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Bringing MiniDisc back from the dead

They were invented by Sony in the early ’90s, five years before the world’s first MP3 player, but never took off; in part because of Sony’s obsession with proprietary formats and oppressive digital rights management.

Tape recorders were still standard issue for recording interviews back when I did my cadetship at The Age in the late ’90s but, as a tech-head, I was one of the first journalists at the paper to make the leap to a portable MiniDisc recorder.

On the train ride home I’d listen to music I’d copied from CD in flagrant disregard for Australia’s archaic copyright laws. Pre-recorded albums sold on MiniDisc sounded amazing but were very rare in Australia.

While MiniDisc recorders sounded clearer they’d eventually fail, just like tape recorders, which you’d discover the hard way when you lost an important interview.

After going through two recorders in eight years, I abandoned MiniDisc in favour of a Zoom H2 solid state recorder. It has no moving parts, recording to an SD memory card, and is still going strong almost 15 years later.

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Reminiscing recently with my mate Captain Spreadsheet, an accountant extraordinaire who also remembers the ’90s fondly, it turns out he too was a fan of MiniDisc. He has a stack of discs in a drawer but nothing to play them on, so I said I could help him out.

Back when it looked like MiniDisc was going to be the next big thing I bought a Sony MiniDisc Hi-Fi component, so I dug it up out of my office and set it up alongside the old turntable on permanent loan from my parents. When I powered it up, the dusty 20-year-old MiniDisc player made a disturbing whirring sound and refused to play or eject the disc stuck inside.

Ever the Google handyman, I soon found a YouTube tutorial explaining how to bring the player back to life. Pulling it apart, I discovered that all it needed was a new ejection drive belt. Once I inserted the MiniDisc correctly, the player came back to life and rewarded me with a crystal clear rendition of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue recorded from CD many moons ago.

Replacing the tiny drive belt is a relatively simple job, the tricky bit is getting the part when you don’t want to invest too much reviving a dead format, with eBay stores wanting at least $40 to ship a new belt from overseas. My mate Sheeds on Twitter, a collector of vintage audio gear, put me onto his local repairer but they wanted $80 just to look at it.

Thankfully the repairer was happy to share the name of their parts supplier, who sold me a belt for a grand price of $5.50 plus postage. It arrived two days later and, after minor surgery on the player, Captain Spreadsheet and I can take MiniDisc for one last spin.

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