U-Matic use as the storage medium for PCM digital goes all the way back to Denon's second-generation
digital recorder, circa mid-1970's. Sony was also developing the 1600 series digital recorders in
the mid 70's, I believe the 1600 hit the market 1979 or 1980. Sony developed what was for a while
nearly the industry standard for CD mastering, based around the 1600, then 1610 and then 1630
digital interfaces. Sony's editing system allowed for relatively easy subcode authoring, which was
essential for CD mastering. The 1600 series had a A-D converter that was of debatable quality. The
better-received CD's of the 1980's and 1990's were mastered with a 3rd party A-D converter, with the
1600 receiving a digital stream and converting that to video signals for the U-Matic machine. dcs,
Apogee and others made their bones developing early 3rd party converters.
In recent times, people look back on the 1630 days as "bad old days," but I know from watching
well-received CD's being made that it was a pretty darn good system for that time. The Sonic
Solutions/Apple computer system was finicky and could take more time even in the hands of skilled
user due to slow processing and hard drive write times. This got much better by the mid-90's, and
DAWs just about completely overtook PCM-to-VCR systems by the end of the 90's. The 1630 was reliable
about making insert-edits too, given Sony's decades of video-editing experience. I watched note- and
phrase-edits done quickly and correctly on a 1630 system. Where Sonic was much better was overlaying
what amounted to a sound effects track sync'd to a music track (such as cannon shots in time with
music on the "1812 Overture"). Nowadays all of this is relative child's play with an off-the-shelf
computer and a few hundred dollars of software.
The wiser owners of CD masters transferred their U-Matic digital tapes to managed hard drive systems
in recent years, and not all CD factories even have facilities for 1630 masters anymore.
By the way, an interesting thing about Denon's system -- they were unhappy with the reliability of a
stock U-Matic machine so they used medical-industry X-ray recorders, which apparently had more
precise recording capabilities and a greater frequency range (not sure that's te right term). This
from an interview with Denon pioneering engineer Takeaki Anazawa in Audio Magazine. Denon also
hand-built their early A-D converters because they were unhappy with any off-the-shelf solutions.
Finally, some U-Matic tapes have been known to present playback problems after storage. Also, as
anyone who worked in a video-post facility knows, they're prone to develop dropouts if dropped or
handled roughly. Not a great format but a heck of a workhorse in the early CD era.
-- Tom Fine