one-minute vacation
minidisc vault
a jumble of thoughts on a once-great medium

Here rests a disorganized collection of once-useful information I compiled over the years on this site about minidisc.

As it may still be of use to those with old equipment, old questions, old flames, or old problems, I'll leave it up in this quiet corner.

For more information on the minidisc format see

For almost ten years I was a passionate advocate of minidisc; up until quite recently I argued, as an increasingly lonely rear-guard, for its continued relevance as a field recording medium.

The format should be remebered with honor. It ushered in the golden age of field recording. When it arrived in the US in the mid-90s, it replaced a much more expensive, limiting, fiddly, and battery-hungry predecessor, DAT. (I am personally convinced that the blooming of an artistic field recording community was the direct result of the easy access MD offered to pristine digital recording.)

As the technology ceases to evolve, at minidiscs becomes increasingly hard to come by, and as the recorders themselves are outclassed in various ways by newer competitors, though, the writing grows ever-darker on the wall. The end is nigh. The disc is dead.

I can no longer in good conscience urge its adoption by the casual recordist.

The medium still does have real advantages over current 'replacements.' (Long live the disc!)

But soon the only place most people will see a minidisc is as that prop at the beginning of the Matrix.


what made minidisc great
whence minidisc's fall?
transferiring recordings to a PC
used models to consider


what made minidisc great  

Minidisc was for a long golden moment a genuinely splendid technology for portable recording.

Over more than ten years and many generations recorders evoloved to have a quite optimal feature set: very high quality digital recording and clean analog signal paths, extremely efficient battery usage, good user interfaces, extremely small recorders, and ubiquitious, cheap, and extremely reliable (archival-quality) media.

Minidisc has had many generations to refine itself based on users' feedback. Sharp models in particular achieved quite optomized feature sets for field recordists; Sony finally corrected numerous long-standing interface flaws in its last HiMD models (the MZ-RH1 and its sibling the MZ-M200).

As I wrote on my page on chosing a recorder, as an affordable and robust archival medium, the minidisc itself has not yet come close to being matched. (When memory cards can be had at $2 per gigabyte, I will revise this claim...)

Optomagnetic media such as minidiscs are, I have been assured, both extremely stable (unlikely to decay over time), and immune to X-ray machine damage at the airport (I never had any problems putting disks through dubious-looking machines around the world).

The size and battery consumption of the last generation of recorders was truly astonishing. A single AA battery often allowed me to record for three hours or more; more, with a charged internal rechargable as well.

Late in its life-cycle the technology reached an improved (presumably final) incarnation, HiMD, which unlocked some of the medium's potential by allowing uncompressed CD-quality recording and easier digital uploading of recordings.

Used MD recorders still offer a very affordable high-quality option for recordists on a budet, but I do wonder for how long. Blank media is getting harder to find, and the best generation of recorders — in my opinion, and not only mine, the Sony MZ-R50 and R37 — are now almost ten years old.

HiMD on the other hand, while still a competitive technology, is no longer a very good deal — and its limitations, in comparison to its current competitors, make it a hard sell.


whence, then, minidisc's fall?  

It's worth reviewing minidisc's shortcomings and ultimate failure to achieve its potential as a consumer format, if only so future engineers of future technologies have an idea of what to do, and what to avoid.

the roots of minidisc's failure

Sony's mistake as the inventor of minidisc was to keep the format proprietary.

Manufacturers such as Sharp had to license technology to produce competing players. I'm not a free market evangelist but this strategy clearly hampered the medium's spread. This tactic also presumably led to the unfortunate lack today of anyone other than Sony ever offering HiMD portable recorders (or, in fact, much HiMD gear at all).

Worse (and exacerbated by the lack of true competition) is that Sony was very slow to unlock the medium's actual potential. In another brighter universe minidisc became a universal replacement for both the cassette and floppy disk around 1999. It didn't in ours because Sony would not allow convenient transfer of data on and off of minidisc, out of fear of music piracy in the absence of evolved digital rights management (DRM).

