Digital DIY


Recordable CD Comes of Age

In an article originally published in LINE UP magazine in June 1995, Clive Williamson assesses the impact of CD-Recordable to date, and looks to its future now that computers and recording systems are becoming more integrated through units like the new Yamaha CDE100 compact disc writer.

When I first wrote in Line Up about CD-Recordable in 1992, it seemed that the possibilities it opened up were enormous, and that the system - like many emerging technologies in broadcast studios - would soon catch on in a big way. Surprisingly, so far this has not been the case, but I think things really are about to change for CD-R, and it still could become a common currency for archiving and broadcasting audio in the near future.

CD-R takes the idea of the basic Compact Disc a step further by allowing individuals to make their own CDs. It offers the facility to write digital data directly to a specially-surfaced blank disc using a CD mechanism with a high power laser that can 'burn' the data into a layer of green or yellow dye. The disc cannot be altered once it has been written, but it can be played on any normal CD player, and - if cared for reasonably - has a similar expected lifetime to that of normal mass-produced CDs.

CD-R has already made a number of in-roads into broadcasting organisations. According to Martin O'Donnell at HHB (who distributed the original Yamaha 601 and Marantz CDR-1 recorders) users of CD-R machines now include Virgin, JFM, Abbey Road and Channel 4, and even Radio Latvia has bought one. HHB have noticed a significant increase in customers for CD-R lately, and have now launched their own brand of CD Recordable media - a disc holding up to 74 minutes of audio or computer data - and capable of being written to at up to six times the normal rotational speed of a CD player. Increased writing speeds are now possible in a new breed of CD-R drive which was first developed for the computer industry and can handle much higher data rates by using the Small Computer System Interface (or SCSI, pronounced "skuh-zee") found on most desktop PCs, including those used in digital audio editing systems.

But are HHB following trends here, or trying to set them? Up to now the growth in this potentially useful form of recording has certainly been slower than I, for one, would have expected. Several factors seem to have held CD-R back so far:

* The high initial cost of CD-R machines and recordable media (at first the discs cost £15-£20 each).

* The time taken to produce DAT masters for duplication.

* Difficulty transferring DAT and audio to the CD recorders with accurate track start-points.

*A significant fall in the cost of pressing CDs, and a reduction in the minimum quantity that has to be produced at a time.

*Doubts about the long-term stability of the medium.

As with any sector of broadcasting today, nothing stands still for long, and the converging technologies of digital recording and editing systems, powerful desktop computers and simpler, more cost-effective CD technology make a strong swing towards CD-R increasingly likely in 1995. A major factor, according to the BBC's Ian Astbury, could be the growth in digital awareness amongst both producers and operators, with the widespread use of computer-based editing systems such as SADIE, Fairlight, Sonic Solutions and ProTools III. "CD and DAT both have their good and bad points as a medium for mastering and archiving audio," he observes, "but I'm disappointed that CD-R hasn't been used as much as I'd hoped." Ian has been following the progress of CD-R since it's early days, and has recently been asked to check CD-Rs recorded both within and outside the BBC which have caused trouble on transmission. "The problems we've experienced are due to a lack of care in handling, especially at the time of recording the discs," he says. "We've discovered black spots on the dye layer which are caused by dust particles on the CD's surface casting a shadow at the time of recording with the laser." These black spots give bursts of errors on playback, and once the error rate reaches an incorrectable level the disc can skip or stop altogether. So the message is to keep the discs absolutely clean until they've been burned.

Despite this, Ian Astbury certainly hasn't been put off the CD-R format. For example, his research indicates that both the Yamaha CDE100 and Sony CDW-900E make very good recordings on 74 minute blanks, and he is quick to point out that there are already about 3000 CD-R discs in regular use at the BBC, mostly made at Brookman's Park and the Radiophonic Workshop.

Proof of the Pudding

By this time I was hooked on the idea of trying the new generation of CD writers, and spoke to James Suart, CD-R Product Manager for the Tyrell Corporation, for some guidance. He told me that CD-R was relatively big in computer markets, but was only just beginning to attract the interest of their broadcast customers. "The Sony CDW-900E has been the de facto machine with its comprehensive digital encoding and the facility to chain up to 16 devices, but the Yamaha CDE100 is being taken up well in music and audio mastering, because it can work with both SADIE and Digidesign software", he said. "It's a fairly new kid on the block, but it's really beginning to catch on in the UK because it is good value and can write CDs at up to quad speed."

