Monday, May 7, 2012

DV Tape vs. Flash Memory

I spent much of the weekend recording a new song and a music video to go with it. You can’t really record a song or make a video in one weekend; this was a quick rendition of a new song (“This Is the Moment”) for the purposes of a contest.

As I recorded the video, it struck me how archaic video tape is. I was working mainly with a DV camcorder that I bought new around 1999. The DV format uses about 26 megabits per second, so a one-hour DV (or “mini DV”) tape holds about 12 gigabytes of data, and for my quick music video, I recorded only about 5 gigabytes of video. Meanwhile, this year, a DV tape does not cost much less than a standard 32-gigabyte flash drive.

In consumer electronics stores DV was replaced by flash memory five years ago. You can still buy a DV camcorder, but it is hard to understand why anyone would. Consumers mostly do not need the mass storage capacity of a DV tape. They can record 10 or 20 minutes of video and transfer it to another device. And by now, even if you are recording hour after hour of video on location, you would feel more comfortable holding it in your hand on flash drives than in a few boxes of tapes.

DV is essentially the last video tape format. Sharper than VHS and smaller than virtually any earlier video format, it made sense as a medium for remote video capture. Pro video tape formats were already disappearing around the time DV was introduced, as hard-disk video proved to be so much easier to edit and archive.

Resolution is ultimately the problem with DV. Its 640-by-480 resolution quickly became a standard. A decade ago it was a little better than most of the video you would see on television. The resolution was adopted by the iPod and YouTube for a few years, and for the most part, when people refer to “standard definition” video they are talking about 640 by 480 and not the lower standards of older broadcast television. But the standards of television production and cable systems have moved upward in the last ten years, and even YouTube now encourages sharper video formats. My music video shot in DV is detectably grainy by today’s standards. (The false color and simulated overexposure in my video are production effects added in editing that aren’t related to the data limitations of DV, but the graininess of the picture is essentially the same as originally recorded by the camera.)

Not that anyone is complaining. I may as well continue to work in DV tape until I really need the advantages of high-definition video. The purpose of a music video is to hold people’s attention while they listen to the song. It is still possible to do that with a standard definition video.