Easy As Falling Off Analog

Sony's Recordable Mini Disc

Remember back when you hardly ever heard the word "analog"? Well that's because you didn't need to -- soundwise, everything was analog. More and more, though, it's looking like the poor word will soon be returning to obscurity, only this time it's because the entirety of recording media will be digital. The latest and probably most eagerly-awaited arrival on the home audio scene is the recordable compact disc, which you may have already heard about thanks to a late-summer media blitz by electronics giant Sony, who chose sleepy little Austin as one of two test markets for their new wonder, the Mini Disc. And, in a move that could've ended up costing them another $600, they loaned me a portable MZ-R3 recorder for a month to examine and use as I pleased.

The Mini Disc is something different, alright. This 21/2-inch wonder, encased in a floppy-disc-like, square, plastic protective jacket, looks like a tiny version of the short-lived "video-discs" of the Eighties, but seems to share little of their instant-obsolescence qualities. When slipped into a home or portable MD recording unit, it enables the user to do what you've wanted to do since you first bought a CD player -- record the songs you want to hear digitally and play them in the order you want to listen to them. Ironically, the technology for recordable CDs has existed since 1980, but the MD didn't become commercially available until 1992, and is only starting to become affordable now. Well, at least it's affordable to those who can shell out about $200 for a playback unit, $600 for a recorder, or snap up the company's special "bundle" deal of an MDS-302 home deck, MZ-E3 portable player, five blank discs, and two prerecorded MD albums for $599.

The MD offers evidence towards its claimed title as "the future of digital recording" beyond just being portable and recordable. Boasting a new compression technology called Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coating (ATRAC), MD fits more sound into less space by ignoring sounds that can't be heard by the human ear (I can hear the Analogers' call to arms). It also features a shock-resistant memory system which builds up memory so that if it's jarred it won't skip. Basically, when it gets bumped, it's already a second ahead and uses that time to catch up and restore the "lost" information. Confused? Well, don't worry, that's for the engineers to discuss.

As for simplicity of use, it took me a total of 20 seconds on the "Recording an MD Right Away!" page of the instruction book to prepare me for my first project. Mere moments after opening the box, I hopped down to Waterloo Records for a convenient in-store performance by the Wannabes and with my stereo microphone (not included) clipped to my collar, handily bootlegged their performance. After all, in the initial sales pitch to the Chronicle, the Sony P.R. guns had levelled none-too-subtle hints about how good the portable MD would be for taping live shows (not including those of Sony artists, right, guys?), and apart from the recording level of my new bootlegged concert album being a little too "hot," the sound of the recording was quite phenomenal. The vocals were actually clearer than they had sounded at the venue, and the lack of bass I think can safely be attributed to my cheap mike.

But hang on, you're saying, back up a minute! Why was Austin picked as a test market for this Next Big Thing of the home entertainment world? Why not Los Angeles or New York City? Well, the answer to that question reveals more than a few interesting facts about our fine city. Mark Viken, possessor of the lofty title of Senior Vice President of Audio-Video, Marketing Division, Consumer Products Division for Sony, says "We looked at four different factors. One was the index of 18-34 year olds, another was the tendency to own a CD player, and we came up with an index of tendencies to purchase electronics in general and we were looking for 18-34 year olds with a $50,000-plus income level." Sony added up those four statistics for every decent-sized city in the United States and Austin led the pack. "Particularly in the 18-34 population, which is about 60 percent higher than the national level," explains Viken. "Austin came out number one in what we're calling the `Mini-Disc Index'".

So, with the test over, did we pass? Well, along with Rochester, New York (rated Number 16 on the MD index), the other test market during the July 8-August 18 campaign, Austin made Sony quite happy, thank you. Viken shies away from giving actual sales figures, but says that the sales in the two cities were "pretty well balanced -- Austin did a little bit better, but both markets did extremely well. We're very very pleased with what happened." As a result, he adds, "Were launching [new campaigns in October] in San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta and we recently added New York." (At this point, publicist Howard Solomon interrupted our conference call by making an incredulous noise, to which Viken quipped, "I said it was recent.")

If Sony is somewhat vague about the extent of the MD's success, one needs go no further than the local stereo shop to confirm its attraction. The Edge In Electronics, a local "high end" (industry term for "rich people shop here") stereo and gadget shop, was Sony's store of choice during the testing; being small, staffed with knowledgeable employees, and located in a high-traffic area (Highland Mall), they were an ideal retailer to monitor. Edge manager Dale Efflandt says that the MD is selling very well there, but figures their store has an advantage since they attract the type of people who want to be first with a new technology, and Sony has held demonstrations of the MD in the mall. "As soon as people know they're out there, they'll sell a lot more," he figures. "We sell a lot at the Edge because it's a new item." As far as the larger chain stores are concerned, Efflandt opined that he would be surprised if the MD was as quick to catch the eye of the more omnivorous consumer.

