19 Things We Miss About VHS

From walking around the video rental shop, to pausing a recording when it came to the commercials: just some of our VHS memories...

*sniff* [VHS video cassette]

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

If you’re reading this, you probably have some interest in home video, in all its forms. However, there is a Generation VHS, that was there all of the way, from the early days when expensive video recorder machines were a luxury to the point when a good rental choice could make or break Saturday night.

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It’s easy to make fun of the quality issues that characterised VHS as a format, but bear in mind that in this era of 4k displays and Blu-ray media, many people get a lot of enjoyment out of online videos that are worse quality than VHS. Folks, it’s the content that counts, and VHS got the job done as our video medium of choice for many years.

The first time you saw a video player

If you were born after the mid-80s, you probably can’t remember a time before video recorders. If you’re a bit older than that, you probably have a memory of the first time you saw a player in action. For people who’ve always had access to video playback hardware, the idea of an entire classroom rolling about with laughter because the teacher put the machine in rewind probably seems hard to believe, but it happened. Once they entered the home on a large scale, they ushered in a new take on how – and when – people enjoyed films and TV shows.

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Getting the widescreen edition

DVDs and Blu-ray have standardized on offering widescreen wherever possible, so it’s easy to forget that it was once a premium feature for home cinema. Oh yes, you’d certainly feel like an “aficionado of cinema” when you obtained a widescreen edition. In fact, you might even be caught in a dilemma of having to re-buy something that you already owned in order to upgrade.

Innerspace was one of the first home releases to be offered in widescreen format in the UK. In fact, so novel was this presentation that the video featured a notice at the start of the film to assure the viewer that the black bars at the top and bottom of the picture actually allowed you to see more of the frame.

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It’s easy to laugh at this, but it does highlight the first problem with widescreen presentation on the 4:3 aspect ratios TVs that were prevalent at the time – the picture would be a different shape to the screen. Not only that, as the picture would be smaller, you’d also suffer a loss of resolution, on a medium that was by then, starting to enter the realms of merely acceptable. Hence the dilemma – on that format, widescreen was a compromise.

Some would plump for a possibly more expensive copy with reduced detail when going after a sweeping epic, and settle for a copy that filled the screen for a knock-about comedy, for example. If you’re from the generation that was born after all of this, this is why grown-ups often seem so grumpy.

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Getting the tracking just right

Most early video player machines offered a manual tracking control. Picture a bit fuzzy? It was always worth having a fiddle with the tracking, a precise adjustment affecting the head position. Sometimes you could amaze older relatives by accessing the tracking control by [sound effect] opening a little plastic door on the front of the video recorder.

As you’d have to be close to the machine itself, and therefore the TV, it always helped if someone else could shout out the current state of the picture from the settee. At this point, you’d feel like Scotty from Star Trek climbing into a Jeffries Tube to save the Enterprise. The machine itself would often emit a slightly different noise as you turned the little centre notch potentiometer, so you’d want to go slow. “I’ve turned it all the way around,” you’d say to an impressed relative, and then you’d try turning it the other way a bit, if needed.

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Later machines removed a lot of the “fun” of tracking adjustment by automating the procedure by making the adjustment internally and noting when signal was at its strongest. Later, machines did it routinely, whenever you played a tape, destroying a way of life for a generation of tracking adjusting grandchildren.

Cutting out the adverts

When you were recording a program, you’d often feel like cutting out the adverts by pressing the pause button. Sound simple? Veterans of video recording had a finely-honed instinct for when the adverts were about to crop up. What if you needed to go to the toilet, and yet, those instincts were telling you that an advert was due? You’d just have to wait. Same goes if you heard the phone ringing in the next room.

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Picture this if you will – you leave the room for some reason while you’re taping. You return a minute later and realise that, shock horror, the adverts have started. What do you do? You could pause now, but then you’d have thirty seconds of adverts, causing much confusion later on.

I’ll tell you what you did if you had nerves of solid steel – you’d take command of the remote and start to work your way out of the bloody mess you’d got yourself into. Woe betide anyone who tried speak while you were doing this; the recriminations regarding their inaction would come later.

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Once you’d hit the stop button you were committed. Then you’d press rewind, estimating the amount of time since the adverts started. Hit play, and with luck, you’d see a bit of the program just before the adverts. Eating up precious seconds, you’d have to sit, in agony, waiting for the break to begin. However, let’s say you timed things wrong – do you press play again and try rewinding again?

Eventually, you’d muddle through, find the start of the adverts and then hit stop. At this point you’d realise that you’d stopped breathing. For some acts of heroism, a person doesn’t get any medals. Knowing what you’d done, and why, was enough.

