From Tape to Digital over FireWire: A Lasting Legacy

Greetings Low Enders! I apologize for the hiatus, but it’s been a busy last few months. During that time I’ve come across a goldmine of my family history as I continue to sift through everything I’ve inherited from dad (a long process that has taken 3+ years thus far). I was elated one day when I found the power supply to his old Sony Digital8 HandyCam along with 50-some Digital8/Hi-8 tapes that spanned over a decade of family history and would like to share that story..

FireWire and Digital Video: The Dawn of a New Age

Sony’s DCR-TRV103 HandyCam was their first “Pro-sumer” camcorder that could interface with a computer via FireWire (dubbed “iLink” by Sony).

Once upon a time you may recall when Sony produced HandyCams that utilized Digital8/Hi-8 tapes in their camcorders which could be easily converted to Digital Video format (.dv) when connected to a Mac equipped with FireWire via a special 4-pin to 6-pin FireWire cable (Sony dubbed this technology iLink for their own marketing purposes).

My father owned one of these camcorders – in fact the very first that Sony ever produced (model DCR-TRV103), pictured left. Interestingly enough, when this camcorder was released in September 1999, Macs had just begun shipping with FireWire that very year, so this was cutting edge stuff at the time.

Apple then introduced iMovie a month after the DCR-TRV103 with the DV iMac in October 1999 and with that, the DCR-TRV103 was ready to go as the first “pro-sumer” camcorder that could convert analog tapes to digital video, but something still seemed like it was missing to make this entire transition simple.

Enter the SuperDrive and iDVD

Before the SuperDrive, your iMovie creations with edits could be recaptured on another digital or analog tape or could be recorded as QuickTime movies on writeable CD media unless you had professional DVD authoring equipment at the time or a standalone/external recorder (which both carried prohibitive costs). Aside from cost, this was limiting in several other aspects ranging from logistics (more than 1 disc needed to deliver content in most cases) to universal playback on devices.

Things came full circle with iDVD and the SuperDrive in 2001, allowing both editing and authoring on the same machine, making the transfer from tape to DVD seamless over FireWire.

At the turn of the millennium, DVD (especially writable drives) was still relatively new technology, but had caught on fast and by the end of 2000, many homes had DVD players (a large influx came courtesy of the PlayStation 2 which provided DVD playback in addition to being a state of the art game console). DVD authoring software was still expensive though, but all of that changed in 2001 when the full power of the Digital8 Camcorder was unleashed with the release of Apple’s first SuperDrive and iDVD with the 733 MHz Digital Audio Power Mac G4. It really allowed things to come full circle. Here is Apple’s Press Release on these items. With the availability of these tools and the pathway from tape to DVD made easy (illustrated to the right), it allowed anyone with a budget of about $5,000 for equipment to easily set up their own home editing studio.

From Analog to Digital

The PS2 ushered in a new era that combined a highly capable game console with a digital video entertainment hub. It was the first game console that doubled as a DVD player and became the #1 selling home console of all time with over 155 million units shipped worldwide.

Regardless of how digital video and its transmission has evolved as of late, it’s still hard to believe that it’s just been a bit over 12 years since the entry level video professional or hobbyist could finally imagine authoring DVDs from the comfort of their home, completely self-contained in one machine and share it with any friend who owned a DVD player or PlayStation 2 (pictured to the left with caption).

As with most things at their inception, the process of a full conversion initially was a slow one, as rendering video and edits on a single 733 MHz Digital Audio G4 with early versions of editing software and burning it to DVD undoubtedly took much longer than it does today on a powerful quad-core i7 machine and much faster DVD burner.

In relation to my quest for a family history revival by transferring my tapes from the DCR-TRV103 over FireWire, but editing, authoring, and even sharing raw footage streamed to my AppleTV (courtesy of Mountain Lion’s Airplay Display mirroring and modern machinery), sharing the fun is so much easier and entertaining today. It really does make you appreciate how far technology has gone and what Apple has done to advance it and make that process more streamlined.

The cost of doing all of that and doing it with ease has almost become trivial today due to the cost of equipment and media. Using dad’s old DCR-TRV103 and drawer full of family video on Hi-8 and Digital8 formatted tapes, the quest for reliving my glory days truly has begun, but now it’s just come down to the editing process and authoring of DVDs in iDVD. I also have a copy of DVD Studio Pro and Final Cut Express and will eventually take things to the next level once I have mastered iMovie and iDVD. I do have to say that one of the most enticing features of the combination of the DCR-TRV103 and iMovie over FireWire is that iMovie can control the camcorder’s basic functions (all of Sony’s HandyCams with FireWire seem to be largely supported by iMovie HD ’06).

