Creating Your Own CDs
While CD-Rs can store all sorts of digital information, the most widespread application these days is making music-mix CDs with a computer. If you're new to the world of CD burners, this can seem like a daunting task. But it's actually very simple, once you have the right software and know the general procedure.

If you have already hooked up your CD burner, the first step in making a CD is loading the software you need. This music-management software serves several functions:

  • It converts songs to the correct format for burning.
  • It allows you to arrange the songs for your mix.
  • It controls the encoding process for writing to the CD.

These days, most burners are packaged with one or more music programs, but you can also buy programs or download them over the Internet. You may need separate media applications to handle different elements in the process, but there are some good programs that handle everything (see below).

Music Management Programs

MP3 Decoding

Playlist Organization

CD Ripping

CD Burning

Multi-Function Software

When you have all of the software you need, it's time to gather some songs. You may want to take songs directly from your CD collection. To do this, you need to "rip" the songs -- copy them from your CD to your computer's hard drive. You'll need an extraction program to do this. To copy a particular track, insert the CD into your built-in CD-ROM drive (or the CD-burner itself) and select the song you want through the extraction program. Essentially, the program will play the song and re-record it into a usable data format. It's legal to make copies of songs you own, as long as the CD is only for your personal use.

You can also gather MP3s over the Internet. You can download MP3s from sites like MP3.com or with file-sharing programs like Gnutella. Some MP3s are free, and can be legally downloaded and copied onto a CD. Most are illegal copies, however, and it is a copyright violation to download them and burn them onto a CD.

MP3s are compressed files, and you must expand (decode) them in order to burn them onto a CD. Standard music-management programs can decode these files. If you don't have the right software, there are a number of decoding programs that you can download over the Internet.

MP3 Sites
Legal Sites

Quasi-Legal Sites
(legality yet to be determined)

Once you've gathered the songs, you can use your music manager to arrange them in the order you want. Keep in mind that you have a limited amount of disc space to work with. CD-Rs have varying capacities, measured in both megabytes and minutes. These days, most CD-Rs are either 74 minutes or 80 minutes long. Before you move on to burning your CD, you should make sure that your mix isn't too long for the blank disc.

Once the mix is complete and you have saved it, all you need to do is insert a blank CD-R disc into the burner and choose the "burn" or "write" option in your music-management software. Be sure to select "music CD" rather than "data CD," or you won't be able to play the disc on ordinary CD players. You'll also need to choose the speed at which you want to burn the disc. Typically, a slower speed reduces the chance of a major error during the writing process.

A lot of things can go wrong when you're burning a CD, so don't be surprised if some of them don't come out right. Since CD-Rs can not be overwritten, any irreversible mistake means you'll have to junk the whole disc. Among the CD-burning set, this is called "making a coaster," as that's pretty much all you can do with the damaged CD.

If you continually have problems burning CDs, your drive may be defective or your music-management program may be faulty. Before you return your burner, try out some other programs and see if they yield better results.

To make a CD-ROM, you'll go through a similar process -- but you'll code the disc as a data CD, not a music CD. Some newer CD players and DVD players can read untranslated MP3 data files, and you may be able to make CD-ROM music mixes this way. Since MP3s are compressed files, you can fit a lot more of them on a single disc, which means you can make a longer mix. The drawback, of course, is that your disc won't work in the vast majority of CD players.

CD burners have opened up a whole new world to the average computer user. You can record music that will run in most anybody's CD player, or you can put together CD-ROMs containing photos, Web pages or movies. With a piece of equipment about the size of a car stereo, and about the price of a cheap bicycle, you can set up your own multimedia production company!

For more information on CD burners and related topics, check out the links on the next page.