Sony is bringing MiniDisc back from the grave, soil between its toes and a blade between its teeth. The MZ-RH1 (pictured, attached to a heart monitor) is set for release this month. You might have thought the format was dead, but MiniDisc is alive once more, and it deserves to be. But why would any sane person think that?
Back in the mid-90s, MiniDisc seemed like the logical replacement for the cassette tape, and perhaps even the CD. MiniDiscs were re-recordable, like tapes, but used a digital format that wouldn't degrade with age. But unlike CDs, each MiniDisc came in its own thin plastic caddy. You could stash a couple of these 70mm discs in your pocket without worrying about keys or coins desecrating your Ben Folds mixtape.
Why the MiniDisc failed to gain popularity is something of a mystery. Apart from in the Japanese market, where it remains hugely popular, MiniDisc faltered despite the format's benefits over both tape and CD.
It's worth remembering that when the MiniDisc was released, back in 1991, CD burners in computers were unheard of. In fact the Data CD was so novel that whole magazines would spring up dedicated to its mainstream adoption a few years later. The MiniDisc was, for a while, the only method of recording digital music to a portable consumer format. It also worked extremely well.
I remember a Japanese friend in the UK who transferred his entire CD collection to MiniDisc and then put the CDs into storage because the MiniDisc versions took up much less room, and sounded so faithful to the original CDs. These little plastic squares were a revelation, and my friend often puzzled over why we continued to use tapes and CDs in the UK, while back in Tokyo a MiniDisc player was hanging off the waistband of every kid in Shibuya.
Many fans of the format suspect that the failure of the MiniDisc was down to one thing: the perpetual conflict of interest between Sony Music and Sony Electronics. Not only were pre-recorded albums rarely released for the MiniDisc, but they soon disappeared altogether. It's interesting to note that Sony stopped the sale of pre-recorded albums once the cost of buying the original CD and then recording it to a MiniDisc became cheaper than buying the pre-recorded album. It looks like Sony Music had it in for the MiniDisc, and it would later use similarly oppressive tactics against MP3 players.
MiniDisc was one of the earliest consumer formats to use a clever psycho-acoustic compression technique known as ATRAC. This compression method strips the music of the frequencies our limited human ears aren't good at picking up, leaving just the bits that we're likely to actually perceive. This worked surprising well -- even today you'd have to be fairly focused to tell the difference between the original CD and a MiniDisc recording of it. Sony's basic techniques would later be adapted and refined by the MP3 format.
Fifteen years after its launch, there is still nothing to compete with the MiniDisc for price and convenience. Each recordable disc costs as little as £4, and can store more music than an average CD. Flash memory can't compete at that price -- have you ever heard of anyone swapping mixtape memory cards with friends?
With the death of cassette and the failure of MiniDisc came the end of the mixtape. The unique pleasure of handing over a compact expression of love. The neatly handwritten labels, the durability and, perhaps most importantly, the concealability of a MiniDisc can't be beaten. A burnt CDR with a giant TDK logo and felt-tip writing scrawled on it just doesn't have the same romantic appeal. There's something ugly and industrial about a CDR -- it's okay for a pirated copy of MS Office or a flaky MPEG of Futurama season one, but it doesn't deserve the loving attention and Pause/Record care of a MiniDisc mixtape.
If it was up to me, we'd all be using MiniDisc and to hell with the iPod. Here's to the MiniDisc revival. -Chris Stevens