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Lost in the Supermarket: Sony's MiniDisc and the New Digital Recording Mainstream

Joshua McDaniel

EMedia, March 2000
Copyright © Online Inc.

March 2000 | My next-door neighbors are band people, and consequently throw a spectacular and most-orotund shindig. Every single possible mode of existence is represented at these things: punks and hippies swap tales of intrigue and terror, transvestites instruct prom queens in the proper application of mascara, bikers show pictures of their children to MCSEs, the Sharks and the Jets adjust themselves on a couch such that all have a clear view of The Graduate. The cops never come, or rather, if cops do show up, it's because they're thirsty; nobody is at home to complain about the noise, they're all at the party.

The surest indication of MiniDisc's signature strengths is ATRAC, the codec taht makes it possible to fit 74 minutes of music on these tiny platters.
Naturally, you tend to fall into conversations here. A young man twitched over in the kitchen; one of his ears contained an earbud, the other was devoted to something else, I'm not real sure what. Visually tracing the cord to its origin, I anticipated arriving finally at a DiscMan, maybe even a Rio; to my surprise, the cord ran to a portable MiniDisc player. Hmm, I thought, I'd forgotten those even existed. I remember seeing a few MiniDisc units here and there almost a decade ago, among the privileged, but they never piqued my curiosity at all. I had the format pegged as something akin to the pot-bellied pigs people were keeping as pets for a time: here today, dying neglected in a cold, suburban garage tomorrow. Now here's this young man, t-shirt and jeans, no pretense at all about him, carrying a MiniDisc unit around, at a very public party. Okay, I thought, I'll bite.

He handed it over pretty happily when I asked to see it. Now, God bless it and all, and keep in mind that we're still pretty much in a prototype phase, but Diamond's Rio [See review, June 1999, pp. 80-82--Ed.] seems a little frail when you're holding a portable MiniDisc player. You can tell, just by its sturdiness, and that pleasant bit of weight, that it means business. That's where my fascination with MiniDisc started, a fascination honed yet sharper by this statement, unequivocally rendered by said young man: "Soon, MiniDisc will supplant CD-R as the storage format of choice for personal music compilations."

So what have you been smoking? I felt compelled to ask.

Just what I thought. Nonetheless, we cannot reject this young man's statement out of hand, if for no other reason than the passion and fortitude behind it. Something, after all, made him say it, and I think I know what it is: MiniDisc is cool. And not only is MiniDisc cool, but it also perfectly complements this new digital consciousness we've got in the wake of MP3. Judging from the popularity and sales of digital jukebox and DJ software, "favorite" buttons on late- model CD changers, and try-before-you-download tracks, it seems we're all starting to like a lot of flexibility in and control over our digital music collections.

These are the primary (even legendary, as it turns out) strengths of MiniDisc: flexibility and able subservience to the user. It's uncanny how accurately MiniDisc technology at its release in 1992 foreshadowed contemporary events--a cagey Cassandra wrapped in chrome (or yellow, or blue, depending on your preference), too far ahead of its time, but not without some hope, especially now.

Career Opportunities

Sony has evidently noticed its renewed opportunity: as of December 1999, Sony had plans to release a cable-and-software bundle built for PC-to-MiniDisc digital recording. The release was scheduled for Q1 2000, which means it should have happened by the time you read this, or at least be imminent. We have to wonder, though, will we ever hear it has arrived, when it does arrive? Sony, in the past, has been pretty quiet about its product; where it could be--and perhaps will be, and in any case should be, by all rights--eminent in our minds, for Sony, it's just not. I sought comment from Diamond Multimedia (creators of the Rio) on the issue of whether or not MiniDisc was perceived as competition in light of the company's intended entry into the downloading fray, or as apples and oranges. I never heard back, which I think at least substantiates my claim that nobody thinks about MiniDisc.

Sony gets yelled at often on the marketing score: for example, a November 1997 issue of Rolling Stone, in the necessarily coarse language of honesty, accused the company of both bad timing and bad marketing, saying, "The technology rocks, but the roll-out sucked." The king is decidedly absent from the portable prom, which invariably leads to wild, even mean-spirited speculation about and beratement of MiniDisc's marketing, or lack thereof. One piece in Gadget--though stopping short of outright accusation--hints at a "concept of planned obsolescence," a thing wrought of both greed and a need for something for plant workers to do while new technologies develop. On the subject of MiniDisc, you'll find a lot of talk (sometimes wacko) about a taciturn Sony, images of non-images. But let's face it, even after all these years, MiniDisc is still brand-new in some sense, and perhaps the language in which to describe it, position it, and market it is only just emerging, which would explain a lot. And something is happening here, for what it's worth: "The U.S. market penetration of MiniDisc is on target to double this year, just like last year..." says Tracy Farrington, marketing manager for Sony Electronics.

