Why are CD recorders like buses? Paul White investigates.
Wrong answer. CD‑R recorders are like buses because they come in loads of different colours, and with lots of different company names on the side, but the chances are they're all made in the same couple of factories! In the case of the Fostex CDR200, the innards share a common heritage with the HHB CDR800 machine reviewed back in August 1997, and even though there are now machines on the market that cost even less, it's probably still fair to say that this particular mechanism (which is actually built by Pioneer) provides the basis of the least expensive pro machines that can use the low‑cost, non‑consumer CD‑R blanks. In fact, the Fostex machine comes in marginally under the cost of its HHB rival, which leaves you enough change for one or two blank discs.
The appeal of the stand‑alone CD‑R machine is that you don't have to spend ages messing around on a computer, creating Image files, adjusting PQ track ID points, then swearing at the monitor when you get a buffer under‑run and have to scrap the disk. On the other hand, most stand‑alone recorders — including this one — won't let you back up computer data. All you need is a DAT tape with the track IDs in the right place and the recorder automatically converts these to track IDs. Of course, copying is limited to real time, but you can always be doing something else while it's going on. You can also record from other digital sources, such as MiniDisc, DCC, CD or computer workstations with S/PDIF outputs, but if you're coming from a computer system that doesn't transmit track IDs, you'll have to enter these manually or use auto silence‑detection to do the job for you. When you're working from a source with no track IDs, the CDR200 can recognise the silences between tracks and add IDs automatically, but of course this is only suitable for conventional albums with discretely‑spaced tracks. Live albums with audience noise between the tracks will need to be ID'd manually. The track gap recognition is preset to two seconds, which may not suit all material, though the detector threshold that decides what should be interpreted as silence can be reset if needed. Unfortunately, because CD‑R is a write‑once process, manual track IDs have to be entered during recording, and if you get one wrong you can't change it. The CDR200 is also not equipped to write to re‑recordable CD‑R.
The Fostex CDR200 is a neat, 3U rackmounting machine with a grey/beige finish. From what I can tell, its control layout and facilities exactly match those of the HHB CDR800, though the manual is different. This degree of similarity isn't always the case with budget machines, as there are sometimes hidden functions that some manufacturers wish to put under front‑panel control, while others prefer to leave them unused.
The analogue inputs are provided on balanced XLRs selectable for either +4dBu or ‑10dBV, or you can select the unbalanced phones as the recording source, all via the 3‑way slide switch on the back panel. Digital sources can be accepted from AES/EBU, S/PDIF co‑ax or S/PDIF optical, and a practical touch is that sample‑rate conversion is built in. This is obviously good news if you have a consumer DAT or DCC machine that only samples at 48kHz. However, the digital output always mirrors the digital input, so you can't use the unit as an impromptu sample‑rate converter, which is a missed opportunity. The sample‑rate converter switches itself out of circuit when the input is 44.1kHz, though the manual doesn't mention this. Avoiding unnecessary sample‑rate conversion is desirable, as the dithering process used during conversion will tend to undo any sophisticated noise‑shaping that's been used to increase the dynamic range during mastering.
There are no XLR analogue outputs, only phonos, but as consumer hi‑fi systems tend to use phono connections, that's not really a limitation. S/PDIF co‑ax and optical outputs are fitted, but there's no AES/EBU digital output. Those who need to use hard‑wired remote control can do so via a rear‑panel DIN connector, though an infra‑red remote control comes as standard, and some functions (such as setting the SCMS type) can only be accessed from the remote.
The manufacturers make much of the sound quality of this unit, and the analogue input uses good quality, single‑bit conversion, though few other technical details concerning the converters are provided. In addition to high‑quality electronics, the system employs a copper chassis and an inverted disc mechanism, where the disc sits label‑side down on a fairly heavy turntable, ostensibly to improve stability and reduce jitter. This geometry also prevents dust from collecting on the laser optics.
Red Book Orange Book
The CDR200 uses commercial CD‑R blanks, most of which have a maximum recording time of 74 minutes, and as with all CD‑R machines, a recorded disc needs to be 'finalised' so that it can be played back on a conventional CD player. Non‑finalised recordings conform to the Orange Book standard, which means that they won't be recognised by a regular CD player. Pressing Finalise, followed by Pause, creates the Table Of Contents (TOC), which takes around four minutes and brings the disc format up to Red Book standard. This means you now have a PQ‑encoded disc that is compatible with consumer hi‑fi machines, and which may also be used as a master for commercial CD production. Discs can be recorded in several stages, if preferred, and they may be played back on the CDR200 prior to being finalised. Until the disc is finalised, more material can be recorded, up to the maximum capacity of the disc.
One of the reasons for buying a stand‑alone CD‑R machine is simplicity of operation, and the CDR200 has much in common with DAT machines and consumer CD players. The display shows all the usual track numbers, playing time, elapsed time and remaining time, and the record‑level VU meters are also part of the main display. In general, the CDR200 offers all the programmed play functions you'd expect to find on a hi‑fi CD machine, and skip IDs can be added to force the player to skip tracks that you might have messed up. If you want to have commercial CDs produced from your master, you should write your whole disc in one go and not use skips.
