These days there are several ways of going about recording your own CDs. Paul White gives this new Marantz professional stand‑alone model a spin and discovers a few advantages over using a computer and CD‑ROM drive.
Thanks to the falling cost of CD‑ROM recorders, most people interested in recording music at home can turn out their own audio CDs on their own computer, as well as using the drive to back up conventional computer data or audio files from a hard disk recording system. The majority of new CD‑ROM drives will also work with CD‑RW (or CD‑Rewritable) discs, and when you consider that such a drive might cost under £250 the proposition looks very attractive, compared with stand‑alone audio CD recorders costing three or four times as much. What's more, a computer drive will normally write a disc at four times normal speed, whereas a stand‑alone CD recorder always works in real time, so at first glance the computer‑based CD‑ROM drive wins hands down. After all, why pay anything up to £1000, or even more, for a box that can only record audio (and only in real time at that), when for a quarter of the price you can record audio or computer data on to the same discs in a quarter of the time?
A Question Of Speed
The answer can be found in the fable of the tortoise and the hare, because although a computer drive is both fast and versatile, you generally have to spend a long time loading audio to disk and messing around with software before you can start to burn your CD. Whereas a stand‑alone recorder can be used in much the same way as a cassette deck or DAT machine, a computer‑based system expects you first to record all your audio material to a hard drive as separate audio files. Then you have to arrange these files (in the case of an album each track would be a file) in a playlist and specify the gap length between the tracks before you can start to burn your CD. If your experience is anything like mine, you also have to create a disk image file of the completed album, in order to get reliable copies.If you're lucky, it's plain sailing from there on, as the drive will record a typical CD album in around 15 to 20 minutes, but if you didn't make that disk image first you could be unlucky and fall foul of the dreaded buffer under‑run error. This leaves you with nothing but an expensive coaster to show for your troubles.
A typical stand‑alone CD recorder can't record computer data (although some of the more expensive models can) and everything happens in real time, but their strong point is that you can start recording almost as soon as you've connected the cables from the source machine. If you're recording from an analogue stereo master, or from a CD that has a particularly stubborn copy‑protection flag, you can go in via the analogue inputs, but if you have a digital master, from a DAT machine or Minidisc recorder, you can take a digital feed from the source and record without even having to check the levels. Better still, most decent CD recorders can turn DAT start IDs into the corresponding CD track start IDs that form part of a CD's vital PQ coding. Fine‑tuning the song start IDs on a DAT tape is a relatively simple task, and it's easy to verify that everything is correct before you burn your disk, so in theory it's a straightforward matter to go from master tape to master disc, without having to pass through the expensive coaster stage!
On the convenience and simplicity front, then, stand‑alone CD recorders look pretty good, but before you get carried away there are a couple of other factors to consider. Firstly, there are two kinds of stand‑alone CD recorder: the consumer model and the professional model. Consumer models are cheap but they can only record on to consumer blank discs, and these discs include a copyright levy, on the assumption that consumers will be recording commercial CDs or material from the radio rather than making up their own tunes. If you're making your own music and you buy a consumer machine, you're paying a copyright fee to existing artists every time you record your own material — think about it!
A blank disc for a professional recorder costs around £1, whereas a consumer disk costs over £3 — not an insignificant difference. Put a professional CDR blank into a consumer machine and it won't recognise it. Professional machines, on the other hand, can record on to either type of disc, though there's no reason to use expensive consumer discs unless you're desperate and they're all you can get hold of at short notice when an urgent job comes up.
The Marantz CDR630 is probably the least expensive machine of its type on the market that records on to the low‑cost, professional CD‑R blanks. It can also record on CD‑RW, the rewritable equivalent, though most current hi‑fi CD players aren't able to play these disks. However, it is expected that a number of new CD models will appear later this year that can replay CD‑RW, which means that you could compile an album on CD‑RW, check it thoroughly for problems, then use it as the master in a regular CD player to make further perfect digital copies via your CDR630. As things stand at the moment, though, CD‑RWs tend only to play in CD recorders and CD‑ROM drives, so if you're in the market for a new CD player as well, it might be wise to ask about CR‑RW compatibility.
Packaged in a 2U rackmount case, the CDR630 is equipped with both balanced (XLR) and unbalanced (phono) analogue inputs, as well as both phono and optical S/PDIF digital I/O, though as you might expect, given the low price of the machine, there's no AES/EBU digital interface. The front panel is very simple, with only eight buttons over and above the usual transport and power buttons, and an infra‑red remote controller is included with the package, along with mains, phono and S/PDIF coax leads. Most of the general descriptions relating to stand‑alone CD‑R recorders apply to this machine, including the 'auto stop after silence' function (see the 'Silent Scream' box), which in this case gives you 20 seconds before pulling the plug. This setting cannot be changed, and the same is true for the the auto track ID mode, which looks for a three‑second period where the signal level is below ‑50dB.
