Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

MiniDisc: The Future of Home Recording

“Just when I think I’m finally out…they pull me back in!”

-Michael Corleone in the Godfather III.

This is precisely how any music lover would feel after finally replacing their LP library with Compact Discs, only to find out that the future of the CD is uncertain. Empathize with me for a second: You’re finally out of the technology upgrade game, only to be pulled back in when the next great thing comes out. But is the MiniDisc on course to replace the Compact Disc? Actually, no.

MiniDisc Phase One-The Ultimate Discman

In case you haven’t actually played around with a MiniDisc, it is a small, 2.5-inch disc that is read by a laser beam, and also records. Introduced by Sony in 1992, the MiniDisc was originally positioned as the ultimate portable music format. That’s because it has a lot of attributes that makes it great on the go.

It is small-the same size as a computer floppy disk. And it sports a protective caddie much like its computer cousin, so you can toss it in your fanny pack-sans jewel case-without worrying about scratching it.

The other very cool thing about the MD is its shock-resistant memory. The early players had a ten-second shock-resistant memory chip, and the new players have as high as a 40-second chip. This circuitry allows the laser to skip and find itself again while the music stored in the “buffer” chip keeps right on playing. This means that you can go over bumps on your bike or blades without skipping the disc.

Unfortunately for Sony, this was a strategy that was fraught with peril. Soon after the format was introduced, the portable CD player began to incorporate this shock-resistant memory as well. And portable CD players started getting smaller and smaller. So the raison d’être of the MD became more obscure.

Another nail in MD’s original coffin was the fact that it uses a digital data compression technology called Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding system or ATRAC which audiophiles argue slightly impairs its sonic performance. The validity of this criticism is questionable, especially when using the MD for a portable application. But usually one doesn’t adopt a new technology if it delivers a lesser performance no matter how slight.

The years between 1992 and 1997 were dark indeed for MD in the US, although sales remained strong in Europe and Japan. It became Sony’s red-headed step child with no real purpose for being. It was a cool technology without a real application.

Then one day, the marketers at Sony had a vision: Doesn’t MD also record? Maybe portability isn’t the right use. Perhaps its digital recording capability would be more marketable? Enter MD reincarnated. Its new face: The ultimate digital recording machine!

“When MiniDisc was first introduced, the format was promoted for both music recording and playback,” says a MiniDisc spokesperson. “But since then, Sony has discovered that its real appeal is to music enthusiasts as a means for creating the highest-quality and most flexible music compilations that are possible today.”

MiniDisc Phase Two-The Ultimate Digital Recorder

The MiniDisc has always been a recordable format, but it wasn’t really promoted that way. One of the reasons is that early on, it was competing with the Digital Compact Cassette (may it rest in peace) and portability gave MD a unique selling proposition. Another reason for avoiding the recording angle was the controversy surrounding “digital cloning.” As a rule, record labels fear any medium that allows for perfect digital copies because it makes things infinitely easier for music pirates.

But thanks to the Serial Copy Management System or SCMS incorporated in the MD recorders, you can only make a single perfect digital copy (for your own personal consumption, of course). Any subsequent copies only play the last Oasis album backwards (actually they’re blocked by the chip). Unlimited analog recordings are permitted, the theory being that they’ll degrade over time and are less salable on the black market.

Another reason for the re-positioning of MD from ultra Discman to a pocket digital recording device is the record labels acceptance of the recording hobbyist.

The MiniDisc spokesperson continues: “The real opportunity for MD today is due to the dramatic change in the lifestyle usage of music by enthusiasts. Many people are interested in creating their own mixes of their favorite songs, whether they be live or pre-recorded. This is evidenced by the sales of different music compilations and soundtracks such as Titanic. And people are now downloading audio from the internet.”

John Scofield’s recent free digital offering of the tune A Go Go was downloaded by thousands of people.

The Largest Ad Campaign in Electronics History

In 1997 Sony decided that it was going to sell MD to people who currently make copies of CDs into cassette, and it launched what is considered to be the largest consumer electronics advertising campaign in history (bigger even than the CD). The ads, targeted toward men 18-34, can be seen on MTV and other young demo shows. They generally feature some TwentySomething sultress seducing the male recordist with MD’s ability to make perfect digital recordings. Sony’s slogan, originally, “Why make a copy when you can make a clone,” took on a more irreverent spin: “Make it

with MD.”

Sony is also hoping that these recording-happy youngsters would be less critical of MD’s purported sonic downside.

The MiniDisc, although read by a laser beam, is not a pure optical format. It is actually a hybrid format utilizing both optical and magnetic technologies. Unlike a CD, no “pits” are actually “stamped” into a polycarbonate substrate material during the pressing process. Rather, the polarity on the magnetic layer is constantly changed and the laser incorporates a signal analyzer that acknowledges either a negative or a positive charge which is then converted back to the audio signal.

This Magneto-Optical recording format allows you to re-record over a million times on the same disc without degrading the quality of the music. And despite its diminutive size, it can still record up to 74 minutes of continuous music.