There's a sordid saga lurking here, namely Sony's long internal conflict between engineers and lawyers. But regardless of that battle's causes, its main consequence has been a minidisc format that caused users unnecessary headaches. Sony's resistance to the unimpeded flow of data on and off minidisc affects users negatively to this day, even as the format is retired.

the problem of moving minidisc recordings to a computer

Minidisc portables suffered from day one because they did not provide either a digital output (of any kind) or a data port (such as USB or Firewire) through which it was possible to transfer recordings to a computer.

There were work-arounds for this limitation but none was appealing. Option zero was to simply transfer recordings in real time via a portable's analog output: to play the disk and re-record it on a computer. This yields acceptable results but introduces generation loss.

Option one was to invest in component-stereo-sized minidisc deck (such as my own Sony MDS-JB920) which had both coaxial and optical digital outputs, and transfer recordings digitally — again, in real time. This is still my strategy of choice actually. It provides lossless transfer of recordings, at the expense of a second minidisc player (and a soundcard with digital inputs) and a lot of time.

A third little-known option was to invest in a proprietary Minidisc Transfer Editor (MDTE) system by the British company EDL, which allowed faster-than-realtime digital upload of recordings — but required special hardware (a repurposed an ancient SCSI Sony MDH-10 with custom firmware). This system had other advantages (such as the ability to recover data from mindisc with corrupted TOCs, see below) but was never intended for the average consumer — and I've determined that its software decoding of ATRAC is inferior to that provided by my Sony hardware.

(For exhausting detail on transfering recordings, see my ancient wisdom below.)

HiMD made transferring recordings easier

HiMD portables offered several steps forward. Sony did, little by little, open her kimono and permit increasing levels of data accessibility as HiMD users agitated in light of the freedoms afforded by mp3 players and the like.

First- and second-generation HiMD portables originally permitted limited uploading of one's own recordings via USB, but with constraints; over a few years unpopular limitations (such as the inability to upload a given recording more than once(!), or upload recordings made from digital inputs) were loosened.

Sony's third-generation HIMD recorders removed most of the remaining constraints and at long last allowed uploading of old (non-HiMD) minidisc recordings in addition to unlimited uploading of new recordings, all over an improved higher-speed USB connection — fulfilling a fantasy of some minidisc enthusiasts that dated back almost ten years.

(The only unresolved limitations are on little-used high-compression 'NetMD' modes, I believe.)

...but introduced an insidious, catastrophic Achilles' Heel

Despite these advances, however, even last generation HiMD recorders retain a crucial weakness: recordings on the disks themselves are encrypted.

While Sony permits recordings on them to be uploaded and converted into an open file format (.WAV), doing so requires Sony's software, which is (or was?) available only for Windows computers; Mac users continued to suffer a more limited feature set provided by different software.

(Sony even sold physically-identical HiMD recorders under two names to users of Windows and Mac machines, the only difference being firmware tweaks that allowed one to communicate with Macs!).

(Users of other operating systems like Linux are simply SOL as far as I know with HiMD.)

Unless Sony ever decides to open their DRM/encryption scheme, HiMD files are not completely trustworthy, as long as they remain archived only on disk. In other words, one of the long-standing absolute advantages of the medium, that it was a very reliable archival medium, was nullfiied by DRM games.

why the encryption on HiMD is unforgivable

The downside to random-access non-linear technologies — and this goes for memory cards and HD as well as minidisc — is that they require a TOC (Table of Contents) somewhere on the medium to keep track of where your sound is.

The reason a TOC is a downside is that if anything happens to that table, your data is not reachable. It's still on your disk, but your player won't play it and your software can't transfer it. (This is not uncommon problem for computer users, who know the TOC as the File Allocation Table (FAT)...)

TOC loss has in fact been a non-theoretical issue for me: when the contacts of one of my Sharp's external battery case became worn, I lost several recordings because the unit lost power before completing TOC update.

With the first generation of minidisc TOC loss was at least a somewhat solvable problem, because recordings were not encrypted. With some clever hacks, data could often be recovered; is a great resource for reading about how (the most common technique being 'TOC cloning').

Users such as myself of EDL's proprietary MDTE system could also scan disks for valid audio data and reconstruct a TOC (or at least, copy data off the disk); this is a service the company offers commercially in fact.

