A Comprehensive Recording
Media Review - Circa October 2000
by Terry Friedman - Tucson, AZ
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We've had a few threads over the
years on what medium to use to for groups and archives. I just spent a
couple of late nights surfing to evaluate the options, which are changing
rapidly, and thought I'd share what I've come up with. (Prodded by the
"Where to get folk dance tapes" thread, and especially planina's posting:)
A few years ago, we switched to minidisks,
where you can record a whole 74 minutes worth of songs and instantly access
any of them. The Albuquerque group recorded all their songs onto writable
CDs and uses a 200-disk CD changer for programming. I am now slowly recording
our collection onto MP3 and find it is the most convenient way to play
it. Instant access, search, and programming, and all I carry is a laptop
or Nomad Jukebox (size of a CD walkman, but holds many hundreds of songs)
and powered speakers.
List-Angels: a quick decision please
as to whether this is a legitimate list thread.
Others: please wait or send replies/comments
to me until the angels have spoken. If they decide the thread is kosher
then I'll repost them all, otherwise I'll digest them and forward to any
The main current options are:
But also on the horizon:
tape (nothing further to say here)
CD-R / CD-RW
Hard disk based & other
A. Cost considerations.
DVD-R (and DVD-R/MP3)
(Most of my figures are based on sale
prices I've seen at chains - some web sites may have even better values.
But in this market today's sale price quickly becomes tomorrow's retail
MD: This has changed rapidly
since a year or so ago when we were discussing MD vs tapes for group use.
shelf component MD units are available
for under $200
MD handheld players are under $100
MD handheld recorders (with line-level
outputs for connection to external amps) are available under $200.
MDs themselves are under $2.00/disk
(in blocks of 10-20); I've seen prices as low as ~1.50/disk.
The burners are now available for under
CD-R(Audio) disks are available in bulk
for under $1.00/disk, though many stores still have them over $2.00/disk.
CD-RW(Audio) are as low as $2.00/disk. (For those not yet initiated, the
consumer level direct-Audio CD burners, aka CD-Audio, use the same technology
and CDs as computer CD-R (which are as low as $.30/disk in commercial chains),
but only use disks that have been flagged as "suitable for CD-Audio", which
means that the price includes a surcharge paid to the recording industry)
Can use standard computer CD-Rs, available
for under $.50/disk, (but you have to have a computer setup to burn them)
And you can put around 200 MP3 encoded
tunes on a CD.
There are a dozen or so MP3-CD players
now on the market, some priced below $100. Some DVD (movie) players also
Burners (all currently computer based)
are around $600-$1000, but prices will probably fall quickly. DVD-R disks
run around $30 apiece, but that will probably come down soon. The disks
have 5-10 times the capacity of CD-R, so CD-R is still far more economical.
(see some other problems with DVD-R,
B. Convenience & other considerations.
This is Sony's newest push for more
consumer $$$: higher fidelity CD. Expensive, but it is now available, sounds
good, and could catch on. The players currently on the market run over
$2000, and there aren't any consumer grade recorders that I know of (but
there is professional gear that does the 96K/24bit sampling for this format
- all quite expensive!) ... basically much of the component technology
is the same as for DVDs, so if it does catch on the prices could drop quite
rapidly in a few years.
Fairly mature. Combines the convenience
of tape with the random access advantage of CDs, and very flexible editing
Most MD units also allow for input &
display of text such as song & disk titles, but on most the LCD display
is fairly small so long titles or other information has to scroll, which
is a nuisance.
Also most of the text input setups are
cumbersome at best, though some of the newest Sony models finally allow
you to attach to a computer and do input from the keyboard.
MP3: The MP3 disk itself is much more
robust than either CD or tape.
MDs use a fixed compression algorithm,
which probably won't change any time soon, so they basically just hold
the same amount of music as a CD - we've been putting 20-30 dances/disk.
Whether this is adequate will depend on how much music you need to lug
The sound quality is generally pretty
good, many people think it's better than standard audio tape and also better
than "CD-quality" MP3 compression.
The fear is that MD may be next years
orphaned medium, squeezed out by the MP3 rage. While MD is quite popular
in Japan and fairly successful in Europe, the manufacturers did a lousy
job of marketing them in the U.S. and missed a chance to get a major foothold,
though they've gotten a fair niche now.
