The burning man

There's something a little disconcerting about music blasting from a computer. There are no moving parts to watch — no spinning discs, no twirling tape-deck spindles. Equally jarring is plopping a freshly burned CD into a player and hearing your mix tape now set to compact disc. Digital music is still an entirely new way of thinking about recorded music — which, perhaps, explains why home CD burning hasn't taken off yet.

But more music fans will surely get hip to it, and probably sooner rather than later. The technology-research firm Jupiter Communications estimates that by 2003, one in eight U.S. consumers will own a device that can burn/record downloaded audio and video onto CDs.

I found out how easy home-CD recording was last summer, when I started transferring the contents of my motley collection of albums and tapes onto compact discs via home computer. Sacrilege! exclaim vinyl lovers, among whose number I count myself. But some of my records are more than 40 years old. and are hogging valuable floor space. They're also going to seed pretty quickly. Something needed to be done.

I really didn't want to record my albums with a computer, not with all the buggy software and confusing hardware installations that I was sure awaited me on that road. I wanted a CD recorder that worked just like a tape deck: Take it out of the box, hook it into the amplifier, start recording.

When I trucked down to the local Circuit City, I found things weren't that simple. Both Sony and Philips offer stand-alone CD writers of the sort I wanted, for $400 to $600. I was about to purchase one of these models when the salesperson asked if I knew what kind of blank CDs to use.

"Huh?" I asked. I'd figured all blank CDs were the same. Not so. There are two kinds. Plain blank recordable CDs, called CD-Rs, can be had for about a buck apiece. (I recently purchased 100 for $79.95 plus tax at CompUSA; they're now up to $119.99.) However — and the kindly salesperson couldn't stress this enough — the stand-alone stereo CD writers Philips and Sony offers can't record on these discs. They require "consumer audio media" CDs. And guess what? Those run about $4 apiece. They cost so much more in part because they're already formatted, in part because they have nice cases, and in part because the manufacturers pay royalties to the recording industry.

So, standing there at Circuit City, I did some quick figuring, estimating how many albums and tapes I actually had. It didn't take long for me to decide to use a computer CD writer that could record music on cheaper, royalty-free discs.

Which may not be, to use the technical terminology, strictly legal. If the music police come knocking on my door, I guess I could try to justify my piracy as an act of civil disobedience. I could complain that I'd already paid royalties when I bought the recordings in the first place. But the truth is that I'm just too cheap to pay the exorbitant cost of the discs I'd need to be a proper, legal CD burner. So today I record CDs with a cobbled-together, bare-bones budget computer that's jacked into my stereo. It took a bit of mixing and matching software, some trial and error, and there are a number of legal questions that have me slightly worried, but all in all the system works.

To understand how home CD writing is done, you have to understand all the components. If Metro Times was friggin' Stereo Review, we'd have a cute illustration of all the parts involved. But we aren't, so you'll have to draw one yourself.

First, sketch a beige box. That's your home computer. We're assuming your computer is only a few years old. Any computer with an Intel Pentium processor will do, but the faster the better. The music travels from your stereo amplifier/receiver to the input jack of the sound card in the back of your computer. Once inside the computer, the music is recorded by the recording software, which turns it into digital files. The CD-writing software reformats these files and places them on the recordable CD-R, using the CD writer. Don't forget to add the stick person rocking out.

In other words, writing CDs is a two-step process: You record the songs as files in the WAV format, and then you find the WAV files on your computer and, using CD-writing software, you write them to compact discs as audio tracks in the CD-DA format.

The crucial component is, of course, the CD writer itself. I picked up the lowest- priced one at CompUSA, a Pacific Digital model for $159 plus tax. Cheap, no? Well, it's up to $299 now, but it works dandy. If you want to throw away your money on a more expensive one, knock yourself out, but don't get fooled into thinking you need a speedier model. The general rule of thumb among home CD burners is that you want to record at the slowest possible speed (1X) anyway. That's to achieve the highest-quality sound and to lower the chance of technical glitches. It will take a little over an hour to record a 74-minute CD. There are also rewritable CD burners, which can use rewritable CDs (CD-RWs) in addition to write-once CD-Rs. CD-RWs, however, have no widespread acceptance among audio-CD-player manufacturers and may very well go the way of eight-tracks. Stick with CD-Rs. They're cheap, and they work in pretty much every CD player on the planet.

