Sony Portable DAT Recorder
DAT is beginning to take a firm hold in the studio market despite all the controversy. Ed Jones reflects on Digital Audio Tape and roadtests Sony's new TCD-D10 portable recorder.
Ed Jones reflects on Digital Audio Tape and roadtests Sony's new TCD-D10 portable recorder.
In our October 1987 issue we reviewed Sony's DTC1000ES 'domestic' RDAT (Rotary head, Digital Audio Tape recorder) and since that time there has been much discussion regarding the record industry's paranoia about the possibility of large scale digital duplication and copyright abuse using DAT. Musicians are now faced with a bifurcation of DAT applications; on the one hand they can compose and record in studios, where DAT is ideal for mastering, and on the other hand they can come home and, pretty soon, listen to their recorded work (having gone through the record companies' marketing machine) on a DAT pre-recorded tape on their domestic DAT player. Can you imagine being able to record your master direct to a compact cassette tape? Its versatility is just the same as DAT but there is obviously a world of difference in the sound quality.
It is fully intended that, just as CD will eventually reduce the production of vinyl records to a dribble, DAT will reduce the demand for compact cassettes (albeit over a somewhat longer time scale as they currently outsell records). Let us, though, ignore these diversions and take another look at what DAT can do for the music making industry.
Almost every studio that this writer has visited in the last month has already invested in DAT (the RDAT title has been dropped by the cognoscenti) and this includes not only the hi-tech BBC Radiophonic Workshop but also the very discerning Air Studios in London. On Radio 1 this Easter, the BBC broadcast a 45-minute music special entitled 'Luther King - The Dream' using Sony DAT equipment. Air Studios have not only invested in the Sony PCM2500 'professional' model but also several DTC1000ES 'domestic' and TCD-D10 portable models, currently being used to 'spin in' to tape (like an AMS delay might be used) and to build up a sound library for a 16-bit sampler (from a very well known Japanese manufacturer whose name starts with a letter nearer the beginning of the alphabet than the end!).
The trusty Revox has been the mainstay of mastering in the home recording industry for many years now and only Sony's PCM F1 and 701 series (using video tape to store the digital data) have come anywhere near encroaching upon the domination of Revox. However, all that is now changing as the budget side of the industry gears itself up for digital mania. Sony's most popular DAT model - DTC1000ES - sells for around £100 less than a high-speed Revox B77.
The use of computers for multitrack MIDI sequencing has not only eaten into the sales of dedicated hardware sequencers but has also affected the multitrack market. Quite which way it has affected it is not readily apparent as manufacturers tell different stories, although some say that it has actually stimulated the 8- and 16-track markets. Those same computers, be they Macintosh, Atari or PC, are now being pressed into service to perform sample editing and this is the first link in the digital domain; eventually, as RAM chips become cheaper, the concept of 'sampling' will quietly transform itself into full-scale digital recording and we'll be wondering how we ever managed without it!
In the interest of more accurate 'sound pictures' and the overall manipulation of sound, companies like Yamaha, Sony and Mitsubishi will soon have their machines talking to each other purely in the digital domain. At the recent Paris AES show, Yamaha announced their DMP7D - an all-digital version of the original DMP7, along with various interfaces to connect Sony 3324/1610/1630 and Mitsubishi X850 digital recorders to the DMP7, an 8-track analogue-to-digital interface, a 2-track digital-to-analogue interface, and a format convertor. As you can see, the all-digital domain concept is creeping up very fast indeed. If you haven't read about DASH, AES/EBU, SDIF-2 and S/P DIF yet then don't worry. I'm sure there will be a spate of articles explaining them to the very last detail.
All you really need to know is whether you should be spending your hard-earned readies on DAT now or later? Well, my answer is simple: find a hire company who will rent you one for about £35 a day and you will never look back. Sure, you can't edit the tape like on a Revox, sure it hasn't got noise reduction facilities, sure it doesn't look as impressive, but who cares when the sound is so great and DAT is so obviously the way that the industry is going?
Leaving aside any talk about copycode restrictions, let us look at what DAT has to offer: superb sound quality, small tapes (currently maximum 2 hours duration, winding time 44 seconds!), track indexing, no noise reduction, digital 'cloning', quiet, general acceptance by the recording industry, and a competitive price.
Interestingly, Sony cover an enormous amount of recording requirements with their range of current models; this includes a very valid alternative to the Nagra (professional, battery-powered, portable tape recorders used typicality for broadcast work) - the PCM2000; the DTC1000ES (probably the one that will sell the most as it is the cheapest, best value and aimed at the Revox-type market); and the new TCD-D10 'consumer portable' (aimed at the Sony Pro Walkman reporter cum outdoor 'sample it if it moves' market).
I made good use of Sony's new TCD-D10 portable DAT by mastering a music demo and conducting a couple of interviews on it. The TCD-D10 comes supplied with a good quality, electret condenser microphone (with a built-in 90 degree or 120 degree angle selector), a wired remote (to which the microphone may be attached) and both AC and DC power packs, carrying cover and shoulder strap as standard.
