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Video Cassette Recorder: 
VCR Basics and User Guide

How To Set Clock on VCR

How to Timer Record on VCR

How to Connect VCR

The invention of the VCR, or video cassette recorder, in the 1970s gave us the first consumer device which allowed people to record TV shows for viewing at a later time. This capability released us from the bondage of the TV networks scheduling, thanks to the VCRs "time-shifting" capabilities, we could record a program when the networks deemed it would run, but watch at a time convenient for us.

SONY Betamax VCR 1976

The Sony Betamax (Beta) VCR format ruled in the beginning (1975-1976), until the VHS format eventually succeeded in taking over the market. Beta VCRs, Sony's proprietary format, existed for years and many models were produced, but VHS (Video Home System) won out in the long run and became the standard consumer format for video cassettes, both pre-recorded Hollywood movies and blank tapes for recording at home, and the VCR itself. Even Sony eventually made VHS VCRs.

The SONY L-750 Beta video tape cassette recorded at standard speed (BI) could record up to 90 mins. However Sony Betamax machines could double that time to 3 hours if recorded at BII speed and up to 4 hours 30 mins. at BIII speed.

VHS T-160 tapes recorded at EP/SLP speed could record up to 8 hours or 5 hours 20 mins. in LP mode or 2 hours 40 mins. in SP mode. SP= standard play, LP= long play, EP = extended play.

Slower recording speed results in lower video quality but longer recording times. Faster recording speeds results in better video quality but less recording times.

Over the years, VCR's have grown in features, and shrunk in price. Where the basic VCR, which was also the top-of-the-line VCR, once cost about $1,500, a basic VCR now is affordable by all, with some as low as $40 and used models going for far less, some for only $5 at a thrift store. Top of the line VCRs with more features go for about $100 or so, but what you get now rivals or exceeds what you'd only have seen in video studios back in TV's infancy. Although many people are progressing to the DVD recorder, personal video recorders and hard disk recorders, the VCR still occupies a place in the home of millions of TV viewers and Hollywood movie enthusiasts. The second hand market for old movies on VHS tape is a bargain, typically only costing a dollar or two per VHS movie.

The cassette is approx. 7x4x1 inches and takes up much more space than DVDs.

Many people discovered that time-shifting wasn't their number one priority: renting videocassette movies was. Still others want a VCR so they can copy from their camcorders. Even audio recording on the VHS tape gives stereo sound for hours of listening. 

VCR Introduction

The modern VCR reached it's zenith by the year 2000. That is a very good lifespan, about 25 years. Still, by the year 2006, many VCRs are still in use in the home, but many models now contain a DVD player and a VCR together, called a Combo unit, with DVD on one side and VCR on the other.

The standard VCR is an electronic device which weighs about 8 lbs. and is about 15 in. wide, 11 in. deep, 4 in. high and contains an analog television tuner (Channel Coverage: VHF: 2-13; UHF: 14-69; CATV: 1-125 Total Channels: 181), circuit board, video heads/drum and tape transport along with gears, a small electric motor, front panel controls and multi-function display. 


Top manufacturers included Sony, Panasonic, JVC, Toshiba, RCA, Sharp, Samsung and many others. Most modern full-feature VCRs have stereo sound and 4 heads with a variety of nice to have features such as freeze frame, auto clock set, auto channel setup, VCR Plus+, slow motion, search and 60 sec. skip for commercials.

The reason people own a VCR is to:

1) Record and view TV programs live or time delayed (digital to analog converter tuner required since 2009)
2) View pre-recorded movies on VHS tapes
3) Copy camcorder recordings to VHS tape 
4) Record music or any audio source


VCR SETUP - Hookup Diagrams

What you should have in your VCR setup:

VCR, TV, Hookup Cables, Remote control, videocassettes and TV signal source.


Remote Control


VHS Video-cassettes

Connecting Cable
TV signal source can be 
antenna, cable TV or satellite TV


Basic VCR cable hookup for Analog TV (NTSC) reception

This setup only works today if you have any low-power analog TV broadcasts nearby. Otherwise you need a digital to analog converter box to tune TV stations.

Both the VCR and the TV need to be plugged into AC outlets for power. The VCR is powered on using the power button on the VCR or by using the power button on the VCR remote control. 

