As its name suggests, Pioneer has often played a leading role in new formats and technologies. In the nineteen seventies, it came up with some cracking turntables, from 1974’s PL-12D budget deck right up to 1978’s PL-L1000 high end parallel tracker. Its open reel tape decks (RT-707, RT-909) led the way in user-friendliness thanks to superb quartz-locked, direct drive auto-reverse transports, and it was a big shot in cassette too, making decks that pushed the format to the limit and gave it that all-important audiophile respectability (CTF-950, CTF-1000). Then there was LaserDisc, which Pioneer virtually single-handedly made its own.
So when Digital Audio Tape arrived in 1987, it didn’t come as a huge surprise to find the company right behind the new format. The D-1000 was the company’s first effort introduced in April of that year. Built like a lead-clad brick outhouse and finished in classic eighties black with rosewood side-cheeks, it both looked and sounded the part. Pioneer followed it up with the cheaper D-900, and then the D-50 and D-80, all of which offered sleeker ergonomics and more svelte nineties styling. These all sold well, but the company’s first real push into the big league was in October 1992, when Pioneer came up with a fiendishly good idea…
The D-07 borrowed an idea from the old days of analogue tape. Back in the late seventies, Marantz launched a cassette deck that offered a choice of two speeds – either the standard 4.75cm/s or 9.5cm/s. Obviously, double speed used the tape twice as fast, but offered stunning sound quality, particularly with the (then) new metal tape formulations. With the D-07, Pioneer did exactly the same, which in the digital domain equated to upping the sampling frequency from DAT’s standard 48kHz to 96kHz. Thus was born the first ‘Super DAT’ recorder.
Two things determine the quality of a digital recording – bit depth and sampling frequency. The former prescribes the dynamic range and resolution of the sound, the latter determines the frequency response and – indirectly – high frequency distortion. Raising the sampling rate moves the upper end of the frequency range (where PCM is most ragged and distortion-prone) higher away from the audio band, making more a smoother, more natural and atmospheric sound. While Pioneer couldn’t increase DAT’s bit depth from its existing sixteen bits without completely voiding its specification, fitting a front panel switch allowing users to push up the sampling frequency to 96kHz was a clever wheeze. Users could choose 48kHz (or 44.1kHz or 32kHz) as per DAT’s existing specifications, but could double the data rate for particularly high quality recordings. The trade-off was of course that the playing time of the tape was reduced by half, but a 120 minute DAT tape would still give an hour’s continuous recording, so all was not lost.
Unlike Sony’s Super Bit Mapping (SBM) system, which dithered the least significant bit to squeeze a little extra from DAT’s 16bit digital word, S-DAT wasn’t compatible with all DAT machines, but in its defence, it gave dramatically better results. The flat frequency curve from 25-44,000Hz made for a beautifully smooth and open sound – far better than that of Compact Disc and any rival DAT machine, for that matter.
These days you’ll have to look hard for a D-07. Although most remain in Japan, some do come up from time to time in Europe and the USA as recording studios or home musicians sell their gear. It was a big (440x141x375mm), heavy (8kg) and expensive (£1,500) machine when new, so don’t expect to get it for nothing. Find a good one for under £200 however and you’ll have a brilliantly effective way of recording analogue music, and something of a retro curio too.