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Do The DATman

Sony TCD-D3 DAT Walkman

Article from Sound On Sound, July 1991

It is often said that the best things come in small packages — and the new Sony DAT Walkman is no exception to the rule. Simon Sanders takes a look at this miracle of micro electronics and asks, "Can anyone lend me £650?"


In June of 1983, a worldwide conference was set up to look into establishing a standard format for digital audio tape recording. The Worldwide DAT Conference, involving 81 companies from around the globe, deliberated for two and a half years before coming to the conclusion that, whilst stationary head machines (S-DAT) had their merits, the rotary head (R-DAT) design was "...more suitable for long recording times, small size and low price..." and could be "...brought into practice in a short period of time..."

The format was finalised in 1986, and within a few months, Sony were showing the first working prototypes of an R-DAT machine. In the five years since, DAT has come to be accepted as a quasi-standard for stereo mastering in many studios throughout the world.

However, the consumer market that manufacturers like Sony had envisaged for DAT has simply not materialised — probably due to the fact that DAT machines were not sold to the general public (due to the arguments over the digital cloning of CDs). But, with the agreement on the Serial Copy Management System (SCMS), the consumer market is about to be given the opportunity to join in the digital recording revolution.

One of the first signs of this new drive to hook the consumer is the appearance of the Sony TCD-D3 DAT Walkman. This little machine is the perfect stocking filler for the "must-have-the-best/money-no-object" audiophile. But I think that, once again, this is a product that is probably going to find its way into many more studios than sitting rooms.

IT'S GOT THE POWER



Physically, the D3 (including battery pack) is about the same size as the original Sony Walkman, and weighs just slightly more. The case is made of metal and feels like it should take a bit of rough handling (although I would tend to be quite careful with the machine, as the rotary head mechanism may not be able to take the punishment that your average Walkman has to endure).

As well as drawing on Video 8 technology for the rotary head mechanism, Sony have also used their video equipment expertise to design the D3 power packs. As on the Handycam range, the D3 battery has a bayonet fitting whereby the battery is positioned slightly off centre on the rear panel and then pushed to the left and down until it clicks into place. You use the reverse procedure to remove the battery, but you have to hold down a battery release knob. At first this seems a bit fiddly, but you do get used to the idea after a few attempts (for those who have used Video 8 cameras, this procedure will already be second nature).

The battery packs are rechargeable and will hold enough charge for about two hours playing time. The main display tells you when the battery power is getting low, giving plenty of warning. The unit comes with one battery pack and if I was buying a machine, I would definitely invest in at least one more battery pack for those times when the battery runs down at just the wrong moment (Murphy's First law of Battery-powered Portable Equipment).

The D3 comes supplied with a mains power adapter which plugs into the left hand side of the machine via a non standard jack — no cheapo power supplies here. The PSU also doubles as a battery charger; the battery clips on to the top in the same way as it connects to the D3. There is an LED which illuminates when the battery is charging, going off when the battery is fully charged, which takes about an hour.

I/O, I/O, I/O...



The D3 has an 1/8" (mini-jack) headphone socket on the front panel (with volume control) to allow you to annoy the person next to you on the train or, more importantly, to allow you to monitor what you have recorded on tape.

There is a line out, again via a mini-jack, to allow connection to your amplifier, mixer or analogue recorder. The line out has no volume control, but the output level was around the same as the CD player, giving me no problems at all.

Analogue input is via yet another stereo mini-jack, switchable between line and mic level operation. As a line input it worked fine, accepting input from any line level source. But as a mic input, it could be a trifle cumbersome as you may have to use a stereo mini-jack to XLR adapter when using professional mics and leads. I was using a Sony stereo microphone which was fitted with a mini-jack anyway, so I had no difficulties. There is an attenuator for the mic input giving a 20dB cut, which worked extremely well when recording high volume sources. There is also a small socket marked Mic DC Out, which apparently supplies the power for a Sony ECM-S220 microphone. Since I didn't have an ECM-S220, we'll have to take Sony's word for it.

