Time warp: DAT technology

Making digital copies of tunes from our home music collections didn’t begin with the PC and some ripping software. Nor did it start with recordable CD or Mini Disc. It began back in 1987 with DAT (Digital Audio Tape), a technology now all but vanished and to which the ubiquitous anti-piracy schemes found on today’s media formats can be traced.

By the late 1980s, the CD was five years old and on the way to replacing the analog audio formats – LPs and cassette tape – so dominant at the time. Music buyers loved the direct track access compact disc provided and its superior playback quality, but you couldn’t record to it.

For home recording from turntables and cassette and CD players, people used compact cassette tape, an analog format beset by quality limitations. Analog recording introduced noise, hiss and jitter, with copies sounding worse than the original. What’s more, subsequent copies made from that first recording degraded sound quality even further.

Digital recordings, however, were an exact copy of the original soundtrack and maintained the fidelity of the source. So a consortium of companies led by Sony and Philips applied themselves to developing a digital recording media for capturing CD quality music at home. This new recording media was not optical disc – recordable CDs and home recorders appeared only in 1997 – but magnetic tape. And so DAT was born.

Smaller than an analog audio cassette, DAT media used 8mm tape to record one hour of 44kHz/16-bit stereo CD-quality sound (two hours in mono). The first recorder to hit Amercia was a pro-grade offering from Japanese company Nakamichi and cost $US11,000. Subsequent models from mainstream marques such as Sony, Panasonic and Philips were still expensive, around $US2500, and the blank tapes were priced in kind, costing $15 compared to $3 for a standard compact cassette tape.

Sustained high prices were eventually to kill DAT as a consumer format, though, a situation that can be attributed directly to the commercial music recording industry. DAT recorders were the first devices capable of making multi-generational master-quality copies of a compact disc using a domestic player, a process previously possible only in the large-scale commercial replication plants operated by the world’s big music labels.

Spotting a potentially huge sales threat from the casual (and organised) piracy of its entire commercial catalogue – no CDs included encryption to prohibit copying – the industry heavily lobbied the US government to impose a high tax on DAT equipment, with the collected revenues intended to compensate them and, supposedly, the original artists for loss of income.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) encryption now limits copying from digital music files obtained from legitimate download sites, but 30 years after DAT alerted the music industry to the consumers’ ability to make perfect digital copies of music – and destroy the market for commercial audio recordings – CDs can still be freely copied. It’s incredible that the powerful music labels did so little in so long a time frame to protect their business… just as incredible, perhaps, as the fact that the first version of a recordable CD was, indeed, a tape.