Back to the future Friday is a monthly column where Headfonia shines light on the awesome past.
#2 Minidisc portable recorders
Long before I discovered the iPod shuffle and began reading Headfi, I wiggled my typing toes in the murky waters of minidisc.org, arguing which recorder sounded best, offered the best concert-taping capabilities, skip protection, ad nauseum. In general, we were a smug holier-than-thou group that masturbated the niche soul in each of us.
Real MD users hated — and I believe I can use this word without distorting its definition — MP3 players. We hated Cowon, Meizu, Creative, and so on, equally. But above all, we hated Apple. Some of us probably still do.
We had both rhyme and reason. Our players/recorders of choice were infinitely more elegant. We could take disks with us, record our favourite albums on the fly, swap music/disks, and no computer was necessary. Concerts? All you needed was a good microphone, microphone amp, and balls. MD recorders had noiseless outputs, featured on-the-fly renaming, great battery life. Hell, they even had gapless playback- something that until today eludes many players. Then the iPod came along and transformed the MP3 player market. From that day on, our party got rained on.
It took me a while to see the writing on the wall. MD, for all its quirks and tangle of proprietary shit, it was the perfect media system. And, it always would be. Rap on wood.
I purchased my first recorder from the ON/OFF (RIP) in Vetlanda. In rapid succession, I purchased another five, plus two player-only units. I had one break down, another blow up after the salesman snuck in the improper charger unit. I went to professional audio supply shop near Pearson International Airport to pick up professional-grade disks. I even purchased pre-recorded albums on read-only disks. Damn.
But 2006 was the last year I seriously called myself a heavy MD user. I would be lying if I said I didn’t miss some of what MD could do. And, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t really miss carefully recording albums, getting to know my music in new, intimate ways, and spending hours every week lining up themed playlists for the next five days. In no way whatsoever is this essay evidence of my having relapsed. I swear it. Honest to TOC.
But here’s what I love about MD:
Early MP3 players from crapanies like iRiver, Compaq, and Creative, were shitty devices that stole design cues from egg McMuffins and cigarette cartons. The idea was to redesign the wheel. MP3 must not in any way look or act like it was designed for music (or to be used by normal humans).
MD players and recorders, however, followed the general Aesthetic of hi-end CD players out there. Sony pioneered the use of magnesium alloys. Players had slim in-line remotes, and boasted excellent machining, tight tolerances, and beautifully humming engines.
They were flashy, but in a good way. Yes, there were some ugly players, too. Early Sharp and Panasonic designs had no style. Funnily enough, Aiwa (Sony’s cheaper sibling), served up tasteful, yet aggressive designs that appealed to the bridge portaphile.
In all cases, MD players and recorders were backed up by forward-thinking design departments.
Cost of ownership
Not to rub salt into old wounds, but early MP3 players cost an arm and a leg. And you were stuck a measly dozen megabytes or so. MD disks were small, cost about 1$, and you could pack dozens in your bag. If one broke, you didn’t have to repair the MD player or recorder. Just re-record a disk. They have no analogue even today. Sure, you can purchase a removable SD or other card, but you aren’t paying 1$, and you most certainly can’t personalise that card without it getting stuck in your AK.
Because MD disks were small, rather robust, and as easy to play as a CD, they served as excellent backups for your expensive CD collection. Just record your favourite disks onto MD. Voila! your optical digital investment was ensured to last. MD disks were protected by plastic jackets that remained closed to the elements. When inserted into an MD recorder/player, a small lever forced open the metal read tab, exposing the CD-like optical surface of the MD.
I bet you were about to point out that MD players/recorders could be expensive. You are right. And they were. But prices plunged downward as the MD user base rose. Couple that with sturdy hardware, and inexpensive media, and you had a rather economical way of enjoying your CD collection while out and about. Eventually, basic players could be had for around 100$.
Exact CD copies
While MD recorders could record any analogue signal they were sent, and most 16-bit digital signals, they were made to backup your CD collection. They safe-guarded your precious investment. While the audio signal was compressed in a proprietary codec Sony called ATRAC, actual compression was about 1/5, and averaged 292kbps. Late iterations of the ATRAC codec did a very good job of preserving the audio signal. Still later versions allowed for higher compression. MDLP2 allowed you to pack the equivalent of 2 CDs onto one minidisc. MDLP4 was just crap.
But the best part was that your CD — in all its hidden-track, gapless, run-on glory, was preserved. You didn’t have to run the file through EAC or MAX. You didn’t have to fuss with ID3 tags, or CUE sheets to make sure gaps would wouldn’t show up in your music.
Your CD was preserved, with very few errors, exactly on the MD. And it needed no computer.
Ease of use
That last point deserves a mini-essay of its own. All you needed was an MD recorder and a cable. Plug them up to your source, sync them, and go. Lickety split. No need to digitise downloads, find album art, work with EAC. This had enormous advantages in cost, too. Today, we think MP3 players are cheap. In reality, our music collections sit on the enormously convoluted backbone of: internet & connection, computer, encoders, proprietary software, non-removable batteries, and much much more. On top of all that, you have to be rather fluent with one or more operating systems plus a suite of other, unrelated software titles, in order to master listening to music from an MP3 player.
The financial and educational costs necessary to support fidelity playback and enjoyment of music from an MP3 player are astronomically more expensive than supporting an MD collection.
Of course, NetMD (the bastard child of MD and MP3) introduced computer interfaces, promising to open MD to a new generation of listener that preferred going through hoops in order to listen to his or her music. But NetMD sucked. Big time. MDs never were meant to be used like removable memory. Nor were they meant to be used like MP3 players. The simplicity they offered — and nearly flawlessly delivered — was unprecedented.
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