Time Warp: Don’t dis the DAT

Back in the day, the mixed tape was a ritual part of early courtship. You’d grab an audiocassette and, over days or weeks, make a compilation recording of favourite songs from the radio, vinyl LPs and other cassette tapes. Then you’d give it to that someone special and hope they’d like it; hope they’d like you.

It probably didn’t matter that such subtle declarations of amour were proffered in analog format, but as compact disc replaced vinyl as the de-facto standard for pre-recorded music in the 1980s, it followed that the world’s most successful consumer recording format would receive a digital makeover too.
DAT (Digital Audio Tape) debuted in 1987, with the running brief of replacing the ubiquitous analog audiocassette as the preferred format for home recording. Developed by Sony, it looked to have the goods too.
Similar in appearance to an 8mm video cassette used in camcorders at the time, a DAT cartridge was only 4mm and around 73 X 54 X 10.5 mm. Most DAT tapes would record 60 minutes of stereo, although this would vary depending on the quality level chosen for recording.
Most DAT recording decks, for example, made 16-bit 48kHz copies from original soundtracks, meaning sound quality was on par with CD. Better, in fact, as some recorders were able to create higher resolution 24bit/96KHz copies. (These machines, though, were generally used in semi-professional recording studios, with the copies playable only the machines that produced them.)
What’s more, unlike MiniDisc and CD-R recording formats, DAT did not use lossy compression. Sure, it employed compression in order to store all musical data it recorded, but it did not throw away parts of the audio signal it thought human ears couldn’t hear in the process. It recorded everything faithfully form the source and, in doing so, was capable of creating a clone of the original recording; an exact copy of the digital master.
This freaked out record companies in the US, who foresaw huge revenue losses as the pre-recorded music market was destroyed by cheap, easy-to-make, perfect digital copies of the very albums it was their raison d’être to sell. In 1992, the record industry was successful in pushing through a law that imposed taxes on the recorders and the blank media, making DAT more expensive for home recordists.
In the same year, Philips – which had collaborated with Sony on the development of CD – joined with Panasonic to introduce a competing digital magnetic tape format, DCC (Digital Compact Cassette). Although the format used lossy compression, the machines were cheaper and backwards compatible with analog tapes, which DAT recorders weren’t. In response, Sony launched MiniDisc, and consumers now had four choices for home recording.
The fourth was the CD-R. While Sony and Philips squabbled over digital tape formats, the optical disc format they jointly developed with such success grew recording capabilities and took ownership of the home recording landscape.
People, it seemed, had ceased making mixed tapes, and now wooed each other with mixed discs.
Digital Compact Cassette ceased production in 1996, with Philips ceding that DAT had won. Sony quit DAT in 2005, and by that time the format had made a deep impression on the semi-pro market. Its recording credentials had made it a favourite for live taping sessions and backup recordings, and it’s only recently that hard drives have replaced DAT as the technology du jour for these applications.