Although routine these days, the idea of recording high quality digital audio on to a computer was the stuff of wonder thirty years ago. Even two decades back, it was only for big budget techno-whiz producers like Trevor Horn. Instead, the recording industry’s first mass foray into high technology was with Digital Audio Tape…
Developed in the mid-1980s by Sony and Philips, when the very first machines hit the Japanese market in 1987, DAT seemed like rocket science. Compact Disc was still the eighth wonder of the world, but to have a digital recording medium that (well healed) enthusiasts could afford was heaven itself! Back then, optical disc recording (CD-R) was almost a reality, but it cost massive amounts and was utterly impractical for studio use.
Because CD-quality digital music contained (what seemed at the time to be) such a high volume of data (over 5 megabytes of data per minute before error correction and supplementary information), the solution was to use a rotary-head where the read/write head span diagonally across the tape (i.e. helical scan), ‘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 (180 minute DAT tapes would ‘wind’ from one end to the other in under 60 seconds, bless!).
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.
By the mid-nineties, the format had achieved considerable commercial success, although where it made the biggest impression was in small to medium sized recording studios, where it was used as a mastering medium. That’s where many examples of the XD-S1100 ended up. Easy to use, fuss-free and well built, it didn’t suffer the reliability issues of some rivals. The only trouble is finding one that hasn’t been worn out, but keep your eyes peeled and it’s £100 or so well spent if you’re a DAT fan.