Setting up Your Analog TV & VCR for Recording Over-the-Air Digital TV

If you already have a nice digital HD Television set and digital TV recorder (DVR -- like Tivo or such) then this page is not  for you.  Likewise if you have an expensive cable TV plan with "on-demand" digital shows.  Have a good chuckle at the cavemen, and move on.

If, however, you insist on using your perfectly fine analog TV and want to continue to record programs on your VCR, that's what this page is about.  It describes a specific setup that allows you to use your TV and VCR 'almost' as you did previously for over-the-air digital broadcasts, and recordings. This information probably only applies to users in the U.S.A.

You've noticed it costs at least $800 to get a  smaller sized LCD or Plasma HD TV that doesn't look horribly blurry and pixelated (even though they pretend it's 'fabulous'.) And a new digital TV recording device with a good hard drive will go for another $250 to $450 (and hopefully you can avoid an additional monthly subscription service).  This combo is fine if you don't mind the expense -- and the more you spend, the better it gets. But why should the government make you spend this kind of money just to continue watching TV the way you have been?

Many public service sites will tell you how to set up an analog-to-digital 'DTV converter box' for your TV, and how to hook up your VCR, as well -- PBS runs a very nice 30-minute program explaining all this very well. What they do not  tell you is what you will discover once you finally get your converter and set it up!  You are stuck with a crippled system with two serious defects:

That's because

If that makes you really unhappy, the following setup (hopefully) solves these two problems by:

I spent a total of $26 to create this setup, using the two $40 DTV coupons from the U.S. government, at DTV2009.gov.  In theory, you can do it for less... or more.  And yeah, I now have 4 remotes!

The key to solving problem 2. is the purchase of the Dish Network TR-40 CRA converter for use on the VCR. This box (which in no way involves any contract or 'dish' from Dish Network) is the only one I'm aware of that allows you to set up a number of timers to have the box change channels at specified times. Unfortunately it has only 5 timers, which is not really enough, and they can occasionally be a little 'flaky'.  (It's clock also loses time when turned off, which is a pain.)  Amazon no longer has it, so I went to Solid Signal, which makes it very easy to buy the TR-40 for $45.99 and apply your coupon for a total price of $5.99!  However, it cost about $10 for shipping. Here is the link to their TR-40 page 

NOTE: I suspect that these TR-40 products are out of production, so you may have to hurry or look around to find one. You can also find them on E-Bay. The "upgrade version" with much the same features is called DTVPal Plus (also by Dish Network).  It sells for around $60 and is eligible for the $40 coupon -- and it has the "VCR Timers" feature you need for this setup. It is easier to find, for example at Amazon, Solid Signal, SatelliteOne, and at Digital StarAND:  While I do like my converters quite a bit, I  do not  claim they are the 'best' (or most reliable or user-friendly) converters you can buy; they just have the feature I need for VCR programming.  

Update:  Another converter box which also supports "VCR Timers" is the Zinwell ZAT-950A (and maybe the 970A). It also seems to have 'availability problems', but you can try getting one through Solid Signal or FreeDTVshop.com.   It should cost about $20 after using your $40 government coupon.

So why is no one making serious DTV converter boxes that provide channel-changing timers better than this?  Answer: Because the powers that be want you to buy expensive new digital TVs and DVR's.  Here's a recent on-line review of converter boxes; there are just 6, including the TR-40, but it doesn't mention the Zinwell.

Like many of you out there, I already had a reasonable converter box for my TV.  I have the Zenith DTT901, which is fine; I paid $10 for it at Circuit City with my first government coupon. I think you actually avoid personal and electronic confusion by having two different brands of converters which will not respond to the same remote! Both of these models have the 'analog pass-through' feature which is convenient for being able to watch 'straight-analog' in the few months while it is still being broadcast.

Now, if you are not concerned about 'programmed recording' of multiple TV shows while you are absent (or asleep) -- or if you cannot find a converter box with "Channel Timers" -- you can use any other DTV Converter box for your VCR. Then just make sure that this converter box has been turned ON and set to the correct channel before your next VCR recording is to take place.

In addition, this setup requires 3 (or 4) 'RF Video connect cables' and two sets of '3-color' RCA A/V cables. You probably already have an RF Video cable connecting your TV to your VCR. One typically comes with all TVs, VCRs, and all DTV converter boxes, so you should be in good shape. My Zenith DTV converter box came with one set of 3 RCA Cables, but the TR-40 did not. I already had a set, but you can buy these for $3 to $7 at Fry's, etc. or on line. [You can also pay outrageous prices for "Gold" cables which the salesperson will tell you is absolutely necessary. It is not!]

