WHAT'S DAT? YET ANOTHER AUDIO INNOVATION

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Still in a quandary over whether to convert your vinyl record collection to compact disc? Hold off a wee bit longer and you can own a machine that plays DATs.

DATs -- digital audio tapes -- play up to four hours of music without anyone's ever having to flip them over. When it comes to sound quality, nothing like it has ever existed.

Compared with compact discs, DATs are even more compact, measuring about 1 by 2 inches. One of the big faults of CD players, especially in cars or in Walkman form, is that they skip when jostled. The sounds from a DAT do not waver no matter how deep the pothole you drive or jog into.

Unlike standard audio cassettes, DATs do not hiss. Anyone who has listened to a regular cassette through a Walkman has heard the background whooosh between cuts on an album. DATs offer crystal-clear recording with astoundingly low signal-to-noise ratio and 1/100th the distortion of audio cassettes.

Needless to say, DATs are in high demand by audiophiles.

"To most people, digital audio tape is an extremely good tape, the way a CD is an extremely high-quality record," says Brian Hudkins, owner of Gramophone Ltd., a stereophonic equipment dealer in Baltimore and Columbia.

"Upon hearing a DAT, customers say that the sound is as good as a CD. But DATs can perform in some ways that CDs and audio cassettes cannot."

Take your average cassette deck. The longest you can listen to music -- provided the deck has an auto reverse feature -- is 90 minutes. And say you only want to hear songs No. 3, No. 8 and No. 1, in that order. You're out of luck -- unless you have a programmable DAT machine that makes getting around the tape easier.

By pressing a few buttons, the DAT machine knows which albums cuts you want to hear, whizzing right by the ones you dislike.

Compact disc players let you program track orders, too. But as of now, you cannot record onto them. You can, however, record from CD to DAT, capturing the CD's clarity.

"The people that come in looking for a DAT player already have a CD player," says Mr. Hudkins. "But they want the ability to make their own tapes. The DAT is an evolution of that."

How does the digital audio tape recording process differ from that of standard tape?

"The perfect quality of sound reproduction on DAT is a factor of its digital nature," says Jim Disney, manager of Stansbury Audio in Dundalk. "Using standard tape, you are actually recording the sound right on to the tape, in analog fashion. But recording music digitally means that a series of commands is transferred to the digital tape. The machine reads these commands and expresses them as the music you have recorded."

The conversion of music to digital is a two-step process, adds Richard Krueger, a spokesman for the Sony Corp. of America, a company that manufactures DATs.

First, the music is divided into discrete segments or samples. In the DAT format, each second of music is broken into 48,000 samples. Each sample is assigned a 16-bit binary code, similar to computer data. This process is called quantizing. The combination of sampling and quantizing enables virtually any signal to be coded with incredible accuracy, whether it is Leonard Bernstein or Faith No More. The DAT format records over 3 million bits of information for every second of music.

"The whole process is similar to a puzzle," says Mr. Krueger. "Each sample is like a piece of a puzzle. The puzzle can be disassembled and reassembled as often as desired. But each time the puzzle is assembled, it looks exactly like it did the first time."

You cannot say the same for vinyl records or audio cassettes, which wear out over time.

Standard audio, or analog, tape has been used since World War IIand was designed primarily for dictation. It is now nearly fully developed, as good as it is ever going to be, limiting future improvements to minor changes.

Analog tapes' inherent limitations -- signal-to-noise ratio, for example -- are caused by several factors: the interaction of the tape and the deck; the basic limitations of the recording and the playback head electronics; and the tape itself.

"DAT eliminates many of these problems by recording a representation of the music rather than the music itself," says Mr. Krueger. "As a result, the music is re-created after the tape/head interaction, in the electronics of the machine."

But digital or not, any tape can tear, rot or clog the rollers and guides inside a tape deck. Compact discs are touted as eternal -- they will supposedly last forever with proper treatment.

DATs still have it over regular tape because they feature protective covers for the tape, a high-quality shell and user recording tabs. The DAT tape is also made from a new tape formulation called "metal" tape that is significantly higher in quality than a standard cassette tape, from both a recording and structural standpoint. Metal tape has nearly seven times the shelf life of normal oxide tape.

