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Using Toast & Masterlist CD To Make CDs In The Studio

Tips & Tricks By Mike Collins
Published March 1997

Now that CD writers and well‑specified CD‑burning software are becoming more affordable, you might like to think about the advantages DIY CDs could bring to your studio. Mike Collins explains the benefits and takes you through the burning process using two popular software packages.

Like many studio owners, you may have started to notice some great deals on CD writers and software at around half the price they were this time last year; you might be wondering whether you could now take the plunge into making your own CDs. You probably already have a suitable computer, and maybe you also have a digital audio card for it. Already, your hard disks are full of data, and opticals for backups are not particularly cheap — so a CD‑writer could do a lot for you. A whopping 650Mb of computer data can be backed up on a CD‑ROM disc for around a fiver, and you can also make an audio CD with the same machine — if you have the right software.

The Hardware

There are lots of CD‑R drives available to choose from, and I have had successful results using the Sony 920, the Plasmon 4240, and the Yamaha CDR100. These drives offer different speeds of writing, with the Sony and Plasmon offering up to 2x speeds and the Yamaha offering 4x speed. A 1x machine takes as long to write the disc as the audio lasts, while 2x halves the time taken and 4x quarters it. Of course, this also depends to some extent on the CPU speed of the computer you are using and the capabilities of any other software or hardware involved. You need to use a fast hard drive, ideally an A/V model which will stream the data onto the CD‑R disc with no interruptions, and you'll need an audio card if you go for Digidesign's MasterList CD software.

You also need to give some thought to blank discs (as these are not all made equal), particularly if you want to burn discs at 4x speed. I stick to well‑known brands such as Maxell, HHB and TDK, and I have had problems with some other makes refusing to burn successfully.

I use a PowerMac 9500/132 computer with Digidesign Pro Tools III installed, although until recently I was using a Quadra 950 with a 4‑channel Pro Tools system, which also worked extremely well. As far as software is concerned, I started out with Astarte's Toast CD‑ROM Pro so that I could back up my Macintosh files more cost‑effectively and ended up shelling out plenty of extra dosh for Digidesign's MasterList CD so that I could produce professional‑quality audio discs.

Using Toast To Burn A CD‑ROM Disc

There are two ways to do this. If you have a hard disk of up to 650Mb in size, you can simply select this from within Toast and 'burn' it to disc. If you're using a larger hard drive, you can create a temporary partition, of up to 650Mb in size, and then copy the data you want to record to CD‑ROM into this. Just select the relevant item from the Options menu, and you'll be able to name the partition and select which drive to use. A temporary hard disk icon, which behaves just like a normal hard disk, will appear on your desktop. Copying the files you want to back up onto this temporary partition will ensure that they are all contiguous (with no gaps between the data) and available from the same drive. They will then be more likely to burn successfully onto the CD‑ROM.

To back up your Macintosh data or audio files, you just double‑click on Toast CD‑ROM Pro, and up comes a window where you can search the SCSI ports to locate your CD‑R and select the data to write to the disc. If you are making a Mac HFS CD‑ROM, the software conveniently defaults to this mode, although you could select other modes for different types of disc from the CD‑ROM menu at this point.

In the main window of the software (see left), you use the Data button to select the hard disk volume you want to burn to disc. If you have partitioned your hard disk drive using disk‑formatting software such as FWB Toolkit, you can split the disk into two or more partitions which will each 'mount' on your Macintosh desktop as though they were quite separate disk drives — and they are, as far as your files are concerned. The Select Volume dialogue box which comes up lets you choose from the different drives currently hooked up to your computer. Here you can select from various options, including 'Don't Copy Free Space', 'Build System 6 Desktop File', and 'Bootable'. This last option is the one to go for if you're making a CD‑ROM disc with Macintosh files, including a Macintosh System Folder from which you might want to boot up your computer. For instance, you might want to put the entire contents of your internal hard drive onto a CD, so that if the internal drive ever goes down you can re‑boot from the CD‑R backup, re‑format your internal drive, and then copy the data back to your internal drive. This trick doesn't work with all CD‑ROM drives, though — mostly only with the newer Apple CD‑ROM drives which are built into many of the current models. And don't forget that you should be backing up your work files as you go — to optical disc, DAT, or whatever.

At this stage, be sure to carefully arrange the folders on the hard drive that you are writing to disc, to make sure that the windows open in sensible positions onscreen and that the files are arranged neatly — because you can't change your layout after you've written the disc!

When you're using a particular combination of computer and hard drive for the first time, it's wise to test the system to see which writing speeds will work successfully — so hit the Check Speed button. After using the Start button, wait until the low and high figures settle. The required data transfer rate is displayed below, so that you can check that your system is fast enough. I used a temporary partition of 650Mb on a Micropolis 4Gb A/V drive with my PowerMac 9500, and there was more than enough speed available to write to the disc at 4x speed.

