Studio Sound article on Sony MDS-DRE1

Dave Foister, November 1998
(Scan: Matt Sephton: Keyboarding Katie DeYoung)

THE FACT that MiniDisc has been brought back from the brink of oblivion and is belatedly starting to take off in the domestic market can be attributed in no small way to the success it has achieved in pro circles. Initial misgivings about data compression were outweighed by the sheer convenience of the medium, and in areas like sound effects and radio it has become standard equipment. DJs, too, will have seen the appeal, Sony, keen to the make them feel wanted, has come up with the MDS-DRE1, specifically aimed at live DJ operation, but with features that will undoubtedly have uses elsewhere.

DRE stands for Digital Remix Enabler, and the intentions are clear from both the prominence of certain controls and the overall styling. When I opened the box I was quite unprepared for the sight that confronted me, challenging the idea that equipment needs to be dull. This is a design to draw the eye, but more importantly to present essential controls in such a way that the machine can effectively be 'played' by the operator.

All the controls are on top, with the disc slot hidden on the front edge. There is a big display area at the top, but the most obvious things on the panel are a huge wheel and eight big pads, both of these have functions that are immediately obvious; although the degrees of subtlety afforded by both are not. The pads are clearly for playing tracks, and, although the idea of ready access to several tracks at once in not new, the layout and flexibility possibly are.

The basic setup is simple. When a disc is put in the slot, the machine reads the TOC in the usual way and then puts its tracks under the eight pads ready for quick access. There are four banks of these, stepped through with an adjacent button and shown in the display, so that up to 32 tracks can be accessed extremely quickly indeed. The access time is just as fast as you would expect from MiniDisc, and you might have thought that would be fine for most purposes. Where even more speed is needed, or where the beginning of a track is not what is required, other modes come into operation.

One of these uses and idea sometimes seen on CD players, where the machine will cue the start of the actual audio at the beginning of a track, not the point where the flag says is should be. CD flags are often several frames early, and presumably the same goes for prerecorded MiniDiscs, and the difference when that button is hit can be significant. Extra subtlety is added here as there is a parameter in the Setup menu for determining the level to be regarded as silence, and how close to the start of audio the machine will cue itself.

For really fast starts the MDS-DRE1 has a Hot Start function. Up to eight tracks can be programmed in sequence to appear under the pads, and the machine apparently spends a short time loading the start of each into memory so that when the pad is hit, the track starts immediately. Selection of the eight tracks is controlled, like several other functions, by a rotary encoder called AMS, which under normal circumstances is used to choose a track to play as an alternative to the pads. Once the pads are loaded, playback of the chosen tracks really is instant, to the extent that they can be played with the fingers like a sampler.

So far we have not used the big wheel, and it should be pointed out straight away that despite appearances this cannot be used for scratching effects. During playback it can be grabbed and moved to affect the playback speed, but it is primarily there for finding cue points in either of two ways. If the unit is in Pause, it will scrub the audio in the expected way, but the quality of scrub is a bit disappointing, more like the jerky scrub on a typical DAT machine than the smoothness you might expect from an MO or hard-disk system. It is not easy to control and hard to hear what is going on. On the other hand, the Cue mode is more like the systems used to rehearse ID markers on DAT and other machines; a point is selected and the following 3s are repeated while the cue point is adjusted with the wheel. This method is much easier, and once a point is found and it is stored with the track that contains it. The AMS knob can be set to access these points rather than the track starts if required, and even more usefully the cue point of a particular track can be put under its associated pad instead of the track start. There is a green LED above each pad to show that there is a track corresponding to it, and this turns red when the pad is set to play from the Cue rather than the start.

Several other functions are provided specifically with the DJ in mind, but with other applications as well. Looping a section of a track is very straightforward; hit the LOOP IN button at the start and the LOOP OUT at the end of the section to be looped (up to a maximum of 20s) and the unit immediately loops the chosen bit, glitchlessly and as seamlessly as your button bashing allows. The points can not be edited, but for these purposes catching the points on the fly is easy, and the chosen loop points are stored in the memory for later recall even when the loop is stopped.

Two slider are provided under the right hand for tempo and pitch; note that these are separate controls, giving away the fact that either can be altered without affecting the other. There is a good range available on both; although for safety I would have like to see the facility to lock them out as they are a bit vulnerable to accidental operation, and the only indication that they are set 'off' is a rather gentle detent in the middle.

The machine has one very curious function that doubtless has it uses; although offhand I can't think of many. Besides it conventional recording facilities, it has a feature called Back Track Recording, allowing it to record and playback at the same time. One suggestion is the recording of material from a CD while another track is playing back, ready for subsequent playback, and another is recording a mix of the track being played with other components-a kind of grown up sound on sound facility, but without the destruction of the original track. Details of how this is achieved are not given, but the new material is recorded on to a blank portion of the disc. The fact that various control operations-using the pads, the dial and the Loop function for instance-slow the process down and risk aborting it altogether suggests that there is a big RAM buffer in there somewhere and the same head is doing both jobs.

With all the special stuff the MDS-DRE1 can do, it is almost a surprise to find it also has all the other features offered by the MiniDisc format. Full editing facilities are provided, with the ability to divide and join tracks, and for this, surprisingly, the edit points are found using the AMS knob rather than the big scrub wheel. The whole process is adjustable, from the length of the portion the system repeats when finding the cut to the increments the knob advances in, and there is an Undo function. Track and disc names are catered for, both writing and reading, and shown clearly in the big display window. The usual selection of procedures for programming sequences of tracks, repeating, and single play modes are provided.

One slightly disappointing aspect from the professional point of view is the provision of inputs and outputs. There is no digital out (ins are on SPDIF phono and optical) and the analogue connections are only on -10dB phonos. Maybe in the situations its intended for this is all it needs, but with the plastic cabinet and the emphasis on styling it rather undermines any pro aspirations it has. I was also surprised by how low the headphone output was-if ever a machine needed plenty of oomph this is it.

On the other had the facilities, who every they were intended for, clearly have a lot of potential in a variety of pro uses, and the controls look to be capable of withstanding a reasonable amount of punishment. Besides this, the sound quality is up to what can be expected of a modern MD player. Odd as it is, the layout lends itself to easy operation and allows complete access to anything of any importance, and the result is a machine that some people in some areas will find warrants closer inspection than the appearance might suggest.

Original scans, page 1 and 2.

Return to the MiniDisc Community Page.