Copycode & the Future of DAT

Now that Sony has bought CBS's records division, and the infamous Copycode bill seems to be dying in Congress, the way may be clearing at last for the US introduction of the new Digital Audio Tape system. This has sparked renewed speculation in the industry about the impact DAT will have on existing formats, particularly the fledgling CD. Some are convinced DAT will kill CD, because of its ability to record as well as play digital recordings. Others believe DAT won't even gain a foothold in the market, for the same reason quadraphonic sound laid an egg back in the '70s: The public can't handle more than one "standard" format. I feel that both views are wrong, and that—as is usually the case with extreme views—the truth lies in between. I believe DAT will catch on in the marketplace, but never in a big way, and certainly not the way CD has. Here's why.

First, and probably most important, is that DAT will have little to offer the average music listener that he cannot now get from the conventional audio cassette at much lower cost. The analog cassette is recordable, it does not accumulate ticks and pops with repeated playings, and it wears out slowly enough with repeated playings that few users have ever exhausted its life expectancy. The cassette is pocketable, players can be eminently portable, and it's as easy to use as CD. DAT confers no advantage in any of those areas.

As for the new system's superior sound quality, relative to the analog cassette, I do not foresee that having any significant effect on DAT's marketplace acceptance. In fact, the perceived difference between DAT reproduction and the sound from conventional cassettes will, for most consumers, be quite small. A good cassette copy of a CD can never be a perfect replica of it, but the differences are slight enough that the average person will be hard put to hear them. There's a slight high-end softening that only trained listeners with good equipment are likely to notice. There's also an increase in background hiss, which has apparently never bothered the average user, either. In an automobile, it's buried under the high ambient noise (footnote 1). Even at home, where ambient noise is much lower, the compact cassette's gentle hiss is still usually inaudible, because most people listen to music which has limited dynamic range to begin with, and because most "stereos" won't play loudly enough to put a Dolby-B'ed cassette's hiss well above the ambient noise level.

The other advantages of DAT—the ability to automatically locate different selections by a numerical address, and to be programmed for playback in any desired order—will appeal little to those people who now routinely put together their own programs on cassette from several different source recordings. And as for the ability to encode DAT tapes with time codes and other synchronizing data, these will be completely irrelevant for anyone but professional recording engineers.

Then there's the cost of DAT. The first recorder/players are expected to sell for between $1500 and $2000 in the US, with the (expressed) expectation that prices will eventually come down as increasing sales permit economies of mass production to take effect. But it may take a long time for that to happen, partly because of the new system's limited perceived value, partly because the nature of the beast practically guarantees it will never be a cheap medium (footnote 2). Because of its complexity, a DAT machine can never be as inexpensive to manufacture as a cassette machine is today, and may never be as rugged and reliable. Feeding a DATcorder will be expensive, too. The blank tapes will cost between $9 and $14 initially, and may never go below $9 because of the necessary precision and the lack of a broad consumer base. The day of the 3-for-$1 blank DAT cassette is not in sight and will probably never come.

Prerecorded DAT software will cost even more. Today, you can buy a high-speed (60 times real-time) analog-cassette duplicator plus six slaves for around $200,000, and blank cassettes may run around 30 cents each. The only currently available high-speed duplicator for DAT tapes costs a cool $600,000—enough to discourage most prospective duplicators, particularly when there is not as yet any market at all for the software. A real-time DAT duplicator, with 6 slaves, can be bought for a mere $250,000, as compared with around $7000 for a comparable real-time setup for analog cassettes. There is no way prerecorded DATs can be priced competitively with conventional cassettes within the foreseeable future.

But if DAT would seem to pose little threat to the compact cassette, what about its impact on the other digital medium, CD? I believe there might be some cause for concern here if the CD were not already firmly established as the home-music medium, because DAT will do everything the CD can do, as well as record with the same fidelity.

