Test Drive: Otari DTR-8 Digital Audio Tape Recorder

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by Dave Oliwa

It's digital out there in radioland. But even as terms like "gigabyte" and "undo" permeate the audio recording industry, there is still a lot of room for the DAT tape format. After all, the quality, cost, convenience, and wide distribution of DAT is hard to beat. Archiving your DAT tapes doesn't require a room, just a desk drawer. Even if it's a small desk drawer, you can store a lot of audio. For shipping, a DAT inside a Bubblepak envelope inside a FedEx Letter is still one hell of a bargain. And, if you want to make your own CD, you can easily make the CD master right in your own studio (as long as you've got a DAT machine that can record with a 44.1 sampling frequency). Of course, the trend is to put everything onto a computer "platform," but no one ever lost their entire DAT audio project from a power interruption or a flaky video driver. There simply are no General Protection Faults in DAT tape. Maybe the DAT's portability and exceptional value will change when a Zipdrive disk can store at least two hours of full-bandwidth digital audio information at the same price, but that's a few years away. The best value in recording (digital or analog) was, is, and will be DAT for some time to come. Since the manufacturers know this, it's full speed ahead with new and improved DAT machines!

For many stations, Otari and tape recording have been synonymous. Otari is not one to be left behind in recording technology, and their new DTR-8 Digital Tape Recorder is featured on the RAP Test Drive this month.

The box is Otari gray with black highlights and smoked display. Two bat-handled knobs above the power switch on the left of the front panel select the audio input between active balanced analog, S/PDIF coaxial digital, and AES/EBU cannon connector digital; and sampling frequencies of 32, 44.1, and 48K (the 32K setting allows a "long play" mode with half the normal tape speed—do the math).

The display is just left of center with the tape tray above. With a button press or a light push on the tray, it goes all the way inside, protected by a spring-loaded door. The door will pull down when a tape is inside, giving access to the tape's safety tab. There is plenty of room to stick a pen or one of your small, green-handled screwdrivers in to flip the safety tab closed if it's open (or open if it's closed). The switch that prevents accidental erasure is nowhere to be seen. I suspect it touches the DAT case when it is loaded up, then hides out until needed again! After changes to the safety tab "in the tray," the tray button must be pressed twice (so the DTR-8 will check the safety tab), but that's okay—how many times have you hit Record on your DAT machine, then did the Dr. McCoy one-raised-eyebrow routine, opened the drawer, pulled out the tape, closed the safety tab, put in the tape, closed the drawer and tried again?

It's a Button World

If there's one thing about Otari that makes me smile every time, it's their buttons. Hey, let's face it; it's a button world. And Otari is good with buttons. DTR-8's transport control buttons sit at an upward angle, logically arranged with the thumb on Stop, index on Rewind/CueBack, middle on Play, and ring finger on FastForward/CueForward. There's a space between Stop and Rewind/CueBack, just like your hand has (sorry, lefties!). Directly below, half-height buttons for Tray/Eject, Record, Pause, and Record/Muted (4 seconds). Below them, SkipBack, SkipForward, ID Mode, and Enter.

If you like a Jog/Shuttle wheel, I'm sorry to say you won't find one on this unit. However—and I stress however—the CueBack and CueForward functions are smooooth. Tap the Rewind/CueBack button while in Play and you're going backwards about twice normal speed. FastForward/CueForward is similar. Holding the button down, about three times normal speed. While in Pause, there is movement of the tape with a tap of the CueBack or CueForward buttons, but no audio. Holding the button down sends the deck into great slow motion audio. It's digital; the pitch remains the same.

Other controls include Counter Mode and Reset, Peak Display Reset, Error rate measurement, and the Auto Start ID with a 2 second silence trigger. No Start IDs are written when Auto is off. During a digital clone/dub the Start IDs are keyed from the source—another DAT tape's PNOs or the Q code of compact disk. There are options for CD players that do not transmit the Q code in the digital linkup. There is a TOC (Table of Contents) Renumber button to put existing Start IDs in sequence. If a tape has no Start IDs, they must be placed manually. Then, Renumber will assign them sequential Start ID numbers. More on the TOC later.

The Input level and Balance knobs are on the right side of the rack mountable DTR-8 (shipped with removable ears attached—see picture).

Upgrade Time

Otari is using DAT standard Characters in the coding of the Start IDs. A good answer to the challenge of DAT's direct competitor, the MiniDisc, the DTR-8 will remember sixty characters that you associate with each Start ID. Naming the individual tracks can be made from the front panel, but it is easier on the infrared remote. Stopping the tape anywhere on the track you want to name, pressing the Character button on the panel or remote, entering your info, then Enter sends the machine looking for that track's PNO. Each time the Start ID is read, the information you entered is scrolled across the display. I do believe that information is written while the tape is running slowly backwards!

TOC is a welcome addition to DAT. When a tape is recorded with Absolute Time, Start IDs, and an End ID, the TOC Renumber button will scan the tape and store the number of cuts, their Program Length, and where they are in relation to Absolute Time on cut 1's Start ID. When a tape is inserted, and the first Start ID is read, the DTR-8 will show you how many cuts are on the tape, how long each one is, and where it is. Pressing Play while in this mode will send the deck to the displayed cut at 300 times normal speed. TOC can hold up to fifty programs. And no, the text information stored by the user on the Start IDs is not stored in TOC. Maybe next year!

Writing any type of ID manually is a simple matter of scrolling through the display's options LEDs and pressing Enter, the button right next door.

Other features include a front panel headphone amp with a bat-handled gain knob, dip-switch selectable +4dB/-10dB Input and Output (separate controls), 8 function wired remote parallel DIN, no SCMS copy protection, hours of use meter, infrared remote disable, and get this, the infrared remote has a button that will turn the display off. Something for the intern to figure out!

One more "must mention" feature is the display, in dBs, of the headroom at any given moment during a recording where the PNO number is usually displayed. (A new cut number is displayed when the Start ID is writing, then returns to the 2-digit dB display.) Although the meter is showing the signal, the readout in numbers is very appealing.

Specifications are 20Hz-22kHz/0.5dB at 48kHz, 20Hz-20kHz/0.5dB at 44.1kHz, and 20Hz-14.5kHz/0.5dB at 32kHz. Dynamic of 90dB min., S/N at 90dB min., THD 0.007% at 48kHz, with a min. 80dB of crosstalk (at 1K). VU metering is a 16-segment display with a peak hold indicator (and a reset button). Analog audio is transformerless with +26dB of headroom. The S/PDIF digital interface is an RCA pin. The DTR-8 takes three rack spaces.

Otari has another, affordably priced, little workhorse here, with the listed price of about $2000. As always, go for the best deal on the street.

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