Despite their desirability in audiophile terms, DATs did not enter the U.S. market with ease. In this day of copying videotapes with ease, the ability to copy audio events with lifelike quality has been the albatross around DAT's neck since its inception.

In June 1988, Japanese manufacturers of DATs and American record companies struck a deal that would limit the consumers' ability to copy digital audio tapes. In exchange, the record companies would welcome the new technology that it previously gave the cold shoulder.

But somebody forgot to ask the songwriters -- whose work is recorded on the tapes -- if they wanted a piece of the platter.

In addition, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) complained that if the public was given the technological means to reproduce CDs perfectly, record sales would plummet and artists and songwriters would not be fairly compensated for their work.

The RIAA has for years tried to keep DAT technology out of the United States, maintaining that home taping already costs the industry $1.5 billion in lost sales. Besides royalties paid to artists and writers, industry groups also want to be paid for each blank DAT sold.

The current agreement, which took a Senate subcommittee to sort out last summer, says that DAT recorders must contain a microchip that prevents consumers from making digital copies of their DATs -- although consumers would still be able to make as many DAT copies from CDs as they wanted.

New machines now add an inaudible signal that keeps the newly recorded DAT tape from being digitally rerecorded. While this certainly will not abort all pirating efforts, the agreement did allow Japanese companies to set sail for the United States, ready to pack DAT machines on the shelves of stereo shops.

If you are looking to buy a DAT machine, prepare yourself for a wide range of prices -- and high ones at that. But, if you remind yourself of color TVs, CDs and personal computers, the rule is: expensive now, cheap later -- like after the Christmas season.

Gramophone Ltd. has a Nakamichi DAT that costs $11,000. But for $900, you can get a perfectly decent Sony DTC-700 for your living room.

The real excitement, however, may lie in the portability of DAT. Some manufacturers have focused their marketing efforts on personal DATs and car DATs.

The Sony TCD-D3 DAT Walkman weighs less than a pound sans battery and will be available next year for $850. While the unit has outstanding dynamic range and frequency response, it is still not in CD's quality class. But it is far better than existing stereo FMs in terms of dynamic range and better than low-price analog cassette players.

Says Bryan Harrell of Stereo Review magazine, "Sony intends thisformat for use in voice recording, just as Philips originally intended its compact cassette format for dictation. No doubt the first products will be expensive. But considering the high-fidelity audio quality and its astonishing compactness, it takes only a little leap of imagination to envision a digital Walkman the size of a credit card."

The popularity of car audio systems makes DAT a logical format. With increasingly complex sound systems being installed in smaller and smaller cars, space is key. With DATs, you can stash enough tapes in your glove compartment to drive from Baltimore to L.A. and back and not replay a single track.

Sony's new car DAT, the DTX-10, at $1,100, incorporates an AM/FM tuner along with DAT playability. Casio, Clarion, Kenwood and Alpine also have units for car use. Casio also offers a portable unit that weighs under 3 pounds and measures 9 by 6 inches. It has a display that shows the elapsed time from the beginning of the tape, the amount of time remaining on the tape, and the amount of time for each selection. It costs under $1,000.

In terms of buying your favorite new album in DAT format, do not rush to the corner record store. Album titles are limited and typically available only by ordering through stereo shops.

Sony Classical, formerly CBS Masterworks, is releasing 10 albums, at $19.95 each, that include musicians such as Vladimir Horowitz and works of composers like Mahler and Paganini.

Delta Music, in Los Angeles, has a small list on the Capriccio label for $28 each that can be ordered by calling (213) 479-0667.

Jazz, ranging from Glenn Miller to Chick Corea, can be obtained through GRP Records in New York at (212) 245-7033.

Even though the flow of DAT albums is but a trickle today, you are in better straits than the owners of the first CD players in 1983.

"Back then, their were only 13 CD titles available," says Gramophone's Hudkins. "With DAT blank tapes, you can record anything you want."

Those who want to archive their vinyl collections can record them on DAT and put many albums and literally hundreds of 45's on one tape. This preserves the music and allows you to place them in any order you want.

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