The VCR needs to be connected to the TV using audio/video cables. Exactly which cable you use and how you connect your components depends on your specific situation. Not everyone has the same components. You may receive your TV programming by Cable TV while someone else gets their TV programming over the air using a rooftop or indoor TV antenna. 

A VCR can be connected to a TV using a single coaxial cable which carries audio and video combined, or several A/V cables which split the audio and video so they are carried to the TV separately.

If you use a single coax cable, as seen in the drawing above, connect the VCR OUT jack in the back of the VCR to the TV VHF/UHF IN jack on the back of the TV. Be sure to set the TV on channel 3 or 4 when using the VCR as your signal source. Select which channel to use (3 or 4) on the VCR by setting a switch manually, usually in the back of the VCR, or by electronically selecting channel 3 or 4 on your VCR. As there are many different brands of VCR and even many more models, the procedure varies. Consult your owner's manual.

VCR selector switch on back panel. Switches to channel 3 or 4.

Also, connect your TV signal source, such as Cable TV or Antenna to the back of the VCR using a single coax cable connected to the VCR's ANT IN jack. This jack is typically just above the ANT OUT jack going to the TV. Both are silver in color with threads on the jack. The cable is screwed on or sometimes just pushed on.

Most VCR's come with "onscreen programming," which is a series of menus that (at least theoretically) walks you through the various settings and functions of the VCR.

VCR rear panel


Since 2009, most local TV stations in the U.S. have converted to digital TV broadcasts. This has caused the analog TV tuners in VCRs to become virtually useless as far as tuning in TV stations. One solution is to use a converter box to tune the digital channels, convert them to analog TV signals and then pass on to the VCR for recording and on to the TV.

VCR hookup for digital broadcast TV (ATSC) using converter box

With digital TV broadcasts, the converter box will output on channel 3 (or 4) to the VCR's tuner. Set the VCR when recording to channel 3 (or 4) and the TV likewise.

Analog CRT TV Coax RF input

In the old days, a TV antenna connected directly to this port for tuning channels 2-13 VHF and 14-83 UHF. This port is now used to connect the coax cable from a DTV converter box output or a VCR RF coax output.

TV coax cable connected. Be sure to insert copper wire into small hole and align and turn cable until screwed on tight.

Digital to Analog TV converter box rear panel

From left to right the ports are RF antenna coax input, RF coax output, output for digital audio, HDMI output for flat screen high-definition TV, RCA audio output (white and red) and RCA video output (yellow).

Coax cables connected to DTV box. Black is antenna feed in and white is output to TV RF coax antenna input port or VCR RF coax input port.

VCR to TV Connections

How to Record over-the-air digital TV shows on VCR

Since the VCR tuner is analog and TV stations now broadcast in digital, the VCR tuner cannot get TV programs to record. However, using a digital to analog TV converter box, and sending the channel tuned on the DTV box out to the VCR on channel 3 (or line out using 3 RCA cables), you can still record TV shows.

If you try to tune TV channels (scan) on the VCR, the only channel you can pick up is channel 3 when the DTV box is connected and powered on. So set the channel to record up as channel 3. This way any channel tuned on the DTV box will come over to the VCR as channel 3. So for a timer (timed) recording, set channel 3, start time, stop time, tape speed etc. and then the VCR will power on at the preselected time and record channel 3 which is any channel tuned on the DTV box at that time. Some DTV boxes have the ability to be set to power on at a set time. Setting this up would allow the DTV box to remain off until the set time. Otherwise the DTV box would have to remain powered on and tuned to the proper channel for possibly long periods of time unless attended by someone.

If the 3 RCA cables are used as the connection from DTV box to VCR, set the channel as L1 or LINE input instead of channel 3.

VCR Programming

VCRs need to be setup for the first time and after a power outage possibly, with basic information like your preferred language (English), time zone (Central/Pacific), date (year/month/day), time of day (hour/min), cable or antenna signal source, receivable channels (scan) and so forth. After this initial setup, you can program the VCR to record TV shows.

Usually you would use the VCR's remote control to do the initial setup, pressing the up/down/left/right arrow buttons within the on-screen menu system. Press OK/SELECT or the like to select the menu item you want. There should be a MENU button on the remote to enter the setup screens.

