Both the new digital audio recording systems -- Philips' Digital Compact Cassette and Sony's rival Mini Disc -- reached the shops before Christmas. Sony only just made it for December 15th with very limited stocks of MZ-1 recorders (at £500) and pressed Mini Discs (around 30 titles rattling around in large racks, for between £13.49 and £14.29). The DCC900 came in during November at £550, and by mid-December there were around a couple of hundred titles at between £13.99 and £14.79.
Both systems showed obvious signs of being rushed onto the market to try to get ahead of the other. But neither company dared trust the other to hold back until the technology is more refined.
Although the systems are quite different and wholly incompatible, both Sony and Philips face one common technical problem: DCC and MD rely on data compression, which reduces the number of digital bits need to record and play stereo by at least 75%. The first generations of coding and decoding microchips are very power-hungry, and neither company have yet been able to produce the small, light and reasonably-priced portable units which the record companies see as a new opportunity to sell yet more prerecorded music to play on the move.
Philips have solved the power problem by offering only a large mains-powered DCC recorder while Sony are selling a portable, but it is too large to fit in anything other than an overcoat pocket. Sony's MD also runs for only a short time on one charge of its nickel-cadmium cells. Exactly how long varies with use.
In the US, Sony vaguely promise playing times of `Up to two hours' and a recording time of `Up to 1.5 hours'. In the UK Sony are playing safer, and promising 75 minutes of continuous playback and on hour's recording, from fully charged batteries. These times are reduced if the player is stopped and started. As the NiCads develop memory effect from use, the times will fall further.
Sony UK are also playing safe and claiming that the MiniDisc portable is `shock resistant' not `shock proof' as previously claimed. The digital decoder inside the MD portable player incorporates a 4Mbit solid state memory store, which acts as a buffer when the player is knocked. This holds 10 seconds of music -- if the player is knocked for more than 10 seconds, the music stops because the buffer has not been able to re-fill.
Recording onto disc is more convenient than onto tape because the player can search for musical passages faster. But users must pay for this. The cost of the blank magneto-optical discs on which MD records is now set at £9, instead of the £7 planned, and the recording time has fallen to 60 minutes, from the 74 minutes promised. This makes disc recording around twice as expensive as tape recording.
Sony promise 74-minute discs in the spring, but no price is yet set. Sony's engineers say the extra 14 minutes can only be achieved by coating the 64mm disc to the extreme outer periphery, and running the disc slightly more slowly. At reduced speeds, however, any blemish on the surface of a disc becomes more likely to cause errors in the read-out.
The technical bugs will, of course, be ironed out, given time. Who knows which system, if either, will survive. But already the die is cast. Things in the audio industry will never be the same again.
As systems, DCC and MD have another thing in common: the ability to make perfect digital copies of CDs. There is a strong incentive to do this because prerecorded DCCs and MDs cost as much or more than the equivalent CDs. Sony own record company CBS and, quite naturally, do not want to be seen encouraging people to pirate music. Consequently, the company are playing down this benefit. Philips, however, are blatantly advertising that `with a blank DCC, you can make a digital copy of your favourite CD, or make your own customised `best of' DCC'.
Philips say they feel safe to do this because the Athens agreement on copyright and SCMS amounted to a clear promise by the hardware companies not to oppose any claim from the record companies for a tax on blank tape.
My meetings with Andy Ishizaka, Managing Director of Taiyo Yuden's European HQ in Nurenburg and Ryosaku Sudo, Managing Director of Taiyo's Sales Division in Tokyo, turned up some interesting insights into how Taiyo came into the audio industry out of nowhere and, having arrived, where they are likely to go.
Taiyo are a components company, supplying resistors and capacitors (not microchips), to electronics factories around the world. The company employ 10,000 people worldwide, 3,000 in Japan, with plants in Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, the Philippines and USA, as well as Japan. Taiyo have seen the consumer electronics industry shrink and are looking for new opportunities. The company introduced the oddly named ``That's'' brand of audio tape in the 1980s and began work on a recordable CD in 1985. The CD-R was announced in late 1988. The trick was to make a disc with dye polymer coating which deforms during recording in such a way that the disc then plays like a pressed CD on any CD player which meets the Red Book standard set by Philips and Sony. The deformation are not reversible so the disc is `write once' and will not erase.
Taiyo's move followed a few months after a promise made by Tandy to sell an erasable CD, called Thor. Tandy never delivered and quietly gave up on the project in mid-1992.
Taiyo successfully delivered its write-once system, secured patents on the technology and struck a co-licensing deal with Philips and Sony. The Philips-Sony Orange Book standard defines the physical method of recording. Philips make Orange CD-R mechanisms which they sell on to other manufacturers for badging. All the discs on the market (such as those from TDK) are based upon Taiyo's technology, and all are compatible with the Philips recorder.
Kodak's Photo CD is also based on the same technology. It is an `application format' designed by Kodak and Philips which builds on the Orange Book physical format, and the Frankfurt Logical format (a data layout agreed by the computer industry to allow the exchange of data between incompatible computer systems). Blanks for the Photo CD application will not work on Orange Book audio decks, because the vital pregroove (which guides the laser during recording) is coded with different software from that on an audio blank.
Taiyo are clearly greatly interested in Kodak's activities -- wanting to know, for instance, where Kodak make their discs and how they look alongside Taiyo's patent claims. Surely Kodak would not risk a rerun of the horrendous legal action in the US which followed Kodak's infringement of Polaroid's patents on instant picture cameras? That action cost Kodak over a billion dollars and forced the company's withdrawal from the instant picture camera and film market.
Taiyo see that Kodak are going all out to create a domestic market for Photo CD, and are thus obliged to set a very low price point for blanks. But Taiyo are clearly appalled at Kodak's pricing policy and what it does to their own. Taiyo's pricing policy is muddled because there is no recommended price. Sales are through local distributors (such as Harman in the UK), because Taiyo do not know the size of the market yet and have not set up their own distribution chain.
Discs are pregrooved in three time-lengths, 18, 68, and 74 minutes. But Taiyo's engineers are working on a disc which matches the maximum time allowed by the Red Book standard for CD, 79 minutes 59 seconds.
Taiyo are also watching the DCC-versus-MiniDisc struggle very closely because they are developing an erasable version of the write-once disc.
`We have to do it,' says Andy Ishizaka. `We are pushing our engineers. Because then all ball games change'.
`That is still up in the air.'
But no doubt is left that once the technology is ready Taiyo will launch it, because once either DCC or MD gains a foothold the window of opportunity for CD-E will have closed forever.