The multitrack MiniDisc has
achieved some success among
budget-oriented musicians by offering a higher-quality,
and far more editable, alternative to the cassette-based
multitrack. But what about the original,
stereo format from which the multitrack format
was derived - is it of any use to us?
Perhaps surprisingly, the answer can
be a resounding "yes," depending on your
needs. Let's take a quick look at MD
basics, then some useful applications.
MEET THE MD
The audio MD, championed by Sony, is a recordable, magneto-optical storage format, protected inside a plastic casing that makes it less fragile than a CD. MD recorders use a laser to heat up the disc's surface; this causes demagneti zation, whereupon the recorder applies a magnetic field that re-magnetizes the particles to "etch" the digital audio signal into the disc. Like a floppy disk, the MD has a file directory (Table of Contents, or TOC) that keeps track of recorded audio. When you enter a track number, the TOC tells the MD where to look for the audio data. These TOC entries can also be named. Unlike tape, when you want to record, you just record - you don't have to find an open space, as you do with tape. The MD will find a place on the disc to store the material, and tack on its number to the existing TOC. You can't get much simpler than that. The disc's small size means a limited storage capacity (about 140 MB), so MD uses a data-omission algorithm called ATRAC (Adaptive TRansform Acoustic Coding) that throws away about 80 percent of the audio information. This allows 74 minutes of stereo recording, or 148 minutes of mono recording, which would normally require around 770 MB of storage space. Magneto-optical systems are sensitive to vibration; as a result, a RAM buffer keeps enough data "in reserve" so that even if there is a momentary interruption, the music continues. After a glacially slow start, MD has become extremely popular in Japan, and is rapidly gaining ground in Europe. Because it's small and portable, MD has replaced the "Walkman"-style cassette player for upscale consumers (MD machines are not cheap). Acceptance has lagged in the U.S., but chains such as Circuit City are putting a promotional push on the format; slowly but surely, MD is making inroads in the U.S. In any event, MD has reached enough "critical mass" in terms of worldwide popularity that it should be around for a while (unlike the now dead DCC, which was introduced to the market at roughly the same time).
WHAT IT MEANS TO MUSICIANS
Purchasing an MD has been well worth it to me, despite the expense ($280 for the recorder, $40 for a special cable so I could do digital transfers into the MD, and about $4 per blank disc). Almost immediately after buying it, various applications started becoming apparent.
Before proceeding, though, let's address the issue of sound quality. No, it's not quite as good as CD or DAT; however, MD sounds light years ahead of the cassette, which is a fairer comparison. MD isn't really for master recording, but it does sound just fine, thank you. Those who haven't audi- tioned the format since ATRAC's screechy infancy are in for a major surprise: sound quality has improved dramatically. So much for details, what follows are some ideas on how to take advantage of MD.
Sampling in the field.
I formerly used a Sony Walkman Pro, which had sub-Yugo reliability and sound quality that (despite Dolby B) didn't cut it in the digital age. MD - which is more compact, handles vibration, fits in a shirt pocket, and has virtually no hiss - is a major improvement. It holds almost as much audio as a C-90 cassette, but doesn't require flipping something over halfway through. Another bonus: you can label tracks and time-stamp recordings to make it easier to re- member what/where you recorded. Yes, small DAT machines have better fidelity for sampling, but optical beats tape for durability and access. There is one main drawback, though: many DATs have digital outs, but portable MD recorders don't because they take SCMS seriously. [Not quite -- SCMS allows 1 generation of digital copying for analog recordings. -eaw] Record digitally into an MD and you can't make a digital copy; because manufacturers assume your main use will be digital recording, they rarely provide digital outs for portable models. The only workaround for digital transfers is to find a unit that can produce S/PDIF out from standard audio MiniDisc (e.g, TASCAM's 564 multitrack).
Testing song orders.
One truly nifty feature is that you can edit song orders simply by changing one TOC song number into another. When assembling a CD recently, I recorded all the cuts into MD, then took it with me on the road. I rearranged the tunes in various orders, lived with each order for a while, and eventually ended up with something that worked really well.
Because I always keep a mic in an MD carrying case for sampling, this simplifies capturing any melody lines or lyrics that pour into my mind while traveling.
While preparing for a mini-tour of Europe featuring my "loops 'n' guitar" -based solo act, I knew I'd be playing longer sets than on my previous trip. However, the Ensoniq ASR-X "groovebox" that's the backbone of the act could hold only enough material to do about 45 minutes, necessitating two time consuming re- loads from floppy disk. During dance music performances you can't stop the music, so I pre-recorded ambient transitions on MD to cover me while re- loading. Also note that the MD's small size takes up minimum luggage space, and the vibration-resistant buffer prevents problems from strong bass vibrations, dancers bumping the stage, etc.
I've gotten into the habit of hooking the MD to my mixer's recording outs during rehearsals. I just put the recorder into mono mode, set levels manually (automatic level setting works most of the time, though), press Start, and don't have to think about it again until almost 2.5 hours later. Similarly, I now record my seminars on MD - listening back has helped me improve my pacing and diction. (I also sometimes use MDs of my favorite cuts as "pre-show" music.)
Listening to rough mixes.
I used to record rough mixes on cassette, then listen to them while taking mental (or written) notes to figure out what changes needed to be made in the final versions (isn't mix automation great?). Now I use MD. Even though the sound quality isn't good enough for truly critical listening (like fine differences between mic pre- amps and such), it's more than good enough to let you know what's going on with a mix. And, of course, MDs are great for recording copies of your favorite music for listening to while you're on the road. Hey, now that's a really novel application! I wonder if any of the MD companies have thought of that one...
Craig Anderton is the author of Home Recording for Musicians, Multieffects
for Musicians, and Do It Yourself Projects for Guitarists, all available
from www.amazon.com (do a search for Anderton, Craig). He gives
seminars around the world, and seems to be playing more and more concerts