The situation is significantly more dire with HiMD. Because the sound data on HiMD is encrypted, only Sony has the (theoretical) ability to reconstruct a TOC, or even recognize and extract valid audio data, from a HiMD disk once its TOC is compromised.

And Sony's reaction to requests for assistance to do precisely this have been completely uninspiring. As far as I know Sony essentially washed their hands in this regard, I have heard the accounts of several recordists who have lost their recordings, apparently for good, this way. I find this completely unacceptable.

Fortunately, be assured that in normal circumstances TOC corruption should not be an issue. If it were, HiMD products would not be in their third generation. But TOC corruption has happened on more than one occasion to HiMD users in forums I frequent. (If, God forbid, this should happen to you, leave your disk untouched and do not reuse it; you may in the future be able to recover it... who knows!)

The bottom line is that if you will be making recordings that simply cannot be lost, you need to use another medium.

other limiting factors

It would have been nice, in the final generation of HiMD, to simply 'mount' my minidisc recorders as removable media over standard USB or Firewire connectors, and to drag-and-drop my recordings as files in universally understood formats, without any proprietary software.

In the absence of such an ability, minidisc remains a non-trivial format to make backup copies of, in all its incarnations.

It is a shame that HiMD was limited to recording at 44.1 KHz and 16-bit samples. As I write elsewhere, there is a real advantage to using higher bit depths (and to a lesser but real extent, sample rates), even though they burn media space faster.

A recurring gripe about all small portable recorders, leveled frequently in its day at mindisc, is that the small buttons common on miniature decks are hard to use, and the small labels and displays hard to read. I don't consider myself particularly ham-fisted but I've found the small buttons on my otherwise much-loved Sony MZ-R37 annoying at times.


transferring minidisc recordings to pc   

Digital recording should make it easy to make lossless (identical) copies of ones' recordings.

But for years DRM and IP issues made it difficult to transfer minidisc recordings to a PC to edit them.

What follows are tips for users of minidisc who have recordings to transfer to a computer.

My real advice is that minidisc users invest, if they can, in a Sony MZ-RH1 HiMD recorder or its siblings (or their descendants), which above allow direct USB uploading of minidisc recordings — including recordings originally made on first-generation minidisc recorders. Although you must use Sony's proprietary SonicStage software, uploaded files can be stored in standard DRM-free formats.

(NetMD-mode recording cannot be so uploaded this way yet, but as they involved higher compression and hence worse sound, this is hopefully not much of an issue for anyone.)

If, however you, do not have access to one of these decks, are unable to afford one, or unable even to find one — read on. This advice remains here for you.

There are three other ways of moving audio from a minidisc to a computer, none fully satisfactory:

  • analog transfer via conventional audio cabling (1/8" stereo miniplug to the same, or to stereo RCA);
  • digital transfer via TOSlink optical or SPDIF coaxial consumer digital cables; or
  • data transfer via EDL's esoteric proprietary system based on the Sony MDH-10 MD-Data drive.

Note that the first two of these methods are 'real time' only: to transfer an hour of recordings takes an hour of your time (well, your computer's time).

Analog transfers via the headphone or line out port on your portable deck to a sound card's microphone or line in can provide perfectly acceptable results.

You need to run audio software on your computer capable of recording incoming signals.

Be sure to set your software to lossless CD quality (16 bit, 44.1kHz PCM), not mp3 or some other compressed format — and beware, some applications claim CD quality for compressed formats that are not actually full CD quality!

However, if you transfer this way, you should be very careful to set your levels properly, so as not to overdrive the signal (and cause clipping) or underdrive it (and lose your recordings in the noise floor).

Remember that any conversion to analog (and back into digital) will lose information in your recording. Depending on your needs and uses, the loss you experience may not be noticeable at all, or problematic, but try to transfer once and then work only in lossless digital formats.

SPDIF and TOSlink should both provide lossless digital transfer. If you wish to transfer digitally, be sure you have a minidisc player capable of providing a digital output, and a soundcard (or motherboard integrated audio) capable of receiving a digital input

As with analog recording, software running on your computer that can record from the digital input.

Note that portable minidisc decks accept optical input but do not provide optical output!

