Comment

Farewell, MiniDisc. And mixtapes.

Farewell, mini-disc. And mixtapes.

The MiniDisc was made for mixtapes

In the last few days Sony have announced that they are to cease production of their MiniDisc hardware, with the last device expected to be sold in March 2013.

First introduced back in 1992, the MiniDisc was touted as a replacement to the compact cassette tape. It certainly was similar in one respect – you needed to sit there in real-time as you ‘taped’ the CD or vinyl record of your choice onto the MiniDisc.

Slow initial sales encouraged Sony to really push with their offering of pre-recorded MiniDiscs, fully exploiting their music catalogue. This is where consumers may have questioned the benefits of the format. Although it was digital, the MiniDisc boasted only ‘near’ CD quality. So, why not just buy CD and get ‘actual’ CD quality? Also, MiniDisc packaging took the already unsatisfying five-inch CD booklet and reduced it even further.

It is fair to say that in pre-recorded form the MiniDisc was not an attractive proposition, but the blank discs were a different matter. As empty vessels, to fill with your idea of the ‘very best’ of Bowie, or Neil Young 1969-1979, they were extremely good. You could, of course, also use them to record those cherished vinyl ‘dub’ mixes from the ’80s that no-one had thought to issue on CD, and playback in the car or on the train (via a MiniDisc walkman).

The MiniDisc was a perfect evolution of the cassette, but much more fun. You could individually ‘index’ each track and tag it with its name, which would then show up on the dot matrix display of your player. Post recording, if you were having sleepless nights about whether Joe The Lion had really earned its place above Boys Keep Swinging in your best of Bowie compilation, you could delete the former (automatically closing the ‘gap’) and add the later, with no loss of quality. If the running order wasn’t ‘working’, it was easy to rearrange and shuffle things around after the event, thanks to it being a digital format.

Of course, the MP3 is widely regarded as the killer of the MiniDisc, but it’s more accurate to pinpoint the iPod as the device that rang the death knell for the format. While MP3s were largely confined to our computers – where we might choose to organise them with Winamp or early versions of iTunes – they were not much threat. Yes, you could create compilations and burn them to a CD, but in the main they were not re-writable and the discs, with the inevitable felt-tip scribbles on the face, were not attractive items to have kicking around, even if they were cheap. The relative ease of post-compilation editing, deleting and adding could not be carried out as it could on the MiniDisc.

Of course, once MP3 players, led by the ubiquitous iPod (introduced November 2001), starting selling in large quantities, the game was up. When you could wander around town with ‘1000 songs in your pocket’ thanks to the internal memory of an iPod, the lustre of the MiniDisc Walkman was somewhat dulled.

This author spent many an hour archiving old tapes to MiniDisc via a Sony mini hi-fi that included a cassette deck, CD and MiniDisc. A MiniDisc player in my car was a place where the format excelled – the robustness, and small size of the cartridges, being perfect to toss into side door pockets, or at the bottom of centre consoles.

The MiniDisc really was king of the mixtape, because it would be the last time we had to exercise discipline and keep our compilations down to 74 minutes or so. Creating our own works of art. A personal statement, that might invite friends to explore unknown areas of an artists’ output, or demonstrate to those who we hoped would become more-than-friends how sensitive and deep thinking, we were!

These days it is quicker just to shove Bowie’s entire output onto your iPod, create one enormous playlist and hit shuffle. Quick, easy and convenient, but where’s the fun? Another downside to this approach is that you might hear ‘87 and Cry.

2 Unlimited once sang of ‘No Limits’, but sometimes limits are rather good. The audio boundaries, digital flexibility and fun of the MiniDisc will sadly be no more than a footnote in the history of music playback devices. Unfortunately, it takes the mixtape with it, to its grave.


Did you own a MiniDisc player? Would love to hear your memories and thoughts on the format. Please leave a commment.

You might also like…

22 responses to Farewell, MiniDisc. And mixtapes.

