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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.

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.