Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Magnasonic FS81 User Experience - Nit-picky Details, Issues, and Workarounds



I took a bit of a break from writing and this happened...

     For some strange reason, it's part of my personality to archive almost everything. I've got computer files dating back to the 1990's which I have faithfully ported from floppy discs to hard drives to SSD's, even though there is little hope (or reason, for that matter) that they might be read by modern software. So it's not surprising that I've always wanted to digitize my father's 8mm and super-8mm films in order to preserve those memories before the film deteriorates. 
     Equipment-wise, if you are not willing to shell out tens of thousands, it turns out that your options are limited. My father has about 600, 3-minute reels, so a professional service (at $20-$30 per film) was not within my budget nor justified by the source material. That basically left me with the choice of two machines that could scan the film: the Wolverine ($550 Cdn) or the Magnasonic FS81 ($400 Cdn). 
     After going through a lot of reviews, I decided on the Magnasonic, chiefly because Wolverine support in Canada was reportedly very poor and because having to deal with things over the Canada/US border is always expensive, uncertain, and frustrating—doubly so during a pandemic.

*NOTE: these devices capture video only. If your film has audio, that needs to be captured separately, as described in detail, below, in the COMPUTER STUFF section.

     When the FS81 arrived, it came with a short manual, a 7" take-up reel, 2 little adapter rings to adapt super-8 reels to its spindles, cables to connect it to a computer or TV to use for playback of finished scans (I haven't tried this yet) and a 32Gb SD card (optional). 



     Straight out of the box, the first thing I noticed is that the unit seems reassuringly well made. The housing is solid and, though not really heavy, it has a good heft to it. It doesn't feel flimsy in any way. 
     I was excited and without reading the manual, immediately formatted the SD card, inserted it in the slot at the back of the unit and threaded up an 8mm film. The scanning process is started through a set of 5 buttons on the face. I'd watched Magnasonic's instructional videos and it was pretty easy to initiate the process. Amazingly, the first reel went through without a hitch and I was very impressed with the results. 




     At the time of this writing, I have owned the unit for about six weeks and run at least 300, 3-minute (3" diameter) reels through it. I fully expected it to fail under this enormous workload, but it continues to perform, though not perfectly. I've got another 15 hours of films (~300, 3-minute reels) to go! And I know I'm asking a lot of such an inexpensive unit. 
     Anyway, I've learned a lot about the Magnasonic FS81 and how it operates and found a work-around or two for its deficiencies (though I hesitate to label them deficiencies in such a low-cost unit) which I'd like to pass along.


JAMMING:
     This unit is a workhorse and, the majority of time, it will function perfectly well on its own. However, I wouldn't advise stepping away from it for long because every time you do, some irregularity in the film will take the opportunity to stop the process. Warped film and some splices (especially on super-8) have jammed the unit many times, over the course of 300+ films. 
     The Magnasonic FS81 has some sort of limited intelligence and sometimes it will shut itself off, but I wouldn't rely on this, so you'll have to stick close. The good news is that none of the many film jams seems to have damaged my unit or the film.
     As I've only ever owned or worked with this one unit, I can't say that everyone will experience what I did. But the first 70-80 films went through without incident. After that, it started to jam occasionally. At first, I thought it was a certain batch of film. But as time went on, the jamming became more frequent. By film 150, it was to the point where it would almost always jam. I noticed that the jamming usually started about ⅔ the way through a 3-minute reel. After a lot of close observation, I came to the conclusion that the curvature of the film closer to the spindle was the issue. Having sat in boxes for 40 or 50 years, the curvature has become a permanent feature of the film stock and as you get closer to the spindle, the arc is tighter and makes the film "bumpier." The Magnasonic FS81 has issues with this.
     But I have a work-around.
     I noticed that whenever the film jammed, I could get it going again by applying mild to moderate and continual pressure to the little lid that you flip down over the film, near the sprockets/camera. My guess is that the extra pressure more securely locks down the guide path and makes it less likely for film to slip under the metal guides. Since this typically occurs at about the ⅔ mark, it means that on a 3-minute reel you have to apply pressure for another 10 minutes before the scan is complete. I did this a couple of times, then decided I needed some sort of clamp.
     I couldn't find a manufactured clamp that would work while staying clear of the FS81's profile, so instead, I crudely fashioned a clamp from scraps in my garage. It's inelegant and ugly and was intended to be a prototype only, but it's worked so well, I don't feel the need to improve on it. 
     The video and pics below were taken while "babysitting" one of the 7-inch reels. (see BIG REELS section below for more on that.) That white block over the lid and under the upper arm of the clamp is an old eraser to help with spacing and to protect the plastic.













     Soon after I start scanning, I attach this device. With my finger, I apply pressure to the end of the upper clamp arm, then I tighten the nut to keep that pressure on once I lift my finger. 
     Since using the clamp, I've probably scanned another 100 films and only had to stop and rethread a couple of times due to bad splices. This means that some very long films (7" reels holding 20-30 minutes) have been scanned into a single video file, which is very convenient.

