Aiwa XD-S1100

Aiwa XD-S1100$It might seem routine these days, but the idea of recording digital audio on to a computer hard drive was the stuff of wonder thirty years ago. And even two decades back, it was only for big budget techno-whiz producers like Trevor Horn. The recording industry’s first mass foray into high technology was with Digital Audio Tape in the late nineteen eighties – only then did it become affordable for most recording professionals. Developed in the mid of that decade by Sony, the very first DAT machines hit the Japanese market in 1987 and seemed like rocket science. Compact Disc was still the eighth wonder of the world, but to have a digital recording medium that enthusiasts could afford seemed a miracle. Back then, optical disc recording (CD-R) was just becoming a reality, but was hugely expensive and utterly impractical for studio use – so DAT ruled, okay…

Because CD-quality digital music contained so much data (over 5 megabytes of data per minute before error correction and supplementary information), squeezing onto a tape meant that a rotary-head was needed – where the read/write head span diagonally across the tape, helically scanned ‘VHS’ style. The proper name for the format, then, was ‘R-DAT’, where ‘R’ for rotary distinguished it from ‘S-DAT’, a stationary design that did not make it out of the lab. DAT machines were effectively a cross between conventional cassette decks (inasmuch as they had a tape drive) and CD players (because they then used digital filters, digital to analogue convertors and then analogue output stages). They offered a number of operational refinements – as well as no more azimuth problems or bias and record EQ set up issues (all factory pre-set), there was a wealth of sub-code information (like track numbering, real time counters, track search) as well as far faster spooling.

Digital Audio Tape shells were about half the size of Compact Cassette, and protected by a hinged door like a VHS videotape. Upon playing, the door was opened and the tape pulled out and wrapped around the spinning head. Tapes ranged from 12 to180 minutes, doubled by mono recording. The 16bit, 48kHz resolution offered theoretically better sound than CD (frequency Response 2-22KHz (+-0.5dB), S/N ratio: 93 dB), and even in 16bit, 32kHz LP mode was perfectly acceptable.

Aiwa’s XD-S1100 was the company’s third generation machine – the first generation (the EXCELIA, launched in March 1987) was actually the very first commercially available DAT recorder. The ‘1100 arrived in November 1990 in its native Japan, and sold reasonably well, somewhat overshadowed by the more sexy (but less reliable) Sony variants. DAT was a big thing amongst serious audiophiles in Japan, and many bought machines to replace their ageing Cassette machines or open reels. The arrival of Sony’s TCD-3 DAT portable in May 1991 took it out of the home and onto the streets, and several companies even made car DAT players too.

By the mid-nineties, the format had achieved considerable – if not runaway – commercial success, although it must be said that where it made the biggest impression was in small to medium sized recording studios, where it was used as a mastering medium. Engineers routinely dumped analogue multitracks to DAT for mastering to CD. To wit, almost all nineties music releases have gone via DAT at some stage in their creation. This doesn’t really hurt CD versions – because DAT has a higher digital resolution – but folk listening to modern vinyl pressings can all too easily hear that trademark dry, ‘over clean’ 16/48 sound. Still, as a retro recording medium, the XD-S1100 makes excellent tapes – only a Nakamichi CR7E, ZX-9 or Dragon cassette deck betters it, unless you’ve got a good, well set up open reel recorder, of course. It’s easy to use, fuss free, reasonably well built and doesn’t suffer the reliability issues of some rivals so much. Not bad for something costing under £200 in the classifieds…

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