Saying "No" to Death

by Eddie Ciletti

  Lots of people are predicting the death of digital tape. I'll spare you the Mark Twain quote. Analog tape is still here and so are vacuum tubes. Like mashed potatoes and medical coverage, many audio enthusiasts make choices based on "comfort and insurance." Linear tape provides both, in analog and digital form.

All of the new hard disk recorders are cool (see my review of the Fostex D-2424) because as dedicated devices they behave like tape machines only faster. Random access has a way of making rewind and fast forward obsolete, locating is instantaneous and looping a piece of cake. Hard drives are super-affordable now - "hard" to imagine all that technology costs about the same as a reel of two-inch - for that matter, can you tell me how a 20-gig hard drive can cost less than a pair of Sony headphones? Short-term storage is affordable, but the most logical long-term storage - DVD - is not yet the cheap fast fude that CDRs have become.

In my opinion, all of this newer technology should be used in parallel with the "older stuff" as a way of passing the torch without fear of losing the flame in a sudden downpour. Just the other day I got a call from a guy who just purchased the Tascam / Time Line MX-2424. He was wondering what he could get for his DA-88s. A used DA-88 without an SY-88 sync card is worth the street price of a DA-38 less the cost of an overhaul that includes a new head. The machine and the surgery weigh in at between $750 and $850 each. He's going to keep at least one machine for transfers.

Nothing will ever compare to the global compatibility of analog tape. Consider that anyone with a machine shop and some electronics skills could build a compatible analog recorder. While several manufacturers built DAT decks, only Tascam ever built DTRS machines (even the Sony PCM-800) and only Alesis manufactured adat compatibles (including those by Fostex, Panasonic and Studer) with the minor exception of some faceplates and peripherals.

Workstation technology is just out of diapers, a work in progress. No one loves his workstation more than I do, but nothing beats the convenience of popping in a tape and pressing "Play." In the spirit of analog and digital tape compatibility - as well as DSP emulation of our favorite pieces of vintage gear - file and session compatibility is the warm and fuzzy target to achieve. It is imperative to have the ability to recognize, import and export multiple recording formats along with the edit decision list.

For those who are still embracing tape, this month's close up is the Tascam DA-78HR 24-bit eight-track recorder. Tascam chose a different path for DTRS than it did for their 24-bit DAT deck, the DA-45, which runs at double the 16-bit tape speed. Instead, they enhanced the recording and playback electronics as well as the DSP that decodes the signal from tape. At minimum, they preserved one of the key features of the DTRS format - its long recording time - especially when compared to the adat.

While this is not a review, I did link the DA-78HR to a DA-88 and a DA-98 interfacing a pair of machines, via TDIF, with the Soundscape MIXTREME card and Cool Edit Pro. One thing is consistent about the DTRS format - these machines consistently and quickly lock up to each other very well.

Whenever DATA is being exchanged - through wire, ether, disc or tape - there is a minimum quality required to deliver an un-compromised signal. I call the useable information above the minimum, "data headroom." You want headroom in both the analog domain and in the digital domain - to avoid clipping and the nasty hash, respectively. Digital tape, CDs and DVDs are capable of maintaining the data stream even with dropouts, fingerprints and scratches. Redundant data is encoded into the stream to make the process more robust.

That said, the challenge of squeezing more information into the same physical space places more emphasis on the media and ultimately its relationship with the transport. For example, a 16-bit DTRS user may find that a 24-bit machine may have its own tape preference.

At one time, some early DA-88s did not perform well with FUJI (and TDK) tape until a resistor change made the machine more tolerant. Now, Tascam ships FUJI DPD-series Metal Particle tape with its 24-bit machines. In between, Tascam approved a formulation for tape manufacturers allowing them use of the DTRS logo and making the choice easy for the end-user. Maxell tape works well also. Still, I was curious to know whether there was much difference between FUJI tape and the other previously approved DTRS formulations.

Reprinted with permission from Eddie Ciletti, Tangible Technology, 2001
2001, All Rights Reserved

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