The CD writer goes in the computer. Physically installing one is fairly easy if you've installed hardware on your computer before, and only mildly challenging if you haven't but can follow directions. If you are queasy at the idea of digging into your machine's innards, a computer shop can do the job for about $50.

The only other hardware you absolutely need is a sound card, which records the music coming in, usually from a line from the headphone jack on the stereo. (Amazing how all that music can fit through that tiny wire, isn't it?) If you have a home computer, you probably already have a sound card installed. Look in the back for the input and output audio jacks. Chances are you have a Sound Blaster, which has acceptable (if not outstanding) recording quality. I replaced mine with a $40 Ensonique AudioPCI, and the recordings sounded brighter. There are also high-quality sound cards that can cost from a few hundred dollars up, but unless you're a seriously anal audiophile, you'll find the recording quality just fine with cheaper stuff.

With the hardware in place, all you need now is software — one program to record the music and another to write it on a CD-R. (Most CD writers come with CD-writing software; if you have one that doesn't, hunt down a copy of CD-Rwin.) The recorder has to record in a format that can be transferred to CD, namely one that records at 44,100 samples per second (44.1KHz) and in a range of 65,536 possible values (16 bits). For Windows there are a number of shareware programs, downloadable from the Internet, that will do that quite nicely, recording in the WAV format. I use Cool Edit, which has some incredibly precise editing functions. (Imagine editing out a thousandth of a second from a recording.) It can also filter out the pops and clicks of a scratchy record.

Another program, Music Match, is primarily an MP3 recorder that can also record WAV files. Music Match doesn't have all of Cool Edit's bells and whistles, but it does have one potentially time-saving feature: the Auto Song Detect. One problem with recording albums on CDs is that if you want each song to appear as a separate track on the CD, each song must be recorded as a separate WAV file. This can turn even a small recording project into a time-consuming process, as you have to be in front of the computer to hit the virtual record button at the beginning of the song and to switch it off at the end. What Music Match does is "sense" the silence between songs, stop the recording at the end of a song, and then automatically begins a new recording when the next song starts. This, in theory, allows you to record an album while you do other things.

However, one problem I found with Auto Song Detect was its tendency to chop off the first quarter-second or so of songs it records. By the time the program registers that it has another song to record, it has already missed the very beginning of the track. A fraction of a second chopped from a song is not something many people would notice. Trust me, though, it will drive audiophiles up the wall.

Fortunately, while I was writing this article, I mentioned this shortcoming to computer engineer and audiophile friend Dave Israel. In a few days, he wrote a program that streamlines the process of recording albums in another fashion. Called Wavesplitter, this program automatically breaks apart a large WAV file into individual songs, a process that takes a prohibitively long time to do through standard cut-and-paste procedures. Wavesplitter assumes that the WAV file is an entire side of an album and guesses where the songs are divided (based on the silence it detects between them). This allows you to record an entire side of an album at a time. This program isn't foolproof, but it works well enough. In the best DIY spirit of the Internet, Israel has since put up his software free for the downloading.

(Let me apologize here for focusing on Windows software. Linux users might go with a program like Krecord for recording and CD-Record for writing. Mac users might want to go with Sound Studio — and remember, Macs use AIFF-formatted files instead of WAVs.)

That's basically it. It's not entirely foolproof. My first recordings all skipped — as a result, it turned out, of my computer trying to run too many programs at once. I disabled the screen savers and backgrounded indexing programs. I didn't do any word processing or Web surfing while recording.

Another thing that helped was defragmenting — or straightening up — the contents of the hard drive between recording sessions. WAV files are huge. A three-minute song can be about 30 megabytes. Repeatedly recording and then erasing such files makes a mess of a computer's hard drive. (And naturally, if you want to keep more than one album stored on the computer, you'll need a fairly large hard drive. A six-gigabyte hard drive, with nothing else on it but the essential software, can hold about eight CDs.) Also, the recording level usually needs adjustment: If the input volume is too high it causes distortion; too low and it makes quiet CDs. I find that by turning my stereo's volume control up and down in a scientific manner, I can find the optimum recording level. Not to get too technical or anything.

