Introduction: VHS Tape Storage Drive

This project turns a old VHS Tape into a USB storage drive. It looks like a normal VHS cassette tape except for the USB cable that sticks out of the shell. All of the project guts are hiding in the areas around the clear windows so that when you have a quick look at the front of the tape all seems normal. When plugged into a computer the VHS Tape Storage Drive will act as a normal USB drive except when the drive is accessed the tape reel will turn and the windows will light up. This will keep at least one of my VHS tapes out of the landfill.

The operation is quite simple, the USB cable connects to a thumb drive inside the device. The thumb drive has been cracked open to expose the circuit board, USB power and the drive LED output has been tapped into. These 3 points are wired to a small circuit board, there is a circuit that stretches the drive pulses into an on or off signal that is buffered by a transistor to power the internal motor and LED lights. The pulse stretcher was needed since the USB drive would flash when it was being accessed. This would have caused the motor action to be very jerky and the internal lights would also have flashed.

The cost to purchase all the parts for this project should be between $10 and $15 depending on the deal you can get for the USB thumb drive and assuming that you have a few items in your parts junk box. Construction time should be 3 to 4 hours but it took me longer since I took a ton of pictures along the way and has some belt drive (or should I say rubber band drive) issues.

I am posting this project here since many of you may not have seen it on Hacked Gadgets.

Step 1: Gather the Parts You Need

. I am using the old CD-ROM drive for the motor that will be used to drive the tape reel. You can also look for DC motors in VCRs, audio tape decks, some printers.

  • VHS Tape
  • USB Cable
  • DC Motor
  • Thumb Drive
  • 4 X Blue LEDs
  • 4 X 68 ohm Current limiting resistors
  • 3 X Diodes
  • 1 X 220 ohm resistor
  • 1 X 1000 uF capacitor
  • small perf board
  • hook up wire
  • hot glue
  • Rubber band

Step 2: Remove the Recycled DC Motor

To open your CD-ROM drive pop open the front using a paper clip and small screwdriver. This CD-ROM has 3 DC motors, one to spin the CD, one to open and close the drive door and one to move the read write head back and forth. Deconstruct the drive by looking for screws and plastic snaps. Look for a motor that will work well. The drive train that is used to open the drive tray is real nice in this mode. It has a narrow plastic section with all of the gears mounted in a row. A Dremel tool with a cutting wheel was used to slice the motor and gears right out of the CD-ROM drive.

Step 3: Prepare the VHS Tape

Take the VHS tape apart, there is usually 4 or 5 screws on the bottom of the tape. The top should just lift off after that. You will then be looking at two reels with what seems like miles of tape on them. I unraveled the small one by hand and it took forever. The larger reel was unraveled with the aid of a drill. :) I might have been able to just slip off the tape if I noticed that the clear portion of the reel was just locked in place with a simple turn. :(

Step 4: Open the Thumb Drive and Fine the LED Drive Circuit

You will need to crack the case of your USB thumb drive open. This Kingston drive was very easy to open. When one side was free the other side almost fell open. When the drive electronics are exposed you will have to hunt down the LED. In small devices like this it will be surface mount so it may be a bit hard to spot. Look for a clear device but if you still cant spot it just plug it in and locate it that way. Once you find the LED you will need to trace out where it is being controlled from. The traces are equally tiny, so you may want to use a magnifier loupe to make things easier. Have a look at the picture of my Fluke multimeter lead tip in beside the LED. It was hard to meter traces with it since the point seemed to be as fine as my thumb but eventually I got things traced out. Turns out that the R3 is the current limiting resistor for the LED.

Step 5: Wire Up the Thumb Drive

You will need to solder wires to the USB positive and negative connections. Have a look at this USB pinout page for information or just meter the outside pins to determine the polarity. Some helping hands will make soldering the connection easier. I would recommend using some helping hands that have a magnifier built into them. The third connection that you need to solder to is the LED output that was identified in the last step. One word of caution here, I soldered to the surface mount resistor to access the signal and it worked fine but broke off a few minutes later. Even though the gauge of the wire was small it had enough leverage to pull the solder and pad from the surface mount device. I had to scrape the solder mask from the trace and solder to that. Once I confirmed that it was working I poured hot glue over the entire device to make sure there was no more strain on any of the connections.

