Once music listeners were asked, Is it live or is it Memorex? But today, as consumers are confronted with a cacophony of new audio technologies and recording formats, a more apt question might be, Is it MD or is it CD? The MD (short for MiniDisc) is the latest and perhaps most intriguing entry in the ever-changing audio marketplace.
Developed by Sony, the MD is a compilation of the best features of two of the most popular musical technologies: the compact disc and Walkman-type cassette players. Smaller than a standard audio CD, an MD is about the diameter of a soda-can top. MDs combine the sound quality and ease of access inherent in digital music with the durability, portability, and, most important, recordability of analog cassettes. Permanently housed in a protective plastic caddy, an MD looks much like a 3.5-inch computer diskette, only slightly thicker.
In order to achieve digital recordability in a compact package, Sony was forced to sacrifice a small fraction of the sound fidelity encoded on standard CDs. But according to Katsuaki Tsurushima, leader of the MD development team at Sony’s Tokyo-based technology lab, most of us won’t notice the trade-off: his engineers maintain that fewer than 2 percent of listeners can tell the difference between the sound of a CD and that of an MD.
Six years ago, spurred by steadily declining sales of audiocassettes, Sony identified portable digital music as the next opportunity in personal audio. That’s when Tsurushima and a team of engineers began working on a way to bring the sound quality of digital music to millions of runners, subway riders, and other mobile consumers.
In making a portable system, Tsurushima’s challenge was to design a system that would take up much less room than a standard CD player and not skip a beat when jostled. The delicate laser pickups inside a CD player (even the so-called portable ones) often jar and sometimes skip like a scratched LP. Abrupt movements disrupt the laser beam as it reads information encoded on the disc.
To stabilize MD sound, the Sony team invented a shock-resistant circuitry that makes the unit virtually immune to the bumps and shakes endured by portable players. The key to MDs’ shock resistance is a new type of chip that can store more information about music or sound in its memory than the player needs to create accurate musical output. The chip absorbs sound information read by the laser at a rate of 1.4 megabits per second, but the unit releases it at the much slower rate of .3. At any given time the chip contains up to three seconds of upcoming music in its memory. Like a sputtering automatic sprinkler system, the chip acts as a reservoir that fills up and then releases sound. The laser is reading information about the song well ahead of the music currently playing. Thus if the laser is knocked or moved, rather than misreading the currently playing track, the MD memory chip will regurgitate normally, and on-the-go listeners will never know there was a mishap.
To miniaturize the MD, Tsurushima devised a clever way of cramming the same 74 minutes of music recorded on the standard 4.7-inch audio CD onto a 2.5-inch MD. Sony engineers were able to shrink the digital information that codes music by paring out all unnecessary data. First they removed all sounds below the lowest decibel levels perceived by the average ear. Then they took advantage of the masking effect--when a loud sound drowns out a softer one to the point where the listener does not perceive the softer sound. Thus the information coding the subdued sound can be eliminated. For example, if a violin is overpowered by an electric guitar, data on the violin at that moment can be snipped with no perceived loss of sound fidelity. With these data reduction techniques, an MD requires only one-fifth the data encoded on a standard CD.
Tsurushima developed two kinds of MDs: prerecorded and recordable. The prerecorded discs, including titles such as Michael Jackson’s Dangerous, work the same way CDs do: microscopic pits are etched onto a metallic disc much as grooves are cut into a vinyl album. The absence and presence of pits correspond to binary 0’s and 1’s, common to all digital computer language. Both CDs and the prerecorded MDs are made of plastic coated with a reflective aluminum layer so that a laser will bounce off it, like a stick bounces off a frozen pond.
The recordable discs are quite different, however. Called magneto-optical, or MO, discs, they have no pits or flat areas for a laser to read. Instead they rely on an additional layer of another medium-- terbium ferrite cobalt, a sensitive magnetic material--for storing information. The laser heats up a tiny region on the disc to 400 degrees, which changes that area’s plus or minus charge; the various polarities of the regions on the MiniDisc correspond to the 1’s and 0’s that encode music. A great advantage of terbium ferrite cobalt is that it consumes just one-third the power of other digital recording mediums, enabling the MD recording unit to run on small AA batteries.
Sony will have MDs and MD playback/recording units on the shelves of electronics stores before Christmas. Portable MD units, most small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, are expected to cost between $400 and $500. More than 300 music titles will be available initially, costing $14 to $18.
Richard Simko, vice pres-ident of research and development at Information Storage Devices in San Jose, California, for the development of Direct Analog Storage Technology. This new computer chip can store human voice and other sound information directly, without the standard 0, 1, 0 digitization that all other computer storage devices rely on. Each chip acts as a self-contained tape recorder or answering machine, minus the tape. The chip retains all voice information even when it is severed from a power source.
Analog memory should usher in a new wave of recording technology and devices, including talking instructional aids for the blind, pagers with voice messaging, and talking medical equipment.
Sanford Berlin, chief executive officer of Madrigal Audio Laboratories in Middletown, Connecticut, for the development of the Proceed CD Library system. This self-contained CD playback system stores, organizes, and provides flexible access to 100 CDs. The cube-shaped system is controlled by a new style of infrared remote-control device (called the Proceed Communicator), which not only executes a listener’s commands but returns information to the user--displaying the track number, the name of the song, and its musical category. The player also features an audiophile- quality CD player/transport system.
Dennis Gallagher, director of advanced development at Magnavox, Nav-Com in Deer Park, New York, for the development of the MagnaPhone Satellite Telephone. This self-contained satellite receiver/broadcaster/telephone, the most compact and portable of its type ever made, allows a user to dial virtually any phone number from any location on the planet. Reporters wandering in the Iraqi desert used an early version of the phone to contact their home offices during the Gulf War, and expedition leaders used it to call for emergency help from the North Pole. Amazingly, even with its compact satellite dish the MagnaPhone weighs only 47 pounds.
Tod Machover, associate professor of music and media at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for the development of Hyperinstruments (special honor for technical assistance to Yamaha). Machover uses technology to enhance and expand the power of musical instruments, blending human performance and nuance with the power of compu- ters. His next generation of musical instruments includes a hyper-cello developed for Yo-Yo Ma, a hyperviola made for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a hyper-glove that reads the motion of a conductor’s hand and conducts an electronic orchestra, and hyper-percussion, tested by Peter Gabriel. Rather than eliminating human skill, Machover’s virtual instruments enable musicians to enhance and expand their talents.
Patrick Bedard: Editor at large/columnist, Car and Driver magazine; former race car driver.
David E. Davis, Jr.: Editor, Automobile magazine.
Janet Guthrie: First woman to race in the Indianapolis 500; former aerospace engineer.
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Deke Slayton: One of NASA’s original seven astronauts; flew on the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission; now director of Space Services, a division of EER Systems.
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Hans Fantel: New York Times consumer electronics columnist; founding editor of Stereo Review.
David Horowitz: Host, creator, and executive producer of the award-winning Fight Back with David Horowitz, a consumer awareness television program in its seventeenth season.
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Esther Dyson: Editor, RELEASE 1.0, a computer industry monthly; president, EDventure Holdings, Inc.; Forbes contributing editor.
Fred Langa: Editorial director, Windows magazine.
Marvin Minsky: MIT professor of computer science; pioneer of artificial intelligence.
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