The first digital multitrack recorder, 3M’s 32-track recorder was priced at $115,000.
Best known for its lines of tape media and professional analog recorders, with its M series of multitrack and 2-track machines, the Mincom division of 3M spent several years developing a digital recording system, including two years of joint research with the BBC. The result was the 3M Digital Audio Mastering System, which consisted of a 32-track deck (16-bit, 50 kHz audio) running 1-inch tape and a 4-track, 1/2-inch mastering recorder. (Click here to download the system’s operating manual.)
Both decks operated at 45 ips, offering a 30-minute record time from a 7,200-foot, 12.5-inch reel or 45-minutes from a 14-inch, 9,600-foot spool. Perhaps the most curious aspect of the 3M system was its conversion scheme. As no true 16-bit converters were available, it combined separate 12-bit and 8-bit converters to create 16-bit performance.
The full system was comprised of the 32-track recorder, 4-track mastering deck and a digital editing controller.
Although the 3M system was a year away from actual deliveries, engineer Tom Jung (now of DMP Records) agreed to beta-test the prototypes at Sound 80 in Minneapolis, using them as a backup system during sessions being cut direct-to-disk—lacquer disk, not hard disk! The digital session tapes were judged superior to the disk masters, and in December 1978, the first commercial albums cut on the system were released: Flim & The BB’s, by jazz group Flim & The BB’s, and Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring, by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. The latter was nominated for three Grammy Awards, winning for Best Chamber Music Performance.
Priced at $150,000 ($115,000 for the 32-track and $35,000 for the 4-track), the first two-machine systems were installed in early 1979 at Sound 80 and in Los Angeles at A&M Studios, the Record Plant and Warner Bros.’ Amigo Studios. Among the notable early pop releases cut on the 3M system included Ry Cooder’s Bop Till You Drop (engineered by Lee Herschberg) and Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly, engineered by Roger Nichols.