Ode to the MiniDisc – The forgotten format

Back in 1992 Sony introduced a new format called MiniDisc. It was an audio medium that used small magneto-optical discs permanently housed inside of a plastic disc caddy. It records using magnetics (like a hard drive) and then reads using a laser (like a CD). Also like a CD, they could hold 74-80 minutes of music.

MiniDisc 1

The beauty of the MiniDisc is that it’s a perfect cross between a cassette tape and a CD, offering the best of both worlds.
Like a CD it’s digital, so the quality doesn’t fade with more plays. Plus the sound quality is on par with a CD to most people who would hear it. Audiophiles aside. You can also skip tracks like a CD and even display the title of the track on the screen. Something most CDs didn’t even do.
Like a tape, its small and pocketable and doesn’t skip like a portable CD player. Because of the permenant disc caddy on each disc, you never have to worry about scratching the disc. You can throw one in your pocket without a case and not worry about it. Which is even better than a cassette because that still had the potential of unravelling or breaking if the tape got caught on something when it wasn’t in a case. But most importantly,  MiniDiscs are recordable and rerecordable. Just like a cassette tape

MiniDisc 90'sLooking back, it really makes me sad the MiniDisc didn’t take off in the mid 90’s. It would have been the 90’s version of the mix tape for my generation. Back then we were caught post cassette and pre CD-R.  I could imagine seeing kids in our high school passing mini mix discs to their new boyfriend or girlfriend between classes. Friends passing around MiniDisc copies of their favorite albums to their buddies and people in grunge bands (like nearly all my friends) laying down some recordings to the little discs. It would have been the perfect music format for the 90’s (sub)pop culture and it was introduced early enough in the 90’s that it could have been (or maybe not early enough on second thought).

Unfortunately they were too expensive back then and virtually unknown to those of us in the U.S. until the late 1990’s. By the late 90’s early 00’s, CD recorders were starting to hit the market at reasonable prices and MP3 players were just around the corner, like the iPod. Sony (and others) missed the boat.

Interestingly enough, I learned today that the minidisc was discontinued in 2013. 2013! Whoa! I had no idea they were still making them that far into this century. I figured they would have been discontinued circa 2005 at most. By then everyone was buying iPods and had been burning CDs for a few years.
That’s a 21 year lifespan for a consumer/professional audio format that most people I know have never owned and some have maybe never even heard of. Crazy!

When you think about it in that context, MiniDiscs were on the market longer after the turn of the century than before. 1992-1999= 7 years. 2000-2013= 14 years. Twice as long. That means that MiniDiscs were really a format for the 2000’s, not the 1990’s. Much like the CD was the format of choice for the masses in the 1990’s when it was actually introduced in 1979. This is all back when technology moved slower and it took a decade for prices to come down and consumers to jump on board. Based on that fact, for the MD to have really been a successful format of the 90’s, it would have been better off being introduced in 1982 rather than 1992.  Even as late as ’86-’87 and it probably would have taken off by the mid 90’s and gotten a strong foothold in the market. This would have changed everything. By the time Napster came around people would have been recording those MP3’s to their MiniDiscs rather than to CDs. Most of our car stereos would have been MD decks instead of CD decks. We probably would have been better off for it since MDs don’t skip like early CD decks and portable CD players did.

But that didn’t happen. The MD was really a format whose time was in the new century but whose technology and philosophy were still based in the old century. That is why it never took off in the US in the same way that CDs and iPods did. It was too late.

That said, I bought into it myself. It was 1999 and I had been loosely following the whole MD thing for the last couple years. I saw some of the players/recorders in department stores like Best Buy in the US and even more on my trip to Germany where they had tons of boombox style bookshelf systems with MD players in them. But they were all too expensive, here and there. The players were more affordable, but I already had an investment in CDs by that point in time, so I didn’t want to just buy a player and have to rebuy all my CDs in MD format. That seemed stupid and there weren’t a lot of studio recorded MDs for sale like there were CDs. I wanted a player/recorder. A way to record my Mp3s and take them with me. This was still a year or two before CD burners got affordable enough and most portable CD players couldn’t play CD-R discs yet, only commercially pressed discs.
So in 1999 when I saw that Best Buy was carrying the first ever portable MiniDisc player/recorder for less than $200, I jumped on board. It was the Sharp MD-MT15 and it cost $199.99 plus tax. Still a hefty price back then considering most discman CD players were around/under $100.