Step 6: Construct the Control Circuit

The control circuit is very simple for this device, the number of diodes that are shown may need to be adjusted. The output from the Drive LED output didnt go to zero so the diodes are there to drop some of the excess voltage so that the circuit does not turn on until the drive output actually turns on. The 1000 uF cap is there to smooth the flashing drive LED output. Without the cap the circuit would still work but the LEDs and the motor would be pulsed. I tested the circuit concept on a breadboard first to make sure it worked before making a permanent perf board version. The component locations were made to be very compact since there is limited room in the case (if you want everything to remain hidden).

Step 7: Mount Everything in the Tape Shell

I used the Dremel to carve out a bunch of plastic ribs and spacers from inside the tape shell. It was still very tight to make everything fit and not be seen through the windows but it did fit. The circuit board was also slathered with hot glue to hold everything in place. I would not want one of the wires to pop off after the circuit board was hot glued in place. I didnt use any heatshrink on the LED or motor wires, instead some hot glue holds things in place and also provides short circuit insulation. A rubber band was used to turn one of the tape reels, I had lots of trouble with this since the slightest tightness on the rubber band would cause the reel to pull in against the reel guides and stop turning. It was smooth to turn by hand but the belt was working against itself. If I used a tighter belt to prevent slipping it would obvously oull the reel harder against the guides and still cause binding. The solution was to take one of the metal tape roller guides that was in the tape shell and use it to push the reel away from the guide and keep it spinning freely. The roller guide was just slipped over a bent paper clip that was hot glued in place. By this time I was thinking that I sould get a hot glue company to sponsor the build. :)

Step 8: Finished Device

All that is needed now is to screw the top back onto the device and give it a try. If the metal presser pads put too much pressure on the spinning reel you may have to remove it. It worked without removing it, but it spun much better after the presser was removed.


jbaker22 (author)2011-12-16

It can hold 70 gb then?

t.rohner (author)2009-05-01

VCR drives are analogue, so you'd need to modulate/demodulate the digital signal somehow. (the good old FSK comes to mind) But you loose a lot of theoretical storage capacity this way. For better storage efficiency, you'd need to write and read to the magnetic head directly. This requires a lot of digital signal processing knowledge to begin with and the error correction would be a nightmare. Certainly not a rainy sunday afternoon project. There has been a storage medium, that used a mechanically similar technique. It was the DAT tape and was designed digital from the beginning. I once had one for backing up our server, but wasn't very happy with it. I think i remember having seen a system using VCR size cassettes for backup. But this was a cassette changer system with 100 or so cassettes. The owner told me the cost of the system was in the 100k$ range. The company was in the prepress ,scanning and CtF / CtP business.

ReCreate (author)t.rohner2009-05-03

Is the film the same as the film in a floppy drive? Couldnt we somehow get a floppy drive to do this?

t.rohner (author)ReCreate2009-05-04

The floppy uses a similar magnetizable film as a VC Tape, or a audio cassette for that matter. But the floppy tracks are indexed by the head moving stepper motor and the sectors are indexed as well. This way, it's possible to randomly access data in a relatively short time. This is more or less true for hard drives as well. A audio cassette uses 4 linear tracks. Two for stereo on each side. It travels by the head at 4.5 cm/s or 1.75 ips approx. This gives you a bandwith seen as adequate for audio at that time. For studio recordings, wider reel tapes with more tracks at a higher speed were used. In a VCR the tracks are not linear on the tape, but with a rotating head at a certain angle. The track locks like it is sliced on the tape diagonally. This way the head travelled over the track with 81cm/s while the tape itself travelled only with 14cm/s giving a much higher bandwith than in a linear system. If you want to access a certain file on such a medium, you'd need to write a directory as to where on the tape it is approximately. (Maybe read out the counter somehow.) Then you need to fast forward or reverse to a little before the data header starts on the tape. This maybe ok for backup purposes, but if you'd like to access a single file, it would wear out the tape pretty quickly. Further, the random access would only be usefull for reading. Doing this in the writing mode, it would fragment the tape until uselessness pretty quickly. Conclusion: A floppy drive is something much simpler in design and not up to this task.