Many industry observers maintain it is the VCR's ability to record which explains the public's indifference toward the non-recordable LaserVision system, despite the latter's image superiority. But I don't believe that parallel with video will hold in audio. It is true that a lot of videophiles have been making cheap (and clearly illegal) copies of rented cassettes in recent years, but there was a lot more incentive for doing that when the average price of a Hollywood film on cassette was $70. Today, with many recent blockbusters going for $30 and scads of lesser ones priced at $10 each, most consumer video recorders are being used, not for copying of films, but for "time-shifting" of broadcast programs whose scheduled airings prevent real-time viewing. But far fewer people are interested in time-shifting radio programs—particularly music programs. To most listeners, the few must-not-miss radio shows tend to be talk shows, and (here we go again!) a conventional cassette will do just as good a job of time-shifting these as a DAT recording.

The vinyl LP was never a recordable medium either, yet it outsold prerecorded cassettes for 20 years until—coincidentally or otherwise—the introduction of the CD, when cassette sales started to outstrip LP sales just as LPs started to lose out to CDs. But was it the CD's superior sound (footnote 3) that killed the LP? I think not. I believe it was a combination of things—the fact that CD came along right after the home-computer revolution ("Digital is good!"), the attractiveness of something that would never wear out with use, and the striking appearance of the CD with its shifting spectrum of unbelievably pure colors.

But I am convinced that the most important attraction of the CD for the average person is its freedom from clicks and pops, which have always plagued him more than they have audiophiles because he neither took care of his records nor played them on equipment which didn't emphasize the problems. If this is the case, though, why didn't the prerecorded analog cassette, which is equally free from transient surface noise, bury the "scratchy" LP long ago? I attribute this to the public perception of the LP as the "primary" home-music medium, plus the fact that for most of its lifespan there were far more titles on LP than there have ever been on cassette.

In that particular respect, video history can give us one clue as to the potential marketplace viability of DAT: The thing that killed Beta was software availability. Beta was launched with a head start over any other home-video system because it was the first, but there was no prerecorded software for it at the time. It was intended for time shifting of TV programs, and while its 1-hour running time was adequate for that purpose, it was useless for films. It wasn't until VHS was introduced, with its 2- or 4-hour record/play time, that it became possible to accommodate a full-length feature film on one cassette, and that was when Hollywood climbed onto the home-video bandwagon. Sony promptly countered with a Beta-II 2-hour speed, but VHS's optional 4-hour capability offered substantial savings in tape costs for those who wanted to record off the air and didn't care about the inferior picture quality at the slower tape speed. With blank tapes going for $25 each, the savings at half-speed were not inconsiderable. At that time, there were still relatively few films available for rental or purchase; movie buffs did most of their collecting off the airwaves, and they saw VHS-4 as the best way to do it. Sales of VHS machines soon started to outstrip Betas.

Naturally, the film studios courted the larger base of consumer VCRs, releasing more titles on VHS than on Beta. And most VCR purchasers, planning to rent or buy films, opted for the format with the widest selection of titles—VHS. It became a tightening vortex with Beta in the middle, until most of the software publishers saw the writing on the wall and pulled the plug on Beta altogether. Today, it is the favored format with home videotapers, as well as for professional ENG use, but as a cinema-at-home medium it is dead.

DAT faces the same uphill fight as did Beta, only more so. There are literally thousands of CD titles available now, while there is not a single prerecorded DAT tape to be found in any record store. And there won't be until there are lots of players out there to reproduce them on. But who will spend $1500 on a machine for which there is no prerecorded software? Even if DAT is launched along with an impressive first release of software titles, it will be forever-after trying to catch up with a medium that has a huge head start. I don't believe it ever will.

