For the best part of fifty years, the music industry sold physical products – 45RPM singles, LP records, cassettes and Compact Discs – in vast quantities to people who went to shops to buy them and take them home. Massive amounts of music were moved from manufacturing plants to distribution depots and then a network of retailers, most of which were on the high street of your local town. At the same time, it ran music charts – compiled by market research companies such as Gallup – which broadcasters closely relied on. What was hot, and what was not, informed record shops what to buy (to sell to their customers), and told radio stations what to play. It was a complex web, but it worked seamlessly and generated vast amounts of money for many people in the loop.
The ‘underbelly’ of the system was so-called ‘plugging’. Record companies employed people to go around radio stations and persuade them to play their new releases. Pluggers charmed station programmers, to get their wares on air. At the same time, the market research companies that compiled the music charts ran a network of designated ‘chart return’ record shops. In effect, if you bought your Adam and The Ants single in a particular store, it would count as a sale whereas in some other shops in didn’t. For nearly half a century, the music industry ran a tight ship – an ever repeating cycle of speculatively signing new artists up, recording and releasing their records, plugging them, getting them radio play, and then waiting for the sales – and hoping for a high chart position which would guarantee even more. Now though, in the past five or so years, that has all changed because of streaming.
In 2017, playlists are the order of the day – they have become the default mechanism by which vast numbers of people listen to their favourite music, and discover new material too. Instead of pluggers and radio station programme managers, music recommendation algorithms are being used to introduce us to new sounds; the idea being that if you like, say, Porcupine Tree, you may well discover a soft spot for Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. In other words, these clever bits of computer code number crunch vast amounts of people’s choices which are similar to your own in some key ways, and then recommend artists and albums you may not yet have heard of. In the old days, you either had to stand in a crowded record shop on Saturday afternoon for a few hours and chat to the owner, or have a big brother who didn’t mind sharing his own voyage of musical discovery with you.
Although computer-generated advice sounds like a great idea, there has been a strong movement against it. Music is such a personal thing, and is tied in with people’s view of themselves and their world. For example, although there are superficial similarities, many Genesis fans might not be happy to be recommended a Marillion LP. For that reason, a trend for ‘curated’ playlists has emerged, when real human experts carefully manage what they think fans of particular types of music will like. The likes of Beats Music (now Apple Music) have been very vocal about the importance of this. Other players such as Spotify have stayed with more advanced algorithms, with Discover Weekly and Release Radar. These are important for driving streams within the Spotify ecosystem, but curated playlists still remain key. To this end, we’re now seeing a business of pitching playlist owners – a sort of twenty first century music plugging…
Instead of the record companies trying to sniff out chart return stores for better sales, these days people concern themselves with ‘skip rates’. A company may be able to convince a streaming curator to include their track, but if too many people then skip it, it’s unlikely to go on other playlists. There’s also the importance of ranking order on a playlist; if a song is fairly low down, it may be played less but is less likely to be skipped, because many listeners will be running the stream as background music and in a more laid-back mood. By contrast, if the record companies pitch a new artist to the playlist curator and he puts it towards the top of the playlist, it’s likely to have a far higher skip-rate because people often want familiar hits to get them going. The secret for record labels pitching tracks to playlist curators is to find the right balance between audience size, number of streams, and skip rates.
Welcome then to the music industry, twenty first century-style. Fifty years ago, it was about pushing your new single on the radio and getting it into the shops on time. Now it’s about getting attention on the internet – using a successful online strategy that is able to grab and hold people’s attention via playlists on increasingly popular streaming services. The world is a different place.
When Sony introduced Digital Audio Tape thirty years ago, many people genuinely thought it to be the future of music. Looked at now though, DAT is an irrelevance – a long gone and largely forgotten curio from those awkward early days of consumer digital audio.
The year after its launch – 1988 – saw Compact Cassette replace the vinyl LP as Britain’s best selling music format. So the idea of another serial-access tape system, wasn’t necessarily a turn off back then. Indeed, many people thought DAT to be the very height of sophistication – its tape was fully enclosed from the outside world, less than half the size of cassette and able to carry up to 180 minutes of music. Better still, it was digital – which was of course the future of everything, as far as eighties punters were concerned. Digital fuel injection, digital watches, digital climate control, Digital Audio Tape; what was not to like?
Indeed the hi-fi magazines of the day were intrigued, many seeing it as an exciting new technology. Okay, so it may have been a traditional magnetic tape-based format in an increasingly random-access laser disc world, but it did promise superior sound to CD. As we all know, silver discs of the day only allowed 16-bit, 44.1kHz resolution, but new-fangled DAT ran at a sampling frequency of 48kHz – and therefore represented the state of the art. No consumer digital audio system bettered it. Only in the pro sphere was it surpassed, when a decade or so later dCS analogue-to-digital converters worked with the Nagra D recorder to make the first 24/96 hi-res recordings possible.
