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Digital Audio Tape: The one DAT got away

Digital audiotape D.A.T. or DAT as it’s more commonly referred to was brought to the market by Sony in 1987 with the intention of replacing Phillips aging compact cassettes which have been available for almost 25 years at that point however despite Sony and their partners releasing a whole range of DAT enabled devices over the years the format never took off in the home. It did have some success though in the recording industry. In this video i’ll try to explain why and i also find out for myself whether or not it’s worth picking up an old DAT machine to add into my existing hifi.

The reasoning behind the introduction of DAT makes perfect sense and it’s very simple. In the early 1980s is the compact disc was launched in Japan and by the mid-eighties it was already a massive success so effectively they had replaced the ageing vinyl format with a new digital equivalent… time to replace the old compact cassette as well. In the mid-1980s sony were better placed than most to be able to realize this idea because they’d been selling a range of home digital processors since introducing the PCM-F1 at the CES show in 1982 these home processors once connected up with a home video recorder enabled the recording enthusiastic to record digitally onto video cassette tape and whilst they had been intended for home studios that also found their way into quite a few professional recording studios.

Anyway there had been a number of people that came up with the idea of combining the cassette recorder and the processor into one device. In fact it goes all the way back to 1981. Technics had the SVP 100 on the market which is a digital recorder which recorded onto full-size VHS tape however while that might be okay in a studio it’s not really a convenient and compact format for digital audio for the general public.

So after considerable development Sony started previewing their new compact digital audio tape format, and at the 1986 CES show Onkyo which is one of sony’s DAT partners showed off their prototype DAT recorder and it sent shock waves throughout the recording industry, because for the first time you could make a perfect quality copy of an original compact disc with no degradation at all, because you were recording the digital signal. This idea terrified the recording industry. They were reminded of how they felt they’d dropped the ball with compact cassette. When that system was first announced in the early 1960s it was just this mr. some dictation system but by the mid 1980s due to technological advances like Dolby B and C and things it was now capable of making really good quality recordings of compact discs, vinyl records and the radio.

The Recording Industry felt that was lost revenue, as they could have sold that person recording if they hadn’t been able to make their own and they tried to encourage people not to do this, but obviously that’s not going to have much effect. So this time rather than try and lock the stable door after the horse has bolted they were going to just kill the horse. Just to show you how big a deal this was at the time I’ve got a couple of open letters here that were published in billboard magazine. These are written by Stanley Gortikov the president of the recording industry association of america and for want of a better term, he’s absolutely bloody fuming about DAT.

I don’t think that they’d publish anything like this nowadays, it’s a certain little bit jingoistic in places. Let’s have a look at it in a bit more detail. Some pretty fire-and-brimstone biblical type language in here, so i’ll try to do it justice. “An assassination is in the making, the targeted victim is the world music industry the assailants are Japan’s equipment makers, the chosen weapon is DAT, Digital audio tape. You in Japan invent marvelous machines, but you damn those who fuel them. In dat you’ve built a system for rapturous sounds but you imperil the creators of those sounds.” …you get the idea. He then goes on to say “your country overtly demonstrates that is has contempt for the copyright owners of foreign recordings” and the reason he is saying this is because you could rent CDs in Japan.

I don’t think he’d like the idea of streaming music…. and with DAT waiting in the wings ready to invade our borders we have no choice but to be suspicious and apprehensive. Definitely looking forward to the future then. Anyway obviously the DAT manufacturers and the recording industry association of america couldn’t get together and hit an impasse, so the RIAA then took it to Congress with the intention of introducing requirements upon DAT manufacturers to install a chip in their devices which was supposed to be listing out for a special signal which would also be introduced into the original recordings, on CDs for example, if it heard that signal it would refuse to copy them.

The problem was that the signal that they wanted to put on the CDs was clearly audible to people in listening tests and ruined the original recordings. Because it’s clear that system was going nowhere and all this time the proper launch of DAT is getting stalled, the manufacturers decide enough is enough and develop their own system and came up with SCMS. Now that was enough to get Congress off their backs and allow the product to get to market. SCMS works by allowing you to make one digital copy of a digital source. So if you’ve got a compact disc you can copy it onto a DAT tape and make a perfect copy. However you cannot then make another digital copy of that first digital copy. It was a weak system in a way and you can of course still make all the analog recordings you want. However it’s enough to finally allow the DAT product to get to market in the u.s. albeit it is now 1990, three years after the original intended launch of the format.

