Test Drive: The Sony MDM-X4 MiniDisc Multitrack Recorder

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Speaking of editing, it only took a few minutes to become comfortable with the "cut and paste" functions of the recorder. Just like a word processor, the X4 only needs to know where to start the edit (in), where to end the edit (out), and, to where you want it moved (dest). It works best "on the fly," although you can cue down to the frame (1/30th of a second) without audio—there is no scrubbing here. It takes only a little practice. Want to cut a raw voice-over and remove the bad takes or copy the only the good takes to another track? Set your edit points, scroll through the edit menu for the options, and hit enter. Confirm with another enter, and it's done. The next time you use the edit function, the menu will be sitting at the last choice you made. Want to compare what you just did with the original? Hit the undo button. Want to toggle back to the completed edit again? Hit the undo button. MiniDisc works with a Table Of Contents (TOC) that keeps track of where the audio is on the disk. The actual audio isn't moved, just the "performance" of the edits (much the same way MIDI files aren't sound files; they're the "performance" of the musician—the sounds are being generated anew each time by the sampler or synthesizer). That means no waiting. This is probably what should be called a brilliant idea. But, there are some drawbacks: the disk can become "fragmented" quite easily. Only the longest amount of continuous time available on the disk will be listed as "time left available" on the disk. The manual explains that if you have a continuous blank space of 2 minutes on the disk with the next largest continuous blank space being 1 ½ minutes, the display will indicate only 2 minutes of recording time left on the disk, ignoring the next largest continuous blank space. If you record for 1 ½ minutes now, and stop, the display will indicate 1 ½ minutes left because that was the next largest continuous blank space.

Confusing? Yah, could be in a crunch. Maybe "Defrag" (and don't forget "Format," Sony) will appear in the next incarnation. Of course, what could really throw you at all times is the numbering system. Let's suppose you have cuts/songs 1-5 (out of a maximum 255). Erase cut/song 2, and number 3 becomes 2, number 4 becomes 3, and number 5 becomes 4.

Which brings us to labeling cuts. MiniDisc: The Data Kind allows you to name each cut with up to 7 characters, and the disk with up to 11 characters. It's a spin-the-wheel-to-find-the-letter-you-want kinda thing. Unfortunately, this is a downgrade from my 2-track MiniDisc: The Audio Kind. I can label it with up to 100 characters per cut or disk name, with a total of about 1,700 characters on the disk.

I have, however, saved the best for last. Even though there are only four tracks to work with, you may mix them down to one or two tracks. Let's review that carefully; it's an important feature. You've got a stereo music bed on 1 and 2 and some discrete left/right zaps, whooshes, and SFX on tracks 3 and 4. Using the mixer, you can put them all on tracks 1 and 2. Voila'! You've got two free tracks! Someone once called that process "phantom tracking." Theoretically, you can do this all day long. You just have to remember: undo only works once.

If you've been thinking about setting up a small studio, at the station or at home, the Sony MDM-X4 offers some very advanced capabilities. It can be used very quickly for simple commercial production, like copy inside of a jingle donut, or a straight read over a music bed. If you're lucky enough to have an assistant, you might have him or her make some "modular" special effects on this box (pre-produced, multitracked sections), then put them into the big production in the big room. At a sports remote, this could be your mixer and prerecorded segment player all in one. For the creative news department, something like this would be perfect for produced features using actualities, natsound, and music. And, if one MiniDisc 2-track makes a good palette for temporary sound storage, imagine what a multitrack sound palette would do. You get the idea.

But, this is not an 8-track SAW computer program, nor is it a Roland DM800 or Orban DSE7000. It is an affordable, working solution to the needs of not-so-complicated production demands. At about $1100/street, and for what the MiniDisc-based studio-in-a-box does, it's a bargain-in-a-box too.

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