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  MiniDisc



 

A MiniDisc (MD) is a magneto-optical disc-based data storage device initially intended for storage of up to 80 minutes of digitised audio. The technology was announced by Sony in 1991 and introduced January 12, 1992, and is capable of storing any kind of binary data. The music format is based on ATRAC/ATRAC3, using digital rights management, various bitrates, and sampling directly from the digital or analogue input. Minidiscs are popular in Japan as a digital upgrade to cassette tapes, but have not been as popular in the United States despite multiple marketing efforts by Sony. Minidiscs were also marginally popular for a time in the United Kingdom between 1998 and 2001, when a limited selection of Minidisc albums were available alongside CD and Cassette albums. Minidiscs are now primarily used for recording.

Market history

Along with Philips and Matsushita' Digital Compact Cassette (DCC) system, the MiniDisc was targeted as a replacement for analogue cassette tapes as the recording system for Hi-Fi equipment but, as a consumer format, MiniDisc has met with only limited success, though it has enjoyed a loyal niche following in some circles. It did not catch on as well U.S. and Europe as Sony had hoped; in Japan, it is still relatively popular, though quickly being replaced by flash and HDD-based audio players like Apple's iPod. The low initial uptake of the format was attributed to the small number of pre-recorded albums available on MD as a relatively small number of publishers embraced the format. The initial high cost of equipment was also a factor. The pre-recorded disks disappeared from the market rather suddenly in the late 90s.

The company avoided the mistake that it had made in the 1970s with the Betamax video recording system, and this time licensed the MD technology to other manufacturers, with JVC, Sharp, Pioneer, Panasonic and others all producing their own MD systems. In recent years MiniDisc has faced new competition from CD-Recordable, solid-state memory recording (flash memory), and hard disk recording, while the popularity of traditional cassette tape refuses to wane in certain quarters. MiniDisc is widely respected as being a very reliable format when it comes to portable audio storage, such as field recording.

MD Data

MD Data, a version for storing computer data was announced by Sony in 1993, but it never gained significant ground, so today MDs are used primarily for audio storage. The format was able to store 140 MB on a special disc, but was plagued by low write speeds and slow seek times. MD Data drives also could not write to audio-MD's, only the considerably more expensive data blanks. MD-Data2 blanks, which held 650 MB of data, were introduced around 1997, but were only used in Sony's short-lived MD-based camcorder.

The Hi-MD format, introduced in 2004, marked a return to the data storage arena with its ability to act as a USB hard drive.

Design

The disc is permanently housed in a cartridge (68 72 5 mm) with a sliding door, similar to the casing of 90 mm floppy diskettes. This shutter is opened automatically by a mechanism upon insertion. The audio discs can either be recordable (blank) or premastered. Recordable MiniDiscs use a magneto-optical system to record data. A laser heats one side of the disc to its Curie point, making the material in the disc susceptible to a magnetic field. A magnetic head on the other side of the disc alters the polarity of the heated area, recording the digital data onto the disk. Playback is accomplished with the laser alone: taking advantage of the Faraday effect, the player senses the polarisation of the reflected light and thus interprets a 1 or a 0. Recordable MDs can be recorded on repeatedly; Sony claims up to one million times. As of May 2005, there are 74-minute and 80-minute discs available. 60-minute blanks, which were popular in the early years of the format, were phased-out long ago and are rarely seen. Premastered MiniDiscs use a mastering process and optical playback system that is very similar to CDs, making them physically dissimilar to recordable discs. The recorded signal of the premastered pits and of the recordable MD are very similar to that of the CD. Eight-to-Fourteen Modulation (EFM) and a modification of CD's CIRC code, called Advanced Cross Interleaved Reed-Solomon Code (ACIRC) are employed.

Differences from cassette and CDs

MiniDiscs use rewritable magneto-optical storage to store the data. Unlike the Digital Compact Cassette, or the (analogue) compact audio cassette, the disc is a random-access medium, making seek time very fast. Minidiscs can be edited very quickly even on portable machines. Tracks can be split, combined, moved or deleted with ease. At the beginning of the disc there is a table of contents (TOC), which stores the start positions of the various tracks, as well as meta information (Title, Artist) about them and free blocks. Unlike with the conventional cassette, a recorded song does not need to be stored as one piece on the disk, it can be stored in several fragments. Early MiniDisc equipment had a fragment granularity of 4 seconds audio. Fragments smaller than the granularity are not kept track of, which may lead to the usable capacity of a disc actually shrinking. Also, no means of defragmenting the disc are provided in consumer grade equipment. Defragmentation would require either two discs, or enough RAM to store the full contents of a MiniDisc, and computing power to rearrange the fragments so that each song is stored on the disc in one fragment only.