Once you've chosen the speed, hitting the Write CD button will cause a prompt to insert a CD‑R blank to appear. Finally, you'll be presented with the Write CD dialogue window. Many CD recorders, such as the Yamaha CDR100, will let you create multi‑session discs, so you could write, say, 100Mb of data the first time, then add another 200Mb on a second session, and fill up the remaining 350Mb later. Toast therefore gives you options to write either a single session (which you would choose if you had a smaller amount of data than space on the CD and you wanted to write subsequent sessions), or to write the data to the whole disk (which I chose, as I had almost 650Mb to write). At 4x speed the disc took about 17 minutes to write, and at the end of this time you can choose to verify the data if you like. Verification actually takes about the same length of time as writing the disc, so you can eject the finished disc at this point if you prefer. If you then put the disc back into your CD‑ROM drive, you'll see that the directory now has a small lock icon at the top left of the window to indicate that you cannot write to this disc.

That's just about all there is to it! You can make CD‑ROM discs that can hold data for both Mac and PC, and you can also make an audio CD using this software — but these are basic discs which you cannot use for pressing a run of CDs from, as there is no way to enter the specialised PQ subcodes needed for commercial discs. So if you're serious about making audio CDs you should check out Digidesign's MasterList CD.

Masterlist CD And Audio Discs

MasterList CD lets you take Sound Designer II or AIFF audio files which you've digitised onto your Mac hard disk and put these in a list for burning to CD. You can audition the files from within the list, rearrange playing order, and adjust the levels of the individual tracks. You can even insert crossfades between adjacent tracks, although you may run into limitations here, depending on how much free RAM you have available. You can also enter all the PQ subcodes used for commercial CD production into a separate window which lists all the start times and track lengths, and has fields to enter the subcode data.

You can use this software with any of the Digidesign cards, from the humble Audiomedia to the mighty Pro Tools. Actually, the Audiomedia card is not all that humble when it comes to burning CD‑ROMs, and even the older Sound Tools and Pro Tools 4‑channel cards work extremely well. Depending on your combination of CPU, hard drive, CD‑R drive and Digidesign card, you may have to write an 'image' file to disk first — which ensures that all the data is in one long, unfragmented file ready to stream onto the disc.

You don't necessarily have to use a Digidesign system to digitise the audio, now that PowerMacs feature a built‑in 44.1kHz/16‑bit audio digitiser, but if you have your audio on DAT you'll probably value the digital inputs on the Digidesign cards. You do need to 'top and tail' your digitised files and perform any final edits, compression or EQ using Sound Designer II or Pro Tools software before you're ready to start with MasterList CD. As when creating a CD‑ROM disc, you need to put your audio files on a clean hard disk partition, or be prepared to defragment the drive containing the source files before writing the audio disc. If you copy files to a clean hard disk partition, you'll need sufficient hard disk space to create this. I often find myself using Toast CD‑ROM Pro to create a temporary hard disk partition to use with MasterList CD, as using a temporary partition makes such a lot of sense in practice.

Once you have all your files ready on a suitable disk partition, launch Masterlist CD. An empty list appears. You'll usually set the item spacing first, so that there is a gap of, say, two seconds between each track. Clicking on the icon at the left of the screen allows you to import your audio files and place these in the list. You can set crossfades between tracks, adjust the gain settings for left and right channels independently, and rearrange the order of the tracks by dragging the track numbers at the left of the list.

To enter subcodes, hit the PQ icon near the top left of the screen, to bring up the subcode editor. Here you can enter a catalogue or bar‑code number for the disc, turn the digital copy protection or Serial Copy Management System flags on or off, turn the emphasis flag on or off, or enter an ISRC code for each track. If you set the SCMS flag to 'on', this will enable the user to make just one digital copy and no more. Emphasis is used on some recordings, mostly those made on earlier designs of DAT recorder: if your audio has been 'emphasised', this means that its frequency balance has been altered by the DAT recorder to 'fit' onto the tape better, and the original frequency balance needs to be restored before playback. Most DAT players have de‑emphasis circuits built in for playback purposes, but the emphasis flag in the digital data has to be set so that the player knows it should use the de‑emphasis circuitry. The International Standard Recording Code is an identifier code which can be used to track all the holders of rights in the music contained on the disc, such as the performers or the writers of the music. These codes are normally issued by a record company, who will keep records to relate the codes to the personnel involved in the recordings. Of course, you can just enter whatever info you have here — and if you're making a CD test disc, you don't actually need to enter any subcodes to make your CD.

