A burning desire to record on CD Music: The technology is there, as is the demand. A hit, right? It's not quite that simple yet.


Home recording has always been about tape.

Technology has changed quite a lot over the last few decades, as home recorders moved from the clunky open-reel recorders of the '50s to the sophisticated cassette decks of today. But the basic idea was always the same: When Americans wanted to save a sound for posterity, they said, "Let's tape that."

Not anymore.

Nowadays, when techno-savvy music fans want to copy something, they don't tape -- they burn. That is, they use digital technology to "burn" their own CDs. For them, audiotape is as archaic as steam-powered cars.

Already, such companies as Philips, Pioneer and Marantz are marketing affordable home CD recorders. They're using the same pitch that made cassette recorders invaluable for many music fans -- that you can use a CD recorder to compile your favorite songs into the digital equivalent of a "mix tape."

Burning your own CD isn't quite as simple as making a tape. Although some CD recorders are available as stereo components, others are designed as computer peripherals. Moreover, this direct-to-disc digital recording comes with a whole new set of copyright issues and compatibility problems.

Even so, there's no doubt that more and more music fans are going to feel the advantages of the burn and begin to make their own CDs. But before tossing that old cassette deck into the garbage, it might be worth taking a closer look at CD-recording technology, to see if it really will do everything the average music fan wants it to.

Let's start with the most obvious question: How the heck do they record CDs in the first place?

Back when CDs were first introduced, we were assured that it would be impossible to make the discs at home. As the recording industry described it, making a CD was an elaborate and complicated process, one that required tons of equipment and incredibly advanced technology.

First, the music would be digitally encoded -- that is, converted to a binary stream of 1s and 0s. Next, the CD would be mastered by putting microscopic pits into a wafer-thin piece of aluminum. These pits would later be read by the CD player's laser as 1s and 0s. Mastering a CD this way was demanding, as it required a total absence of dust and vibration.

Obviously, it was not something to try at home.

Over time, however, data technicians came up with an alternate means of putting those pits in. Using intensely concentrated heat on a specially designed disc, it would be possible to cause the metal wafer of a "blank" CD to bubble. This would create a pit just like at the CD plant, but without all the muss and fuss.

Because it was a heat-based system, computer jocks began to refer to the process as "burning a disc" and the machines themselves as "CD burners."

Technicians dubbed this technology "CDR," for "Compact Disc Recordable." A CDR disc could only be recorded once; make a mistake, and it's there forever. Within a few years, however, additional technology was developed allowing rewritable, or CDRW, discs. With a CDRW recorder, data could be erased and re-recorded as easily as on a cassette.

Bits are bits

In the mid-'90s, when CD burners were first introduced, their primary market was the computer industry. For under a thousand dollars, a PC user could buy a CDR or CDRW drive and use it to make CD-ROMs. As a data storage solution, it was a godsend.

But it wasn't long before people realized that bits are bits, and there was no reason a CDR drive couldn't be used to make audio CDs as well.

Alan Manuel of the online service CDuctive saw the commercial potential in using CD burners to make custom-made music discs several years ago. He was in business school at the time, and as a class project, he was trying to come up with a means of helping consumers who were interested in underground styles like electronic dance music "but had no idea of what to purchase, or where to go to find the music."

Because his background was in database technology, he was very aware of the revolution CDR machines were creating in the computer industry. He, however, saw another possibility. Songs on CD, he points out, "are essentially just files on a disc." What he envisaged was a massive database of such "files" that consumers could access and use to make their own customized CDs.

"Technology prices dropped low enough two or three years ago to make that side of it, the manufacturing side, economically feasible," he says. Even better, the simultaneous growth of the World Wide Web made it possible for Manuel and his team to establish CDuctive as a "virtual storefront."

Log on to the company's site (http: //www.cductive.com), and you're given a menu that lets you choose between a variety of dance music and indie rock styles. Using RealAudio, you can sample selections and assemble your own custom CD, paying for the music on a track-by-track basis (typically, a full 72-minute CD will cost just over $13). CDuctive then burns the CD and mails it out within a day. It's not quite as quick as going to the local CD store, but it's remarkably efficient -- a dance compilation ordered by The Sun on a Friday arrived the following Monday.

Although CDuctive's custom discs are a great way to sample a variety of out-of-the-mainstream music, Manuel doesn't see his company getting into the business of general CD "mix tapes" any time soon, if only because the major labels are reluctant to license big hits for the custom CD market.

