What is Normal (for an Error Rate Display)
© 1999 by eddie ciletti
Just before your tape deck coughs up a fur ball, funny things start
to happen. DAT machines won’t renumber. Digital multi-track decks will
hem and haw, stop dead in their tracks and then deliver some cryptic error
message. Of the assortment of idiosyncrasies — from the digital fuzzies
to any and all forms of intermittent behavior — you wish a head-clog
would be the sole cause of the problem.
On the tape machine section of my website,
the potions, sacred cloth and maps to the altar of magnetic technology
— the rotary head assembly — are specified. As important as cleanliness
is (next to dog-li-ness, I believe), it is not a panacea. Don’t be surprised
when your efforts to expunge head funk — via dexterous fingers or self-cleaning
tape — don’t make a significant improvement. Do be happy if things aren’t
I have long been an advocate for full-time display of the Error Rate
(Studer labels this feature "Quality" on the V-8). You really do
want to know when it's time to clean the heads. Unfortunately, with an
idiot light as the only messenger, it’s already way too late.
ALL ASIDES, ASIDE
Soft-core preventive maintenance requires that you know how to access
the Error Rate Display if, in fact, it is (and should be) a feature. (Manufacturers
take note: CD Recorders need Error Rate Displays, too!) The procedure
for communicating with the ghost in the machine should be in the operator’s
manual. Sony considers this "technician-only territory," but the secret
is detailed below.
The "error rate" or "block error rate," (BER) indicates the number of
errors encountered within a given amount of time. Typically the display
will be updated in one-second intervals. For the first time, I want to
show you where on the display to look. Once the secret is learned, check
Error Rate often so you’ll know what is normal and what is not.
YOU OUGHTA BE IN PIXELS
First stop, all of the "post-blackface" Alesis adats with the exception
of the M20. Photo One is a composite of three display states — labeled
in red as 1, 2 & 3. In the Normal state of the display (red #1), ABSolute
Tape Time is indicated as H:MM:SS:99 (hours: minutes: seconds and hundredths
of a second). Two buttons are inset below— SET LOCATE and RECORD ENABLE
3 — they comprise the secret "password" for accessing the Error Rate. Pressing
them together momentarily changes the display to the cryptic " dl SP
E rr," (red #2) meaning that the Error Rate Display is about to appear.
PHOTO ONE: The three steps to reading errors on the Adat XT
At the top of Photo One (red #3), the display now shows an abbreviated
tape counter — MM:SS — the other four digits to the right are now devoted
to error indication. Under "ideal" conditions, the display should read
"0000," with random bumps under 0050 being typical. Numbers that do not
get below 0100 or seem "stuck" between 250 and 500 hopefully indicate a
simple head clog. (A very worn head is the next likely possibility.) Erratic
numbers, or numbers above and beyond 1000, point either to a very bad section
of tape or a major electro-mechanical malfunction, the latter dictating
a trip to the service center.
When the going gets rough, an orange "sun" appears to the right of the
tape counter. When the sun is "full on" you’ve got problems. But sometimes
a reformatted tape will cause the sun to occasionally shine. If a quick
detour to the error window reveals a low number, the problem is benign.
PHOTO TWO: The result of button pushing to access error rate on
most Panasonic models
Panasonic’s "family" of machines — SV-3200/ -3700 / -3800 / -3900 /
-4100 — display errors in a similar numeric fashion. Photo Two shows
the secret buttons — MODE-RESET-PAUSE — that, when simultaneously pressed
— unlock the Error Rate door.
The "AB" in the top left corner indicates the error rate for both "A"
and "B" heads. (It is also possible to look at the "A" or "B" head alone,
on some models.) In addition, the "00" at the top right corner indicates
the lack of copy protection. (There are two additional states, "10" indicates
that one copy can be made. An "11" will not allow any copies to be made.)
My DAT deck preference is the Sony PCM-R500 an assesment based primarily
on its four-motor transport. No other DAT deck in this price class
can make the claim. Its weakness is not that it doesn’t have an Error
Rate display, but that Sony does not want users to know about it.
It took a bit of news-group surfing (my least favorite pastime) and a few
phone calls to Dan Haugh at American
Digital ( 888-USA-DATS ). You can find other useful DAT info
at the Dat Heads website
as well as Terrapin Tapes ( 800-677-8650).
If you own more than one Sony product, there's a good chance one of the
remote controls looks similar to the RM-D757 that came with the PCM-R500.
Some remotes make use of all the buttons while the DAT remote (Sony
part number 1-473-921-11) "hides" three buttons under the plastic label
laminate. In order to access the error rate display it is first necessary
to "modify" the remote control by cutting away a portion of the laminate
over the area labeled "Test" as shown in Photo Three. The
hidden "Test" key is to the right of the Open / Close button just above
the Counter Reset button.
My mod looks so neat and tidy, but in reality, it's a hack job. It
would take a Paul Prestopino (my mentor) to do a neat and tidy job of this.
Thanks to Photoshop, I was able to make it "look" completely beautiful.
That said, please note that the "display" in Photo Three is NOT
underneath the laminate. It will actually appear on the machine's
The Error Rate "feature," which is intended for technical evaluation
during service, is also accessible on other Sony DAT machines such as the