GETTING MORE TALE #610: 25 Years Ago – Digital Compact Cassettes
Every once in a while, you stumble upon some old obsolete media format that you never knew existed in the first place. 25 years ago, the Digital Compact Cassette was announced by Philips and Matsushita. Philips and Sony launched the CD together, but this time Philips sought a new partner for its Digital Compact Cassettes. It was designed to replace the standard audio cassette in a way that CD hadn’t yet: it was recordable. It was a direct rival to the Minidisc and DAT tape, neither of which caught traction.
The 1992 Digital Compact Cassette player had one benefit that the other formats lacked. Players were backwards compatible. You could play all your old tapes on them as well as the new DCC tapes. The tapes themselves looked much like cassettes but with spool holes on one side only. An added feature was a sliding metal guard, similar to those on floppy discs, to protect the tape inside. Different players were marketed, including components for your home system, portable Walkman-like devices, and car tape decks. Signalling the shape of things to come, there was even one player that could connect to a desktop PC.
Another benefit to the new format was that players used fixed magneto-resistive heads, which didn’t require any demagnetizing. They were more resistant to wear and tear. Cleaning was something you still needed to do with these players, and more frequently. Unfortunately for DCC, there was already a lot of competition on the market, and the Sony Minidisc appeared to be winning.
The new Digital Compact Cassettes were not a huge technological step ahead. The cassettes ran at the exact same speed as a standard audio tape, and were the same width. The tape used was the same grade as VHS tapes. They could hold a maximum of 120 minutes, about the same as the max for an audio cassette tape, though no 120 minute DCC tapes were ever made. By comparison, a DAT tape could hold three hours, and a Minidisc 80 minutes (same as an audio CD).
Each DCC tape had 18 tracks, or nine per side. The main eight tracks held the audio information, while the ninth could be encoded with the metadata: track names, numbers, lengths and so on. This allowed the player to be able to find any spot on the tape that you wish. There was even copy protection available. If a tape was encoded as a “protected original”, in theory you couldn’t make a copy.
Ultimately, the desire for a digital but recordable audio format was fulfilled by CD itself. A DCC player could range from $600 to $1700, and with so many people still buying CD players, that wasn’t a viable price. Recordable CDs fit the bill, once they came down in price in the late 1990s (formerly about $200 per single CD-R). The cassette format died its well-deserved death. Digital Compact Cassettes are barely a footnote, but the magneto-resistive heads have since become a crucial component of PC hard disc drives. Even rejected tech can often lead to another.
There’s one final footnote to the story of the Digital Compact Cassette. The film covering of those new innovative tape heads found usage in an unlikely place: brewery filters. The microscopic holes in the material turned out to be perfect for nice clean and clear beer. And you have old obsolete cassette tech to thank!