As a teenager I wanted to make records. When it became clear to me that no-one else wanted me to (what do record companies know! eh?) I decided to do it for myself. Bit by bit I taught myself everything I needed to know and slowly built up a modest collection of equipment. One process, however, remained a mystery, red book audio CD creation. It seemed to me an expensive and esoteric practice, and so it was until the arrival of fast affordable desktop computer software and hardware and cheap CD recorders.
Before a red book audio CD is created or duplicated, it is usual for some preparatory processes to be carried out to ensure the audio is of a consistent level, tonality and dynamic range. Audio mastering is discussed here.
First, a lesson in the data format. You can skip this bit if you like!
There are several different formats of CD. Originally CD was developed by Phillips and Sony as a replacement for vinyl. They defined a standard audio format to be used by all domestic CD players and published it in a book with a red cover, thus we have the Red Book Audio CD standard format!
All CDs have three distinct areas. The Lead-In Area contains a TOC (Table Of Contents) and is the first area on a CD occupying the innermost 0.4mm of the disc. The TOC contains a list of everything on the CD including the Track ID positions (or start times) of all the audio and data tracks on the disc. The Program Area contains all the actual audio or data tracks. The Lead-Out Area simply marks the end of the Program Area.
All CDs can have a maximum of 99 tracks. Tracks IDs mark the beginning of tracks. A track can be a minimum of 4 seconds long (600 sectors).
The data on all CDs is stored in chunks called sectors. There are 330,000 sectors on a CD each of which can hold 2352 bytes. This adds up to a total data capacity of approximately 744MB (Mega Bytes). Different CD formats use this capacity in different ways..
There are now a number of 80 minute CDs available but beware, your software and hardware may not be able to write CDs longer than 74 minutes.
Red book Red Book audio CDs use nearly all of their storage capacity to store audio samples. A single minute of 16-bit 44.1kHz stereo audio uses 10MB of storage. The maximum running time of an audio CD is 74 minutes using 740MB of its total 744MB capacity. The remaining 4MB holds error correction and sub-channel data.
Sub-channel (or sub-code) data is designated by the letters P through to W. In the Lead-In Area the Q sub-channel contains the TOC complete with Track ID positions. In the Program Area the P sub-channel data indicates where music tracks start and end while the Q sub-channel contains time information. During CD Production Mastering it is often necessary to edit the PQ sub-channel data in order to set the Track ID positions, particularly where music tracks crossfade into one another. Incidentally, sub-channels R to W are mostly unused at present.
The Q sub-channel contains four other data fields which we will need to set during Production Mastering.
A session is a collection of tracks. Every time data is recorded to a CD a session is created. Red Book audio CDs must be written in one complete session without pauses, a process called "disk-at-once" by CD-Recorder manufacturers. Because domestic CD players only read the TOC in the Lead-In Area of a disc, a subsequent session which places a second TOC followed by audio tracks on the program area of a disc will never be "seen" by the player. CD-ROM drives are able to recognise all the sessions on a disc and treat them as separate drive volumes.
Now we know something about CD data formats we can move on to discussing different types of CD recorder hardware and the CD discs they are capable of creating. There are currently two recorder/disc types ...
Both of these formats are implemented in two hardware types ...
These recorders can accept either a stereo analogue signal, SPDIF (Sony Phillips Digital Interface), AES, or optical TOS-Link digital input from a device such as an audio interface, digital mixing desk, CD player, or DAT recorder. They are capable of automatically converting DAT ID markers into CD track markers.
The second recorder type are computer front-ended. This means they are connected to a computer system like any other storage device, usually internally or externally using a FireWire or USB 2 interface/cable which supports the kind of sustained data transfer rates necessary for creating an audio CD. The data to be recorded is prepared and stored on a hard drive and an appropriate application is employed to transfer it to the recorder and write, or burn, the disc.
Such a system has several advantages over a stand alone recorder ...
Another issue that affects both recorder types is whether they are capable of writing a disc from beginning to end without pauses, a necessity if a single session is to be created as demanded by the Red Book Audio standard. Disc-At-Once (DAO) recorders can do this, Track-At-Once only recorders cannot. Make sure the recorder you buy is capable of both Track-At-Once and Disc-At-Once recording modes.
Writing speed determines how fast your disc will be written. Computer front ended recorders can write discs faster than real time. At 4 x real time a 60 minute disc will be written in approximately 15 minutes (although the optional verification procedures will take a further 15 minutes if you choose to run them). 6 x and faster drives are now available but BEWARE! Faster write speeds may be convenient but many engineers believe they produce more errors and degrade sound quality. It may be better to stick to 4 x speed.
To transfer data from your hard drive to your recorder without interruption requires a robust and fast interconnect technology and SCSI and FireWire (USB 2 also) have been proved to be just that.
You need to ensure that the CD Recorder you are planning to buy is supported by the CD mastering applications you want to use. That means visiting relevant manufacturer web sites and checking that drivers and extensions have been developed. I wanted to be able to use Toast, Jam and MasterList CD (of which more later) and found that all of these applications supported the Yamaha 400TX drive. A word of warning here. It is the drive mechanism that is important. My drive is actually a One Technologies unit (essentially a box with power supply and SCSI connector) but the CD-Recorder mechanism fitted inside is the Yamaha.
If you choose a computer front-ended recorder (and you should!) you will need some software to drive it. Popular programs include ...
Jam is fully Red Book compliant. It allows you to select your audio files and then determine how they will play on the finished CD. Fades and crossfades may be set, relative levels between tracks tweaked and PQ sub-channel codes fully edited and set. During writing Jam processes the audio files on-the-fly according to your settings (providing you have a fast enough computer, otherwise you will have to create a disc image first).
Apples Waveburner application (which comes with Logic Pro) is an excellent professional program.
No doubt there are others, just ensure they can produce Red Book CDs.
Older computer systems may struggle to write discs effectively whatever the spec of your software and recorder. You will need to satisfy yourself that your CPU, RAM. hard drive and interconnect technology are all up to the job in the first place.
If you brought your computer recently (since 2005) you have nothing to worry about.
It's worth having a reasonable amount of RAM allocated to your software during writing to allow a large RAM cache to be set. This will help prevent the damaging effects of data transfer bottlenecks should they arise whilst writing a CD. Essentially a reservoir of data is kept topped up in RAM during writing.
Let us summarise what we have learned so far.
So, armed with all this knowledge, how do we go about creating a Red Book CD suitable for selling to customers or sending to a CD factory for duplication? Read on.
Finally we get to the crux of the biscuit. I'm going to assume that you have completed all your mixes and the first stage of production mastering. Now here's what you do.