RIP MiniDisc, 1992-2013

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The MiniDisc recorder was in my pants.

This was how you bootlegged a concert in 1998—you’d come into the hall with no bag, ready for the pat-down, with a stereo microphone wired up your arms and clipped to the inside of each sleeve. The mic cable ran down your shirt, the amp and MiniDisc recorder were down by your waist. Muscle to the front of the crowd, wave your hands in the air like you just don’t care, but don’t wave them around too much. That’ll screw up the stereo recording. Later you can burn the MiniDisc master copy to CD for your friends.

Sony announced Friday that it has finally stopped making the MiniDisc player after 21 years. I bought into MiniDisc in late 1997 as part of a project of living light on the land. I’d collapsed my entire life into one large, 65-liter backpack and moved to London. I was living in my friend Christy’s attic until I could find a place, but I didn’t want to do without my tunes. At the time, MiniDisc was the ultimate in portable music technology—higher quality than cassettes and both more durable and smaller than CDs, with much longer battery life, better shock protection and recordability than portable CD players had. The players also had a certain “wow” factor, made as they were of sleek colored metal with futuristic little buttons on them.

Of course, there was a price to pay. Years before MP3s, MiniDiscs were lossy. Our audio reviewer, Tim Gideon, hated MiniDiscs because “the MiniDisc did plenty of damage as the first medium to represent a degradation in audio quality, rather than an improvement, over what came before it.” The rich French girl in my college dorm had a DAT recorder instead. But I preferred the combination of affordability and portability MiniDiscs brought.

Since commercial pre-recorded MiniDiscs were never really that widespread, you had to have patience to redub your tape and CD libraries to MiniDisc at 1:1 speed. Fortunately, I was living alone, nearly friendless, geeky, and patient. When MP3s hit, I stayed faithful. Early MP3 players didn’t have a lot of storage—you had to reload them from your PC pretty frequently. But throw a handful of MiniDiscs into my backpack, and I was good to go for a long walk.

The Wrong Side of History

Of course, MiniDisc was on the wrong side of history. MiniDisc was a hardware-focused product in a world going to software. The players had great build quality, durable media, and extensible storage, but the platform had no easy portal into the fast-growing world of MP3s. Yeah, sure, I copied my MP3s over to MiniDisc using Sony’s clumsy PC apps, but the apps were pretty awful, and they continued to be awful for the life of the platform.

It didn’t help that Sony kept layering on proprietary software in its particularly Sony way, acting as if it was so big that it didn’t have to bother with the rest of the industry. MiniDisc used a proprietary codec, proprietary PC software, and proprietary hardware. Other manufacturers could license it from Sony (and a few did) but that was always a drag on the format when compared to the much easier-to-license MP3.

It’s amazing that MiniDisc lasted this long, but the secret goes back to my late-’90s trousers—MiniDisc was for makers. MP3 was always seen as a format for playback, but MiniDisc was the best way for non-pros to do portable recording. Early MP3 machines with a recording function (like the Archos Jukebox line) tended to be bulkier than pure players, and they had limited storage. The Hi-MD MiniDisc format introduced in 2004 allowed for lossless recording and easy transfer of recordings back to PCs, and by 2007, MD had become a recording-centric format with a single player on sale in the U.S. for audio pros. Advances in flash-memory-based recording finally stamped it out.

I met a grand total of one other actual MiniDisc aficionado in all my years with the little spinning gadgets. I was doing a stint of online dating and met a nice girl at a coffee shop in Brooklyn who had absolutely nothing wrong with her, but she smelled wrong. Know what I mean? Not bad, but the wrong pheremones. She saw my MD player and we struck up a rapturous conversation about making MD mixtapes, which led to my going back to her place to listen to MD mixtapes, which led to absolutely nothing, because MiniDisc isn’t actually sexy.

So that was MiniDisc. A never-quite-coalesced cult, a lack of physical connection. Another idea, a good-enough idea, but not great enough to break through, and now succeeded by the next idea. It won’t be missed, except as we all miss our pasts.

By Sascha Segan, PCMag


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