Ubuntu, used the builtin port, and ran dvgrab. Thankfully, that worked flawlessly, but I was past the point where you let out a relieved sigh and carry on being joyful.

Messing around with dvgrab

Using dvgrab is very straightforward. After looking at the manpage, I went for:

dvgrab -rewind -format raw -autosplit -timestamp -showstatus

Then, I sat through the whole process.

In retrospective, using -autosplit has been a bad idea, because scene detection did not work reliably: there were some video files containing multiple scenes which kind of misses the point.

Also, -timestamp sometimes did not use the correct date. For example, a recording from 2011 got saved as dvgrab-2020.05.04_15-54-48.dv. Fortunately, MediaInfo has been able to reliably extract the correct timestamp, which is why I decided to run dvgrab without this option and wrote a little script to rename the files using MediaInfo.

(No idea if the camera or dvgrab are at fault regarding these issues, you have to find it out on your own.)

Anyway, the following command (followed by a call to my script) is probably the safest thing to do:

dvgrab -rewind -format raw -showstatus
archived tapes lined up

Archival process

I just put each tape’s contents into folders named like TAPE01 and then shoved them onto the NAS using rsync. Having done so, I labelled a matching sticker (we still had some sheets at hand) as DV ARCHIVED YYYY-MM-DD and slapped it onto the tape.

Bonus surprise

screenshot of a corrupted frame

When I started this project, my intention was to let the camera transfer the tapes in the background while I would focus on working from home and getting paid. That didn’t work out, alas, as playback would now and then enter a glitched state with a permanently corrupted video and audio signal. I could reliably make it go away by rewinding the tape a little and then restarting the recording process, so it’s probably been a spec of dust on the playhead or whatever. But this means that you need to

As an impractical person, I went for Method A.

Takeaway and insights

There were some things that I learned from this journey into legacy tech and my childhood.

First and foremost, fuck VIA.

Second, filling in the blanks on early childhood memories is certainly interesting. For instance, there were recordings I have never even seen before. Also, I was an adorable kid, but that somehow fizzled out when I turned six.

Third, and that might be nostalgia as well, I love the fact that you can stuff digital crap onto a tape. Modern flash memory is robust and slick and all, but not as charming as a mechanical tape rattling through the playheads, with you sitting in front of the screen, telling it to enhance 34 to 36.

Fourth, if you like absurdity (not as in: dealing with Linux), you might want to have a look at Le Daim, a recent film by Quentin Dupieux. It prominently features Digital8 hardware!