Interview with Jean Herben (ISET)

Olnes, December 17, 2009


After studying electronics at the Higher Education Institute of Technology of the College of Liège, Jean Herben worked as a technician for various audio and video equipment retailers, then as a technical manager in a after sales service company. Through love of his vocation, he became a teacher himself at the Institute of Technology, where he conducts a class on television and video. Throughout his career, he has acquired experience in particular in the fields of repairing mass-produced audio and video equipment such as video recorders, camcorders and televisions. In 1988, his preference for solving technical problems and maintaining equipment encouraged him to start writing a series of books, currently published by DUNOD, about the maintenance and repair of television sets, video recorders, camrecorders and CD players.

Emanuel Lorrain (PACKED vzw) met Jean Herben to learn from his experience and to understand what issues are important for managing the risks of breakdown and failure, with the type of equipment that can be defined as “general public” and often used by video artists.


PACKED: What is your educational background, and how did you get into video?

Jean Herben: My curriculum was relatively simple. In 1970, I graduated from the school where I teach today, the Institut Supérieur d'Enseignement Technologique of Liège. At that time, the degree was called “graduate in electronics”, and is equivalent to a bachelor’s degree today. I was lead to video purely by chance. When I was a student, there was only one branch entitled “electronics”. It was only at the end of my course that I applied for a job as a repairman because I wanted to start working straight away. Straight from being a student, I therefore worked for eight years for various private maintenance companies, mainly focussed on television sets as well as audio equipment such as recorders and amplifiers. I started my career at the same time as colour televisions were starting to appear.


PACKED: So being a repairman later brought you to teaching about television and video?

Jean Herben: Yes, throughout my years as a professional repairman, I always studied the failures that caused me problems by collecting documents and taking notes. Because I’ve always wanted to teach, I then applied for a job as a teacher at the ISET. I still hold this position, where I conduct a class on electronics and audio-video.


PACKED: At what point did you start working on video recorders?

Jean Herben: The first VHS1 and Betamax2 video players appeared on the market when I started to teach, and at that time I gave lectures on television. Repairers would not touch the first VCRs3, as the technology was new and the manufacturers provided maintenance and repair services themselves. It was a time when technical services were present absolutely everywhere. For example, Philips had a very large centre in Evere4 as well as a repair service in every major Belgian town with five or six technicians in each centre. VCRs were truly barbaric devices, the N1500 and the N17005 were not compatible and there was the Grundig SVR6 also.

So along with my lectures, I kept up to date with the technical evolutions of video. I got into video recorders after a request from a friend who wanted to set up a repair company. It was an opportunity to work on video recorders and, one thing leading to another, I found myself as one of the first to maintain video recorders outside of the firms that made them. At the time, I was also interested in camcorders as I had noticed a real gap to fill in terms of maintenance. Because I did this in parallel with my job as a teacher, little by little, I started to include this in my lectures at the Haute-École de Liège.




PACKED: So it was a desire to work on video recorders and camcorders that encouraged you to return to maintenance?

Jean Herben: Yes, because this company was not our livelihood, considering the fact that we were both teachers and that the technicians were former students. Moreover, I never invested any money in the company and I never earned anything from it. I was simply interested in the technical aspect. The aim was not to get rich or to “do business” but rather to offer a high-quality service. This also explains why this centre became one of the very first to work for Philips, for example. The company was called Telectro7, and became an authorised repair centre for Philips, Hitachi, Panasonic and most of all Sony. The decrease in the cost of equipment, amongst other things, has drastically affected repairing. I ended my official collaboration in 2000, in good terms, and the company halted its activities – which by the way were thriving – in August 2009.


PACKED: When did you start to write on the subject of repairing and maintaining audio-video equipment?

Jean Herben: I had always loved well-organised lecture notebooks when I was a student and I kept this habit when I started to structure my own lectures. Then the idea of making them into books formed quite naturally, but a first project with a publisher who had contacted me fell through. It was later, after being introduced to BCM8, which became my first publishing company, that the first book was brought out. BCM believed that there was readership for this type of work.




PACKED: What type of readership were you aiming at?

Jean Herben: Mainly students in electronics, audio-video and maintenance technicians.


PACKED: How many books did BCM finally publish?

Jean Herben: BCM published two books, one about CD players and one about video recorders. Problems with CD players had started to appear and as they were still expensive, maintenance was really worthwhile. As soon as the cost of CD players decreased, the book no longer sold well. On the other hand, the book about video recorders, first published in 1988, sold well for a work of its kind, a second edition was published the following year.

