Cassettes and vinyl are cool again, so what about MiniDisc? Sony’s pint-sized digital format hit the market in 1992, but failed to make much of a splash until around a decade later.
Despite ultimately losing market shares to flash-based MP3 players, MiniDisc has seen something of a revival. Transferring music from your computer to a MiniDisc recorder is also now easier than ever.
What Is MiniDisc?
Sony came up with the MiniDisc after the Digital Audio Tape (DAT) format failed to take off with consumers. The company went head-to-head with Philips’ Digital Compact Cassette (DCC) and won the initial battle (the DCC was discontinued in 1996).
MiniDisc was first conceived in the mid-1980s but wasn’t commercially available until a decade later. It took even longer for the format to see mainstream adoption outside of Japan. After Sony relaunched the format on the U.S. market in 1998, it finally became profitable around 2000.
A MiniDisc is a magneto-optical disc housed in a tough plastic case, similar to a floppy disk. Despite some commercial releases, the format was primarily meant to be a replacement for analog cassette tapes. Although it was a digital format, MiniDisc heavily used ATRAC compression to fit audio on the 60-, 74-, and 80-minute discs.
Early MiniDisc devices were only capable of manual recording from a line or optical input. The technology went through several iterative changes during its lifespan, though. In 2000, the release of ATRAC3 allowed MiniDisc owners to record in MDLP (or Long Play), and sacrifice quality to fit more music on one disc.
Despite the compression used, the sound quality was vastly superior to MP3s and the other digital formats of the time. This contributed to MiniDisc’s popularity with radio stations because it could deliver high-quality recordings of interviews and live performances.
In 2001, Sony launched its line of NetMD recorders, which allowed the transfer of music via USB cable and proprietary software on a PC or Macintosh. The final hurrah for MiniDisc came in 2004 with Hi-MD, a high-capacity variant that finally allowed for CD-quality recordings.
Hi-MD was a notable development since the discs were not backward-compatible with older players. With this format, Sony also finally embraced data storage—the Hi-MD Walkmans worked just like any other USB mass storage device when connected to a computer.
By March 2011, Sony had sold 22 million MiniDisc players and recorders, although many other companies also sold units, including Sharp, JVC, Panasonic, and Pioneer. Ultimately, the popularity of hard-drive media devices, like the iPod and flash-based MP3 players, spelled the end for MinDisc.
Sony released its last MiniDisc device in 2013, though TEAC still has the MD-70CD listed on its Japanese website.
Recorders, Players, Stereo Components, and Blank Media
The majority of the MinDisc devices sold were portable recorders. These fused the playback abilities of a standard portable CD or cassette player, with additional line-in, USB, and optical recording options. Many of them also had in-line LCD remotes, docking stations, and expandable battery packs.
Outside Japan, MiniDisc players (which offered no recording functionality) were rarely seen. The format gained traction there because listeners were more likely to record on a separate device, and then listen outside their homes on a smaller player.
The portable recorders were the dominant choice in the West, which is what brought so many people to the format in the first place. Portable recorders were smaller than portable CD players and offered a high degree of jog protection. Jog protection created a “buffer” in the memory to protect against any physical impacts that might interrupt playback.
In addition to portable players and recorders, MinDisc also made its way into home and car stereo systems. Many of these units offered automatic recording from CD, in addition to the ability to record from FM or AM radio.
Sony still manufactures blank MiniDiscs, but they’re only available in Japan. Buying some secondhand is a viable option, though, as Sony claims a MiniDisc can withstand a million recordings.
Using MiniDisc via the Web MiniDisc Project
The Web MiniDisc project makes it possible to use Sony NetMD players on modern Windows, Mac, and Linux systems. However, this support doesn’t include Hi-MD devices or those manufactured by companies like JVC and Panasonic. Fortunately, NetMD players were sold at the height of the format’s popularity, so you can find one secondhand pretty easily.