  1. Richard John says:

    I was quite the advocate of minidisc, owning a couple of MD walkmen, an full size stereo component MD player as well as a barrage of pre-recorded AND blank discs.

    I used to use them in my previous life as a music journalist to record interviews – many of which have now been archived into MP3 format.

    Before the advent of cheap CD-Rs and portable MP3 players, Sony’s MD WAS the way forward for digital portable music who’s tracklists you had a say in.

    I really do miss the MD, but am more than happy with the replacement.

  2. Tim says:

    I bought one of the first Sony players that has an optical in AND out, which wasn’t an option for very long at the same time I bought a Marantz pro-level CD recorder. Great combination. I still have both, but I have to admit I haven’t used the MiniDisc player for years and have a stack of blank discs somewhere downstairs, but I still plan on keeping both.

  3. richard says:

    Can you forward a link of this track entitled Girls keep Swinging….not heard that one yet.

  4. Damian says:

    I still own and use 3 minidisc players – one Net-MD for writing to minidisc, one for live recording and one mini hifi. The sound quality seems to me much better once transferred from CD to minidisc, although that could be because I don’t own hifi seperates.

    The biggest drawback I found in using minidisc was the truly dreadful SonicStage software. Net-MD should have been as easy to use as a modern mp3 player. Instead, I have at times spent hours just trying to write one album to disc, sometimes having to restart the whole process by converting to wav files because SonicStage chopped off the first few seconds of each mp3. If nothing else, it was a good lesson in perseverence!

  5. William says:

    what…….no mention of the Philips DCC, thats pretty scandalous ;)

  6. JDM says:

    I once remember eyeing-up the DCC and thinking ‘this is the future…’ Ha! Imagine!

  7. Robert says:

    I think the DCC was dead pretty early on.

    I still have two MD portables that I think work but I have not played in many years. I still have my pre-recorded Floyd MD’s as well as a few others. I can’t say I miss it but it was a nice piece format at the time. I used to have two full size component MD players.

  8. Glenn says:

    Gotta disagree about what killed MiniDisc, which was never that popular anyway. It was the recordable CD, not the iPod. I never knew more than 2 people who ever owned an MD recorder. But by the late 90s, most everyone was making mix discs in place of tapes, because everyone had a computer with a CD burner in it. The author says burned CDs weren’t attractive and complained that they weren’t usually rewritable. True, but no one cared. They were (and are) cheap enough you could give them away – THAT was the advantage, same as cassettes, and you didn’t suffer the compressed, lower quality of MD. Maybe blank CDs didn’t actually kill MD, but they certainly put a hard cap on the growth of the product, because CD players are 1000s of times more ubiquitous, meaning that mix disc you made can go almost anywhere and still get spun. And if you never saw it again, so what?

    Clearly, the writer is romantic about his MD machine, because he recalls painstakingly making mixes, the way so many of us slaved over cassette decks in the 80s. And that’s perfectly fine… But from where I sit, MD wasn’t much more of a format than DCC, home DAT, or the short-lived and long-forgotten Elcaset. MiniDisc was foreshortened sound rushed to market to give random access recording to a world now used to listening that way, thanks to CD, and never passed the level of ‘niche’ in home use (at least here in the US).

    Frankly, I had no idea any MD recorders were still in production, though I know that pro versions were popular in some broadcast facilities for a while, extending the development of the format a little longer. Maybe they had more footing in Japan. too. But they won’t be missed anymore than 8-tracks.

    • Disco says:

      Excellent analysis and I agree completely. The only MD players I *ever* saw were in stores. I was 14 when they were introduced in 1992. I had a subscription to some stereo magazine, so I knew about MD when it was brand new. Even then it seemed ho-hum because CDs were the dominant format. I didn’t want some crappy new recordable thing — I wanted recordable CDs! (It took me until 1998 to get a CD-R drive. That was an important moment in the life of this music fanatic, let me tell you.) I probably went thru a thousand CD-Rs over ten-plus years.