ReCreate (author)t.rohner2009-05-05

Oh,Ok... Thats too bad...

ReCreate (author)ReCreate2009-05-05

But what if we Modified the floppy drive? I am willing to do so.

t.rohner (author)ReCreate2009-05-06

With the actual prices for storage devices?
1 TB for 100$ on harddrives and 10$ for 16GB flash, it just doesn't make sense.
I once had to service PDP4 computers with a whopping 16kb of core memory. It was 20k$ at that time(the memory only), but it was used to control Mega$-machines so i had to keep it alive.

ReCreate (author)t.rohner2009-05-06

Ah,I would do it just for the Fun of doing It,and afterwards,You will Literaly Have free Storage,Upto 4GB Per tape,And thats with not-so-good efficiency. And,where id you see a Terabyte Hdd for 100,They cost from the 150-250 dollar range,And the 16BG flash drive for 10 bucks,You gotta be kidding me!

t.rohner (author)ReCreate2009-05-06

Most of what we do here is for the fun of it.
But seriously, a 1TB is sold for 110 Swiss franks with the actual exchange of 1.10 SFR/$ that makes exactly 100$. See here:

With the flash drive, i was too low. I must have seen a 8GB for 10$ in a add. The 16GB are more like 30-40$, sorry for that. By the way, the prices for hardware have been historically lower in the US. But lately, the prices seem to converge. I didn't see much difference last July when i was in Silicon Valley.

ReCreate (author)t.rohner2009-05-07

Oh,Wow,100 Dollars for a terabyte,Thats,thats A very good price,Just 70 GB here costs 70 dollars

abbtech (author)t.rohner2009-05-06

Good looking book!

Kiteman (author)2009-04-26

This is a nice project.

In the next iteration, though, why not make the cable detachable? That would make it possible to make it a kind of "secret safe" that can store important files safely on your shelf of VHS tapes that no thief would even think of carrying off.

ReCreate (author)Kiteman2009-05-05

Yes,and you could even put a HDD(Maybe a laptop HDD in there) And an IDE to USB adapter in there(Probably just the board by itself to fit) You could store your whole OS in there,and now that tapes are becoming older,and less valuable,a theif will not bother looking at it

MaDoGK (author)Kiteman2009-04-27

That shouldnt be a problem, just turn the USB thumb drive around, so it faces the other direction. that way there would be room to d/c the extention cable.

milo0is0hot0 (author)2009-04-30

i think it would look way better if there was a socket to plug the usb cable into so you did not have to have the wire...this would also make it 'secret!'so you could hide important files....cooool instructable though....

wupme (author)milo0is0hot02009-05-05

if you used a short usb extension cable (got one here only 10cm long), you could probably hide the cable in there with no problems. You just would need to get some of the plastic under the cover out i think.

Culturedropout (author)2009-04-27

There used to be a company that sold an ISA PC card that plugged into a VCR for use as a backup; I think I've got one around here somewhere. Since the computer didn't know what the tape drive was doing, you had to press "Record" and then tell the software to run the backup. It wrote several copies of each file in case of "dropouts" on the tape, and it was _really_ slow. I recall being a little dismayed at the small capacity, too. And since it couldn't automatically play/fast-forward/rewind, you had to start at the beginning of the tape and play through the whole thing (up to a couple of hours, I think) to get to the last file on the tape. Not pretty.

wupme (author)Culturedropout2009-05-05

I remember some of tha later versions of those cards on PCI could also control your VCR. But it only worked with those VCRs created for remote control (like you got 2 of them, and want to copy, the one controls the other) I always loved that idea, but also dropped it. I still wonder if there are USB MD Drives that can store data. Most MD Players with USB only can record music through a soundinterface in the Player itself :(

ReCreate (author)Culturedropout2009-05-03

Does Backer 32 Ring a bell,it sounds like exactly what you have! Go! Go find it and Take pictures and put it here! Really!