One possible evolution: super-MD. One
manufacturer (I think Sharp) has prototyped a MD disk, same size, that
holds 6GB of data (standard MD is around 100MB). I haven't seen any plans
yet to market it to consumers, but if they do then 1 disk would hold 1000-2000
(atrak compressed) tunes!
Still maturing. Units on the market
vary widely in features and convenience.
Any computer (with a CD-R burner and
the right software, of course) can make audio CDs. CD-Audio refers to CD
burners that connect directly to an Amp or other gear and record the tracks
Standard features include:
optical in/out connectors (for copying
from other CD or MD players),
RCA connectors (standard analog connections),
ability to do track-by-track recording or to copy a disk (CD/MD) in one
session (usually you can't add additional material to CD-Rs
made as a single session copy)
burn either CD/R-Audio or CD/RW-Audio
on CD/RW: ability to erase last track
recorded or entire disk (But NOT the ability to erase a track in the middle
of a disk, which, by the way, MDs can do)
ability to REDUCE the input recording
level (see note below)
automatic track marking (see note below)
A few also have:
ability to create CD-eXtended (CD-X)
format disks. These have a special track for textual information (song
title/artist/whatever), which CD-X players (not many on the market yet)
can display while playing the disk.
The advantage of CDs, of course, is
that there are far more CD players out there than MD players. So you can
choose how to make the CD:
on a computer
with a Audio-CD burner.
If you don't already have a computer
with a CD writer & some music burning software (the standard is "Easy
CD Creator", but there are lots of competitors) then the Audio-CD burner
is probably the path of least resistance, even though the blank disks cost
a bit more.
If you do have a computer etc. the stand-alone
burner may still be the best choice. Here are some factors to consider:
I'm told that the d/a samplers on computer
audio boards aren't as good as those in the Audio-CD units. Also that the
computer audio boards are more vulnerable to the electrical noise of the
other computer components. Bottom line: direct audio-cd burners may give
better quality. (But note: I don't have any direct comparison experience,
so I don't really know if it makes much difference.)
If you go via computer then you can
get software to edit and cleanup the recording before putting it to CD.
This is a mixed blessing. Editing, e.g.
just cutting off pieces of dead space from making the conversion, or splitting
off pieces of medleys, might be useful if you're being compulsive and willing
to do the work, but I've heard some awful messes come out of the "cleanup"
programs, even used by experienced engineers. Caveat!
The computer cd programs often include
utilities to generate disk labels and case inserts. .... but then again,
there are also cheap stand-alone programs to do the same thing.
If you want to create CD-X (to show
the dance name while it's playing) it's currently far easier to do via
computer than with direct Audio. Most direct audio units DON'T have this
feature; the ones I've seen that do have it require text input using either
a jog dial or the remote; either way is very clumsy and inefficient.
If you decide to get a Audio-CD recorder,
beware that most units are apparently set up intending to copy CDs. This
means two things:
Unlike tape recorders, the "recording
level" knob only lets you REDUCE the volume from the input level. (There
are exceptions: one of them is the Pioneer line). So most of the tape &
LP inputs I've tried come out being recorded at a pretty low volume.
The "track marking" algorithm may not
work very well. This is a feature that supposedly allows you to record
a whole tape or LP in one sitting, and the recorder will automatically
recognize the gaps between songs and flag them as separate tracks on the
CD. .... My experience is limited, but not very positive. One unit (TEAC)
used a volume level algorithm, which failed totally to recognize the real
gaps, but sometimes decided to mark a new track every time it heard a strong
tupan beat. My current unit (Pioneer) is fairly successful when the input
is from a dolby-encoded tape and I don't have the volume gain up too high.
It still fails to find the gaps between LP tracks.
Very immature! This is the computer
geeks' compression format that has been generating so much controversy
& nasty name calling lately. In just the last couple of months units
that use CDs and other high volume media for storage have come on the market.
The attraction, of course, is the ability
to store ~200 songs/CD. (This is using the a 10/1 compression ratio which
is usually referred to as "CD-Quality", though opinions differ, some people
preferring only 5/1 compression. One nice thing about MP3 is that (unlike
MD) you can usually choose the compression ratio, trading size for quality.