Sharp MD-MT15

By that point in time I was 20 years old, driving trucks and making some decent coin. I had been taking all my CDs with me on trips. I converted them over to Case Logic Pro Sleeves for greater portability. But that wasn’t the problem. My discman was skippy at times and it only played studio pressed albums. I couldn’t listen to my Mp3 playlists. So this was a purchase that would solve a couple problems for me. Plus being a portable recorder with a mic jack on it, I figured I might be able to use it for recording audio when making films (being an indie filmmaker). Yeah I did use it a couple times for that, but more for voice memos while driving. It was a great way to talk out story ideas while driving at night on a long stretch of highway.

Here’s the thing. I still have that player/recorder. In fact I’ve got my headphone on and I’m listening to it right now. It’s been beaten to all hell from my truck driving days when it was thrown around the cabin of the truck. But the body is mostly aluminum so it was built well. It may look like crap (and the screen may be damaged to the point of nearly useless) but it still plays just fine and probably records too (though I haven’t recorded a new MD in years).

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Just this past weekend I had gotten my little MD player/recorder out of the closest on a lark. It had been a while since I listened to my old MDs and I figured it was time to pull them out.  I forgot how much fun they could be. The tactile feel of the physical discs, sliding them into the clamshell player and locking it closed. Ah memories.
Not to mention that I discovered I have a lot of music on MD that I used to have on my computer, but no longer do. The result of moving MP3 files from one hard drive to another over the years as I’ve rebuilt/upgraded my computers. That sucks. But at least I still have those songs on MD. Yay for MiniDiscs!

Just for fun I decided to look up MiniDisc stereo components on craiglist.
I had a portable player/recorder but always wanted a stereo deck for MDs. I almost bought one a decade ago when they had dropped to a couple hundred dollars. I figured that by now I could probably pick one up used for around $50. I was right. I got a great little Sony deck for $30. An MDS-S38 originally released in 1997. Still looks like it’s nearly new and works great. Not bad for a 17 year old deck. Even if I only end up using it every once in a great while, it’s worth the $30. I mean what’s $30 if I still have this thing 5 years from now and can pop MDs into it on a whim.
It also means that my MDs are no longer this obscure thing hidden in my closet. They are now a permanent part of the my stereo setup, front and center. Something I see every time I look at my TV and not easily forgotten about. I like that. To me it adds a certain degree of legitimacy for this format. Even though I have already been invested in it for the last 15 years.

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Maybe the MiniDisc can get a hipster revival. It certainly seems like one of those obscure formats a hipster would gravitate too. But maybe it’s still too new. I don’t consider myself a hipster, just nostalgic. But maybe the hipsters can help me out here. If they can make room for it next to their vinyl and now cassette tapes. Please. The vinyl I can understand, but cassette tapes really just need to be forgotten about. Especially with cheap portable MD recorders out there. ;)

Now that we are used to MP3s and every phone can carry a billion of them, it’s time to rediscover the tactile physical formats of music again. Just like what has been happening with vinyl over the last several years. Let’s make MD today, what it should have been in the 90’s. I would love to see high school kids with long hair and combat boots passing around mini mix discs. That would put a smile on my face. Hey… the 90’s are starting to come back in style, I’m already seeing it. So anything is possbile.

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2 thoughts on “Ode to the MiniDisc – The forgotten format

  1. Love your article and I am feeling exactly the same thing about this format that hooked me during my teenage years. I re-discovered it 2 years ago, and now my musical world starts gravitating around MDs again… down to my MD car unit bought for 20€! Long live MDs and I hope the MD-related groups on social media will last long too – they are an essential part of what keeps this format alive and part of our daily lives!

  2. Still use MD on a daily basis, have an MD head-unit in the car, a portable for when I’m out walking, and a deck in my cherished hifi!
    I agree with your ‘hipster prediction’. Prices for blank media on eBay and Amazon have more than doubled in the last 3 to 4 years and there is a strong following on Facebook. Who knows? It might find its way back!

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