Complete Control

ATRAC retains the high and low frequencies much better than MP3 does; invariably, ATRAC yields a better track than MP3, at least to my ear.
The surest indication of MiniDisc's signature strengths is ATRAC, the codec that makes it possible to fit 74 minutes of music on these tiny platters. ATRAC and MP3 are both based on exactly the same principle: that there's stuff you won't ever hear under any circumstance, so get rid of that stuff and save some space (of course, we know that this is sometimes a little less discriminate than we'd like). Early in my acquaintance with MiniDisc, I made the assumption, as many people unfortunately do, that ATRAC was too old to be as good or efficient as the more- recent MPEG codecs.

I assumed correctly on the efficiency score--ATRAC's got a clunkier compression ratio than MP3--but was horribly mistaken on the quality part. ATRAC retains the high and low frequencies much better than MP3 does; invariably, ATRAC yields a better track than MP3, at least to my ear. A curious side note: evidently, Sony submitted ATRAC to some MPEG committee or other for perusal a while back, but was told to go away.

One of the big things MiniDisc has on CD-R is rewritability, in the big sense. Certainly, CD-R media is cheap enough today where we're not so sad if we failed to include a track on this or that piece of media. Nonetheless, once burned, that disc is done, immutable, forever--like history, but you have to repeat it, no questions allowed. I don't know how much longer that kind of permanence is going to fit with the way we are, or the way we're becoming.

Now that we've had the taste of freedom that these new digital music technologies have given us--in what we may do with our music collections and in where we are able to acquire new music--it's often difficult to be content with formats as stolid as CD-R is, in that very particular sense; cognitive liberation they call that, the stuff that creates revolutions. With MiniDisc media, as opposed to CD-R, everything is adjustable, from erasing and replacing to reorganizing the track sequence altogether. You never need more than a handful of blank MDs around; even one is plenty, given that kind of versatility.

Okay, let's say someday CD-RW becomes something owners of non-Philips home recording and playback equipment actually use in place of CD-R for audio recordings. Even then, you'd still have to lug a bunch of CDs--and something to play them in--wherever you wanted to hear them. For times when that might seem a little unwieldy--a thousand instances come to mind--a portable MiniDisc unit is more than adequate for such purposes.

As always, I checked the skip factor in my ultra-scientific fashion: I shook it violently, and found that it did not even once skip. I've heard reports to the contrary from associates, the aforementioned young man for one. Jogging or similar sustained jostling might cause a skip here and there.

The Write Profile

The particular model sent for evaluation is the MZ-R55, a sturdy little self-contained portable unit that retails for $349.95. (Prices for Sony's entire line of MiniDisc players range from $199 to $800, MSRP.) The MZ-R55 is heavier than it looks, but not so heavy as to be encumbering at all--it's the kind of heaviness I imagine a policeman liking about his firearm, and in fact it does weigh about the same as an unloaded police-issue Browning 9mm. The MZ-R55 does everything that the bigger units do, but in a volume of about five cubic inches.

When I say it does everything, that includes--but is not limited to--recording, playback, editing, and to some extent even frequency-response adjustment. Its exterior is chrome, the interior looks as you would expect it to: the guts of a CD-ROM drive as seen from a block away. It runs on a rechargeable chewing-gum NiCd battery--though, if you're concerned about the environment or dislike NiCd for some other reason, you can also run the unit on dry batteries using an included attachment.

An LCD display and the buttons you're used to (play, pause, FF, the whole bit) adorn the face of the unit. Repeatedly depressing a tiny button designated "display" will take you through several different panels of information in the LCD area. One panel features a CD Text-like function that scrolls track titles across the top of the display. If the MD inside happens to be one you compiled--and odds are it is, though you can still find an artist release on MD here and there--the track titles will be the ones you punched in via alternate functions of the play controls, if you got around to that. Another panel displays the traditional information, track number, and time. Yet another display panel shows the birthday of your particular compilation, I guess for sentimental purposes.

