Test Drive: The Sony MDS-101 MiniDisc Recorder

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by Dave Oliwa

It's the beginning of the age where the line between "professional" and "consumer" equipment isn't as thick. After all, a digital anything designed and manufactured in the '90s is going to sound better than what we were working with just a few years ago.

Case in point: the MiniDisc a recordable, magneto optical technology, like a compact disc, that can be rewritten over and over again. Introduced by Sony a little over a year ago, this Japanese product competes directly with Phillips' Digital Compact Cassette (DCC) for the consumer's dollar as the European inventor of the analog audio cassette struggles to maintain its market share of a rapidly changing digital audio universe.

Enter the Sony MDS 101 MiniDisc recorder.

Although this consumer unit is designed for stationary use, the Sony MDS 101 looks like an overgrown AM/FM/Cassette machine for your car three inches high, a little less than nine inches wide, and a little more than eleven inches deep, connector to knob. Unfortunately, these dimensions mean two 101s ain't gonna fit side by side into a standard rack width.

The front panel is black with a menu driven LED screen that shows a program "number block," a teeny L/R VU meter and a "No Disc" prompt upon power up. There are buttons for Power, Play/Pause, Record, Stop, Track/Scan, analog or digital Input Selector, Edit Yes/No, Play Mode, Display, Clock Set, and of course, Eject. The front panel controls are small when considering big fingers, but let's not forget this is a consumer machine.

Two front panel knobs allow the user to set Record Level and Headphone Volume. There are jacks for headphones and a microphone input on the front panel, but they are stereo mini plugs.

The MDS 101 has an infrared remote that must be used if you're going to write information to the table of contents, but the front panel sensor is concave and takes a signal from the remote almost 90 degrees to any side of the box if only my cable remote was even close!

The remote does not do all of the front panel functions and can do some functions not found on the front panel. It also has the keypad needed to input disc and track names. But Sony has made the remote "idiot proof" in that it cannot control the unit's editing functions. The remote also gains access to the 101's clock that date and time stamps every recording, as long as the machine has been set with the current date and time. Setting the clock on the MiniDisc is similar to setting the clock on your car radio.

The MiniDisc itself looks like a computer's 3.5" diskette case with a shutter that opens inside the machine to reveal the optical disc, except that it's only 2.5 inches. The sixty minute disc will record up to 60 minutes, 54 seconds using a digital compression technique known as ATRAC (Adaptive TRansform Acoustic Coding) which records "only those frequency components actually audible to the human ear," according to the manual. There is also a 74 minute disc available. A total of 255 tracks can be recorded.

When the MiniDisc is pushed into the slot, the transport grabs it (much like a VCR) and reads the TOC. The name of the disc scrolls across the screen, and then disappears to show the number of recorded tracks and their total time. Toggling the display changes the screen's readout to the disc name, then the remaining disc time, then back to number of tracks and total recorded time. The display will show "Blank Disc" with a brand new disc, or one that has been "erased" (in actuality, only the TOC has been changed to show there is nothing you want on the disc, similar to the "directory" on a computer floppy.)

Pressing Record sends the unit into the digital standard, "ready to record/pause" mode, lighting a red "REC" block on the display, and enabling the very small VU meter provided the disc is not write protected with a sliding tab. Since the machine knows from the TOC what is on the disc, it's not going to let a new track record over anything else, appropriately making the material you're about to record a new cut number. A full two seconds of silence will automatically trigger a new cut number while in record, yet the 101 returns to the place you originally started from when Stop is pressed. Going to Pause while in record will also ramp the cut number up by one. The display shows the running time of the current recording and the remaining time on the disc when the display is toggled in the Record mode. The unit will sit in "ready to record/pause" mode for ten minutes before returning to stop.

Playback is similar to that of any CD device in that there is a slight delay in the start of audio while the laser finds its target. However (and I stress however), the 101 can be "fooled" into loading a track into its 10 second buffer memory by clicking the Play/Pause button twice quickly. With this, the Sony MDS 101 becomes a deadly production tool with random access accuracy, similar in "instant performance" to a 360 Systems DigiCart!

