Go Ahead Mix Your Own Digital Disk

You get a kick out of making high-octane dance tapes or compiling tunes from your favorite crooners. Low-fidelity analog cassettes were fine for archiving music from your ancient LPs. But now that you've built up a sizable CD collection, you want to create music mixes that are appropriately digital.

A pair of digital recording systems may soon be ready for prime time. One is the six-year-old MiniDisc (MD) format from Sony, Sharp, and other Japanese consumer-electronics makers. The other is the recordable CD from Philips Electronics and Pioneer Electronic. Decks that make the CD recordings used to cost several thousand dollars. Now, some are less than $700.

The MiniDisc system has enjoyed success in Europe and Japan, but the format hasn't amounted to beans in the U.S. Why might that change? For one thing, Sony is spending millions to preach the MiniDisc gospel as never before. Moreover, when the MD format was introduced in late 1992, a competing system from Philips called Digital Compact Cassette, or DCC, was also just appearing. DCC failed to catch on and vanished.

NEAR-CD QUALITY. MD has some appealing features. The disk is housed in a 2 1/2-inch-square case that resembles a shrunken computer diskette with a tiny CD inside. Despite their diminutive stature, the disks can deliver up to 74 minutes of not quite CD-quality music. While audiophiles may scoff that the MiniDisc sound isn't as pristine as that on a compact disk, most consumers won't be able to discern the difference. "It's not CD quality, but it's darn close," says Ken Pohlmann, a professor of music engineering at the University of Miami. What's more, the bantam-size disks are easier to carry around than the 4.7-inch-diameter CDs. The MiniDiscs are also jogger- and pothole-friendly, so the music won't skip, as CDs sometimes do when you hit bumps. Some MD portable recorders, including the $300 Sharp MD-S301 and $400 Sony MZ-R30 units that I tried, can easily fit into a shirt pocket.

As with CDs, you can rapidly access any part of the disk. And as with cassette tape, you can edit and rerecord the disk as many times as you wish. You can also add song titles. Moreover, when you press the "record" button, the unit will automatically find an empty space on the disk, meaning you don't have to cue up a particular spot as you do with tape. Through a "synchro recording" feature on most MD models, the unit will not start recording until sound from a CD or other digital source is detected.

The MD has some shortcomings. Only 500 or so prerecorded titles exist. Blank MDs cost around $6 apiece for 74 minutes, $5 for 60-minute disks. MD hardware is expensive, and not every major consumer-electronics outlet carries it. MD models that record start at around $400. But to exploit the MD's portability, you may have to spend at least $200 to purchase a car or Walkman-type MD player as well. Some makers are offering bundles that include a home deck and a portable version.

Therein lies a chief advantage of recordable CDs--they work in any ordinary CD player. And recordable CD deck prices have come down dramatically in recent months. The Philips CDR880 and Pioneer PD-R555W cost $649 and $699, respectively. Most recordable CD home decks can "burn" two types of CD software. The most common CD-recordable version is called CD-R. A blank CD-R disk costs around $6 and gives you only one chance at mixing your masterpiece, since you can't rerecord. To make recording easier, the decks offer the same kind of synchro-recording feature found on MDs.

The second type of disk is called CD-RW, for compact disk-rewriteable. As the name suggests, you can modify your recordings. But it isn't easy. If, say, you record 10 tracks then decide you want to alter track 7, you must erase tracks 10, 9, 8, and 7 before you can proceed, or squeeze in a track of about the same length as the one you are changing. Worse, while CD-R disks can play on any CD player, CD-RWs are not compatible with most machines, though more CD-RW-ready models are scheduled to appear later in the year. And CD-RW disks cost $25 to $30 a pop--roughly twice what a prerecorded compact disk commands.

Both CD-R and MD are terrific for recording digital music downloaded off the Internet, a practice that, over time, should become more common once issues of bandwidth and intellectual property are addressed. You can already download selections from several Web sites. Sharp's $800 MD-X8 combines an MD, CD changer, and radio tuner. With an optional $300 kit, you can attach the unit to a notebook computer to transfer digital downloads to an MD. Imagine how creative your future music compilations can get.

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