The only strange, yet not-so-strange, thing about recording an MD is the connection you're given. You get an optical-to-optical cable, that's it--very bold, I thought, announcing the death of analog in this manner. Analog connections are fully supported, but those cables must be purchased separately. In any case, a cable, be it optical or analog, runs from an "out" on your stereo to a stereo mini-sized "in" on the side of this unit. Plugging stuff in is the most complicated aspect of the recording process; it's harder to brew coffee than it is to make your own MD compilation.

The Synchro Recording feature, a function initiated by the simple flip of a switch, understands silence to be the end of a track; recording will cease during silence, a track mark will be added, then the unit will resume recording when a new signal is detected. You then simply play what you like, never having to touch the unit. Seventy-four minutes or 254 tracks later, it's done--I have yet to see a misplaced track mark. In the event of a mismarking, you can manually add or remove track markers during playback.

Who Needs Remote Control?

Now comes the pleasure of sitting back and listening to what you've made in that near-perfect fidelity ATRAC yields. Once again, while listening, you won't have to touch the unit unless you wish to swap discs: the MZ-R55 comes with a remote control. It's about as big as your index finger, and cylindrical in shape. The remote plugs into the unit; your headphones plug into the remote, so it's not remote, per se, but you get the drift.

The remote features an LCD much like the one on the main unit, but backlit with that striking aqua color you see on those trendy sports watches. Here too, on the remote, you will see the CD Text- like scroll of information, and you'll be able to control all the playback functions.

Know Your Rights

Now, here's the best part: if you're sick of that dumb Celine Dion song you recorded to your compilation, you can erase it, and all memory of it. Or, if some new song arrives on the scene and you wish to add it to the compilation, you add it. Then, if you want that song to be the second song on the compilation instead of the last song, you move it into the second slot, and move something else to the third slot, then stick the fourteenth or fifteenth song in the thirtieth spot, whatever you like. Infinite, infinite malleability. Let's see you do that with your Spressa.

Finally, a word about the media. Like the players, the MiniDisc itself is sturdy; it's essentially tiny MO media, complete with MO-type encasement, and data is written to recordable MDs according to the principles of MO technology. So, since it's always ensconced in its protective case, neglect is impossible--you'd really have to work at it to destroy your MDs, so there's that small peace of mind.

But it's also a potential limitation. Cartridge-protected media is itself, of course, a great idea, for the reason stated above. But given MiniDisc's failure to catch on in audio circles before CD-R, and CD-R's CD-like cartridge-free appeal, MD media's case confinement may prove as big a turn-off as DVD-RAM's. This is a perception issue, not a performance one, but a potential concern nonetheless. MiniDisc media is manufactured and sold today by a variety of companies, including TDK, Maxell, and BASF, and it comes pretty cheap, typically just a dollar more than CD-R media.

Death, Glory, or Just Another Story?

It's almost novel now to manipulate digital audio with no glaring monitor anywhere to be seen. It's refreshing, at least on this end. But even given my recent education in the wonders of MiniDisc, this much remains true: my CD-R drive will continue to be used daily, and thanks to the acceptability of CD-R media in CD players throughout the land, it will remain my vehicle of choice for compilations for a long time to come.

Nevertheless, I will be paying a lot more attention to the trajectory of MiniDisc as things continue to develop around it--these things it was the harbinger of back in 1992. It's like they say about James Joyce: we're still learning to be MiniDisc's contemporaries. Unlike Joyce, though, MiniDisc ain't dead; in fact, it's gaining life with each passing day and the developments in digital music distribution those days bring.

Companies Mentioned in This Article

Diamond Multimedia Systems, Inc.
2880 Junction Avenue, San Jose, CA 95134; 408/325-7000; Fax 408/325-7070; http://www.diamondmm.com

Sony Electronics, Inc.
1 Sony Drive, Park Ridge, NJ 07656; 201/930-6136; Fax 201/358-4058; http://www.sel.sony.com

Maxell Corporation of America
22-08 Route 208, Fair Lawn, NJ 07410; 201/794-5900; Fax 201/796-8790; http://www.maxell.com

TDK Electronics Corporation
12 Harbor Park Drive, Port Washington, NY 11050; 516/625-0100; Fax 516/625-0171; http://www.tdk.com

Joshua McDaniel (josh@simulacra.to) is an IT Solutions Provider and Webmaster of Robert Starrett and Dana Parker's http://www.cdpage.com.

Comments? Email us at letters@onlineinc.com.

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