All consumer-grade MiniDisc devices feature a copy-protection scheme known as Serial Copy Management System. An unprotected disc or song can be copied without limit, but the copies can no longer be digitally copied.

Compression

The audio on a MiniDisc is compressed using the ATRAC format (Adaptive TRansform Acoustic Coding), whereas a CD contains uncompressed 16-bit stereo linear PCM audio. ATRAC is a psychoacoustic lossy audio compression scheme, so decompression of the compressed signal will not yield the original signal, although the compressed signal may sound identical to the original to the listener. The latest version of Sony's ATRAC is 'ATRAC3plus' (Sharp, Panasonic, Sanyo and Pioneer have their own (but fully interoperable) ATRAC codecs). Original ATRAC3 at 132 kbit/s (also known as ATRAC-LP mode) is the format used by Sony's Connect audio download store. ATRAC3plus is not used in order to retain backwards compatibility with earlier NetMD players.

Anti-skip

MiniDisc has an advantageous feature that prevents disc skipping. Older CD players had once been a source of annoyance to users as they were prone to mistracking due to vibration and shock. MiniDisc solved this problem by reading the data into a memory buffer at a higher speed than was required (the size of the buffer varies from model to model) before being read out to the digital-to-analogue converter at the standard rate required by the format. If the MiniDisc player was bumped, playback could continue unimpeded while the laser repositioned itself to continue reading data from the disc. If the memory buffer is sufficiently full, this feature allows the player to stop the spindle motor for long periods, increasing battery life. The memory buffer concept was incorporated shortly afterwards into portable CD players as well.

Note that a buffer of at least ten seconds is required on all MiniDisc players, be they portable or not. This is needed to ensure uninterrupted playback in the presence of fragmentation.

Operation

The data structure and operation of a MiniDisc is similar to that of a computer's hard disk drive. The bulk of the disc contains data pertaining to the music itself, and a small section contains the Table of Contents (TOC), providing the playback device with vital information about the number and location of tracks on the disc. Tracks and discs can be named. Tracks may easily be added, erased, combined and divided, and their preferred order of playback modified. Erased tracks are not actually erased at the time, but are marked so. When a disc becomes full, the recorder can simply slot track data into sections where erased tracks reside. This can lead to some fragmentation but unless many erasures and replacements are performed, the only likely problem is excessive searching, reducing battery life.

The data structure of the MiniDisc, where music is recorded in a single stream of bytes while the TOC contains pointers to track positions, allows for gapless playback of music, something which the majority of competing portable players, including most MP3 players, fail to implement properly. (notable exceptions are CD players and ipods produced after sep 2006.)

At the end of recording, after the 'Stop' button has been pressed, the MiniDisc may continue to write music data for a few seconds from its memory buffers. During this time, it may display a message ('Data Save', on at least some models) and the case will not open. After the audio data is written out, the final step is to write the TOC track denoting the start and endpoints of the recorded data. Sony notes in the manual that one should not interrupt the power or expose the unit to undue physical shock during this period. Sony actually advises using the AC power supply when recording, if possible, as the added power requirements during recording (noted above) drain batteries much quicker than playback. (But one strength of the MiniDisc lies in its portability for field recording, so sometimes batteries will be used.)

Format extensions

MDLP

What became a very brief format war ended when DCC was phased out in 1996. In 2000, Sony announced MDLP (MiniDisc Long Play), which added new recording modes based on a new codec called ATRAC3. In addition to the standard, high-quality mode, now called SP, MDLP adds LP2 mode, which allows twice as much recording time (160 minutes on an 80 minute disc) of good-quality stereo sound, and LP4, which allows four times more recording time (320 minutes on an 80 minute disc) of medium-quality stereo sound.

