Convergence Corner

Tales from the Media Munching Madman

January 1997

This month: CD-R Media and Labeling, News from Yamaha, Sound Card Sampling, CD-ROM Audio Extraction

CD-R Media

So you've gotten a CD-R drive. Think you can just run out and buy any old blank CD-R and write to it? Fat chance. The unfortunate truth is that incompatibilities between certain drives and certain manufacturer's CD media exist. Although not common, it's something you need to watch out for.

In general, the thing to do is get whatever media the manufacturer recommends. I was told by the vendor I got my drive from that the recommended media for the Yamaha CDR-100 I use is Mitsui Gold (from the Mitsui Toatsu company). They were the first company to make all gold CD blanks. I bought a ton of Mitsui discs when I got my drive, and they all worked flawlessly at every speed.

Speed is an issue here. Some media that works fine at slower speeds won't work reliably at higher ones. You'll generally find that media is certified for some maximum speed; the Mitsui ones say they're fine for up to 6X speed, which is as fast as anyone writes, anyway. Certainly good enough for the 4X speed I use. There's another factor here that you probably aren't aware of--you can make bad CDs by writing too slow. On the Yamaha drive, I've heard multiple sources report that discs written at 1X speed have considerably higher error rates than 2X writings. 2X is the best speed for writing out at, I've concluded--things write more reliably than 1X, but you don't run as much risk for running out of buffer and trashing the CD as you would at 4X.

While Mitsui makes great blanks, good luck finding them. As far as I know, they're only sold by mail-order distributors of such things. You can't get them from any retail store I know of. And when you're hot on the trail of making some CDs and you run out of them, waiting for a new shipment is not an option. Recently I've been trying out the brands that are available at all the big computer store chains (Best Buy and CompUSA are the two places I've been shopping at).

There are a couple of materials that can be used to make the innards to recordable CD; while they all have complicated names, you can usually figure out which you've got by what color things are. The Mitsui discs are gold, and they were the first people to make them. Kodak is another company that appears to use the same formulation. I've been finding Kodak blanks on sale for $8 at CompUSA (bought a ton of them), and they've worked great at 4X speed. I'm a bit annoyed at how many graphics are printed on the disc itself (see my comments in the labeling section later), but that's my only gripe. Kodak has become my CD-R of choice when I need more and want them now.

The other two brands I tried were TDK and Fuji. Both of these are greenish-gold and I'll bet they're actually made by the same manufacturing facility. No problems at any speed with either of these two companies. I still favor the all gold stuff over the green-gold, though; this is not necessarily a totally rational favoritism, however. Yamaha says that TDK is the other brand they recommend for 4X recording.

The other two manufacturers I found on the shelves were Verbatim and Maxell. Verbatim actually uses this unique blue dye for their blanks. I don't know what Maxell uses. I still hate Verbatim from the days I used to get crummy 5 1/4" diskettes from them, and I've always thought Maxell's cassette tapes were junk compared with the ones from TDK. Accordingly, I didn't buy samples from them. There are more than enough manufacturers of blanks out there that I can keep my brand prejudice, thank you.

When it was all done, I never ran into any media problems. That doesn't mean they don't exist--I was trying to only buy from good manufacturers I'd already checked out. And the Yamaha drive may not be as picky as some of the less expensive ones on the market. Obviously, you need more information on the topic. Who believes me all the time anyway. Here's a recommendation I'll put in big letters:

Before spending any (or anymore) money on CD-R, read the CD-R FAQ

In particular, section 7 address issues with media. I also recommend many of the other publications on the CD Information Center page, like Katherine Cochrane's Is There a CD-R Media Problem?.

CD-R Labeling

One thing that all CD-R blanks have in common is that they look boring. Your typical top face has some black printing on it, and maybe some places that you could write on (if you had the right type of pen). But nothing screams "I'm an amateur making CDs in my basement" like handwritten notes identifying what's on the CD. The better solution is to get some sort of label you can print on to slap on top of the disc.

Some background first. The data on CDs of any sort is stored fairly close to the top of the disc. This means that if you scratch the top, you're fairly likely to punch a hole that will let air corrode the sensitive material the data is written via (be it aluminum, gold, or some CD-R concoction). The CD laser actually reads the information from the bottom, though. This is why scratches on the bottom are the ones that are usually noticed; those actually get in the way of the player reading the disc. This is also why you can buff scratches out of the bottom of damaged CDs with a repair kit and possibly restore them. The coating on the bottom is fairly thick. Damage to the less protected top isn't noticed immediately, but is potentially more dangerous if you actually expose the material inside.

