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Recording from PC to Sony MDS-B5 with track marks (howto)

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Before I get into the main purpose of the topic, here's some preamble, because I know people find it interesting to hear about each other's experiences. I've gotten back into recording Minidiscs again after a very long time and wanted to document the process of making it less of a pain in the ass.
 

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I recently won a Sony MDS-B5 Minidisc deck from the Finnish national broadcaster (Yle) in an auction for a very reasonable price. Luckily people seemed to mostly be going nuts for the Sony BVM/PVM CRT monitors (there's been a trend in the last few years where retro gaming/demoscene folk have been buying them up - once available for some tens of euros or perhaps even free, they now go for around 1000 euros for the best Sony ones).

There were perhaps only 2 or 3 others bidding on Minidisc decks, two MDS-B5 and one MDS-B3. The MDS-B5 I got was clean and scratch free. The VFD display is bright and all functions and I/O work. I checked the hours meter, it only showed a few hours spindle time and 0 hours of laser diode (recording mode) time. Now, perhaps someone can enlighten me whether the hours meter requires a functioning backup battery to retain its value (I would guess so), if so then who knows how many hours it really has, if not, then it seems I have managed to get a barely used unit, or one that's had the optical unit replaced shortly before it was decomissioned. To be honest, I doubt they really had much use for Minidisc "back in the day", and this was labelled as "MD 2" suggesting it perhaps wasn't the primary deck.

The deck is fanastic. Working with broadcast video and audio equipment daily, I really appreciate the connectivity, build quality, and tactile controls. It also sounds good too. It's such a joy to use compared to my portable units and the decks and hifis with MD that I've used in the past. Oh, and it has a PS/2 keyboard port! There's a good reason all my old recordings from the late 90s and early 2000s are "No Name", it was just too much of a pain in the ass to enter titles.

The first MD recorder I owned (although not the first to use) was a Sharp MT-15. I remember doing a lot of gardening work for relatives as a young teen to fund the purchase of it. Dixons in the UK were selling it for only £99. I liked that unit, and I made a lot of recordings on it (mostly from crap quality mp3s acquired from Napster and IRC channels, along with recordings from satellite TV music channels, and some CDs.) Unfortunately it died when it got squashed by a Panasonic Toughbook that was also in my schoolbag (that's another story) that fell off a table onto the floor.

I did without Minidisc for a year or so until I got the Sony MZ-N707, which is the model of portable I still use today. I continued the trend of putting crap quality mp3 recordings onto Mindisc, except this time using Sony's SonicStage software to further butcher the audio quality by using LP2 mode. It was just too convenient. A couple of years after that, that Minidisc recorder was stolen along with a number of other items. That ended my use of Minidisc, and I bought an iRiver H300 player with a 20GB HDD (still have it, still works), and never looked back.

In 2016, the nostalgia and desire to listen to what was on my old discs became too much, and I bought another MZ-N707 for almost nothing from eBay - I still had all of the accessories and instruction manuals etc from my old one and I wanted to complete the package again.

However, I hadn't really gotten back into recording new discs until the MDS-B5 came along. Before the whole COVID thing kicked off, at the start of the year a friend visited Japan and picked me up 10 brand new 80min Sony discs cheap. I now wish I'd asked him to pick me up at least twice that!

mdsb5.thumb.jpg.4d46c46866ac2106a879693a4e03bcff.jpg

With that out of the way, let's talk about the MDS-B5 and why I'm so happy to record on it despite it not having the new Type R DSP that my MZ-N707 has (it does have dual ATRAC chips though - does anyone know if the MDS-B5 actually uses those in tandem to improve encoding quality or if it's just for other functions?). I don't have too much complaints about the recording quality though, and the robustness and interface make it a much more enjoyable process.

Along with the issue of titling, one of the most frustrating things about recording to MD from a PC (when you want full quality SP recordings) is the lack of track marks. Normally if you record from a CD player using the optical output, the track marks are preserved. You just get a continuous output from a PC.

I'm aware of hacks to trigger the appropriate button on a remote input on some portables for example, but no such hack is required for the MDS-B5, as it has RS232 control! This is the route I decided to go down, and it turned out in the end to be quite easy to do once I'd found the right pieces of the puzzle.

