We recently received a question from a reader asking what he should do with some tapes that hadn’t been played in many years. Was there any risk to the tapes themselves if they were used in a normal manner?
All tapes have a thin layer of lubrication on their surface that allows the tape to flow smoothly over the heads of playback equipment and protects the surface from etching in normal conditions. Over time, even in the very best of storage conditions, this lubrication can start to break down, becoming tacky and causing issues ranging from intermittent static interference to preventing playback entirely.
With VHS and VHS-C tapes lubrication issues normally present as a high-pitched squealing sound as the VCR struggles to play the sticky tape and will prevent the tape from being played or wound at all if the problem has progressed enough. For 8mm, Hi8, and Digital8 there is also a squeal, and if the lubrication has deteriorated enough the tape will stick to itself on the reels, causing it to snap apart over and over again. We have yet to see a lubrication problem with miniDV tapes (note that this issue is not the same as mixing miniDV brands in a camcorder).
If you suspect that your tapes might be suffering from lubrication issues you will not putting the tape itself at risk if you attempt playback, but your equipment could become fouled. Deteriorating lubrication will quickly clog the heads of a machine, preventing you from actually viewing your footage. If it’s bad enough your VCR or camcorder will need to be cleaned, sometimes professionally, before it is usable again.
We can clean up and reset the lubrication on the surface of your tape, but we can’t assist you with your equipment.
So, to answer our reader’s question: If the lubrication on the surface of your tape is deteriorating, don’t worry about the tapes (the damage has been done and is reversible), but do be prepared for a dirty VCR or camera.