For keen amateur recordists everywhere, 1992 was a special year. In the diminutive shape of the TCD-D3, Sony introduced its first ever DAT portable, offering better-than-CD quality digital recording on the move for under £600. Contrary to popular belief though, it wasn’t the first ever DATman. Denon pipped Sony to the post for that accolade, but buyers who waited six months for the latter weren’t disappointed. Here was a remarkably complete and capable machine, one of those seminal designs that has never really been bettered…
Running from an AC adapter and without its bulky BP-D3 NiCad battery pack, the Sony was remarkably petite, smaller than all its rivals and even the model that replaced it two years later. And like all first generation products from Sony, it was better made than it needed to be. The casing was beautifully pressed from gunmetal grey painted aluminium, rather than the plastic of the subsequent TCD-D7 and TCD-D8.
It was also remarkably easy to use. With top mounted transport controls and a large, easily readable and comprehensive backlit display mounted on the lid, there was none of the clutter of full size DAT recorders. All minor controls were easy to reach, with handy thumbwheels for manual recording level and volume, push buttons for start ID write and display mode and sockets headphones, line in and out, microphone in and mic phantom power.
Best of all was its sound. Unlike other DAT portables, its had the unusual combination of Bitstream analogue-to-digital converter with a multibit DAC, which made for a refined yet highly musical sound. Hooked up to a decent electret condenser mic you got superb live recordings – clean, smooth, and meticulously detailed, it was a dream come true for bootleggers. A freshly charged battery pack gave a useful two hours recording time – quite enough for a long gig with several encores! Via its analogue ins there was surprisingly little change from the source – with just a slight drying out and ‘tidying up’ of the sound, and a gentle pulling forward of instruments at the very back of the soundstage.
Digital copies were also to an extremely high quality too, but the machine’s range of digital inputs was limited. Rather than coming with TOSLINK or coaxial jacks, special connecting leads were needed, and these were expensive. Still, the optional RM-D3K digital adapter gave coaxial and optical ins and outs, timer compatibility and full infra-red remote control with direct track access, if you had an extra £200.
Sony later offered the SBM-1, which plugged into the D3’s digital accessory socket and gave even better, Super Bit Mapped recording from analogue sources. For £400 this adapter would coax every last drop from DAT’s 16-bit, 48kHz specification, and the results were highly impressive with an almost open-reel tape-like sound.
Although a very well-rounded product, the little Sony still had the odd operational quirk, which wasn’t ironed out until the advent of the TCD-D7. There was no automatic recording level control, which was a nuisance if you wanted to record interviews or seminars without having to bother about levels. Nor was there DAT’s useful date and time stamping, or the facility to run the machine from standard alkaline AA batteries – if you forgot to charge up your battery pack on the neat combined AC adapter/charger, you could forget about mobile operation.
In its defence though, many DAT aficionados actually feel its successor was a retrograde step. The TCD-D7’s digital controlled headphone driver gives very poor sound quality compared to the D3’s beefy all-analogue output stage. And there’s also the question of durability. The D3’s transport wasn’t very tolerant of poor DAT tapes, and sometimes even had problems with the thin tape used in DAT120s, but it was a robust, metal diecast affair which seems to have stood the test of time better than the plasticky items used in TCD-D7s and 8s.
Second-hand prices of around £150 for a minter make the TCD-D3 a bargain. Still, as with all DAT machines, make sure the one you’re buying has been carefully looked after. If not, a new transport mechanism costs at least £250, and then you’re looking at several hours of labour – DATs aren’t exactly user serviceable! Pick up a good example though, and you’ll wonder how you ever lived without the smartest, cutest, and most handy digital recorder of the nineteen nineties.