How CD Burners Work

Reading CDs

The different layers of a conventional CD
The different layers of a conventional CD

In the last section, we saw that conventional CDs store digital data as a pattern of bumps and flat areas, arranged in a long spiral track. The CD fabrication machine uses a high-powered laser to etch the bump pattern into photoresist material coated onto a glass plate. Through an elaborate imprinting process, this pattern is pressed onto acrylic discs. The discs are then coated with aluminum (or another metal) to create the readable reflective surface. Finally, the disc is coated with a transparent plastic layer that protects the reflective metal from nicks, scratches and debris.

As you can see, this is a fairly complex, delicate operation, involving many steps and several different materials. Like most complex manufacturing processes (from newspaper printing to television assembly), conventional CD manufacturing isn't practical for home use. It's only feasible for manufacturers who produce hundreds, thousands or millions of CD copies.

Consequently, conventional CDs have remained a "read only" storage medium for the average consumer, like LPs or conventional DVDs. To audiophiles accustomed to recordable cassettes, as well as computer users who were fed up with the limited memory capacity of floppy disks, this limitation seemed like a major drawback of CD technology. In the early '90s, more and more consumers and professionals were looking for a way to make their own CD-quality digital recordings.