Monday, August 28, 2017

The 1980s format war: Vinyl, CD, cassette, MiniDisc... videocassette?

A DIY record label called Four-Headed Records started up recently to release albums on VHS tapes. "It will be the only VHS Tape Label in existence and will be the first of its kind," the label's announcement says. "It hasn't been done before."

I applaud their spirit but hate to break it to them that, like so many alleged firsts, it has been done before. Over thirty years ago, in fact. 

In the early 1980s, the audiophile label Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab offered a handful of classic albums on digital-audio VHS and Betamax videocassettes.

Why? Because the then-new PCM (pulse-code modulation) adaptors could convert "any VCR (Beta or VHS) into a digital audio tape recorder capable of the same quality as the best Compact Discs," as explained in a 1985 article in the Chicago Tribune, "Ultimate Tape Recorder, at One-Tenth the Cost."

MFSL's digital-audio Betamax cassette release of
Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.
The introduction of the digital audio tape (DAT) in 1987 rendered digital-audio VHS/Beta tapes obsolete, but for a time, digital-audio videocassettes were a cool innovation not only for their sound quality but also for the amount of music that could be crammed onto them. 

Mobile Fidelity's 1983 catalog listed the following catalog numbers and titles. (The catalog entry is pictured at the top of this post.)

VHS/BETA-005 – Supertramp – Crime of the Century
VHS/BETA-017 – Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon
VHS/BETA-025 – Earl Klugh – Finger Paintings
VHS/BETA-510 – Solti/London Philharmonic – Holst: The Planets
VHS/BETA-084 – The Alan Parsons Project – I Robot
VHS/BETA-507 – Maazel/Cleveland Orchestra – Feste Romane
VHS/BETA-120 – Donald Fagen – The Nightfly