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Sony to end manufacture of minidisc, a stalwart of radio studios

My last minidisc recorder.

Minidisc is an audio technology that never quite took off in the US the same way it did in Asia, and especially Japan. After enjoying a brief period of mainstream popularity just prior to the introduction of the iPod, many people are probably surprised to learn that minidisc is actually still around now. However, Sony has just announced that it will end production of their last portable minidisc walkman this September, nineteens years after introducing the format, and just under a year after ending production of the cassette walkman.

First released by Sony in 1992, minidisc was the company’s second attempt to create a recordable digital audio device for consumers, after the release of digital audio tape (DAT) was complicated in the 1980s by the recording industry. Although Sony first boneheadedly marketed MD as an ultra-portable CD replacement, eventually the digital recording capacity of the medium won over.

One place where MD found a foothold was in radio. It’s hard to remember a time when you couldn’t listen to an MP3 online or load up thousands of songs on a player the size of a wristwatch. But back in the mid-90s digital computer-based audio was still a tricky and expensive proposition, and the recordable CD-R had yet to be released. A decent PC or Mac-based digital audio workstation easily could set a station back five to ten grand. Storage costs easily went up from there, since a gigabyte hard drive storing a bit less than two hours of audio cost hundreds of dollars.

By comparison, minidisc offered stations an inexpensive way to digitally record programs from satellite, prerecorded shows, on-air spots or airchecks. A pro-level deck could be had for just around $1000 and the reusable discs cost just a couple of bucks. Operating much like a tape deck, very little training was required for air staff to begin using them.

Portable minidisc recorders were also smaller than most other portable recorders of the time, while offering better sound quality and durability than the ubiquitous cassette recorder. By the late 1990s most major radio networks and producers, including NPR and the BBC, were using minidisc recorders for field reporting.

An especially useful feature of minidisc was the ability to edit right on the disc. Although the process seems slow in comparison to editing a waveform on a computer, it was still a lot easier and less error-prone than editing reel-to-reel tape with a razor blade, as many stations were still doing in the early 90s. I edited a lot of minidisc in my day, and while I wouldn’t have wanted to edit together a complex half-hour feature, it was very simple to trim the heads or tails off a track or move tracks around. At community radio WEFT we used minidisc to record our daily syndicated news programs from satellite and relied upon the editing function to cut some programs into sections for easier station breaks.

Minidisc also caught on with amateur and home recordists. Although the multi-track minidisc recorder never caught on, the technology offered an inexpensive, high quality and very portable way to record audio in the field. Many musicians relied upon minidisc to record their own live shows, or to demo tracks at home.

Even though minidisc was popular in radio, studios and amongst amateur recordists, Sony always hoped it would be a hit consumer technology. And, frankly, with some 22 million recorders sold by Sony worldwide in the last nineteen years we really can’t call minidisc a failure. Still compared with 297 million iPods sold, poor minidisc is a bit outclassed.

TASCAM's newest minidisc deck

Sony has pretty much already ended manufacture of all but one minidisc recorder model by now. I don’t think there’s been a pro deck in their lineup for a few years. However, pro audio manufacturer TASCAM actually introduced a brand new CD/MD combo deck just this past April. The MD/CD1mkIII is aimed squarely at radio stations and recording studios that either still have minidisc as part of their workflow or have an archive of discs they still want to play.

There are at least four working minidisc recorders in my house, and I must own several hundred discs. About half of my discs have audio that I recorded myself, containing airchecks of my radio shows, segments I recorded for air, live shows or other field recordings. The other half contains music, many of them minidisc mix tapes. You see, a minidisc recorder functioned as my main portable music player for a decade until about 2007 when I got my first reliable MP3 player. I even used to listen to podcasts downloaded to minidisc.

Yes, Sony may be ending manufacture of their minidisc recorders, but minidisc is not dead. Sure, a large percentage of those 22 million minidisc players are probably lost in the back of closets and drawers. But a lot are still in use today by people who don’t see a need to ditch a technology that works, or who have a cherished archive of music and programs recorded on MD.

I’m always a little annoyed when the tech press/twitter/blogosphere jumps on these announcements declaring a technology to be obsolete and dead. I’m not just driven by nostalgia. Rather, in some regards it’s wasteful to ditch a functioning bit of technology only because it’s not popular anymore. Just because Sony soon won’t be making recorders doesn’t mean that the deck in your studio or on your shelf is instantaneously useless.