Circuit City sales representative David Minnick says he was surprised, but isn't any more. He finds that the MD has been selling "very well, oddly enough" at his store. (He adds that in Waco, from whence he relocated, such was not the case.) Consumers are behaving, it would appear, in just the way Sony had anticipated: Minnick says that when a customer is looking at the top-of-the-line (that "high end" again) tape decks Circuit City carries, they usually ask where to go from there, technology-wise. He steers them over to the MD and "Once they realize it's available in a portable model, a car model, they see the flexibility" and it's good-bye to that nasty old magnetic tape.

Therein lies the focus of Sony's marketing campaign, which keys on the MD being "the only disc that lets you record any track you want and play it back in digital quality sound." Minnick puts it succinctly: "The Mini Disc is made to complement the CD, not to replace the CD." Its goal in the home entertainment foodchain is, rather, to replace the cassette, be it digital (the struggling DCC and DAT formats) or analog. "Our target group has over 100 CDs in their collection." says Viken. "They love their CDs, but what they would like to have is the ability to make their own mixes and take that music on the go with them."

Asked about the bootlegging capability which his cohorts who came to our offices had tacitly endorsed previously, Viken is quick to distance himself from the idea. "Recording a live show is in most cases not legal," he declares, adding that "although you had the Grateful Dead there for awhile encouraging people and allowing them to do that. The Mini Disc is not really designed for the live recording format, for that kind of purpose tape is really a better format. But," he finishes, not one to sell his product short, "certainly it could do a good job in live recording."

Efflandt cheers a less controversial use for the MD in live recording, one that echoes Sony's decision in choosing the River City as their test market: "Because Austin's such a music-oriented town, people can plug the Mini Disc into their keyboard or their electric guitar, and get digital sound. You have to have an optical in [not included], but even if you don't you can still record. There's some distortion but you can't hear it with the human ear."

Live music aside, the MD seems to stack up pretty well to all of Sony's claims, and my own experience with it in recording "mix" albums on it was near perfect. (Sony's ad campaign centered around making "mix" CDs). Sporting features that allow you to digitally label your disc, change the order of tracks after they've been recorded, and take your finished party disc with you anywhere, safe from scratches in its sturdy shell, my only complaint is that the MZ-R3 doesn't allow you to fade up or out during recording. For a party tape perfectionist like myself who likes to bring up snippets of movies, sound effects and such between songs, that's a crippling defect in a product designed to be the ultimate facilitator of compilation album assembly. Efflandt assures me, however, that the home deck (MDS-302, if you're writing all this down) does not share that oversight.

Okay, then, if the MD is such hot stuff, why did it take so long to make its appearance? Well, one big pothole in the road to getting the product onto the market was objections from publishing companies and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Never having been fans of inventions that allow people to reproduce copyrighted material without paying for it, RIAA really didn't warm up to the notion of technology that allows the making of perfect copies of any CD in the catalog. The December 1992 appearance of the first MD decks closely followed a date that Viken remembers quite precisely.

"In 1992 -- actually October 28, 1992 -- the Audio Home Recording Act was passed into law, and that was after many years of negotiation. That act says that on all digital recording hardware, there's a 2 percent royalty that's paid on those products and a 3 percent royalty on the blank media and those funds generated from the sale of digital recording hardware and digital blank media go into a pool which I believe is administered by the RIAA. [Actually, they are allocated through the Register of Copyrights and the Librarian of Congress]. Those funds are allocated out to publishers, songwriters, performers and music labels."

There's a second part to that deal as well. All digital recording devices are also required to include a system known as the Serial Copy Management System (SCMS), which allows the user to digitally record onto a MD, but not make further digital copies off of that disc onto another MD machine. This, notes Viken, "allows average consumers to make their own compilations and to have fun with recording without creating any kind of piracy -- if that's the right word." Yes, I'd wager that the RIAA would agree with that being the right word. Efflandt points out that Europe, where CDs run around the equivalent of $30 and people get and tape them at rental shops, is one market where the MD is already huge.

Efflandt expects a sharp upswing in stateside sales of the MD in the coming months, positing that most people wait on purchasing this type of high-ticket item in October and November, as the shadow of Santa's sleigh looms ever larger on the horizon. And though he sees a final death-knell for the cassette deck ahead, that won't come until the prices on the MDs drop a bit more. The final bell he imagines will toll "I think as soon as the regular player gets a tad bit cheaper. Once you crack the $100 mark, it's gonna start selling like crazy. I give it five to six years [before tape decks are] gone. I mean, it's a better media."

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