My Setup

As mentioned, doing everything in terms of editing/authoring from archival footage today is trivial from a financial standpoint, especially if you are only working with SD video or HD video at 1280 x 720. A 1 GHz G4 fits the bill for real time editing of SD footage, and clearly any G5 or low-end Intel will only make that process easier and cost a fraction of what they once did. Personally, I stick with my trusty 12″ 1.5 GHz PowerBook due to its small footprint/portability along with a USB 2.0 250 GB SATA external hard drive and the DCR-TRV103 connected with an Apple 4-pin to 6-pin FireWire cable.

I’ve been hard at work capturing all of this archived footage using iMovie HD ’06 (know affectionately by most as simply iMovie HD) in Leopard on the 12″ ‘Book and it’s been very fun reliving cherished moments such as my wedding, college graduation, family vacations, and many more events that were captured on tape that have come and gone over a decade while dad’s Sony Digital8 was in service (1999-2009). Since I’m capturing to an external hard drive, I can then easily port those iMovie HD projects to iMovie ’09 on my 17″ Early 2011 MacBook Pro and even share the raw footage using Airplay wireless display mirroring while booted into Mountain Lion via AppleTV. I decided to capture in iMovie HD versus ’09 since the project files are universal between Intel and PowerPC and can be edited on a variety of systems and ported over to a more modern version of iMovie as mentioned. I also like the interface in iMovie HD and the fact that it just meshes nicely with iDVD. Apple really did a great job with all of their OS X 10.4 Tiger era software.

Conclusion/For Next Time

To sum things up looking back – 12 years ago there was just one logical choice of what to do with the given technologies and software, but now there are many choices of software and lots of new ways to import, manipulate, and prepare the footage in SD, HD, and even 4K resolutions. At the same time, both the optical disc and FireWire interfaces seem to be going by the wayside in Apple’s machines in favor of flash memory, external drives, streaming services, and USB 3.0 respectively (although a Thunderbolt equipped flash memory camcorder could be intriguing).

All in all, in some ways progress at times can also cause things to devolve in favor of simplicity. For me, as a fan of both low-end machines and high-end production value this makes little sense, but perhaps people don’t have the time these days to create a well-polished DVD/Blu-ray and would rather create various 30 second to 1 minute snipits and share privately on Facebook, YouTube, etc.?

For next time I’ll revisit and discuss the editing/authoring tools of the past and present, their pluses and minuses, along with a comparison of capturing/editing with a USB camcorder versus FireWire. After that, look for more on the optical drive, optical media, iDVD (which Apple has discontinued), and why these things will always be relevant.

Keywords: #digital8 #imovie #idvd

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3 thoughts on “From Tape to Digital over FireWire: A Lasting Legacy

  1. Hey there, I think your website might be having browser compatibility issues. When I look at your website in Safari, it looks fine but when opening in Internet Explorer, it has some overlapping. I just wanted to give you a quick heads up! Other then that, very good blog!

    • Naomi: Thanks a bunch for the comments. Try experimenting with the fonts/font sizes in Internet Explorer and the various resolutions your monitor is capable of displaying in. These factors might make a difference depending on the browser and operating system. Also, make sure you are running a relatively up to date version of Internet Explorer as an old version such as 5.1/5.2 in OS 9 just won’t render things like it used to due to various reasons. If you are trying to view this page in OS 9, try Classilla. Hope that helps and thanks for reading Low End Mac!

  2. I read your post with interest. I am at a crossroads as I have just bought a new iMac and can’t edit my video on it. Fortunately I have a 2009 MacBook with Firewire port and am using that plugged into an external hard drive. When it dies, what then? For one thing I hate any iMovie since iMovie HD 6 so am still using it. Secondly my video recorder is a Sony Handycam with mini DV tapes (and it still works brilliantly) and a firewire 400 connection. As a retired person I have the time to edit our holiday videos and burn them on a DVD (I had to buy an external DVD drive as the one in the MacBook died). I feel like the golden era of video editing has passed but maybe that’s a sign of getting older.

    I suppose I will have to get the two firewire to thunderbolt converters and learn how to use iMovie 11 or some other video editing program but I’m not happy.

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