Tape’s Not Obsolete

When it comes to audio and video recording, we’re in the midst of a increasingly fast move from tape-based recording to solid state and hard disk recording. The most obvious reason for this move is that memory cards and hard drives can be immediately accessed by a computer, where almost all editing happens. This greatly sppeds up or eliminates the need to capture audio or video from tape in real-time.

And, yet, for all of its problems, tape is still useful and reliable. Having been around for more than 50 years, its weaknesses and strengths are well known.

In my video production work we use portable video hard drives that capture right from our cameras. But we also run tape in parallel. Why? Because hard drives are fragile things that often fail. And sometimes your files just get corrupted and it’s very difficult to recover them. But if you were running tape at the same time, you have a nice inexpensive backup (miniDV tape is about $3.50/hr) ready to fill in.

I haven’t had to turn to our miniDV backups many times, the few times we’ve had to, they’ve been a lifesaver.

We also output most major projects back to tape, usually higher-quality archival tape. We do this because just one hour of DV is 13 GB. Where else are you going to store 13 GB easily without breaking it up? DVD-Rs are just 4.7 GB, and dual layer DVDs are 9.4 GB — both less than an hour’s worth of video. Sure, high-capacity Blue-Ray and HD-DVD are supposed to be here any day now, but which will be the standard? And, of course, I need it today, not the 4th quarter of 2006.

Even more importantly, we really don’t know what the shelf-life of DVD media is and will be. You hear reports of burned DVDs becoming unreadable in just a few years. Yet, tapes usually last at least 10 years pretty reliably.

We do occasionally archive projects on ATA or SATA hard drives, now that costs are below $1/GB. But, again, we don’t know the shelf-life of a hard drive past 3 years or so.

Writer Anthony Burokas makes a similar argument in an article entitled, “In Defense of Tape,” at EventDV.net:.

While the geek inside us lusts after whiz-bang gear, the responsible person must look at everything required to make it work. However tempting tapeless storage may seem, tape offers almost all the same features—plus archivability—for considerably lower cost, and looks to have a lot of life in it yet.

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