The LaserDisc Dilemma

Preserving Your Laserdisc Collection On DVD

Laserdisc Player and Disc
Laserdisc Player and Disc. Peter Starman - Getty Images

Before DVD, Blu-ray Disc, and now Ultra HD Blu-ray, LaserDisc, which debuted in 1977 (The year that the first Star Wars film was released), was the best format for viewing high-quality pre-recorded video content amongst home theater enthusiasts and film buffs. Despite the lack of strong marketing, a short list of manufacturers, the large size of the discs (12-inches) themselves, and the high cost of both discs and players, several million consumers worldwide are well aware of how LaserDisc paved the way for both the way we enjoy home theater and DVD today.

The LaserDisc Legacy

LaserDisc is historically significant in several ways:

Laserdisc wasn't the first true disc-based video format. The first disc-based video format was (Phonovision) which introduced and used briefly in the UK in the 30's. Also, CED and VHD in the 80's were same time-period competitors of LaserDisc.

However, Laserdisc, which was introduced in the 70's provided the best quality image reproduction and garnered acceptance for industrial, institutional, and home theater use. It was also the first format to read discs optically, using a Laser, rather than a stylus.

The first film released on Laserdisc in the U.S. was Jaws in 1978. The last film released on Laserdisc in the U.S. was Bringing Out The Dead in 2000.

The first widescreen film released on a disc was in the competing CED format (Fellini's Amarcord).

However, CED did not gain any traction, so LaserDisc was the first video format to bring both film buffs and mainstream consumers widescreen letterbox presentation of films on a continuing basis.

Also, another interesting tidbit is that the other competing VHD video disc format was the first to feature 3D capability, but there were problems. However, VHD never made it to the U.S. market.

Although not featuring 3D-capability, Laserdisc video and audio quality was superior to previous attempts, and it also the first video format that included extra features on some disc releases, such as subtitles, alternate soundtracks, commentaries, and supplementary material.

These features migrated over DVDs and Blu-ray discs, and are now mainstays of those formats.

In terms of audio, the employment of Dolby Digital 5.1 (which was referred to as AC-3), and, in a few cases, DTS, utilizing digital optical and digital coaxial connections that are common on every DVD player in use today was first introduced in LaserDisc players in the year or so just prior to the introduction of DVD.

The Current LaserDisc Dilemma

Despite all of these "pioneering" advances, however, it must be noted that LaserDisc did not have the strength to wage war against the more compact, economically viable, DVD format. New LaserDisc film releases are non-existent. Even Pioneer, the last producer of LaserDisc players, has discontinued Laserdisc player production, devoting its resources for DVD and, more recently, Blu-ray Disc players.

With the quick acceptance of DVD, and now, Blu-ray disc, by the general consuming public, the market for LaserDisc dried up long ago. However, some still have very large LaserDisc collections that will eventually be unplayable.

The supply of functioning LaserDisc players will someday "dry up". Since LaserDiscs have to be optically read, there is no mechanical device you can "rig up" to play them like you can play old LP records.

However, in an ironic twist of fate, recordable DVD may have arrived on the scene just in time to give LaserDisc owners a means of assisting in the preservation of their collections.

Options For Preserving Laserdiscs

There are really only four solutions to preserving old LaserDiscs:

  • Buy a used LaserDisc player and put in storage until you need it (not really knowing if it will work after several years in storage).
  • Buy new DVD versions of movies in your LaserDisc collection.
  • Make inferior VHS copies of your LaserDisc collection.
  • Copy your LaserDisc collection onto DVD.
  • The last option may just be the most viable. With the very good image quality and low prices of DVD recorders, copying important films in a LaserDisc collection onto DVD is a viable way of preservation. Recordable DVD comes in two forms: PC/MAC recordable DVD drives and Standalone DVD recorders.

    Using a DVD Recorder

    For the purpose of copying your LaserDiscs onto DVD, it is best to use a standalone unit. These units can copy video from just about any source in real time, whereas the video burned on a PC-DVD burner must be first downloaded onto a computer hard drive in short segments and then the files copied onto the DVD.

    However, using standalone DVD recorders isn't foolproof, there are several recordable DVD formats in use (most DVD recorders record in several of these formats), each which varying degrees of compatibility with standard DVD players (DVD-R is the most compatible). For an overview of recordable DVD formats, check out my complete DVD Recorder FAQs.

    In addition, for suggestions on possible DVD recorders to use, check out my current list of DVD Recorder and DVD Recorder/VHS VCR Combos - which are updated periodically. If using a DVD Recorder/VHS VCR combo - don't bother with making copies to VHS - only use the DVD recorder side.

    Some Useful DVD Recorder Tips

    When copying your LaserDiscs, use the DVD recorder's two-hour record mode. Since most movies are two hours or less this will give you the best quality (which should be as good as the original LaserDisc print) and you can still fit an entire movie on one disc. One note: If you want to also copy alternate soundtracks or commentary, you will have to make more than one copy of the movie, the DVD recorder can't copy all the other embedded information of the LaserDisc unless it is actually outputted at the time of playback.

    Connecting your LaserDisc player to a DVD recorder is just as easy as connecting a camcorder to a VCR. Just connect either the S-Video (preferred) or composite video outputs of the LaserDisc player to the S-Video (preferred)or composite video inputs of the respective DVD recorder. For audio, connect the analog audio outputs of the LaserDisc player to the DVD recorder. Unfortunately, consumer DVD recorders, up to the current time, do not support digital audio inputs. In other words, you cannot record the Dolby Digital 5.1 (AC-3) or DTS bitstream (available on some later LaserDiscs), only the analog Dolby Surround tracks.

    In addition, if both the LaserDisc player and DVD recorder are hooked up through a central AV receiver with video switching, just use the AV receiver as your recording switcher for both units.

    Also, if your LaserDisc player is an auto-reverse or dual-sided player (my choice is the Panasonic LX-1000), you can record both sides of the disc automatically, without stopping to turn over the disc. This also allows you to do leave the copying process unattended if you need to do something else. After you connect everything up, check the DVD Recorder's setup procedures, cue up the LaserDisc player and start the recording process.

    Words Of Caution

    Now, some of you may be thinking, "What are the legal ramifications of this?".

    Here is where I want to emphasize three points:

    • LaserDiscs do not have any type of Macrovision or anti-copy encoding, so there is nothing on the disc, the player, or the DVD recorder that will actually prevent you from making a copy. No special equipment, such as a video stabilizer is needed.
    • With some LaserDisc collectors having invested thousands of dollars in discs, being able to preserve them for future viewing is appropriate for private and personal use.
    • Following the steps outlined in this article are intended for personal use only -- I am not advocating, in any way, illegal use of these copies. Do not rent, sell, exhibit in a public place, or give homemade copies of any copyright video material, including DVDs or LaserDiscs, to anyone. Remember: Every LaserDisc still carries the Anti-Copy FBI Warning.

    The Irony

    In an ironic fashion, it appears that DVD may be the one thing that can actually preserve the LaserDisc. The one decision on the part of the LaserDisc collector is whether the time it takes to make DVD copies of LaserDiscs outweighs the cost of purchasing new DVD versions, or now, high definition Blu-ray disc versions.

    There are some classic movies that were released on LaserDisc that still haven't been pressed on DVD or Blu-ray Disc and some Special Edition discs may have different supplementary features that are not on their DVD or Blu-ray Disc counterparts that may be worth preserving. In either case, this could be a fun activity for one with a large LaserDisc collection.