Before you proceed to burn your disc, there are a couple of other simple things you should attend to. For instance, you need to decide whether to use 'dither' or not. You would use dither to reduce the sample size of a sound file from 24‑bit to 16‑bit, or for noise‑shaping of re‑quantisation noise in a 16‑bit file. TDM plug‑ins are available from Apogee (MasterTools) and from Waves (the L1) which offer more advanced dithering algorithms, so if you've already dithered your stereo masters using one of these, you should leave MasterList CD's simple dithering off. If you want dither, you have to specifically turn this option on in the Preferences dialogue. You also need to choose the Output Resolution, selecting 16‑bit for a standard Compact Disc, and in the Setup menu you can choose Project Info for entering copyright details and other information for inclusion within the disc.

Image Problem

At this point you're ready to burn your disc, so you need to decide whether to do this in real time or instead make an image file so that you can burn the disc at 2x or 4x. The image file takes quite a while to process, as it contains all the original files, along with any gain changes, crossfades and so forth that you've entered into your list. However, discs burnt at 2x or 4x are reputed to have lower error rates, so you should always use the higher speeds if you want to send your CD‑R off for duplication.

When you choose 'Save Image File' from the File menu, you'll see two check boxes, for Contiguous Allocation and Write LSByte First. Don't worry about these — MasterList CD chooses the correct options for your system automatically. Just hit 'Save', sit back, and wait.

If you opt to make an image file, you close your Masterlist once this is done, and then open the image file to burn it directly to disc, using the 'Load Image' file command in the File menu. The advantage of using an image file is that you can burn it to disc faster than if you have to process your files with gain changes, crossfades, or 'dither' while burning your CD, and with more reliable results. The disadvantages are that it can take an hour to write the file, you need sufficient disk space to write to, and then you still have to burn the CD‑R.

If you want to go ahead and burn a disc without making the image file first, you'll often find that you're restricted to burning at slower speeds. For instance, I encountered this message on my system when I chose the 'Write Compact Disc...' command from the File menu:

The Write Disc dialogue features a Speed Test function to test the Hard Disk and CPU speed. This gave the number 1.6 somewhere near the centre of the box, to indicate that my system was not fast enough to write at 2x, let alone 4x speed!

When you first set up your system to make a CD, it can be worth your while to use the Test Mode if you're in any doubt about the ability of your system to write a disc successfully. In this case, you check the Test Mode box before hitting 'Write Disc' and MasterList will simulate the process without actually writing the disc. Of course, this will take an hour or so at 1x speed, which is a bit of a pain — although once you've checked that discs will burn OK, you shouldn't need to do this again until you next change your computer/hard drive configuration.

When you're happy that the the system is configured correctly and is running fast enough to burn discs at your preferred speed, you simply hit 'Write Disc', pop in a blank, and sit back. Some time later, a cute little bell sound alerts you to the fact that your disc is complete.

I've made dozens of audio discs using MasterList, and have rarely encountered any problems (other than those of my own making, when I forgot to defragment a hard drive containing fragmented files, or tried to burn at 2x speed without checking the fastest speed my system would allow).

Bits & Pieces: Hard Drive Fragmentation

You must make sure that your hard drives are not fragmented before you try to burn a disc. Fragmentation of computer files can start to occur as soon as you start editing files, or when copying to a partly‑filled hard disk from which files have been previously deleted. When a file is fragmented, part of its data has been written to a different part of the hard disk, and is physically separated from the main body of data. When you read the file back, the disk's read head will have to jump across to this 'orphaned' data, and then perhaps jump back again. With a badly‑fragmented file, the read head could be jumping around all over the place! This skipping about takes longer than simply following a set of continuous data along the disk, and can lead to breaks in the stream of data being transferred onto the compact disc — which means death for the disc you're writing to.

One way of ensuring that there's no fragmentation is to copy all the files onto a newly‑formatted hard drive or a newly‑created hard disk partition of the correct size. But then there's always that last‑minute edit you wanted to do on one of your audio files, or that last‑minute change of mind about which files to include in your backup. And that's where the fragmentation starts. If there's even the smallest chance of fragmentation having occurred, you should check out the state of your disk drive using Norton Utilities Speed Disk software, which will report on the amount of fragmentation and let you de‑fragment your disk by rewriting the files to the disk consecutively.

What Do You Need?

    Ideally, you should go for one of the faster models of computer and pair this up with one of the faster A/V disk drives. The data has to be shifted by the computer from the hard disk onto the CD pretty fast and with no interruptions, so the drive should suspend thermal recalibration while delivering data to the CD.

Having said this, it is quite feasible to run older, slower models of computer and hard drive and still successfully burn discs, especially if you're happy to use normal speed and take the time to prepare image files.