BIG REELS:
     For me, the 3- and 5-inch reels went through well, without any assistance. Fully loaded, the 7-inch reels are just a bit too heavy for the sprocket mechanism which advances the film, and the start of my first film came out jittery.
     Now, I always assist the mechanism by sitting for the first half of the reel (about 2 hours of the 4.5-hour process) and spinning the feed spool to create slack so that the sprocket pins are not pulling any real weight. I'm not sure that a full 2 hours of this is necessary, but because being wrong would waste so much time, I err on the side of caution.
     Some complain that the Magnasonic FS81's mechanism is not robust enough. I disagree. It needs to be able to pull but it must also be delicate enough not to tear the film, if there is a jam. The advancing mechanism might lack some strength, but I appreciate that a jam does not damage my precious family memories.

Helping unspool the big reels to alleviate sporadic tugging
from the sprockets which leads to jittery video.



REWIND:
     The one ridiculous thing about the Magnasonic FS-81 is its "rewind" mode. I haven't timed it, but I'd say it takes 1.5-2 minutes to rewind a 3-minute film! Once you're into the larger reels, it's not so bad...well, it's exactly the same, actually, but you won't mind as much because a 7" reel may take 4-plus hours to scan so you probably aren't marathon-scanning and will not be so anxious to tee-up the next reel.



PLAYBACK SPEED:
     The FS-81 scans 2 frames per second and takes about 30 minutes to chug through a 3" (3-minute) 8mm or super-8 reel. It produces a 1080p resolution, 30-frames-per-second, MP4 video file which it saves to the SD card. Turn the unit off and pop that out then transfer that to your computer and you can immediately view it at what seems a pretty natural playback speed. Probably completely fine to leave the files alone unless you have to adjust colour or marry the video with some audio.
     On Halloween of 1975, my father upgraded to Super-8 sound film and for those films I have to capture the audio separately and sync the audio to the action in a video editing program. I'll explain later how I did this, but immediately it meant that I needed to figure out a more accurate playback speed.
     To capture the audio, I played the film through an old super-8 sound projector (Sankyo Sound-762). I set the speed to 18 frames per second. Best practices back in the day were to film at 24 frames per (fps) second, but I remembered that my father used to economize by setting the speed closer to 18 fps, which was an option on his camera. (This frame rate has nothing to do with the 30 fps encoded in the MP4 video file, by the way.) As far as I can figure, the Magnasonic FS-81 makes some sort of assumption about the filmed-fps and, therefore, playback speed, and builds that into the final video file. And, it's pretty close. But it's off enough that I found syncing audio (which is recorded at real-time speed and has a real-time length) to be troublesome. 

*NOTE: One Amazon reviewer seemed certain that the assumed replay frame rate was 20 fps. I have not been able to verify this online, or from experience.

     Eventually, based on playing them through the projector and from the audio samples, I came to the conclusion that most of the films ran about 3:08 to 3:11 seconds in length. (It's really hard to know for certain because so many films start with about a foot of blank frames and the audio does not start or end exactly when the pictures do.)
     In Final Cut Pro (Apple gives you a 90-day free trial) I modified the playback speed until my video came very close to matching the real-world length that I experienced when recording the audio from the projector. I found that playback at 95% works well for me. When I import the audio, I immediately set it to playback at 98% speed and it usually matches up fairly well. It's not perfect. Often, I have to adjust to 99% audio speed or make cuts in the audio track and re-sync halfway through. The worst possible case is someone singing or talking for the full 3 minutes. That's when you really notice any discrepancies. Fortunately, in our family films, such occurrences are rare.

*NOTE: I want to mention that I started with all the loose 3-minute (3") reels but I am currently digitizing the 7" reels. Syncing will be pushed to new limits and I will revise this info if my methods change.

SD CARD:
     When I was going through all the reviews on Amazon.ca I noticed that many people have issues with the SD card. I have had no issues. On rare occasions, the unit doesn't see the SD card, but reinserting the card always solves this.
     From the Amazon comments, it seemed that there might be 2 big things that non-computer people might not know that could affect their experience:
     1) SD cards have a tiny slider along one edge. Sliding it away from the pins locks the card so that nothing can be recorded onto it. Slide it the other way to unlock the card for recording.
     2) You must turn the Magnasonic FS-81 off before inserting or removing the SD card. If you don't, you could lose all the info on the card and will probably have to reformat it to be able to use it again.

