The cost of CD Recorders and their distinctive gold blank disks has steadily fallen during the past year, and the software necessary for audio CD production on the PC has now started to appear; Hohner Midia's Red Roaster 24-bit is the first application to bring desktop CD creation to the Pentium PC, and is not only affordable, but uses Windows soundcards rather than expensive external audio hardware. The software gets its name because it 'burns' or writes an audio CD that conforms to the Red Book standard used worldwide by the recording industry. The CDs Red Roaster creates can be played on ordinary CD players like the one in your car or hi-fi. And there is no doubt about it: a CD of your work will make a better impression on your clients or on A&R departments than would a cassette. In addition, your CD can be taken to a duplication plant and used to manufacture a CD run. By authoring the CD master yourself, you retain control of the final creative stage of the audio production process (strictly speaking, the process of creating a CD master is more accurately called pre-mastering, as the glass master made by the duplication plant from your CD is the actual master). For although a good mastering engineer may provide the final touch of magic that can make the difference between commercial success or failure, a poor mastering job can ruin the whole project. Also, if you are producing short runs of demo CDs on a tight budget, you have the option of avoiding expensive mastering services.
Hohner Midia's Red Roaster 24-bit is a 32-bit application for Windows 95 and Windows NT v4. The version reviewed here is for standard 16-bit Windows MMS soundcards. The package consists of two floppy disks containing the installation files and a spiral-bound 84-page A5 manual.
The Red Roaster 24-bit package actually consists of two applications -- Samplitude Master v3.11 and PoINT CD Audio v1.2. Samplitude Master is used to assemble the audio tracks and perform the final edits. When this is done, a Table of Contents (TOC) is prepared which contains the track list, the track indices and the associated timing information. The TOC is loaded into PoINT CD Audio for PQ subcode editing and Red Book CD creation.
The first step in creating a CD with this package is to assemble the audio tracks in Samplitude Master. It is a good idea at this stage to make a track sheet on paper or a word processor containing relevant details such as names, times, source, running order and edits required.
Audio can be recorded in 16-bit resolution or in 24-bit floating point format. Higher bit rates reduce data quantisation losses; when 16-bit audio is resampled, as for example during sample rate conversion, the reductive nature of sampling can lead to a perceptible loss of audio quality. Compared with analogue processing, these losses are slight, but they become increasingly more obvious as edits accumulate. If editing is carried out in 24-bit floating point format, the audio remains essentially distortion-free. Audio in 24-bit float is saved to disk in 32-bit format and requires about 20Mb per stereo minute. On playback or before creating a CD, the 24-bit audio is converted back to 16-bit.
If your source audio is on 48kHz or 32kHz DAT, you will need to resample the material to the CD-standard 44.1kHz rate. This usually entails recording the material into 48kHz WAV format and then converting to a new file at 44.1kHz. Samplititude Master cunningly combines these tasks and performs them in real-time as you record from DAT. This saves disk space, cuts production time, and minimises quality loss. Incidentally, when naming files, you need to use 8-character names for your projects; although Samplitude Master accepts long filenames, PoINT CD Audio does not!
If your audio tracks are stored on your hard drive as Windows WAV files, you can import them directly into Samplitude Master, by just hitting the 'W' key and double-clicking on the file entry. The audio file is quickly loaded and is placed in the VIP list (Samplitude-speak for a Virtual Project, or the collection of audio tracks and associated data that will make up the CD). You then repeat the procedure until all your audio tracks are entered, and then save the VIP file. In a VIP, editing is non-destructive ie. no permanent changes are made to the wave files themselves. Incidentally, it took Samplitude Master a staggering five seconds to load a VIP file containing over 57 minutes of audio from the hard drive -- impressive.
When loaded into the VIP track list, an audio track is called an Object. It appears as a pastel-shaded wave display block and is arranged horizontally on the track bar, in playback sequence. The lower toolbar is used for navigation and zooming. The upper tool bar contains file, track, sub-index, TOC, transport, fades and cursor commands. One small glitch I discovered was the failure of the keyboard left and right arrows to provide horizontal scrolling in VIP mode. Samplitude Master has multiple levels of Undo, but does not include an Undo History describing the various edit stages.
