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Useful Notes / U Matic

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Top: A U-matic recorder. Bottom: The U-matic and later U-matic S cassettes.
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Predating the VHS and Betamax formats by a few years was Sony's U-matic, introduced in 1971 (after being prototyped in 1969). It was one of the first formats to contain the reels of videotape in one cassette, but was also too expensive for the average consumer that Sony was hoping to attract during its launch, hence its widespread adoption by TV studios and educational institutions throughout the '70s, replacing the old 16mm film reels they used for decades.

U-matic was so named because the tape wrapped around the video head drum in a U shape when it was loaded in the machine. And unlike other videotape formats, its reels moved in opposite directions when playing, fast-forwarding, or rewinding. A red plastic button was also provided on the bottom of the tape, which can be removed to prevent any accidental recording.

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U-matic had several shortcomings, especially early in its lifespan. For one, prolonged friction of the tape against the drum heads when paused would cause the tape to wrinkle or rub the oxide coating off of it, degrading the signal in the paused area. U-matic also had trouble reproducing the color red, causing it to appear very fuzzy and saturated, to the point where actors or anchorpeople would be discouraged from wearing red on camera to avoid drawing attention to this.

By the early '80s, U-matic would be succeeded by Betacam, which smoothed out many of these flaws.


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