BMC then stopped publishing and it was Dunod that first of all published two volumes on television and the maintenance of television sets, and then brought out a new edition of the book about video recorders, and published the works that followed. It is quite ironic, as when I was searching for a first publisher for my book, I had sent extracts to Dunod, and they were not at all interested. They replied that they didn’t see what new information my book had to offer compared to other works, whereas no book about video recorders of this type existed at the time.



PACKED: How many books did you publish with Dunod?

Jean Herben: The first two books I wrote for Dunod were about television, then one about maintaining video recorders, a third about television sets, two on camcorders, a fourth then a fifth on television sets, one on video recorder breakdowns and one on CD/DVD players and recorders, the whole lot intersected with multiple new editions. The books about video recorders and camcorders were translated into Spanish and the one about video recorders into Russian also. I then directed a video distributed as a VHS cassette about video recorder maintenance, but I believe it was released a little too late. The idea had been around for a while, but organising it turned out to be complicated, and in the end I did everything myself in my studio.


PACKED: What were the contents of your lectures to begin with? Have they changed since?

Jean Herben: Yes, my lecture evolves also according to the evolution of technologies. To begin with for example, it included chapters about video formats such as VCR, Betamax and V20009, which at the time seemed to be full of promise. In the case of V2000, a whole series of problems appeared and made it unusable and regarding Betamax, it widely lost the war against VHS in Europe. As a consequence, Betamax and V2000 quickly disappeared from my lecture. For the time being, despite their gradual demise, VHS video recorders are still part of my lecture syllabus and my television lecture remains focussed on analog TV as most television sets still work in this manner. However, this lecture is more and more based on digital television, flat screens and MPEG-210.


The laboratory in the classroom of Jean Herben in Liège. Photo: Courtesy of Jean Herben.


PACKED: Do you think that technical knowledge of analog video is dying out?

Jean Herben: Video technicians and electronic engineers are certainly becoming a rare breed and this is why my students find work quite easily as they are some of the few to have this technical ability straight out of school. In the whole of Belgium, we are the only ones who train such technicians, and this year there are only three students on the video course. However, 2010-2011 will be a good year with more students in this sector.

In France, Thomson founded a school called the Réseau Ducretet11, and it trains maintenance technicians and salesmen. A German company ASWO12, which supplies spare parts also provides certain training courses. Manufacturers such as Sony, Philips, etc… used to offer training courses, but no longer hold classes as such. They lack the personnel to do this and I myself was a freelance instructor for Sony and Philips in Belgium. In 1993-1994, I received a request from Philips to organise training courses for their technicians and I gave three lectures in all on television, television sets and video recorders in Namur then in Liege. Sony asked me to give lectures as their instructor had left them and they needed someone to replace him. In this way I organised training sessions for two or three years along side my lectures. Today, there are specific lectures from time to time on Internet by videoconference, but these only refer to new technologies, not old equipment.

As I have said, until the late 1970s, each large town in Belgium had a centre with probably five or six technicians. Then these centres gradually died out and the last technicians left also, taking their knowledge with them.


PACKED: What are the failures that most frequently effect video recorders?

Jean Herben: The tape-loading belt13 can slip: this is a common failure with video recorders. There is the problem of video heads and their wearing out, which affects all video players without exception, as these get dirty as they read the tapes. Rubber belts becoming shapeless over time is also a recurrent problem. These are the only defects that appear to be common to all video players; otherwise, there are breakdowns that are linked to a particular model.


PACKED: Are there major differences between the different brands of VHS players?

Jean Herben: Yes, defects are not specific to a type of tape in the case of VHS, but rather to a model or brand. Each manufacturer and each model has its defects. To take an example, Philips marketed three mechanisms of their own design that were very complicated and had poor reliability. Some parts, such as the pinch roller14, had problems that required them to be purely and simply replaced. Another typical failure, that of the idler15, occurred during rewinding. The rubber of the pinch roller got dirty and caused a failure that was solved by cleaning it with a thinner solvent16. The tape tension roller could come unstuck or, in camcorders, the two roller guides that enclose the video drum could come loose, etc… None of these problems occur with professional equipment.


PACKED: Are some failures easy to recognise?

Jean Herben: Some are: yes, but this is above all linked to a certain experience of maintenance. For example, when a cassette slows down during rewinding, most of the time this means that the idler needs to be cleaned. In television sets, wavy motion on the screen often indicate that the capacitors17 are wearing out.