So everything’s ready to go and then a number of music publishers decided to get together a file an injunction against Sony selling these recorders in the u.s. because even though Congress were happy with the serial copy management system music publishers aren’t. They’re concerned that they’re losing revenue from royalties. This dispute was resolved and wrapped up within the audio home recording act of 1992, but this long drawn-out process had a very cooling effect on the launch of DAT in the u.s.

The RIAA were clearly never going to be fond of the format neither were the music publishers, they never released their catalogue on DAT there’s very little pre-recorded music ever released on DAT. Because they never got the volumes of the players out in the market, the prices of the recorders never came down and it was never a success within the home market. It did however find a niche within the recording industry, professional recording DAT machines were reasonably successful, of course there’s only a certain number of recording studios around the world, so you never going to sell a massive lot of them.

It seems somewhat ironic that the very same industry that was trying to ban DAT were quite happy to use it themselves and they quite often mix down recordings onto DAT before they sent it off to a CD mastering house. However when the recording studios moved away from digital audio tape onto a hard drive or solid-state recorders the days of DAT were numbered and Sony produce their last DAT recorder at the end of 2005 which is when they discontinued the product. So that effectively is the story of DAT, at least the best that I can tell it anyway. So let’s now move on, change gears a little bit and have a look at some DAT recorders. The model I’ve got here is a home recorder from 1994, the Sony DTC 60 ES.

Looking back at the reviews from the period it got a high recommendation from stereo Review magazine where they said it was easily the best audio recorder they’d ever tested. At that point it cost $1200 USD. Now mine is a European model picked up from ebay for £220. I picked this model because I thought it looked nice and neat and liked the color, that kind of thing, but apparently it’s quite a decent model as well. It has got super bit mapping which is something they introduced I think with this model where it was supposed to get more quality than 16 bits would normally allowing, and apparently it does work, so just leave the button switched on. Of course it comes with a remote control. Lot of controls hidden behind this flap on the front, the things you don’t tend to use an awful lot, some duplicated on the remote control but also you can add in chapters and things like that. This model had a simplified eject mechanism which is apparently quite a bit quicker to load than some of the earlier models and allows you to see the tape running through the window on the front there.

It’s got the standard choice of three different record modes. Longplay is 32 kilohertz and of course let you get more out of a tape is the same as a CD allowing you to get perfect copies and 40 kilohertz is the DAT standard. At the back we’ve got analog in an out and of course we got the dreaded digital in and out, both optical and coax. Inside you can see is nice and clean, the layout typical of mid nineties high-end Sony electronics.

You’ll notice a battery on the circuit board there and that’s because DAT machines tend to have a real time clock in, and that would apply the time and date alongside any recording. That’s the analog-to-digital converter chip. The thing that’s probably most likely to go wrong with an old dat machine is to do with the loading mechanism and record head. Just like a video tape recorder a DAT machine uses helical scan, i.e. a rotating record and play head. Now the reason they do this is to store the maximum amount of data on the shortest amount of tape.

Originally videotape recorders used linear scan which meant basically you had to have a big old tape and run it at great speed just to get enough data onto the tape as it would run a lot of tape past that record head. Well they figured out that if they had a rotating head you could get a lot more data onto the same amount of tape by writing it at an angle to the tape and that’s exactly what a helical scan head does.

Using this technique means you can run the tape a lot slower and therefore use less tape so it makes a smaller cassette. As you can see the size of the DAT is quite small and also notice it runs very slowly. We’ll just take this opportunity to have a look at the design of a DAT compared to a Phillips compact cassette. Now the cassette has a side A and a side B whereas a DAT just runs from the beginning to the end. You’ll also notice the case is quite a little bit smaller than the compact cassette which led to hopes that they’d be smaller personal stereos coming as a result but it didn’t come to pass.

More on that later. The case itself and the overall design was quite a little bit to videotape especially camcorder tapes. You noticed you have to move these little notches to open it up, that then opens up the sprockets, pulls the tape away from the inside and then of course that tape was also pulled out of the front of the cartridge and wrapped around their head in the machine. I mentioned earlier that no major labels release their catalogs on DAT but there were some releases from smaller labels. I mean really just a few releases, a handful. I managed to find a couple of tapes on ebay, all the years I’ve been looking I’ve only found about three or four in total.