There are a few other terrific attributes that make MD great for recording. For one, you can add titles to the tracks which are read on the player’s LCD display. And, much like a CD, you can skip tracks, skip around within a track, and program the MD to play only the tracks that are compatible with your current mood.

Musicians like MD because you can mark a section and the MD player will repeat only that section ad infinitum. This is great for “copping riffs.” Also many professional audio companies are producing portable multi-track MD recording devices which boast instant editing and can store up to 37 minutes on each of four tracks.

Sony and other manufacturers now offer quite few types of MiniDisc players and recorders. One of the most popular systems is called an MD Bundle. This package includes a standard home component-sized recorder along with a portable unit. The theory behind the bundle is to make it as easy for the consumer to record as possible. Merely hook-up the full-sized recorder to your stereo system once-use its digital input to interface with your CD player’s digital output-and badda-bing: perfect digital copies every single time. This system also makes it easier to glean from many different CDs by putting the MD on pause while you load the next recording victim. The home units also sport a built-in Analog-to-Digital converter which allows you to make digital copies of analog source material such as LPs, cassettes or video tapes.

When you’re done with your new custom digital compilation, just pop it into your portable player to take it with you. The portable unit does not record, but that’s OK as long as use the home recorder to copy CDs. The Sony MD Bundle 4 includes a home player/recorder MDS-JE510 and a portable player MZ-E40 has a suggested retail price of $499.95.

If you’re interested in recording on the go, consider a portable player/recorder. These units contain a tiny build-in Analog-to-Digital converter which allows you to make digital copies of analog source material. You can plug it into your friends stereo to make a digital recording of a rare LP, or more likely, you can plug in stereo microphones to make a digital live recording. You can also make perfect direct-to-digital recordings as well. The Sony MZ-R50 player/recorder has a suggested retail price of $549.95.

A more high-end approach can be to take your MD a la carte. This allows you to acquire the sexiest of all MD players, the Sony MZ-E35. This ultra-slim gadget-of-gadgets fits in the palm of your hand and has the way-cool headset with LCD readout remote attached to the headset cord. You can stick this baby in you shirt pocket and control it with the peanut-sized remote. The cost: around $450. But remember, since the MiniDisc player has been reinvented as a recording medium, there is little to no prerecorded software available. This means that you’ll have to buy a home deck along with it. By itself, a Sony MDS-JE520 home MD player/recorder sells for under $360.

Recordable CD

Recordable Compact Disc players are also available, but are a boatload more expensive than MD. Pioneer Electronics has pretty much cornered the consumer market on this technology with three models ranging in suggested retail price from about $1200 to $2000 for their top-of-the-line Elite model. One of the main issues surrounding this technology has been the fact that you can only record one time on a CD. So if you screw up when pushing play, you have to toss out the blank disc and get another one. This is a difficult nut to swallow when the blank 74-minute CDs cost around $10! But rest assured, Pioneer will be introducing a new model this August that will be use a re-writable technology so you can use the same blank CD over and over. Pricing is yet to be finalized and it will utilize a different type of blank CD than the current models.

Who currently buys Recordable CD? Three types of consumers, says David McCollough Brand Manager, Home Electronics Marketing for Pioneer Electronics USA Inc. “There are recording enthusiasts who want to archive material not available on CD such as old radio programming, vinyl or reel-to-reel recordings. Then there are amateur or semi-professional musicians who mix-down their multi-track recordings onto a disc, so instead of making demo tapes they can make demo CDs. Finally, there are car audio enthusiasts who like to have demo cuts on CD to really show off their vehicle’s sound system.”

But a 74-minute CD’s price tag of $10 does help to limit this format’s appeal. This can really throw a recording cognoscenti for a loop knowing that an industrial blank CD costs around $1.50. The reason for the dramatic difference in price? All consumer blank CDs are subject to elevated royalties payable to the recording industry.

But what does the future behold for the Recordable CD? Pioneer’s McCollough says, “We’re finding ways to bring the cost down. The first generation Recordable CD sold for $4000. The 2nd generation went for around $2000, now the 3rd generation is going for almost half as much. Maybe it won’t quite cut in half again, but the prices are definitely trending downward every year. CD has a higher acceptance than any other audio medium right now and with the advent of Pioneer’s new re-recordable player-which will be the lowest-priced recordable CD player on the market so far-the recordable CD could easily replace the analog cassette tape. But Pioneer is offering many recording solutions in this digital age, that’s why we offer both Recordable CD and MiniDisc.”

Philips Consumer Electronics Company has had some success with their audio CD recorder, the ACD-R870, which has been available for about a year. It carries a suggested retail price of $649. This price point is lower than other CD recorders out there because Philips has positioned the model as the “first consumer-priced CD recorder.”

Besides its appealing price, the R870 is one of the only players that can record on both Write-Once discs as well as on Re-Recordable discs. This means that if you’re prone to false-starts on your recordings, you can purchase one of the more costly re-recordable CDs so you can try and try again.

The R870’s replacement model, the ACD-R880, is expected to hit stores sometime this summer.

Originally Published