Each track is automatically loaded in sequence with the two-second gap required by the Red Book spec in place (if you wish, you can edit the default pause time in the CD menu). To index your tracks, you simply click the red Auto Indices button on the toolbar next to the CD icon. Track index numbers appear above the time ruler, and Time can be displayed in seconds, samples, beats, CD MSF (75 frames per second) or as SMPTE. You can also add track indices and sub-indices during playback by clicking on the T and S icons in the toolbar. Indices may be removed via the CD menu. To rearrange the track order, you hold down the Control key and then drag and drop the Object to the new position; all track indices are then updated automatically. In this way, you may completely restructure the track sequence, and even re-edit the source. There can be a maximum of 99 audio tracks, each with 100 sub-index points (these are used mainly in sample and sound effects CDs, and in classical recordings).
When you are satisfied that the tracks are correctly indexed, a click on the CD icon produces the Make CD dialogue box, which contains three modes of TOC generation. The 'Make No Calculations' option is the most basic, and simply creates the TOC from the original wavefiles; no audio editing is performed. 'Use Original Files' mode applies all fades, crossfades or volume curves to the WAV files. It is a good idea to back up the audio files in case something goes wrong, as this is a destructive edit process! The 'Complete File' option makes one large wave file image of all the audio files together with fades, crossfades or volume edits. This requires over 11Mb of disk space for every minute of audio (60mins = 660Mb) so you need to make sure there is sufficient free disk space if you choose this option. The process is non-destructive, so the new 'mega file' will require disk space in addition to that occupied by your original wavefiles. The TOC is stored in the VIP file, and after creating the TOC, the VIP file should again be saved.
Do not use the 'Call up PoINT CD Audio' link in 'Make CD' dialogue. If you do, you will get an information box stating 'an unexpected error has occurred whilst reading the serialisation information'. You are advised to check the 'consistency' of your hard drive and if necessary re-install PoINT CD Audio. If you do get this far, do not follow this advice! The information box is wrong -- the link between the software is just not yet properly implemented. Instead, quit Samplitude Master and manually open Point CD Audio.
In addition to the non-destructive edit tools in VIP mode, the Samplitude Master Edit menu also has some very powerful Dynamics, EQ and Noise Reduction tools for directly editing the wave data on your hard drive. Once again, before embarking on destructive editing, it is best to make a backup of your source material, so that if the edit subsequently goes wrong, you can restore your original audio file and start again. Samplitude Master uses 32-bit assembler language to achieve ultra-fast processing times -- typically half that of 16-bit applications. With speeds like this, studio quality real-time preview of EQ and Dynamics processing is possible. When you're happy, you can save your custom processing settings.
The EQ in Samplitude Master is excellent; it is a 3-band parametric device covering the audio frequencies 10-25kHz, with +/- 20dB of cut/boost. The Q point is variable between 0.1 (10 octaves) and 10 (0.1 octave). This makes it perfect for precise attenuation of any band in the audio range, and allowed me to get rid of a weird 22-23Hz peak that appears mysteriously on many of my recordings. The frequency curve is displayed graphically, and changes are previewed in real time -- spectacular! The Dynamics functions (compression, expansion, limiting and normalisation) work in smart mode -- in other words, the algorithms are anticipatory -- and do not produce peak distortion or other artifacts. There is also a graphical display of the dynamics curve, and ratio, threshold, release and gate level parameters may be adjusted and previewed in real-time. Finally, Samplitude Master claims to be the only application that can remove digital and analogue clipping; it uses a high-quality interpolation algorithm to restore damaged audio.
The noise reduction algorithm works best on constant noise such as air conditioning units, analogue tape hiss, fan noise from your PC, and electrical noise caused by transformers and mains hum. A sample noiseprint is taken from an otherwise quiet part of the audio file, and is then used as a template by the noise reduction algorithm. The area of audio to be processed is selected in the usual way and the processing may be fine-tuned using the Resolution, Precision and Absorption options in the Noise Reduction dialogue box. The Preview function is used for finding the best settings. Some care is needed, as artifact noise may be introduced by the noise reduction algorithm if the levels of the frequencies constituting the noise are as loud or louder than those in the audio material. If this happens, you can try repeating the process using less extreme settings.
