Test Drive: Denon DN-990R and DN-980F MiniDisc Cart Recorder and Player

A replacement for a digital audio editor, the DN-990R is not. However, when you consider the MiniDisc as a replacement for the cassette, some of these functions make the unit much more appealing. Imagine having a cassette of your favorite oldies, and being able to change the order in which the songs play after you have recorded them! Imagine being able to erase one song you don't like anymore without leaving a 4-minute gap in the tape! And how many cassettes have you seen that display information about the song -- title, artist, LP name, year released, anything you want -- on the cassette deck? Up to 250 characters can be assigned to each track or disc name, but the total characters per disc cannot exceed 1700.

The DN-990R also provides several "preset" functions that dictate how the machine operates. Tracks can be set to be numbered automatically when audio is detected or manually by pressing the Record button on the front panel. Tracks can also be numbered by reading the sub-codes and Start IDs from CDs and DATs when making dubs. The audio input level for the auto detect mode is adjustable from -72 to -32dB. The unit can be set to cue to the start of the track or the start of the audio on the track, and the audio detect level is adjustable from -72 to -36dB. The Play/Pause button can be set to flash at the end of a track, starting anywhere from 35 to 5 seconds before the track ends. The End Monitor button plays back the last few seconds of a track, and this is adjustable from 35 to 5 seconds. The playback pitch can be set to +2%. Other presets control remote functions, SCMS functions, display functions, and more.

After recording, the 990R writes new track information to the TOC (Table Of Contents). This takes about 3 seconds. A feature unique with the Denon unit is a Pre-UTOC function which writes TOC information to the disc during recording instead of after. This makes the recording accessible if a power failure occurs during recording. Another unique Denon feature is the ability to record "cue tones" on a track. Up to five cue signals can be recorded on a track and used as signals to start another device connected to the 990R.

The rear panel of the 990R sports balanced XLR ins and outs and XLR digital I/O (AES/EBU and EIC-958). You get a power on/off switch and headphone jack. An RS232C serial port enables control of the unit from a personal computer. A 25-pin parallel port enables remote control of recording and playback operations. The sampling frequency is 44.1kHz with a frequency response of 20-20kHz. As mentioned, the unit utilizes the ATRAC (Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding) data compression algorithm. This is a method of reducing the amount of digital information to be recorded by eliminating that information in the audio that is supposedly not audible to begin with. There is still much discussion and debate over the use and quality of the many compression algorithms in use. Some people can hear the difference between a CD and a recording of the same CD using data compression, and others cannot. I can't. (But that can be blamed on 20+ years in this biz with loud monitors in my face or headphones wrapped around my head!) THD is at 0.02%, S/N ratio is 84dB ("A" weighted), and channel separation is 80dB (maximum level, 1kHz). The DN-990R record/playback unit lists for $3,200. The DN-980F playback only unit lists for $2,400.

As a replacement for the analog cassette, the MD is very tantalizing. You don't quite get 90 minutes, but you get enough recording time. The text info scrolling across a display is pretty seductive. The editing functions are an added bonus. The discs are even smaller than a cassette. How the MiniDisc does in the battle to replace the cassette is yet to be seen. The DCC is still out there, and that format keeps people in the comfortable and familiar cassette world while still introducing digital quality. If everybody threw away all their cassette decks and tapes tomorrow and we had to decide on DCC or the MiniDisc, I'd choose the MiniDisc because of its random access and editing functions.

But the question before you and I is how the MiniDisc will do as a replacement for the cart? Should you use the MD for music? For spots? For IDs, sweepers, jingles? For everything? In the world of carts, we usually have one song or spot per cart. If we are talking about a piece of music, that's five or six minutes. The shortest MiniDisc available is 60 minutes. Is it worth $17 per song to transfer one song to one disc, and have 55 minutes of unused disc left over? If they come out with discs the same sizes as carts, at a price proportionately less than $17 for 74 minutes, then it makes more sense to have one disc for each element. On the other hand, it makes more sense to take advantage of the large amount of digital disc space available for only $17 (or whatever price you might find it for). Using the MiniDisc in this manner takes it beyond a "cart" replacement and puts it more in the arena of mass disk-based storage. What becomes very important at this level is the way tracks are maintained on each disc.

If you put all your spots on MD, it might make sense to do it this way: If you presently have 400 cart slots in the control room, replace them with eight 60-minute MDs, using the first one for commercials 1 through 50, the second for slots 51 through 100, and so on. There are no paper labels to read in this setup, so client name, intro time, outcue, etc. must all be input as part of the track name. When the track is playing, the information would scroll across the display screen. You could read the outcue and watch the timer display count back to zero.

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