How Sony paved the way for modern music production

One format that you might not even have heard of helped democratize music production.

Kurita KAKU via Getty Images

On May 7th, 1946, Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita founded ’Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo’, the company that would later become Sony. After its beginnings making tape recorders and transistor radios, it rapidly expanded into myriad industries. From its ‘My First Sony’ range to early cameraphones, virtual reality headsets to Digital Audio Tapes, Sony has always tried new things, with varying degrees of success. On the company’s 75th anniversary, we’ve put together a series of articles about our experiences with some of its more interesting and unusual products.

Sony’s contribution to how we consume music is immeasurable. Whether that’s compact discs, the ubiquitous Walkman, MiniDisc or the latest wireless speaker setup — Sony’s fingerprints are everywhere. Throw in the company’s record label, and arguably it becomes the tech-brand with the strongest musical heritage (sorry, Apple). But there’s one significant contribution the company made that you may not be so familiar with. A format that not only set the scene for digital music as we know it today, but also the music that you’re actually listening to: DAT.

Digital Audio Tape wasn’t the first non-analog format; it wasn’t even really something that made its way into the hands of consumers — your Dad probably wasn’t listening to Dire Straits on it (CDs pre-date DAT by a few years but wouldn’t eclipse vinyl until later). You have almost certainly been touched by its legacy, though, and it might even be partly responsible for the music you enjoy today.

DAT / Digital Audio Tape

Invented in 1987, the concept was initially hard to understand in a mostly analog world. During this time, the primary ways to consume music were cassettes, CDs, vinyl and the radio. The latter three were reserved for the mainstream artists with record deals and marketing budgets. The humble tape was accessible to amateurs but you still had to distribute your garage-recorded magnum opus the lo-fi way for a few years more until MiniDisc and then recordable CDs would become commonplace. There was no SoundCloud or Spotify of course — “sharing” was a very literal, in-person concept.

DAT tapes were smaller than the ubiquitous compact cassette, but could only be played on one side (no flipping it over for the second half of the album). Importantly, they recorded in “CD quality” (44.1 or 48 kHz / 16 bit), unlike other, later digital formats like MiniDisc and DCC that used compression.

DAT didn’t make physical sharing easier. It barely solved many of the practical issues of regular cassettes. Sure, you could make perfect, 1:1 copies and — gasp — skip tracks with a push of a button, but the equipment needed to play them rarely found its way into prized Hi-Fi separates and the music industry was very happy about that (with perfect digital copies up for grabs, who would buy their records, it rightly worried).

In fact, the recording industry was so concerned about the potential threat to its business that it initially campaigned against the sale of DAT machines in the US. One of the primary complainants, in this case, was CBS records, which Sony ultimately acquired thus somewhat nullifying the issue (although some practical steps were taken to make copying original recordings less effective). Ultimately, it made sense at the time, but the record industry was going after a minnow and hadn’t anticipated the circling shark that was the internet.

What DAT did do was close the gap between the bedroom producer and the record press. The format’s release coincided perfectly with a new way of making music. Anyone with an Atari and some patience could produce a track at home with software like Cubase or Notator. But there was still a large hurdle if you wanted to release it on vinyl (the most important format for the burgeoning electronic music scene of the time). To press a vinyl record likely meant going to, and paying for, a professional studio and having a master recorded to bulky reel to reel. DAT erased that barrier. Now, all you needed was either a DAT recorder or (more likely) access to one and you could cut a record from that.

For emerging genres like House, Techno and Drum and Bass in particular, this was a paradigm shift, allowing artists to guide their music from their cobbled-together studio to the turntable with relative ease. Most importantly, they could do so with a format that — technically — never degraded. DAT was still a form of tape and thus subject to the whims of the elements if not handled or stored with care.

