When I first heard of the MiniDisc format and its data compression, I was skeptical of its usefulness in the professional audio world. After working several years in a radio broadcast facility where we employ more than 30 professional TASCAM MiniDisc recorders day in and out, my thinking has changed. Deservedly, MiniDiscs now occupy a permanent niche in our industry, especially for broadcast and voiceover use where their quick editing and ease-of-use wins new fans daily.
Product PointsApplications: Project studios; live sound recording; radio production
Key Features: ATRAC v4.5 compression; XLR balanced and RCA unbalanced analog I/O; S/PDIF optical I/O with built-in sample rate conversion and wireless remote
Contact: TASCAM, Inc. at 213-726-0303 or Reader Service 54.
+ Balanced analog I/O
+ Simple to use
+ Sound quality
– No AES/EBU or S/PDIF I/O
The Score: A solid MiniDisc recorder with professional features at a consumer price.
Several years ago, TASCAM jumped right into the pro MiniDisc world with its feature-rich MD-801. A real workhorse of a deck, MD-801 also came with a hefty price tag and many features that would go unused in a smaller project or voiceover studio. Bridging the gap between professional features and price is the new TASCAM MD-301mkII.
The MD-301mkII ($499) is packaged in a sleek-yet-sturdy two rack unit chassis. Like many of TASCAM’s entry-level machines, it is an excellent buy. The large data-input dial gives you the immediate sense that this unit was made for pro recording rather than just playback. Its user interface is well laid out – simple and intuitive.
The wireless remote control covers the most important operations including transport, setup, display and title editing. For those who prefer wired control, the thoughtful folks at TASCAM added a computer keyboard input for quick access to most features.
Pressing the edit button repeatedly provides access to track-editing features like Title, Divide, Erase Track, Combine and Move. Once you select the desired edit option, pressing “yes” takes you into the appropriate edit mode. Title mode allows you to enter unique names for each of the tracks using the front dial or a computer keyboard.
Divide instantly splits an existing track into two independent tracks and Combine brings two tracks together. Move allows you to change the order that tracks appear on the MiniDisc. Pressing Stop before pressing Edit allows you to title or erase the entire disc. You are also able to copy the title of the disc to the title of a track.
Other features include Timer Record and Play, which let you power up the unit and initiate playback or record by using an external timer. The Sync Record function allows the unit to start recording as soon as input signal is present.
Playback modes include continuous, shuffle and program. Continuous plays from one track to the next without pause. Shuffle mode plays the tracks in random order, and Program allows the user to play tracks in a programmable sequence.
Located on the back of the MD-301mkII are balanced +4 dBu I/O (XLR), unbalanced ö10 dBu I/O (RCA) and optical S/PDIF ins and outs. Another thoughtful feature for the traveling engineer is a 120/220v AC selectable power switch. On the front panel is a convenient second optical S/PDIF input, a PS/2 keyboard connector and a 1/4″ headphone jack.
Claimed dynamic range (at 1 kHz) and signal-to-noise is greater than 94 dB (A-weighted). Frequency response is given at 20 Hz to 20 kHz ±0.05 dB. THD was reported at 0.013 percent. Wow and flutter – oh yeah, we don’t have to worry about that anymore!
The multilingual manual is clear and complete and includes useful information on machine and disc handling, recording and editing. You will also find helpful tips, a comprehensive troubleshooting chart and an introductory guide to the SCMS copy protection system.
I first started testing the MD-301mkII in our radio production environment, but soon realized that it was not as easy to integrate with our systems as I expected. The lack of either AES/EBU or coaxial S/PDIF made it difficult to connect to key pieces of our gear in use, like the Yamaha 02R or Pro Tools. Obtaining simple format converters solved this dilemma.
The MD-301mkII felt right at home in my project studio. The popular optical connections hook right up to most project studio equipment, including CD players, sound cards and digital mixers. I found that the second optical input on the front came in handy for quick dubs from my portable recorder.
Recording was as easy as inserting a disc, pressing record, setting a level and hitting play. Overall sound quality for recording was very good, proving that the new ATRAC system is a real improvement. The headphone output provided adequate volume for setting levels.
Unlike the MD-801, the MD-301mkII does not update the table of contents (TOC) immediately after pressing stop. This is an interesting change over the MD-801, which updates the TOC automatically after recording, and manually after editing. After editing, the MD-801 will not allow you to eject a disc until the TOC is updated by pressing the TOC-write button. The MD-301mkII automatically writes the TOC the moment you eject the disc.
With this in mind, I thought cutting the power could cause a problem. One minute after doing just that, I restored the power and the MD returned to stop mode with the TOC waiting to be updated. Nothing was lost. I also powered off during a recording, with no unexpected problems.
The only time a disc can become corrupted is if the unit loses power while the TOC is currently writing to the disc. To prevent loss of data during loss of power, TASCAM provides a small memory buffer that is charged and recharged each time you power the unit.
The XLR balanced connections are perfect for recording from a live sound setup. The quick recording startup and large input level control make recording simple and unobtrusive. Switching to mono for recording meetings and conferences will also give you double the recording time without loss of sound quality – also perfect for voiceover and radio. Since you do not have to wait for the TOC to write after each recording, you can start the next track almost immediately – perfect for live recordings.
I also found editing on the MD-301mkII to be quick and easy. Dividing a track is done by starting playback, searching for the point to divide and pressing pause. Then enter the edit mode to select Divide. The deck goes into rehearse mode where you can fine-tune the divide point with the track-search dial. There is also the all-important Undo in the edit mode in the unlikely event you make a mistake.
A lot of thought went into the ergonomics the MD-301mkII. I particularly appreciated the location of transport controls on the remote. Having all the important functions reachable by thumb is a real help in high-pressure situations. Titling tracks is usually a painstaking process when using a data wheel, but with a PC keyboard connected it became a breeze.
The MD-301mkII is an excellent choice for an inexpensive and high-quality MiniDisc recorder. I found it well packaged and very easy to operate. MiniDiscs in professional voice and broadcast markets are here to stay. Frankly, with the decreasing cassette market and the rising availability of portable and auto-sound MiniDisc products, it’s getting harder to think of good reasons not to get one for your project studio.