Most CD-R blanks are very vulnerable to damage on the top. Kodak has actually been making the fact that they reinforce their discs with the "InfoGuard Protection System" there a selling point. I find that putting an adhesive label on the top of each disc I make not only lets me see what I've got on it, it gives me a bit more piece of mind that I've added more protection to the sensitive top. Some warnings are in order. Some manufacturers (like TDK) tell you placing a label is a no-no. There is some potential that improperly centered labels will throw off the weight of the disc so that it spins oddly. If you use cheap labels, there's a potential that the adhesive can dry up over time; then you've got a loose label inside your player, which is bad. Also, you should consider any label you put on permanent--it is not likely you'll be able to pull the label off without damaging the top coating.

With all that said, I don't care--I like putting labels on anyway. I got a set from Neato. You can buy this little package from lots of places now, or get it direct from them (details are on their page). While it's a little pricey at $70 or so, it does work and the labels seem sturdy. I'd rather pay the extra money for a label design that seems thoroughly tested, as the money for the labeling is cheap compared with the potential damage if I got something that screwed up my discs. The included software works, but it's not very impressive. I'm still searching for a better alternative to it. Consider Neato recommended, but I'm certainly not enthusiastic about the value of their product or the reasonable difficulty of using their label applicator (make sure you read the hints on how to avoid the nasty label curl).

When you're applying the labels, one problem is bleed through from the printing on the CD-R itself. If you use the white labels, you can see the black printing on the disc through the label. Kodak is the worst for this, because they have tons of black printing on the disc. Mitsui is the least obtrusive. TDK and Fuji fall in the middle. I generally print on the dark colored labels when I'm just writing simple text, this keeps the black from shining through. I only use the white labels when I'm printing pictures over the whole disc. You don't get to pick the color mix in the initial Neato kit (the one I got had one of every color, with the rest being split 1/3 among white, gray, and yellow).

Yamaha CDR-400

As you've probably heard me state numerous times, the only CD-R drives I recommend (especially for audio) are the ones from Yamaha. Current production is the 4X Read, 4X Write CDR-100 and the 4X Read, 2X Write CDR-102; the only difference between the drives is an internal setting that disables 4X writing on the 102. There are slightly different model numbers if you get the external version of the drive (which I recommend). Well, these designs are getting a bit old (part of the reason they work so well). Yamaha has just announced the successor to this venerable product line.

The Yamaha CDR-400 will read at 6X speed, and write at 4X speed. There will be a budget model (probably just a crippled version again) that only writes at 2X. The writing buffer will be a big 2MB, up from the meager 512K on current models. And there are some more options as well--you can get the drive in SCSI or IDE, and with either a tray or a caddy. The main new feature is that these will support packet writing, which lets you write data in small enough pieces that it's more like a hard drive.

While for audio applications there's little reason to consider upgrading, I'm hoping that the next generation mechanism inside the drive will be a bit more reliable (Yamaha has had a ton of broken units to repair, and hopefully learned something from the process). If you're in the market for a CD-R drive, you might want to watch what happens--there may be some closeout deals to be found on the older drives as the new ones appear. Or you may just want to wait for a new one. Further details about the drive were supposed to be available from Yamaha's home page, but there's nothing there about it yet. There is some other useful CD-R information there, so it's worth browsing around anyway. You can try bugging them at (408) 467-2330/2300 if you really want more info.

Sound Card Sampling

I've really been burning up my turntable transferring things to CD lately. Currently I use a Sound Blaster AWE 32 sound card as the A/D converter for this work. This is not necessarily the best choice available.

There are two main factors to consider when it comes to sound card selection: sound quality and compatibility (price may also be an issue for you). As far as I'm concerned, compatibility is the far more important issue. It doesn't matter how good it might sound if I can't make it work with my software. The Creative Labs Sound Blaster series is the king of compatibility; every useful piece of sound software you'll ever encounter works flawlessly with the SB16 and AWE 32 boards. And the sound quality is usually "good enough". For one interesting discussion of what the limits to the AWE32 are, check out the AWE32 pages of naked truth (gotta love the title). Mathias says the resolution on the A/D converter in the unit is at best 12 bits, and gives some suggestions for getting that much out of it (like keeping the gain set to 1X, which I'd already verified myself). Since I don't have a top-notch vinyl setup, 12 bits is certainly good enough to capture the dynamic range I get.

