For long-form digital recording, try a cheap DAT(e)

Here at Mikerophonography, recording high quality audio on the cheap — getting good sound down in a reliable, high quality way without spending a ton — is at the heart of what we do. Using technology of yesteryear is one good way to do that.

Digital Audio Tape — DAT for short — was the be-all, end-all of digital recording about a decade ago. DAT records in 16 bit at 48K — higher than CD quality — onto a tape about the size of a MiniDV cassette. Until recently, DAT was what project studios mastered to prior to sending finished material off for duplication; in fact, many studios still output to DAT for final mixes.

Sony DTC-790
Sony DTC-790 DAT Recorder

I came upon a Sony DTC-790 (high consumer level) DAT recorder on eBay about two years ago; ended up paying about $90 for it, far less than I paid for my old cassette deck! This machine has analog audio ins & outs, optical S/PDIF ins & outs and coax S/PDIF in (only wish it had coax out, too, but they’re available). It can record at 48kHz, 44.1kHz and long form (32k) from the optical, coax or analog ins.

When I bought it, I didn’t use it much because DAT media was costing anywhere from $4-8, depending on length. Then I read that DDS tape backup cartridges — DAT tape cassettes used to hold data instead of audio — worked great in audio recorders, as long as they were no more than 120 meter (90’s preferred). A visit to a flea market netted two boxes of Sony DG90MAs for what worked out to be 75 cents a piece. Since then, I’ve tried Seagate 90s and HP 120s with good results.

There are lots of folks selling still-sealed DDS or DDS2 tapes on eBay, often for under $1 or $2 each. Why so cheap? These tapes can only back up 4-12 GBs each. Ten years ago, that was a lot of data. Today, it’s a sneeze.

I like the Sony and Fujifilm ones best, but as long as they’re from a manufacturer with a good rep, you should be fine. IMPORTANT: Don’t go for the DDS 3 or 4 tapes — they get too long and thin; you’ll also pay more for them, because they’re still in use in data settings.

The 90 meter tapes net about two and half hours of digital audio at 48k; the 120s go more than three-plus. I do radio programs at WDIY-FM; utilizing the DAT recorder there, I can fit an entire 3-hour show on a single tape, in pristine audio quality. It takes three blank CDRs or MiniDiscs to do the same thing and the DAT’s audio quality is better.

For guitar practice, this rig can’t be beat. I plug mics or my POD 2.0 into a 4-channel mixer, then run either the tape outs or main outs via RCAs into the back of the DAT. I can play and record for an hour or two without worrying about chewing up hard drive space on my computer; I just check the levels, set it to record and forget about it.

Reviewing what I’ve taped is a breeze, too. The fast forward and reverse is similar to MiniDisc in that it lets you hear what’s going on in when scrubbing forward or back. Then, if I find something I particularly like, I can then copy it to my computer and edit further.

So if you’re looking for a cheap way to do long-form recording, find yourself a DAT recorder on eBay, get some DDS cartridges and go to town!