I've always been a Winamp fan, it used to be foobar2000 vs Winamp back in the day. I never used foobar2000 much before now. It turned out that foobar2000 was the winner for this project though, so here's how I chose to solve the problem under Windows. I'm aware of different methods to write to serial ports, and I'm also aware of different approches I could have taken with regard to OS and software choice. This is just one way.

 

Prerequisits

I'm using a generic Prolific PL2303 USB to Serial adapter for this. Open the Windows device manager and check what COM port it is using (example COM3).

Download links are at the bottom of this post. If you're reading this years into the future, you may have to do some digging if the original links are broken.

  • Download and install foobar2000.
  • Install the foo_scheduler plugin.
  • Install the foo_channel_mixer plugin.
  • (Optional) Install the foo_out_asio componenmt (more on that later).
  • Download and install NirCmd to a suitable folder (e.g. C:\bin\).
  • Download SerialSend.exe and place into a suitable folder (e.g. C:\bin\).

 

foobar2000 DSP Configuration

It was my personal preference to disable any Replay Gain. The Channel Mixer DSP is required to delay the output signal to compensate for the delay of issuing commands via RS232, without doing this, the track starting points are very slightly too late.

  • Under Preferences: DSP Manager, move Channel Mixer into the Active DSPs list.
  • Press the '...' to enter the Channel Mixer configuration.
  • Under General, Channels Selection, set Output channels to 2.
  • Under Delays, tick Use delay and set the Delay (ms) for Front Left and Front Right to 100.000.

 

foobar2000 Scheduler configuration

This is where the magic happens. We are going to configure the foobar2000 scheduler to execute commands when certain events happen, namely playback start, new track and playback stop.

  • Enter the Scheduler preferences (can be accessed via the File menu as well as by entering Preferences).
  • Press the Add button next to the top Event list.
    • Select Add player event...
    • Select On playback start.
  • Press Add again
    • Select Add player event...  then On new track.
  • Press Add a third time
    • Select Add player event... then On playback stop.
    • Tick End-of-file signal.
  • Under Action lists, press Add.
    • Name the action something like MD Play
    • Right click the new action and select Add action -> Launch application.
    • Enter the following (modify the file paths to match where you installed them and modify the '3' after 'devnum' to match your serial port number (COM3 in this case)):
      C:\bin\nircmd.exe exec hide C:\bin\serialsend.exe /baudrate 9600 /devnum 3 /hex "\r\n211\r\n"
    • Press OK.
  • Repeat the process again, adding a new action list called MD Track Mark or similar
    • Enter the following, being sure to modify it as detailed before
      C:\bin\nircmd.exe exec hide C:\bin\serialsend.exe /baudrate 9600 /devnum 3 /hex "\r\n41302\r\n"
    • Press OK
  • Repeat the process one final time, this time calling it MD Stop.
    • Enter the following
      C:\bin\nircmd.exe cmdwait 100 exec hide C:\bin\serialsend.exe /baudrate 9600 /devnum 3 /hex "\r\n210\r\n"
    • Press OK.
  • In the event list, right click the 'On playback start' event, select Assign Action List -> MD Play.
  • Assign the 'On new track' event to the 'MD Track Mark' Action list.
  • Assign the 'On playback stop / end-of-file signal' to the 'MD Stop' action list.
  • Make sure Scheduler enabled is ticked at the bottom of the window.

 

foobar2ksched.PNG.bfff16af18cc17a22d0b81bb93e5c4b4.PNG

 

Sony MDS-B5 Configuration

I'm going to assume that the few people that own this deck will have an idea of how to operate it but basically just make sure the serial settings are correct.

  • Hold down Stop and press EDIT / NO.
  • Scroll through the options using the AMS control to reach F13. Press ENTER / YES and set it to 9600 baud.
  • Set F14 to Parity Off.
  • Set F15 to Stop Bit 1.

 

Recording a Minidisc

  • Put the tracks into the foobar2000 playlist. Make sure the audio output and volume settings etc are correct. See my notes about ASIO below.
  • Press the REC button on the deck to put it into recording standby.
  • Press the play button in foobar2000.
    • The track should begin to play in foobar2000 and at the same time the deck should have unpaused and begun recording
    • When the track advances in foobar2000, the track should also advance (track mark) on the deck.
    • When the final track in the playlist ends, the deck should stop recording.

