Maybe you bought a portable MiniDisc recorder to see what the buzz was about. These units are just the thing for sound gathering – especially if you can’t bear tape hiss or are tired of lugging spare batteries to feed a DAT’s extravagant power consumption. Portable MD recorders have one fundamental shortcoming – digital I/O.
The optical S/PDIF typically included is for input only. To stay in the digital domain, data must be transferred from another unit. Beyond this, the full capabilities for recording, organizing and manipulating sound on MD is only hinted at with the tiny field versions. Professional units like the Sony E11 and the TASCAM MD-801RmkII show why MD belongs in most every studio rack.
In the field
I tested these units under a very common scenario – a field test. I recorded a soul/funk band, “Reverend Groove,” in a club about an hour north of Portland, Maine. I took a Sony MZ-R55 portable to the gig and connected it to a Mackie 1604 VLZ board via an MD Report breakout box.
The MD Report provides balanced XLR connectors so the portable recorder overcomes the usual limits of the consumer-style 1/8″ jacks. With the external AA battery case, the MZ-R55 managed to fill two 74-minute MDs with power left to spare.
Aside from popping in a second blank disc, all I had to do was click the mark button to index the different songs. After the gig, I let band members listen to the recording. They could hardly believe it. The next step was to import the audio into my DAW and master it to CD-R.
Back at the ranch
Back in my home studio, I connected the Sony E-11’s S/PDIF to my DAW through Digital Audio Lab’s CardDeluxe PCI soundcard. Using Monster Cable’s M-1000 coaxial cable ensured a clean digital transfer. Along the way, the E-11 converted the ATRAC into WAV format. I recorded it with Sound Forge 4.5 running on Windows NT 4.0. The track indexing did not translate, but that is a minor issue. From there, compression and normalization prepped the audio for burning a master with Sonic Foundry’s CD Architect.
The finished product was impressive for such a relatively simple setup. I did have one concern working with the MD’s ATRAC compression. When a compressed file is converted into an uncompressed format, it retains some characteristics of this history.
Sometimes, recompressing audio causes what are called tandem coding errors, which can ruin a recording. Thankfully, that was not the case here. Cuts recorded in ATRAC and converted to WAV, then into MP3 files, sounded fine with no audible errors. MD is ready for the age of digital distribution!
Of course, the Sony E-11 is good for more than just digital playback. The unit’s 1 RU height is a welcome relief from the bigger cassette or DAT units. It is, however, a bit deep. Make sure you have enough space behind the rack to give proper relief to the cabling.
From the front, the controls are fairly simple and self-explanatory. The controls are not much more complicated than those of a tape deck. Metering is adequate, if minimal. The E-11 also comes with a wireless remote that serves as both transport control and keyboard for titling tracks. Out back, unbalanced analog RCA and balanced XLR jacks compliment the RCA S/PDIF.
Other connectors link up with external controllers or additional E-11s in relay mode. Like the portable recorders, the unit records up to 74 minutes in stereo or 148 minutes in mono. Basically, anything done with a rackmount cassette or DAT is easy work for the E-11. Unlike these linear formats, MD allows random access to tracks. No more waiting for fast forward or reverse. To my ears, the ATRAC 4.5 in both the E-11 and the MZ-R55 is terrific. If you are looking to master at 24/96, this will not cut it. But for users willing to trade ultrafidelity for ultimate utility, this is the way to go.
After my field recording test, I was fairly enamored of the Sony E-11 and did not want to part with it at the end of the evaluation – then the TASCAM MD-801RmkII arrived. This is in another league from the Sony in terms of features, but is it worth three times the price? That depends.
The MD-801RmkII is a 3 RU unit about the same size as a typical rackmount DAT. Unlike the Sony, the TASCAM adds AES/EBU jacks. If you anticipate long cable runs, the balanced digital I/O is a necessity. This also has word sync capabilities.
Other connectors include a port for an external control unit as well as a PS/2 computer keyboard port. A real keyboard is an enormous timesaver over the Sony’s hunt-and-peck remote control for those users titling a lot of tracks and discs.
From the front, the meters are excellent. A plethora of control options allow this to serve as a cart replacement for broadcasters. Unlike the Sony, the TASCAM allows for changing the settings on the serial copy protection on recordings. The SCMS can be turned off, allowing unlimited replication, or for standard first-generation copying only.
Discs can also be protected from any digital duplication whatsoever. There are many other features to cover most any imaginable use. Like the Sony E-11, the TASCAM MD-801RmkII has sound quality at the limits of ATRAC 4.5. It would be interesting to perform double-blind testing with either of these to see how discernible the difference is between MD and DAT.
Restore feature saves you grief
Besides its many features, one particular capability makes the TASCAM worth the extra cost to me. Last winter I was using a consumer MD recorder to capture a story that made the trek over the ice and snow of a New England winter worthwhile. For just over an hour, this person poured her heart out telling one of the most heart-wrenching tales I have ever been privileged to hear, much less record. After she finished, I hit the stop button. The display flashed TOC ERROR. Then it said BLANK DISC.
I did not have the heart to tell this person that her story had just vanished into the digital ether. Ever since that awful experience I have been anxious about MD’s reliability and I bring my trusty old Sony WM-D6C Pro Walkman along for backup.
If I had had the MD-801RmkII earlier, I would have had a good chance of recovering the lost audio. The TASCAM has a restore function to rebuild a lost or damaged table of contents. It is something like orange book capabilities for CD-R readers or Norton Utilities for computer files. Restore can reconstruct the audio data without the TOC to guide it.
I tested this out by yanking the batteries in the middle of a recording. Despite the blank disc signal, the TASCAM recovered the audio. Unfortunately, that fabulous lost recording session is gone forever – because I did not know it could be salvaged, I used the disc for another recording.
For $800 the Sony E-11 achieves basic pro MiniDisc functionality. If you plan on adopting MD as your studio’s basic recording format and have the budget, the TASCAM MD-801RmkII ($2,699) is a necessary investment. If the TASCAM is beyond your reach, get friendly with someone who has one. The restore function can save a lot of heartache.
Contact Sony at 800-955-7669
Contact TASCAM at 323-726-0303