How to digitize VHS tapes in Linux

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I have dozens of VHS tapes recorded in some cases nearly 30 years ago. I wanted to digitize some of the content and share it with my children via YouTube. I have a digital video camera that's almost ten years old. I also have a VHS/DVD player recorder that I originally purchased to dub these videos. Rather than use the recording deck to create a DVD that I would then use Handbrake to turn into MP4s, I decided to try to use my digital video camera as a passthrough device connected to my laptop.

My laptop has 4GB of RAM and runs Ubuntu 14.04 LTS. The laptop is equipped with a IEEE 1394 (Firewire port) that connects to the video camera. A number of years ago I had used Kino to record videos in a similar manner, but now that Kino is no longer supported I was forced to explore other options. I found a how-to on the Ubuntu Documentation website. It gave very straightforward instructions that I followed closely. I chose not to install Kino, but I did install dvgrab, which is a very useful command line utility for recording digital video.

I made all the correct cable connections from the VHS playback deck via RCA video and audio outputs to the audio/video input on the camera (an IEEE1394 cable from the camera to the laptop). I pressed play on the VCR and typed dvgrab into a terminal window on the laptop and digital video began to record. By default, dvgrab automatically records 998MB video clips that are automatically written to the user's home directory on Linux. Each 998MB clip amounts to about five minutes of video.

After the using dvgrab to capture the video I used the OpenShot video editor to easily create MP4 video clips that could be uploaded to YouTube.

Once you have the OpenShot video editor installed, open the application, go to the file menu and select New Project. Be sure to give your project a name and save it. By creating a project you can easily go back and open a saved project and export the creation in another format if you choose. Next, return to the file menu and select Import files. Find the file that ends with "dv" that was created by dvgrab. After you have imported the file, you can drag it down to the time line at the bottom of the application window. You can import more video files and add them to the timeline and add special effects and transitions. I wanted short clips, so I chose not to do that. Next, you will want to export your video to the desired format. Since I was exporting to YouTube, I selected the Web profile and chose YouTube-HD as my parameter.

ubuntu video export window

The conversion process for a 1GB input file is very quick. The completed file can easily be uploaded to YouTube. You can choose other output file types for Picasa, Flickr, Vimeo, and more. OpenShot video editor also allows you to create content that can be output to DVD format as well. OpenShot itself does not have the option of DVD creation from within the program.

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Educator, entrepreneur, open source advocate, life long learner, Python teacher. M.A. in Educational Psychology, M.S. Ed. in Educational Leadership, Linux system administrator.


Use the program DeVeDe to convert your video files to DVD easily.

Thanks for the suggestion.

Can it write PAL format?


Thanks for the article I enjoyed it and have installed the apps on one of my servers to give it a try.


You're welcome. I'm glad you're getting some use out of this. That's the open source way.

In reply to by jmd8045 (not verified)

This may be the first time I've seen open source and VHS digitization mentioned in one breath—thank you, Don!

Here are some pseudorandom thoughts:

It doesn't hurt to throw a Time Base Corrector into the mix (between the deck output and the input device, be it a camcorder or other A-to-D device). This helps conform any funky output signal from the VHS machine to NTSC specs, at least. Chances are that camcorders with TBCs or frame stabilization will only perform those functions on their own tapes, not in an "E-to-E" transfer.

A Hi-Fi VHS deck isn't a bad idea either, in the event the audio was recorded in that mode originally. Chances are it will work if the video signal is still present (they're tied together). The lower fidelity audio on the linear track is usually a dupe of the Hi-Fi . . .but not necessarily if the source material was edited. Almost every editing deck allowed insert edits and redubbing solely on the linear track. There was one exception:

Speaking of which, S-VHS (Super VHS). It wasn't designed to be played back on conventional VHS decks. S-VHS units should be able to play most VHS, audio and video. A caveat would be that "pro" or studio S-VHS VTRs won't play back in any mode other than SP . . . which screws anyone who may have archived FM radio programs for up to 8 hours continuously in SLP/EP mode (don't ask how I know this). . . . "Prosumer" S-VHS decks to the rescue, as long as the tracking is tolerant enough to read the Hi-Fi track (often a crap shoot).

These are all anguishing leftovers from a time when marketplace competition and the general lack of standards in the 1/2" video market had everyone one-upping each other. You almost wonder if the engineers had any concept that solid-state storage (used only in videogame consoles and home computers of that era) would evolve into the norm, leaving magnetic recording in the dust.

Wow! You're way beyong me John. I was just trying to save recordings I had of my own children in a format that was likely to survive for awhile. :)

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