Exactly what constitutes CD-quality sound? The industry standard is a 16-bit, 44.1 kHz sampling rate with a signal-to-noise ratio of approximately 90 dB. But nearly every pro digital recorder these days boasts a 24-bit, 96 kHz sampling rate and signal-to-noise specs well beyond the spectrum of anyone's ears. At the same time, however, many digital-audio formats (inexpensive sound cards and software programs) claim CD-quality audio while actually data-compressing the audio to save disc space.
Fortunately, the next generation of digital recording should straighten out all the CD-quality wanna-bes. Electronic pioneer Sony, known worldwide for its Walkmans, PlayStations, and high-end digital multitrack recorders, has finally introduced a professional-level CD recorder, the CDR-W33, designed for recording engineers, project studios, and performing DJs.
The CDR-W33 is stacked with features, including 24-bit A/D/A converters, smooth digital signal processing (DSP), and text editing. In addition to the normal transport-type controls, input switches, and recording-level meters, the front panel is stacked with useful recording functions such as fader I/O, mute record, music sync, and auto track recording. Functioning as a normal CD player, the CDR-W33 provides all the right stuff, including shuffle mode, music scan, and repeat play.
Recording a CD is easy. Simply insert a CD-R or CD-RW disc (the CDR-W33 is compatible with both) into the drawer and select an input from the input switch on the front panel. You may choose from three inputs: the 24-bit RCA analog unbalanced input and the optical and coaxial digital inputs. The recording-level meter for the analog input sits conveniently above the input switch. After finalizing (which takes about 80 seconds), you can play your CD-Rs on any CD player. CD-RW discs are compatible only with CD players that read CD-RW, but the discs enable you to erase and record over your recordings on the CD-RW at any time.
MASTER OF YOUR MIXES
Although those features are available only on its analog input, the CDR-W33 is equipped with some powerful digital signal processing tools that can help you fine-tune a mix. While the CDR-W33 is in record-pause mode, you can monitor and adjust the DSP functions, which include a digital equalizer, digital limiter, and Super Bit Mapping (SBM).
The equalizer is a simple shelving EQ for the bass and treble, with parametric frequency control for the mids. You may not be able to filter out any pops or clicks with the CDR-W33's equalizer, but it's fine for slight tweaks. The DSP functions have no presets or programs to store settings, so if you want to apply the same processing to your mix every time you burn a CD, you need to take detailed notes or make sure that you don't move any knobs. It would be nice to have a few programs to store your favorite settings.
The CDR-W33's limiter is extremely useful, providing a soft overdrive sound without distortion. I needed to clean up some live tracks that had been recorded direct to DAT from a mixing desk. The mixes sounded very harsh: the levels were low, the high end was brittle, and the bass was muddy. By increasing the CDR-W33 limiter's gain ratio to 60 percent and raising the record input level, I was able to make the low-level parts clearer and the highs softer — without using the CDR-W33's equalizer.
It's best to use the unit only for simple applications rather than as a mastering tool. If you're mastering a recording for commercial release, let a professional mastering engineer handle the task to guarantee that your CD sounds its best and to fix any problems that may not be apparent to you.
MAPPING THE SUPER BIT UNIVERSE
The real star of the CDR-W33's DSP is Sony's SBM, a process that raises the standard of CD recording and playback quality. The basic theory is that when you record on the CDR-W33 through its 24-bit analog converters using SBM, the processor filters the 24-bit audio to yield a final product that sounds better than normal 16-bit quality. SBM does that by weaving out the least significant 8-bit information into 16-bit filtered data.
Sony claims the reshaped noise pattern results in deeper bass and more dynamic midrange. My ears tell me it rocks! I tried playing CDs recorded with SBM on several different CD players, and they all sounded great. I also tried playing CDs recorded without SBM on the unit, and they didn't sound nearly as good. According to Sony, by reorienting quantization noise to frequencies above 15,000 Hz — where human hearing is far less sensitive — the SBM process can achieve a result that is comparable to nearly 20-bit quality, yet you can still play the disc on any CD player.
Although the CDR-W33 may not offer features such as a pitch control or a bpm readout found on CD players designed for DJs, it still is a worthy tool for those who want to record their live sets to CD. Housed in a tough, 2U rackmountable box, the CDR-W33 can handle the abuse often encountered in a club and perform flawlessly. The unit features a large detailed display that shows just about everything you need to know about a CD while it's playing, including the song title. Because the CDR-W33 supports CD-Text, you can enter the names of songs you recorded using the chunky wired/wireless remote provided or an optional PC-compatible PC/2 keyboard. The CDR-W33's CD-Text feature allows you to name your disc and individual tracks with as many as 23 characters each.
Another bonus: the display throws off a mad fluorescent light that is easy to see, especially in the dark places DJs like to hang out in. You can also change the display during a recording to check the track time or the time remaining on the entire disc, which can be useful when recording a live performance.
BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE
The CDR-W33 may be Sony's first CD read-write recorder designed for professional music applications, but it got just about everything right the first time. This box's 24-bit A/D/A converters, useful DSP, and CD-Text functions make it a great choice for use in the studio and onstage, and the SBM alone is cool enough to justify a purchase. Even though most DJs already have a CD burner, this great-sounding and easy-to-use recording tool is a must-have if you want your latest mix, remix, or white label to sound its best.
Kevin Garant lives in New York City and likes to drink out of the dog's dish while listening to bootlegs of Bee Gees sound checks. The strange thing is that he doesn't own a dog. Check out his Web site at http://kevingarant.com.
PROS: Outstanding sound quality. Super Bit Mapping processing. CD-Text feature with remote or PC keyboard with PS/2 interface. Roadworthy construction.
CONS: EQ, limiter, and Super Bit Mapping available only on analog input. No memory for EQ or limiter settings.
Overall Rating (1 through 5): 4
Contact: tel. (201) 358-4190