One other potentially useful function is Load CD Tracks (accessed from the Project menu), which purports to lift audio tracks as WAVs onto the PC hard drive, and would be very useful for loading samples to hard drive from audio CDs. Sadly, the function did not work with my Plasmon CDR 4240. In fact, it would not even work on the audio CD I had created using Red Roaster! A colleague also reported similar results with his Yamaha CD writer, so for the moment, the jury is out on this one.
Once you have processed and edited your audio, PoINT CD Audio extracts the embedded Table of Contents from the VIP file created in Samplitude Master. You open the TOC file corresponding to your project from the File menu, and can then edit the PQ subcode data for each track by double-clicking on it. At this point, you can make provision for tracks that have been recorded using pre-emphasis (a treble boost applied by some DAT machines, such as those made by Casio, when recording); a flag is entered into the subcode on the CD that instructs the CD player to use its de-emphasis circuitry. You can also implement Copy Prohibit (the precursor of the dreaded SCMS system used on some DATs) to prevent a track being digitally re-recorded.
Once the subcode editing is completed, you're ready to put a blank CD into your CD-writer and click the red Write button! The final dialogue box allows you to select the recording speed of your CD-R, and the Simulate Recording option can be used to determine the optimum write speed. Simulate Recording is also used to perform a test run of the recording process. No data is recorded, and any faults or discrepancies in the TOC will be revealed. When you are satisfied that all is well, you just click Write to start the recording process proper. The Plasmon CDR 4240 used for the purposes of this review (see the 'Mind Your Ps & Qs' box elsewhere in this article) writes at 2x speed, and my 57-minute project took about 30 minutes to write to disk.
Samplitude Master is dazzlingly fast, and works well with PoINT CD Audio. The processes of audio and subcode editing are easy to understand, and the real-time effects preview is wonderful. However, the copy protection needs to be improved (see the 'Copy Protection' panel). The manual also needs a rewrite; it starts off well, giving an instant overview of the procedures used by Red Roaster to write a CD, but quickly becomes fragmented and incomplete -- and occasionally, poor translations from the German result in misleading ambiguities, which are unforgivable in what is, after all, a technical manual. The Windows on-line help is a little better, but many items are not implemented, and there's no comprehensive index. The non-functioning link between Samplitude Master and PoINT CD Audio and the lack of warning concerning this in the documentation also caused problems.
Overall, it is hard to escape the impression that these parts of Red Roaster were left unfinished in the rush for commercial release. This is a pity, because it is obvious that a lot of great care, flair and effort has gone into writing the program routines. This said, Red Roaster is a very fine bundle and its developers deserve to be congratulated. It lives up to its promise of delivering affordable Red Book audio CD mastering, and will appeal to budget mastering facilities, project studio owners, sample CD producers, and anyone creating music demo CDs.
Many thanks to Stash Huchrak at GOSH in Bath.
To use Red Roaster, you need as a minimum a Pentium 100 PC with 20Mb of RAM and a large fast hard drive, such as a 1Gb EIDE or SCSI. The CD Recorder should be SCSI2 and be capable of meeting the Red Book standard. The system used for the review comprised an Intel Pentium 100 with 32Mb of RAM, Turtle Beach Multisound Classic and Digital Only CardD audio cards, a 2Mb Trio+ PCI graphics card, and an Adaptec 1505 SCSI adapter. The CD Recorder was a Plasmon Data CDR 4240.
Two small adjustments have to be made your PC before it can be used with Red Roaster. First, you need to double-click on the CD-ROM icon in your PC's Device Manager to call up the CD-ROM list, and go into Properties\Settings. In the Options box, tick Disconnect and leave Sync Data transfer and Auto Insert notification unticked. If there is a CD-ROM reader also installed, similarly tick Disconnect and Auto Insert notification, but leave Sync Data transfer unticked. CD Recording is very demanding, and requires an uninterrupted data transfer stream for the duration of the recording process. Furthermore, before writing any CDs, ensure best results by defragmenting the hard drives on the PC that contain the operating systems (DOS & Windows 95), program applications and audio data.
