The Mighty MiniDisc

One of the greatest devices ever invented
August 29, 2011
So a bit over a year ago I was re-introduced to the MiniDisc recorder, when I met a hobbyist who used one for field recording. The last time I ever saw something like it was back in the fifth grade, about 10-11 years ago at the time of this article.

In 1992, Sony dropped the minidisc player in the hopes that it would replace the cassette tape as the CD had replaced the vinyl LP records a bit over 10 years prior. It was capable of recording and playing back audio on miniature CDs enclosed in a cartridge similar to a floppy disk. Like the cassette tape you could basically do the same things without the worry of losing your precious audio to the tape deck.

A major downside to the minidisc at the very start was its limited amount of data storage. Early discs had a storage limit of 140 MB and 74 minutes worth of recording time. In order to get this 74-minute recording time on such a small amount of disc space, Sony employed the ATRAC high quality audio compression technology to compress the audio just enough without sacrificing sound quality. In a nutshell, it worked. Revised versions of the minidisc were the 80 minute ones and the highly superior Hi-MD discs which could up as much as 1 GB of data.

Takin' it back old school! We've sure come a long way...

The first ever minidisc recorder dropped in '92 was the MZ-1, a somewhat clunky-looking device that didn't look very portable. Later models, however, would continue to become smaller until the end of the 1990s, when the MZ-R90/91 was released as the world's smallest device capable of recording. This compact design would continue to be carried over for the next few years until the release of the Hi-MD in 2004.

Move over, 1999!

My personal experiences with minidisc began some time after that, when a lot of other kids were using them over CD players back in school. I never quite understood their exact purpose other than being extremely tiny CD players but a closer second look at them ten years later helped me realize their true potential as excellent high-quality audio recorders. By this time, the minidisc player was largely dead in the states (You can thank the iPod and Sony's DRM on the minidiscs), so I had to resort to eBay to find a few models to play with.

The MZ-N707, great recorder, solid performance
The minidisc largely died out because it lacked the convenience of an MP3 player in later years when Sony attempted to integrate the minidisc recorders with PCs using the NetMD platform. At the time, there was a large amount of worry over music piracy and the fact that music could be easily transferred from computer to computer via minidisc recorders. To combat this Sony implemented a software that the minidisc recorders were able to function with, allowing users to "check-in" and "check out" music accordingly. While annoying, it did save time on recording to the minidiscs, as the old method was very similar to recording on cassette tape.

Oh, fifth grade! If only I knew...

"Check-outs", or the ability to transfer tracks off a minidisc via USB were hugely limited, and once a minidisc had music burned on to it, the only way to erase/edit the disc was to use the very same computer you originally got the music from. Another HUGE problem, however, was the fact that personal recordings could not be pulled off the recorder at all to the computer. This created some frustration as the only way around this was to hook up a line cable to the recorder's line out jack and playing back the recording in real-time via the computer's line-in input.

One of the finest models ever produced, the MZ-N10

This allowed for MP3 players to slowly take over and in due time, largely killed off the minidisc recorder. Sony made one final bout with the Hi-MD, the next generation minidisc which solved many of the problems that came with NetMD, but by that time it was much too late, as the iPod's runaway success led many other manufacturers to switch over to MP3 players. You can still find them in Japan, although demand has dwindled and production of units has ceased as of September 2011. Or, you can look up eBay and hope to find one in good or even brand new condition. I've tinkered with the MZ-N707 and MZ-N10 minidisc recorders, and have witnessed the raw recording power of the MZ-RH1 HI-MD recorder, and hope to gather up enough money to go shopping for recorders again one last time.

What's real and which is fake?

I've recently stumbled on an online petition which was started up not too long ago (08.23.2011) for the "rescue" of the format, as Sony will be ending production on their MZ-RH1 Hi-MD model in September 2011 and the Hi-MD discs in another year, although they will continue to produce the standard 80-minute minidiscs until further notice.

So MiniDisc lovers, please unite! Your voice can and will make a difference!
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