CD Recorder's Dirty Little Secret

The dirty little secret about consumer CD recorders has recently been getting out: In order to record on one of the new "inexpensive" consumer CD machines from such manufacturers as Pioneer or Philips, you have to purchase special "consumer audio" CD-Rs that can cost three to four times as much as the same CD-R formatted for use with a professional or computer-based CD recorder.

This is all thanks to the RIAA Home Recording Act tariffs that apply to those scalawags at home who are robbing the record companies blind by making backups or copies of commercial CDs, their own music, or making a "mix" CD of music from a variety of discs they have already purchased. You'd think the RIAA would leave regular folks alone and spend all of their efforts going after the real pirates, who crank out thousands of copies at a time (and who are never slowed down by this copy-protect nonsense). But no, we're captive, easy targets. Never mind that honest citizens, those who want to make a legal backup or record their own music, are penalized in the process.

As a result, there seems to be a natural urge among audio fans to find ways around these copy-protect limitations. Activity has been particularly hot on several audio newsgroups lately, and while Stereophile does not advocate doing anything illegal or harmful to a piece of gear (or yourself in the process), we find the activity newsworthy. But first, a little background on how the copy-protection process works.

When you put a blank CD into a consumer recorder, the machine looks for a special ID bit on the disc that identifies it as a consumer (pre-taxed) CD. If the recorder does not see this ID bit, the device will not record. The consumer recorders also make use of the nemesis of the consumer DAT format: SCMS/GUPG (Serial Copy Management System, or Guilty Until Proven Guilty). With SCMS, once you make a copy onto the consumer disc, you can no longer copy that disc digitally to another CD, DAT, or MD (even if it is your own material). Also, just as with DAT machines, "pro" CD recorders are exempt from these restrictions---the problem being that such recorders usually start at around $2000. Hardly seems fair, especially if you're looking for an inexpensive way to make promos for your band's new record.

Human ingenuity to the rescue: According to a recent audio newsgroup posting, it turns out that you can fool the recorder into thinking it has a consumer disc in it. "What I found out is, the [consumer CD recorder] will work with normal recordable CD-Rs. What you have to do is put in a blank 'consumer audio' CD-R of the same length as your normal CD-R, and let the unit read the [ID bit]. Then it will say you can record. What you do now is, using your hands, not the door button, carefully reach under the CD tray door and slide it open. Take out the consumer CD-R and put your normal CD-R in the tray. Then, manually, fully close the door. You can now record on the normal CD-R. You will have to finalize the disc before you can remove it from the unit, or it is toast. You can not record a track or two and remove the disc and try to record on it later."

Other newsgroup postings point out that some recorders are easier to fool this way than others, depending on the drawer mechanism. While searching the newsgroups for particular model numbers, I found tips for recorders from different manufacturers. For example, a recent posting claims that, for a machine with an unmovable drawer, circuit-board mods are possible: "The modification consists of a switch that bypasses the memory of the CD-R when you open the lid. Now you put in a computer CD-R and close the lid. The CD-R still thinks that it is a consumer disc."

But once you've tricked your player into recording on a normal CD-R, it still has the SCMS code on it. Again, a workaround has surfaced. It turns out that if you process the signal through certain Audio Alchemy digital processors, the SCMS code preventing subsequent copies is stripped from the datastream. A former Audio Alchemy employee explains that "this was an unintended byproduct of one of the designs a couple of years back that was quickly corrected. But there are certain machines out there that do the job."

Digital technology has proven to be a mixed blessing for the music business---new formats sell more product, but it also gets easier to make high-fidelity copies of protected material. As a result, a cat-and-mouse game of copy-protection vs. the workaround has emerged, with no end in sight. And it is, of course, appropriate to point out that using all these ideas to make digital clones of copyright material is illegal.