The bitrate of the standard SP mode is 292 kbit/s, and it uses separate stereo coding with discrete left and right channels. For most people the sound quality is indistinguishable from a CD. LP2 mode uses a bitrate of 132 kbit/s and also uses separate stereo coding. For most people the sound quality is almost as good as SP. The last mode, LP4 has a bitrate of 66 kbit/s and uses joint stereo coding. The sound quality is noticeably poorer than the first two modes, but is sufficient for many uses.

Tracks recorded in LP2 or LP4 mode play back as silence on non-MDLP players.

NetMD

NetMD recorders allow music files to be transferred from a computer to a recorder (but not in the other direction) at high speed over a USB connection. In LP4 mode, speeds of up to 32 real-time are possible and three Sony NetMD recorders: MZ-N10, MZ-N910, and MZ-920 are capable of speeds up to 64 real-time. NetMD recorders all support MDLP.

NetMD is a proprietary protocol, and it is currently impossible to use it without proprietary software, such as SonicStage. Thus, it cannot be used under Linux, *BSD, and so on. A free implementation, libnetmd, is being developed, yet it cannot be used to upload music (as of December 2005).

Hi-MD

The latest extension to the MiniDisc format is Hi-MD. Hi-MD players and recorders feature a new ATRAC3plus codec and have the ability to store files of any type on their discs. Hi-MD players work with three different types of discs:

Conventional discs - Hi-MD devices have the same capabilities of NetMD and MDLP devices when working with these, but no more.
Conventional discs reformatted to Hi-MD - These have a raw data capacity of 305 MB, compared to 160 MB (140 MB in data-mode) for standard conventional discs.
Hi-MD discs - These have the same form factor as conventional discs but a new recording medium gives a raw data capacity of approximately 1 GB.

The latter two disc types have the following new features and characteristics:

- A new ATRAC3plus codec, available in bitrates of 256 kbit/s, 64 kbit/s and 48 kbit/s, plus a Linear PCM recording mode. A new, higher bitrate of 352 kbit/s was officially enabled for all HiMD hardware in latest version SonicStage 3.4.
- When connected to a computer, a Hi-MD formatted disc can be used to store computer files such as photos and text files.
- A conventional MD disk can be read and written to by a NetMD, in the original 160 MB format, but it becomes unreadable when written in Hi-MD format (305 MB)
- A 1 GB Hi-MD is unreadable by a NetMD player regardless.

In 2005 Sony presented an update to its Hi-MD devices: native support for the popular MP3 format. Unfortunately, this did not include drag-and-drop capability, but rather required the use of the Sony software to wrap the MP3 files in DRM. A further drawback was that the MP3 playback could be best described as 'crippled' Sony implemented a lowpass on MP3 playback, which could make MP3 sound dull in comparison to ATRAC. Some users say that this was done in hopes of fooling listeners that ATRAC is superior to MP3 to trap their music in ATRAC format. 2005 also saw an update to the SonicStage music transfer software, with version 3.2 allowing users to upload their analogue recordings an unlimited number times.

More recently in 2005, Sony announced the ability for their Hi-MD players to store and view photos; hence the name 'Hi-MD Photo'. This was perhaps to rival the iPod Photo, which was available just before its release.

A 1 GB Hi-MD disc can hold between 94 minutes (PCM) and 45 hours (48 kbit/s ATRAC3plus) of music, 48 kbit/s ATRAC3plus is equal to FM quality.

Prior to the release of Sonicstage 3.4 (Sony's music management program for the Minidisc format) only Hi-MD recordings from analogue sources could be uploaded from the Hi-MD recorder to a computer; as of Sonicstage 3.4 however, digital-optical sourced recordings can be uploaded as well.

With the latest introduction of the Hi-MD MZ-RH1 in Japan at Mar 2006, Sony officially enabled full upload functionality to computer for any audio recorded on Hi-MD or traditional MD discs.

Recording modes

Modes marked in green are available for recordings made on the player, while those marked in red are only available for music downloaded from a PC. Capacities are official Sony figures; real world figures are usually slightly higher. Second generation Hi-MD players also support MP3 compression natively, in a multitude of bitrates. Recently, 352 kbit/s and 192 kbit/s ATRAC3plus have also been made available for 1st and 2nd generation H-MDs.

Wikipedia information about Minidisc
. This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License . It uses material from the Wikipedia article 'Minidisc'








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