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Adaptec Toast 4 Deluxe

Stephen F. Nathans

EMedia, March 2000
Copyright © Online Inc.

Adaptec Toast 4 Deluxe
synopsis: Toast 4 continues to corner the market on Mac CD recording, and it's a great corner to be in. In addition to the familiar, powerful GUI which handles just about any recording functions, Toast 4 is the first edition of the software to incorporate the CD Copy utility inherited from Toast originator Astarte. Toast 4 also learns benefits from Adaptec stablemate Easy CD Creator via the welcomed addition of CD Spin Doctor, Creator's popular consumer recording tool. (Professional tasks continue to be covered by Adaptec Jam.) Toast 4 also incorporates USB and ATAPI support, accommodating the interface restrictions and configuration shifts of the latest iMac, G3, and G4 systems of Apple's post-SCSI age.

price: $99

Adaptec, Inc.
691 South Milpitas Boulevard
Milpitas, CA 95035
408/945-8600; Fax 408/262-2533

It's a strange time to be Toast. It's not that it isn't still a great product--it is. But its latest version, Toast 4 Deluxe, though a fine successor to and measurable improvement on its forbears, has been born into troubled times. In a sense, Adaptec's Toast has lived a charmed life to date. Mac CD-R has never been the roller-coaster ride that CD recording on the PC has been--it basically worked all along. And Toast deserves a lot of credit for that. Even in CD-R's mid-'90s adolescence, when it had competition--Incat, Corel, Gear, and OMI vying for pieces of the Mac sliver of a very small pie--Toast (then an Astarte product) was always the most deserving and the best fed.

Even when the software was on the shoddy side (besides Astarte, only OMI really put much effort into its Mac product), the Macintosh made them all look good. The Mac only gave you one way to record, and it succeeded remarkably well. And soon enough, all those other contenders were gone, and Toast--the best of the bunch--survived. Moreover, SCSI CD-Recordable drives were arguably the first to mature into anything like the well-oiled machines you see today, and they were the only type of drive that you could connect to a Mac. Best of all, the rigidity of the Mac system saved users from all the fancy footwork PC recordists had to master to shore up their systems (building partitions, switching off background operations, adjusting memory options). Amazingly, with all the advances in PC CD recording technology--from packet writing to wizards--and exponential growth in hard disk size and processor power that should have obviated the need for this kind of damage control, Dana Parker's three-year-old article, "The Seven Rules of Safe CD-R," continues to get our readers out of jams, as the half-dozen letters I get each year singing its praises attest.

With all these factors in its favor (and only one current competitor, Charismac's Discribe, which is only sold in bundles), Adaptec's biggest concern for its Toast line has likely been that the Macintosh platform teetered on the edge of extinction throughout CD-R's greatest period of growth. The arrival of Apple's surprisingly popular iMac, G3, and G4 should have the Toast team breathing a huge collective sigh of relief, since more Mac users must mean more Mac recording, right? I guess so. But with every wish there comes a curse. What should be a renaissance in Mac recording has a pretty upsetting downside: if you leapt too soon into the colorful new Mac scene, you now find yourself saddled with a system that won't even connect to the latest 8X SCSI recorders.

Most iMacs offer only the USB interface, which was made for scanners, printers, and other lower-bandwidth peripherals, and has yet to deliver CD-R reliably over 2X, which is pretty abysmal by today's standards; by comparison, any current desktop PC is capable of 8X recording. The very first PowerMac beige G3s had SCSI, but not so with any Mac brandishing the new multicolored tower design. More recent iMacs and G4s offer FireWire, which is more promising, although largely untested for CD-R to date. Only the very latest G4s solve this problem, offering two drive bays into which you can install just about any kind of drive you want. But if you're among the millions who saw the new-fangled boxes and jumped on the first wave, you're stuck with the still-unproven FireWire, or worse, USB.

But none of that is Adaptec's fault. To paraphrase James T. Farrell, Toast 4 has been born into a world it didn't make, and can't be blamed for that world's shortcomings. Adaptec's done some fine tweaking of Toast, and filled in the blanks on any typical CD-R user's wish list based on what's been available in Adaptec's PC tools for the last couple of years. Audio enthusiasts will be encouraged to find a Mac version of the Spin Doctor music-recording tool associated with Easy CD Creator included here, and owners of iMac and G4 systems can rest assured that the USB recorders with which Apple has placed them on a collision course are supported by Toast 4 as well. But FireWire remains such a murky proposition that Toast doesn't support it yet. Adaptec says the software will be upgradable when the drives are available via the WebCheck online upgrade feature introduced with Toast 4. Interestingly, Toast also supports ATAPI now, which is good news if you held off your G4 purchase long enough to avail yourself of a unit with ATAPI capability.

