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Tascam DA-20

Digital Audio Tape Recorder By Paul White
Published August 1995

Tascam's new DAT machine combines professional features with an affordable price. Paul White puts it to the test.

Tascam's new DA‑20 could be the answer for those looking for a DAT machine that combines professional features with a reassuring build quality, yet it costs just £799 inc VAT. Although this is rather more than you might expect to pay for a budget consumer machine, it's still very attractively priced at around half the cost of an analogue, open‑reel, stereo recorder.


On the face of it, the DA‑20 looks like a pretty straightforward rackmounting DAT recorder with transport and control layout seemingly identical to that of the rather more costly Fostex D5 (reviewed last month), though there are differences in the features offered. As you'd expect from a professional DAT machine, the DA‑20 records at either 44.1kHz or 48kHz sampling rates, and for less critical applications there's also a 32kHz long‑play mode. Unlike the Fostex D5, however, the DA‑20 has only unbalanced phonos for the audio ins and outs. S/PDIF ins and outs on phonos provide the digital connections.

One of the irritations of semi‑pro and consumer DAT machines is SCMS, the copy‑protection system that prevents you cloning a master tape beyond one generation, but on the DA‑20 you can opt to either engage or disengage the SCMS, simply by holding down the Execute button and then powering up the machine.

All the usual subcode functions are included — Start IDs, Skip IDs, and everything you'd expect from a regular DAT machine — but on this machine you can also record a 'table of contents' (TOC) to the header of the tape, which tells you how many tracks are on the tape and how long they are. When you add more tracks, it's a simple matter to have the machine run through the tape and update the TOC, though the TOC information is only available when you have recorded an end marker at the finish of the recorded material on the tape. The cassette protect tab must also be set to safe before you can read TOC information. By stepping through the counter mode, the TOC shows you how long the current selection has been playing, the absolute time, the time remaining before the end marker, and the number of songs on the tape.

...the transport is extremely fast, even for a DAT machine, and the sound quality is all you'd expect from the latest generation of converters...

One other feature which the studio owner might find useful is the ability to store up to 60 characters of information along with the Start ID for each track. As I suggested in my review of the Philips DCC machine last month, only a very sad person would painstakingly key in track titles for all their record collection, but in a studio situation it is useful to be able to label material, especially when you have multiple takes of the same piece of music.

When recording music onto DAT, the Start ID system uses a level‑sensing mechanism, which means you might end up missing some low‑level information at the start of a track if you use the Start IDs for cueing. Similarly, a piece of music containing breaks or very quiet sections might generate additional Start IDs where you don't want them. You can edit and move Start IDs, of course, but with the DA‑20 you can also record from a CD in the digital domain, whereupon the CD's Q codes are automatically used to create Start IDs. This operation happens automatically whenever the DA‑20's digital input recognises a CD source.

Quality Sound

It's almost taken for granted that modern DAT machines sound very good, but having listened to quite a few, I must admit that the difference between models can be quite noticeable. The DA‑20 has a clear, solid sound with none of the hard edge inflicted by some of the earlier DAT machines. This is due in part to the use of single‑bit A/D converters driven from a very low jitter clock circuit. The monocoque‑style metalwork casing is also designed for minimum mechanical resonance and has a series of three‑dimensional, honeycomb‑shaped, depressions stamped into the base to add stiffness.


The DA‑20 behaves very well, overall. The transport is extremely fast, even for a DAT machine, and the sound quality is all you'd expect from the latest generation of converters. All the expected features are provided, even a cordless remote control, but the additional features — especially the TOC, track naming, and SCMS defeat — combine to make this a very attractive studio machine.

As you might expect, the TOC facility only works properly if there are no unrecorded portions of tape between tracks, so it is important to record a few seconds of silence after each track and then start the next recording during that period of recorded silence; you must also remember to create and end marker. Getting the machine to update the TOC requires only a single button press, but the procedure can take several minutes if you have a lot of IDs on the tape. Entering characters can also prove a long‑winded process, as you have to use the Fast Fwd and Rewind buttons as cursor keys and the Skip buttons to scroll through the available characters. It's easy enough to do, but I wouldn't like to write a novel that way!

When you take into account the substantial build quality, the sound quality, the facilities and the price, it doesn't take much imagination to realise that Tascam have a real winner on their hands here, and it's only the lack of balanced ins and outs that prevent the DA‑20 from meriting the 'fully professional' tag.

Is DAT Enough?

DAT is a great invention, but its consumer origins are rather at odds with its almost universal adoption as a professional mastering and audio data transfer medium. The problem is that DAT isn't quite as robust as a truly professional format really ought to be, yet the fact that most people accept it as such means that no real effort has been made to develop a serious alternative.

Fortunately, professional grade DAT machines are pretty reliable these days, but horror stories still abound of budget DAT machines that break down after six months in the studio. In fairness, budget DAT machines aren't guaranteed for commercial use, but then if a DAT machine can't stand up to running off the occasional mix in a home studio, what chance would it have in a domestic environment where it might be asked to play music constantly, several hours a day with little chance of ever being cleaned?

OK, so if you run a studio you need a serious DAT machine, but until recently professional DAT recorders tended to be very expensive, and most of the 'middle ground' consumer machines, such as the Sony DTC55, have long since gone out of production.


  • Good range of practical facilities.
  • 44.1kHz or 48kHz recording, with or without SCMS.
  • Excellent sound quality.


  • As with Fostex D5, the tape loading drawer cover is rather lightweight.
  • Lack of balanced analogue connections may put off some pro users.


A good choice for the small‑scale professional user or the serious project studio owner.