Calorie (author)Culturedropout2009-05-01

I had something like this in my old TI-94A. It used a standard audio tape recorder (like what you used before mp3 players, and before CDs, that thing.) It was hideously slow to import and export information. The cool thing is that we would copy programs by placing the tape recorders next to each other. Sort of old skool mix tape recording. Two tape drives were not around (well, not anywhere would I could afford as a kid.)

osgeld (author)Culturedropout2009-04-30

yea i got a gadget at one point at a junk store that plugged into your parallel port, it was painfully slow and held slightly less than 100 megs course that was using a non modified vcr, im sure we (the community) could do something about that but then again why?

static (author)2009-05-04

The first computers available to the public used audio cassettes for a storage medium. Audio/ video cassette, DAT, FDD/HDD the storage medium is basically the same, magnetism. Every minute or so I have a wireless computer network node that transmits a digital stream as analog tones, No doubt those still suffering with dial up rely on digital converted to analog, and back again. The software need has been available for quite some time now. To make such a project worthwhile the VCR deck should be modified to record the audio data on the helical video track, to get the maximum data storage capacity, if one was to hack a VCR for this purpose. At one time there were external computer drives that used VCR tapes, but the advent of recording optical drives obsoleted those tape drives in short order. Today with optical drives and flash memory devices, such a project, would be one for the computer/electronics hobbyist, as a challenge.

jimtran93 (author)2009-04-27

eww. why would u want to do that?

maestro8 (author)jimtran932009-05-01

Eww? Save that for when your parents make you eat brussles sprouts. You should "Yay" when you hear about a cool project... otherwise you shouldn't be reading this site! Why wouldn't anyone give that a try? Imagine how much one would learn in the process! There's the computer engineering aspects of implementing a file system and device drivers... the electronic engineering aspects of controlling the VCR and sending signals between the VCR and the computer... and you'll probably get some exposure to the mechanics of a VCR in the process. Another reason why: VCR technology has become so ubiquitous that the machines and tapes are available everywhere for incredibly cheap. Because of the popularity of DVDs, there are millions of VCRs that are no longer used. This project would breathe new life into these machines, tap into an otherwise unused resource, and if VCR data storage became popular, it might save many VCRs from being thrown into landfills.

ReCreate (author)maestro82009-05-03

allows users to store up to 4GB of information on one four-hour videotape.
Oooh...this has been done before,i bet a pile of tapes could be uses to store several gigs of space!
Maybe even a terabyte

ReCreate (author)ReCreate2009-05-03

full quote
A British firm has launched a storage device that enables home users to backup PCs with VCRs.

Backer 32, from Danmere, allows users to store up to 4GB of information on one four-hour videotape.

The company is marketing the Windows-based storage product to the home user who may find the low price point more attractive than larger and pricier peripheral storage options like Zip drives. Backer 32 retails for a suggested price of $69, compared to Iomega's 100MB Zip drive, which costs around $200. Traditional hard drives go for still more.

The product, designed for PCs using Windows 3.1 or higher, can perform the data transfer in the background while the user runs other programs.

Backer 32 uses either an internal 8-bit ISA PC expansion card to connect from a PC to a VCR (or camcorder), or an external interface between the PC's printer port and an external module. Both transfer data at speeds up to 9MB per minute.

Backer 32 is available directly from Danmere or through distributors.

ReCreate (author)2009-04-30

Yeah that would be neat

ReCreate (author)ReCreate2009-04-30

Hmm...maybe modifying a floppy drive?

notanemo (author)2009-04-30

the cable should be retractible, that way you cant see it in storage, and you could add a infra red light from an ipod-to-tape thing and you could plug it in the tape player as well as USB

hisb79 (author)2009-04-30


20 GOTO 10


Marrock (author)2009-04-30

The takeup reel is turning the wrong way. Nice build otherwise.

HarryM (author)2009-04-30

Great work, especialy the turning wheel is cool :-) But i think i won't build one, because one vhs pluged into another looks wierd ;-)

Pyrotechnic-Robot (author)2009-04-27

sweet computer I want one

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