When NetMD devices first arrived on the scene, they required the use of some fairly temperamental software called SonicStage. There are some work-arounds you can use to get SonicStage to run on Windows 10.
However, the Web MiniDisc project is much easier to get going, and it’s a lot more pleasant to use. We’ll walk you through the process in the following sections.
Prepare Your Computer for Web MiniDisc
Web MiniDisc works via a web interface on any browser that supports WebAssembly and WebUSB. We recommend Google Chrome for the job (Firefox and Safari won’t work). What you do next depends on which operating system you have.
macOS works with the Web MiniDisc project out of the box—no additional drivers or add-ons are required. On Windows 10, you’ll need to install a generic WinUSB driver to talk to the NetMD device. The Web MiniDisc project recommends the WinUSB driver that comes with a free tool called Zadig.
On Linux, you’ll need to copy two files from the linux-minidisc project to grant access to NetMD devices. Place the “20-netmd.fdi” file in the following directory: /usr/share/hal/fdi/information/20thirdparty. Next, place the “netmd.rules” file under /etc/udev/rules.d.
After the prerequisites are taken care of, it will work on any device that runs Chrome, including many Android phones. For the best results, though, you’ll probably want to use the computer on which your music collection is stored.
Copying and Transferring Files via Web MiniDisc
Connect a compatible NetMD recorder to your computer via USB, launch Chrome, and head to the Web MiniDisc browser interface. Click “Connect” and a popup appears.
Choose your NetMD device from the list, and then click “Connect.”
Wait a few seconds, and you should see your NetMD recorder model appear at the top of the screen, along with the title of the MiniDisc, and a tracklist. You can use the interface to rename individual tracks or change their order. You control playback at the bottom of the screen.
Click the plus sign (+) at the bottom to copy music to your MiniDisc. Select the files you want to copy, and then click “OK.” Most audio files should work since they’ll have to be converted anyway. After the conversion process is complete, you can double-click your tracks to rename them.
Unfortunately, you can’t copy audio from a MiniDisc to your computer. The “Record” option in the Web MiniDisc web interface requires you to connect a line-out from your player to your computer’s audio-in port, if you have one. This works best with an audio editor like Audacity.
Buying a MiniDisc Recorder
If you want to use MiniDisc in 2020 and beyond, you should make sure you at least have a Sony NetMD player to make transferring music fast and easy. You can buy one secondhand or score an even better deal by getting one from Japan.
Japanese auction sites, like Yahoo! Japan (the country’s largest online auction site), Rakuten, Amazon JP, and Mercari, are flooded with unwanted MinDisc players at bargain prices. You can also use an intermediary service, like Buyee or JAUCE, to score one.
After you win an auction, your items are sent to a warehouse, packaged properly, and then shipped internationally. You can opt to delay a shipment and send multiple items at once, too. Since many Japanese sellers are uncomfortable shipping abroad, intermediaries are a necessity.
If you’re serious about winning a Japanese auction, the video below offers some helpful advice. If you’re not careful, you can get stung with a seemingly endless list of fees, from packaging and customs duties, to overseas credit card charges.
So, why go to all this effort for MiniDisc? For some, it might be the nostalgia of using a physical medium. Others might still be reluctant to use streaming services. Some people just hate having to use their phone for every task. MiniDiscs are still a good option for car audio, offline listening in the wilderness, or even creating your own physical recordings.
Just remember MiniDisc players are more like VHS recorders or cassette decks than MP3 players. They’re full of moving parts and belts, a laser that can fail, and lubricant that can dry out. They can (and will) die without warning, and many sold “as is” already have issues.
MiniDisc Isn’t Quite Dead Yet
If you find yourself interested in MiniDisc, check out the r/MiniDisc community on Reddit.
Some artists still release music on MiniDisc. Many vaporwave artists, in particular, have embraced MiniDisc since that genre meshes perfectly with the rose-tinted nostalgia that draws so many to the format.