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Use It Better: The Best Ways to Digitize Your Photos, Music and Home Videos

Do-it-yourself or send it out, here are some tips and recommendations to preserve your analog past



Leiden Institute of Physics

If you’re serious about rescuing all your analog memories before it’s too late—before the recording media or playback devices fade away—one thing is for sure: the task ahead will be either time-consuming or expensive. In each case, you can either do the digitizing yourself, or you can send your recordings away to a company that does it for you.

If you’re committed, though, it’s a very satisfying project. Here are the basics:

Photo prints. You can scan your old photos yourself using a flatbed scanner (under $100). Or you can send your photos away to a company like ScanMyPhotos.com, which charges $150 to scan as many photo prints as you can cram into its prepaid shipping box (around 2,000 photos). Your original photos are shipped back to you along with a DVD containing JPEG images of the scans.

Slides. Once again, you can do the job yourself, using a slide/transparency scanner (about $85). Or you can send your slides away to a scanning company. ScanCafe.com, for example, charges 29 cents a slide. The company says that it color-corrects each scan; you get a DVD with extremely high-resolution (3,000 dpi) scans.

Vinyl records and cassette tapes. You can connect the audio outputs of an existing turntable or cassette deck, if you have one, directly into your computer. (The turntable will probably need a preamp to deliver a correct signal.) Use a free program like Audacity or, on the Mac, GarageBand, to record the signal in real time. Once you’ve trimmed the dead air off of the ends of each track, you can export it as an audio file, ready to load onto your music player, burn to a CD, or pass down to future generations.

If you don’t have a turntable anymore, you can buy a special turntable that connects to your computer’s USB jack, which is supposed to improve audio quality. IonAudio.com sells such a USB turntable, as well as a USB tape deck, so you can play your cassettes straight into the computer’s USB jack.

Videotapes. If your camcorder tapes are digital (MiniDV, MicroMV, or Digital8), you can play them directly into your Mac or PC over a FireWire cable and capture the video using iMovie (Mac) or Movie Maker (Windows). It’s slow and real-time and disk-hungry (13 gigabytes per hour of video), but it works, and it preserves 100 percent of the original quality.

If your tapes are analog (VHS, Hi-8), you’ll have to equip your computer with a conversion card or USB converter box. Then connect your VCR or camcorder to the inputs and play the tapes into the computer in real time.

You can also send tapes away to a transfer company; use Google to find one, and inspect the reviews before you send your precious tapes to them. Choose a company that doesn’t send your tapes overseas for the work.

One last thing: My scientist contacts agree that if you’re going to save your memories onto home-burned DVDs, buy the gold ones, which have demonstrably longer life than the cheap blanks.

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