I picked these two up, hoping they’d have decent quality recordings but was a little bit concerned that it was Little Richard as obviously they wouldn’t be high-quality recordings back from the fifties. It turns out these were even later, I think they’re 1960s live recording so definitely not reference quality. If you look at the right there you can see the other titles that were released by this same company.

It is a German label and I don’t think these are official releases or if they are, they’re very poor but they’re definitely not supposed to sound like this. Maybe that’s a good demonstration of what can go wrong with digital, if things aren’t quite perfect they can go completely off the rails. Anyway a few goes with this cleaning tape and things started to sound a lot better. I’m not going to play you anymore of that. Two obvious reasons. Number one, I can’t its copyright and number two well a CD recorded to DAT sounds as good as a CD, and you know what a CD sounds like.

If I had a 48 kilohertz pre-recorded DAT it would sound a little bit better than the CD, neither of which could be demonstrated on youtube. A couple of months ago I uploaded a video about a master tape which I picked up off eBay which contained a number of audio recordings of british television commercials from the 1960s. Now whilst i was searching for master tapes I also managed to find this. I picked up this lot for about £15 pounds and it’s the original master tapes of a number of Star Trek audiobooks. These would have then being sent of presumably to duplication houses to run off the cassettes from, but these are the original production masters. So I’ll play you a little snippet back on my next machine which is a DAT field recorder I suppose you’d call it. This is the kind of thing that perhaps a reporter would carry around and plug a microphone into and interview people it doesn’t have any kind of digital in or out on this device but it’s very nice that recorder. There’s quite a range of these type of things.

If you were thinking of getting a DAT recorder just to mess about with this might be the area in which you want to look because these things are quite a lot more reliable and bulletproof than some of the home recorders and especially the walkman type devices. “Simon & Schuster audio works present Star Trek the lost years written and adapted for audio by J M Dillon. This program is performed by James Doohan with Leonard Nimoy as the voice of Spock….. A single steel colored cloud advances and begins to spew rain in huge drops.” “Both signs that he would be dead before sunrise.” It’s funny to think about all the people over the years that have listened to those audiobooks and they’ve all originated from this little tiny cassette that I’ve got here in my hand. Now briefly on to the subject of DAT Walkman.

These cam out later than the home dat recorders of the eighties, these tend to be nineties devices. There are a few different models. The ones i’ve got here are both recorders and players. There was a playback-only model and it was quite a little bit smaller. These ones are trying to do everything I think the idea is that you’re going to be a reporter out and about and you want to use these as a recorder in the field.

This one takes four batteries, and is the earlier one of the two i’m going to show you and it’s quite a little bit larger than the other one. Now when I bought this it was working, which was a bit of a rarity for DAT walkman as most of them tend to be broken. But I got it out of the drawer and this one’s not working anymore either.

These things are just incredibly delicate. The one on the right is a later model where they managed to squeeze down the size even more. They ran that one off two batteries as well which is two less than the other one. It’s a neater machine but again festooned with buttons all over because they wanted it to be an all-in-one recorder and playing device. So really a lot is going on here and I think they’re just asking too much of their engineers trying to squeeze this amount of stuff into something this small. Now you can record digitally on both of these you need the special lead which is incredibly difficult to get hold of the lead at the other end has an optical in and out so you can get an optical signal in and out of your DAT walkman. That is if you that walkman is working which unfortunately in my case this new one doesn’t seem to work.

In fact it sounds like a cat dying inside it when you try and operate it I don’t know what’s going on but it’s definitely beyond anything I could repair. The problem is that you’ve got a spinning head in here just the same as you have in the home devices and that makes the whole thing is incredibly delicate and then you got a loading mechanism which is trying to pull the tape around that spinning head and it’s just asking too much of something this small. The intention was that you’d be able to bring out smaller walkman than you could with the compact cassette because the tape is smaller but that’s not accounting for all the extra mechanical stuff that has to go on inside the machine which unfortunately seems to be incredibly fragile.

Right let’s go back to Mr. Angry for a moment because what I’m going to do now is the thing that he was most afraid of happening in the late 1980s, although i’m doing it with more recent technology, a DVD player and a 1990s DAT machine but it’s the same idea. I’m connecting the coax output from the DVD into the coax input of the DAT recorder and I’m therefore able to make a perfect digital recording off a compact disc.

