MiniDisc Guide – Guidelines & Recommendations

June 16th, 2003
Minidisc Guide

by Jeff Towne

While portable cassette decks are still solid performers, and might be the
most reliable medium in certain regions and environments, these days there are
options that are smaller, cheaper, and avoid some of the sonic compromises inherent
in analog tape. DAT recorders avoid the hiss and wow and flutter of analog tape,
but they’re expensive to buy and maintain, and still subject to the vagaries
of tape: occasional breakages, tangles, crumples and head-wrap problems. Direct-to-disc
and solid-state recorders will certainly be the way of the future, but right
now it’s still hard to find a machine with decent inputs, full-bandwidth file
format support and large storage for an affordable price. So, minidiscs are
a popular choice, especially the portable consumer recorders. They are inexpensive,
tiny and easy to use, and while there is some data-compression in the recording
process, the sound quality is still very good.

These consumer minidisc machines do still have some down-sides: you can’t
find blank discs in the local convenience store; the microphone inputs are
less-than-ideal
minijacks; the built-in mic pre amps are often not strong enough to record
loud, clean signals from dynamic microphones; and there’s a risk of losing
your audio
if the unit loses power before a table-of-contents is written. There are techniques
for recovering a lost table-of-contents, but it’s not always simple.

Some of the Sony minidisc recorders make it difficult or impossible to change
the record level while recording, other machines beep when the record level
is adjusted, and some have no manual record level at all, relying on the Automatic
Gain Control (AGC) to set the record level based in the input strength. AGC
can be very useful for untrained recordists, especially non-professionals making
audio diaries. It can also be a lifesaver in uncontrolled, “run and gun” situations
where there’s no time to twiddle with settings, one just needs to get sound
on tape. But in most cases, a stable record level sounds better than one that’s
constantly adjusting to the input, so ideally, one wants to set the levels manually,
and be able to turn them up or down as needed.

To a degree, the old axiom holds: you get what you pay for. If you’re doing
lots of critical recording, it makes sense to spend the money on a professional

machine like the HHB. It has good XLR mic pre amps, reliable metering, and
several digital and analog inputs and outputs, including a very handy real-time
USB
output, for direct transfer to a computer.

It’s worth noting that despite the ambiguous terminology in product descriptions,
the USB connections on the small portables, including Sony’s “Net-MD” models,
only support moving audio from the computer to the minidisc, and not the
other
way around, as most sound-recordists would like. This could change, but for
now the way to get sound from a small portable minidisc to the computer
for
editing, is via the analog outputs, in some cases the headphone out. That analog
output is connected to an audio-in on your computer, either built-in to
your
sound card or on an external interface.

It seems counter-intuitive: you’ve recorded digital audio onto the minidisc,
and want to edit digital audio on your computer, you should be able to just
move the files over, but it’s not that smooth. Even the HHB can’t just transfer
the files, it plays the audio out in real time. In effect it has a built-in
USB audio interface. Even in making an analog transfer, you still have the sonic
advantages of recording to a digital medium, with less noise and wider bandwidth
than cassettes. And when done carefully, the analog transfer can be done with
minimal negative impact on quality.

Consumer portables have the great advantage of being small enough that one
can carry them easily, and they provide an inexpensive way to get started collecting
sound. Keep these things in mind:

Read the manual, for the sake of space limitations some important controls
are accessed via menus and submenus, via several button-pushes. Machines made
by Sharp tend to have easily accessed record-level buttons. Sony controls tend
to be buried a few menus down, when they’re there at all (the volume controls
on top are headphone levels for listening, not record levels.)

Use a good mic, and get a good cable for connecting your mic to the mini-jack
mic input. We like the cables built by
Sonic Studios
. Buying a cable built for this purpose will assure that you
get proper wiring for a mono mic to send signal to both channels of the mini
jack.
You might want a right-angle mini jack to maintain a better connection. Those
jacks are notorious for wearing out, so if practical, leave the cable plugged-in

to reduce damage. Don’t built a conglomeration of adapters and converters,
every added connection increases the potential for noise and short-circuits.

