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the cd writer

High Fidelity: Archiving Audio to CD-R

Bob Starrett

September 2000 | It is a little unsettling when you open your free local alternative weekly newspaper and an AOL disc falls out. Perhaps they've finally achieved 100% market penetration. But is that disc everything it is cracked up to be? Sure, it says 500 free hours. Sure, it's America's number one choice for internet online service, as it says on the wrapper. Better than ever? It says that too, and I don't doubt that either, because it couldn't have gotten any worse. The only time I use AOL is when I am overseas and can't find a local number for my ISP. Then I just pop open an AOL disc and sign on for my free hours, closing up shop when I get back home. The last time I tried, Version 5 had a slight bug, however. It asks permission to call the U.S. and return a list of AOL numbers in your area, but the hardcoded number in the dialer omits the country code for the U.S. Well, nobody's perfect, and I say hats off to Steve Case for a profitable, if not endearing, enterprise, and one that certainly serves its purpose, limited as it may be for some of us. So there is little to fault, I guess, in light of AOL's success. But this five-year carpet-bombing of disks and discs by AOL got me to thinking:

I opined recently somewhere that the discs you make yourself have much lower error rates than the pressed CDs that you buy at the store. The same should apply to the discs that fall out of magazines and newspapers. Someone challenged me about that, asking what proof I had. So I thought I would put that to the test, speculating that when you make millions of discs, you get a good price--and that good price might be tempered by the quality of the manufactured discs. This particular AOL disc was made in Taiwan. Now, that used to be a joke many years ago, when that label truly meant inferior quality, but not anymore, as we all know from our recent experiences with computer components and home electronics. A certain Philips five-CD changer is made at the same factory as the Symphonic of rent-to-own fame; they are identical except for some slight faceplate differences. If it's good enough for Philips, it should be good enough for us, I suppose. Besides, you can save $10-20 if you buy the Symphonic. Someone at Philips should tell their retailers not to display the two players side by side. Surely Philips loses some sales when the sharp-eyed consumer notices the resemblance between the two players.

So I tested the AOL disc. It came in with a Block Error Rate (BLER) of 5.8. That is a top-quality disc, considering that the maximum allowable BLER is 220. Ah, it must be a fluke, I thought. So to satisfy myself that I had nothing on Case and also to have a control for my test, I walked down to the newspaper box. I didn't even need to get a second newspaper. Packaged AOL discs lay all about on the sidewalk. The carpet-bombing strategy has resulted in people not even taking the discs home to throw away. They just shake them out onto the ground when they take the paper. So it was easy enough to get another disc.

Curses: BLER of 7.3, still a great disc! Interestingly, this one was made in Hong Kong, whose manufacturing reputation has also become respectable over the years. And both of these discs were in the same stack of papers. I found that to be a bit unusual, but I suppose AOL mixes discs from all over the world into one batch and then distributes that mixed batch to the allied airfields.

Copying these discs to CD-R indeed lessened error rates, although the significance in this case is minimal because of the quality of the originals. The gold copy of the Taiwanese AOL disc had a BLER of 1.4. The gold copy of the Hong Kong AOL disc had a BLER of 1.1. Like I said, recorded discs generally have lower error rates than pressed discs.

You might think the audio disc you just shelled out sixteen bucks for has low error rates, too. Unfortunately, that is usually not the case. I tested six new audio discs and got the following BLER results: Jimmy Dale Gilmore's One Endless Night, BLER = 4.4; The Inevitable Squirrel Nut Zippers, BLER = 10.1; Nanci Griffith's Other Voices, Too, BLER = 19.9; Ani DeFranco and Utah Philips, Fellow Workers, BLER = 23.7.

Those error rates are consistent with what I have seen before on pressed audio discs. All of these were within the 220 BLER limit, all playable, all good, but with error rates much higher than you would get copying them or recording ripped WAVs from these discs to CD-R. Then the shockers on the last two discs: The Best of the Chieftains, BLER = 1.8. This is as low as I have seen on a pressed disc (leave it to trad music's elder statesmen to take the technical perfectionism prize).

But the last one is where things become troubling: Sarah Brightman, Time to Say Goodbye, BLER = 141.6. That's awfully high. It doesn't mean that the disc will not play or doesn't sound good, it does; those of you who have heard Sarah Brightman's voice know just how good. But the high BLER does indicate that the disc is less versatile and rugged than its cousins with lower error rates. It is more susceptible to failure as the inevitable scratches and fingerprints make their marks on it over time. If this disc were one that I planned to move about a lot, I'd copy it to CD-R, put the original away, and play my copy, whose BLER of 1.7 makes me feel a lot more confident. That's an even better argument than you have for making backup copies of valued software discs--you know the type--like ones that don't fall out of every magazine and newspaper you pick up.

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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