VIDEO FILE CREATION DATES:
     One small thing that Magnasonic could easily do that would help those of use scanning heaps of films is to add some way to change the video file creation date. 
     All the video files saved to the SD card are named with unique, sequential 4-digit numbers but they all have the same creation date. On my unit, the date is July 1, 2017. The creation time varies, so that helps a little, but the date is always the same. 
     The problem comes once you've transferred hundreds of similar files to your computer and you are trying to organize these scanned components along with their audio files and merged versions. It would be convenient to be able to organize your folders by date and have all the files stay together. Instead, the MP4 scans are all grouped together as July 1, 2017, no matter when you actually did the scan. This means that you must organize principally by file names. This is ok, but it bothered me a lot as it is easy to get confused when dealing with so many files (and so many Christmases, New Years', and birthdays) and if you lose track, it can be difficult to distinguish one video from another when every Christmas and birthday looks essentially the same.
     When it comes to creating the files, the unit is very reliable. It has never had a hiccup in the hundreds of films I have scanned. However, if for any reason the film stops (which can happen on irregular splices or other problems with the film) you need to hit the OK button which stops the scans and closes the current video file. Of course, as soon as you remove and rethread the film and hit OK again, the unit restarts and creates a brand new video file whose name is a 4-digit number, one higher from the last. This does mean that you may end up with multiple files for a single film, if it's a troublesome one. And because the creation date won't help you distinguish these a few days after the fact, you need to carefully rename these files to keep track of them.

CLEANING:
     Before queuing up each film, take a quick look at what the little onboard monitor is showing you to make sure there are no fuzzy dark spots. This is dust and easily whisked away with a soft-bristled brush (I use a tiny artist's paintbrush from the dollar store) or blown off with canned air. I wouldn't recommend using your mouth to blow away the dust because a spec of spittle would be a lot more trouble to clean off.

THE MENU:
     You use the menu buttons to activate the "rewind" mode, to format SD cards, and to adjust framing, sharpness and exposure. As I said earlier, it seems clunky at first, but must actually be really well thought out because it quickly becomes second nature. 
     One other notable thing is that the Magnasonic FS81 will remember your settings until you clear them...even if you shut it off or unplug it. 
     At first, I experimented with increased exposure but, overall, it didn't seem to make for better results. So, in the end, the only setting I had to adjust was the framing on the first film. Amazingly, I have never had to re-adjust it, even after hundreds of film scans.

COMPUTER STUFF:
Things you'll need...

Every 3-minute video file is about 250-260Mb in size. 
Additionally, if there is sound, that audio file will be about 2.5-3.0Mb.

A 20-minute film generates about a 1.5Gb video file
If there is audio, that file will be another 16-20Mb.

     If you are wanting to make some adjustments to the scanned video, then your video editing software will also need workspace and you need space to dump the finished product. 
     As many of my films have sound, I need space to keep both the visual and audio components, as well as space for the married, final version.
     If, like me, you have hundreds of reels, you're going to need a lot of hard drive (or SSD) space. As workspace for my 600 films, I am using 2Tb SSD with another 2Tb hard drive, as long-term backup.

     If you need to capture audio, you will need a projector to play the film and output the audio to your computer. At the computer end, I used a very simple and very old USB audio interface that I had lying around and it worked well. 









      I used a simple male-male headphone cable to go from the projector's headphone output to the mic input on the USB audio interface. The USB interface plugged directly into the USB port on my computer. (Mac, but should work the same for PC) 





     I used software called Audio Hijack to capture the sound. I've used this to capture sound from my browser and other apps for years and can recommend this program for ease of use, reliability, and versatility.

     *NOTE: 8mm silent films are strangely dull to watch without some sort of soundtrack. I always add the sound of a projector running softly, in the background. It seems to make them much more watchable.


     Of course, you'll need a way to read the SD card on your computer. If your PC doesn't have an SD card slot, you may need to purchase an external card reader like my old one (pictured below). 



MAC-SPECIFIC:
Two things I've learned from this project:

1) iMovie is very good for minor adjustments of colour and exposure but comes up short when adding sound. When you go to do that, you need something with a bit more precision. 
     I downloaded the trial version of Final Cut Pro (90 days free!) which lets you nudge the soundtrack in very fine increments, allowing me to sync things up very well. 
     At this point, it looks like I will finish the entire project before my free trial of FCP expires, however, I think that I will end up purchasing it for making custom compilations of the films I've digitized.

2) Though I am a truly experienced computer person, it's been a long time since I last entered text instructions to my Mac, via a command-line interface, like Terminal. 

     Over the years, I got into the bad habit of naming files using a dash to separate fields. For instance...

1979-0618-s8193-JCFair-ElectionNight(May22)-CampaignHQ.MP4

     This became a problem when I wanted to use the filenames and Spotlight like a database to find specific clips. I rarely use Spotlight and had forgotten that the dash is a special character in raw Mac text commands. It denotes the start of a command and, for this reason, Spotlight doesn't recognize something that comes directly after a dash. The brackets also have special meanings and will not be searchable. Similarly, *, /, square brackets and other special characters should be avoided. I changed all my dashes to shift-dash (which looks more like an underline) and that sorted out all my search issues...

1979_0618_s8193_JCFair_ElectionNight(May22)_CampaignHQ.MP4



CONTACT ME:
     I am no expert in 8mm, digitizing film, or Final Cut Pro but I now have a lot of experience with the Magnasonic FS81 and am interested in the subject. So feel free to contact me, via email at williamdeanauthor@gmail.com if you see any flaws in the information I am providing here, or have something to add, or a question that I might be able to answer.


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