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Anyone ever use a U-Matic video machine?

Daniel D. Teoli Jr.

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It came in two versions, low band and high band, the former was for industrial/ non broadcast use and the latter was used for broadcast, generally news using ENG.

Sound recordists could develop back problems from carrying the portable VTR.

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U-Matic is actually where Betamax came from. It's basically a larger version of the 1-X speed Betamax. 

U-Matic was widely used for ENG capture using portable decks with a smaller "S" type tape. But once Betacam came around, everyone dumped U-Matic and moved over. However, the format lived much longer for lower-end stations who couldn't afford Betacam. It wasn't until the advent of S-VHS and Hi-8 many years later, that those lower-end stations slowly dumped their U-Matic format. U-Matic continued to be used by the entertainment industry for years after broadcast dumped it, as a "secure" format that nobody could easily playback. Yes, you're hearing me right. Pre internet security days, you could ship a tape to someone with a U-matic deck and they could watch whatever you wanted, knowing quite well that even if the tape was stolen, few people could watch it. The last "known" use for this was for the last Indiana Jones movie, they send John Williams U-Matic tapes of each cut film reel, transfers made right off the flatbed (as they were editing on film) so that Williams could score the film. After that film however, I don't know of anyone else using it commercially. 

As Brian pointed out, there were two formats, normal and SP. The quality difference was nominal tho. It was the same format as VHS and Beta, just a higher tape speed, making it have less drops/hits and noticeably better color/fidelity over all. It's still stuck at the sub 300 lines tho, so not any better resolution than Hi-8, S-VHS, B1HB or ED Beta. 

U-Matic does have a few advantages over the more consumer formats in that the decks and tapes are pretty indestructible. Due to the huge head drum and wide track, the head spins much slower than a Betacam machine. Thus, head wear is less on U-matic. In all the years of servicing them, I never had to replace heads. Where on Betacam machines, we were constantly doing them. You also got real editing machines with jog shuttles and mechanics that could shuttle the tape properly. It wasn't until long after U-Matic's demise that someone (panasonic/JVC) introduced S-VHS machines with similar control. 

The biggest downside to the format is quite clear; the largest tapes only last an hour. The small portable "S" tapes were only 20 minutes. 

Sony never stopped developing 3/4" tho, they just changed the name, starting with D2 composite digital format and then D1 component digital, two completely incompatible formats, but showed that they kept using that tape width and tape speed for a lot longer, even tho it was metal and recorded ones and zeros in a very complex way. 

Finally... MOST U-Matic tapes suffer from the dreaded stiction issues with the back coating. You will be hard pressed to playback an old tape without clogging the heads or jamming the machine. It's a real problem and it's why the format was so cheap, they used junky tape stock. 😞




Edited by Tyler Purcell
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Up until the late 1990's, Chace Audio required a 3/4 inch U-matic transfer of picture elements with a LTC window burn over the pix for syncing image to audio restorations.  We produced them on a special Steenbeck with a Sony 3 chip standard definition camera, a time code generator and a special transfer prism.

Boy, if you want lousy images, this is the route to go,  wretched indeed, but it got the job done.

I even remember a Columbia Executive demanding a U-matic copy of a 3 Stooges short we were working on in 2001 or 2002, so he could screen it in his office.  Seems he was unwilling to play it back on his computer as a file and had to have the tape.

We still have that Steeenbeck... and it still makes horrible transfers, but luckily it rarely gets used anymore...

Say what you will about the format, it was almost bullet proof, except for that darned one rubber belt that broke at the exact wrong moment; former users will know exactly what I am talking about and probably STILL have a box of them laying around somewhere...

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