The editing of tracks is performed only from the front panel. Tracks may be erased, divided, combined, or moved using an edit menu, while the audio is active. The edit program will walk the user through with a dialogue ("Position OK?") and allows a Rehearsal of what you're trying to do. The starting position for an edit is movable within .06 seconds +127 to 128 steps. Editing the disc will rewrite the cut numbers; i.e. erasing cut four of eight will cause cuts 5,6,7 and 8 to be renumbered as 4,5,6 and 7. It is also possible to erase an entire disc with a single command.

Suppose you need to record a voice track. Rolling the MiniDisc, you read your script. On line three, lunch makes a return and causes a little burp. Kill your mic for two seconds so the machine will write another track number, then do a pick up on the line you blew. On playing back your recording, you can edit specific portions of a track (the burp), and then delete it. What's left are the good takes to combine together into one complete read without ever picking up a razor blade or moving a mouse.

Let's say you have 10 tags to put on (GASP!) the same cart. Unless you're a glutton for punishment, you would pre record those tags onto a reel or a DAT, then dub them with the spot. Recording the tags on MiniDisc, you would have instant access to all of your good takes without having to "find" them on the reel, or wait for the DAT to cue after all, the MD means instant access.

Are you currently using a sampler to store often used material like cash registers, crowd noise, jingles, or beds? In this situation, we're talking time to load what you need into your sampler. If yours is as slow as mine in loading up, you can see the advantage of putting regularly used audio on MiniDisc not to mention the fact that no sampler is going to hold 60 minutes of full bandwidth audio. (Okay, you could have a Synclavier.)

Archiving spots to MiniDisc might also be an option to consider, given the fact that a hundred characters of description can be stored along with a track, up to 1,700 characters per disc.

Naming tracks is accomplished only with the wireless remote. It has all 26 letters of the alphabet in caps and lower case, numbers, and a few punctuators on a "Shift" field that shares buttons with track numbers allowing direct access to the cuts.

Just like its older brother, this CD type machine has a random play mode, a programmable 25 cut play mode, a disc repeat mode, a single cut repeat mode, and a point to point repeat mode.

Audio connections on the back of the unit are made with RCA plugs or by optical port. A Sony audio bus interface is also on the back panel for connecting the 101 to other company products.

So, how does Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding audio compression sound? The specs say it's half a dB flat from 5 to 20,000 Hz with the wow and flutter below measurable limits. On a pair of JBL 4311 studio monitors, we couldn't hear a difference between it and the original source on either a standard CD or a DAT. On a pair of Infinity Six Kappa reference standard speakers, we could. But even then, the difference was minuscule, and only with what seemed to be the very high end. With your transmission chain passing only the high end of 15K on a good day, would you hear this difference on the radio or television? No way.

There is one concern about the way the disc is removed. When the machine ejects, about three quarters of an inch of the disc is revealed, apparently not enough to completely close the shutter on the MiniDisc package itself. Pulling it out of the slot any other way than straight, slow, and carefully will cause it to hang up on the loading mechanism.

Having a workable, quality box for recording has been the quest of audio producers since the inception of recorded sound itself. Having a digital, instant access box for recording has, until just the last few years, been cost prohibitive for most budgets. Even for a consumer machine, the Sony MDS 101 makes one hell of a statement on the future of audio and its direction in relation to cost. And that cost is coming down.

The 101 retails for about $1000, with a street price of about $700. If you're the type that doesn't want to wait to see if the price will come down even further, this isn't a bad choice even when compared to pro models. The difference is going to be in button size, balanced in/outs, and in the ability to control the deck with simple closures or logic as opposed to this unit's wireless remote.

Otherwise, this consumer model machine can sit in my studio and measure up, any day. (Dear Sony, Please consider putting one of these in a single rack space. I'll take two.)


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