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Favourite screw ups when cutting out the adverts? Pressing pause and not starting the machine up again afterwards was a good one. To top it off, back then, you might not get to see a film on TV again for a couple of years. Same goes for a TV series. So, it might be worth going on with recording if you’d only lost five minutes from the middle.

The art of hand-recording an entire series

The truth is, DVD box sets of an entire series can be good value these days. Back in the days of VHS, the TV companies would try to flog you very expensive tapes, with two or three episodes on each one. Getting an entire series could be pricey, and space wise, let’s just say you might have to move to a bigger house in order to fit four seasons of a 26 episode per season series on your shelves.

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The alternative was to tape an entire series yourself. Often, it felt like a lot of hassle, and the stakes got higher and higher the more episodes you had. One mistake could ruin the whole thing. How many of us ended up with parts 1-8 of a series with no second half of part 6 and missing the first couple of minutes of part 8?

It was well worth it when you’d done it, though, as you could indulge in something called ‘binge watching’. Oh yes, people back then would watch, perhaps, two episodes of something in a single day. They were indulgent times.

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Labelling

The first time you pulled a new tape of out of the shrink-wrap (often a panic inducing moment) a paper-backed set of stickers would fall out of the sleeve. Typically, you’d be given, at the very least, a label to stick onto the top of the tape, one for the back edge of the tape, one for the front of the cardboard sleeve and a short one for the top.

When you first started taping, it was common to use every sticker. After a few years, you’d be trying to scribble something legible onto the front of the box with a Sharpie. The dedicated would make use of the little square number stickers to work into an index system. I ended up giving up on it though.

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Building a library

After a few years, with a bit of work, you could end up with an impressive library of tapes. People take something like that for granted today, but it was something that previous generations couldn’t have imagined. Fancy a bit of Goldfinger even though it’s not a bank holiday? No problemo, Mr Bond.

Sometimes a friend would come round and go over the collection, looking for something to watch. One snag was that everyone tended to tape the same things, so that by the time the machines and tapes were fairly cheap, everyone had much the same collection.

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Getting a second machine

Remember the line in Back To The Future when Lorraine’s mother exclaimed “Oh, honey, he’s teasing you. Nobody has two television sets?” When video recorders first became available they were extremely expensive, but gradually, the prices fell and people started getting second machines. Perhaps a lucky teenager would end up with one in his or her bedroom.

This, along with the slightly earlier development of kids getting their own TV, was part of a change in family life, as the parents and the kids no longer had to watch the same thing of an evening. By end of the the VHS era, a family might have a video recorder in the living room, a couple dotted about in the bedrooms and perhaps, an all-in-one TV and video player in the kitchen. That last one never tended to get used, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

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As is the case with human beings, sometimes, having more than one available opened up the possibility to do something a bit naughty in terms of joining them together. SCART those babies up, press play on one and record on the other and reproduction would occur. Not that we’d know much about things like that.

Seeing the massive telly and VCR on a trolley

Like a lot of these memories, this one is a bit of an age test. If you are of a certain age, you’ll remember the excitement of getting into the classroom and seeing the massive TV wheeled into position. Oddly, everything had an extra excitement factor when you were watching it in school. When we say excitement, it could be the excitement evoked by a documentary on the different methods of manufacturing plastic goods or the cringefulness of a sex education tape that was obviously made a decade beforehand. “Aw man, it sounds like you’ve got crabs!” Indeed.

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Maybe you’d get to see a bit of a proper movie on the last day of term? The fact that some kids were allowed to watch docudrama Threads(1984) in school is both cool and terrifying. Maybe it would be the legendary porno film that someone snuck in, last year? Ah yes, I remember – the (usually miserable) teacher let the class watch it. Yeah right.

These days, the educational information is transmitted directly into the brains of the children, using lasers. Or something. Probably.

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Maintaining a VCR

After hours and hours of constant use, your precious machine would start to perform below par. It began with a few extra lines across the picture. By the time you were wondering why it was snowing inside an apartment during an episode of Friends, something had to be done. Head cleaning tapes were available. With these, you’d dowse the fabric inside with a mysterious fluid, put the tape in the machine and hope for the best when you pressed play.

A real pro would open the machine up and give the heads a manual clean using alcohol on the end of a cotton bud. If you were anything like us, once you’d done the main drum, you’d be wondering what other parts you were supposed to clean. It was generally safe to pull out some of the dust along with the human and car hairs. While you were in there, you could marvel at what a complicated mechanism it was. It’s ironic that a DVD player doesn’t have much in it compared to a VCR.

