Me and the Mini(Disc)



Last night I was listening to Tchaikovsky again, one of my great favorites, but music I hadn't listened to for years. Why? Because of another of my little fascinations, reborn.

Understand a couple of points first. I'm pretty good with technology: I made my living for a long time in IT and telecommunications. On the other hand, I'm really lousy at predicting technology. I thought CD-ROMs were a flash in the pan; I was an early adopter of VCRs, but I picked BETA as the best format (it was, technically, but so what?) Another introductory point: music is very important to me, and making what used to be called 'mix tapes,' selections, collections, was something that was and is key to how I enjoy music.

So in the early 90's, dissatisfied with cassettes (at least I hadn't gone all-in on 8-track) I picked up on Sony's new idea, the minidisc. It seemed ideal to me: technically superior codec, random access, title and other track information stored with the music, small but sturdy form factor. I bought players, full decks, even a car player. I remade a lot of my favorite cassettes into minis. Great.

Minidiscs were never as common (or inexpensive) as cassettes, especially in the U.S., but I was happy. Then a few years later Sony adapted the format to computers using USB and a protocol called NetMD, and as a geeky guy I was even happier. I bought a setup that worked with my computer to read and write minis and, although the Sony software was a bit clunky and unreliable, I persevered.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world got into MP3 and digital music players. Pretty neat, I thought, but I had my collection of minidiscs, and MP3 compression was inferior (could I really hear the difference?) And yes, minidiscs were mechanical and in fact the drives and discs tended to be a bit noisy, but hey, in a car or with earphones, who noticed?

In the early 2000's, Sony realized that minidisc was not competing well with digital players, so they upped the ante with a new format, the Hi-MD: greater capacity (a while Gig on one disc,) native computer compatibility (the disc looked like an attached USB drive) and an even better codec, as well as some limited support for MP3 and the ability to record straight uncompressed PCM. Of course, I was in with both feet. Not too many other people were.

Sony was still crippling itself with a focus on DRM, with limitations on copying, even restricting copying your own discs to your own computer. Finally they released a new small player/recorder that abandoned the copy restrictions, an excellent machine (though notoriously fragile) that was widely adopted by 'tapers' who could use it unobtrusively to make very high quality field recordings at rock concerts.

Nevertheless, in a relatively short time, Sony ceased marketing and ceased manufacturing units, and ceased supporting their still-clumsy software. The format was dead, along with most other forms of physical recording and storage of music. My own nifty latest-model recorder suffered hardware failure, so I sold it off for parts along with some of my other gear, keeping only a couple of portables and one fairly nice combined CD/MD deck (not Hi-MD, though; I had never owned one of those). The portables were still useful as field recorders, and I used them occasionally as 'tape decks' to record old records (vinyl, even shellac) and then copy the tracks to my computer, and convert them to MP3. You see, I had finally discovered that WinAMP wasn't so bad after all. (I was never an Apple guy, but that's another story.) Most of the minidiscs, the CD/MD deck, and a one of the portables ended up in my second home, always a useful repository for 'old stuff.'

The Quest

I never quite gave up on it all, especially the Hi-MD format which I'd really only begun exploring when everything went away. So one of my saved searches on eBay was always 'Hi-MD.' You'd still see stuff, mostly being sold out of Japan, or these days Russia, or Bulgaria. I kept thinking that if I could locate a decent Hi-MD deck I'd be able to listen to some of my old minis without plugging in a portable, charging up its battery, whatever.

So earlier this year (2019) I saw a listing for a pretty nice Onkyo unit: not just a deck but a complete system (sans speakers) including a CD player, FM (Japanese frequencies) and Hi-MD deck. The Japanese dealer had a good reputation on eBay, the unit included the remote, and I suddenly pictured myself with this unit installed in my home office. Of course it was a Japanese unit, and Japanese voltage isn't quite compatible with U.S. voltage. I knew some folks ran these units without a converter, but I'd probably want to get one. The radio would be a write-off since the frequencies couldn't be switched to U.S. ranges, and I'd need speakers. So naturally I put in a bid and, in the quaint way eBay puts it, I 'won.'