Because the audio source material may be either analogue or digital, and because it may or may not contain track ID information, five separate recording modes are provided, the first of which Fostex call Synchro. Selecting the appropriate mode is simply a matter of stepping around the five options until the desired one shows up in the display window. Synchro allows you to record one track at a time, such that recording starts automatically when audio is detected, and ends either after a period of around 10 seconds of silence, or in the case of digital sources, it will also stop when the next track ID is encountered. It's also possible to stop the recording manually, by pressing the Stop button.
The next two modes are designed for use with digital sources where multiple tracks are to be recorded in one go. The first of these, Automatic Digital Source Synchro, is for material from CDs and suchlike that has embedded track IDs, which are then transferred directly to the disc as it is recorded. Mode 3 is similar, but is specifically for use with DAT sources, so that the DAT track ID markers can be turned into CD track IDs. This is the recommended mode to use when transferring a compiled DAT to CD in a single session, but you still either have to press the stop button manually or tolerate a long stretch of recorded silence at the end of the last track.
Some parts of the manual are really hard work because of the 'almost English' nature of the text. All the words make perfect sense, but after reading some of the sentences through several times you realise they don't mean anything at all. For example, and I quote, "This function is convenient at start of recording and when renewing track number in accordance to the DAT start ID (ID Sync recording)"!
Manual Digital Source Recording mode is for making digital transfers where there are no embedded track IDs, so you have to put them in manually. Unlike the previous modes, recording must be started and stopped manually. This mode is useful for recording from computer workstations which only output the raw audio data.
Last comes Analogue Source mode — no prizes for guessing that this is the mode to use with analogue source material. In analogue mode you have to set your record levels, just as you would on a DAT machine, and you can either manually write track IDs or rely on the system's own gap detection. Other operations include the facility to set up fade‑ins and fade‑outs during recording, and to record periods of silence, or even blank tracks. Once recording is complete, you need to press Stop, otherwise you'll end up with a load of blank space at the end of your last track before the machine actually realises you're done. When you don't want to add any more audio to the disc, finalise it to make it playable on Auntie Ethel's hi‑fi.
I would imagine that most of us want a CD‑R writer to make master or demo CDs of our own material from DAT sources, though you could also use DCC or MiniDisc in much the same way. The first step is to check you have all your DAT IDs in the right place. Because DAT IDs are originally triggered by the incoming audio, it's also a good idea to move them back half a second or so, just to make sure you don't miss the leading edge of the first sound in a track. Most DAT machines allow you to erase and rewrite IDs quite easily. After that, press the Digital Synchro button until Auto ID is selected, after which recording will start as soon as the first ID is detected.
At the end of your tape, recording will continue until around 20 seconds of silence have been recorded, after which recording will cease automatically. However, nobody wants 20 seconds of dead air at the end of their last track, so you really need to invest in a kitchen timer to remind you to come in and press the stop button. All the CD‑R machines I've looked at so far seem to have completely missed the point when it comes to ending a recording, because to my mind the whole idea of a stand‑alone CD‑R machine is that it should do the job unattended while you make money doing something else. If you could put in a dummy DAT start ID at the end of your tape, then tell the recorder which number ID to stop at, it would be fine, but this isn't possible. Until this serious shortcoming is sorted out, I refuse to consider any of these machines entirely suitable for professional use!
If you need a stand‑alone CD recorder that can use the cheaper CD‑R (non‑consumer) blank discs, the Fostex CDR200 is just about the cheapest solution — although, as I said in the introduction, it appears to be identical to the similarly priced HHB CDR800, aside from a few cosmetic details. On the whole, the machine is easy to use and the various record modes meet most needs, but I still feel uneasy about having to be on hand to physically stop the recording straight after the last track, in order to prevent unwanted 'silent' audio being recorded at the end of the album. The audio quality of the discs appears to be essentially identical to that of the source material, though there may be some small subjective change as you play back on different CD machines, due to the varying quality of converters used in CD players.
For the private studio owner wanting to offer a small‑run disc service to clients, this machine is close to ideal, though you can still save money by buying a consumer machine. Which you go for depends on how many discs you're likely to want to record — currently the price difference is around £1 per disc, so the break‑even point is at around 500 recordings.
SCMS — Or Not!
SCMS (Serial Copy Management System) has been a constant irritation with consumer DAT machines, and more recently with consumer CD‑R recorders, but with the CDR200 the user has the choice of adding SCMS to the final disc or not. The CDR200 has three rear‑panel switchable SCMS modes, and can make discs that have no protection at all (copy bit 1), discs that can be copied once (copy bit 0), and copy‑prohibited discs (copy bit 1/0). Of course, when it's your own material being duplicated, you might be glad of the facility to protect it.
- Cost effective, especially as you don't have to buy the more expensive consumer discs.
- Fairly straightforward to use.
- Can produce Red Book, PQ‑encoded master discs.
- Can handle digital AES/EBU and S/PDIF sources (optical and co‑axial) as well as both balanced and unbalanced.
- Switchable SCMS modes.
- Still no simple and reliable way of sync'ing the end of recording to the desired point on the DAT master.
- The manual makes hard work of describing the workings of an essentially simple product.
- Doesn't work with the new‑generation rewritable CDs.
Though computer‑based systems and consumer CD‑R machines are cheaper, this solution combines pro interfacing and operational simplicity with the ability to use low‑cost pro CD blanks.