      As for 8-track tapes, I would argue that MDs will be missed far less than those. Most people have no idea what a MD is. At least some people are nostalgic about 8-tracks because, for a short time, they were popular in car stereos. Some of the pre-recorded tapes are quite collectable, especially the quad versions. The full version of Floyd’s “Pigs on the Wing” is an immortal 8-track, and a song that in 2013 STILL has not seen the light of day on any other official release, which is ludicrous IMHO.

  9. James C says:

    While MD always seemed to be a niche product, albeit popular in broadcasting, it was so much better than what had gone before – portable, flexible and recordable. Incidentally, I dug out my Sharp MD machine yesterday after a spring clean and intend to resurrect it one last time and copy about 40 MDs of material I don’t have anywhere else – and mostly bootleg concerts!

    And nowt wrong with ’87 And Cry! Don’t know why Bowie has such a downer on Never Let Me Down – it’s a vast improvement on Tonight.

  10. Scott says:

    This was a bit of a shock only because I had no idea MiniDiscs were still being made. I thought that format died after only a few years. I worked for a music retailer in 92/93 when they first came out and we created a special section in the store for them and everything. Over the next year or two that I worked there, I don’t think we sold more than a half dozen of them. (And I live in a major city with a million-plus population.)

    In the years following, I don’t recall ever seeing MiniDiscs for sale at any other music store I shopped at, but in fairness, I wasn’t looking for them either so they have been there and I just never saw them. It could be a regional thing. They may have been more popular in the author’s part of the country and just never caught on in mine.

    And not that they have come up in conversation that often, but I have been in two different conversations in the past few years where I asked people if they remembered them and both times no one in the group had even heard of them.

    So, I just always assumed they flopped out of the gate and were taken off the market after only a few years. Honestly, I don’t think I would have known about them either if not for working at the store. But it looks like they ended up having a lifespan of over 20 years. Not bad. Longer than the 8-track and the Betamax. :-)

  11. Todd R. says:

    I’ve loved MD since 92. My radio station jumped from audio cartridge to MD (STEREO! all the carts on 1 MD! fantastic!) and I went along for all the creative editing and transport tricks-of-the-trade it offers. I still prefer it for portable recording (spoken word etc) if only because it’s easy to file and store (despite huge “cloud” options, something about having it all “in hand” is still pleasurable to me). I never purposely purchased pre-recorded MDs, but loved the multi-track and higher pro-sumer edit options. [More DAW on the way, if not just on an iPad anymore. Sad really that audio recording (and mixing) has become a visual medium, and not an acoustic (aural) one.] Guess I need to start scanning ebay for new gear…:(

  12. Martin says:

    I have to agreee with Glenn in that it was the clank CD that probably saw off the MD…..I remember making discs of Depeche Mode’s Violator and adding all the b-sides to the original album, also making McCartney mixes of all his singles/b-sides and selected album tracks into seperate volumes (70-73, 74-77, 78-80, 82-87) as my own takes on the Wingspan cd I seem to recall that had recently come along….also did a great FGTH collection of 12″ mixes…..Happy Days! :)

  13. Stephen K. says:

    I bought the portable unit upon release for around $700-800. Lest than a year later, a disc got stuck in it, and “repairs” cost another $100. Less than a month after that, it was a total loss when damaged in a car crash. Sony said tough luck. I then bought the home unit for another $700-800.

    During the 90’s, I also had a 1/2x speed CD burner for use with Roland’s digital multi-track mixer. That was $500! I might have burnt ONE disc with that!

    Then I bought a Philips stand-alone CD Recorder (wouldn’t use blank CD’s, only expensive CD-Recordables) for $300-400. Burnt a handful of discs with that.

    90’s computer burning was nasty and slow (an hour for 1 disc!), but effective.

    I still have all of those, including some blank MD’s. Burning vinyl to MD was useless once you could download other people’s rips and burn them on a computer. However, MD’s I made from off-air recordings of live concerts (Sting on PBS through a stereo VCR) and live bands on local college radio shows, and even recordings of my own music on something other than cassette, don’t exist in any other medium. I noticed that reporters for local radio were using portable MD recorders at the beginning of the 00’s.