You must set the clock so the VCR can power on at the proper time of day to record.

How to set the clock on a VCR.

Follow the steps below to set the clock:
Use the VCR remote control
Turn on the VCR.
Turn on the TV.

Tune the TV to the channel (usually 3 or 4 if using coax cable) or video input (TV/VIDEO) to view the VCR screen.

For high-definition TV, select the input source the VCR is connected to

On some VCRs you need to press ANT or LINE or INPUT button to show VCR screen

On the VCR Remote control, press the MENU button.
You should see the VCR main menu on the TV
Press the up arrow or down arrow to select Clock set.
Press the OK button.
Press the up arrow or down arrow to select MANUAL.
Press the OK button.
Press the arrow buttons UP, DOWN, RIGHT or LEFT to select the current hour, min, date, year

When finished
Press the up arrow or down arrow to select OK.
Press the MENU button or EXIT.


Be sure to set AM or PM for the correct time of day

Do a channel scan, tuner preset or the like to pick up all the channels you can record.

Select ANT for antenna if you're using a roof-top or indoor antenna to get TV programs. Select CABLE if you're using a cable TV set-top-box to get TV programs.

Which channel to record from is a very important step. You can record from LINE input (Input Select) if you have a cable or satellite TV set-top-box connected to the VCR's audio/video inputs (yellow/white/red) or you can record from channel 3 or 4 if connected with a coaxial cable.

What to do if the VCR has no remote control.

You can buy a universal remote and set it to your VCR brand. This may work.
You can order a replacement remote online. Often they are available.
You can search local thrift shops like Goodwill. Possibly look online for local ads. You may find one.
Some VCRs have the main menu buttons on the front panel and some VCRs can utilize the channel up/down and other buttons on the front panel to control the on-screen menu functions.
Always make sure to get the original remote when buying a VCR used. This way you get all the functions.
A universal remote may only give you the main functions and lack the more esoteric functions.

Setting the VCR to record:

There are several ways to setup a VCR to record depending on what capabilities and features the VCR has built in, however this will only cover the manual method.

1. Place a blank tape into the VCR (rewound or in proper location on tape) which has enough space to contain your TV show. See below for recording times.

2. Make sure the VCR clock is set to the correct time.

3. Go into on-screen menus and select TIMER SET or the like for your VCR.

4. Use up/down/left/right buttons on VCR remote to set DATE and TIME for your TV show to start. Then do the same for the ENDING/STOP time. Next select the channel to record or select LINE1. Selecting the LINE input to record from is accomplished various ways depending on your VCR model. For example on a SONY SLV-778HF model VCR, you press the INPUT SELECT button on the remote and you should see LINE1 in place of the channel.

Next select the speed (EP/SL). EP or extended play is slower but gives you more time. SL is faster (uses tape up faster) but gives you better video resolution.

To check the timer setup of the programs you have entered or to cancel an entry or modify an entry Press MENU and select TIMER SET/CHECK

You should see the date, day, start time, stop time, channel and tape speed for each entry. The VCR channel will be 3 or 4 or LINE for a digital to analog TV converter box while the correct over-the-air TV channel will need to selected on the DTV converter box.

5. When finished programming, press OK/SELECT and power off the VCR.

At the set time, the VCR should power on, record your show and power off.
More recent VCRs will have better aids and prompts to help you setup a timed recording. Some VCRs even have a button on the front panel to setup date/time for recording (dial timer).

VCRs usually have what is called events so you can program multiple shows at multiple times. An 8 event VCR can store 8 different start/stop times for 8 different channels or multiple times on several channels.

Digital to Analog TV Converter Box Timer Recording

Since the VCR must take signal input from the DTV box and the DTV box must select the TV channel (DTV box has the ATSC tuner), you must coordinate the VCR timer record with the DTV tuner. For unattended recordings, the DTV box will need to be setup ahead of time like the VCR. Most of the DTV boxes have a PVR recorder function using a USB drive to store the video. The DTV box should have a timer record function like the VCR so you can have the DTV box auto select the correct channel at the desired time/date. In fact, if this function on the DTV box works to perfection, you could substitute this PVR for your VCR if you are content with viewing from the USB drive instead of tape.

