If you grew up in the analogue age, especially between the 1950s and 1990s, there’s a chance that you might still have a collection of vinyl records or a stack of family videos in the form of VHS tapes lying somewhere in the house.
However, even with the resurgence of retro tech like vinyl in recent years, it’s unlikely that the average Malaysian has a turntable to enjoy it.
Instead of letting them take up space and collect dust or throwing away an entire box or maybe even a storeroom of memories, you can digitise them for a new generation.
But first, you will need to determine what you own. Whether you have records, tapes, cassettes, or photographs will matter, as the procedure for digitising each will be different.
For instance, when digitising photographs, whether you have the prints or the original film roll will have a bearing on the final quality of the digitised copy.
According to fine art photographer Emillio Daniel, while scanning photo prints will work fine, there are a few obstacles that have to be circumvented to achieve the highest quality.
“There are phone apps that can handle the ‘scanning’ with the camera, but as you’d expect, the quality is questionable, but it will work if all you’re after is a digital copy.
“Most flatbed scanners or printers with scanners you can get these days are pretty decent if they’re going to be used for scanning prints, as they don’t need a specialised transparency function (for scanning film negatives).
“But you need to make sure to scan them at the right resolution, which can vary based on the scanner model.
“What you want to do is scan at the device’s native optical resolution and without processing, which can degrade the photo and bloat up the file size by raising the resolution.
“Make sure to check the specs sheet or website of your printer, as the resolution stated on the box may be the software or interpolated resolution, which could be higher than the actual optical resolution,” he says.
Most scanners use software to add additional pixels to a scanned image, a process known as interpolation, to give the photo a higher resolution than what the device is capable of, which could degrade the final result.
It also doesn’t hurt to know a bit about basic colour correction, such as tweaking elements like saturation, vibrancy, and contrast.
One of the first things Emillio does is “dust cleanup” and “dehazing” through Adobe Lightroom.
Dust cleanup, a painstaking process, will require looking for dust spots and removing them manually with the spot healing brush.
Enabling the “visualise spots” mode, which turns the image monochromatic, will make the particles stand out.
Dehazing involves removing cloudiness that makes an image look washed out or faded, which Emillio does by adjusting the dehaze slider or the red, green and blue values on the tone curve in Lightroom.
According to him, old photos that don’t require any restoration can be sent to stores that offer prints, as they are likely to have a digitisation service with better tools.
On the off chance that the prints came with film negatives, they are the better option, as they will produce the best results but will require more steps.
“Some people use a DSLR to capture the film, but for me, I have to use a high-resolution flatbed scanner as my film type is far bigger than what most people shoot at.
“Many libraries use such scanners for archival purposes and the one I bought comes with special components for handling film.
“As film is semi-transparent, it requires a specialised scanner for digitisation,” he says, adding that he uses an Epson Perfection V700 scanner to handle large film formats.
Large formats, unlike regular film, which is measured in millimetres, start at 4 x 5in in size.
There’s also the option of reaching out to film labs that have specialised equipment for digitisation.
Such labs offer their services at relatively affordable rates – around RM6 per roll – says Emillio Daniel, adding that few people realise that labs like these still exist.
These labs may also offer restoration services for negatives that have been damaged over the years.
A blast from the past
Music lovers who have built up a huge collection of vinyl – or younger relatives who inherited one – can move their library into the digital domain, where it’s more easily accessible.
When it comes to records, the director of the Penang House of Music, Paul Augustin, says that it can be quite a hands-on effort.
“We digitise records, organise them into spreadsheets, and catalogue them in order to preserve Malaysia’s musical heritage.
“The Penang House of Music has invested in record player setups that output digital straight into a computer, which can capture the music signal.
“It’s a lot of work since you can’t fast forward through a vinyl, so we need to do everything in real time.
“This means that we’ve got to listen carefully to catch if the record skips, then clean it up and start again from scratch,” he says.
There are multiple ways to transfer audio from a record player to a computer.
The organisation uses an interface called the USB Phono Plus, which captures and outputs the audio from the turntable to a computer via USB, allowing users to monitor and record it with software like Audacity.
Alternatively, an RCA to 3.5mm cable can be used to connect the turntable directly to a computer’s audio-in jack. A preamp may be required if the turntable doesn’t have one built-in.
Also, some modern turntables come with built-in USB connectivity, which should make the process more plug-and-play.
“If you look at the history of audio recording, you’ve got the 78s (records that spin at 78 rotations per minute, or RPM), then after that we went to the 45s (45RPM) and 33s (33RPM), and then to cassettes because records took up a lot of space.
“So people threw a lot of their records away and changed to cassettes, then eventually to CDs, and now it’s all digital and streaming.
“Physical copies, when not looked after, get lost, broken, or just thrown away.
“But this is all part of our heritage that’s being forgotten, which is why we started preserving it to create snapshots of musical eras throughout Malaysia’s history,” he says.
However, a big part of vinyl’s appeal is lost in the digitisation process, according to Augustin.
“The reason why people want vinyl is because of its unique sound when played through a record player.
“You’ve got the crackly sound, but for me, that is the beauty of it, but when it’s digitised, it becomes clean.
“Some have donated their old vinyls to us so that we can put them to proper use instead of throwing them away or leaving them around.
“They usually ask for a digital copy,” he says.
Augustin adds that some people prefer to keep the physical record for sentimental reasons, in which case the organisation will make a digital copy before returning the record.
The Penang House of Music focuses on music of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, having collected materials from not only across the nation but also from neighbouring countries like Singapore, the Philippines, and Indonesia.
Materials it has collected include all forms of media related to music, such as recordings from studios, radios and TVs, printed materials and photographs.
Similar to vinyl, cassette tapes can also be converted to digital by outputting the audio from the player to a computer.
It’s important to note that cassettes are more vulnerable to decay than vinyl, as the magnetic tape and its binders break down over time, making it vital to digitise them early.
Memories in motion
For those with a lot of old videos on VHS tapes, digitising them will be a similarly simple process, but with the caveat of requiring additional investment.
What’s needed is a simple and relatively inexpensive RCA composite to USB converter (about RM25 for cheaper options), a VHS player or a VCR, and a computer.
The tricky bit is finding a VHS player to use for the process, as they are no longer in production – the used devices go for between RM100 and RM500 on the market.
Franklin Yeep, a black-and-white film portrait photographer with a penchant for old-school camcorders, covered the steps involved in the digitisation process.
“You will need to install free software like the Movavi Video Suite on the computer beforehand.
“Make sure the tape is fully rewound before starting. Plug in the RCA composite cables from the VHS player to the USB converter, then plug the USB converter into the computer.
“From there, press play on the VHS player and start the recording in the software on the desktop or laptop. The tape has to be played in its entirety to be converted digitally.
“Once the tape is done playing, just press stop, and you should be done; it’s that simple,” he explains.
Yeep encourages users to digitise their old recordings, saying: “It’s a good idea to digitise old footage, since otherwise it will degrade.
“VHS tapes tend to start deteriorating after they reach an age between 10 and 25 due to a loss in magnetic particle charge called remanence decay.
“Once that happens, you’ll start seeing discoloration, blacked-out scenes, and eventually a complete loss of footage.
“There’s no recovery after that point, so it’s best to digitise as soon as possible before it’s too late.”