Sony U-matic VTR BVU-800


U-matic is the name of a video tape format developed by Sony in 1969. It was among the first video formats to contain the videotape inside a cassette,


U-matic history

Designed in the late sixties/early seventies the U-matic format was the fore-runner to all home video formats. It is based on a revolutionary U-wrap tape lacing system which specifies a video drum diameter of 11cm giving a tape writing speed of 8.54 meters per second. Interestingly, unlike the Betamax format which was to follow, the spools of a U-matic video cassette rotate in the same direction.


U-matic format description

The U-matic format was intended for professional use and so advanced features enabling full editing functionality were designed into the system from the start. Because it uses a 3/4 inch wide tape the video cassette size is large and the running times are low when compared to the domestic formats. However it is precisely because of the larger dimensions of the tape and drum that the stability and robustness of the format are so high.

The format has developed during its lifetime. Sony has brought out several model ranges of machines over the years to take advantage of new developments in tape and video technology.

U-matic versions

Has three different versions (LB, HB and SP), which differ by the subcarrier frequencies used for luminance and chrominance recording. The original U-matic format is known as Lo-Band. U-Matic LB (Low Band) has been around from the early 70s and is one of the oldest cassette video formats. HB (High Band) has increased chroma subcarrier frequency, which improves colour resolution. In the SP variant, both chroma and luma subcarrier frequencies have been increased.

LB and HB U-Matic tapes are often used for archiving because of the relatively low tape costs and low recording density, which makes the tapes robust against aging.

U-matic tape

The videotape was 3/4″ wide, so the format is often known as ‘three-quarter-inch’ or simply ‘three-quarter’. U-matic was named after the shape of the tape path when it was threaded around the helical video head drum, which resembled the letter U. Betamax used this same type of “U-load” as well.

U-matic devices

In the early 1980’s, Sony introduced the semi backwards-compatible High-band or BVU (Broadcast Video U-matic) format, and the ‘original’ U-matic format became known as ‘Low-band’. This High-band format had an improved colour recording system and lower noise levels. BVU gained immense popularity in ENG (Electronic News Gathering) and location programme-making, spelling the end of 16mm film in everyday production. By the early 1990s, Sony’s 1/2″ Betacam SP format had all but replaced BVU outside of corporate and ‘budget’ programme making. Sony made a final improvement to BVU by further improving the recording system and giving it the same ‘SP’ suffix as Betacam. First generation BVU-SP and Beta-SP recordings were hard to tell apart, but despite this the writing was on the wall for the U-matic family.

U-matic would also see use for the storage of digital audio data (as opposed to analog video) for the Sony PCM-1600 PCM adaptor, which used a special U-matic recorder as a transport. The PCM-1600 was the first system used for mastering audio compact discs in the early 1980s. The later PCM-1610 and 1630 units also used U-matic cassettes as a storage medium also.

U-matic format future

U-matic is no longer used as a mainstream production format, yet it has such a lasting appeal as a cheap, well specified, and hard-wearing format that almost every television facility the world-over still has a U-matic recorder.

Today, with the exception of a few African broadcasters, the SP variant is all but dead. The Low and Hi Band versions live on though. Hi Band is still used in studios as a companion to Betacam and Lo Band is firmly established amongst advertisemnet agencies and corporate establishments as the industry standard presentation format because of its reliability when compared to domestic alternatives.

37 years after it was developed, the format is still in daily use for the menial tasks of the industry, being more highly specialized and suited to the needs of production staff than the domestic VHS.


Enlarge A U-matic tape