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Helical scan is a method of recording high-frequency signals on magnetic tape. It is used in open-reel video tape recorders, video cassette recorders, digital audio tape recorders, and some computer tape drives.
In a fixed tape head recording system, magnetic tape is drawn past the head at a constant speed. The head creates a fluctuating magnetic field in response to the signal to be recorded, and the magnetic particles on the tape are forced to line up with the field at the head. As the tape moves away, the magnetic particles carry an imprint of the signal in their magnetic orientation. If the tape moves too slowly, a high-frequency signal will not be imprinted: the particles' polarity will simply oscillate in the vicinity of the head, to be left in a random position. Thus the bandwidth channel capacity of the recorded signal can be seen to be related to tape speed: the faster the speed, the higher the frequency that can be recorded.
Video needs considerably more bandwidth than audio, so much so that tape would have to be drawn past the heads at very high speed to capture this signal. This is impractical, since tapes of immense length would be required: VERA, developed by the BBC between 1952 and 1958, used 52cm (20") reels running at a speed of 5.08 m/s (16.7 ft/s), and could only record about 15 minutes of 405-line monochrome programme. The generally adopted solution is to rotate the head against the tape at high speed, so that the relative velocity is high, but the tape itself moves at a slow speed. To accomplish this, the head carrier (usually referred to as the head drum) must be tilted so that at each rotation of the drum, a new area of tape passes the head. Each segment of the signal is recorded as a diagonal stripe across the tape. This is known as a helical scan because the tape wraps around the circular drum at an angle, traveling up like a helix. The difference between the head writing speed and linear tape speed is vast: for example, 580 centimetres per second (230 in/s) writing speed at a linear speed of 3.5 cm/s (1.4 in/s).
With the advent of television broadcasting in Japan in the early 1950s, they saw the need for magnetic television signal recording. Dr. Kenichi Sawazaki developed a prototype helical scan recorder in 1953. Independently in Germany, Eduard Schüller was also developing a helical scan method of recording.
When Ampex developed the quadruplex magnetic tape video recording system in 1956, it had certain limitations, perhaps the most important of which was the lack of pause or still frame capability, because the picture signal was segmented, or broken down into discrete segments to be recorded on the tape individually (only 16 lines of the picture in each segment). Thus, when tape motion was stopped, only a single segment of the picture recording was present at the playback heads. The helical-scan system overcame this limitation.
Toshiba introduced helical-scan technology to the television industry in 1959. During the 1960s and 1970s, helical-scan recording machines were introduced by many manufacturers and marketed all over the world. The technology rapidly took over the market for video recording, due to its reduced complexity, greater reliability, lower manufacturing and servicing costs, lighter weight, lower energy consumption, and more versatile features, when compared to the quadruplex system. These factors also made it possible eventually to bring video recording to users at home, in a cassette format.
There were a number of problems to be overcome with this system. The high tape/head speed could lead to rapid wear of both the tape and the head, so both need to be highly polished, and the head made of a hard, wear-resistant material. Most systems operate with an air bearing separating the heads from the surface of the drum. Supplying signals to a rotating head is also problematic: This is usually accomplished by coupling the signal(s) inductively through a rotary transformer. The transport mechanism is also much more complex than a fixed head system, since during loading, the tape must be pulled around a rotating drum containing the head(s). In a VCR for example, the tape must be pulled out of the cassette case and threaded around the drum, and between the capstan and pinch roller. This leads to complex and potentially unreliable mechanics.
Two transport systems evolved in the early video machines, known as the alpha wrap and the omega wrap. In the alpha-wrap machines the tape is wrapped around the head drum for a full 360 degrees (the tape looking like the lowercase Greek letter alpha). There is only one head which writes a complete stripe for every revolution of the head. This system has problems when the head transits from one piece of tape to the next, giving a large signal gap between fields. The machine has to fill this gap with the frame-synchronizing pulses. Such machines are constrained to using guard-band recording (see below).
In the omega-wrap machines, the tape is only wrapped around the head for 180 degrees. Two video heads are required, each writing alternate fields. This system has a much smaller signal gap between fields, but the frame-synchronizing pulses are able to be recorded on the tape. Cassette-based systems can only utilize the omega-wrap technique, since it is impractical for an automatic loading system to introduce a loop into the tape. Early omega-wrap systems utilize guard-band recording, but the presence of two heads permits the development of the slant-azimuth technique. Later developments use increasing numbers of heads to record video using smaller drums and for recording HiFi sound as well.
A variation of the omega wrap, such as that used by Echo Science Corporation of Mountain View, California in its instrumentation and high resolution video recorders in the late 1970s and 1980s, wraps the 1-inch tape about 190 degrees around the two-headed drum, so there is signal overlap between the two heads. Head switching in video recorders occurs instantaneously in the video models, during a horizontal sync interval. With a standard NTSC video signal a head can cover one sixth of a field each time it passed across the tape. Switching in instrumentation models is gradual, so the signals from both heads overlaps briefly, producing a transient-free output signal where the original signal does not contain convenient dead intervals during which a switching transient can be hidden.
Every videotape system attempts to pack as much video as possible onto a given-sized tape, but information from one recording stripe (pass of the video head) must not interfere with information on adjacent stripes. One method to provide isolation between the stripes is the use of guard bands (unrecorded areas between the stripes), but this wastes valuable tape space. All the early open-reel machines and the first cassette formats, the Philips VCR and the Sony U-matic, use this system.
Later helically scanning recorders instead usually use a method called slant-azimuth recording, also called symmetric phase recording. The head drum usually contains two heads with the magnetic gap of one head slanted slightly leftwards and the magnetic gap of the other head slanted slightly rightwards. (The slant of a magnetic head is referred to as its azimuth adjustment). Because of the alternating slants, each head will not wrongly read the signal recorded by the other head and the stripes can be recorded immediately next to each other, alternating between left slant on one television field and right slant on the next television field. (In practice, it's not uncommon for the recorded stripes to overlap somewhat). Later machines including the JVC VHS and the Sony Betamax use slant-azimuth recording as well as all later machines and their digital derivatives.
Using slant-azimuth recording, the need for guard bands is completely eliminated, allowing more recording to be placed on a given length of tape.
Helical scanning was a logical progression beyond an earlier system (pioneered by Ampex) known as quadruplex recording, also referred to as transverse recording. In this scheme, the rotating head drum runs essentially perpendicular to a 2-inch-wide (51 mm) tape, and the slices recorded across the tape are nearly perpendicular to the tape's motion. U.S. quadruplex systems revolve the head drum at 14,400 revolutions per minute (240 revolutions per second) with four heads on the drum so that each television field is broken into 16 stripes on the tape (which requires appropriately complex head-switching logic). By comparison, the longer stripe recorded by a helical-scan recorder usually contains an entire video field and the two-headed drum spins at the frame rate (half the field rate) of the TV system in use.
Recording an entire field in a single pass allows these machines to play back a viewable still frame when the tape is stopped, and display a viewable image sequence while shuttling forwards or backwards. This greatly facilitates the editing process. The quadruplex systems are unable to display video from tape except while playing at normal speed, unless they have a separate frame buffer.