 

Shure Cable

Shure A96f Cable

You may have trouble getting enough volume out of low-impedance dynamic microphones,
such as the RE-50. You can try a mic with a louder output, such as a condenser
mic, but be sure you can provide “phantom power” with a battery in the mic,
the small minidiscs cannot supply the needed charge for condenser mics. A better
choice might be to get the $50
Shure A96f
cable, which raises the impedance of the microphone a bit, giving
you some more volume without requiring extra power (it also converts from XLR
to mini, so it may be the only cable you need.)

The small meters are not particularly reliable, experiment a bit to find what
they really mean, you may need to record what looks like a little louder or
softer than you would normally, in order to get good levels. As with most digital
recorders, “overs” sound really terrible, but very low record levels will sound
bad in a different way, hissy and coarse, once they are brought up to the proper
volume at the mixing stage.

Be sure to check the default operation of your recorder, some automatically
record at the end of your last track, others require you to do an end search
first, otherwise they will record over your earlier tracks.

Minidiscs record a Table of Contents (TOC) at the end of each track, creating
pointers to where the data resides on the disc. The most common problem with
minidisc recording is lost or damaged TOCs making the audio inaccessible. Be
careful to allow the recorder to finish writing the TOC after you press stop,
try not to jiggle or bang it before it finishes, don’t try to eject the disc
until you’re sure it’s done. And watch your battery levels: if the battery
runs out while you are still recording, there’s no power to write the TOC, and
it will appear that you have no audio since the last time the TOC was written.

Of course sometimes accidents happen, and the good news is that often a new
TOC can be created by “cloning” an intact TOC from a good disc onto the damaged
one. It’s a complicated procedure, outlined here: www.minidisc.org/cloning_procedure.html
Be sure to clone from a disc the same length as the damaged one, and that
it has audio recorded for the entire length. You will lose your original track
marks, but the audio should be intact.

So with those guidelines in mind, if you’re looking to buy a minidisc, what
should you get? If you have the money, buy an HHB. If you don’t, almost any
small portable with a mic input can work, but here are some recommendations
for machines that seem better-suited than others.

We asked the folks over at This American Life, knowing that they had bought
some rigs recently to give out to traveling recordists and folks making audio
diaries. Here’s the response from TAL producer Wendy Dorr.

 
From Wendy Dorr:

 

Dave Kestenbaum recommended to us the Sony MZB-100. We gave these out to
soldiers going to Iraq. They have built in stereo microphones and are easy
to use and of course, very very small. Dave told us that all the NPR reporters
use them. It’s a little expensive – a little less than 400 bucks. But so far,
we’ve been happy with the results. They actually used the built in mic – that
was a big selling point for us – that way the diarists didn’t have to deal
with mic and a cord. For diaries, the quality was pretty good – but for other
stuff, it might be a little awkward shoving the entire device into someone’s
face for an interview…so…there’s your disadvantage. But in terms of advantages…It’s
lightweight, compact and will take a beating as far as we can tell. One of
our guys took it into combat with him in Iraq and apparently, it’s still working.

 

SONY
Sony
MZ-B10
SHARP
Sharp
MD-DR7

One caveat, these B-series recorders, such as the MZB-100 or B-10 were designed
with business dictation/transcription in mind, and do NOT seem to have manual
record level control. The built-in mics and automatic gain control do make them
very simple to use in circumstances where the user won’t have the time
or training to worry about mic technique or setting levels properly.

For some more recommendations, we turned to Michael “the MD Guru” Johnson,
who trains reporters at KQED-FM, and has prevented many of us from tearing our
hair out with his helpful posts on the AIR email list, and columns at the Stories1st.org
website.

 

 

From Michael Johnson:

 

Sony MZ-N1 which you can find for around $260.00

Sharp MD-DR7 for about $290.00

For not too much more one can get the Sony MZ-B10 as low as $299.00 has the
built in speaker and Sony time and date stamping on the minidisc recording.

The Sony MZ-B10 seems to be the successor to the B-100 ($334.00 ) and though
their prices are only about $40.00 apart and the design is different, they
seem to be a near match, though the B10 has stereo speakers. Neither of these
machines seems to have manual control of record level.

