The Digital Master
Casio's DA1 is the smallest and cheapest Digital Audio Tape recorder on the market, and an ideal addition to any home studio. Paul Ireson swoons in its presence.
I believe, totally and unashamedly, in love at first sight. Or lust at first sight, I can never be quite sure; but whatever it is, I felt it on first seeing the Casio DA1 Digital Audio Tape recorder. You see, I'm a sucker for gadgets, and this is a serious gadget, albeit one with some very serious applications. I'm sure that Mr. Spock carried one on every trip with a landing party, and if H.G Wells had seen it, he would never have bothered to write The Shape Of Things To Come: he'd have spent the rest of his life playing with the damn thing. I, however, do have to write about it, so here goes...
As most of you will know, DAT is a new-ish format which allows the recording of digital sound on special cassettes - about half the size of regular compact cassettes, and resembling video tapes in their construction due to the tape head arrangement required for DAT. With 16-bit linear conversion and a 48/44.1 kHz sampling rate, the DAT format allows CD quality sound to be recorded on tape, on cheaper and more compact equipment than any other digital tape format. DAT is to CD what cassettes are to records: the cassette tape standard for the digital age.
DAT has been around long enough for a good number of machines to appear on the market, but the Casio DA1 is notable both for its price and portability - at £695 it's the cheapest and smallest DAT player available, and can be powered by a rechargeable battery pack or mains adaptor. The fact that the DA1 can be operated on the move means that, as I patiently explained to a friend who wasn't immediately bowled over by my new toy, the DA1 is to a Walkman what a 1960 Ferrari California GTO is to a broken roller skate. Now do you see why I fell for it? Several million points out of ten for style if you listen to one of these on the bus.
I was surprised at just exactly how small the DA1 is - without the battery pack it's almost exactly the same size as four CD cases stacked one on top of the other. The battery pack adds about six centimetres to the back end of the recorder. Cassettes load into the DA1 via a pop-up draw, rather like a top-loading video recorder. Pushing the draw down into the machine's body produces a reassuring series of clicks, whirs and hums - informing you that this gadget means business. The front end of the DA1 contains all the various controls. To the right of the LCD display are the transport controls, and below it five mode and editing buttons which control all other aspects of the DATs operation.
Down the left-hand side are all the input and output connections: line in and out, mic in, a headphones socket, and recording and phones level controls. All the sockets are stereo mini-jacks, which are a pretty nasty form of connector, but in this case probably a necessary evil given the size of the DA1. Two sets of stereo mini jacks-to-phono plugs are supplied, so you won't need to go lead-hunting just to plug the DA1 in. No digital input/outputs are provided, so recorded material cannot be digitally transferred - analogue only I'm afraid.
The power switch is located at the front right of the DA1, and is rather fiddly. It is, however, quite possible to avoid ever having to use it. The DA1 has an automatic power-down feature: if you don't operate it for about six minutes, it gets bored and switches itself off - though the Stop or Play buttons can be used to bring it back to life, instantly.
At its most basic level, the DA1 allows you to record CD quality sound on its small cassette tapes, up to two hours in length. However, you can also record sub-code - data stored on the tape along with the audio signal, allowing track search and identification in a number of ways. Several types of sub-code can be stored and read. Absolute time and Start IDs are automatically encoded as a blank tape is recorded - 'absolute time' is simply the current tape position, in absolute time from the start of the tape. Start IDs identify the start of a new selection - beginning with any sound occurring after more than three seconds of silence. Program numbers are also recorded at each Start ID, assigning a numerical order to all selections. If the tape being recorded on is already partially recorded, it is best to rewind to the end of the recorded section so that the DA1 can 'lock on' to the absolute time data at the end of the recorded section, and the new recording will have consistent absolute time data encoded - otherwise, it will start again from zero.
All this sub-code makes it very easy to find your way around a tape: either by absolute time, program time (ie. elapsed time since the start of that selection), program number or tape counter. A track skip function takes advantage of the Start IDs to locate the beginning of selections. Codes can also be written after recording, to amend or add to the automatic cataloguing that the DA1 has carried out. New Start IDs can be entered at any point, provided that about 10 seconds is always left between adjacent start IDs. This procedure will obviously mess up the existing program numbers - if you enter two new start IDs between programs 4 and 5, the new Start IDs will be for selections now identified as programs 5 and 6. There will thus be two program 5s and two 6s. No problem: the situation can be remedied with the DA1's automatic re-numbering feature, which zips through the tape and re numbers any programs that are out of sequence.