These are welcome developments but predictable ones; somewhat more interesting is what Toast 4 reveals about Adaptec's management plans for the old Astarte recording line, which once included three products: Toast CD-ROM Pro, Toast CD-DA, and Toast CD-Copy. Toast 4 is the first iteration of the general premastering tool to incorporate the CD-Copy utility. However, Jam, Adaptec's renamed and incrementally evolved version of the CD-DA professional audio product, will apparently remain distinct for at least another generation.

Which is hardly surprising either--no current mainstream premastering product includes audio manipulation capabilities as sophisticated as Jam, and the analog-to-digital conversion, "de-clicking" of imported files, digital audio extraction, and pause-setting features included with Spin Doctor should prove fairly satisfying to the audio hobbyist. And those musically inclined CD recordists will also welcome the inclusion of Liquid Audio support and MP3 file conversion, the latter of which seems to become the sine qua non of pursuing CD-R's desired consumer audience. Furthermore, it's the first version of Toast to boast 80-minute media support, which should please all you non-musicians who've been drawn into CD-R audio for, uh, "professional" reasons.

meet the new toast...

Users of earlier versions of Toast will find few surprises in the new version. The interface is virtually identical to the familiar look of Toast 3.5 at whatever drive-support upgrade you left it. Toast 3.8, only sold with USB drive bundles from QPS and LaCie, is the spit-and-image of today's Toast as well. Technically, Toast 3.8 (aka "Toast USB") was the first edition of the software to support USB drives; however, since it only came in drive bundles, Toast 4 can be granted the distinction of being the first retail model to help you connect CD-R just as you would a scanner, a printer, or any other low-throughput peripheral. Welcome to the molasses-in-January world of iMac CD-R. Take your shoes off. Set a spell.

As ever, the straightforward Toast GUI gives you easy access to just about any CD recording function you need. All the usual suspects can be accessed by clicking on the upper left-hand box that defaults to "Mac Volume" for hard drive backups and the like. Other options include "Mac Files & Folders," "ISO 9660," "Mac/ISO Hybrid," Audio CD, CD-i, Video CD, and Enhanced Music CD. Discs can also be built from a pre-built disc image (a real advantage when working with shaky USB). Multisession and Multitrack XA recording are also supported.

The key new addition in that menu is "Disc Copy." Here Adaptec answers one of the two questions that have kept users hanging between Toast releases: Will the old Toast CD Copy utility ever be subsumed into Toast, or will Adaptec continue to make users buy it separately? Its inclusion here is good news; however, users are advised to use it cautiously. In testing on a first-generation iMac using an on-board 24X Max CD-ROM drive and a QPS Que! USB recorder, 2X burns invariably failed on all but the most measly datasets. Testing on an old 68K Quadra with a Plextor UltraPlex 32X CD-ROM drive as the source drive, and an 8X PlexWriter 8/20 as the recorder, duping the Toast 4.0 CD using Disc Copy proved no problem at full-throttle 8X speed. Testing was less successful on a 166 PowerPC unit, using the onboard 8X CD-ROM drive and an attached 8X TEAC recorder; the disc failed to copy at any speed faster that 4X. Fortunately, Adaptec gives you two testing options--"Check Speed" and "Simulation Mode"--that will serve you well until you find a speed you can use confidently.

calling dr. spin

Like most current CD-R products aiming to cross over to more consumer terrain, Toast 4.0 features a considerably beefed-up set of features for hobbyist audio recording. The first is relatively subtle--4.0 is the first iteration of the software to recognize increasingly popular 80-minute media. There was a reason 80-minute media failed to catch on in their first incarnation two years back, when they debuted priced about $15 higher than 74-minute CD-R discs: 60 extra MBs wasn't going to sell anybody on minutely heightened data storage.

The only real appeal of the discs was that they were sufficient to copy the seemingly "piracy-proof" 75 to 80-minute audio discs coming out of the Far East, and at a $15 premium the why-buy argument wasn't strong enough for ordinary audio enthusiasts who could live without those one or two extra tracks, and the profit margin for pirates was rendered virtually nil. Today, however, with 80-minute media prices creeping ever-closer to those of their standard-length counterparts (I've seen them under $2 in quantity), they're sure to catch on much more rapidly, and Adaptec is wise to recognize that in Toast 4. And for the record, Toast did indeed capture 78:38 of audio tracks (whose origin shall go unnamed) on a single Smart and Friendly 80-minute CD.