So we’re pretending this is 1986. A CD player cost quite a considerable amount of money in 86 still but I’ve got one of those, I’ve also got some blank DAT tapes which again weren’t cheap and also of course I’ve got a DAT recorder which again was very expensive. The prices i’ve got from a magazine the equivalent price in the US in 86 I think it keywords was thirteen dollars for a tape and thirteen hundred dollars for a recorder. but I’ve got all this stuff set up so now i’m going to copy some of my CDs for my friend. I’ve already put my CD in the CD player, I then need to turn the DAT machine into its kHz recording mode and then I need to start the DAT machine off recording and finally press play on the CD player…. and then I’ve got to wait. Because of course this is a real-time operation it’s not like ripping a CD I have to dub the CD in real-time across to the DAT so perhaps forty six and a half minutes later I can come back maybe swap over the CD, record that one to tape then come back and swap it over again.

Maybe over the course of an evening I could transfer three albums onto one tape. Then I could give that to my friend who also has to have one of these expensive DAT players to play that tape back. As you can see this is not a high-volume piracy operation. I can understand why they were fearful of it in a way but it’s kind of comical a little bit sweet when you think about it. Because just 15 years later we’d got MP3’s and there was Napster around and file sharing and things. People all around the world could share all their music with everyone else, and this whole idea of having to actually physically past music to somebody was something from the past.

For me though it’s all a little bit of a lost opportunity. Just think if the Recording Industry hadn’t thrown it’s toys out of the pram they could have been releasing recordings at 48 kilohertz on digital audio tape in the late 1980s which would have sounded better than compact disc. But that’s all history now, what am I doing with DAT now here today. Well I’m not so sure whether or not it deserves a place in my HiFi but if if it does, it will have more ventilation space than this so please don’t write in.

I just shoved in here at the moment to try it. I have noticed you can skip tracks pretty quickly on it because the tape moves so slowly when it’s playing it doesn’t actually put the tracks that far apart, so you can jump around it pretty quickly. It’s neat that way but obviously not as quick as a CD. If you look through the retro hifi enthusiast forums and websites you’ll find very little love for DAT, it seems to be a technology that people are in a way glad to see the back of. After all you’re just dealing with a file that’s digital which could just as easily be stored on a hard drive and it wouldn’t sound any different.

There’s no kind of romanticism surrounding DAT as there is with vinyl and compact cassette. If you are thinking of adding a recording device into a HiFi, there are a couple of things that might make DAT quite attractive. The machines themselves are quite often cheaper than an equivalent high-end cassette deck model from the same era. In my case by DAT machine cost about a third the price by compact cassette machine did but they probably cost about the same when new. It’s also easier and cheaper to find blank DAT tapes that is now to find blank metal compact cassette tapes and if you are having trouble you can always use the data backup DATs. The DDS ones under 90 meters work just as well as the audio tapes. Now of course in this day and age of streaming there are very few people will want to record anything. It just so happened a couple weeks ago I did. There was a two-hour program on the radio I wanted to record while I was out and I could’ve just put a two hour DAT tape in and used that.

Of course I’ve got plenty of alternative ways to record due to the fact I have all these old formats, but then I got me thinking. That there are many people now who can’t record off the radio, if they wanted to. If you buy a HiFi nowadays it’s pretty much a consumption device you can stream to it maybe play CDs, the radio, vinyl records but you definitely can’t record anything as they don’t come with a recording device installed. No cassette, minidisc, DCC, or DAT. In effect the Recording Industry got what they wanted. “Home taping was killing music” so you can’t record at home anymore. But it’s a classic case of winning the battle but losing the war because most people today can play any tune they could think of with the tap of a screen without having to pay anything…

Or hardly anything. If DAT had been allowed to make it to market as intended in 1987 and in turn been supported by all the major recording studios releasing their albums in high quality 48 kilohertz audio you’ve got to wonder what would have happened to minidisc. You see when it was clear that DAT was a consumer electronics failure in the late 1980s Sonly moved all their resources over into their next format which was to come out in the 1990s nineties which was minidisc. and that’ll be the subject of a future video. One thing to say though, ,Sony did learn a lot from the experience. Never again would they allow themselves to be held hostage by the recording studios next time. When minidisc came out they make sure that they did have pre-recorded music to release on the new format, and they did that by buying a U.S.

recording studio Columbia Records…. who just so happened to be one of the major opponents to the introduction of Digital Audio Tape. Coincidence? Probably not. Anyway that’s a story for another time and I hope you enjoyed this look at digital audio tape, but that’s it for the moment and as always thanks for watching. .

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