Just got around to buying a CD player and think
you're up there with the latest technology?
Sorry but you're wrong.

Music in Your Pocket

By Scott Adams

[Some corrections have been made, they appear in brackets -eaw]

Things are changing at such a rapid pace these days that it is almost impossible to keep up with the latest improvements in entertainment systems. Perhaps you've seen in the shops something that looks like an oversized cassette box. It's not a CD and it's not an audio cassette. It's the new MiniDisc. They're still a real novelty and on an exploratory trip I took I found only a handful in each shop. The shop assistants , too, seemed a bit unsure as to exactly what they were. But all that will change.

The small discs will be the new way to listen to music in the future (until they invent something better). One company has spent the last ten years working on the project to create a disc which can both play and record music. You can now record your favourite tunes and have the quality of CD reproduction anywhere, anytime.

The old system of recording onto audio cassettes always suffered from tape hiss and background noise. Even using Dolby Noise Reduction, some tape hiss was inevitable. The MiniDisc changes all that and what you get is pure sound quality and perfect reproduction every time. This is because the new system uses optic fibre cables, which means that the copy is bit for bit the same as the original [correction: after compression the copy has only 1/5th the bits of the original. -eaw]. The music you record onto the MiniDisc has the same quality as a CD. You really do notice the difference.

Let's take a look at the very brief history of recording of music. In the space of only about 100 years, we've made enormous advances. The first recordings made on wax cylinders amazed our grandfathers, but imagine their reactions to the sound from a digitally recorded MiniDisc.

The appearance of audio cassette about twenty years ago revolutionised the music world. For the first time it was possible to record in your home and copy your favourite music to listen to in the car. With this new equipment, the opportunities for music enjoyment were made even more personal and portable. It has become commonplace to see people ' plugged in' in the bus, train, or just walking along the street.

Then, about ten years ago, the first CDs arrived and began to take over from LPs. CDs had the added advantage that, although they were smaller than their predecessors, the sound quality was far superior. There was no longer the problem of static or scratches and buckles in your favorite album.

So why is the MiniDisc different? At first glance it looks very much like a computer diskette and inside there is what seems like a normal CD. The size is astonishingly small. The disc is only 72x68x5mm. A MiniDisc player can easily be carried in a coat pocket or in a handbag. As with a CD, you have instant access to your favourite track. You can also programme tracks and change the listening order.

The other problem which has been avoided is shock-related interference. Using a CD in a car always presented the problem that, with sudden movements or jolts, the tracks would jump. The new MiniDisc has avoided that problem because the data pick-up is five times faster than is needed for playback. This differs from CD playback, which is at a constant 1.4 megabit per second rate as data compression is not used. So, in the event of a shock or bump to the MiniDisc, the memory already has enough information stored to continue playback until normal data pick-up is resumed. CD players, on the other hand, require a constant readout of signals; in the presence of movement, the signal flow is interrupted and the time elapsed cannot be recovered. This was always a great disadvantage with portable CD players. And listening to a CD in the car was never really possible.

The MiniDisc was designed to be smaller than the CD. At this size, however, it can hold about one-fifth of the data of a CD and, if it were recorded in the same way, would contain about fifteen minutes of music. The MiniDisc is recorded using the Adaptive Transform Accoustic Coding (ATRAC) system which was designed for ultra high fidelity audio using the latest in digital data compression technology. As a result, the MiniDisc can offer a full 74 minutes of high quality music on something which is considerably smaller. In the case of mono recordings, over 200 minutes [correction: just 150 minutes. -eaw] can be recorded on one disc.

The MiniDisc has also been desinged for complete random access functioning, which is one of its most interesting features. Playback MiniDiscs are recorded like CDs and have addresses for each track, which gives you quick selection of your favourites. Recordable MiniDiscs, on the other hand, have special pre-grooves which allow quick and easy access to any point on the disc. In addition, there is a user table of contents (UTOC) which allows the tracks to be renumbered in any order. Remember how difficult if was to find a track on an audio cassette? Well now, in a matter of seconds, you can listen to the music you recorded from another source, or make a selection to suit any special needs. When you want to change the music, you just re-record over it.

Probably the best idea at the moment is to buy a MiniDisc player which can be used in cunjunction with a home hi-fi system by connecting it with jacks which can be bought in any hi-fi shop. The advantage of this is that you can enjoy the benefits of portability while still being able to use it at home.

Already there is talk of creating a system with no discs or hardware at all. The stereo will be connected to your home computer and the music will be transferred via the Internet. Imagine the space you will save and when you are tired of an album you will just wipe it off the memory. The album covers, words and reviews will all appear on the screen via the Internet and you will be able to mix and select your favourite tracks to enjoy the music when and how you want it. That's a way off but, in the meantime, enjoy the benefits of music in your pocket and try to keep track of the ever-changing medium.

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