Mac: VHS to MP4 - digitizing the oldies

If you have older kids and they are anything like mine, they love watching videos of themselves when they were younger. All three of my kids have been heavily documented throughout their childhood and I have the media to prove it!

The first video camera my wife and I had was a large VHS based camera. It was huge because it was an entire 1980s era VCR that you mounted on your shoulder. We had this behemoth to record the memories of our first two children and as a result have a slew of VHS tapes running around the house, slowly deteriorating.

In order to preserve this footage I recently looked around for a simple way to get these tapes in a digital format, ideally just pushing them to a DVD. I found that there are actually a couple of solutions out there that do this quite easily. I settled on the Samsung VR357, which has a really nice user interface. Pop in a tape and a blank DVD, select the VCR to DVD buttons and hit record.

The UI on the Samsung is pretty good if I want to do a little selective recording from the tape to the DVD, though since I have so many tapes my primary goal was to just get through all of this as quickly as possible.

Enter HandBrake
Now that I had all of these shiny new DVDs there were a couple of them that I wanted to add to my Mac to incorporate into a video I'm working on for my wife (shhhhh - it's a secret). Several folks told me to check out HandBrake, a free (Open Source, GPL-licensed) utility for grabbing and ripping DVD content.

HandBrake is really easy to use - pop in the DVD and select it as the source for HandBrake, then select the range of chapters on the DVD you want to rip and click Start.

It does take HandBrake a little while to encode the media and my MacBook's CPU was pegged during the process, but the resulting MP4 file that it created worked great and could be immediately viewed in QuickTime or VLC. The file could also be imported into iMovie, though the creation of the thumbnails in iMovie 'o8 is a pretty lengthy process. For perspective, a 5 minute long MP4 clip took about 35 minutes to import.

HandBrake has a huge number of options for defining the quality of the video it creates, but I love the fact that within a minute of firing it up HandBrake was ripping my video for me. Powerful and easy to use. I love it.


Mike D. said…
Any tips on the best settings for Handbrake. The one time I tried to get movie onto my MBP, I thought the CPU was going to melt.
David Alison said…
@Mike D: I wish I had an answer for that one man. The MacBook and MacBook Pro are always going to be pressed when it comes to high CPU usage because of their form factor. On the bright side the machines are designed to run for a very long time at 100% CPU utilization, though you want to make sure that you have plenty of clearance for the fan exhaust at the edge of the machine.

Even if there was a setting to reduce the CPU utilization by half it would likely take twice as long to run. Better to just get it over with I think.
Anonymous said…
To compliment Handbrake MPEG Streamclip is also a good encoder if you want to transcode any files or do basic edits to your MP4s. After editing you just 'save as' a file without having to re-encode it all over again. It can also transcode WMA for free (if you need to import any windows music into iTunes).

FFmpegX and D-Vision as also good free tools for fixing/changing video files.

On the CPU side try searching for 'renicer' in macupdate. Usually people use these apps to give certain apps more CPU time, but you can also use it to reduce CPU time which might help with Mike D's problem. The one i've tried is called 'Process Wizard'.
David Alison said…
@Peter Knapp: Great stuff Peter - thanks! Some links to save people the search:

MPEG Streamclip
Pecos Bill said…
Sorry if this is a dupe....
I'm glad that Handbrake is so well written to use 100% of the processor. May I suggest that you put one or two gel-packs fresh from the freezer under your MacBook/Pro? That will help some with cooling. Just make sure that any condensation is not able to work its way into the case.
Anonymous said…
Simple consumer options for quickly encoding video on the Mac have ridden a roller coaster lately. The demise and later rebirth of VisualHub, a leading app in the space, left many Mac users in need of video conversion feeling uneasy. Fortunately, a new version of HandBrake brings a long list of new features, as well as a new option for getting from point A to B in video formats.

Detailed on HandBrake's site, the cross-platform DVD conversion app is now capable of accepting video files already existing on your computer. This brings HandBrake into holy grail territory, as it is now a great one-stop shop for converting just about anything you need, thanks to the incorporation of the FFmpeg project.

HandBrake 0.9.3 brings so many other enhancements, though, that it could really have been called 1.0 due to the 600+ items on this version's changelog. This includes picture quality when encoding to H.264 that has been "dramatically" enhanced and sped up thanks to improvements in the x264 project, "total control" over multiple audio tracks, persistent queues that survive a crash, new and better organized presets (though you will manually need to run the "Update Built-In Presets" command from the Presets menu), a decomb filter that can be left on permanently as it only deinterlaces video when applicable, multi-threaded deinterlacing, and much more.


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