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Once the machine was really worn out, it might start chewing up tapes. Or go “fnrr fnrr” at you and refuse to accept a tape. What you did at this point depended on what year it was. In the ’80s, you’d take your expensive machine to be repaired. By the mid ’90s, it wasn’t worth it, and you’d throw it in the bin and get another one. Sob – when you sat down and felt the remote for the old one underneath you. Double sob – when you remembered that you’d left a tape in it.

The phantom discoveries

Due to the nature of home taping, you’d often make interesting discoveries on a tape that you’d used more than once. For example, if you taped a single episode of something, you might discover the second half of a film when you played it back later. In these days of YouTube, when archive material is so accessible, it’s easy to forget how interesting it would be to see really old adverts or even a news program from several years beforehand, a common accidental inclusion.

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Investing in SCART or RCA Jacks for ‘maximum quality’

An RF (radio frequency) cable between the video recorder and the TV was the default setup for most people. That was okay for a civilian, but the connoisseur would go for a connection using an RCA or SCART cable, and it did make a big difference in quality. Let’s face it, if you were trying to make the most of a well set up machine with widescreen content, it was worth squeezing all the quality out of the system that you could.

In addition, it opened up the possibility of better quality, stereo sound. If you have memories of it sounding rather good through your sound system, you are probably remembering it accurately. By the late ’80s, it was a reasonable bet that a commercial release would include a HiFi audio track for machines that supported it. An analogue signal encoded on the same track as the video signal itself, this offered extremely high quality in terms of fidelity and dynamic range, even by current standards.

User friendliness

VHS was a friendly system, and it’s missed for a number of reasons. As tape systems are linear, they remember the place you’ve left off. Some DVD and Blu-ray players can do this, but not all of them, and even the ones that do, sometimes get it wrong. Never mind if you move a disc to a different player. Online streaming has brought back some of the fun of VHS, in this regard. VCRs had a reasonably fast start up time. Shove the tape in – click, gurrurah, thump, whirl – and the thing would play.

There’s another thing: it made nice noises, giving you a bit of feedback on how it was feeling. Wrong noises? Something’s gone wrong.

The tapes themselves were somewhat robust and were often usable when badly damaged. Once a DVD is damaged, it’s probably better to throw it away. Sometimes, you could even get away with carrying out a repair on a damaged cassette yourself. You’d simply have to find a donor cassette to sacrifice for the repair. Then you’d unscrew both cassettes and take the tape spools out of each. Then you’d realise that you should have made a note of how everything fit together when you still had the chance. Then you’d throw both tapes away – but, in theory, they could have been repaired.

Never mind the headaches of recordable optical discs. It’s still not clear exactly how long home made recordings will last. Plus, there are often problems when moving recordable discs between machines of different manufacturers.

Is it just me or did fast forward and rewind with scan have a more solid feel to them than on modern formats? If so, it’s a paradox because a video player put itself under considerable mechanical strain to accomplish the maneuver.

Even the glitches had their charm. If it was a tape you’d watched over and over, you’d learn to expect a warble or a picture roll in a certain place. Sometimes, if you’d cut out the adverts, you’d even get a few seconds of warbling sound and picture from a previously recorded program, further personalising the recording. What’s the answer? Could modern players start adding cute little artifacts and sounds to make every recording unique? Reassuring sound effects would need to emanate from the machine itself to complete the effect.

The boxes

Two episodes of UFO on VHS on top of 176 episodes (plus extras) of Star Trek: The Next Generation on DVD.

Boxes on pre-recorded tapes were a fair bit bigger than the standard DVD case, so that meant better artwork. In all fairness, the best mainstream video format for box art was probably the even bigger, squared-off laser disc case. The size of the VHS boxes worked against them though. When you multiply the dimensions of those chunky boxes to the scale of a full collection, they could easily end up taking up an entire corner of a room.

Pre-empting the arrival of USB connectors, the boxes of VHS tapes conformed to standards – several of them. Your collection would typically contain everything from older-style cardboard sleeves, to bog-standard black retail boxes to the bigger, coloured sort that wouldn’t fit inside standard shelving. Imagine the ‘OCD time!’ pictures that would have popped up if the VHS boom had coincided with the era of Facebook. After a while, consumers, retailers and manufacturers settled on the idea that, although a range of boxes is characterful, everyone is better off with a standard design.

Advanced features

As the machines got cheaper they also improved in terms of features. The earliest VHS machines had to be manually loaded. That is, you had to press really hard on one of the controls to get the tape to clunk into position. Thankfully, autoloading (the “blerg, earg, click, whirl” sound when you pushed a tape in) quickly became standard.

