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Friday, February 8th, 2002


I usually listen to music when I’m within 20 feet of a computer, which is all the time. Ever since they started shipping with built-in CD-ROM drives (Whoa, Betty! Am I dating myself here?), I’ve used my computers to play audio CDs.

About two months ago, my CDs started skipping: from the middle of a song, playback would jump to the beginning of the next song. It happened only occasionally at first, but over time I realized the problem was getting worse. One CD in particular that’s been getting a lot of play here lately, Dream Theater’s Live Scenes from New York, developed two chronic skips in the second track, at 1:41 and 5:52. Every time I played the track, I’d get to hear only the first 1:40 (and then I’d reset the position slider to 1:43) and then the middle 4:08 (and then I’d reset the position slider to 5:53) and then the last minute. It sucked especially hard because the CD was new.

The problem was not isolated to this CD, but this CD had the most problems. And so I theorized that the affected CDs might be slightly scratched. Upon inspection I was shocked to see that the DT disk was actually badly scuffed, because its case is a cheap cardboard folder. This incensed me, to think that the album’s own packaging was destroying the media. Other CDs with skipping problems were not as obviously damaged, but it seemed reasonable to think that my DVD-RAM drive was becoming sensitive to even minor imperfections.

My solution was to attempt to repair the CDs. I purchased a bottle of CD polish (Mikro-Smooth) to buff out the surface of the discs. Then, I treated the CDs with Optrix, an optical coating designed to remove “molding residues” and “optical noise”. This combination attack held a lot of promise — remove scuffs, improve readability, even improve the sound of the CDs, according to the instructions for these products.

Except… it didn’t work. I had spent $40 on chemicals, and the CDs still skipped, in exactly the same places! So I tested the CDs in another player, and they played flawlessly. This implicated the DVD-RAM drive as the source of the skipping problem.

I theorized that the lens of the drive must be dirty. This would explain why performance had deteriorated over time. I bought a DVD-RAM cleaning kit, which at $35 was less than the cost of replacing the drive. I ran it twice for good measure. This didn’t help. I ran the cleaning process a few more times. I could see dirt on the cleaning pad — the cleaner was working through layers of grime, I decided — except that, after a half-dozen passes, the lens wasn’t getting cleaner, and my CDs were still skipping.

As an experiment, I got a fresh copy of the scuffed Dream Theater CD. This, in retrospect, was not entirely rational, because I had a lot of evidence that the CD was not defective. Still, it was a shock to put the virgin disc into the drive and hear it skip in exactly the same place as the old one.

So, I realized that my DVD-RAM drive must be dying. I bought a replacement DVD-RAM drive on Ebay. And at this point I started to feel like a fish on a hook, jerking futilely against a stronger power, for in the new DVD-RAM drive my new CD skipped just like before.

Fortunately, before I got violent, I realized that there remained one untested link in the chain: Apple’s iTunes v. 2.03. It’s a superior piece of audio software, and I’ve standardized on it for MP3 and CD playback. But in the interests of not drop-kicking my G4 through the office window, I fired up Audion (a competing audio tool) and subjected it to the worst CD of the bunch. Audion played the CD perfectly. I tried another: no skips. And another: no skips.

In case you weren’t keeping score, here’s the tally: I spent $165 on cleaning products and hardware to fix a software bug in an application that I got for free.

But before you write me off as the web’s first surviving brain-donor, let me explain the history… there’s a good reason why I never imagined that the software could be at fault. On early PowerMacs, CD audio software did nothing but tell the CD-ROM drive to start playing. I could exit the playback software and the CD would keep going, because the CD-ROM drive’s audio-out was connected to the motherboard’s audio input. Playback was done in hardware; the software just provided a front end. But this is (apparently) no longer the case: the audio-outs on the DVD-RAM drive in my G4 are not connected to anything. The system must be getting the audio data through the ATA bus, and doing the playback in software. Had I realized this earlier I would surely have investigated software solutions first.

Well, live and learn. Or just “live,” anyway, as a friend used to say.

Do let me know if you’re in the market for a (very lightly used) DVD-RAM drive, cleaning kit, Mikro-Smooth, Optrix, or a copy of Live Scenes from New York (slightly scuffed, in a cardboard case).

Subsequent research indicates that intermittent skipping has plagued iTunes for over a year. Sigh…

The sad postscript is that I find Audion wholly inadequate as a CD-audio player. I guess I’ll just have to buy that office stereo I’ve been planning, after all.

posted to channel: Personal
updated: 2004-02-22 22:49:16

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