You are here

Creating Audio CDs & The Future Of CD-R; NeatO

PC Notes
Published September 1996

The ability to make your own audio or data CDs with your PC can be enormously useful and is becoming cheaper all the time. But what exactly do you need to buy? Brian Heywood finds out.

Without trying to blow my own trumpet too loudly, the burgeoning of CD Recordable (CD‑R) technology has been predicted by this column over the last couple of years. However, the revolution isn't over yet; this technology is so mind‑bogglingly useful that I imagine that loads of new ways of using the ability to create your own CD‑ROMs (and CDs) have yet to surface. For instance, I've heard that a device driver provided with the JVC ROMmaker system allows you to write to a CD‑ROM as if it was a hard disk, allowing any PC application to create files on a CD‑R — just think how useful this would be for backing up your data.

The road to CD‑R heaven isn't entirely without its pitfalls, though: for instance, there's currently a worldwide shortage of CD‑R blanks, which is pushing up prices at the moment. However, production problems like this tend to be short‑lived, and no doubt another CD‑R plant will come online and the prices will drop again. There are also potential problems with CD‑R drives. I've been using Yamaha drives (the CDE100 and 102) which give excellent results with a wide variety of brands of gold disc blanks, but I've heard of other folk having problems with some of the cheap and cheerful drives now hitting the market. It seems that some drives are optimised for certain brands of CD‑R blank. So sticking to well‑regarded brands of drive — like the Yamaha ones — can reduce the potential for media problems.

A CD‑R gold disc can be read by a standard CD‑ROM drive or domestic CD player, making it ideal for archiving, distributing large amounts of data, or creating one‑off audio CDs.

How can the PC musician take advantage of this developing technology? The most obvious application is creating a one‑off audio CD for your demos, or delivering a finished product to your client or CD mastering plant. When mastering CDs, you can save money, since you can bypass the requirement for PQ encoding of your digital master and go straight to the glass mastering stage. Gold discs aren't the preferred format for CD mastering plants, since many have experienced quality problems with CD‑R disc masters. But this 'unreliability' of the gold disc format can be reduced quite easily by being careful, both with quality of the blanks and with handling discs.

The quality of the gold disc blank is a very important factor in the reliability of the master. Some gold discs are almost transparent, which means that the sensitive reader used in the CD plant for the mastering process picks up interference from the printing on the top surface of the CD. Another important factor affecting quality and reliability is the care taken in handling the finished gold disc. The mastering process involves reading the raw audio data off the master CD, and any dust or fingerprints will cause errors that will be transferred to the glass master. If too many errors are present, the plant will need to re‑master the disc — and charge you for it, of course.

Getting Into Gear

If you'd like to start creating discs on your PC, CD‑ROMs are simple enough, since this is the most usual use for CD‑R on a PC, and there are a number of low‑cost CD‑ROM mastering packages available for Windows. Creating audio or mixed mode (data + audio) CDs is a different matter, and you usually have to go upmarket somewhat to get this facility. One exception to the rule is an application called Gear, from the Dutch company Electroson. This is a pretty comprehensive package which has versions for most operating systems — Windows 3.1, Windows NT, Windows 95, and Mac OS — not bad for a budget package.

Attaching a CD‑R drive to your PC is by far the cheapest way of obtaining the facility to create audio CDs.

Under Windows 3.1, Gear works in conjunction with the File Manager, allowing you to select files by 'dragging and dropping' them into its main window. As you can drag entire directories, you can very quickly create an image of your hard disk ready for copying to CD. Using Gear, you can create multiple tracks, which you specify as being data (first track only) or audio. To define the contents of an audio track, you simply drag a CD‑quality WAV file (16‑bit stereo, 44.1kHz) into the appropriate track window. The audio side is pretty basic, and you need to have enough disk space to hold the WAV files — allow 10.5Mb for each minute of audio — but Gear offers quite a simple way of making audio CDs.

Of course, there are other ways to create one‑off CDs: more and more professional PC‑based non‑linear editors (hard disk recorders), like SADiE, and Creamware's TripleDAT, have added this facility, along with full PQ encoding and subcode. There are also stand‑alone units, like the Marantz CDR‑620/615, which allow you to 'record' a CD in rather the same way that you make a tape. However, attaching a CD‑R drive to your PC is by far the cheapest way of obtaining the facility to create audio CDs. To get the Gear, you need £99, and it's available from CD Revolution (01932 562000).

CD Labelling

Once you've created your CD, you'll need to label it. One of the slightly disappointing aspects of creating a gold disc is that you can only label it with a soft felt‑tip pen — you can't normally stick printed labels on a disc. Using standard labels can give you problems, both by upsetting the balance of the spinning CD, and because the glues used for self‑adhesive labels can attack the gold film backing on the recordable CD, eventually making it unusable.

One labelling system I've recently come across is the rather bizarrely named NeatO from MicroPatent UK — one of the world's leading publishers of information on CD. Apparently, they developed the system so that they could produce short runs of CDs for their own clients. The package comes in three sections: a set of pre‑cut, self‑adhesive labels suitable for laser printing, a plastic contraption for applying the labels to the CD, and a label‑design software package. The labels cover the entire surface of the CD, so there's no danger of the disc becoming unbalanced, and the adhesive has been undergoing accelerated life testing to check that it doesn't attack the plastic of the CD. The Windows‑based label‑creation software is pretty nifty, and allows you to place text and graphics anywhere on the label, with curved lettering effects, and so on. You can also define templates for labels you produce on a regular basis, with automatically updated date fields.

The plastic label applicator allows you to affix the label without touching the business side of the CD and ensures that the printed label is applied evenly to the top, without wrinkles or bubbles. You have to be a bit careful to get the best results, but in all this is a very useful little product that can be used with any type of blank CD. The kit — software, applicator hardware and 99 labels — costs just under £65 and is available from MicroPatent on 0181 932 0540.

The Gold Standard: Recordable CDS

A CD‑R drive uses special blank CD‑ROMs that have a gold appearance, and are thus called gold discs. These discs are actually a sandwich of a gold film, an organic dye, and a clear protective lacquer. The CD‑R drive's laser causes the dye to change its reflective properties, giving a similar effect to the microscopic 'pits' found on a mass‑produced (silver) CD. The upshot of this is that a CD‑R gold disc can be read by a standard CD‑ROM drive or domestic CD player, making it an ideal medium for archiving, distributing large amounts of data, or creating one‑off audio CDs.

Getting On‑Line

If you want to look at the screen shots for the items in this column, or link to the web sites listed in this (and previous columns) point your web browser at the PC Notes area on Route66 at:

To find out how to get access to the Internet (and thus the World Wide Web) from virtually anywhere in the UK, at local call rates, call CIX on 0181 296 9666, or email