Classic audio equipment and corporate stupidity

If you were a music executive in the early 1990s, this was your worst nightmare:

The music industry at that time was not afraid of the Internet, or the PC, or Apple. They were afraid of machines like these, especially in pairs. These devices terrified the industry into a series of big mistakes. What is so scary about some old-school audio equipment?

A little background: Hi-fi digital recording was invented in the late 1970s, and the equipment had a six-figure price tag. You needed a broadcast-quality videotape machine and a big box called a PCM adapter. The first PCM adapters were used to master LP records which were advertised as “digital” even though they weren’t. Philips and Sony introduced the CD in the early 80s, and many people at first thought the design was expensive overkill. The CD preserved the full sound quality of the professional PCM adapter.

The music industry was a little nervous about the CD from the beginning, because one CD could be used to record an unlimited number of cassettes, and the “pirate” tapes often sounded better than prerecorded tapes. The industry got over their fears when CDs started making them a fortune. CDs were cheap to mass-produce, cheap to transport, didn’t break, and sold for more than records or tapes. Until the mid-1990s, even recording studios could not make a one-off CD.

The Japanese audio industry built CD changers and tape decks optimized for automatically making mix tapes. The fancy ones could even pause the tape while the CD changer cued up the next disc. The music industry grumbled that “Home taping is killing music!” and lobbied for a tax on blank cassettes.

Sony introduced a semi-affordable PCM adapter called the PCM-F1 that plugged into a Betamax VCR. It didn’t sound quite as good as a CD player and the tapes were not reliably interchangeable between VCRs, among other problems. The PCM-F1 was more popular with musicians than with audiophiles.

Then in 1987, Sony announced the Digital Audio Tape recorder, and the music industry instantly freaked out. The DAT recorder is a high-quality cassette deck, with the same audio specifications as a CD player. The cassette is smaller than a regular audio cassette, and holds up to two hours of music. The machine uses a camcorder-style mechanism with the tape wrapped around a spinning drum. Each tape holds over a gigabyte, which was a huge amount of data at the time.

Unlike the PCM-F1, DAT recorders do have digital I/O, and can make a digital copy of a CD that theoretically sounds identical to the original. With two machines, you could also make an exact copy of the copy. The music industry feared an epidemic of chain piracy that would kill the CD business. They filed lawsuits and lobbied Congress, using the analogy of Pearl Harbor: the evil Japanese electronics industry had launched a surprise attack to torpedo the poor helpless American music industry.

For several years, DAT recorders were hard to come by. There were classified ads in the back of audio magazines: “We Have DAT Recorders” followed by a phone number. The music industry was demanding a copy protection system, and here is where they made the mistake that led to MP3s and the iPod.

The compromise worked out in 1992 was called Serial Copy Management System (SCMS). The law divided DAT machines into consumer and professional machines. With consumer machines, you could make a digital copy of a CD, but you could not digitally copy the copy. You could always make an analog copy, and a first generation analog copy has very little degradation. Pro machines were not restricted. The law did not clearly specify what a machine had to have to be declared professional, and anyone who wanted to spend the money could buy a pro machine.

The computer industry objected to this deal. Computers could already record and play digital audio. A computer that could not copy files wasn’t much use. The music industry did not want to fight with the PC industry, so they agreed to a complete exemption for “computer hard drives.” At the time there was no affordable hard drive that could hold even a single CD. Fortunately for tech, lawyers don’t think in terms of exponential growth.

Were the industry’s fears reasonable? Not really. First of all, DAT machines started close to $1000 and went up from there. The tapes were almost as expensive as CDs. You needed two machines to copy tapes, and copying an hour’s worth of music took an hour. The tape has no title or artist catalog, so keeping track of a large collection is a lot of manual work. Just about the only people who used DAT as a copying medium were concert tapers, who were fanatics and would invest huge amounts of time and effort in getting rare recordings. It would be very hard to save any money by pirating CDs on DAT tapes.

By the late 1990s, the PC world had changed. Hard drives held over a gigabyte, 16-bit sound cards were common, and so were CD-ROM drives. The music industry had not made any effort to restrict CD-ROM drives, so most of them could rip audio CDs. Once the Fraunhofer MP3 codec and Winamp player came along, people started sharing music using FTP sites and badly formatted web pages. I learned about MP3 from an article about the music industry trying to shut down such sites.

At first, the PC was the only device that could play MP3s directly. Diamond Multimedia came out with the first portable flash-memory MP3 player, the Diamond Rio. It held less than an hour of music. The music industry sued Diamond, claiming this was an illegal device since it did not have SCMS – it would play a second-generation copy. The court decided that the Rio was not actually a recording device; it had no audio input, and it couldn’t copy anything by itself. The copying took place on a hard drive, and those were specifically exempt. Shortly thereafter, Apple introduced the iPod, and Napster came along.

