Sunday, January 6, 2013

Forgotten Cassette Formats-Another View Of Analog VS Digital

A recent e-mail conversation about computer data and audio recordings switching places (listening to computer data tapes, including software as a track on a music album) reminded me of seeing cassettes in record stores in the early 1990's labeled "Digalog."

At the time I remember being told Digalog (or DIGalog) was a digital format that also recreated the analog wave on the tape.  Thus it did an end run around some of the sonic weaknesses of cassette tapes while maintaining their convenience and 100% compatibility with the then ubiquitous cassette players.  It turns out this is less than half true.  Digalog was just an improved duplication method.  The part of what I was told that was true was that it used digital technology to improve the sound of pre-recorded cassette tapes.  In stead of duplicating tapes from other analog tapes they were recorded from digital recordings stored in the duplication machines.  This eliminated the deterioration that happens to analog duplication masters and had various other benefits.

I had a really hard time finding this information.  My guess is that people who write about music and technology had already written off the cassette tape by the time Digalog came on the scene so they don't remember it.  The technology gets discussed from time to time on audio and music discussion forums, but I wanted something beyond an individual's memory.  I ended up someplace I did not expect--old issues of Billboard.

Google Books has decades of Billboard archived and searchable.  Between Google Books and a library database I found several early 1990's articles, mostly in Billboard, discussing Digalog, related technologies and, more interestingly, its perceived significance at the time.  

In the early 90's cassettes were flagging as a format for selling music.  We still bought blanks to make mix tapes but for buying albums the CD was taking over.  The convenience and moderate cost of cassettes was less important as CD players became more affordable and ubiquitous.  The sound quality penalty of a skinny tape running at 1 7/8 inches per second was acceptable to fewer and fewer people.  We also still thought CDs were indestructible.  Most of us had yet to see the foil peel off of one[1].

CDs were more expensive than cassettes both on the manufacturing side and in retail price, but the gap was closing.  For people who still didn't want to pay the premium for CDs the record companies needed a way to increase the perceived value of cassettes.  This is what the articles in Billboard are about.  Digalog improved the sound quality of cassettes considerably and only added incrementally to manufacturing cost.  

The articles, "Labels Try Higher Quality Cassettes" by Susan Nunziata (July 4, 1992, p6) for example, focus on whether or not Digalog is worth the trouble.  Various representatives of labels and retailers weigh in on whether or not their was a need for better sounding pre-recorded cassettes and what effect better sound quality might have on retail prices.  A nearly identical (same idea, same benefits) competitor to Digalog is also mentioned.

What I find most interesting is repeated references to DCC.  I had to look it up.  It stands for Digital Compact Cassette and it was going to change everything.  It was in the running along with DAT and MiniDisk to be the convenient, recordable counterpart to the CD, replacing the cassette tape.  If you follow such things you know that DAT and MiniDisk both have had respectable runs as niche products. 

What was supposed to make DCC tear up the marketplace was that the players were backward compatible with standard analog cassette tapes.  That sounds like a really good idea and I can see why people thought it was going to be not only successful but possibly a really big deal.  Now, twenty years later, DCC is the only technology I have mentioned in this post that is less remembered than Digalog.  

I doubt we will ever be able to look at new technologies and know which ones will gain traction and which won't.  It was really strange to read these articles and hear people say that this technology I couldn't even remember was about to change everything.  If anybody reading this has or had a DCC deck I'd be very interested to hear what you have to say about it.  (djdualcore@gmail.com)

...what might have been.

[1] That particular problem is mostly associated with cheap recordable media, but replicated optical disks can also fail with age.  The first time someone told me about a CD oxidizing I didn't believe them.

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