Portable Sampler for under $100 - the Minidisc!

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Learn how to utilize a portable MiniDisc recorder for capturing sound samples and recording them to PC.

The Return of the MiniDisc: How the mighty MD can help you capture a world of high fidelity sound samples for under $100! by Jamie Garrett

The days of the microcassette recorder are long gone. Todayís audio pseudo-elite require top quality samples and the portability needed to obtain them, but letís face it, not everyone can afford a professional grade digital sampler. Furthermore most of the more affordable samplers still require expensive memory cards or proprietary media to increase their limited sampler capacity. How many times have you been somewhere and heard a sound that just completely intrigued you, or witnessed some superb musicianship far from home that youíd just love to track and use in your own compositions? Certainly the current state of technology must offer some audible answer to our prayers.

Well, we have a sonic savior already, and itís actually not very new technology. Sonyís MiniDisc, or MD, has been around for more than a decade and spent a majority of the 1990ís eclipsed by the explosive Compact Disc and Compact Disc Recordable phenomenon. But here in the new millennium weíre seeing a real comeback of that tiny wonder, where audio freaks and sample nuts the world over have begun to re-recognize and appreciate a technology wall street has long since given up on.

Tiny and tough, measuring just 2 and 3/4" square and weighing in at just a few ounces, these miniature media monsters pack a serious CD quality audio whollop, storing compressed audio data at an impressive stereo 16 bit 44.1KHz sample rate with almost no quality lost in the compression. With 60, 74, and 80 minute discs available for about $4 each you can easily bring hours worth of storage with you in something as small and discrete as a camera case. Durable and nearly skip-proof, the actual recording surface is mounted inside of and spins within itís own sealed plastic case. MDs donít get scratched and ruined like CDs, and the discs never go bad so they can be written to and overwritten again and again. Because itís digital thereís no quality loss with time or playback. Operation is much like a CD player with the familiar track markers and indexes. With most player/recorders you can insert track markers and delete entire tracks to free up disc space, thereby allowing you to edit the recorded data immediately after itís captured. The player/recorders themselves are often no bigger than a Klondike bar or an ice cream sandwich, and taste just as good. Currently, with a little patience and some good marketplace common sense, you can find a used or refurbished MD player/recorder up for bid at an online auction for around $60. Just make sure youíre bidding on a "recorder", as not all "players" are "recorders". As for the media itself, MiniDiscs can be found in the Walkman section of just about any major department store for only a couple of dollars a piece. While youíre there pick up a soft camera case to protect your sampler, and maybe one of those $20 battery powered electret condenser mics to begin collecting sounds right away.

So what can you do with an MD recorder? I think the question is "what *canít* you do with an MD recorder?". Totally portable, the little Walkman style player/recorders from name brands likes Sony and Sharp are quite compact and battery powered, allowing you take your sampler with you anywhere you go. The players offer 1/8" stereo inputs and outputs, sometimes even allowing digital S/PDIF or TOSlink optical inputs. Most recorder models also support the "plug in power" feature which is simply a built-in 1/8" microphone preamp for use with passive mics, but watch your battery level, plugin power gobbles up batteries quick. I use a self powered clip-on mono mic plugged in the "line in". It runs off of a tiny watch battery and claims 1600 hours of "on" time, and a year later I still havenít had to replace the mic battery. Newer MD units offer special long play LP2 and LP4 modes which double or quadruple the audio capacity of an MD at a loss of quality. I highly recommend using the standard SP mode to ensure accurate sound reproduction. My MD recorder has an option to record the mono mic signal to a mono track, thereby doubling a discís recording time with no loss of quality. Iíve captured samples of cars, tools, kitchen utensils, conversations (with permission of course), animals, and various construction machinery with my mono mic and MiniDisc, and so far Iíve been thrilled with the results. I spend an evening in early 2002 recording band practice into my MD with my little mono mic. Later that night I found myself at a party where several guys were sitting around beating on hand drums. Since I had my sampler on me I got nearly 20 minutes of totally unique musical talent to use in my creations. I once even had the opportunity to record a short session with a talented young cello player just before she left for college. The samples I got evening were some of the best Iíve ever captured. Iíve recently started recording my band practice sessions simply using several microphones and a mixer to send a nice EQ'd and panned stereo signal to my MD. Sometimes I feel like my MD is one of the most important instruments in my sonic arsenal. The possibilities are endless.

Overview of my basic sample capturing process:

  1. In "the field" I connect a self powered clip on condenser mic to the Line In or PlugIn Power depending on how loud the source is, and press record to begin capturing the sound source, adjusting the input volume, watching the LCD peak meter on my recorder and monitoring with headphones to ensure the greatest signal level without clipping (digital clipping is unacceptable).
  2. Back at home I use a 1/8" to 1/4" adapter to connect the MiniDisc playerís Line Out to the Line Ins on my M-Audio Delta 44 sound card. You may have different connections on your own equipment. Be sure to use the correct types of cables and adapters.
  3. With the MD hooked up to the PC, I open Steinbergís WaveLab (any sound recording software will work just fine), begin the recording to hard disc and press play on the MiniDisc. It helps to have a full duplex sound card and professional software so that you can monitor the recording as itís taking place. That way you can choose what gets saved to your hard drive, making it a lot easier to edit later.
  4. Once inside the digital realm of the PC, you are limited only by your imagination. Use your favorite wav editor to chop, splice and effect your samples into some real works of art. Be sure to normalize each sample and make sure the wav files begin and end at a zero crossing. Confused about wav editing? Read through some of the other tutorials and articles here at HRC or post a question in the forums. Someone there will be glad to help.

One last thing about sound quality. ATRAC has come a long way since MDís conception. Even though most MD players will only output an analog signal, and even considering the MDís ATRAC audio compression, the quality retention from microphone to MD and then from MD to sound card is still incredible. Basically, for us semi-professional budget types, what goes in is what comes out. If youíre looking for a portable and reliable sampler, or maybe just a new toy to play with, get a MiniDisc.

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User-submitted comments


Jbon
Jun 07, 2003 03:05 pm
MD
I just got one of the Sonys. I still have to set it up& stuff, but I appreciate the words of this author

Nania
Apr 22, 2009 10:26 pm
2009 and still going
My usb interface packed a sad due to a rogue wave signal the night before i was to record a live performance (scheduled at 7am would you believe).

I looked at my big baby and almost cried at the thought of having to take her on a two hour car journey (or more the thought of all the things that could go wrong). So, in a panicked moment of desperation i dusted off my mini disc recorder (i actually spent about 3 hours looking for it preying that i had it still).

I didn't like it as put pressure on me to get the levels and eq right on my desk as it was going straight to mix down. I was terrified at the thought of not being able to seperate the tracks and do my little tweaks. I was nervous, really nervous.

It was actually liberating. It called on my experience and confidence and it reminded me that before the DAW there was DAT, Tape, Reel, Cart and so on.

Other than the obvious convinience of the mini disc, the sound quality is awesome. I cut a few pieces, named the tracks and went home feeling really confident that i'd captured everything i needed.

Awesome, broadcast quality. In actually fact you may have heard one of the singles on the radio.

Nania
Apr 22, 2009 10:51 pm
Cheap studio
I guess if your starting out it could be a cheap way to get into recording. You do need a small mixing desk to plug in your mic, instrument etc but you could probably get both for $100. I would go mini and have the two componants then buy a tape mixer that is all in one as the sound quality is so much better.


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