For bedroom producers of the time, this not only made the process more accessible, it sometimes prevented music from vanishing into thin air. “We couldn't even afford to put money in the electric meter to be able to save a track. Back in the day, we used to use floppy disks. And to save a tune will take sometimes 40 minutes, if you've got like 14 discs, and sometimes the electric would run out halfway through,” celebrated Drum and Bass producer Roni Size told Engadget. “So you only have one version on a DAT tape of that record. So you would just run with that version on that DAT and that's it.” Yes, there was a time when it took 40 minutes to save a track and if that failed (as it often did) your only backup was the DAT recording.

The emergence of this new format also began to change what was possible musically, according to Size. “DAT tapes were a way of us being able to master our music to a certain extent.” Something that would have been expensive (and prohibitively so for most up and coming producers). “We could take it to places like Music House, and they could master it for, you know, for home studio prices, rather than dream of going to somewhere where they will charge you to say just like £200 an hour.” Music House — a specialist in “dubplate” one-off, test-press records — was a fundamental part of the UK underground music scene in the ‘90s.

This all might still seem like a lot of work. If you want to make and release a track today you can likely do all of it from the very device you’re reading this article on. Not so much in the mid-’90s. You still needed outboard gear, a mixing desk and the professional services of something like Music House — even just to get a single playable version of your new track for the club that night. Oh, and a well-fed pre-pay electric meter in Roni Size’s case.

But the fancy new digital tape didn’t just melt away some of the barriers for budding producers and DJs, it allowed for new sounds to emerge. “That whole dubplate culture was how we learned about mastering. You learn that you couldn't put certain frequencies in a record because you're going to damage the head on the on the Neumann press [record lathe], these are all the things that we learned and once it turns into digital, we learned that you could put 40 hertz in, you could put in 20 hertz if you wanted to.” According to Size, then, DAT tangentially helped put the “bass” in Drum and Bass (and thus, many other emerging genres).

It’s hard to imagine today, with our frictionless access to everyone and enough computing power in our hands to make and mix a record on the bus, that making and releasing songs required a relatively gargantuan effort. The ‘90s in particular would slowly chip away at each of those barriers. First with the PC becoming more affordable, then the rise of software instruments which would, naturally, soon be cracked and shared for free. By the end of the decade, for a nominal outlay on a computer you could be in the music game, reaching wide audiences that just a few years earlier would have been unimaginable.

Sony's DAT tape deck, Walkman portable cassette player & blank DAT cassette.  (Photo by Ted Thai/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
Ted Thai via Getty Images

That didn’t spell the end for DAT, though. At least not immediately. As ever more styles emerged, the use of the medium persisted. By then end of the ‘90s new genres, like Dubstep, were still using the format for sharing master recordings for DJs to cut their own dubplates from. A habit that would continue into the new millennium despite the emergence of cheap home-based CD burners. Not least, because you couldn’t play a DAT out to a club, something you could do with an unmastered CDR which was the equivalent of playing a YouTube rip to a live audience. Horrific.

It wasn’t just the underground scenes that were holding onto the digital audio tape dream. Dr. Dre famously preferred to mix his productions directly to DAT well into the aughts. Thus, it’s fair to say that DAT’s legacy has deep ties to the most popular genre on the planet. And if it was good enough for Andre Young, it was good enough for anyone. That is, until Sony discontinued new recorders around 2005, signaling the natural decay of its use.

DAT didn’t make all of this happen on its own, but it was the first digital domino in a chain of events that would bend the music industry in ways we can’t even imagine today. But that first domino is vital, as it ushered in a new era where anyone could have a go and bring their music to the world in a way that wasn’t possible before. Whole genres would spin out of bedrooms and basement studios over the decade and Sony’s digital tapes were a vital stepping stone in their imagination and creation.

There have been many formats over the years that enjoyed more commercial success, but DAT was in the right place at the right time for a music industry very much in flux. The major labels were about to have a prosperous decade reselling you your music on CD, and home production gear was just accessible enough for have-a-go heroes to do the unthinkable — make and release their own electronic music side by side with the major labels. You can, then — at least in part — thank Sony for much of the electronic music that you hear today.