Historic Hardware: Mini Disc

There was a time in the 90’s when Mini Disc (MD) was a serious contender for a portable media format… And I still have the one I purchased in 1997.

Still have the original box even.

CDs were the king of media in the 90’s, having had a decade-plus to get a foothold in the public consciousness. But CDs had a few problems that were hard to get around – they were fragile and tended to scratch easy, they skipped during playback if you jostled them too much, and without spending a ton of money they were read-only.

Sony created the MD format to address these shortcomings. The disc is in a cartridge which makes them pretty rugged and at roughly three inches square and a quarter of an inch thick they are even more portable than a cassette tape.

An MD with quarter for scale.

MD also doesn’t skip outside of something cataclysmic happening to the player. And MD uses magneto optical (MO) technology which allows end-users to record to them without spending a 1990’s fortune on a CD burner. MO also lasts forever

MD devices used ATRAC encoding, which is essentially Sony’s version of MP3 but designed for low-power portable systems.

At the time, ripping a CD to MP3s required a top-end computer and lots of time because the compression mechanism of MP3 was built around computational horsepower. ATRAC on the other hand could compress audio real-time on a battery powered embedded microcontroller, and the resulting compressed audio was sonically on-par with high bitrate MP3.

The best part though was that your average $300 MD player was actually a tiny recording studio, and you could dub, mix tracks, cut and splice, and all sort of things on a device that fit in your pocket and ran off a rechargeable battery.

My 702 playing an MD I recorded in 1997

Ultimately MD was pretty short-lived… 1995 – 2005 or so… Sony made the first MD player in 1992 and didn’t stop making MD players until like 2010-ish, but the heyday was only a few years in the middle.

About a year after MD was released improvements in processing power quickly made MP3s ubiquitous on the Internet, and about a year after that portable MP3 players were a possibility… A few years after that and you could buy $20 MP3 players at the grocery store.

And that was the end of Mini Disc… Except for folks like me who keep one around for old time’s sake. 🙂