The remote control unit has Record, Pause, Stop and Play buttons with a special lock button to prevent any accidental knocking out of record mode whilst leaving the Pause/Start button active - sensible and very useful, especially for making a clean recording (remember, there's no tape editing unless you want to trust your luck with the same tape winding mechanism as in a domestic video). Unfortunately, slight clicks were recorded onto the tape when entering record mode but using 'Pause and Record mode' should give seamless recordings.
A two-hour battery pack was duly charged up but gave up after an hour and a quarter's usage. I was most unhappy when I somehow managed to crinkle some tape through poor tape tension - just like my original VHS 'C' Camcorder, which had a nasty habit of screwing up tape if the slack wasn't taken up. My reaction to this is one of disbelief as I was not able to reproduce the situation again; it has not in any way dampened my enthusiasm for DAT as I fully understand the vagaries of a rotary head tape threading system. If you have to be just a little bit more careful then so be it, although domestic video recorders that use the same tape-threading system are pretty foolproof.
A built-in monitor speaker lets you monitor the microphone and line inputs or locate previous recordings that you wish to record over. Finding cue points is child's play: should you wish it, every time Record is pressed an index number is logged and you can then simply auto-locate or scan each indexed cue just like on your home CD player.
Home recordists who may, by now, be thinking that this is the machine for their tape mastering and sampling should know that the more reasonably priced DTC1000ES (who thinks up these godforsaken numbers?) not only looks more impressive but also offers superior facilities and a wireless remote control. Somehow Sony expect the portable buyers to pay a serious premium for their model - I suppose it must cost them a lot to squeeze it all into a smaller box, adding a speaker and microphone (said he cynically).
At this point I should also mention that the title 'consumer model' for the DTC1000ES is somewhat inappropriate at the moment as Sony are very, very wary, both in Japan and the rest of the world, of selling DAT into the home until the copyright problems have been sorted out. The 'consumer' (DTC1000ES) and 'professional' (PCM2500) models are pretty much identical in sound, although the more expensive model obviously has many more facilities (including balanced outputs, 'clone protect', multi-format digital in/outputs etc). Since sound is the single most important criteria for buying a unit such as this - other criteria like the convenience of track indexing and the speed of tape winding almost pale by comparison - the purchasing decision should be easy, because the top studios (Townhouse have five!) are already investing heavily in them. Manufacturers can heap as many facilities onto a unit as they like but discerning potential end-users in the audio industry (and that includes speech researchers and sound laboratories) will only invest in a product if it sounds good.
The TCD-D10 portable DAT is the only Sony DAT not to feature digital inputs and outputs. All the others, using a variety of digital 'standards', can make 'clone' copies of a master in the digital domain. For instance, a producer or artist may want to take as near to a master mix as possible away from the studio to 'live with it for a few days'; in this instance, using the professional PCM2500, a master mix 'clone' (with its own copy protection) can be downloaded from any 2-track digital mastering machine that uses the AES/EBU digital standard; this can then be played back on a consumer DAT.
On the more humble DTC1000ES model, a digital 'clone' can be made to another DTC1000ES (or pro model) using the Sony/Philips digital standard at 48kHz sampling rate (not at 44.1 kHz); in this way an album of tracks can be sequentially built up. This tape can then be taken to a professional digital edit suite (such as exists at HHB), the sampling playback rate is changed to 44.1 kHz and you can cut a CD direct from there. The disablement of the 44.1 kHz sampling rate on the DTC1000ES is intended to prevent 'cloning' from professional CD players (ones that have digital outputs as well as analogue).
Quite frankly, I feel sure that we should be grateful to Sony and other manufacturers for trying to prevent wholesale copyright abuse; however, the quality of analogue CD to DAT transfers is simply staggering in itself without the use of digital. Still, like the Berlin Wall, a sheer physical obstacle can help prevent the obvious but not deter the devious. DAT editing hardware can be expected from Sony within the year and there are moves afoot to write editing software for the Macintosh computer. Southworth have already produced an EBU digital audio interface card ($2200) that slots into a Mac II, although there is no commercially available software as yet.
My Sony Pro Walkman has served me well for a couple of years but won't be replaced by a £1395 (+VAT) portable DAT machine just yet. However, I most definitely will be buying a DTCT000ES just as soon as the next commission comes in (isn't life always the same?). I might just check out the Aiwa model (because they are owned by Sony) and also the smaller Casio model (although it looks like it has more than one Bit missing!). Nevertheless, the Sony model looks so impressive by comparison that I think the choice will be easy. DAT is definitely the way to go and I feel confident with a product that comes from a company with such a pedigree as Sony and is already in many of the country's most successful recording studios.
Contact Sony main agents: HHB Hire & Sales, (Contact Details).
Review by Ed Jones
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