The usual Sharp/Sony caveats:

Sony Pros: Sony Cons:
It’s a Sony, good mechanics generally, metal housing , takes AA NiCad
or regular AA alkaline battery, widely available, long battery life, decent
auto record level, changeable record level on the fly. (Note : Most new
Sonys claim they can change record level on the fly, not easily, but they
can do it, the function is buried in a menu.)
It’s a bit noisy, useless for standalone radio production, NetMD/USB
track download feature with PC-only software, many functions buried in
menus.
Sharp Pros: Sharp Cons:
Logical button layout with many essential functions available at one’s
fingertips, takes AA NiCad or Ni-Mh or regular alkaline battery, easily
changeable record level on the fly, quiet operation, friendly “GOODBYE!”
display when shutting down, fairly durable, very user friendly, easy to
find in the dark
record/track mark button, matches the incredible Sonic Studio DSM mics’
plug-in power needs, has a pre-record buffer of 30 secs, quiet motor,
long battery life.
Hissy with some mics, defaults to track name on display instead of track
time (one display change button away, though.)
 
 
HHB
HHB Portadisc

After these models the price leaps into the $1,000-
plus range with the Marantz PMD 650 & the HHB Portadisc MDP-500,
the HHB being the better designed of the two. The Marantz has a confusing
array of buttons that invite screw-ups.

HHB has 5 user-programmable settings profiles, accessible from a touch or
two of the multifunction soft-touch buttons. It has good mic pre-amps, coaxial,
optical and USB (real-time) digital I/O. It remembers the TOC if the batteries
run out or the power goes, and writes it back to the disc when power is restored!!!
Rehearsal mode before certain features. Battery life is fair: 2.5 to 3 hours
on a single charge. Overall, a fine, rugged machine.

Michael “the MD Guru” Johnson is Digital Training Manager and the Producer
of the Hot Soup Program at KQED-FM. His tech columns appear at
Stories1st.org
. Thanks to Michael and the folks at Stories1st for sharing
this advice.

 
From Alan Weisman

 

SONY
Sony
MZ-N707

In an emergency last month, finding myself with a dead DAT back-up machine and leaving for Chile the next day to do pieces for the new Homelands Productions series Worlds of Difference, on the advice of our executive producer Jon Miller I picked up a Sony MD (MiniDisk) Walkman MZ-N707. Right here let me introduce a caveat: I called Circuit City, they assured me that had Sony minidisk players. But when I got there, I found that the newest models did not have microphone jacks — only USB-type connections to download music from computers, which is seems to be the main use for minidisk players, since they’re so light and portable. Same problem at Best Buy and Target. I finally found the MZ-N707 at a store that specializes in professional music recording. List was $249, they took pity and charged me $229, but I’ve subsequently found them on the Internet for as low as $179. If you buy, make sure there’s a microphone jack, and don’t trust salesmen to know.

I’m pretty sure I love this machine. Sony minidisks give 80 minutes and this far are trouble-free. The MZ-N707 itself runs off a single double-A battery, which is good for three 80-minute disks. Caveat #2: There’s a battery-life read-out, that seems to register full until near the end, then drops to half and fairly quickly to zero and the machine quits — I learned this the hard way. Another issue is limiter: That’s the default position. The rather thick manual explains a procedure to control levels manually, but I admit that I’ve followed advice to trust the limiter because it’s so intelligent, the audio equivalent of a great digital auto-focusing camera. So far, it’s very impressive. The sound is excellent — I guess engineers decry the difference between minidisk and DAT tape range, but some very seasoned radio producers have told me that the human ear can’t tell. I’m using it mainly for interviews, while I continue to use mainly DAT for gathering ambient sound and music. But on the occasions when good sound erupted while I was using the minidisk, the recordings have been just fine. I’ve used it, by the way, with all my mikes: a Sennheiser shotgun, a Shure stereo, and an RE-50, with good results all around. It also seems pretty shock-resistant. I’m addicted, as other producers who only use minidisk told me I’d soon be.

There’s more extensive information on all things minidisc, including helpful feature-comparison
charts and links to other resources at minidisc.org.

Also on Transom…
What
to Buy?

Do you want to produce radio? You’ll probably need to buy some stuff. Let our man, Jay Allison, help get you started.

Gear Guide
A description of audio hardware and software currently available on the market.
What
Microphone Do I Get?

If you’re in the mood for some details to get you started, here’s some info to help narrow the search.

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