I am sure there will be many people who will not like the fact that all of the inputs and outputs are on mini-jacks, but for a compact machine like this, standard pro-audio hardware would be impractical, if not impossible. Compromises are therefore inevitable, and you have to bear in mind that this machine is in any case aimed at the domestic market. Sony are obviously aware that people will want to use the machine with other equipment, and so a pair of adaptor leads are provided, (stereo mini-jack to two phonos), to allow connection to hi-fi equipment.

DIGITAL I/O



The D3 appears to have facilities for inputting and outputting signals digitally, but the review model didn't come with the necessary leads (although I am assured that future supplies will come with digital interface leads included as part of the package). Anyhow, digital input/output is via a proprietary multi-pin plug — referred to as the "special plug". According to the manual, this connection is designed to be used with one of three additional items. One is a 'special plug — 2 opticals' lead, which I assume would be for connection to the optical outputs found on some CD players (another digital interconnect format). The next is a 'special plug — phono plug' lead, which is for connection with SPDIF interfaces. This lead has only one phono plug, and the manual only shows the D3 recording from an SPDIF source, therefore it could be assumed that using this lead only allows you to input SPDIF, with no SPDIF output available. However, the last item is a unit called the RM-D3K, which appears to be a black box with a 'special plug' connecting it to the D3, and inputs and outputs for both optical and SPDIF formats. So SPDIF output appears to require the RM-D3K.

The RM-D3K also works as a remote control unit in conjunction with a wireless handset, as well as allowing timer activated recording from an audio timer.

TRANSPORT CONTROLS AND FUNCTIONS



The unit is powered up by flicking the power switch located on the front panel. This is a momentary switch, therefore turning the machine off just requires a flick of the same switch. The D3 has an auto-shut off function to save battery power.

The D3 has the normal complement of transport controls (play, FF/cue, rew/review, stop, pause, record and eject), located on the front of the top panel, just in front of the cassette compartment.



"The buttons require a firm touch, but didn't seem to be too fiddly — I expected them to be a nightmare to use, but I was pleasantly surprised."


The first, and most obvious, button to press is eject. This flips up the cassette door, whilst the display shows the message 'Open'. Inserting the cassette is quite simple — you just push it home — and the cassette is correctly positioned by guides running along the side of the cassette compartment, which also prepare the cassette for the unthreading of the tape. (DAT tapes are like video cassettes in that they have a protective cover over the front and bottom, which must be opened before the tape can be threaded within the machine). The action seems positive, and makes you feel that the machine has a good grip on the cassette. When you push the lid down, there is a series of whirs and clicks as the machine threads the tape around the rotating head mechanism, whilst the display kindly informs you that it is performing a 'Load'.

If you have inserted a new blank tape, the display will show 'bb Top', indicating that the machine is writing a 'read-in' section on to the tape. This enables you to commence recording from the top of the tape and still have room to write/erase start IDs and so on at the beginning of the recording.

The transport controls operate in the normal fashion, and despite their small size are quite easy to use. The buttons require a firm touch, but didn't seem to be too fiddly — I was expecting them to be a nightmare to use, but I was pleasantly surprised. If you are on location in mid-winter, and therefore wearing three layers of gloves, operation may be a bit difficult, but again I will point out that the D3 is designed as a consumer machine.

The record levels can be controlled by a rotary level control, but there is no independent control of left and right levels. Under most circumstances this isn't a problem, but I can think of several times when I have had to set wildly different levels for each channel to compensate for mic positioning and so on, and with the D3 this would lead to stereo imbalance.

One rather handy non-standard button is the 'hold' feature. This is a sliding switch which, when activated, will freeze all of the control settings. This is an absolute Godsend as it will prevent, for example, accidental stopping of the machine during recording.

THE DISPLAY



The D3 has a reasonably large display, located on the front of the cassette compartment lid. It is of very high quality, and gives you plenty of information. If you are operating the unit in low light conditions, you can switch on backlighting via a simple push-button toggle. The illuminated display is extremely easy to see, even in complete darkness.

The counter display, shown as hrs:mins:secs, has four modes of operation: tape counter (an approximate running time indicator): absolute time (a digital timecode recorded on the tape alongside the audio material); program time (showing the elapsed time of the current track); remaining time (shows how much running time is left on the tape). This display works in conjunction with a counter mode button, and in tape counter mode a reset button allows you to mark a rough zero point to help you locate a given section of a recording.

