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
Monday 13 July 1992
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.
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