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MicroBoards' StartREC 400 Rack-Mountable CD Duplicator

Jeff Partyka

MicroBoards' StartREC 400 Rack-Mountable CD Duplicator
synopsis: The MicroBoards StartREC 400 is a standalone CD duplication unit for audio professionals. It can record up to four CD-Rs at once, either from other CDs or from audio or data on the internal 6GB hard drive. (It cannot write CD-RW discs, although it can copy them to CD-Rs.) It offers a host of useful audio-centric features, including fade-ins and -outs, track marker adjustment capabilities, analog-to-digital sound conversion, recording-level meters and controls, and more. Small recording or production facilities will no doubt find its features more than handy.

MicroBoards Technology Inc.
1721 Lake Drive West
Chanhassen, MN 55317
Fax 612/556-1620

April 2000 | I remember thinking it was funny back in the mid-'80s when my grandparents said they would wait to buy a CD player until there was a recordable model available. It was inconceivable in my precocious little teenage brain that we'd ever be where we are today, with recordable (and even rewritable) CD drives so readily available for our desktop computers, and even as home-entertainment components.

Even when I joined the EMedia staff in the summer of '97, I was largely unaware of the growing prevalence of CD-R technology. I was pleasantly surprised by what I learned, mostly because of my keen interest in all things music- and audio-related. (To me, the increasingly widespread use of the technology in corporate environments was even more surprising than its popularity in audio circles, if less interesting.)

That's why I still get excited about a product like MicroBoards' StartREC 400. It's a rack-mountable standalone duplicator designed for audio professionals, with a 40X Plextor CD reader and four 8X Matsushita CD-R drives, and a 6GB hard drive for audio and data storage (divided into three partitions, or "blocks"). Audio-editing features abound, including analog and digital audio inputs, track-list adjustment, parameters for silence between audio tracks, fade-ins and -outs, track combining or splitting, and more.

how do you do it?

The unit has three main menus: Copy, Track Extraction, and Audio. The Copy menu is used for actual recording, whether it's from the internal hard drive or directly from a CD in the reader. The Track Extraction menu allows extraction of individual CD tracks (again, to the hard drive or directly to a CD-R), and the Audio menu includes functions for recording analog or digital audio to the hard drive (and playing it back), and for tweaking files before recording.

At first, navigating between the three menus can be confusing. Much of the toggling is done through the use of the Down, Up, Menu/Edit, OK/Enter, and Cancel/Display buttons, and I found myself scratching my head (and pressing the wrong button) more than once. Keeping the instruction manual close helped, and after a day or two with the unit I got better at navigating through the many sub-menus.

The StartREC 400 is quite a flexible machine. Making exact copies of an entire disc is simply a matter of inserting the disc to be copied into the reader, putting blanks into any or all of the four CD-R drives available, and using the Copy menu to get rolling. But the unit also comes with a host of useful features for making compilations from a variety of source material, and, apart from a few stumbles at the beginning, it performed every job quite well during testing.

audio recording: we can work it out

One of the features I was keen to examine was the StartREC's audio recording capability, as this would demonstrate what presumably sets this product apart from more general-purpose standalone CD duplicators. The StartREC 400 offers three types of digital audio inputs: AES/EBU format, with an XLR connector; coaxial SPDIF format, with an RCA phono connector; and optical SPDIF format, with a TOSLINK connection. The unit also has balanced (XLR connectors) and unbalanced (RCA phono connectors) analog inputs. Once a sound source is plugged in, a handy recording-level dial and meter on the front of the unit allows adjustment to the proper level. The StartREC also offers optical SPDIF digital, and balanced and unbalanced analog outputs, plus a headphone jack with volume control for monitoring.