    A pain in the teeth. Everything is easier on the computer now.

  14. martin farnworth says:

    Quite right about the art of creating a “personal statement”. As far as Bowie goes- doubling the recording time (albeit at the expense of reduced sound quality) was a partial answer to not leaving out some favourites. Of course it is still possible to create a discerning and considered playlist on i-tunes just like a mixtape. The choice is still there after all. It may not make sense where all the music is immediately accessible but it beats flicking through some shite on random play where you can’t remember where it came or one of the dodgier tracks on a CD you ripped.

    Not healthy to dwell on the subject of bad Bowie but the cover of “God Only Knows” on Tonight is diabolical -worse even than “87 And Cry” or “New York’s In Love”

  15. Simon Long says:

    I loved MD – as a replacement for cassette, it was nigh-on perfect. I had a Sony deck and a portable recorder – both had great sound, and the editing and titling features were superb. Never bought a pre-recorded MD, but had a large stack of home-recorded discs; friends’ CDs, radio shows and my own compilations. For several years, my travelling audio rig was the Sony portable MD (the MZ-R50, if anyone remembers that) and 20 or so MD discs with “best of”s I’d made for all my favorite artists from my CD collection.

    Does anyone else remember the Amulation MD mailing list? And Sawada Denki – the legendary shop in Osaka that would send the latest portable players out to the UK and the US, years before they got launched over here?

    But for me it was indeed the iPod that killed MD – MD was a much better recording format than home CD-R burners, which offered far less flexibility in terms of editing. As soon as I got my first iPod, the MZ-R50 was put away – but every now and then I get it out for old times’ sake, and it’s still a beautiful example of Sony doing what they did best in terms of fitting ridiculous amounts of high-tech into a tiny box…

  16. jo says:

    I have about 800 minidiscs full with records that i sold. Its a pleasure to listen to them sometimes.

  17. marc says:

    I am surprised the MD is (was) still around. After recording concerts with mobile DAT units I switched to MD and got rid of the expensive DAT tapes as the recording material. Downside of recoding concerts with MD was that I had to wait until the ToC was written before I could change the disc. Also when the battery dies the whole recording is gone.
    Immediately I got a CD player that had an optical out so I could digitally connect it to my MiniDisc without loss of quality. I totally fell for the format -I had several portable units from Sharp, Aiwa and Sony. I still have my Home-Unit plugged in and my MD-Car-Player is back in his box in the basement.
    I remember when my MD home-player (Sony MDS-JE770) came out that had a PC Link port where you could plug in a PC keyboard to use it for naming the songs – instead of turning the little knob hundreds of times.
    I loved the MD format and I consider the iPod as it’s killer and not the CD-Burner because the MD was the replacement for the Walkman and the CD was and still is very fragile for carrying around.
    After vinyl records and the music tape the MD is another format I have to explain to my kids which now are 4 years old.

  18. Justin says:

    I used MD in my job as a covers-singing solo performer for many years until the component player finally bit the dust and I had a really hard time replacing it. Had the backing tracks all grouped in ‘sets’ etc. Worked a treat for a long long time and sounded great every time.
    I used a small Sony keyboard that connected to the player to record, name and edit tracks, which saved a hell of a lot of time and bother. I think it was wireless.

  19. KungW says:

    I made dropmixed mastermixes with the minidisc system. The accurate editing possibilities allowed me to live out my Dj-ambitions, at home. Some of my mixes have lots of views on youtube.

  20. Norm says:

    Hi Guys
    Will always love Minidisc, the most versatile, innovative, physical recording medium of the last 2 decades. Trying to keep it alive along with many other fans around the World. We are producing audio books using the minidsc recording system at “The Minaudio Centre” and they are selling quite well on Ebay.
    Cheers Norm

  21. Norm says:

    Hi Guys
    Further to my last comment- if you wish to check out our new project it is “The Miniaudio Centre” at miniaudiobooks.co.uk.
    Cheers Norm

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>