When you're recording digitally, this can be directly from a 44.1kHz source or you can switch in a sample‑rate converter to handle other rates. If the sample‑rate conversion is switched off, the source sample rate must be accurate to better than 100 parts per million, otherwise the recording will either refuse to start or may stop part‑way through. Some systems have automatic sample‑rate conversion that only comes in when needed, but because sample‑rate conversion can introduce audible (though usually subtle) side effects, it's good to be able to be sure that it's switched off when you don't need it. When recording from a commercial CD via the digital input, pressing the CD Sync button once will record one track at a time and then stop, while pressing it twice will record the whole album. Recording commences as soon as a CD track start ID is recognised, and these IDs are transferred to the recorded disc.
Once a recording has been made, the disc must be finalised to create a table of contents before it can be played on a regular CD player, but before that time it can still be played back, and new material added using the CDR630. Finalising takes just a few minutes. Note that if you want to erase a a CD‑RW disc once it has been finalised, you have to erase the whole disk. Prior to finalising, it's possible to erase backwards from the last track recorded.
The Marantz CDR630 is probably the least expensive machine of its type on the market that records on to the low‑cost, professional CD‑R blanks.
Making recordings with the CDR630 is as simple as selecting the correct input source, setting 44.1kHz or sample rate conversion (in the case of a digital input), and then deciding on whether to use a manual or automatic mode of entering track start IDs. Levels can be monitored o n the bargraph plasma meters prior to recording (only necessary when making analogue recordings) and then you can sit back and wait for your CD to finish cooking. If you're recording in 'track at once' mode, you can play back the partially complete disc on the CDR630, but to make the disk playable on your hi‑fi you have to set your recording in stone by pressing Finalise, quickly followed by Record. After this step, no more recording is possible, and as mentioned earlier, even CD‑RWs must be completely erased once they've been finalised, if you want to re‑use them.
The sound quality of recordings made via the analogue inputs is comparable with that obtainable from a good DAT machine, while using the digital input should not affect the sound in any way — I certainly couldn't tell the difference between an original commercial CD and a digital clone (made purely in the interests of science, you understand!). All essential functions can be carried out without the remote control, the latter offering a number of repeat and program modes of the type that are often fitted to hi‑fi CD players and seldom used. Up to 20 tracks can be programmed to play in any order.
Though stand‑alone CD recorders are a little restricted in what they can do, they still offer a self‑contained, straightforward means of making low‑cost audio CDs from either digital or analogue sources. This is important in a small commercial studio, as the CD recorder can get on with the job of making copies for the client while the engineer continues to make use of the computer in the studio. High‑cost machines may have a few more bells and whistles than the Marantz CDR630, but in reality it has all the features you need to make CDs from DAT masters, open‑reel tape, or just about any other source.
CD recorders have got past the stage of being glamorous devices, but they do complete the audio chain from musical conception to finished product, and with recordable blanks available for well under £1 each if bought in quantity, producing your own limited CD release for sale at gigs or over the Internet is no longer an expensive dream. Indeed, making CDs is now cheaper and more convenient than producing cassette copies.
At the moment, the Marantz CDR630 is the most cost‑effective stand‑alone CD recorder that can use low‑cost professional media, and though the CD‑RW side of things may seem of limited use at the moment, all that will change when the next generation of CD‑RW compatible hi‑fi players comes along.
All the self‑contained CD recorders I've tried include a system that switches off recording whenever the input is silent for more than a given number of seconds — usually between six and 20 seconds depending on the make and model. This prevents the recorder from continuing to record minutes of blank material at the end of an album, but it does mean that long gaps between tracks on an album, or very quiet pieces of classical music, can cause the machine to turn off — and there's no way around this. I had a recent mastering job where the client wanted a 30‑second gap between the last two tracks on the album, but when I referred the disc copying to a friend with a stand‑alone machine, there was absolutely no way he could do the job. Whatever he tried, the recorder switched itself off before the last song started to play. In the end I had to do the job myself, using Digidesign's Masterlist CD, which did the job perfectly, but it took quite a while to compile the album and create a disk image before I could produce a CD copy.
If any manufacturers are reading this, please provide a means to disable this function, and also the facility to halt recording automatically at a specific start ID. That way you could create a fake track directly after the last track on your DAT master tape to stop the recording in the right place.
Another silence‑related issue is the means by which recorders insert track IDs when the source isn't digital. You can either sit there manually and enter them as you need them or you can select a manual mode that inserts a new start ID after more than two or three seconds of silence. This sounds fine in practice, but if you're trying to record an old vinyl album you may find that either the track gaps aren't long enough to register a new start ID, or the background noise between tracks prevents the recorder from ever recognising a silence.
- Includes switchable sample‑rate conversion.
- Choice of balanced or unbalanced analogue and optical or coaxial digital inputs.
- Uses low‑cost professional CD‑R media.
- Auto switch‑off after 20 seconds of silence can't be adjusted or overidden.
- Auto track ID threshold and time are non‑adjustable.
The CDR630 is a low‑cost, easy to use CD recorder that does what's asked of it with no fuss.