Yamaha's new CD‑ROM burner comes with the option of a cut‑price copy of Toast 3.5, allowing you to create backups, burn CDs, and even make your own CD‑ROMs. Paul White tries out the combination.
With the price of blank recordable CDs falling to below the equivalent length of DAT tape, there is a strong case for using them in the computer‑based studio, not only for making your own audio CDs, but also for backing up the digital audio files and MIDI sequence data from completed projects, or even for archiving your DAT masters. Of course they may also be used to back up other data from your computer — in my case, it would be quite useful to be able to move several hundred out‑of‑date SOS articles and graphic files into CD‑R storage, to let me get some of my hard drive back!
Yamaha's CDR400tx is a SCSI2 external CD‑R read/write drive with full Multimedia Command Set support, yet is no larger than a compact CD‑ROM player. There are few controls, other than a power switch, eject button and a couple of LEDs to indicate that the drive is ready, and whether it is reading or writing — as with all such devices, the real work is done via software.
The CDR400tx connects to the host computer via SCSI, which means that it can be used with pretty much any Mac, or with a PC that has a suitable SCSI card fitted. The SCSI ID may be set using one of those thumbwheel switches that you have to jab with a ballpoint pen instead of a thumb, and a SCSI Thru port is provided. There's no need for a terminator as a switchable, internal terminator is fitted. Unfortunately, as there are at least three possible options for the 'other end' of a SCSI2 cable, you have to provide your own, and this will cost around £20.
The CDR400tx is able to write discs at 1x, 2x or 4x speed, and can read CD‑ROMs at up to six times normal speed, which equates to a data transfer rate of 900K per second. However, the real limitation on how fast you can burn is the type of software you're running, the model and speed of your computer, and the hard drive you use for storing your audio files. Digital audio extraction is also possible at six times speed.
A 2Mb buffer (which is equivalent to 500 disc sectors) is included, and the access speed is 250ms, which, although slow by hard disk standards, is par for the course for CD‑R. A motorised tray is used to load the disc, and this is the one area of the machine that I feel nervous about — the tray is so flimsy that it almost sags under its own weight, but providing you don't use it as a coffee cup holder, lean on it or leave it open in a strong breeze, I'm sure it will be fine. Two phonos provide a stereo audio output at a nominal 1V line level (20Hz‑20kHz).
Yamaha don't deliver their own software with the drive — it doesn't even come with a driver — but they offer the option of Astarte's Toast software (for Macintosh) for around £50 extra, and I've just managed to get the latest version (3.5), which sports some useful enhancements for audio CD work. Windows users could use CeQuadrat's WinOnCD, though it seems that several of the major PC digital editing software packages will shortly become CDR400tx‑compatible, and Sonic Foundry's CD Architect (reviewed in October 1997's Sound On Sound) already supports the drive. Digidesign users may be pleased to know that Masterlist CD v1.4 now supports this drive, which means you can turn out fully PQ‑coded masters.
Toast is a kind of jack‑of‑all trades ROM‑burning package capable of handling audio CDs, Mac‑format CD‑ROMS, PC‑format CD‑ROMS and generic CD‑ROMs that may comply with some other type of formatting. Toast also makes it possible to produce duplicates from your master CDs, so once you've mastered and compiled your album on hard disk, copies can be run off, taking around 20 minutes each. Another audio feature is the ability to make an audio CD by compiling your own selection of tracks from existing CDs, though I'm sure you don't need me to remind you that unless you're doing this only for your own use, using CDs you own, you might fall foul of copyright law.
However, Toast does have some rather frustrating limitations for audio CD compilation, especially if you've just compiled your album using Digidesign Sound Designer II's playlist and you're too tight to buy Masterlist CD. Toast can only put track IDs at the start of a file, so you have to break your album up into separate song files, then clean up the starts and finishes by trimming and discarding the unwanted data at either end. Only then can you move the desired files into Toast's playlist and add your own gaps, in 0.5‑second increments. While Toast can turn SDII text or numeric markers into index points (which only some CD machines can read), it can't turn them into track IDs.
On the face of it, this precludes the siting of track IDs in the middle of sections of audio, such as during a track crossfade, or during applause on a live album, but there is a possible way around that. Yamaha's drive can handle track spacings of down to zero seconds, something that not all drives will do, so you could split a linked pair of tracks into two files, import them into Toast, then play one after the other with a gap time of zero.
To be truly useful as a professional audio CD writing tool, Toast should really accept Digidesign markers for use as track IDs to be translated into PQ codes, or, at the very least, you should be able to compile SDII regions within Toast's playlist. Even the facility to put your album in as one long file, then enter the PQ codes by hand would be acceptable, but entering individual tracks as separate files seems to be the only option. However, there's a more basic reason not to use Toast for producing CD masters for duplication: Toast compiles its audio albums in track‑at‑once rather than disk‑at‑once mode, and most CD manufacturers demand masters written in disk‑at‑once mode. In track‑at‑once mode, the writing laser shuts off between each track, which can lead to errors.
To write CDs for professional duplication, you need another program, such as Toast CD‑DA, CD Architect, or Digidesign's Masterlist CD on the Mac. It's here that stand‑alone CD writers score, as they can translate DAT IDs directly into CD start IDs, though the designers of most of them have completely overlooked the need to make the recorder stop on cue at the end of the album!
The basic Toast software fares better for more conventional CD‑ROM work, and when backing up files it provides a means to create a temporary partition on your hard drive into which you can place the files you want to back up. The partition requires contiguous disk space, so you may find you have to defragment your drive first. This is the method you'd use for backing up MIDI and audio files, something CD‑R is extremely good at. If you have a removable hard drive, you don't even need to create a partition — you simply copy all your files to the removable drive, then back up the entire volume.
