22 Aug 2016

Dead on arrival: Digital Compact Cassette and the AHRA

Ars Technica has a nice article, published earlier this month, on the short life of the Digital Compact Cassette format, one of several attempts to replace the venerable analog cassette tape with a digital version, prior to its eventual demise in the download era.

At risk of dating myself, I remember the (very brief) rise and (anticlimactic) fall of the Digital Compact Cassette, although I was a bit poor to be in the target market of early adopters and hi-fi-philes that the first decks were targeted to. And while the Ars article is decent, it ignores the elephant in the room that contributed mightily to DCC’s demise: DRM.

DCC was burdened by a DRM system called SCMS, also present in the consumer version of DAT. This inclusion was not the fault of Philips or Matsushita (later Panasonic), who designed DCC, but a result of an odious RIAA-backed law passed in 1992, the Audio Home Recording Act, which mandated it in all “digital audio recording device[s]”.

It is telling that of the variety of formats which were encumbered by SCMS, exactly zero of them have ever succeeded in the marketplace in a way that threatened the dominant formats. The AHRA was (and remains, de jure, because it’s still out there on the books, a piece of legal “unexploded ordnance” waiting for someone to step on it) the RIAA’s most potent and successful weapon in terms of suppressing technological advancement and maintaining the status quo throughout the 1990s.

Had it not been for the AHRA and SCMS, I think it’s likely that US consumers might have had not one but two alternative formats for digital music besides the CD, and perhaps three: consumer DAT, DCC, and MiniDisc. Of these, DAT is probably the best format from a pure-technology perspective – it squeezes more data into a smaller physical space than the other two, eliminating the need for lossy audio compression – but DAT decks are mechanically complex, owing to their helical scan system, and the smallest portable DATs never got down to Walkman size. DCC, on the other hand, used a more robust linear tape system, and perhaps most importantly it was compatible with analog cassette tapes. I think there is a very good chance that it could have won the battle, if the combatants had been given a chance to take the field.

But the AHRA and SCMS scheme conspired to make both consumer-grade DAT and DCC unappealing. Unlike today, where users have been slowly conditioned to accept that their devices will oppose them at every opportunity in the service of corporations and their revenue streams, audio enthusiasts from the analog era were understandably hostile to the idea that their gear might stop them from doing something it was otherwise quite physically capable of doing, like dubbing from one tape to another, or from a CD to a tape, in the digital domain. And a tax on blank media just made the price premium for digital, as opposed to analog, that much higher. If you are only allowed to make a single generation of copies due to SCMS, and if you’re going to pay extra for the digital media due to the AHRA, why not just get a nice analog deck with Dolby C or DBX Type 2 noise reduction, and spend the savings on a boatload of high-quality Type IV metal cassettes?

That was the question that I remember asking myself anyway, at the time. I never ended up buying a DCC deck, and like most of the world continued listening to LPs, CDs, and analog cassettes right up until cheap computer-based CD-Rs and then MP3 files dragged the world of recorded music fully into the digital age, and out of the shadow of the AHRA.

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