Finally, you'll need a 2-way video splitter which you can also get in any electronics store for $3 to $4. Alternatively you could use two antennas, in case your signals are weak and the splitter makes it a little worse. But my very wobbly and bent old 'rabbit ears' antenna works  just fine!  You don't need to buy a special 'digital antenna'.  You should be able to complete this setup with no tools, but it's not a bad idea to have a pair of pliers handy, and you may want to screw the splitter to a surface for stability. 

Before getting started, make a record of all the programs you currently have programmed to record on your VCR. If you end up plugging and unplugging devices, it may result in the loss of this information.

Above is a description of necessary equipment. Below is brief description of the TR-40 'VCR Timers' and a crude "schematic" diagram of what gets connected where. Once you get that all done, you will need to perform the initial install steps for both converters. This involves scanning for available channels, setting the clock, time zone, etc. Then you'll want to make sure it all works.

"Channel Timers"

I am not going to attempt to describe the software or menuing systems on the TR-40 or other converter box. But the TR-40 has a number of features, including the all-important "Timers". They also have a pseudo 'TV-Guide' display, the info for which is all just pulled off of the digital broadcasts. But you can automatically set a timer for a specific show in the future by simply "Selecting" that show in this TV guide. [Selecting a current show just switches to its channel] It does have an indicator on the guide showing that you have a timer set for that show. I think you would still have to go into the Timers setup page in order to make that selection work for more than a single instance. Options include: Once, Mon-Fri, Daily, and Weekly. When a timer goes off, the box will switch to that channel. It will do this whether the converter is currently turned off or on; this is very convenient. If the box is on, it gives a two-minute warning on the screen, allowing you to change your mind; if it's off, it turns on. It will not then turn off when done, which can actually be useful, given the limited number of timers it has.

'AUX'

Because the RCA cables are used to bring in signals through the 'external inputs' -- not the 'Antenna In' (tuner) input -- both the TV and VCR will access their respective converter boxes by "tuning" to the 'AUXiliary' or 'External' channel (2 names for the same thing). This will vary by brand. My TV has a separate "Extern" button on the remote which switches back and forth from the External input and whatever other channel you may have selected. My VCR uses 'pseudo-channel' 0 for AUX, and in its programming menu, calls it "AUX". Consult your manuals if it is not obvious. When you are finished and are receiving only digital TV, your VCR will always stay set to its AUXiliary (AUX or Extern) channel; your TV will always be tuned to either the VCR (typically channel 3 or 4) or to its AUX or Extern channel.

Hook 'em All Up and See if it works:

Follow the diagram below to hook up all the elements. If your "entertainment center" is already a warren of wires and furniture, it may take some time to get everything arranged, so don't start just an hour before an important ball game.  You will need A/C power for 4 devices, so figure out ahead of time if you'll need an "octopus-adapter" or extension cord.

...OK! Think you've got it all hooked up right? Let's try it...
Turn on the TV and set it to the AUX or External channel, you should see a black screen. Turn on the converter for the TV. It should provide a display. The first time you do this, it will typically lead you into some Setup or Install Wizard; this may take a few minutes to finish. Now, turn on the VCR. Tune the TV to the VCR channel (3 or 4). You may get snow, or you may get passed-through analog TV. Tune the VCR to its 'AUX' channel. Turn on the converter for the VCR. It should provide a display, and again you should get a setup wizard on the first try. Now you can switch between watching your TV and monitoring your VCR or playing tapes by switching the TV between channel 3 and AUX.

Programming:

Tune the TV to the VCR channel (3 or 4). Turn on the VCR and its converter box. Go into the VCR's menu where you set up programmed recording of future programs. [If it's empty because you turned off the power for too long, consult the list you fortuitously made earlier.] Where ever the channel number is specified, change it to the AUX or External designation. All programs will come into the VCR on this one 'channel'!

Now, on the TR-40 converter box, press the Menu button... select 'Setup'... then select 'Timers' to get to the timer setup page. It will take a little practice to get used to their menu-ing. For example, you use the central "select" button to select a highlighted option, channel, or function button. Also note that if you select the "Cancel" function after selecting an existing timer, it may remove it instead of leaving it unchanged. Use the "Done" button instead. For each program that you have programmed on your VCR, 'Create' one new timer entry which specifies the specific channel you will want to record from, the day, time, length and frequency. It is not difficult to start a minute or two early or go a minute or two later, in case you are concerned about clocks being off. Now you should be able to turn both the VCR and the converter box off, and they will both come back on at the desired time and record the desired channel. Just to be sure, program a one-shot recording of a few minutes on both devices for the very near future. Then turn off the VCR and its converter box, and make sure they come on and record correctly.

Schematic Diagram of the Setup:
(You can right-click on this .gif file and save or view it for separate printing.)


Created by Randy R. Johnson. 12/2008