The laboratory in the classroom of Jean Herben in Liège. Photo: Courtesy of Jean Herben.


PACKED: In your opinion, which were the best VCRs?

Jean Herben: For me, JVC has always made the best VHS players, which would seem logical in that they invented this recording standard. Good video recorders produced entirely in Europe are rare. In return, Philips had an efficient maintenance service and consistently well-written documentation. But I have always had the feeling that their philosophy was one of “Why make it simple when you can make it complicated?

The decrease in price of equipment has lead to a loss of reliability. For example: plastic has replaced metal in all the cylinders that formerly allowed the tape to find its track properly.


PACKED: What are the rules to follow for storing equipment?

Jean Herben: For optical disc players, it is clear that all cigarette smoke must be avoided, as it is very harmful. The lens does not wear out, but the cigarette smoke deposits a layer of tar that resembles wear. Even if there are ways to distend the lens, this operation can be avoided.

Humidity is a problem for video players. In some cases, they only have to be exposed to humidity for so long before they stop working because there is a sensor near the video head that measures the level of humidity. On high-quality video players such as those of Panasonic or Sony for example, the drum was equipped with a heating system, and once humidity was back to an acceptable level, the video player would start working again. After a while, manufacturers deleted the sensor, as sometimes the video player would not work upon delivery to the customer, because the vehicle in which it had been transported was humid and this of course gave a bad impression.


PACKED: Should equipment be kept in the boxes that are supplied by the manufacturer?

Jean Herben: I would say that when they are not in use, this is a good way of storing them, as they are sheltered from dust. The boxes usually come with packets of silica gel18 that absorb humidity. What’s more, polystyrene when present will partially protect the equipment in case of impact.


The laboratory in the classroom of Jean Herben in Liège. Photo: Courtesy of Jean Herben.


PACKED: What other recommendations are important to prolong the life of a video recorder?

Jean Herben: Dubious belts must be replaced systematically. Use only high-quality cassettes, and avoid unknown brands. Personally I trust TDK and Sony for VHS. At one point, Agfa made cassettes that were good for colour and image quality, but these were very abrasive for the video heads. Cleaning the video heads is of course essential to keep a video recorder in working order for as long as possible, but this must not be done by a layman.


PACKED: How should the video heads be cleaned?

Jean Herben: I clean video heads using isopropanol19 and a rag that I handle with a finger. I operate in the same way for parts made of rubber. But I repeat: the tape quality is an essential factor and a poor-quality tape will damage a video player more quickly and make the video heads dirty.


PACKED: Can the head cleaning tapes that are sold on the mass-market be used?

Jean Herben: For a video recorder such as VHS, head cleaning tapes are banned, as accessing the video heads is simple. On the other hand, for smaller players and recorders such as those of HI820 or miniDV21 camcorders, a head cleaning cassette will be more efficient.


PACKED: Are spare parts always easy to find?

Jean Herben: For spare parts, ASWO is essential. Before, parts had to be available for ten years after the end of the production run and sale of a product. This time then fell to eight years, then seven. Manufacturing new equipment today costs less than paying for a maintenance technician. The first Philips colour televisions were on the market for three years. Today, each year, three new models arrive on the market. Changing the video heads of an appliance is now more expensive than buying a new video recorder. The problem is having a profit-making service.

Having said this, with brand name products, finding spare parts is not really a problem. Panasonic, at one point, even supplied kits with several parts, such as the belts and certain cogs. I think Sony must still have a stock of parts for Betamax players. The appliances of brands such as Multitech, Protech, etc.., have a reject rate of 20%, which means that out of 50 appliances sold, 10 will be faulty. They will then have 10 appliances from which they can salvage spare parts, and when parts are no longer available, then the appliances can no longer be repaired.


PACKED: Should electronic components be stockpiled?

Jean Herben: Yes and no. Personally, I have already discarded stocks of capacitors, because in the long term they age even if they are not used. For example, all appliances use capacitors that are known as 105°C22. This type of capacitor does not age well, and nine times out of ten is responsible for a defect. The advantage of having stock is that the parts are available immediately, but they will also wear out while they are stored.


PACKED: You have a lot of experience with television sets, what precautions must be taken to keep them in working order for as long as possible?