A serious limitation of SPDIF and TOSlink digital connections is that they transfer data in real time (as do analog transfers of course). In other words, transferring an 80 minute minidisc takes 80 minutes. If you are doing a lot of transferring, this is quite a constraint.

Note that files are decompressed by the minidisc player before they are played, which is a shame as they are relatively small flies on the minidisc, akin to high bitrate mp3s

As with analog transfers, be sure your software records at lossless CD quality!

Sony JB920

I still use coaxial SPDIF to transfer audio digitally from minidisc (and rarely, DAT) to my PC. I use a now-ancient but still flawlessly performing Sony JB920 component minidisc deck, which has coaxial SPDIF output; my various soundcards have SPDIF inputs. I also bring audio over to the PC via SPDIF from my Sony DAT deck via an accessory cable that gave it coaxial digital IO.

Incidentally, the JB920 has the entertaining ability to perform real-time resampling, allowing you to slow down recordings an otherworldly three octaves.

Sony MDH-10

I also have used EDL's Minidisc Transfer Editor, which allows 5x-faster-than-realtime transfers.

The key to this system, however, is discontinued hardware, the ancient Sony MDH-10, which I had to purchase used on eBay and then send to EDL in the UK for a firmware upgrade.

The MDH-10 connects to the PC via a high-bandwidth SCSI connector: also long in the tooth and hard to find these days.

I stopped using the EDL system for audio transfer when I determined that the decompression algorithm it uses to convert from minidisc's ATRAC compression scheme is audibly inferior to the decompression done by my Sony JB920 deck.

I do continue to maintain it and use it for recovering audio from minidiscs that have suffered TOC corruption, however — it can scan discs and find audio on them even when they've been accidentally erased.

The MDTE also transfers recordings in their compressed form; while these are not portable or editable using conventional software, this is a boon to archiving, as five minidiscs could be backed up on one CD.

Warning: The MDH-10 cannot be used for transferring purposes without EDL's software. Simply purchasing an MDH-10 will not allow you to transfer MD files to your PC in this fashion!

Incidentally, the MDTE was quite expensive for a casual user.

As I wrote above, I recommend that minidisc users invest in a Sony MZ-RH1 or M200, which support USB uploading of minidisc recordings including recordings made on first-generation minidisc.



used models to consider


If for reasons of cost, nostalgia, or curiosity, you're interested in acquiring a minidisc recorder today, you have ten years' worth of models to consider.

While this is at best a very abbreviated bit of advice, hopefully it will point you in the right direction. (There's commentary on some of these (and some other) models on the gear-I-use page, as well.)

From an ease-of-use perspective, you should consider any Sharp model, but Sony models only the Sony MZ-R909 or later. Sharp has almost vanished from the used marketplace, but might still occasionally be found.

Sharp always had a better user interface in my opinion, but the key defining factor is that from the beginning Sharp allowed permanent disabling of automatic gain control (AGC), if it was even an option, and always allowed manual gain adjustment 'on-the-fly.'

Seriously consider models that accept disposable or rechargeable AA[A] batteries inside the body, rather than via a flimsy screw-on attachment (see my tale of woe below) or not at all. A proprietary or non-removable rechargeable battery is a major liability if you ever intend to be 'off the grid' for more than hours at a time.

My experience is also that old Sharp MD decks sound very slightly warmer than Sony decks.

For sheer robustness, though, the two 'golden age' Sony recorders — the MZ-R37 and MZ-R50 — were very, very well built. They were made out of only the best materials (magnesium and aluminum) with minimal amounts of plastic, and as a result they were very tough. I have several of each and none have ever failed me.

Although the MZ-R50 was the 'top of the line' model, the R37 is arguably a better option today as the former used a proprietary rechargable battery, while the latter used conventional AA drycells. (The R50 did allow AAs to be used, but only with the attachment of a plastic accessory, which wasn't included with many domestic models... if you buy an R50 used, make sure you get one with it!)

Avoid NetMD equipment. It was not as well-made as earlier gear, and many models did not have microphone inputs, truly a gotcha for a field recorder.

HiMD decks sound very, very good — their preamps were very well designed indeed — but I cannot really recommend them for the reasons described at length above: they record in an encrypted format that introduces the possibility that your recording will be lost through what should be a recoverable error.


Sharp 722