A further type of sub-code that can be written after recording consists of Display Characters, which are alphanumeric notes up to 28 characters in length. One such note can be encoded for each selection, and displayed on playback. An obvious use of this feature is simply to enter track names, but archiving applications are also possible - date, time and location recorded, perhaps? The Display Character tags can be used for a track search function - enter the characters that you want to search for, and the DA1 will play all selections whose Display Characters start with those characters entered. So, if you tell the DA1 to search for and play 'SLOW', it will play 'SLOW', 'SLOW 2', 'SLOWBITZ', and miss out 'FAST' and 'SLOOOW'. Clever.
DAT is a very cost-effective medium for storing sound samples – if possible it's always better to store samples as data files, of course, but given that the DA1 can record stereo CD quality audio, it should really be good enough for all but the most demanding users.
The economics go like this: a two-hour DAT cassette can record sounds that would otherwise occupy 1200 Megabytes of disk space if stored as 16-bit, 44.1 kHz samples. If the same samples were saved onto 720K 3.5" floppies, you'd need around 200 disks, which is far more expensive and awkward than a single two-hour DAT tape, isn't it? The trouble with storing hundreds of sounds in this way is that it can be hell trying to find the one that you want - but not if you use the DA1's Display Characters feature to identify them all. Search for 'SNARE' and every correctly labelled snare sound will be found and played back. It's like having a portable hard disk.
When using the search function, only the first five characters can be specified, so some kind of abbreviated cataloguing system might be advisable in the event of using the DA1 in this way. It would also save on the tedious procedure of entering words using only two cursor and two incremental buttons.
The sound quality of DAT is outstanding - as you might expect. I could hardly tell the difference between source material and that played back on the DA1. Silence really is silence, and everything else sounds almost perfect.
The DA1 skimps slightly by only employing 15-bit linear A-to-D conversion on recording, though it's fully 16-bit on playback. I'm not sure how the difference in format on recording and playback is resolved by the DA1, but it sounds fine to my ears. This non-standard conversion presumably means that the DA1 is not fully compatible with professional digital audio equipment, though I doubt that anyone would try and retrofit AES/EBU sockets to it in any case. And for the applications the DA1 is likely to find, it doesn't really matter.
One of the most obvious applications for the DA1 is portable sound recording. The quality of DAT knocks that of any portable analogue recorder into a cocked hat, and the DA1 proved remarkably tolerant of vibration and shock. With a full battery charge, the DA1 will operate for just under five hours - the manual said four, but the machine fared slightly better in the SOS endurance test! The ability to run the DA1 off batteries, combined with its eminent portability, makes it an excellent, high quality, location sound recorder. I'd say it was ideal for roving sample hunters, or sound effects recording, and the Display Character function could obviously be of great use for making a brief note about recorded material on the spot.
Well, me for a start. I don't actually need one, but what the hell... Many studios have already invested in DAT recorders for producing master recordings (see Enya article in this issue), though the DA1 is not the kind of machine that major league studios will buy to master on. Its input and output sockets and 15-bit recording ensure that, but for anyone on a tighter budget who feels they will benefit from having a DAT player, and can put up with these compromises, it sure is tempting.
If your master recordings don't have to be fully compatible with professional digital audio formats, just very high quality, then the DA1 is probably the best value mastering machine around. If mastering is what you have in mind and you have the extra couple of hundred quid to stretch to a more professional Sony machine, then the DA1 should be passed over. If you don't, there's just no competition.
The same studio owners who master on DAT might buy a DA1 to have at home for checking rough mixes in a different environment. The DA1 could also have a role as a storage and archiving device for a large sample library. Other likely purchasers consist mainly of anyone looking for the best portable sound recording equipment around - or just anybody with £700 to blow on the ultimate in personal stereo. If you fit into any of the categories outlined above, the Casio DA1 is a 24-carat winner.
£695 inc VAT.
The Synthesizer Company, (Contact Details).
Review by Paul Ireson
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