Taking MiniDisc to IRCAM

What? Take a MiniDisk player to IRCAM, electronic music's Holy of Holies in Paris? It would be like bringing a case of Coke to a Bordeaux wine festival. Or so the experts would have us believe.

And then Mike Skeet phoned to tell me about the new Sony MDS-JE500. Just what I needed for concert playback of a pre-recorded tape plus a click track for Electric Phoenix, the new music vocal quartet I've worked with for a quarter-century. Experience with DAT had taught me that two digital machines started from pause with a single infrared control would stay locked together like tracks on a single machine. And the price tag for two of the Sonys was half-a-grand including VAT, less than an overhaul on my two aging portable DATs. Like a phone call from Marlon Brando, it was an offer I couldn't refuse. Two days later they were in my studio.

The first test was to make certain that there would be no deterioration in sound quality. The DAT tape I had to copy was an obstacle course of steep filtering and constantly changing phase relationships—just the sort of programme material in which data-compressed digital recorders usually whistle new tunes as they go along. I made a digital copy of the DAT original and then lined the two up by means of programme idents so that they would take off together. A few trial-and-error starts, and I had the two running so close that, panned hard left and right, most of the time they produced a centre image. In some passages I panned them into stereo and listened A-B. Even in the heavily treated sections there was no apparent alteration of sound quality. And the new copy didn't even have to be rewound!

I felt slightly diffident arriving at IRCAM with the little fellows, but I needn't have worried. I found an expensive but elderly ancestor already installed at the mixing desk. The engineer in charge was aware of its shortcomings and interested in my new Sonys, well aware that a quantum leap had been made. Only one composer, who hadn't followed the evolution of the MiniDisk, was surprised to see me using them in concert, but he accepted my up-dated information.

So what was the bottom line? After the concert, the composer whose work had been transferred to MiniDisk was delighted with the result—particularly since I had also brought along a Minim AD-10 Ambisonic Decoder which transformed his stereo tape into wrap-around surround sound, thus moving it up into the same league as the new all-singing, all-dancing IRCAM commissions which had been created especially for the concert. Everyone was happy, including the over-sold capacity audience spilling over onto the stairs in a casual violation of fire regulations which would have sent the London authorities into orbit. But this was Paris, where people actually queue up to listen to avant-garde music. In London we're lucky if we don't outnumber them.

John Whiting, July 1997