The counter display can also be used to give a readout of the sampling frequency of the recording. This is activated by holding down the play button for a few seconds. This is not as convenient as other DAT machines, which automatically display the sample rate, but then again, how often do you need to know the sample rate?

Below the counter display are three icons which show whether the machine is playing, recording, or in pause mode. There is also an indicator to show when a recording is being made via the digital input. Below this are the peak level meters. Calibrated in -dB, the meter range goes from infinity to zero, with 'Over' indicators for levels over 0dB (remember that you cannot record 'hot' on digital systems). The -12dB mark is highlighted and the manual says that average level should be maintained at about this level — in most cases I would agree, as this gives you a reasonable margin for peaks in the program material. However, for material with steadier levels, I would recommend levels around -6dB. The meters appeared to be quite well calibrated, and they are easier to see than most LCD meters I have used.

The display carries several other indicators for use with the AMS functions (Start ID, Auto, Write, Erase, Program Number, Renumber). There are also warning indicators for Low Battery, condensation, and a caution icon which shows when there is something else wrong within the machine (the manual advises that you take the machine to a service centre if this lights up).

Finally, there is an icon to show when you are in long-play mode. Long-play mode allows you to double the recording time on a tape, (ie. a two hour tape will record up to four hours of material). The trade-off here is that in long-play mode the sampling frequency is reduced to 32kHz, which restricts audio bandwidth quite severely. The quality is equivalent to that of FM radio and will probably be a popular feature with consumers, but for pro-audio use, the reduction in quality would negate the use of DAT.

All in all, I was very impressed by the display, both in terms of visibility and quantity of information shown — if all machines had this quality of display, my life would be much easier.

AMS



The Auto Music Search functions are there to allow you to access a chosen point in a recorded section at high speed and with 100% accuracy. When recording in Auto ID mode, a Start ID is automatically recorded on the tape at tne beginning of a section of audio (defined as the point at which the audio signal rises above a preset threshold after a short pause). If the machine is not in Auto ID when you are recording, the D3 allows you to write Start IDs wherever you like at a later time (you can also fine tune the positioning of a Start ID in +/-0.3 second increments). If there is an unwanted Start ID, the D3 will also allow you to erase it.



"Sony have once again shown that professional features can be included in products aimed at the consumer market, thus accelerating the narrowing of the gap between the two fields."


The main use for the Start IDs is to enable you to search out sections of the recording at will. This is achieved by pressing the AMS buttons. There are two buttons, one for forward search, and one for rewind search. These operate as you would expect — pressing the button once will take you to the next/last Start ID, pressing it twice will take you to the second next/last Start ID, and so on. (Do remember that if you press AMS Rewind once, it will take you back to the beginning of the selection which is currently playing, as this is the first Start ID AMS will come across).

Part of this subcode system allows for Program numbers. Each new recording is given a number, assigned sequentially. However, the numbers will only remain in ascending order if the recordings are made during the same session. If you record a track which is assigned Program number 1, and then come back a few days later and record a second track, the second track will also be assigned Program number 1. To get over this problem, the D3 has a renumber facility which will search the tape for Program numbers, rewriting them sequentially from the top of the tape.

The Program number is written alongside the Start ID of each track, but you cannot use it to search for a particular track number — Program number is, in effect, only a display function. However, the RM-D3K does allow you to search via Program numbers, much like CD players.

ABSOLUTE TIME



Absolute time is part of the subcode data which is recorded alongside the audio, marking each point on the tape with a time-of-day reference. This means that the absolute time display is, as its name suggests, absolute.

To keep the absolute time continuous when recording a new section, it is necessary to record from the end of the previously recorded material. The D3 helps you achieve this by automatically stopping playback or fast forward when it cannot detect absolute time. This allows you to keep tapes fully rewound, (as you always should for storage!), and then find the end of the recorded material by simply pressing fast forward and waiting for the machine to stop. Now when you record you will not be leaving any blank tape, and the absolute time will remain continuous for the full length of the tape.

One useful feature of absolute time is that the newer high end DAT machines, such as the Fostex D20 and the Sony 7000 series, are able to read absolute time as if it were timecode, even synchronising to it if required. This means that absolute time can be used as a simple way of post-referencing a recording to timecode.