Although DAT’s 48kHz sampling rate doesn’t seem much these days, Compact Disc’s was so low that the sound-degrading phase effects from its filtering got worryingly close to the audio band. DAT on the other hand lifted these up just a touch, to where they were far less consequential to the sound. The result was a larger improvement in sonics than you might expect; that extra headroom made one hell of a difference. Early demonstrations of DAT showed a substantially sweeter and crisper sound; the later machines could be switched to record at Compact Disc’s lower resolution, and when you did this the difference was clear to hear. The hi-fi press was certainly charmed; one specialist magazine even went so far as to claim, “DAT wipes out CD”, on its front cover.
With all the marketing muscle of the giant Sony Corporation behind it, this new format could hardly fail, could it? Well, exactly one decade earlier, the Japanese giant had just discontinued its short-lived Elcaset format – a kind of reel-to-reel tape inside a VHS-sized cassette. This gave excellent analogue sound, but no one cared because it was too big for consumers already used to the far smaller Compact Cassette. Surely then, the dinky DAT format could succeed? Sony certainly thought so, and began releasing albums in its native Japan, from avant-garde artists such as New Order and Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Yet it was not to be. Despite having a host of clever features that Compact Cassette lacked, such as real time tape counting and track numbering, DAT did not prevail. Even its superior sound to CD couldn’t compensate, and sales barely got off the ground. People realised it was too expensive, fiddly and sometimes quite unreliable too. It certainly wasn’t the sort of object that you could throw into your car’s glovebox, next to a bag of melted Werther’s Originals.
Then suddenly the format took off in recording studios. Just when we least expected it, a generation of small-to-medium sized studios began using DAT as a mastering medium. This happened to coincide with a surge in new music-making technology; hard disk recording was becoming affordable, and songs were now being crafted on computers with Cubase. MIDI synthesisers and sequencers were getting cheaper, and whole dance music records could be laid down digitally then mastered for posterity on – of all things – DAT. As is so often the case with audio formats, it ended up being used for a different purpose than was originally intended. Oddly, DAT became cool amongst a generation of small studio-based nineties musicians.
Plug a classic Sony DAT player into a modern dCS DAC now, and it’s surprising how good it sounds. A well fettled DAT machine is still capable of working as a fine digital transport, and the developments in DAC technology that dCS has brought in the intervening years have done nothing but good to the old format’s sound. Even though the Bitstream DACs fitted to most DAT recorders were very highly regarded at the time, they are miles behind a Debussy, for example. So farewell to an ill-fated format that meant something to some people for some time; it joins the ranks of Digital Compact Cassette (DCC) and MiniDisc (MD) in the story of doomed digital audio. Despite this, never forget that for a short period in the late eighties, it really did look like the future.
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HiFi+ , November 2016
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Review by Jeff Dorgay
Tone Audio #77
The sutle growl in Plastikman’s “Mind Encode”
rolls out into my listening room in such a sinister,
encompassing way, it’s almost frightening. It
instantly reminds me of the aural magic that its
much more expensive sibling, the four box Vivaldi,
which until now was the only digital playback
system capable of being this visceral.
Review by Jeff Dorgay
Tone Audio #77
It’s always a blast to take a trip in the wayback machine,
especially in the world of digital audio, where years are like
dog years. Back in 1996, dCS introduced the world’s first high
performance DAC, the Elgar, with 24/96 capabilities. (And a
$12,000 price tag) It was later updated to Elgar Plus, allowing
for 24/192 and DSD capabilities and there was no price
increase of note, until the exchange rates forced the importer
to raise the final price to $15,000. Having spent the last six
years using dCS as my digital reference, revisiting the Elgar, or
in this case an Elgar Plus, supplied to us by Music Lovers in
San Francisco – a premier dCS dealer.
Pocas marcas han sabido hilar tan fino a la hora de dotar de “alma” al audio digital doméstico
como la británica dCS. ¿El motivo? Un dominio de la tecnología “pro” más avanzada cuya expresión
más reciente la encontramos en el modelo Rossini, presentado en sociedad en el icónico loft de la
Por Salvador Dangla
VIETNAM AUDIO VISUAL MAGAZINE
Review of dCS Rossini Streaming CD Player and Master Clock
“The dCS Rossini sets a high standard for digital audio of all kinds today. You may find ‘different’ but you won’t find ‘better’ at anything even close to this level.”
Alan Sircom, EditorDownload
Stereophile, January 2014
Review by Michael FremerDownload