Recording MP3's to MD - USB Audio Devices
MD unit reviews:
Sony MZ-R90 vs Sharp MT831   |   Sony MZ-R900   |   Sharp MT77
Info on the Novac CatchSound USB-to-optical link [Japanese only!] (machine translation)
Info on the Xitel MDPort USB-to-optical and USB-to-analog links
Gerald Tomyn's guide to MP3-MD recording

With the exponentially increasing popularity of MP3's in the past few years, a few manufacturers have begun catering to the MD audience by manufacturing devices that plug into the USB port of your computer and provide an optical output for use with MD recorders. Sony now bundles the Xitel USB link kit with most of their portables in the U.S., but if you have bought a portable MD recorder that did not come with a USB-link, you should be able to buy one separately without much trouble (if you're in North America that is... I hear that these units are hard to come by in the UK). The first thing you should know is that audio files from your computer cannot be transferred to MD any faster than single speed. This is probably the biggest drawback of the MD format, and it would be nice if either Sony or Sharp would address this.

All MD recorders are capable of recording MP3's from your computer (really, all MD recorders are capable of recording from any sound source, given that you have the right kind of cable), and there are a number of different ways to do this. The simplest way is to just hook up an analog cable from the output of your soundcard to the input of your MD recorder. If you want more general info on cable/connector types, feel free to visit Gerald Tomyn's guide to MP3-MD recording, as this page is simply a briefing on the USB-connector devices.

Catch Sound Catch Sound
Photos of the Novac Catch Sound USB-to-optical device

The particular unit that I'm using is called the Catch Sound, and is sold in Japan (click here for the manufacturer's website, only in Japanese) (machine translation). The device is very similar to the Xitel MDPort DG-1 which is sold in the US, but if you happen to be stationed in Japan and can't get the Xitel unit, you might want to try the Catch Sound unit. I got mine from Japan-Direct, along with my MT77 and it works fine on my PC (the installation windows are in Japanese, but if you've ever installed anything before, you should be able to figure out what the prompts say and which buttons to push). This particular unit works fine with the Sharp MT77, Sharp MT831, and the Sony MZ-R900 (I understand that the Xitel DG1 did not work properly with a lot of older Sharp units). Unfortunately the Catch Sound unit does NOT pass the signal for track marks, as the Xitel DG1 supposedly does. However if the MT77's AUTO MARK function is ON (which it is by default), the MT77 and 831 will mark tracks at every blank space of 2 seconds.

Xitel MDPort DG1
Photo of the Xitel DG1 USB-to-optical device

All of these USB audio devices basically work the same way. You plug the device into the USB port on your PC, and Windows should automatically start loading the drivers necessary for a USB Audio Device (if you have Windows 98 SE, you'll likely be prompted for your Windows CD). Essentially, when plugged in, the USB Audio Device acts as your system's soundcard (so if you have an internal soundcard with speakers attached, they will not work until you pull out the USB Audio Device). Connect the optical cable from the USB converter to the optical input of your MD recorder, and you're ready to start recording! Just play the MP3's (or any computer audio file format) you want to record on your favorite music player software, and start record on your MD recorder. Most of these USB Audio devices come bundled with some type of audio ripping/playback software (the Xitel units come with MusicMatch 5.0, the CatchSound comes with a program called JetAudio, which is completely in English BTW), but you only need to use them if you have no other means of playing audio files on your computer (if you like using WimAmp for example, you can just use that).

How is this different from just getting a soundcard with an optical output? Sound quality-wise, there really isn't much difference, however if you are recording from the optical output of a soundcard, the SYNCHRO function on your MD recorder will not work correctly (it will start recording even if there is no source playing). The majority of these USB-to-optical devices are designed to function correctly with SYNCHRO recording (again, the Xitel DG1 reportedly does not work with Sharp units, so do some digging around to make sure that the USB-Audio device you're considering will work with your unit). I have not yet tried the Xitel DG1, so I can't personally comment on its functionality. The Xitel AN1 works with ALL MD units, but provides an analog connection, and will not work with SYNCHRO recording on Sony units (Sharp units have analog SYNC, so they're still okay). The CatchSound unit I'm using provides an optical digital connection, and works fine with the R900, MT77, and 831, so it's range of compatibility seems to be larger than the Xitel DG1 unit.

I've put together a table which outlines the compatibility of the Xitel AN1, Xitel DG1, and Novac Catchsound units. There are probably other USB Audio devices made by other manufacturers as well, but I can't possibly outline them all... these are just the ones I know of personally. Japan-Direct ( carries the CatchSound device, so if you're buying an MD unit from them you can pick up the CatchSound there as well.

USB Audio Devices Analog or Digital? Automatic Track Marks? Works with
Synchro Recording?
Compatible with
Sony units?
Compatible with
Sharp units?
Xitel MD-Port AN1
(Windows 98/2000,
Available directly from Xitel)
Analog Only with 2 second blank space
(Auto Mark ON)
Only on units with Analog Sync
(Sharp, but NOT Sony)
Works with ALL MD units
Xitel MD-Port DG1
(Windows 98/2000,
Available directly from Xitel)
Digital Yes (?) Yes Yes
(R90 and later only, not R55 and older)
No (?)
Novac Catch Sound
(Windows 98/2000,
Available from Japan-Direct)
Digital Only with 2 second blank space
(Auto Mark ON)
Yes Yes
(tested on R900)
(tested on MT77, MT831)

MD unit reviews:
Sony MZ-R90 vs Sharp MT831   |   Sony MZ-R900   |   Sharp MT77