I hooked my turntable up to the StartREC through a phono pre-amplifier, using the unbalanced analog audio input on the back. After selecting that input in the Audio menu, I was perplexed when it seemed no signal was reaching the unit. I double-checked every connection and sub-menu setting, and couldn't figure out what was wrong. I was getting ready to call MicroBoards tech support until, by pure chance, I tried hitting the Record button. Suddenly I had my signal; the Record button, rather than beginning recording right away, put the unit in Pause mode, so that recording levels could be adjusted before recording, and only then did the signal come through. Though off-putting at first, this feature can prove quite useful for previewing purposes. However, this is mentioned nowhere in the instruction manual, as it should be to avoid such confusion.

Another boo-boo occurred after I had recorded six songs from my good old vinyl record collection onto the hard drive. I had extracted several songs from CDs beforehand, using the Track Extraction menu, and moved over to the Audio menu to record my 45s. I decided then to go back to Track Extraction and add a few more CD tracks--and when I did so, I found I had erased all the previously extracted audio. Apparently, you cannot begin a new run of extractions from CDs unless the hard drive "block" you want to use is empty--an inconvenience for users who might want to go back and forth between recording from analog sources and from CD. The only way to mix such sources for a CD-R project is to extract all CD tracks first in the Track Extraction menu, and then move over to the Audio menu to record from analog. There's no going the other way.

Despite these beginner's snags, once I started rolling with the StartREC 400, I enjoyed its flexibility. One of the things I thought I'd miss about software-based desktop recording was the audio editing and tweaking it offers, but I ended up missing little. When making digital files of vinyl records, for instance, I like to have two- or three-second fade-ins and -outs at the beginning and end, so that the crackly vinyl noise (plus whatever small amount of hum my turntable makes) doesn't start or stop so abruptly between songs on a disc. On the desktop, I usually do this with audio-editing software. The StartREC's Audio menu, however, offers a quick and simple way to add fades of any length, with just the press of a few buttons.

Also, when transferring a long-playing record album to CD-R, it's best to be able to record an entire side at once, and then split the songs into CD tracks before recording. Again, I use software to accomplish this on the desktop, but the StartREC offers another menu to split existing files into separate tracks, and yet another to join separate files as a single CD track.

When all the files are ready to go (on a single hard drive block), they can be assembled in the proper order in the Audio menu by using the Move sub-menu command. It's not quite as easy as the drag-and-drop moving I'm used to in my desktop software, but it's straightforward enough. When everything's in its place, switching over to the Copy menu and instructing the StartREC to record from the proper hard drive block will get everything rolling, at 1X, 2X, 4X, or 8X speed, writing to up to four blank discs simultaneously.

Other interesting features include the ability to amend the length of silences between tracks, to insert track markers manually or automatically (when the sound level drops below a specific level for a particular length of time), and to encode a disc with copy protection. The StartREC 400 will ignore the Serial Copy Management System (SCMS) data on a source CD, allowing the user to specify whether the written disc should be free of copy protection, able to be copied digitally just once, or completely unable to be copied.

easy like sunday morning

If someone had told me when I was fifteen that recording onto CDs would ever be this easy, I'd have been bemused, thinking the idea of channeling the time and energy I expended making mix tapes (and, later, cassettes of my own music) into producing glorious, hiss-free masterpieces of music programming to be nothing but a pipe dream. But the StartREC 400 is exactly the kind of machine I would have wished for--as a fan and musician. As with most technological wonders, there's a learning curve (a better-written manual could make it a smaller one), but it performs remarkably well.

Its cost will probably price it out of the range of most bedroom-based recording artists and mix-making obsessives who want to run off four copies of that latest and greatest mix CD (not to mention my grandparents, who actually still have yet to buy a CD player), but small recording or production facilities will no doubt find its features more than handy.

Jeff Partyka (jeffjp@yahoo.com), a former associate editor of EMedia, is working toward the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) certification, and is currently a Producer/Editor at TelekomNet.com Inc. in Boston. He is also an enthusiastic amateur singer/songwriter and recording artist.

Comments? Email us at letters@onlineinc.com.

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