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The CD Writer
CD Recording, Down to the Wire

Bob Starrett

December, 2000 | When you stub your toe at your house, do you do it on a 380MB, full-height ESDI hard drive from 1989? When you trip and fall, is it because your foot got caught up in a computer cable that you can no longer identify? When you cut your finger, is it by any chance related to an ill-fated relocation of an old AT horizontal computer case? These things happen when your work/living space is as cluttered with BIOS-hazards as mine, and, in fact, all three misfortunes befell me this week. So I decided to clean up, move on, and make what I hope will be a substantial charitable contribution to whomever can use a bunch of old stuff.

The thorough cleaning and sorting yielded several treasures that I finally brought myself to throw away, and several that I relegated to the CD museum. Here's a 1X Texel SCSI CD-ROM drive. It's still got everything you need to get up and running and pumping out data at a blinding 150KB/sec, and I've even still got the manual.

Here's another gem: an Adaptec 1542B SCSI card. This was a real card's card–a do-it-yourself ISA, unburdened by today's sissy Plug-and-Play niceties. Replete with no less than 48 jumpers to keep you bouncing off walls for hours trying to configure this baby. IRQ, DMA, BIOS Base Address, SCSI ID, Time Zone. Get out your needlenose pliers and pull those three terminating resistors off if you are going to use external devices. None of this automatic termination or SCAM (SCSI Configured Auto-Magically).

Nostalgia sure isn't what it used to be.

the right IDEa

I'm always shooting my mouth off about how CD-R is the success it is today because of low drive and media prices and the booming consumer audio recording market. But when you really think about it, maybe the biggest factor, behind the scenes, that made this popularity possible was the modification of the IDE specification to support CD-ROM drives and recorders.

IDE, or Integrated Drive Electronics, sometimes called Integrated Device Electronics, was designed as a hard disk interface. The idea was to get most of the controller electronics off the interface card and into the drive itself. IDE cards were less costly to produce, and had fewer chips that the MFM and RLL cards that preceded them.

It was several years after the initial specification for IDE was written that Western Digital initially proposed changes to the specification that would allow a CD-ROM drive or recorder to be attached successfully to an IDE controller. Once this was implemented, CD-ROM drives and recorders became simpler to install. The three jumpers on the back were easy to understand, or at least two of them were. The concept of master/slave is easy to grasp, and if you just forget about cable select (C/S) altogether, there is not much to setting up an IDE CD-ROM drive or recorder. Contemporary SCSI recorders and cards, on the other hand, were likely to scare off any novice user; SCSI ID, termination, parity, reset, test, block size, time zone, and many other mysterious switches or jumpers made for myriad headaches the casual user had neither the time nor the inclination to contend with.

IDE has become so popular as a CD-ROM interface that it sometimes takes a little time even to locate a SCSI drive at local stores. In fact, some manufacturers, like Ricoh, have quit producing SCSI recorders altogether. Of course, ease-of-use innovations have also been made on the SCSI side. We've seen Plug and Play cards that could self-configure, automatic SCSI card termination, increased data transfer speeds for unbelievable ripping rates, and all of these made things easier and faster, too.

burn on a wire?

Of course, the other key to SCSI's success was that external SCSI was a Mac user's only choice–that is, until the advent of the SCSI-proof iMac in 1998, which left users of the new Mac systems with no recording choice at all. What they did have was USB, which promised hot-plug perfection–too good to be true, at least CD recording. Convenient, yes. Tolerable, at 2X on a good day? Maybe in 1995.

Finally, with the introduction of FireWire, there are fast devices that will give iMac users the ability to record at something other than 2X. FireWire has speed, blazing speed: at 400Mbps it has 30 times the bandwidth of USB. And it is flexible, too, with cable lengths up to 14 feet which will ease the troubles if those who would otherwise need to use Ultra 160 or Fast and Wide SCSI, whose severe limitations on cable length make them less attractive as a CD-R interface.

Will we see 68-pin connectors on the backs of SCSI recorders soon? I don't think so. Until recording speeds really go through the roof, a fast machine will be able to record over IDE at 16X, and FireWire can start handling the real screamers soon to follow. Like USB, FireWire is hot-pluggable. You can add and remove devices without having to shut down your machine. Imagine moving a CD recorder from one machine to another and just plugging it in and recording right there on the spot. And as with USB, there are no jumpers at all.

So, while the modified IDE specification made CD recorders an everyman's peripheral, FireWire will keep it that way no matter where recording speeds go and iMac users can get back into the fast recording game.

Robert A. Starrett (bobs@cdpage.com) is a contributing editor for EMedia Magazine and co-columnist for The CD Writer, and an independent consultant based in Denver, Colorado. He is the co-author, with EMedia Magazine contributer Joshua McDaniel, of The Little CD Audio Recording Book, published by PeachPit Press.

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