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Sony Minidisc deck

Sony MDS-JE630 Minidisc Recorder

Digital Recording

by Jim Bray

The Mindisc format is another Sony innovation that, unfortunately, hasn't really caught on with North American consumers. And that's a shame, because it's a nifty digital recording technology that works really well.

Minidisc has caught on in the commercial sector, notably radio stations, where its portability, editability, re-recordability and instant access to tracks makes it ideal for commercials, promos, and music tracks. It's also popular in Europe and Asia.

What sets the MD apart from other recording media is that it effectively gives the user audio editing capabilities similar to what once were only to be found in recording studios. So you can not only record your favorite songs, you can combine tracks, move them around, and even delete tracks from the middle of the disc.

This is wonderful flexibility for the home (or commercial) recordist. If you decide to dump track 3 from your recording, for example, you can replace it with a new selection (even one of a different length) without messing up the rest of the existing tracks.

Pretty nifty, huh?

One knock against MD is that it "dumbs down" the data in order to get a full CD-length recording, making it what's called "Near-CD quality." This might matter to purists, but in my tests with this particular Sony (admittedly my only experience with the format as of this writing) I couldn't hear any difference between the source CD and the destination MD.

You can think of Minidisc as being superficially similar to recordable CD's (CD-R's), except that like an audio cassette or a floppy disk, you can re-record on MD's at will. CD-RW's are re-recordable, but you won't find many audio CD players handling them. Add to that the editability mentioned above, and you have a formidable format.

Minidisc is also facing competition from MP3's as a playback medium, so it'll be interesting to see what happens.

Besides editing convenience, MD has an advantage over MP3's in that you can bring along a bunch of pre-recorded discs and change them at will - thereby having oodles of hours of recording - whereas an MP3 player has a finite amount of memory available.

Minidiscs are slightly smaller than computer 3.5" floppy disks (though slightly thicker), which makes them extremely convenient if you're looking for a recordable format you can pack around with you easily.

Sony makes home, portable, and even car minidisc units (recorders and/or players), so you can record to your heart's content and then take the music with you - as long as you've purchased the appropriate players to go with it.

The MDS-JE630, which sells for about $360US, is a home unit designed to plug into your audio system. It's fully featured (including an input for a PC keyboard) and more flexible than I had expected considering its relatively affordable price point..

The unit has so many features, however, that you'll want to take a trip through the owner's manual before sallying forth on your music pirating adventure, especially if you're new to MD. A lot of the features use various permutations of the same buttons, wheels, and doodads, so the manual is a godsend. Fortunately, it's written in fairly plain English, and includes plenty of diagrams to help you figure things out.

I had to learn this the hard way, of course. I started recording a disc and my mindset for the methodology was to treat the unit as I would a cassette deck. So after recording a track, I'd put the deck into "Pause" then switch source discs and resume recording, manually adding a track number when I re-started the deck.

Well, didn't this wreak all sorts of digital havoc on the Table of Contents (TOC) information! I ended up totally screwing up the recording and making a shambles of my test disc. Making matters worse, I tried to move tracks around without consulting the book and ended up with about 11 TOC entries for four tracks. I'm surprised the poor Sony didn't throw up its electronic hands in disgust and tell me to come back when I was ready to use the deck properly.

So don't take "analog thinking" with you into the digital recording realm....

It turned out that if you use the deck as designed, recording is not only easy, but it actually works! Who'd a thunk it?

Besides the usual analog I/O jacks, you get 2 optical inputs (and one output) for direct digital recording/playback. Other features include a pitch control that lets you speed up or slow down playback without distortion (great for Karaoke nights when you discover you can't quite hit that high note after so many beers!), an "undo" editing function that lets you bail out from your mistakes (if you've read the manual and know the feature's there!), and time shift recording so you can store a broadcast program when you're not home (as you would record a TV show with your VCR).

The front panel controls include the usual buttons one would expect with a recorder (power, eject, record, pause, etc.), and adds functional buttons (like "Scroll" "recording mode" Menu, Yes/No, and the keyboard connector).

When you insert a disc into the player (and they slide in sideways, with the little door to the right instead of to the rear as with a floppy disc), the deck takes a look at it and displays information about it - like the disc title (if it was programmed in during recording), number of tracks, total recorded time, etc. The front panel display can be changed by pressing "level/display/char" or "display" to give you a huge variety of readouts (if you're recording, for example, it can show the recording level, sampling frequency, track number and time, etc. etc.)

Keyboard Input for PC keyboard lets you program titles quickly and easily, so (for example) you can have artist and track info display when playing back the disc.

I was amazed by the flexibility of the MD format. Though I used it almost exclusively for straightforward recording of music tracks, the non-linear way data is recorded onto MD's let me combine tracks, split tracks (this was a nifty way of separating continuous cuts from a disc), trim the start and/or end points (for pinpoint editing). I didn't do any recording from radio or TV, but if I had the "A-B Erase" feature would have let me cut out the commercials after the fact and (assuming I didn't do a sloppy job) the final recording would sound as if they'd never been there. Nifty!

This review only scratches the surface of this unit's (indeed, the MD format in general) potential. Suffice it to say that it has made me a believer and I hope MD finds widespread consumer acceptance. Even if you never exploit a lot of the more esoteric features of MD, it's still a dandy way to make home recordings.

Sony also makes a selection of portable MD recorders and/or players, and MD changers for your car, so you can take your tunes on the road with you. The comany is also introducing a camcorder that uses MD technology for storing its data...

Unfortunately, with the assault from MP3's and recordable CD's, and considering the relatively high price of blank MD media (CD-R's are cheaper, though one should remember they can only be recorded on once), Sony may be in for a continued uphill battle with this dynamite digital medium.

And that's a shame.

 

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Updated May 13, 2006