But most of these units appear to be limited to 10/1 or higher compression,
and also limited to around 200 tracks per CD)
The hard-disk based Nomad unit that
Rick (or Carolyn? which are you?) mentioned just came on the market, but
is available in some of the chains - I think I saw it at BestBuy or CircuitCity.
It's the only unit of this type so far; maybe Ricolyn will give a report
on the features & gotchas.
The other units have had reports of
quality control problems. But the major issues for dance group use seem
to be creation, startup, and navigation.
Creation: with the possible exception
of the abovementioned Nomad, none of the current units can create their
MP3 files from direct audio input. Translation: you need a computer to
make the CD. The CD is formatted as a standard computer data CD, not an
Audio-CD. Thus the CD has a standard PC file structure, with directories,
subdirectories, etc, and the MP3 music tracks are just stored as files
with a name and a ".mp3" extension. (Most of the units will allow and ignore
files that are not MP3 tracks). The music tracks are files with a ".mp3"
Startup: some units (maybe all?) initialize
by finding all the tracks on the disk before you can start playing anything.
This would make a noticable lull in the dancing if you have to change CDs.
(One solution would be to alternate 2 players - some of the units are under
Navigation: Having said that the CD
can have a directory structure and file names, the bad news is that few
of the current units have text display, and many of them effectively ignore
the directory structure, so you're left trying to program by track number.
And many units just have standard CD player skip-to-next-track buttons,
making it a little tedious to play, say, track 150. (But there's hope for
improvement. Phillips makes one unit, currently available through BestBuy
for $200. While it doesn't have any text display, it at least keeps the
directory information, letting you hunt for tracks by directory and subdirectory,
so it's possible to create & play a CD with a useful organization.
Most of the current units were sort
of rushed to market, so it's likely that the next generation will have
better text display and navigation (necessary if they're going to compete
with the RAM based units which standardly display name and artist)
If you're going to build an MP3 archive
and also watch DVDs you may want to look at the APEX DVD player which can
play MP3 encoded CDs. (available at CircuitCity; I've seen other DVD players
announced with the same capability) It also allows you to navigate by directory
and even has limited text display abilities - but only if it's attached
to a TV.
MP3/DVD - see below.
DVD-R & variants
This is only relevant if you don't need
to make decisions in the near term.
DVD in general is a format that has
so far been crippled by commercial considerations: the manufacturers have
been afraid to let the consumer have access to its full potential. So at
present it's mainly used for videos and high capacity data distribution
(DVD-ROM). Audio-DVD has been discussed but as far as I know the standard
isn't decided and there aren't any players or disks on the market.
Writable DVD suffers from the same internal
schism that caused the BETA/VHS split. At one time there was almost a standard,
but then different camps decided to go with their own, incompatible, technologies.
In theory writable DVDs can hold 5-20 times as much data as CDs (depending
on technology and format).
So there are DVD-RAM units available
for computers, but choosing one is a crap shoot in the long term.
At present the DVD-R blanks are much,
much more expensive (per byte) than CD-Rs. When the dust settles they may
come down to a more reasonable cost. If/when that happens then the higher
data density will be an advantage for many: a normally encoded DVD might
hold 100-200 tracks, and an MP3 encoded DVD could hold around 2000 tracks,
surely enough for any club's working collection of dances.
For those interested in being cutting
edge, there is one interesting unit now on the market, kind of a stand-alone
MP3 decoder kit. Costs under $100. The buyer then purchases a computer
CD reader and attaches it and, presto, an MP3-CD player; I've seen mention
of some car units based on this gizmo. But the teaser is that the web site
says "CD or **DVD**" player. I didn't see reports of anyone trying the
DVD option so far, perhaps because few people have a DVD burner on their
computer to create the disks. Anyone want to be the first on the block?
Sorry this is so long. Condolences
if you've read straight through. But I hope it may be helpful to those
considering changing media for their collections.
Most of my info on MP3 variants was
from http://www.mp3.com. They seem to
keep quite up to date, with exhaustive reviews and links. Once I dove into
their site it took about four hours before I came up for air.
I've got maybe 20,000 lines of information
& reviews about MP3s, Audio-CDs, related computer programs, etc. not
very well organized in 3 text files [NOT word, NOT html!]. I would probably
be thrown off the list if I tried to post them as attachments, so email
me if you'd like copies.
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