Science: I have heard the future - Justin Keery believes that the imminent launch of the DCC, or digital compact cassette, will revitalise the music industry's approach to tapes

SECOND-HAND shops abound with the remains of attempts by the electronics and recording industries to set new standards. Remember Betamax? Video 2000? More recently, how many bought the CD video? A couple of these turkeys have found a niche: Video 8 as a home-movie medium, LaserDisc and its derivatives in the embryonic multi-media industry.

Next month, Philips, the inventors of the cassette as we know it, will distribute demonstration copies of its possible replacement to selected British shops. On 1 September, the DCC, or digital compact cassette, together with the new DCC players, will go on public sale throughout the country. Only a year ago British people were being offered DAT (digital audio tape) and they hardly noticed. Does this new contender have what it takes to make its way on to the nation's hips, kitchen worktops and dashboards as well as into the exclusive racks of the hi-fi fiends? Or will it join the ranks of the techno-turkeys?

The designers of DCC appear to have done their homework, combating DAT's main problem: because DAT demanded such enormous data storage its mechanism had to be as complicated as a video recorder. DCC avoids this by cutting down the amount of data stored on the tape. Using signal processing technology not available when the CD was invented, the DCC recorder removes sounds that the human ear cannot distinguish. In a crowded pub, for example, although it would be impossible to hear what somebody two tables away is saying, a digital tape recorder would pick up the whole conversation. However, if you were to listen to the tape at home you still would not be able to make out the conversation because of the pub's background noise. In effect, DCC would record only the background noise and not the conversation.

This compression process is known as PASC (Precision Adaptive Sub-Coding), and was perfected using the 'golden ears' of the finest recording engineers as a reference, rather than machines. Suffice to say that an orchestral piece that had been through coding and decoding 100 times was still hard to fault in any way, and is beyond comparison with an ordinary cassette.

Your wrinkly cassette tapes, little changed since the Sixties, are safe, however. One side of a DCC head carries the nine tracks required for digital sound, the other side has two tracks that will play your old tapes astonishingly well, using new, thin-film head technology. The new tapes themselves are the same size but look very different.

When playing a DCC, the compressed digital data is converted to the same format as the digits read from a CD, so the final sound is rendered by chip technology that has matured over 10 years. The digital feed from a CD player can be connected to a DCC recorder, allowing you to make outstanding digital recordings which even copy the track-searching information that has made CD so popular. Of course, it is too good to be true, which is why every machine will be fitted with a Serial Copy Management System (SCMS). This will allow one digital recording, but an attempt to copy this to another machine would result in a rude message on your display, and an uncooperative record button. When recording from a non-digital source, the DCC can achieve higher resolution than CD by taking more digital 'slices' per second, each with greater detail.

The DCC is a natural for the karaoke party. An extra track on the tape holds pages of information in a form similar to teletext. The lofty Mozart cassette may carry a lengthy biography of the composer to browse through, but the Kylie Minogue DCC can offer time-synchronised lyrics on your TV, or on the LCD display of a remote control. Needless to say, the player can tell you what you are listening to and find tracks instantly using this information as well.

The offer of technical superiority and compatibility with existing tapes is still not enough to woo the public, however. Betamax may have been a superior home-video recording format, but it was better marketing by the VHS camp that secured the film industry's widespread support.

DCC's trump card is a Polygram factory in the Netherlands, tooled up to manufacture a wide range of pre-recorded material in time for launch. Such is the industry's determination to see the format succeed that Polygram will be manufacturing other labels' music (160 record companies are committed to releasing DCCs) until they get the duplication equipment.

The traditional head design makes high-speed duplication of pre-recorded DCCs as easy as ordinary cassettes. Duplicators will have to adhere to standards dictated by Philips that should ensure universal high quality. And because the technology is under licence and will be closely policed by the company, quality control should ensure that 'chewed' tapes are a thing of the past.

Because of the Walkman, we want music that goes anywhere. Because of the CD, our expectations of sound quality have risen enormously. Just as CDs revitalised the music industry as LPs went into decline, record companies are now betting on the DCC doing the same for the cassette.

The designers of the DCC appear to have taken everybody's views into account. Watch closely over the next couple of years - the technology involved is cheap, proven stuff, but the results are staggering. The projected launch prices look reasonable for a new black box of any kind, and ultimately there is every reason to expect a DCC portable to be cheaper than its CD counterpart - and that is well under pounds 100. I have heard the future, and it works.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Ugne, 32, is a Lithuanian bodybuilder
tvThey include a Lithuanian bodybuilder who believes 'cake is a sin' and the Dalai Lama's personal photographer
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon have just launched their new streaming service in the UK
Donald Trump
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Retail Team Leader - Clothing / Footwear

£18000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Does this sound like you? - Fri...

Recruitment Genius: Head Chef

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an indepe...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Services Team Leader

£18000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Area Manager - North West - Registered Charity

£31800 - £35400 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This registered charity's missi...

Day In a Page

Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

Solved after 200 years

The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

Sunken sub

Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

Age of the selfie

Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

Not so square

How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

Still carrying the torch

The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

...but history suggests otherwise
The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

The bald truth

How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

Tour de France 2015

Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

A new beginning for supersonic flight?

Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash
I would never quit Labour, says Liz Kendall

I would never quit party, says Liz Kendall

Latest on the Labour leadership contest
Froome seals second Tour de France victory

Never mind Pinot, it’s bubbly for Froome

Second Tour de France victory all but sealed
Oh really? How the 'lowest form of wit' makes people brighter and more creative

The uses of sarcasm

'Lowest form of wit' actually makes people brighter and more creative
A magazine editor with no vanity, and lots of flair

No vanity, but lots of flair

A tribute to the magazine editor Ingrid Sischy
Foraging: How the British rediscovered their taste for chasing after wild food

In praise of foraging

How the British rediscovered their taste for wild food