DAT RIP? So long, and thanks for all the MP3s.

According to Engadget and this Japanese press release Sony has finally killed Digital Audio Tape, ending production of the final model, introduced in 1997.

DAT is really the grandfather of MP3. It was the first digital recording medium offered to the public, and it scared the bejeezus out of the recording industry, just like file-trading does now. In fact, DAT was available in Japan for several years before it came to the US in the late 80s. That arrival occured only after Congress mandated the Serial Copy Management System (SCMS), which all consumer digital audio recorders are required to have, that limits the number of pure digital copies can be made of a master.

SCMS currently lives on with minidisc recorders and CD recorder decks, but not with CD-R drives which are exempted because they are primarily data devices.

DAT records CD-quality uncompressed digital audio onto little tapes using a system similar to VCRs. It never caught on with the general public largely because it remained expensive–the transport is much more complex than cassettes–and tended to be prone to breakdowns. The delayed introduction and fear-mongering on behalf of the RIAA didn’t help either.

But DAT was embraced by recording studios, home recordists and hard-core concert tapers. Years before computer-based digital recording was feasible for anyone without at least 10 grand to spare, DAT gave the ability to record true CD-quality digital audio for around a grand. Indeed, DAT was one of the first devices (along with the 4-track cassette recorder) to really level the playing field for home and small studio recording. On top of that, portable DAT walkmen recorders were available right from the start, providing a level of mobility that was impossible with reel-to-reel tape (the other high-quality recording medium available to consumers) with a quality outclassing analog cassette.

Minidisc stole some of DATs thunder when it was introduced in 1992, especially in Japan and Asia, where MD overtook both cassettes and DAT. MD uses compression, like MP3 and most internet audio, unlike DAT, but updates to the format give it sound comparable to DAT — and last year’s update to Hi-MD, which allows uncompressed recording, makes it DAT’s equal.

And now we finally have high-quailty recorders put uncompressed digital audio to compact flash cards and hard drives, in addition to the portable CD-R recorders that have been available for a few years.

The end of DAT is really one of the last nails in the coffin for the professional/production use of audio tape. Sony says that it will still repair existing units, and there will certainly be a decent trade in used machines for years to come. Studios will continue to keep working machines, since they likely have archives of DAT tape, and I’m certain clients who don’t own machines will walk in with tapes they want to copy.

But, like reel-to-reel, DAT will be a legacy device. Studios still use multitrack analog tape and some types of large-format digital audio tape, but increasingly this is only the domain of either high-end studios or very specialized niche studios. The mainstream studio records to hard drives, by and large.

Even if DAT never became a popular widespread format, it really kicked off the availability of digital recording for the masses. The big DAT scare of the late 80s made it much less of a big deal when minidisc and CD recorders came on the scene–the RIAA figured it already had them licked… little did they know.







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