For many of us who started making professional recordings in the ’70s, the Sony PCM-F10 was our first digital recorder. I was overjoyed when, in 1981, Sony released the much smaller PCM-F1 processor. The PCM-F1 was a small unit, roughly the size of a hardcover dictionary volume. When mated with a VCR (as the recording device), it enabled engineers to build a digital recording system for less than $2,500 – in the era when the alternatives cost more than 10 times as much.
Product PointsVital Statistics: Two-channel digital recording processor with A/D and D/A converters
Description: When coupled with a VCR, the PCM-F1 produced a complete digital recording and playback system
Key Features: Digital recording, playback, tape cloning to another VCR
Specs: 14- or 16-bit linear, with pre-emphasis; 44.056 sampling frequency; 90 dB dynamic range; frequency response 5,000-20,000 kHz +/ 0.5 dB; distortion less than 0.05% in 16-bit mode
Original Release Date: 1981
Last Date Issued: 1990 (PCM-601ESD)
How many sold: Sony doesn’t release sales figures, but states it was by far the most popular digital recording processor of its time
Price at release: $1,900
Weight: 8 lb.
Usage: Two-channel mastering recorder
A few years later technology advanced even further, enabling the VCR and digital processor to be reduced considerably in size and to be integrated. The conception of the DAT recorder signaled the end of the Sony F1 era, but we must not forget that its parents were the PCM-F1 and the VCR.
Just like today’s DAT machines (but without their digital I/O), one simply fed an analog input to one pair of the F1’s RCA jacks and connected its output connectors to one’s monitoring system. The other connections were a single video cable between the PCM-F1’s video output and a VCR’s video input – and another between that VCR’s video output and the F1’s video input.
If the connections were done properly, the F1’s LED meters would read the input signal and you were ready to record. The PCM-F1 marked the first appearance of Sony’s CX-899 ADC and 890 DAC chips. The latter was subsequently used in Sony’s first CD player, the CDP-101.
Naturally, Sony suggested that recordists use Beta video recorders and, in truth, they worked much more reliably – especially at the slower speeds – than VHS recorders. The Sony SL-2000, in particular, was designed to match the PCM-F1 in size and portability and was probably the most popular VCR used with it.
Over the years, I’ve used both Beta and VHS machines, often in series for security. Those tapes still play back just fine today, 18 years later. Older model VCRs often worked better than newer ones since the digital signal, as seen by the VCR, was a monochrome pattern of bars and dots; the presence of modern color tweaking and image compensation circuits often reduced the recording system’s reliability and, if possible, were turned off.
A few years later, Sony introduced three more digital processors using the same F1 protocols: the PCM-701ESD in 1983; the PCM-601ESD in ’85; and the PCM-501-ESD in ’87. The 701 claimed better sound than the PCM-F1, while the 501 was a budget-priced unit. The PCM-601ESD had the important advantages of S/PDIF digital I/O and adjustable tracking and VCR head-matching circuits.
Although this is a Retro Review, I continue to use this vintage product almost daily. Thank you, Sony for pioneering low-cost digital recording, for providing an upgrade path for improving its sound and, most importantly, for building a digital recording system in the ’80s that is still running reliably in late 1999.