A mild frenzy followed. I bought a good voltage converter (surprisingly expensive) and started an eBay quest for speakers, finally finding a pair of 'mini' Advents, which seemed appropriate not only because they were 'minis' but because Advents (and their successor brands) had always been my favorites. Then there was a delay because the Japanese dealer who had sold the Hi-MD unit reported that some of the remote functions didn't work. No worries, he apologized for the delay and said he would get a new remote from Onkyo. Once he got the remote he sent me a short video demonstrating that the unit was OK, and shipped it.

And I was in love again. The unit and the speakers arrived and the combination sounded great tucked into the bookcase in my home office. I got the old SONY SonicStage software working on my Windows 10 installations, and started to explore my old Mini and Hi-MD collections. In the back of my mind the plan was to make some compilation MDs that I could play in my home office while I 'worked' (mostly at solitaire, or my budget, or bill-paying.)

The two compilations I had in mind were a set of old recordings I had made (via minidisc) of the Tom Petty Radio show, and a selection of Grateful Dead taken from the recent 'Dave's Picks' releases. In theory, by choosing your bit rate, you could get up to 42 hours on a single Hi-MD. Just before I had given up on minis I had made a couple of discs with these higher-compression ratios, and they had seemed to sound OK, at least in comparison with MP3s. So I figured I would try some more. I thought I might need more blank discs, and found that, amazingly, new blank Mi-MDs were going for around $35 - $50 each on eBay. As the saying goes, in for a penny...

After my first two projects I continued to explore and sort through my older stuff (looking for discs I might be able to re-use) and I found that one of my old Hi-MDs was a selection of opera recordings, including tracks converted from an old LP (not available on CD) which had always been one of my favorites. [I hadn't really listened to this stuff in a while; these last few years it's been a lot of Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa, Bob Dylan and assorted other old timers, but my music collection included a lot of jazz and so-called Classical as well. I just that I seldom listened to it.] I found that there were some flaws on the old opera Hi-MD, and I ended up re-doing it, and really enjoying the music in the process. Then I tackled some jazz compilations (Monk, Mulligan, Miles, Brubeck... who decides whether it's first name or last name?) Anyway...

The point here, and the amazing thing, really, is that by spending so much time playing with this old music format, I've found myself spending a lot of time with music I haven't listened to for ages: whole collections of Elizabethan music, Sviatoslav Richter, British Band Classics and, yes, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, among others.


So my minidisc revival has been the catalyst for explorations of music I haven't listened to in quite a while. It's also been catalyst some of my more anal tendencies for categorization, and organization, and supporting that, for writing little programs that help.

Back in the day, I wrote a program that printed standard minidisc labels. That program required external text files of disc contents, files which could be generated by old Sony software which no longer exists.

When Hi-MDs came out, I re-wrote the program to try to read the disc contents directly by decoding a certain index file which could be accessed on the USB 'drive.' It worked, sort of, but I abandoned work on the program when I abandoned Hi-MDs. So back to work.

An aside

Minidiscs originally came in relatively simple packaging with small sheets of blank labels which would be affixed to the front of the disc, and to the spine of the disc. The cases varied considerably, but were generally fairly tight hard plastic sleeves. In any case, the labels that came with the minidiscs were small and could only be hand-written. At some point in the past I bought a lot of small CD style plastic jewel boxes that fit the minidiscs, then at some later point I modified my label program to print 'inserts' for these jewel boxes. Beyond that the formatting is irrelevant

Back to Software

Sony has never been known for really good software, and the software they had released for minidiscs over the years was notoriously buggy and infuriatingly limited. They also have always been secretive about their internal protocols, and have always implemented enormously complex DRM schemes. I never attempted to tackle the NetMD protocol which communicated with 'standard' minidiscs through USB. There's Linux code available which can read and write to the minidisc, but of course it's written in C, a programming language I have never mastered, and probably never will.

Hi-MDs, however, use relatively normal files to carry their information (and the music) and being able to list the contents of a Hi-MD is simply a matter of decoding, as it turns out, a single, fixed-format file. If you look around on the web you can find lots of information on the format of that file, but be warned, it is so weirdly organized it might drive you crazy.

Things like writing tracks or even editing disc contents are certainly beyond me, but just reading information is relatively easy, and I've done it using Delphi / Object Pascal, my programming language of choice. I'd publish the whole program here, but it is hard-coded around the existence of a particular external MySQL database, admittedly not a good coding practice. Anyhow, if anyone in the world is interested, I've extracted the code which actually reads the disc contents. Take a look; as I always say, absolutely free and worth every penny.


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