Yamaha's CDR400tx is one of the fastest and most comprehensively specified low‑cost CD‑ROM burners around and, unlike some devices that are restricted by their hardware, is really limited only by the software being used. Fortunately, it seems to be gaining a high level of software support, and there are several useful packages supporting it already. The high speed, the fact that any data the support software demands can be burned, and that zero track spacing is supported is all good news, as is the fact that both separate sessions and disk‑at‑once mode are supported.
Toast is a very flexible piece of software considering its low cost. However, it falls rather short of being up to the job of professional CD mastering, which means that you'll have to look elsewhere for software if you want to offer a comprehensive commercial service. However, if all you need to do is knock out CD demos that can be played on a regular CD player, Toast will do it for you. Astarte's own own Toast CD‑DA is more flexible but, as far as I'm aware, it still isn't capable of importing SDII regions — though the program is due to be superseded by a more advanced program, called Jam, which should be arriving on our breakfast tables soon. Digidesign's Masterlist CD only works with drives specifically supported by the software, and I was very pleased to see the CDR400tx on the supported list for version 1.4.
PC users are, for once, rather better off than Mac owners, in that there's already a large choice of software capable of compiling, editing and burning audio CDs on the PC — all you need is a relatively inexpensive SCSI card, a big hard drive, and you're in business.
I tried the CDR400tx with my PC setup, and was impressed by its physical design, and in particular the twin LED readout: the one on the left shows either red (power but no disc), red flashing (inserting or ejecting disc), green flashing (initialising disc), or steady green (power and disc inserted). The second of the two LEDs provides comprehensive read/write activity information, so that you know exactly what's going on at each stage of the burning process. The power switch on the front panel is also very welcome, since most other drives expect you to delve around the back. On the mechanical side, the CD tray itself makes a wonderful hi‑tech sound as it emerges, but is quite flexible, as Paul White mentions, so if you're the clumsy type you should take care while it's exposed. The only negative point for studio use (and this applies to all external drives) is the noise of the cooling fan.
The CDR400tx worked fine when playing back audio CDs, although, like all CD‑ROM drives used for audio purposes, you do get a tiny bit of 'ticking' going on quietly in the background. As with seemingly all Yamaha 'voicing', the sound is extremely crisp and 'zingy'.
As with every other CD recorder on the market, you can buy this unit bundled with a variety of software. Yamaha leaves it up to each supplier to offer their own choices, but most can offer several alternatives, including Direct CD, CD Creator (originally from Corel, but now part of the Adaptec empire), Adaptec's own Easy CD Pro, and Cequadrat's WinOnCD 3. Sonic Foundry's CD Architect already supports the CDR400tx directly.
I've already covered Cequadrat's WinOnCD 3 as part of the Teac CDR50S review in the May issue of SOS, but Steinberg's WaveLab 1.6 also uses the Cequadrat 'engine' for CD writing, so I checked on the Cequadrat web site (www.cequadrat.com/), and this confirmed that the Yamaha CDR400tx is supported. I do wish, though, that individual drivers were available from this site — I'm surely not the only person who resents having to download over a megabyte of data just to find out whether one particular driver has been added or updated. Fortunately, anyone with WaveLab 1.6 can download a 222K update, which includes the CDR400tx driver, directly from the Steinberg web site (www.steinberg‑us.com/).
Adaptec seem intent on taking over the world when it comes to CD‑writing software, having incorporated Astarte's Toast and Corel's CD Creator into their empire. The latest piece of PC software from Adaptec is Easy CD Creator, which has a number of intriguing features. From the moment you start the application, the EasyCD Wizard provides a selection of either/or responses, to get you as far as the actual burn with the minimum of effort and time. It works surprisingly well. If you type in the Track Names and details, the package will even allow you to print a neatly formatted jewel‑case insert. This package is fine for general‑purpose data or audio use, and it also allows you to modify the 2‑second gap between tracks. It also supports digital importing of audio tracks, which worked fine with the CDR400tx, achieving 6x speed in the process. This makes it easy to copy most sorts of CDs — it takes 10 minutes to read an hour‑long CD at 6x speed, and 15 minutes to burn a new one at 4x write speed. As I also had a TEAC SCSI CD‑ROM drive to hand, I tried the ultimate test — real‑time copying of an audio CD, simultaneously reading from the TEAC drive, and writing to the Yamaha one at 4x speed. A 72‑minute CD took exactly 18 minutes, with no buffer underrun errors on my machine. However, there were occasional low‑level 'ticks' on the CD‑R after burning, which, on closer inspection, were actual gaps and overlaps in the waveforms, and which were definitely not on the original CD. I tried again, this time writing an image file on the hard disk first, and all was well. This suggests that the problem is due to the two SCSI devices accessing the buss at the same time, which is a bit worrying, but at least it seems unconnected to the actual drives.
If you fancy making up a compilation from your favourite LPs, cassette tapes and CDs, another application included as part of the same bundle is Spin Doctor, which lets you "Easily turn scratchy LPs into crystal clear CDs". This uses your soundcard's input to record from external sources, and provides various recording options, which include basic click, pop and hiss reduction, silence detection for automatically splitting albums into tracks, and loudness balancing for individual tracks. A 'verify before write' option is also included, so that you can hear these treatments before burning the audio CD. You wouldn't expect it to rival Sound Forge or WaveLab, but it works well. There is a red sheet inside the box, warning you to contact your legal adviser before copying anything, but we musicians respect other artists' copyright, don't we? Martin Walker
- Fast, compact and reasonably priced.
- Comprehensive feature set, including disk‑at‑once write mode and zero track‑gap spacing.
- Toast available as a low‑cost option.
- Well supported by third‑party software.
- Drive tray rather flimsy.
A well‑specified, fast drive that works reliably and has a good level of software support.