I agree that by and large portable digital audio recorders that use memory cards and computer editing are actually easier to use than minidisc. But anyone who has lost multiple hours of stuff to a corrupted SD card, or thousands of songs to a dead hard drive might see the value in a study little disc that only hold a few hours at best, and is built to survive a lot of abuse. You lose a hard drive and your whole music collection might be gone. You misplace one minidisc and you’ve lost no more than a couple hours of audio.

¡Viva la minidisc!



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5 Responses to Sony to end manufacture of minidisc, a stalwart of radio studios

  1. Melvin July 25, 2011 at 9:12 am #

    Thank you a nice and sensible piece on the MD.

    I own several portable and mini-MD decks and they are all still going strong (even after the combo-CD player in one of them bit the dust after only a few years of use). My very first player-only MD Walkman is still giving me listenng pleasure after about 14 years of use!!! And the ability to edit on-the-go without any other equipment is still awesome.

    Totally agree that one can so easily lose a whole hard drive’s worth of stuff (and I have more than once) whereas MDs are pretty study little things.

    I recently bought a 3rd party replacement battery for one of my units and it was back in business!

    De acuerdo, Viva la MiniDisc!

  2. Alex Claude August 5, 2011 at 6:51 pm #

    I fully agree with your outlook on the MD saga. I would like to add that I am a latter-day convert. I have owned almost every kind of portable music player since the original cassette Walkman, including all sorts of CD, mp3 and Ipod players.

    I was intrigued by the minidisc technology early on but the high price of the R-series MD players was a severe turn-off for a poor grad student. A couple of years ago a rediscovered the MD scene when my local outlet store was liquidating their entire HiMD lineup for pennies on the dollar.

    I quickly became hooked by the intrinsic quality of the MD sound and the recording units themselves. The ATRAC algorithm is clearly the best of the compressed music formats and most of the MD units have much better electronics and amplifiers than even the best of the digital audio players (especially those from Apple). I currently own about a dozen MD units, several hundred disks and I am currently stocking up on batteries and other supplies to carry me until the next global warming/ice age cycle! One final thought is that the ability to dissociate the player/recorder form tha actual media can be very handy under some circumstances. Just think about what can happen in case of theft or confiscation by the local fuzz when you are trying to protect a critical recording.

    MiniDisc uber alles!

  3. Ivan Oliveira August 10, 2011 at 1:09 pm #

    I’m very sorry to hear that.

    I sold all my MD players/recorders and decks when I had to move to Holland. But I still have all my MDs well stored in case I want to recover some of the rare music I recorded on them over the years.

    Had my first one in 1996, gift from a friend who lived in Japan for a while. After that I was so into it that I kept using it (and bought other portables and decks) until the day I got myself my first Ipod.

    While the iPod and other Media Players are great stuff, the audio quality of the japanese made MD players were ridiculously better. Also my cheapest portable player had toslink input and mic plug-in power. And all the others had digital inputs and outputs on top of the high quality analog connections.

    Editing was nice too!

    The best thing is that I used it to save a lot of old Jazz Vinyls!

    so many stories….

  4. Tom Bergman August 22, 2011 at 7:01 pm #

    I use my several high-end Sony ES MD units mainly for recording purposes. I transfer a lot of vinyl to CD using MD’s as the masters. (They can be used over and over again without any noticeable reduction of performance…) The format’s editing features are second to none when compared to reel-to-reel, cassette, or even D.A.T. You can accurately punch in track markers, eliminate whatever material you don’t want, move tracks around, in short, make the master exactly the way you want before you transfer it to CD. I have a whole bunch of happy customers, and the best thing is that I don’t have to use one of those lame USB turntables to do all of this. I just send the signal from my SOTA Sapphire into my Sony MD-JA50ES using the tape loop in my preamp. The results are excellent. I hope Sony at least continues to manufacture blank MD”s…

  5. Paul Riismandel August 22, 2011 at 7:47 pm #

    It’s great to hear everyone’s minidisc story and learn that this technology is still in use.

    Alex Claude: I agree with your point about having removable media when reporting in critical situations. Although SD cards are removable, they’re still not as cheap as blank MDs, and the tendency is to buy big cards that can hold hours and hours of audio, such that you don’t need to swap them out much, if at all.

    But with MD you were always limited to just over an hour, which forced you to use multiple discs, making it easy not to keep all your eggs in one basket. It’s similar to digital videotape in that way.

    I remember back in the early 2000s when I worked with citizen reporters going to mass protests. Most teams developed a practice of moving recorded tapes or discs away from the camera/recorder as quickly as possible. That way, in case of arrest, confiscation or breakage the footage would be more likely to be preserved.

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