Why Can’t Erased Footage Be Recovered?

Of all the tape problem scenarios we hear about, the one I dread the most is footage that has been recorded over or erased.

We’ll get a call a couple of times a week from a husband (it’s almost never a woman, sorry guys) asking for any advice we can offer on how to recover the wedding footage that he recorded over.Our response is always the same: ”We’re very, very sorry, but to the best of our knowledge footage that has been recorded over cannot be recovered.”

But why is that? If you watch a CSI-type of TV show or a sci-fi thriller chances are good that you’ll see a technician doing exactly what we’d want to be able to do to recover footage, usually simply by telling the computer to “Enhance!”. The issue is further muddled because data from computer hard drives can be recovered under ideal circumstances (when the data is simply erased but not yet recorded over).

The reason is that when a camcorder or VCR is recording footage the recording heads are aligning the magnetic particles on the tape’s surface, laying down analog information that can be read and interpreted later during playback. If footage is recorded over existing data the particles are realigned in a new pattern that has no relation to the original, so there is no longer any trace of the original footage remaining.

Hopefully you aren’t reading this because you’ve just erased something important, and if you have I really am sorry.

If you haven’t yet lost some footage, I highly recommend breaking off the write-protect tab on your VHS tapes, and making sure the slider on your other media is switched to read-only.