Do it yourself

Recording studios were also excited by the easy availability of CD burners, since it would allow them to make "test" CDs without having to send a copy of the master recording off to the pressing plant. And as the price of CDR drives dropped, musicians themselves got in on the act.

Lisa Matthews of the Baltimore band Love Riot is typical. Her band wanted to make a compilation CD of some songs it had recorded and went to Invisible Sound, a local recording studio, to have the disc made. At first, Matthews assumed that making the CD would be a dauntingly complicated process, but as she watched the disc being burned, she realized that burning a CD was nowhere near as difficult as she imagined.

"It seemed so easy," she says. "I thought, 'We should get a CD burner.' Because we could make our own copies, instead of going back to the studio and having them charge me $8 to $15. And it only takes a minute to do, really."

Indeed, one of the advantages of using a CD burner with a computer is that songs are treated like files by the computer. On a computer, data is duplicated in blocks, whole files at a time. By contrast, if you wanted to record a CD using the CD player in your stereo system, you would have to do it in real time, with a five-minute song taking five minutes to record. Your CD player just can't play the disc any other way.

Think of it as being like copying a page full of class notes. Recording in real time would be like writing everything out by hand, whereas recording with the computer is more like putting the page in a Xerox machine.

Burning CDs on a computer isn't just faster than real-time recording -- it's also more powerful, thanks to the variety of sound-manipulation software on the market. "It's wonderful, because you can take out parts and edit the songs," says Matthews. "I could make a medley of Love Riot tunes, with fades in and out, and then have that as a CD master and burn CDs."

Still, using a PC to make music CDs isn't quite as simple as hooking a cassette deck up to the CD player. Unless your computer has audio inputs, you can't just hook your CD player (or cassette deck, or turntable) up to the computer and hit "record." You need a way to get the music into your computer, as well as a place to put it once it's there.

One of the simplest solutions would be to put a CD into the CD-ROM drive and copy a song onto something else. (Removable media such as Zip drives or magneto/optical discs are ideal, since they tend to have more room than a hard drive.) The CD burner then uses that copy to burn the disc.

For anyone actively involved in recording, the flexibility of PC-based CD burning more than makes up for the inconvenience. It's also remarkably cheap; "CD Factory" kits, which include a CDR drive, cables and software, are available for as little as $600.

But if all that seems like too much trouble, your best bet would be to invest in a component unit. These CD recorders are designed to work with home stereos and look like a cross between a standard CD player and a cassette deck. Setting them up can be complicated; in addition to standard analog inputs -- the same audio cable used to connect a cassette deck -- CD recorders also have coaxial and optical inputs, for better digital reproduction. Once connected, however, they work as easily as any cassette recorder.

With prices ranging from $500 to $850, CD recorders are hardly as cheap as cassette decks. Nor are they as easy to use. For instance, some of the machines require special blank CDs, meaning you can't just pick up a $2 cheapie at the local computer supply shop and go with that.

In addition, discs recorded using the CDRW function are unreadable by many CD players, meaning that the "mix tape" disc you make for your friends may not be playable in their machine. (Discs recorded in the CDR format, however, have no compatibility problem.)

There's one other problem with using CD burners to make digital mix tapes, but it has nothing to do with technology. Instead, it has to do with unauthorized copying and artist's rights -- issues that have both musicians and recording industry lawyers concerned.

"A CD burner is great for a musician to have," says Matthews. "At the same time, it makes a musician nervous, because it's going to be part of everyone's stereo component system in a few years. Kids are going to make their own CDs, just like that advertisement encourages. 'Make your own discs, and give them to people as gifts.'

L "That's all fun, but it's certainly copyright infringement."

Making a "mix disc" for personal use is perfectly legal, according to the Audio Home Recording act of 1992. But as Cary Sherman, senior executive vice president and general counsel for the Recording Industry Association of America points out, making discs for others -- or, worse, selling such discs -- is a violation of the act.

Thanks to the Audio Home Recording act, part of the cost of

consumer audio units like the Philips CD recorder is a royalty payment, intended to compensate recording artists for income "lost" to home recording. But as Sherman points out, "not all CDRs are covered by the Audio Home Recording act." In particular, general purpose units like those used with computers are not covered, meaning that musicians get no compensation for CDs burned using home computers.

"We're very concerned about how these machines can be abused to undermine the ability of artists to make a living from their work," he says.

Pub Date: 12/08/98

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad