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Preparation for mastering: Don't do any mastering yourself

Time to 'upgrade' your DAT recorder to Minidisc?

Which would you prefer to master your recordings onto - old-fashioned DAT or ultra-cool Minidisc? Make sure you don't make the wrong choice...

So you are mixing to stereo. Which format do you choose from so many that are available? Here are a few options: DAT, Minidisc, CD-Audio, CD-ROM, DVD-ROM (even the audio tracks of a DVD-Video if you really must), flash memory card, hard disk, removable cartridge disk - even analog tape (but not cassette!). There are more.

But DAT used to be so popular it deserves a special mention, principally because there are so many DAT machines out there and people are still using them (and manufacturers are still making them, particularly high-end pro models).

So if you have a DAT recorder, what's still good about it? Well the format is pretty consistent. It has to be said that if you record on one domestic-level DAT, you might not be able to play back on another without glitches. But pro machines are more forgiving and can play pretty much anything you throw at them.

But one feature of DAT is often overlooked - it is exactly as good as CD-Audio in terms of audio quality. So if your recording sounds good and is optimized for CD, it will fit perfectly on a DAT tape with no degradation.

Now let's look at Minidisc in comparison. How many times have I heard of people 'upgrading to Minidisc'? Well, if you change from DAT to Minidisc, that is by no means an upgrade; it is a downgrade in audio quality.

The reason for this is that Minidisc uses data reduction so that a reasonable duration of audio can fit onto that tiny disk. The ratio is around 5:1. That means that only 20% of your audio data is recorded. The rest is simply thrown away.

Now the fact is that the ATRAC data reduction system used by Minidisc is very good and achieves excellent results, considering what it is actually doing to the audio. But it does degrade the original, and audibly so. This makes it entirely unsuitable as a mastering medium, even though it may have other uses.

Another point to think about is the possibility of layering one stage of data reduction on another. If you data reduce to create your master, then another stage of data reduction will take place when your work is transferred to DVD, to MP3, film soundtrack or broadcast on digital television.

If you have ambitions for your music, you wouldn't want to take the risk that two stages of data reduction might be one too many.

There are better mastering media around than DAT nowadays, but Minidisc isn't one of them.

Yes, you can still buy a DAT recorder...

By David Mellor Tuesday February 15, 2005