THE D3 IN USE



The D3 is an extremely easy machine to use, and it offers all of the normal DAT machine functions (except Skip ID, which is no great loss). When recording, I found that the best approach was to put the machine into monitor mode by pressing record, which allows you to monitor the incoming signal to set the levels. Then pressing the pause button puts the machine into record ready; a second press of pause and you're away. Otherwise, as with most machines, record is activated by pressing record and play simultaneously.

For portable use, the D3 comes with a handy carrying case, which still allows you access to the I/Os and, by lifting the front flap, the display and transport functions. The only time you have to remove the machine for to replace the tape or battery.

CONCLUSION



The sound quality of the DAT format can be taken as read — the D3 is no better, no worse than any other DAT machine. The onboard A-to-D and D-to-A conversion seems perfectly acceptable, and if you are a perfectionist and do not like the sound, you can always use external convertors.

For pro-audio use, the RM-D3K looks like it would make the D3 far more usable in a studio environment, allowing digital input/output and giving remote control (thereby getting over the slight inconvenience of fiddling with the controls on the actual recorder).

The machine is extremely well thought out, both in terms of features and ergonomics. Its miniscule proportions make it ideal for location recording in all applications, from simple sample gathering to full-blown film location use — especially when you take into account the fact that it offers two hours' recording time. The inclusion of absolute time also makes the A/V applications more feasible, as location recordings can be post-referenced to timecode with very little effort (provided you have a high end DAT machine at home base!).

Like the Hi-8 video format, Sony have once again shown that professional features can be included in products aimed at the consumer market, thus accelerating the narrowing of the gap between the two fields. The only shame is that this machine has been available to the Japanese home market for quite a while, whilst we have had to wait for the anti-piracy lobby to be placated before its introduction.

I give the D3 10 out of 10 for value for money. Speaking of which... can anyone lend me £650 for a Sony DAT Walkman?

FURTHER INFORMATION

£645 inc VAT.

HHB Communications, (Contact Details).

SONY TCD-D3 SPECIFICATIONS

Tape: Digital Audio Tape
Recording time: Standard Play 120mins, Long Play 240mins
Quantisation: Standard Play 16-bit linear
Long Play 12-bit non-linear
Sampling Frequency: Standard Play Analogue input 48kHz
Digital input 48, 44.1 & 32kHz
Long Play 32kHz only
Frequency Response: Standard Play Fs 48kHz, 20-22,000Hz (+/-1.0dB)
Fs 44.1kHz, 20-20.000Hz (+/-1.0dB)
Fs 32kHz, 20-14,500Hz (+/-1.0dB)
Long Play Fs 32kHz, 20-14,500Hz (+/- 1.0dB)
S/N Ratio: more than 90dB (1kHz IHF-A, 22kHz LPF, Line In)
Dynamic Range: more than 90dB (1kHz IHF-A, 22kHz LPF, Line In)
THD: Standard Play, less than 0.008%
Long Play, less than 0.09%
Wow and Flutter: below measurable limits
Input Impedance: Mic In 10kOhms
Line In 47kOhms
Output Impedance: Line Out 7000hms
H/Phones 270hms
Power requirements: DC 6V — battery
DC 9V — supplied PSU
DC 12V — optional car battery adapter
Battery life: 2 hours (recharge time 1 hour)
Power consumption: 3.6W
Dimensions: 85.2 x 40 x 120.1mm
Supplied accessories: AC power adapter, rechargeable battery, carrying case, 2 x audio connect cords, 60min DAT tape.
Optional extras: Digital adapter/remote unit (RM-D3K)
Digital cable — special plug/2 x opticals (POC-DA12)
Digital cable — special plug/phono (RK-DA10)
Car mount arm + 12V DC adapter cord
Rechargeable battery (BP-D3)



Previous Article in this issue

Shape Of Things To Come

Next article in this issue

Hands On


Publisher: Sound On Sound - SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


The current copyright owner/s of this content may differ from the originally published copyright notice.
More details on copyright ownership...

 

Sound On Sound - Jul 1991

Gear in this article:

DAT Player/Recorder > Sony > TCD D3

Review by Simon Sanders

Previous article in this issue:

> Shape Of Things To Come

Next article in this issue:

> Hands On


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