Jean Herben: For televisions and monitors, I think that the most important thing is to never switch them off, but rather leave them on standby23. In this manner, there will be fewer failures as the monitor stays at a constant temperature. The ecological argument is untenable, firstly because this uses very little energy and secondly because from an ecological point of view, it is better having a television set on standby rather than having it depreciated because it is broken.

Then there is the risk that the picture on a cathode ray tube screen becomes inlayed if it displays a fixed image. This is the phenomenon of imprinting on the phosphor target by the beam from the electron gun. This is especially true for black and white screens, and this is often noticeable on security monitors because of the static scenes they display. As a remedy for this, certain monitors move the image imperceptibly to avoid this burn-in on the screen.

Strong contrast wears out a cathode ray tube screen more than anything else. If contrast is turned up too high, the CRT will wear out prematurely, as the white parts of the image are those receiving the most electrons. An appropriate setting of contrast is the first thing to do for a monitor.


PACKED: What can be done if the cathode ray tube is already damaged or worn?

Jean Herben: Considering that the three electron guns of a cathode ray tube are heated to 1,000° C by the filament24, this filament can sometimes break, however this remains relatively rare. Another possible problem is the ageing of the tube linked to the heat generated by the electron guns that causes metal particles to peel off. These particles are then attracted by the deflection coil25 and block up the electrode grilles. As a consequence, fewer electrons can get to the luminophores26. One solution is a cathode ray tube regenerator, the principle of which is to send a current into the electron gun to pulverize all these small particles. I have been able to regenerate dozens of cathode ray tubes in this way but there always comes a time when the cathode ray tube is just too worn.


The laboratory in the classroom of Jean Herben in Liège. Photo: Courtesy of Jean Herben.


PACKED: How did Telectro manage its documentation?

Jean Herben: At Telectro, documentation was absolutely essential because of the large number of repairs that had to be done. The company subscribed to very expensive documentation services. When Telectro closed down, I recovered most of the manuals. There was also a whole series of addenda27 on the modifications that the manufacturer made to the equipment during production. Indexing all these documents was a really tedious task, but it sometimes proved to be essential. When the filing had not been done correctly, it could take a technician twice as long to repair an appliance. Today, young technicians use digital diagrams in the shape of computer files. I continue to prefer paper but this is gradually being replaced by electronic versions. It is a question of generation. At the time, manuals were even recorded on microfilm.

I have always found that Philips documentation is better written than that of other manufacturers. However, I have already encountered failures happening due to a component being left out of a document. It had been added to a hundred or so appliances because it enabled the elimination of a local problem. Either the document did indeed contain an error, or the addendum had not been correctly indexed through lack of time.


PACKED: Do you think that a technician sharing his time between several museums is a valid solution?

Jean Herben: If the collections do not have a specialised technician available internally, then yes it is a good solution, as he will get to know the different appliances in each collection well. I would say that ideally, two technicians would be necessary. Perfect knowledge of an appliance does not imply complete insurance against mistakes, and having a colleague to give a fresh view of a defect can be very helpful when searching for solutions to a complex problem. It was in this manner that many problems were solved in the different repair services for which I worked.


PACKED: Finally, do you keep any equipment yourself?

Jean Herben: Yes, I have several appliances in the laboratory at the ISET. In 1994, we recovered the equipment from the RTBF28 studios in Liège. It is broadcasting equipment, as well as several kilos of 1” tape29 and Betacam30 cassettes, some of which had been used to record RTBF programmes. I also keep at home a certain number of appliances that I have bought throughout my career.