Recently, we have seen the arrival of PC soundcards that are capable of greater than 16-bit digital-to-analogue conversion -- and of course, the bigger the bit resolution, the better the audio quality. The Arian Darc 2 audio card is supported by Red Roaster 24-bit. Darc 2 is a well-featured professional PC soundcard with true 24-bit stereo DACs, and has optical and co-axial connectors for digital I/O. The Darc 2 is £2049.99 including VAT, and is also available from Hohner Midia (see address at the end of this article).
Samplitude Master v3.11 can perform many of its internal audio processing calculations in 24-bit float precision mode. The operations are track bouncing, fades and crossfades, volume and pan gain, and curves. Internal precision may be changed from the Setup menu -- the default resolution for Pentium PCs is 24-bit. When converting audio from 24-bit to 16-bit, audible aliasing and distortion (particularly audible in quiet passages) may occur due to quantisation errors. Although very low in actual volume, artifacts possess a metallic edge that sounds unpleasant and intrusive to the human ear. Dithering introduces low-level randomised noise to mask these artifacts, and can improve the subjective perception of sound quality. In Samplitude Master, dithering happens in real time and requires no additional editing. The Setup menu includes a choice of dithering options, and finding the most suitable for a given piece of audio is a matter of experimenting with the alternatives.
Great care must be taken when buying a CD recorder. Not only do CD Recorders vary in price considerably, but many older models, while useful for data backup, are not suitable for audio CD mastering, as they do not read or write Red Book PQ subcodes and indices. Every CD contains eight channels of subcode data (channels P to W). Red Book audio CDs use two of these -- channels P and Q. The P channel data sends playback status information to the CD player; the Q channel data provides track order, running times, copy protection and other information.
The Plasmon CD Recorder CDR 4240 used for this review is based on a Matsushita (Panasonic) CW7501 drive unit with Plasmon software and drive electronics (firmware revision 1.13), and writes at 2x speed and reads at 4x speed. Disk-at-once recording is supported, and the Plasmon 4240 writes CD sub-indices and ISRC, making it suitable for Red Book audio CD mastering and CD-ROM creation. Some CD recorders are very fussy about the brands of blank CD-R they will recognise, but the CDR 4240 writes to all eight manufacturers' blank disks. It does this by reading the manufacturer's code on the blank disk and configuring its laser accordingly. The Plasmon CDR 4240 is good value for money, and has worked flawlessly on CD creation and data transfer tasks. In my opinion, it is one of the best drives on the market.
Prices for the CDR 4240 start at £482 for the internal drive supplied on its own and £546 for the external drive, and go up to £599 for the internal drive and £664 for the external drive when supplied in a bundle including Adaptec's EasyCD Pro95 and EasyCD Backup data recording software, a SCSI card and cable. Contact Plasmon for further price details. All prices given here include VAT.
A Plasmon Data, Whiting Way, Melbourne, nr Royston, Herts SG8 6EN.
T 01763 262963.
F 01763 262980.
Installation of Red Roaster 24-bit on my PC went smoothly, which was fortunate, as the copy protection employed on the disks makes it impossible to create backups. This form of copy protection is particularly unsatisfactory; it does not discourage the determined software pirate, and unfairly penalises the legitimate user. It is ludicrous that an application costing hundreds of pounds ultimately depends on the dubious reliability of a 20p floppy disk! If the applications need to be reinstalled and either program disk has become corrupted, the user is unable to use their Red Book CD Recording facility. This is unacceptable for professional software, and the prospect of losing business while waiting for replacement disks sadly undermines the credibility of Red Roaster.
Lightning fast and easy to use.
Advanced edit tools with state-of-the-art real-time preview.
Very good value for money.
Manual needs a rewrite and on-line help needs augmenting.
Audio CD grab very picky.
Horrible copy protection.
Red Roaster 24-bit brings affordable desktop Red Book
standard CD mastering to the PC. This is an excellent
package, but a few important loose ends need attention.
*£ Red Roaster 24-bit £699.99. A 16-bit version is also available for £499.99, but it lacks the comprehensive dynamics options and fast 24-bit processing of the more expensive package. An upgrade from the 16-bit to 24-bit version of Red Roaster is also available for £232.66. All prices include VAT.
A M Hohner Ltd, Bedwas Industrial Estate, Bedwas, Newport, Gwent NP1 8XQ, UK.
T 01222 887333.
T Hohner Helpline +44 (0)1225 405184.
F +44 (0)1222 851056.