The $1K CD/DVD/LightScribe Replicator: The DIY Guide To Manufacturing Your Own Discs For Less Than $1 Each

This do-it-yourself replicator features eight Lite-On CD/DVD burners. By flipping the disc over you can burn images onto the top using the drive lasers.

I’ve slowly updated components of The $1K Home Studio over the last few years, but have never had a low-cost, DIY solution for disc replication. After playing with external CD burners and evaluating various proprietary hardware options such as the Aleratec auto-flip burner , MicroBoard tower replicators amongst many others, I decided that the current commercial solutions are nice, but most definitely overpriced. So I decided to develop my own solution. This custom-built behemoth is built from common off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware from Fry’s Electronics and inexpensive commercial software. It costs less to own than commercially branded replicators, and also functions as a normal desktop computer since it runs Windows 7 and Linux. (I took care to also buy a Gigabyte-brand motherboard that supposedly supports the OSx86 (“hackintosh”) project, but have had little success with the installation.)

Hardware

  • Intel i5 750 64-bit CPU. (Features 4 cores.)
  • 4GB RAM.
  • 8 x (yes, eight) Lite-On CD/DVD 5.25″ SATA burner drives.
  • Gigabyte motherboard with lots of SATA ports.
  • Add-on SATA card. (Most motherboards won’t have enough connectors, especially if you have 8 x burners plus 4 x hard drives. 🙂 )
  • Big-ass power supply. (The first one I bought wouldn’t even boot the thing. I put in a monster and everything started working.)

Software

The point of all these burners is to burn simultaneously to all of them, but Windows 7 and OS X cannot do this out of the box. Only a small subset of CD/DVD burning software on the market supports parallel burning, and some only seems to support multiple burners for specific types of burns. What’s worked best for me so far is…

  • Nero Multimedia Suite 10 for concurrent audio and data burning with multiple burners. You don’t have a lot of easy-to-use alternatives here, and I’ve also noticed a few glitches with Nero. Keep your eye out for sales here and you can pick up a copy dirt cheap.
  • Acoustica CD/DVD Label Maker for concurrent LightScribe replication across multiple burners. Again, not a lot of options here. The free software from LightScribe.com does not support multiple burners, though some vendor-specific bundles seem to. (LaCie’s LightScribe software in particular appears to support simultaneous LightScribe burns, and they also have a Mac version. I would have went with a Mac-based solution, but 8 x USB 2.0 drives probably would not work so well.)
CDs burned with LightScribe technology. Discs come in many different colors.

I decided to create all my replicated discs using LightScribe technology. This allows me to flip LightScribe CD-Rs upside-down in the burner and use the laser to burn custom graphics onto the top of the disc. I also made the command decision to use COTS cd sleeves instead of CD Jewel cases or slimline cases. The plastic ones are more expensive, always crack, and are pretty much useless from the start since most people seem to rip their CDs nowadays anyway. Sleeves protect the disc, come in many colors, are far less expensive, even cheaper in bulk, and perhaps best of all can be printed on directly though ordinary laser and ink jet printer.

The system runs Windows and Ubuntu. Additional drives are interchanged using hot-swap SATA drive modules.

System Pros

  • Inexpensive initial fixed cost of hardware parts and software licenses.
  • Inexpensive variable cost per disc since LightScribe labeling uses the drive laser instead of ink. There are no costly consumables to replace. (Ordinary LightScribe media purchased in bulk works great.)
  • Quick data, audio and LightScribe replication using 8 concurrent burners.
  • Doable by anyone capable of building of PC with a little time can build one.
  • Functions beautifully as a normal desktop computer.

System Cons

  • Not completely automated like some commercial units because disc loading, unloading and flipping (if using LightScribe) is a manual process.
  • Still uses CD-Rs. These are not the same as commercially pressed mass media discs, but a lot cheaper.
  • (This one is only applicable to audio.) I’ve yet to find inexpensive parallel burning software that can handle DDP images. (The standard in “Red Book” audio CD mastering.)
  • Since LightScribe labeling uses the drive laser instead of ink, disc labels are grayscale only. (Note: You have a lot of options in disc color, though, so it’s not a big deal. Just use your creativity.)

Replication Process Overview

Label four empty CD pancakes to manage the assembly line replication process. If you don't you'll get your disc piles confused!

My primary purpose for this buildout is to replicate audio CDs as quickly as possible for Sonic Binge Records: the awesome music production company. In particular, I need to quickly replicate a pancakes worth (usually 25-50) of audio CDs as inexpensively as possible. After much trial and error with the process, this is what I’ve found works best.

  1. Create final CD master image. (For me that’s using WaveBurner on a Mac. For replication purposes it doesn’t really matter as long as the master is good.)
  2. Take four empty CD pancake containers and label them “Blank”, “Burned”, “Labeled”, and “Ready” to create an assembly line process. You can of course save these for future jobs.
  3. Use Nero Burning ROM to replicate batches of 8 at a time. When they’re done, be sure to put them in the “Burned” stack so you don’t get burned discs confused with “Blank” discs.
  4. While they’re burning, create a square grayscale graphic for LightScribe burning. (Free label creator software is available, though anything like Photoshop works too. I usually use a combination of Photoshop and Acoustica.)
  5. Use Acoustica to label batches of 8 at a time. Each batch will take a while. Full-disc burns seems to take around 30 minutes per batch: much longer than the data/audio side of a standard CD-R. Moved discs to the “Ready” pile when they’re done. (Note: The “Labeled” pile is for discs that have been LightScribe labeled but not burned with data or audio. You can end up in this situation when using multiple computers to do burning.)
  6. While they’re burning, use your favorite document application to design your printed CD sleeves. I’ve started buying color variety packs in bulk packs of 300 to keep options high and costs down.
  7. Bulk print the entire order of sleeves in a single run. As long as you can set the size of the feeder tray, your existing feeder should work fine. (CAUTION: remember that the “window” is made of plastic, and can melt if exposed to heat. Think twice before trying your laser printer. 🙂 )
  8. Take discs from your “Ready” pile (as they finish getting labeled) and slip them into sleeves to create the final product, suitable for general distribution. The imaging lasering adds a great, distinctive touch, and of course you can get as creative as you want with the sleeves, too.
  9. Done! (aka beer time.)