  • 1. VHS designates a recording standard of video signal onto ½ inch tape developed by JVC in the late 1970s. Its mass distribution was launched in 1976. During the 1980s and 1990s, VHS became the standard format of general public video ahead of its competitors: Sony Betamax and Philips V2000.
  • 2. Betamax is a type of videocassette with a ½ inch tape. The format was created by Sony in 1975 and was intended for the domestic recording of television.
  • 3. VCR (or Video Cassette Recording) is a format for recording video to ½ inch magnetic tape, developed by Philips in 1972. A long-playing version (VCR LP) appeared in 1976.
  • 4. Evere is a bilingual Belgian town situated in the Region of Bruxelles-Capitale.
  • 5. The first VCR video recorder sold by Philips was the N1500. It was followed by the N1502 and the N1512. The last VCR appliance sold by Philips, which introduced VCR-LP (Long Play) was the N1700. The names of the models are sometimes used to refer to the formats.
  • 6. SVR (Super Video) was a version of VCR produced by Grundig that allowed up to 5 hours of recording by means of an even higher tape speed than VCR LP and was incompatible with both VCR and VCR LP.
  • 7. TELECTRO was an authorised repair centre (by Sony, Panasonic, Hitachi and Philips) situated in Liège, which carried out maintenance and repair of mass-produced audio and video appliances from 1989 until its closure in 2009.
  • 8. BCM was a publishing company based in Liège.
  • 9. Video 2000 (V2000, Video Compact Cassette, or VCC) is a ½ inch magnetic tape videocassette format produced by Philips and Grundig, designed for the domestic recording of television. It was used from 1979 to 1988 almost exclusively in Europe and competed with VHS and Betamax.
  • 10. MPEG-2 is the second-generation standard (1994) from the Moving Pictures Experts Group, following on from MPEG-1. MPEG-2 defines the aspects of video compression through networks for digital television. This video format is used for DVD and SVCD with different resolutions and for satellite digital TV, cable TV, telecom network or terrestrial TV.
  • 11. The Le Réseau Ducretet, or Ducretet Network now includes 8 institutes in France and was founded in 1992 by representatives of industry and distribution. It gives training in sales techniques and after sales service in the sectors of audiovisual aids, information technology, telephony and domestic electrical appliances.
  • 12. Created in Germany in 1974, the ASWO Company is a European supplier specialising in spare parts, accessories and equipment for audio and video, computers, and is dedicated to professionals only.
  • 13. This is the belt that allows the cassette to be loaded when it is inserted into the video player.
  • 14. The pinch roller is a cylindrical component made of rubber that applies pressure to the tape to ensure that it grips the capstan, which will run the tape at the correct speed.
  • 15. The idler is a notched wheel found in a video player which, depending on if it is positioned to the left or to the right, moves one of the two plates that operate the reels of the cassette.
  • 16. Thinner solvent designates a solvent powerful enough to be used for example to dissolve paint.
  • 17. A capacitor is an electronic component that acts like a battery capable of storing electric charge. It consists of two conductive plates separated by a thin amount of insulating material (dielectric). It is characterized by its capacitance in Farads (F). There are several types of capacitor (polarized, non polarized, electrolytic etc…)
  • 18. A sachet of Silica gel is a humidity absorber used to prolong preservation and protect against oxidisation, corrosion, mould and any other deterioration due to humidity.
  • 19. Isopropanol, Isopropyl alcohol or IPA is a good cleaning fluid widely used on electronic components such as the tape heads of audio and video players.
  • 20. Hi8 is an analog video recording standard for mass-produced Sony camrecorders, for which 27 manufacturer acquired a licence. It is an evolution of Video8 (8mm).
  • 21. MiniDV refers to small cassettes (size S) onto which digital video (DV) is recorded. DV cassettes come in two sizes: DV cassettes (size L) and MiniDV cassettes (size S).
  • 22. 105°C are the most common type of capacitor along with 85°C capacitors. This refers to the maximum temperature that the capacitor is able to withstand.
  • 23. Standby mode, sleep mode, etc… refer to a mode of use of electronic appliances such as computers, television sets, and other remotely controlled devices, that consumes very little power.
  • 24. The filament is one of the components of an electron gun in a cathode ray tube. It is heated to a very high temperature by an electrical current.
  • 25. In a cathode ray tube, the deflection coils are used to make the beam of electrons converge by creating a magnetic field.
  • 26. A luminophore is a particle of matter, which emits light when bombarded with electrons. The very sensitive surface of a cathode ray tube screen is made up of such particles. A luminophore is also known as a sub-pixel, and there are three per pixel: red, green and blue.
  • 27. An addendum is an addition made to a document after its publication or edition.
  • 28. Formerly RTB (Radio Television Belgium), then Radio Television of the French speaking Community, the RTBF is an autonomous public company of cultural nature in charge of the French speaking Community of Belgium (Wallonia and Brussels).
  • 29. 1-inch Type C is an open-reel professional videotape format co-developed and introduced by Ampex and Sony in 1976. It became the replacement for the then-dominant Quadruplex (2 inch Quad for short) open-reel format, due to the smaller size and slightly higher video quality.
  • 30. Betacam is a professional videotape format developed by Sony from 1982 and launched in 1983. Like with VHS, the cassettes, with a ½ inch tape, come in two sizes: S and L, which are of two different colours. It was the first professional analog format that allowed separate recording of luminance and chrominance signals.
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