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Q. What kind of CD recorder is best?

Stand‑alone CD writers are simple to use but not as flexible as the computer‑based variety.Stand‑alone CD writers are simple to use but not as flexible as the computer‑based variety.

Should I buy a stand‑alone CD recorder or a SCSI computer peripheral CD burner? I don't know what the advantages and disadvantages of the two would be.

Alan Fish‑Barr

Editor Paul White replies: On the face if it, this is a simple question, but before you can answer it, you need to ask yourself what you want a CD writer to do. If you're considering the computer option, you also need to check whether there are suitable drives that are compatible with your computer and with your prospective choice of CD‑burning software.

In favour of the stand‑alone recorder option is its simplicity of operation, and the fact that you don't need a computer to make it work. You can also use it to play back audio CDs or, in conjunction with a regular CD player, make copies of your own audio CDs at the press of a button or two.

However, if you want to make CDs to be used as masters for Red Book commercial audio CDs, you will need to burn your album in disk–at–once mode, which normally means compiling the individual tracks on a DAT machine or computer editing system first. If you master directly to CD‑R one track at a time, pausing or stopping the machine between each recording, the final disk can't be used as a production master. One stand‑alone machine that gets around this problem is Marantz's CDR500, which has two drives, enabling disk‑at‑once masters to be made from track‑at‑once CDs. The Alesis MasterLink also provides a flexible solution, as it combines the roles of hard‑disk mastering machine, editor and audio CD burner.

The disadvantage of stand‑alone machines is that they record in real time, making them quite slow, and they can only record audio — you can't use them to back up computer data.

The computer‑based CD writer is a cheaper solution, even if you need to budget for a SCSI card to connect it to your computer. It's also more flexible, but as you might imagine, it's also slightly less straightforward to use. Perhaps the best way to set up a system is to first choose the software you want to work with (Toast, Jam, NeroMax, Easy CD Creator, Waveburner or whatever), then visit the appropriate web site to find out what drives are compatible with that software. Once you have the list of drives, find one that's still in production (many supported drives will be obsolete) and that meets your needs for speed, price and connection protocol.

When using a CD burner with a computer, it's sometimes best to have a general‑purpose piece of backup software (Adaptec software comes bundled with many drives), as well as something a little more specific for audio‑CD generation. For example, Roxio's Jam is popular for Mac users, while PC users have rather more choice.

The benefits are that stereo music tracks saved on a computer hard drive can be compiled in a playlist, auditioned, then burned to a Red Book‑compatible audio CD, often much faster than real time. This needs around a Gigabyte of free hard drive space to hold the audio, and the same is true if you want to duplicate an existing CD, as the tracks usually have to be copied onto the computer first to do the job reliably. However, this is usually quite straightforward, and there's the added bonus that you can make CD compilations of your favourite tracks from different albums very easily (for your own use, naturally!).

In addition to greater flexibility when producing or copying audio CDs, the CD‑R machine also provides a useful way of backing up computer data, MIDI song files and audio data files from your sequencer. The usefulness of this can't be over‑emphasised, as backing up work done in a MIDI + Audio sequencer is hugely important. Furthermore, if you use CD–RW discs, you can re‑record the discs if you need to, and software is now available that allows CD‑RW disks to behave much like regular hard drives (in other words, you don't have to erase stuff sequentially or all at once), albeit somewhat more slowly.