Despite the democratization of music production technology over the past ten years, most of the mastering process is still a black art to most people. You can buy a cheap microphone for your computer at Wal-Mart to record your bedroom demos, but for some reason you still can’t get your music as loud and clean as Kanye. The brave can attempt a lot of it at home with varying degrees of success, but an esoteric lexicon still exists that causes many to second guess their ability to deliver a professional product. “Red Book” falls into this category.
If you just google “Red Book CD” or “Red Book Master” you’ll wind up with a bunch of questionable mastering sites offering a lot of warnings but not a lot of information. They say “Oh, you can make a CD at home, but is it a Red Book??!?!” Then they proceed with obfuscating generalities that encourage you to accept the fact that you are out of your depth and that you should use their service, in part, to obtain such a mystical artifact.
Well allow me to demystify the term and you’ll see that getting a Red Book master is not reason enough to choose a mastering house.
“Red Book” refers to a document created in 1980 by Sony and Philips. A team of about 8 researchers was tasked with creating the specifications for standardizing compact discs (CDs if you’ve been living under a rock…on Mars…with your fingers in your ears and singing “la la laaaaa” to yourself at the top of your lungs for the past 30 years). Researchers in the companies had a propensity to house their reports on the various forms of CDs in color-coded folders or books and refer to them as such.
These eventually became known as the “Rainbow Book Series”. Lesser-known standards also included “Yellow Book” for CD-ROMs, “White Book” for video discs, “Beige Book” for photo discs, and “Scarlett Book” for super-audio discs. The specifications found within these books dealt explicitly with standardizing production for the companies. With Red Book, the virtual monopoly in CD technology at the time by Sony and Philips contributed to most of the other manufacturers adopting the same standards for compatibility across the board.
The Red Book stipulates that a standard CD should be 120 mm in diameter, 1.2 mm thick, and composed of specific materials (polycarbonate plastic substrate sandwiching some form of thin metal and coated in lacquer if you want to be explicit). Pretty much every commercially available CD conforms to these physical standards.
Interesting aside: the companies originally wanted 60 minute of play time with 100 mm to 115 mm discs. The ultimate choice of 74 minutes came from the suggestion by Herbert von Karajan, conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, that the CDs should accommodate Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, which was recorded in 1951 at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany. This increased time necessitated the increase to 120 mm diameter discs. The first test disc ever made was pressed in Hanover in 1981 and featured Von Karajan conducting the same group, so his opinion must have been important to the researchers.
Additionally, Audio CDs must have three areas: the lead-in, the program, and the lead-out. Every disc-burning program that writes audio CDs uses these areas. The lead-in contains the table of contents and directs CD players to the track markers and song titles and so forth. The program area is where the actual audio is housed (in Audio Engineering, program is just a term used to describe any kind of sound content). The lead-out contains no data and indicates to players that the CD has ended.
Lastly, the Red Book stipulates what kind of files can be used and how they should be encoded and organized on the CD. Discs can contain up to 74 minutes of audio, up to 99 tracks with a minimum of 4 seconds per track, with the possibility of 99 separate sub-divisions within each track.
The program content must be the standard 44.1 kHz sample rate, 16-bit depth and be two channel stereo. Data is stored in frames of 1/75 second length and data is written in sector sizes of 2,352 bytes per frame. Frames are encoded in such a way to minimize the effect of damage to a CD and house error correction and display information.
That last bit is a little abstruse, but basically all of these are the standard for every disc-burning program out there.
So what’s the big deal with Red Book masters? The short answer is that there isn’t one—at least not today. Understand that the Red Book was written in 1980, before commercial audio CDs ever even hit the market. These were the standards the companies decided on before ever releasing a CD and were to be used as the template for mass producing CDs for the future. In a large part, the Red Book is merely a description of what an audio CD is, not some uber-special type of audio CD that you need to have special gear to create.
Once upon a time, the means of creating audio CDs existed only in big manufacturing plants and the common-folk had to patronize these establishments to get their discs reproduced. Now, technology has come so far that virtually every disc making tool available to the consumer can and does follow these standards.
I suspect that the only reason this term even exists anymore is because of stand-alone hard disc recorder/burners like the Alesis Masterlink, which give the option to record different kinds of discs. Since many recorders are capable of recording at much higher (and some at much lower) quality than standard audio discs, the Red Book option is selected so that whatever you’ve recorded comes out playable from the burner. I speculate that the “Red Book” option on these recorders is meant to be a short-hand for burning a playable disc as opposed to a data or archival disc. Also, since many of the professional hard-disc recorders were made in the 80s and 90s, companies were still tinkering with Super Audio CDs and other forms of discs that might have been included as options.
Think back 10 years ago when you were burning CDs, maybe one in every ten or twenty didn’t work or some would only play on a certain brand of CD player, or maybe it only played on your computer but not your car or in your car but not your CD player. Across the board, these problems have been reduced with error correction and more intuitive interfaces, not to mention the fact that the average consumer now knows the difference between a data disc and an audio disc and can recite the sample rate and bit-depth for Audio CDs.
The Red Book standard is in many ways simple antiquated jargon for specifications that we can safely take for granted anyway. Some might latch on to this term because it’s something they can use to sound more professional than you. Of course, by and large the people employing the term don’t know any better, they just know that they can push the “Red Book” button and make something without knowing what it is.
If you burn your disc using an audio-CD writing program, using a normal CD-R, and using a modern CD Burner, then you’ve got yourself a Red Book disc. I would suggest burning at the slowest speed possible to minimize errors, but other than that you are golden!