The history of the Minidisc, a Japanese invention ahead of its time

by Richard Donovan, April 2003

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Sony Archives, Shinagawa, Tokyo.
Sony MD Player, Sony Archives, Shinagawa, Tokyo

Around the world, CDRs (writeable CDs) and their pricier cousins rewriteable CD-RWs are all the rage, it seems.

You can buy them for a song (as it were), slip them into your computer's CD writer, and burn your own music mixes in a matter of minutes.

Sounds great, very '21st century' - except that the technology to do much the same thing, on a disc half the size, with more features, has already existed for more than a decade! It's the MD, and I don't mean your local (tune) doctor.

Minidiscs, or MDs, are like the hip generation Xer to the baby-boomer CD, but surprisingly their origins lie in their venerable grandfather, the audiotape. If we compare CDs and tapes, the latter have two advantages over the digitally enhanced discs: they are more compact, and they can be recorded and re-recorded on.

A MiniDisc.

In the early nineties, Sony, the creators of the original Walkman, noticed that tape sales were slipping from their peak in 1988. They wanted to make something to replace them. CDs were first released in 1982, and were superb at reproducing sound due to digitalisation and high sampling rates, but they were a read-only medium, and their size, while far more compact than their vinyl antecedents, was still a little too large for truly portable applications. (Despite the best efforts of Discman manufacturers, portable players hang rather clumsily on the hip and resist being stuffed into even the most voluminous pockets!)

Sony had already made the MO (magneto-optical) Disc in 1988 as a writeable alternative to the CD, but it had not proved very popular. (These days it still exists in Japan as an alternative to the CD-RW in computing.) They decided to harness the same hybrid technology for MDs.

While CDs only use a laser beam for encoding, 'Magneto-optical' data storage employs both a laser to heat microscopic points on the metallic disc, and a simultaneous magnetic field, to alter the binary data. There, that was simple, wasn't it? No need to go into more detail.

Next the boffins squeezed it into a disc 64mm (2-and-a-half inches) in diameter and encased this in a slightly larger, squarish plastic shell for protection. They invented a signal-compression technology called ATRAC (standing for the vaguely ungrammatical and virtually incomprehensible Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding') to enable them to fit about as much CD-quality music as a CD containsnamely, 74 minutes. (These days, you can also buy 80-minute MDs.) To complement the disc's inherent portability, they built revolutionary anti-shock technology into players to ensure skip-free sound.

Amazingly, Sony was able to unveil their MD technology in 1991, and commercialized it in 1992. Consumers in Japan greeted it with almost immediate enthusiasm, but westerners have remained sceptical for many years.

A confluence of issues led to this geo-cultural divide. First, the original incarnation of the ATRAC compression algorithm sometimes made MDs sound inferior to CDs; while this was improved, the stigma remained in some people's minds. Second, as Time magazine mused in September 1997, Sony may have confused westerners already in the wrenching process of changing from vinyl to compact disc in the early nineties.

Sony admitted it had misplayed its marketing, failing to emphasize that MDs were not a replacement for CDs, rather a portable complement to them. Owners were expected to make music compilations from their existing CD collection, for use on the run.

On the other hand, Japanese consumers, who have always been 'early adopters' of new technologies, had started to make the digital-audio transition earlier than their western counterparts, and thus were in more of a position to appreciate the merits of the portable format.

Further, MD discs and players have been prohibitively expensive in the US, while this has not been the case in Japan, their country of origin. While MD discs have sold for as much as $15 each in the States (around 1800 yen), and now sell as cheaply as $3 (360 yen), in Japan you can get them for around a dollar. Recording units, too, have sold much more cheaply and with much greater availability in Japan.

A Sony MiniDisc: MD players outsold portable CD players in Japan from 1998 on.

MD players outsold portable CD players in Japan from 1998 on, and the format hasn't looked back. I have never seen a Japanese use a Discman on public transport, but MDs are rampant.

Their remote controls allow people to change tracks and volume with a discreet touch of a buttonsomething of a necessity when you're standing packed in with rush-hour commuters and can barely move a finger.

In the same year that MDs were taking Japan by storm, Wired magazine in the US predicted the imminent demise of the format; ironically, while the UK version of the magazine has departed this world, MD is in the ascendant.

The last two years have seen the introduction of new features that, along with reduced prices for hardware and software, have apparently caught the eye of wary purchasers in the US.

One of the reasons Wired dismissed MDs is that they claimed the real portable alternative to CDs was players using MP3, the digital compression format that allows people to download music from the Internet and play it back on tiny portable units with no moving parts, or record it onto CD-RW.

However, MDs have considerable advantages over these formats: the media is much cheaper than the removable flash-memory cards used in MP3 players, allowing the user to record many albums and choose which to carry with them; and MDs are not only much smaller than CD-RWs, they also allow non-linear editing (recording over certain tracks, or altering the position of tracks, for example), which CD-RWs do not support.

And MDs are now taking on MP3 players directly, with the 2001 release of NetMD recorders. These allow users to download ATRAC audio tracks (but not MP3s) from their computers onto a minidisc using a USB cable, at speeds several times faster than real time.

So far Sony has released half a dozen units capable of downloading tracks, and other MD manufacturers are following suit. However, one drawback is that using Sony's proprietary software severely limits what users can do with tracks, as well as the number of times the same track can be downloaded to an MD.

Downloading using NetMD is so fast because it utilises the other recent innovation in MDsMDLP, which arrived on the scene in 2000. "LP" stands for Long Play. LP2 mode records tracks at twice the compression rate (and twice the speed) of normal ("SP") tracks; LP4 does this at four times the rate and speed.

There is an accompanying loss of quality, much like LP or EP mode on a VCR, but LP2 is quite acceptable for general-purpose playback, while LP4 is fine for voice recording. Thus you can fit two whole albums on a single MD in LP2 format, further enhancing the portability of the minidisc.

While the MD has yet to become as ubiquitous in the US as its Walkman tape predecessor was, its cool' index is on the rise, despite the fact it's been around for some 12 years now! With its Japanese production base and innumerable fans finding attractive ways to rejuvenate it, it may well become, belatedly, the international standard in portable audio that Sony had hoped for it.

The question remains whether small-format rewriteable DVDs will overtake MDs in the near future. Such discs could hold many times the data of MDs, and be used in both audio and video applications; but there is no sign of them yet, and it will take years for them to come on the market.

Most likely, Sony is once again attempting to stay ahead of the game, and as I write this has a team striving to perfect the hyper-charged, feature-laden great-grandson of the audiotape, as a fitting successor to the plucky little minidisc.

For further information about minidiscs, check out the following site: The source for minidisc information on the web.

Note: CDR', rather than CD-R', is the most widely accepted abbreviation of writeable compact disc'. However, CD-RW', rather than CDRW', is most common for rewriteable compact disc'. Do a Google search to confirm this!

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