    The best choice of software for creating CD‑ROMs is, without question, Astarte's Toast CD‑ROM Pro. I've checked out several competing packages on the Mac and nothing comes close to Toast for ease of use and ease of learning. You can create audio discs using this software, but for serious work of this kind you need a dedicated package such as Digidesign's MasterList CD.
    How do you record the digital audio to your hard disk in the first place? All the latest Macs feature built‑in 44.1kHz/16‑bit audio circuitry, and you can connect your DAT or other audio source to the analogue audio inputs on the Mac and record audio to disk using a wide range of software, such as SoundEdit 16 or Cubase VST. Another option recently available from Korg is the new Soundlink DRS 1212 I/O PCI card, which has two analogue inputs and outputs, an S/PDIF I/O, and an ADAT 8‑channel optical I/O. The useful thing to note here is that the ADAT optical link can be used with an increasing number of third‑party products, to let you interface the card with other digital audio recorders or mixers. The DRS 1212 comes supplied with OCS's Deck II software and costs about the same as a Digidesign Audiomedia III, or maybe a little less.

Alternatively, you can buy a Digidesign audio card such as the above‑mentioned Audiomedia III. This features S/P DIF I/O and eight analogue inputs and outputs on a PCI card. If you've just won the lottery, you could go for one of the professional Digidesign systems, such as the Pro Tools III TDM 16‑channel (expandable) system, to which you can connect Digidesign's professional rackmountable interfaces with AES/EBU and S/PDIF I/O, eight analogue inputs and outputs, sync signal inputs, and so forth.

One point to note with the Digidesign cards is that the different combinations of cards and Mac CPUs don't all support real‑time writing of CDs at 2x and 4x — some combinations will only allow you to write a pre‑prepared 'image' file at the faster speeds. You need to consult the documentation which comes with MasterList CD to check which combinations allow which writing speeds, or call Digidesign technical support to ask before you buy. It is also worth pointing out that several authorities say that writing audio discs at 2x speed produces the best results, with the fewest block error rates.

So should you pay out for an audio card if you have a Mac which will record audio at 44.1 kHz/16‑bit quality? First of all, a card will let you transfer digitally from DAT or CD sources, while the standard Mac will not. This is important if you want to avoid a couple of D/A and A/D conversions, and the Mac's A/D converters are certainly no match for those in the dedicated audio cards. Also, if you intend to do any multitrack recording, the dedicated cards always make a much better job of this than the standard Macintosh hardware. I have encountered a fair few glitches and distortions when playing back audio using the Mac's internal circuitry, while I have very rarely encountered anything amiss when replaying using any of the audio cards. So the short answer is yes — if you can run to it!

CD Recorders: Making The Write Choice

There are plenty of CD recorders to choose from, including models from Sony, Plasmon, Yamaha and others. I'm using a Yamaha CDE100, which features‑single‑speed (1x), dual‑speed (2x) and quad‑speed (4x) recording.

This drive conforms to all the standards, including White Book, Red Book, Yellow Book, Blue Book, Green Book, and Orange Book — the last of which allows incremental writing of multi‑sessions, as well as featuring disk‑at‑once and track‑at‑once capabilities (so you can create CD‑DA, CD‑ROM, CD‑ROM‑XA, or CD‑I discs with appropriate software). The CDE100, unlike some drives, also supports Simulation Mode, Catalogue Numbers, ISRC codes, Audio Index points and Copy Prohibit, and allows a minimum track‑spacing of 0 seconds.

Discworld: The Jargon

The most important standards in this area are Orange Book and Red Book. The Sony/Philips standard for recordable CD‑R discs is known as Orange Book; the standard for CD‑DA (Digital Audio) discs is known as Red Book — so Red Book CDs are what we all know as the standard audio CDs we can buy in record shops.

Disk‑at‑once recording means that the whole disc is written in one pass. Most newer CD‑R drives, including the CDE100, support this mode, and you can supply these discs to a mastering facility for volume pressing.

Track‑at‑once mode, as its name suggests, only allows you to write one track at a time, and the write laser stops writing between each track. If you produce a CD‑DA disc in track‑at‑once mode, various link and run‑in/run‑out blocks appear on the disc, which may appear to be errors, so these discs are often rejected by CD‑mastering facilities. Some CD recorders can only write using track‑at‑once mode, and these drives can be recognized by their fixed track spacing of two seconds.

The Macintosh HFS format is used to create CD‑ROM discs that will 'mount' on the desktop of any Macintosh computer, so that you can then use these as read‑only storage discs — typically for archiving general computer data.

The ISO 9660 format is used for CD‑ROMs that are intended for MS‑DOS, Windows, and other ISO file systems. These can also be read by Macintosh computers, but will have ISO 9660 or MS‑DOS‑format file names.

The Mac/ISO hybrid format allows you to create CD‑ROMs that can be read by both Macintosh and ISO file systems, with data common to both file systems being shared on the CD‑ROM.