The success of any new product depends on its perceived value, not its real value. The CD, as a non-recordable medium, was seen as a superior incarnation of the LP, and as far as most people were concerned, there was just no comparison. Today, CD collectors are nearly all all ex-LP buyers. People whose home-music medium has been the cassette all along have not, by and large, been seduced by CD, because the players and the software cost more than cassette, and, as far as they can see, have less to offer. The average cassette player sounds far better than the average el cheapo phono unit, and will record as well as play back. The public will view DAT as competition for the compact cassette, not the CD. And I sincerely doubt that DAT will be perceived as being superior enough to analog cassette to displace it the way CD has displaced the LP.

I do, however, believe there is a place for DAT in the order of things. Its major appeal will be to people who are best able to take advantage of what it has to offer: those who demand the best sound quality attainable, and who are acutely aware of the shortcomings of analog. This means, primarily, audio people who make original, live recordings, and includes serious amateur recordists and professional recording engineers, particularly in the film business. Aside from CDs (which are becoming cheap enough that there is little point in copying them to DAT), only live, original material offers high enough quality to take full advantage of DAT's signal/noise and bandwidth capabilities. And the ability to make flawless digital copies from DAT masters will delight professional users, to whom an original recording is often just the first step in a series culminating in the finished product. But for many such prospective users, DAT alone will not be enough. In order for the new system to be supported in either area, proper editing equipment must be made available for it.

The only reason analog open-reel recorders continue to sell is because they permit easy editing, on the same machine used for making the master tape. The cost to a small recording studio of "going digital" is not just that of a pro PCM mastering system, which is formidable enough to begin with, but must also include that of the editing equipment needed to assemble a presentable commercial product from the digital masters. The total can easily top $60,000—an investment that many struggling studios are just not prepared to make. It is lack of editing ease, not format incompatibility, which has hindered the $3000 PCM-F1's acceptance in pro and semipro circles. It is used, grudgingly, by many pros simply because its sound quality is good enough to allow transfer, without appreciable quality loss, to open-reel analog tape, which allows for easy editing.

As it stands now, I believe the DAT system's major appeal will be to on-location film-sound engineers, who have relied for more than 20 years on the Nagra, battery-operated, portable, open-reel analog recorder made by a small Swiss firm called Kudelski, all the while cursing its limitations while appending all sorts of outboard add-ons to make it do what is required of modern film-mastering recorders. Sony has already shown prototypes of a portable pro DAT unit that does all of those things, and more, in a single unit about half the size and weight of a comparably outfitted Nagra. The lack of editing equipment designed specifically for DAT will be no deterrent to its use by any major studio, because those that aren't already equipped with suitable equipment for their big studio PCM systems can readily afford to obtain it.

As for the anticipated (by some) DAT revolution, I just do not see it happening. DAT has enough going for it that it will find its niches in those areas where it is better suited for the job than anything else, but those areas will, I feel, remain forever outside the mainstream (footnote 4). The DAT promoter's dream of a player in every car and on every jogger's belt is, I suspect, no more likely to come true than the music industry's nightmare of every kid down the block mass-producing DAT copies of the latest hit CD for all his DAT-equipped friends. Yes, DAT will catch on, but it will never catch fire.

Of course, I could be wrong.—J. Gordon Holt



Footnote 1: I am ignoring those idiots whose criterion of fi in a car is its ability to induce bleeding from the ears. Few of them have any hearing left above 4kHz anyway.

Footnote 2: Casio, which has no CD-player market to support, introduced a miniature portable DAT recorder weighing less than 1kg at the Tokyo Audio Fair last October. At the equivalent of $1100, this costs half the price of competing models from Sony and Matsushita. Casio must see DAT as a natural extension of their high profile in the amateur music-making market.—John Atkinson

Footnote 3: Audiophiles with $3000 phono units may sneer at this assertion, but when J.Q. Public compared CD sound with what he was getting from his $79.50 record player, the difference was staggering, and persuasive. And it is the general public, not the audiophile, that determines the commercial success of an audio product.

Footnote 4: It is estimated that, despite all the hoopla, only 30,000 DAT recorders were sold in 1987, nearly all in Japan.

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