Now I already use Digidesign's Sound Designer II software and need to master audio CDs to the full Red Book standard. I also want to author my own CD-ROMs - and I archive large amounts of computer data - all on a limited budget. Oh well, blank CDs are less than a tenner now, so I decided to try the Yamaha.

Toasting the Yamaha CDE100

Yamaha's new CD writer connects easily to the SCSI interface of a PC, or an Apple Quadra or Power Macintosh, but requires specialist computer software to drive it. For my Mac system Yamaha recommended the German company Astarte's Toast CD-ROM Pro software, which can write entire discs - or single tracks - of either audio or computer data, and even mixtures of the two! The software is straight-forward to use, and allows you to choose which data or audio to write, and how fast you want to write it. It also has test and simulation modes, which are very important, as the limiting factor controlling the maximum CD writing speed is the rate at which audio files can be read off your hard disc drive and fed to the CDE100 itself. I went for a gigabyte of storage on a Quantum 1080 AV drive, which can run very fast for long periods without stopping to recalibrate itself, and hence is ideal for CD-R applications. My audio tracks were imported and edited on Sound Designer and, where necessary, cleaned up with the very useful DINR (Digidesign Intelligent Noise Reduction) plug-in software. Toast then lets you import tracks into a running order and write them to a blank CD.

The process is relatively painless, and incredibly rewarding! Imagine the possibilities: CD 'juke boxes' of favourite tracks; personal collections of Sound Effects; programmes mixed from digital editors like SADIE and ProTools III which can be easily auditioned, stored and cued up for transmission; jingle packages; fully P & Q coded Red Book CDs which can be used for mastering commercial CDs; backing tracks for special events; standby programmes... the list is endless.

Of course there are a few anomalies to be resolved: Toast works at up to 4x speed from my clanky (but trusty) old Mac IIcx and from Quadras, producing a one hour CD in just over 15 minutes, but as yet the software/Yamaha combination can only manage 2x speed on my new Power Mac 8100/80, and no-one can tell me why! (This was eventually sorted out, and 4x is fine now! - Ed.) Currently SADIE can only (only!) drive the CDE100 at twice speed, and the true shelf life of the CDs is still a mystery. But the number of CD-R machines is growing all the time. Astarte already have Toast CD-DA which gives finer control over Digital Audio mastering from standard AIFF and SoundTools II audio files including adjustable gaps between tracks, advanced coding, and selectable pre-emphasis flags. Digidesign are also busy, and are about to release a new version of their MasterList software which can drive the Yamaha CDE100.

The CD format is rare in having developed such popularity with both the public and broadcasters alike. Producers are now used to recording and mastering on DAT tape, and are looking for further high quality digital tools in their studios. Judith Bumpus from the BBC's Arts and Features was one of the first producers to try mastering a radio programme to CD-Recordable. As she points out, "After spending a lot of time getting good recordings and editing them on a computer, one wants something that goes out easily and is of the highest quality!" Judith likes to use the latest technology if it's appropriate, and she sees CD-R as the next logical step for mixing down her work. Her programme Building a New Britain was successfully transmitted from CD, and could easily pave the way for more CD-Rs in the BBC's Continuity Suites.

Driven by both audio and computer manufacturers, the cost of CD technology is falling all the time, and Kodak's Photo CD system has helped to reduce the cost of blank CDs for everyone, so it looks as if CD-Recordable is ready to fight its way into our studios at last! Let's hope the larger broadcasting organisations are formulating a consistent policy for its future.

LineUP magazine logoThis artice originally appeared in the June/July 1995 issue of the
Institute of Broadcast Sound's magazine LINE UP. www.ibs.org.uk

Credits: The main CD image was digitally captured using an Epson GT-9000 colour scanner and adjusted in Adobe Photoshop on an Apple Power PC. Thanks to Astarte in Germany, and Jim Corbett and Nick Howes of Yamaha's Media Technology Division for their help in preparing this article. Hot links to those sites soon...

NB (July 1995): Astarte are about to release Toast CD-DA Version 2, which contains many new features previously found only in Digidesign's Masterlist software. 

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