The music industry did not understand exponential growth. They bought a law to restrict DAT recorders and thought the problem was solved, paying no attention to progress in PCs and hard drives. The music industry could probably have slowed things down by lobbying to make CD-ROM drives unable to rip audio CDs. However, computer-based digital music was going to happen regardless, and the industry should have planned for it.

As an example of music industry thinking, in 1999 Sony introduced a Minidisc recorder with a digital link to a satellite TV receiver, which would let you buy music from their proprietary music store. MP3s and the Internet were already around at the time, and Sony was still plugging cables between two proprietary boxes. Sony was especially bad in this regard; their technically excellent Minidisc equipment had restrictions even beyond what the law requires. I’m going to write an article about Minidisc soon.

What’s it like using a DAT recorder? They are somewhere between a tape deck and a CD player. Analog recording is much like a regular tape deck, except you have to watch the levels carefully. The machine will indicate OVER and will sound nasty on playback. The DAT format has precise time code, and you can set “start IDs” and seek to the next or previous ID. If you copy digitally from a CD, the start IDs get set automatically. I can plug my Zinwell media player into the DAT using a TOSLINK optical cable and record from FLAC files.

After recording, the machine can number the start IDs, giving you track numbers like a CD. You can even play tracks in programmed order, with much whirring and clicking between songs. During playback, the DAT transport is nearly silent. Audible fast forward and rewind produce a choppy series of snippets. Seeking to a start ID is very fast, and the machine stops abruptly and then backs up slightly before it starts playing.

Of the two machines above, the Sony on the bottom is a consumer machine and the Panasonic is a pro machine. The Sony has regular RCA jacks for analog I/O, and will record from a radio or phono amp. In addition to CD-quality mode, it has a four-hour mode that is roughly FM radio quality.

The Panasonic has only balanced XLR analog inputs and outputs, so I’d need an adapter to do analog recording from a consumer source. The headphone jack works fine as an analog output, and both machines will take digital SPDIF or TOSLINK input.

The Panasonic SV-4100 is a radio station machine, often used to play commercials, so it has a neat quick-start mode. It can cue up to a start ID or to a manually entered time, loading a few seconds of audio into a 1 MByte RAM buffer. You can turn the dial forward and back to audibly choose an exact spot within the RAM. When you press Play, the sound starts instantly, and the tape transport catches up and syncs with the memory buffer. It may be obsolete but it’s quite a piece of engineering.

If you buy a DAT recorder, expect to have to fix it, and assume any machine that you can’t test is broken. The mechanisms are complex and some are more reliable than others. The Sony DTC-60ES cost $40 on Craigslist, but I had to rebuild the transport with parts from a dead donor machine. The Panny was also $40 at a pawn shop, and it just required a careful cleaning. The manual says the head drum lasts 1000 hours, and mine has 600 hours on the meter. DAT recorders are fun to play with and still sound great. However, they don’t make the parts any more, so you cannot use it every day.

The DAT transports require calibration to be compatible with each other. The data is recorded as a series of diagonal stripes on the tape, and the angle has to be just right. You’re supposed to use a calibration tape. In my case I calibrated the Sony to match the Panasonic, and they will now play each others’ tapes. Calibration involves connecting an oscilloscope to the head switch output and adjusting a pair of tape guides to get a flat waveform. The service manuals are generally available online, and explain how to do this.

Portable DAT recorders, the size of a larger Walkman, do exist. They are expensive, delicate, and required periodic service which is no longer readily available. They were mostly used by movie and TV sound technicians to record dialogue. They sounded good, and ran at a very precise speed making it easy to sync sound with picture. The DAT recorder has been largely replaced by digital card recorders like those made by Tascam and Zoom. The card recorders provide the same sound quality with no mechanical complexity.

Here’s a bit of trivia that might win you a bet: DAT recorders are only stereo devices; they cannot play back 5.1 surround sound. Right? Well, there is a standard for recording a DTS bitstream on an audio CD. Queen and Pink Floyd did some impressive surround mixes. These CDs will produce static in a CD player without a decoder, because they have the DTS bitstream where the PCM sound belongs. If you make a digital copy of such a CD on a DAT machine, it will play back as static. However, if you plug the digital output from the DAT machine into a home theater receiver, you will get surround sound.

The DTS audio may drop out now and then (the Sony works better than the Panny here) because of the DAT error concealment. That is the final irony of the music industry’s crusade against DAT: it’s not really lossless! There is quite a bit of error concealment, and multiple generations of DAT clones will suffer generation loss. This is true of multi-generation CD clones too; audio CDs usually don’t rip the same twice. The DDS computer tape format, derived from DAT, adds a second layer of error correction, and so does CD-ROM.

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