So that's how to record your own CDs at home. Before you go charging off to record all those old Joan Baez albums, however, I should warn you about the legal and aesthetic considerations.

First of all, depending on whom you ask, writing your own CDs in the fashion that I have described may not be legal. That's the position of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). The association's Web page states that you can use the CD writers that use audio-formatted discs for the stand-alone models marketed by Sony and Philips. These fall under the umbrella of federal law, specifically the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992 (AHRA), which was set up to pay royalties to compensate artists, record companies, and music publishers for such re-use of their work.

Using computers and CD writers like mine to record music is not legal, according to the recording-industry folks. The home-recording law covers only electronic devices marketed for the "primary purpose" of making audio copies; such, the official line goes, is clearly not the primary purpose of computers. Similarly, the CD writers I use are marketed primarily for data-storage uses. The lines here are hazy, but the RIAA Web site asserts clearly that music can't be copied onto hard drives or recorded on computers or CD writers that don't use audio-formatted discs. (The RIAA itself didn't return phone calls for this article.)

There are some who take issue with the RIAA's claims. "There is no basis in any law, statute, regulation, or court decision that says you cannot copy your own music discs on a computer recorder," maintains CD-Page, a Web site devoted to CD news. I queried a number of lawyers specializing in copyright law, and they backed CD-Page's position.

AHRA regulates the makers of electronic equipment but contains no provisions for prosecuting individual consumers, according to Denise Mroz, an associate attorney for Woodcock, Washburn, Kurtz, Mackiewicz & Norris, a Philadelphia law firm. What this means is that the law itself doesn't prohibit home recording. Copyright issues may come into play, but Mroz says re-recording albums or making compilations for personal use may fall under the "fair use" exemption to copyright law.

However, Mroz says, recording CDs for commercial gain is undoubtedly illegal. This is the real problem for the recording industry. Now that digital music can be so easily copied, it can be easily distributed — through pirate CDs, or even by being posted on the Internet. And that poses a very real threat to the music business.

"Imagine billions of dollars worth of inventory is just sitting out in the open," says Justin Zitler, an adjunct professor at Loyola University New Orleans School of Law who studies legal issues related to technology. "That's the problem the recording industry now faces." No one seems to know how artists can get what the recording industry considers fair compensation for the use of their work in the digital age, when music can be moved around so quickly. Until such issues are resolved, RIAA is not going to go out of its way to let consumers know about digital home recording. (And, as Zitler says, the music industry is being watched very closely by the film industry, which is about to experience the same predicament as home computers get powerful enough to hold movies).

In addition to the legal questions, I found that CD recording raised a number of aesthetic and practical considerations I had to think through. My original plan was to record my vinyl discs on CD and then toss the originals. My audiophile friends howled in disbelief when they heard this. And frankly, it did feel sacrilegious, this idea of chucking my vinyl companions after so many years of loyal service.

Admittedly, there are good arguments for keeping the albums around. For one, there's the outside possibility that analog records have a longer shelf life than CDs. (Compact discs haven't been around long enough to gauge their life span, and CD-Rs certainly haven't. Estimates have ranged from as little as five years to well over 100.) Also, records are works of art in their own right. There's nothing like pondering some wild cover art, like that of King Crimson's In the Court of the Crimson King, for instance, whilst listening to the crazy music within.

But in the end, it's about the music, man, not the packaging the music comes in. So while I'll probably end up storing (as opposed to trashing) my album collection, my finger-smudgin', disc-dropping, day-to-day listening will increasingly be done with CDs. Such is the safe road: We may not always have CDs (higher capacity DVDs are fast on the way), but music will likely remain widely available in some digital format for the next few decades. So in 2040, while the remaining analog audiophiles scrounge around for turntable needles, I'll be rocking out in 16-bit digital.

For more information on the ways and means of home CD burning, check out the following Web sites: CD Recordable FAQ, CD Page, LP to CDR Tips, Digital Sound Cards, RIAA's Rules on Home Recording, Copyright and Fair Use Resources, and CD media Longevity. Joab Jackson writes for Baltimore City Paper, where this piece first appeared. Jackson writes for the

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