 

Notes on ASIO

I choose to use ASIO on my Focusrite Scarlett audio interface, set specifically to use the S/PDIF output, to avoid certain things, mainly:

  • Windows audio mixer adjusting levels (for example it's limited to -0.1dB)
  • Sound from other applications spoiling the audio

I won't go into the detail of how to set up foobar2000 to use ASIO in great detail but basically configure the sample rate to 44.1kHz and set the Custom channel mapping to send audio out of the S/PDIF output.

 

Notes on titling

Sadly you can't enter titles via the RS232 interface. However, I've settled on using a PS/2 keyboard plugged into the deck and just manually typing the titles (it's fast on a proper keyboard) while doing the first playback after recording to check it recorded successfully. I'm aware I could use WinNmd with my Net MD portable to enter titles but I don't want to install SonicStage and swap discs into the other unit just for that.

 

Download links at the time of writing

 

 

I've spammed out this post in one go, if anyone notices any errors, let me know.

Edited by cgi_
Making links hyperlinks and fixing formatting and adding to the preample text.
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We don’t care if you’ve ‘spammed out’ (I don’t think you did). What we do know is that’s a great story and the squad here will be delighted you’ve ‘rejoined the fold’. In addition it’s nice to see a different machine in use and hear about how you’ve used it’s features.

Thank you also for documenting your approach so thoroughly, I’m sure others will find either direct use or inspiration from your approach, even if they don’t write back on here. 
 

So ‘welcome back’ and I hope you continue to get joy from your past recordings and next exploits on your new machine!

At some point I’ll find the service manual and attempt to answer your technical questions.

Regards the laser use maybe this was used only as a playback deck hence the zero record time? Anyway looks like you have a gem!

Kevin

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7 hours ago, cgi_ said:

With that out of the way, let's talk about the MDS-B5 and why I'm so happy to record on it despite it not having the new Type R DSP that my MZ-N707 has (it does have dual ATRAC chips though - does anyone know if the MDS-B5 actually uses those in tandem to improve encoding quality or if it's just for other functions?).

From what I can discern from the Service Manual, one of them is the "main" one, with support for vari-speed and the other (or maybe the two together) is to support the 4x high-speed dubbing function. The DSP is the CXD2536 and is ATRAC1 v3.5 according to the minidisc.org page for this unit.

Enjoy - certainly plenty of toys to play with on that deck!

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22 hours ago, kgallen said:

So ‘welcome back’ and I hope you continue to get joy from your past recordings and next exploits on your new machine!

At some point I’ll find the service manual and attempt to answer your technical questions.

Regards the laser use maybe this was used only as a playback deck hence the zero record time? Anyway looks like you have a gem!

 

Thanks Kevin!

It was a fun little project to get this going. And I really enjoy using the deck too.

I have to say though, Platinum-MD (https://github.com/gavinbenda/platinum-md) had totally flown under my radar in the last year and I discovered it not long after writing my post. I just tried it out with my MZ-N707 and it works great, with full quality SP transfer via USB. It also sounds better than the old ATRAC encoder in the Sony deck so perhaps the sony ends up being more of a playback machine after all!

I like having the option of using the Sony deck though, and it demonstrates a practical example of using the RS232 control.

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5 minutes ago, kgallen said:

if you’re interested in the software side of things have you seen this recent thread?

I hadn't, no. Looks interesting, although much the same as Platinum MD (which is an Electron app, so basically like a web page) using the same open source libraries. Nice to have options though, and nice to see the format still getting some love with the introduction of modern technologies.

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22 hours ago, cgi_ said:

I hadn't, no. Looks interesting, although much the same as Platinum MD (which is an Electron app, so basically like a web page) using the same open source libraries. Nice to have options though, and nice to see the format still getting some love with the introduction of modern technologies.

I did'nt know anything about Platinum MD so I did a Google search read about the project and installed the tool. I like it very much, nice GUI and Google Chrome is not needed, I am happy with this app.
Thank you for naming this app.

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On 9/27/2020 at 4:59 PM, kalkie said:

I did'nt know anything about Platinum MD so I did a Google search read about the project and installed the tool. I like it very much, nice GUI and Google Chrome is not needed, I am happy with this app.
Thank you for naming this app.

No problem, I'm glad you found it as good as I did - I also prefer not to use Chrome. I had mentioned the URL a few posts up but I'll repeat it again for those that perhaps missed it: https://github.com/gavinbenda/platinum-md

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