Earlier machines had a mechanical tape counter display, but before long, they were replaced by an entirely digital display. This helped when you were trying to accurately move around the tape, and for the brave amongst us, opened up the possibility of setting the timer. The earliest remote controls were wired units and only had a small subset of features. Ironically, the later VHS players reversed this, and had only basic features accessible on the front of the machine, with remote controls that looked more and more like scientific calculators.

Prepare for maximum velocity! Eventually, machines added super-fast rewind and fast forward although, sometimes it would refuse to engage as it couldn’t work out where it was on the tape and you’d be stuck on impulse drive. HQ was a slight refinement that improved overall picture quality a little bit. Much later on, S-VHS was introduced, and that offered a considerable improvement in quality, but it wasn’t very widely supported and needed a compatible machine for playback.

Speaking of quality, or lack of it, LP doubled your recording time on a tape, at a considerable expense of picture fidelity. That said, it was damn useful for recording TV shows as it could extend a four hour tape to eight hours!

The forbidden fruits

The exciting world of VHS gave ample opportunity to do secret things that were naughty, long before the Internet made being naughty an everyday thing. It might have been your first look at a film with some dirty material. It might have been pirate tapes.

For younger readers, it might have been your first look at an R-rated film. In the case of the latter, your reactions might range from indifferent acceptance of the material, glee at hearing naughty words and seeing naughty things all the way to wishing you hadn’t when it got to that bit where they shoot Murphy at the beginning of Robocop.

Using a camcorder

Imagine you’re down the pub and a mate does something funny. Now imagine that you tell him to do it again and whip out a massive video camera. That night, you do some tape-to-tape magic and duplicate the master copy. The next day, you could package up the resulting tapes into jiffy bags and post them to your friends. Within days, letters would arrive, commenting on the event. Not really.

The first video cameras designed for home users were shoulder-mounted, mega-expensive and designed to be plugged into a video recorder. Later models shrunk the size sufficiently for single handed use and even incorporated the tape mechanism into the unit itself. By the time the more practically sized models were commonplace, they were used for event recording. When they were employed at weddings, for example, they became an extension of traditional stills photography. The same thing goes for capturing holiday memories.

Some of us would do what we could to get some time with one of these devices just to experiment or to tip our toes into the world of film-making and television production. Gradually, the hardware got smaller and cheaper and more reliant on digital technology, and now, even the camcorder itself has started do die out due to the ubiquity of phone cameras. Despite these advances, the main cultural impact of citizen generated content eventually came into its own due to parallel developments in home computers that could handle video along with the internet.

Renting tapes

“Why don’t we rent a video?”

As a kid, being taken around the the video store might be the start of the weekend. For teenagers, it might make part of an outstanding Friday night. Two of you could go into town on your mountain bike – give your mate a few bucks so that he can get the pizza while you get the video.

Walking around a big video store like Blockbuster was great fun, and it’s something that feels a bit different from scrolling up and down a list of films with a mouse. No, it was not as convenient, but it had a whole social side to it that the modern alternatives lack. Even on your own, going into ‘Blockbuster Trance’ as you walked around the rows and rows of shelves was a therapeutic experience that the younger generations will miss out on. Unless, maybe, one day, you’ll be able to select your videos in a VR simulation of a large rental store. 

Let’s not forget the independent stores, that were killed off by the big chains, before they were killed off by VOD, and even better, remember the little corner shops that had a couple of carousels of tapes.

Once you had the tape, there would be a temptation to wring the maximum value out the rental by watching it again the next day. Don’t forget to rewind it though, or you’d pay the fine, or at least be frowned at by the person behind the counter when you took it back.

Realizing the game was up

Despite the amount of time, money and space we invested in building up a mighty VHS collection, most of us have given up on VHS now. For the aforementioned most of us, it was a fairly gradual process. Apart from a few irksome faults, for playback DVDs are far better, and the the same can be said for online streaming. VHS video quality looks particularly poor on large LCD screens, and most of the content is cropped to 4:3 ratio.

I wonder how many people felt like they were building up a collection that would serve them into old-age? In fact, between web based and streaming content and so many TV channels, alongside DVDs and Blu-rays, what once seamed like a massive collection in the video cupboard, has been dwarfed by what we can get elsewhere. Sadly, it became a cupboard full of boxes that never got touched.

What do you do when you’ve reached the end of the era? You can mourn it, or you can accept that it’s over and remember the good times.

Were you a member of Generation V? Share your memories below….