Considering the amount of money we spend on our private studios, it's positively disheartening to have to trust the end results to compact analogue cassettes. If you're going for a serious release you can get commercial CDs made, but that's only practical for numbers in excess of around 500, and though DAT is a good mastering medium, virtually no end users have DAT machines in their hi-fi systems. That leaves the cassette, with all its noise, speed instability and noise-reduction compatibility problems, as the only means of distributing copies that virtually anybody can play. At least, that was the situation until a short time ago, when CD recorders and blank CD-R disks started to fall in price, making it commercially viable to 'burn' your own one-off CDs. It's ironic, then, that Philips, the company behind that sonic abomination, the analogue cassette, should be the first to produce a CD recorder that costs less than a budget DAT machine. Better news still is that the Philips CDR870 can also record onto the new generation of CD-RW rewritable discs. It's even possible to get a commercial CD made using your CD-R as a master, but with an all-inclusive price of under £500, there has to be a catch -- doesn't there?
Well, there is a catch, but it's a relatively small one. The same paranoid media barons who cursed our DAT machines with SCMS have conspired to ensure that consumer CD-R machines can only use special consumer-type CD-R blanks, the price of which includes some notional contribution towards copyright fees claimed to be lost through the copying of commercial records and CDs. The lower cost CD-Rs used for computer backup or multiple-speed audio disc copies are rejected by the machine, though there's an argument against using such discs for real-time recording in any case, as their construction is optimised for 2x or 4x speed operation.
Only a year or two ago, general-purpose CD-R blanks cost over £10 each, and even today some dealers are still trying it on by asking over a fiver each, but if you shop around the average price is less than half that if you buy 10 or more discs at a time. Consumer CD-Rs are rather more expensive, with some brands still costing the best part of £10 each, but to take the sting out of the consumer CD-R restriction, SRTL are supplying Philips' own blank consumer CD-R74DA discs for just £3.99 including VAT, with further discounts for quantities of 20 or more. These particular discs are optimised for real-time use and claim to generate no uncorrectable errors. Now that we've got the media cost issue out of the way, what does the hardware offer?
Considering the exciting potential of a machine like this, the Philips CDR870 looks very much like any other boring black CD player. Analogue audio ins and outs are on stereo phono jacks, while both optical and phono S/PDIF I/O is fitted. This means that digital connections can be made to any DAT machine, regardless of whether the DAT machine has a phono or optical connector. An infra-red remote control unit comes with the machine, and you also get a pair of phono cables, plus a short digital phono cable, as part of the package.
In concept, a CD recorder is much like any other recorder -- you feed it an input, you hit record, and eventually a CD pops out. Actually, there's a little more to it than that, but not much. Whenever a CD is recorded, the process has to be completed by creating a table of contents so that a normal CD player knows how many tracks there are, where they start, and so on. Once this is done, no more recording can take place on the disc, but if you want to record a few tracks at a time, you can do this with no problem. You won't be able to play the disc on a regular CD player until you've finally created your table of contents by pressing the Finalise button, but prior to that, adding a new piece of audio is easy, as the machine always finds the end of the previously recorded material for you. Because you can only write on a regular CD-R once, there's no possibility of recording over anything you've already done.
One of the concerns when making a music CD is correctly marking the track boundaries. This may be done manually or automatically with the Philips machine: in Auto mode, when recording from an analogue source, any gap longer than three seconds will register as a track break, so when the sound resumes a new track will be created. This is fine unless you have a live album to do with no gaps, in which case you'll need to attend the recording and press Rec (or Track Incr on the remote) at the appropriate times. To stop recording, you have to press Stop manually. The manual claims that the recorder will stop automatically after detecting 20 seconds of silence, but this only seemed to work in Auto mode, where the track IDs are created automatically -- not in Manual mode.
In Auto analogue mode, tracks are numbered according to the number of pauses detected, whereas in Auto digital mode, the track IDs are generated from the DAT's own start IDs. There's also a CDSync mode which allows synchronised digital copying from a CD player, but this also works for DAT machines, DCCs, and MiniDisc players. In CDSync mode, the recording process begins automatically when the CD starts playing and stops 20 seconds after the CD has finished. The track IDs of the original CD are transferred to the copy. Pressing the CDSync option once then going into Record will only record one track, whereas activating CDSync twice, prior to Record, will record the whole album or tape.
When recording from DAT by simply hitting Record (that is, using Manual rather than Auto mode), the machine ignored long silences, Track IDs, End IDs, me unplugging the digital cable -- even taking the tape out failed to halt it! The Stop button seems to be the only way to end regular recording, and the same seems to apply in analogue non-auto mode. I experimented by recording from DAT in the CDSync mode, and this seems to be the best way to work, as you're guaranteed a synchronous start, plus automatic Start-ID-to-track-number conversion. However, you do need to ensure that your DAT tape has IDs in the appropriate places. As with CDs, recording stops after 20 seconds of silence or when you press Stop -- DAT End IDs aren't recognised in any mode.
If you're recording from a digital source, there's no level setting to worry about -- the recording is effectively a clone of the original, and both Auto and CDSync modes register track IDs directly from DAT, CD DCC or MD. However, as most DAT machines only write an ID once they sense signal, it's common for the IDs to come a fraction of a second late, so it's good practice to manually move your DAT IDs half a second or so backwards before making your CD. Also beware of DAT machines that automatically create a start ID when you start recording a blank section at the beginning of the tape -- this will have to be manually erased. As with analogue recording, if you don't want to use the track IDs from DAT, or if you're brave enough to record directly from the S/PDIF output of a digital audio workstation that doesn't support IDs, you can put your own track IDs in manually, by pressing Rec or Track Incr.
