Farewell, MiniDisc. And mixtapes.

Farewell, mini-disc. And mixtapes.
The MiniDisc was made for mixtapes

In the last few days Sony have announced that they are to cease production of their MiniDisc hardware, with the last device expected to be sold in March 2013.

First introduced back in 1992, the MiniDisc was touted as a replacement to the compact cassette tape. It certainly was similar in one respect – you needed to sit there in real-time as you ‘taped’ the CD or vinyl record of your choice onto the MiniDisc.

Slow initial sales encouraged Sony to really push with their offering of pre-recorded MiniDiscs, fully exploiting their music catalogue. This is where consumers may have questioned the benefits of the format. Although it was digital, the MiniDisc boasted only ‘near’ CD quality. So, why not just buy CD and get ‘actual’ CD quality? Also, MiniDisc packaging took the already unsatisfying five-inch CD booklet and reduced it even further.

It is fair to say that in pre-recorded form the MiniDisc was not an attractive proposition, but the blank discs were a different matter. As empty vessels, to fill with your idea of the ‘very best’ of Bowie, or Neil Young 1969-1979, they were extremely good. You could, of course, also use them to record those cherished vinyl ‘dub’ mixes from the ’80s that no-one had thought to issue on CD, and playback in the car or on the train (via a MiniDisc walkman).

The MiniDisc was a perfect evolution of the cassette, but much more fun. You could individually ‘index’ each track and tag it with its name, which would then show up on the dot matrix display of your player. Post recording, if you were having sleepless nights about whether Joe The Lion had really earned its place above Boys Keep Swinging in your best of Bowie compilation, you could delete the former (automatically closing the ‘gap’) and add the later, with no loss of quality. If the running order wasn’t ‘working’, it was easy to rearrange and shuffle things around after the event, thanks to it being a digital format.

Of course, the MP3 is widely regarded as the killer of the MiniDisc, but it’s more accurate to pinpoint the iPod as the device that rang the death knell for the format. While MP3s were largely confined to our computers – where we might choose to organise them with Winamp or early versions of iTunes – they were not much threat. Yes, you could create compilations and burn them to a CD, but in the main they were not re-writable and the discs, with the inevitable felt-tip scribbles on the face, were not attractive items to have kicking around, even if they were cheap. The relative ease of post-compilation editing, deleting and adding could not be carried out as it could on the MiniDisc.

Of course, once MP3 players, led by the ubiquitous iPod (introduced November 2001), starting selling in large quantities, the game was up. When you could wander around town with ‘1000 songs in your pocket’ thanks to the internal memory of an iPod, the lustre of the MiniDisc Walkman was somewhat dulled.

This author spent many an hour archiving old tapes to MiniDisc via a Sony mini hi-fi that included a cassette deck, CD and MiniDisc. A MiniDisc player in my car was a place where the format excelled – the robustness, and small size of the cartridges, being perfect to toss into side door pockets, or at the bottom of centre consoles.

The MiniDisc really was king of the mixtape, because it would be the last time we had to exercise discipline and keep our compilations down to 74 minutes or so. Creating our own works of art. A personal statement, that might invite friends to explore unknown areas of an artists’ output, or demonstrate to those who we hoped would become more-than-friends how sensitive and deep thinking, we were!

These days it is quicker just to shove Bowie’s entire output onto your iPod, create one enormous playlist and hit shuffle. Quick, easy and convenient, but where’s the fun? Another downside to this approach is that you might hear ‘87 and Cry.

2 Unlimited once sang of ‘No Limits’, but sometimes limits are rather good. The audio boundaries, digital flexibility and fun of the MiniDisc will sadly be no more than a footnote in the history of music playback devices. Unfortunately, it takes the mixtape with it, to its grave.

Did you own a MiniDisc player? Would love to hear your memories and thoughts on the format. Please leave a commment.

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