Costs

  • Fixed: ~$1K for the machine build, with about $400 of that just for the burners. I reused/reposed parts from old junker machines where I could, and could have saved some money by buying online. I was in a rush and just went to the store.
  • Variable: Roughly $0.40 – $1.00 per disc, depending on the disc quality, packaging, ink etc. you decide to use for each project. (All things considered, the $0.40 version looks pretty decent!)

Closing Thoughts

If you’re a musician without computer skills I would not recommend attempting this project, but if you feel fairly comfortable putting together machines, it’s honestly not that hard. It’s just a PC, after all. (Disclaimer: I do have a degree in Computer Science and Engineering, so my perspective of “not that hard” may be a bit skewed.)

I hope you’ve found this rough how-to guide both inspirational and informative. It’s very useful to have a replication machine handy, and if you’re actively working with people on projects intend for distribution it’s a great investment!

Please use this comments section for all your general comments and questions and I’d be happy to address them. Thanks for reading!

Switching To Dvorak: Seven Months Later

Today marks exactly seven months from the day I switched to the Dvorak keyboard layout.

Key Observations

  1. 72, 81 and 77 words per minute, clocked with three different one-minute tests on TypingTest.com.
  2. In home-row-only tests I took several months ago, I was already consistently over 100 WPM. The many common home-row-only words (those spelled with A, O, E, U, I, D, H, T, N and S) are remarkably comfortable and fast to type.
  3. It’s all about muscle memory. I can type my thoughts just as well as the next guy without looking at the keyboard, but can’t recite you the upper or lower row keys by memory. Interesting, huh?
  4. The pain in my left-hand little finger tendon is gone! More of this is likely due, however, to also switching my Command and Caps Lock keys in software.

Other Conclusions

  • I’m much, much better at hunt-and pecking in Dvorak–that is, staring at a QWERTY keyboard set to Dvorak in software and “sensing” where the right key are with my pointer finger alone. (Useful when typing a few words on someone else’s box.) This is hard because of #3 above, but learnable.
  • I can now hunt-and-peck suitably on my iPhone (QWERTY only) keyboard.
  • Typing QWERTY on a Dvorak keyboard is a lost cause. I have to stare at a secondary QWERTY keyboard to do so, because my muscles and mind have totally forgotten. (Again, see #3.)
  • Typing on a laptop keyboard feels better on your finger tendons, but just as uncomfortable on your wrists.
  • Sharing windows machines with others is awkward and frustrating. Let me know if you have a good system tray applet for quick-switching the whole system to Dvorak, because team-admining a windows machine requires a hellish amount of clicks to set the system-wide keyboard layout.
  • Apple is absolutely horrid at designing with ergonomics in mind. (In their defense, they obviously aren’t trying.)
  • I haven’t discovered the mental gymnastics that allows you to type in QWERTY when necessary. I can type my name and common passwords in QWERTY, but that’s about it, sorry. No hablo QWERTY.
  • Stuff that now sucks because they are built for a QWERTY layout: emacs, vi, <your_favorite_editor>, Aperture, some Java apps. All games now require new key bindings off-the-bat too.

What's Better Than Windows Balloon Help?…

Twice as much balloon help!

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My current testing environment for JumpBox development uses two Windows XP virtual machines on OS X under Parallels coherence mode: one with IE6 (gold taskbar on the bottom), the other IE7 (blue taskbar on the right). While they perform sufficiently with 4GB physical RAM, the constant nurturing required to keep these retards up to date and complaint free is ridiculous, given I only boot them once every couple weeks. Dyslexia also arises when each instance periodically “forgets” I’m using a Dvorak layout and reverts to QWERTY, even when sitting idle.

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It’s the little things that drive one nuts. Office 2004 for OS X, for example, sets the bar really low for usability, quality and elegance. Full-screen mode?

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..I guess not. And I won’t be inserting any cells into this table, either…

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Given a choice between A and A, I think I’ll choose A.

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Waaaaay too much of this stupidity plagues Office. Not that Microsoft has much motivation to fix it, but it’s still sad to see such crappy software in wide-spread use.

preston.rant_mode = false

Parallels Desktop Coherence Mode Rocks: OS X/Windows XP Screenshot

I tried Parallels Desktop‘s Coherence mode today, and was so blown away I had to blog about it immediately.

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The above image has not been doctored. It’s my normal OS X desktop with Windows XP running in coherence mode. When activated, the window around the XP virtualization session vanishes, the XP taskbar integrates into your OS X desktop, and XP application windows are free to float around. With Parallels Tools installed each XP application has a dock item which can be Command-Tabbed to. If you look closely you can see I’m running IE 6 next to Safari, both natively, without the visual distraction of the virtualization window. This is a huge usability landmark. Thank you Parallels!

Try it yourself by selecting the View -> Coherence menu option when running Parallels Desktop.

(Question: Does VMWare currently have a feature like this?)