How to setup


Maxell 32GB USB Drive

Of course all of the preliminary connections and channel scans have already been accomplished before recording.

Remote Control for DTV converter box

Press TIMER button on remote.

Next press the 1 button to add a recording event. To select the channel to record, press the right arrow button until the channel appears on screen in the channel no. area.

The channel name appears under the channel number.

Next press the down arrow button. Use the number buttons to enter the start date MM/DD/YY.

Next press the down arrow button.

Enter the start time HH/MM using the number buttons on the remote.

Press the down arrow button. Use the number buttons to enter the end time HH/MM.

Press the down arrow button. Press the right arrow button to enter ONCE or DAILY or WEEKLY.

Press the down arrow button. Press the right arrow button to enter RECORD or VIEW.

Press the OK button to confirm and save or Press EXIT button to exit.

Press TIMER button to see the events scheduled.

To delete an event, select, press 3 and the OK button.

To edit an event, select, press 2, change info and press OK.

At the preset date and time, the DTV tuner will power ON and record the preset channel on the USB drive. By coordinating the VCR timer record with the same date and time, the VCR will power ON and record the signal from the DTV box. If setup correctly, the VCR will record your TV program, stop and power off. You just have to rewind the tape and watch at your pleasure.

Try a test run to see if it all works properly before your TV event occurs.

To playback a recording from the USB drive, press USB on the remote and the OK button. The USB drive will be read and the recordings will be listed on the TV screen. Scroll down to select the PVR recording. Press the HOLD button for full screen viewing.

Clock set - press menu, clock set, move to each setting, increase or decrease until correct number appears.

Most VCRs (and digital converter boxes) need to execute a channel scan to pickup all available channels.

Program the VCR by setting date, start and end times, channel or line, and tape speed.

Navigation through the on-screen menus is different for each VCR brand. Practice using the remote and see what happens. You're not going to hurt anything.

Q: Where are the connection ports on a VCR?

A: Look on the back of the VCR to find the antenna input coaxial port and the RF coaxial output connection. Also you have the RCA cable connections for input and output. Yellow video, white audio and for stereo VCRs, red audio. Some VCRs also have front RCA inputs for a camcorder.

VCR Rear Panel

RG-6 Coaxial Cable to connect VCR

RCA cables to connect VCR

Mono audio VCRs will not have the red connection, only the white connection. The red audio cable is not connected for these VCRs.

VCR RCA cable connection gives you stereo sound and better video

Connection diagram DTV box to VCR to TV using RCA cables

RCA audio video ports

RCA cables connected


T-120 Blank Videotape :
Standard Play (SP) speed - 120 minutes (2 hours)
Extended Play (EP) speed - 360 minutes (6 hours)

T-160 Blank Videotape :
Standard Play (SP) speed - 160 minutes (2 hours, 40 minutes)
Extended Play (EP) speed - 480 minutes (8 hours)

Question: Will my older VCR still be able to record with my new digital TV? Just have rabbit ears.
Answer: Yes, but you need a digital to analog converter box, about $40, to allow todays TV broadcasts to record on VCR.
Your antenna connects to the converter box and the converter box can connect to the VCR using coaxial cable or the
RCA (yellow video and white audio) cables. This allows recording on the VCR. Tune channel on the converter box.
For playback, connect VCR output (coaxial or RCA) to the TV (coaxial or RCA) and select on the TV, the source for the VCR.

Question: Can I record on VCR if I only have digital cable TV?
Answer: Yes, most digital cable TV set-top-boxes will have the yellow video and white audio outputs. Connect these using RCA cables to the VCR's RCA inputs and select the LINE input to record from on the VCR. This will record any show you can receive on the cable box to the VCR, only in standard definition video resolution, not high-definition.

How to clean VCR heads

VCR Operation

The VCR is a electronic and mechanical device to record and playback video and audio to a television or other electronic device. The magnetic tape is pulled from the tape cassette over an erase head and then over the video heads inside the metal video drum and on to the take up spool on the other side of the cassette. The video drum spins the heads as the tape passes over them. The tape travels at a variable set speed, faster for better quality but less recording time and slower for less quality but more recording time.

VCR tape path inside VCR

VCR pulls the tape from the cassette and over the video drum

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