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.

December 08, 1998|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

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."

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