The more prominent audio boost in today's Toast comes from CD Spin Doctor, the multifaceted consumer audio recording tool introduced with Adaptec's initial Easy CD Creator rollout in 1997. Its inclusion with Toast has been a long time coming, as there's really been no retail tool for doing the types of things that's made Spin Doctor so popular, namely analog-to-digital conversion for burning tracks from vinyl and tapes onto CD. Users can import audio from just about any source they can plug into the RCA jack on the rear of their Mac, provided it has stereo input (nearly all PowerPCs and all iMacs, G3s, and G4s do have this feature; 68K users are out of luck--Spin Doctor won't even run on a sub-PowerPC Mac). And it's a welcome addition to the mainstream tool; previously, Mac users had to scour the Web for tools like SoundHack to get this capability.

Another nice feature of CD Spin Doctor (also available in the Easy CD Creator version) is its basic audio-restoration functions--rapid de-clicking, de-popping, and elemental boosting of inferior-sounding tracks--that can indeed work some minor wonders in erasing the imprint of time on degradable music-distribution media. If you haven't used this kind of thing before, it'll take some tinkering to get it right. The well-wrought User's Guide included in the Toast bundle does a fairly good job of walking you through the process, but nothing serves better for this kind of operation than good old trial and error. Your initial experiments may result in all kinds of bass-boosted distortion; be sure you duplicate the track you loaded in before fussing with it because Spin Doctor automatically overwrites the original version with the modified track.

Working from a click-cluttered CD of '50s doo-wop songs made a couple years back from a stack of old 45s, I ran some 29 songs through the Spin Doctor mill with some impressive results, especially on a couple of tunes where the crackling had persisted the whole way through. Efforts to boost the sound on more quietly recorded tracks proved less successful.

What's most interesting about the Toast version of Spin Doctor is not what's included, but rather what they left out. I said that adding Spin Doctor was a well-calculated mainstream move and, indeed, this is decidedly consumer stuff: while the PC version of Spin Doctor offers some very rudimentary track editing, like fade ins, fade outs, and cross-fades, these are nowhere to be found on the Mac side. It's not that Adaptec can't do it--far from it. These features remain the exclusive province of Jam, Adaptec's similarly Astarte-derived professional music editing and recording product. This is good news and bad news. While it's disappointing that even a "lite" version of this feature set was not included in this release (say, missing the dizzying array of options you get with Jam), it's heartening to imagine this omission as a clue to Adaptec's having a new Jam in the works. Here's hoping they do and that they release it soon; Jam 2.5's lack of support for just about any recorder released since the mid-'90s demands attention that Adaptec has been sorely remiss in not providing thus far.

Other new audio features adding to Toast 4's consumer cachet are support for MP3 to CD-DA conversion, Liquid Audio support, and access to CDDB, the massive online CD track information database. The "Goodies" folder, as with previous versions of Toast, includes Toast Audio Extractor, now in version 1.1. While not as fast a digital audio extraction utility as the blazing rippers you can download here and there for use on the PC [See Starrett's "Ripping Off Recordings", July 1999, pp. 34-46] there does seem to be about a 20 percent speed improvement over version 1.0. The package also includes template-based CD labeling software and a handy HP applicator.

power to the powerPC

Any aspect of the current Toast will run on a late-model PowerPC. And the recorder support seems rock-solid, and will surely be as easily updated as earlier versions of the software via the Adaptec Web site. Toast and Spin Doctor were both effectively tested on a Performa 6360 PowerPC using a TEAC 8X24 CD recorder, and worked to their best results there. Of course, it's not easy recording at 8X with a 166mHz machine, and it only works reliably with small chunks of data files.

But if you've still got that connection to the glory days of Mac CD recording--any reasonably fast PowerPC or 266 PowerMac G3 with a good old SCSI connection--and can do any of the work you need to do there, make that your recording station and do the rest on a cheap PC, at least until FireWire proves its mettle, and installing ATAPI drives in the new G4 convertibles amasses a solid success record. Or if your production needs are low and you can afford to do your occasional burns on your lunch hour, hold your nose and take the USB CD-R plunge. Whichever path you take, Toast 4 will make a trusted and able guide.

Stephen F. Nathans, (stephenn@onlineinc.com) is Editor of EMedia.

Comments? Email us at letters@onlineinc.com.

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