The usually accepted champ of sound quality on PC sound boards is Turtle Beach. They also have incredibly bad compatibility. I literally threw away the last TB board I tried out because it wouldn't work right with anything, and I wasted far more than the purchase price worth of my time trying to configure it correctly. You won't ever see me spending a penny buying their stuff regardless of how good it's supposed to sound.

Currently I'm trying to find an inexpensive solution to good quality A/D for PCs that has at least passing compatibility. I'm tempted to try some of the sound cards from mainstream music manufacturers like Ensoniq or Roland to see if they sound any better. I'm also looking out for reasonably priced external A/D converters and matching digital interface cards. I'll keep you updated with what I find in this column.

CD-ROM Audio Extraction

If you want to copy things from an existing audio CD, either to manipulate or to put on another CD, you need to get that audio onto your hard drive. This process is referred to as digital audio (DA) extraction. Normally, what you do is get some software that reads the audio data from your drive and writes it out, typically in the form of a .WAV file on PCs.

There are several potential problems. First off, not every drive supports this (after all, it's computer data they are usually concerned with). Some only output audio via their analog audio output jacks, not digitally. Every CD-R I know of is capable of extracting DA. Some CD-ROM drives are. The ones I've tested that work for this application include SCSI units from Sony, Toshiba, and Plextor. You're gambling with most other manufacturers.

Sure, I could just do all this work with my CD-R drive. The CD writing software I use (Adaptec Easy-CD Pro) includes a "Read Track" function for just this purpose. However, I have accepted that my recorder is a fragile piece of equipment that I pamper. Accordingly, I have adopted the following philosophy:

The only thing I put in my CD recorder are brand new CD- R blanks fresh out of the package.

No dusty old music CDs I've had for 10 years. No CD blanks that I accidentally dropped on the floor first and got gunk on. Nothing but brand new discs in clean caddies go in the drive. Sure, I'm paranoid, but it works for me.

What this means is that I need a way to do DA extraction from my CD-ROM if I want to make compilations from my music CDs or copy them. The program I've been using is called CDDA, and it's available from the author's home page. It also shows up as on the big Simtel mirror sites. It's a small DOS program you feed a few command line parameters to, and it heads off and reads a track of audio for you to a .WAV file. Simple enough, and there's a rudimentary listing of drives that are supposed to handle DA listed in the CDDA readme. The main thing that makes this program superior to other extraction programs is that it performs jitter correction.

Just what we need--another use for the term "jitter". In a CD-ROM sense, jitter comes from the fact that most manufacturers have crummy positioning logic in their drives for audio. If you say "go read me this section of audio", you sometimes get the wrong piece of data returned to you. I know that the Sony CDU-76 I have is very jittery; who knows what you'll get back when you request a particular spot of audio. CDDA does a noble effort of attempting to correct the problems with that drive, and it was usually successful. You get a little readout showing how much jitter correction was needed as the program is running, which is helpful to find out if your drive is any good at audio work or not. The Sony wasn't, and the program choked on me a few times because the jitter was more than it could deal with. The software can only correct for so much crummy Sony performance.

Ultimately, what I ended up doing was replacing the drive with a Plextor 4 Plex Plus. Let me tell you, if you want a CD-ROM drive for CD-R, Plextor is the one to have. Not only is the drive extremely fast, they appear to be the only manufacturer that makes sure their drives read audio correctly every time. I've used CDDA to extract well over a hundred tracks now with that drive, and I've never seen the jitter correction reported by the program deviate from 0. There was one track it hiccuped on (but read fine the second time), I chalk that up as a random occurrence. It's become so reliable for me that I now automate it by putting a whole series of commands in a batch file, letting me read a whole CD worth of tracks without any intervention from me. That's one thing to say in favor of DOS programs, I can make them more functional with ease.

I'm a believer. Sure, Plextor drives are expensive, but this is a classic case of getting what you pay for. I was surprised at how good the audio reading was in general; my Pierre-Verany test discs tell me the drive easily corrects audio defects up to 1.25mm, which is good performance even for high-end audio equipment. And CDDA is inexpensive ($15) shareware that is certainly worth trying out if you need CD audio tracks on your hard drive. It's not infallible if your CD-ROM drive is bad enough, but it gives you a fighting chance of perfect audio extraction even if you're saddled with underachiever equipment.