Tracks can be recorded to the CDR870 one at a time, in either analogue or digital modes, but if you have any thought of mastering from the disc, it's best to work from an edited DAT and write the disc in one hit, so that you don't get errors between tracks where the laser switches on and off. On the other hand, if all you need is a demo, writing individual tracks is fine.
The recording process may be started by pressing Record, after which the Record icon flashes in the display, though if either auto mode is required, the relevant button must be hit first. If you're recording digitally and the digital input is not connected properly, or is at the wrong format, the word 'Dig' will flash in the display. Commercial CDs use a 44.1kHz sampling rate, and consumer DAT machines are often set to record at 48kHz, but even though the manual doesn't tell you this, the CDR870 includes sample-rate conversion on the digital input, so sources at 48kHz, 44.1kHz and 32kHz sample rates can be accommodated. However, there is one warning about sample rate conversion -- as it is active all the time, even 44.1kHz tracks will be processed and, while this doesn't normally cause problems, if you've mastered an album using some fancy noise-shaping process, the sample-rate conversion process is likely to mask any benefits by adding simple dither. Again, even far more expensive machines have the same limitation.
Though CD-RWs are more expensive than CD-Rs, they can be erased and re-used, which can be useful if you're preparing a master for duplication and you want to be sure it's absolutely right. In an ideal world, you'd be able to put the finished CD-RW master into your regular CD machine and then make a CD-R copy via the CDR870 but, as explained in the SCMS box elsewhere in this article, built-in SCMS (Serial Copy Management System) prevents you from making further digital copies of your compiled discs unless you have an SCMS stripper (which removes the SCMC copy protection).
The recording procedure for a CD-RW is exactly the same as for a regular CD-R, but if you want to use it again, you need to erase it first. Finalised discs can only be erased completely, whereas partially recorded discs that haven't yet been finalised can be erased a track at a time, starting with the last track recorded.
Naturally the CDR870 can play back conventional CDs as well as ones you've recorded yourself, but I'd be inclined to leave routine playback to a regular CD player, to maximise laser life. However, the laser is only on when recording or playing, so you don't have to switch your machine off every second it's not in use! According to the distributors, the laser life-expectation of the CDR870 is comparable with that of a regular CD player, and replacements are sensibly priced, should they ever be needed.
Operational quirks are few, and tend to be shared by other stand-alone CD writers, even the expensive ones. The most annoying is the lack of a way to make the machine stop automatically at the end of a recording. If you're making a CD master from DAT, you don't want 20 seconds of silence at the end of your album, nor do you want to have to hover over the stop button to do the job manually -- what happens if the phone rings halfway through the last track? A system for reading DAT End IDs would be fine -- but this isn're present on the CDR870 or any other stand-alone CD recorder I've used.
The fact that the machine always stops after a 20-second gap in Auto mode can also work against you, as you might want to create a CD with a 20-second silence in it. As it is, the CDR870 doesn't let you record more than 20 seconds of silence without ceasing recording, unless you're in Manual record mode (either analogue or digital). As an example of where you might need to record long silences, I recently worked on a relaxation tape where the speaker introduced a one-minute silence for meditation about three quarters of the way through the tape. This would have been impossible to transfer to disc in Auto mode.
Though there are a few very minor operational irritations, the CDR870 represents superb value and handles the job of making one-off CDs from DAT or analogue sources with ease. Having to pay the extra for consumer discs rankles a bit when you're actually recording your own material (and not benefiting from the licence fee of the discs!), but at the price SRTL are selling them they don't cost much more than regular CD-Rs from other sources.
Using the machine is extremely easy, and the recording process seems quite reliable -- something that can't always be said of computer-based systems, where you have to spend ages compiling the individual files in a playlist, then they trash your CD-R disc because of a buffer under-run error!
At this price, I can't think of many studio owners who don't need one of these machines -- my order is in already. I have a friend who bought one of the original CD-R writers a couple of years back and it cost him over three grand. After only a few hundred hours of use, the laser has gone down and the company in question wanted to charge him £1500 for the repair work! Today he could buy a brand-new Philips machine that would do essentially the same job and still have £1000 left over! If the CDR870 isn't top of your Christmas list, it's certainly top of mine.
I guess you though you'd left SCMS behind with your DAT machine, but sadly it raises its ugly head on this and any all other consumer CD-R machines. And, just as with DAT machines, it inconveniences the legitimate user while presenting no real obstacle to the professional pirate. Most commercial audio CDs can be copied using this machine, and providing the disc is for personal use only, that's fine -- the cost of the blank disc includes a licensing fee to do this. However, SCMS prevents you from taking further copies of CD-Rs originally made from a digital source, so if you've made a master CD-R of your own material using a DAT tape as a source (assuming the recording is via the digital interface), you can't make further copies from the CD-R. However, you can make as many copies as you like from the original music CD, which is what any self-respecting pirate would do. Once again, insanity triumphs!
Easy to use.
Choice of analogue, S/PDIF optical or S/PDIF co-axial inputs.
Can record onto the new CD-RW rewritable discs, as well as write-once CD-Rs.
Integral sample-rate conversion means that copies can be made from consumer DAT, MiniDisc or DCC machines.
Uses the slightly more expensive consumer discs, but even these cost under £4 for 74 minutes of recording.
As with all the other CD-R machines I've tried, there's no satisfactory way of programming an exact stop time.
DAT End IDs are not recognised.
SCMS means you can't make digital copies of CD-R discs made from digital sources, though you could always buy an SCMS stripper if that's a problem for you.
At well under half the price of its nearest competitor, the CDR870 is affordable, simple to use, works with rewritable discs, and has no more vices than its more costly counterparts. An essential piece of kit for just about any project studio.
£ £499 including VAT.
A SRTL, Record House, Emsworth, Hampshire PO10 7NS.
T 01243 379834.
F 01243 430639.