U-matic was once the industry's serviceable vehicle. Today it could take you back 40 years or more. If you intend to take a ride, you will have to accept a few compromises, as with any antique vehicle maintenance and parts are always a concern. The most charming artifact of the older black and white recordings is lag or ghosting in the camera imaging tube in which people appear to leave their bodies and follow themselves about, making every solo an eerie duet. Not until the subject stands still does the shade catch up and re-inhabit its host. If this is a color exploration then you might encounter some problems with red. Properly equipped you can travel around the globe; a map of this planet's broadcast systems is the last map of the colonial world.
The consensus is that U-matic is problematic. A victim of both its nature and its environment, it is perhaps the first format that comes to mind when hearing terms that describe playability issues: obsolescence and binder hydrolysis, the inherent deterioration (accelerated by poor storage conditions) that leads to contamination of the VCR tape path and clogging of the gap in the playback heads. Contamination also occurs in the mechanism of the cassette itself. It is U-matic's ubiquity and robust survivability that characterize it as a chronic offender.
Prototyped by Sony in 1969, a model was made available for consumer use in 1971. Consumers did not embrace these machines, they couldn't; in addition to their high cost the oblong top loaders weighed nearly 70 pounds and were approximately 30 inches wide. If ½ inch open reel was our Model T for first forays into the field then the U-matic was our Model A, penetrating deeply into the educational market, industrial market and, with the invention of the TBC, the broadcast market. Emulating the self-contained ease of use found in the Philips audio cassette, Sony designed the first successful video cassette format. Like the purposefully moving figures in a German glockenspiel the arms of the U-matic VTR withdraw the tape from the cassette and the guides march around on a ring to thread the tape in a U that wraps the head drum. The tape continues in a contorted path engaging stationary heads for control track/linear audio, linear time code, and erase. Inside the cassette, the tape flanges awkwardly overlap; as the tape advances the supply flange unravels and makes room for the expanding tape pack on the take-up flange.
Any archive that has been collecting video since the 1970's would find the format hard to avoid. Here in the moving image labs of the Barbara Goldsmith Preservation Division we transfer in-house or outsource countless (thousands) U-matics each year and still there are more. Some are proficiently, even beautifully recorded. U-matic's technical capabilities sometimes surpassed those of its employers. Most, virtually all, of these tapes respond to cleaning, but in rare cases incubation is necessary. We transfer the files in standard (NTSC to NTSC and PAL to PAL) to 10 bit uncompressed Quicktime files for preservation and generate H264 files as viewing copies. While U-matic is our witness to historical and critical events in the 70's and 80's, it is also a record of many historical works in Dance and other art works performed in time and space. Performing Arts moving image collections that have original U-matic components include; BAM, DTW, and NYCB rehearsal recordings.
In a Formalist sense ½ inch open reel video artifacts are the medium. This CCTV quality was recently celebrated in the film Computer Chess. U-matic on the other hand has no endearing artifacts and qualities. Cumbersome, and as sturdy as a delivery truck, few profess affection for U-matic. It is a respected survivor and often an opponent; however, there is a tumblr search tag #umatic, and perhaps a harbinger of a stage beyond obsolescence, a Danish pop band called Umatic. Sony ceased production of U-matics back in the 20th century, but the sturdy vehicle survives, and we make our journeys with a combination of spare parts in the trunk, a trusted mechanic nearby, and the cannibalization of less fortunate machines abandoned along the road. This is a good time for U-matic preservation if you have funding to transfer your tapes to digital files; there are a number of reputable services that specialize in obsolete transfer with a remarkable capacity. In a future post we will visit Betamax and VHS, formats that found success by offering time shifting at home.