Sunday, October 4, 2009

Separating a Mixed CD into Individual Tracks

Do you want to split a long continuously-mixed CD up into individual tracks, so you can jump from song to song, but still want it to play "seamlessly"? This page will help you learn how. It usually takes almost an hour to cut a CD up into individual tracks, and definitely longer the first time you do it, but it is fairly easy. Warning: if you aren't at least moderately comfortable with Desktop Audio Software, you might not want to read any further.

This information is useful if, for instance, you have a full CD-length mix, which is one continuous track that has all the songs beat-mixed together. This can be a pain in the ass when you burn the single-track mix onto a CD and you want to find a specific song within the mix, or if you're driving in a car with a poor stereo and it hits a bump and goes back to the very beginning of the CD.

I'm going to use Adobe Audition (formerly known as Cool Edit Pro) and the Ahead Nero burning program in my examples. You can probably take the same approach with most other high quality music editors and burners, but with minor changes to procedures. A lot of burning programs say that you can pick a number of "set-points" within the mix, and the CD will automatically break things up for you. Unfortunately, although I have played around with this feature in a couple of programs, I have never had much success with the "set-points" approach, so I learned to do it manually.

Basically, what we're going to do is very simple. We're going to cut the mix up into a number of different files, and then burn each file onto the CD in order, with no automatic 2-second space between tracks. Let's start with the Adobe Audition portion of the project.

Start Audition, and open your mix in single waveform view, not as a track in the multi-track view. At this point, I should caution you that while I have done this a number of times with wave files, I tried it once with an MP3, and I got little "hiccups" whenever the track changed. I don't know if this was because I was using an MP3 as the source file, or if it was some other problem. I usually work with WAV files, so I didn't investigate this issue any further. To be safe, if you have a choice, you should definitely start with a wave file. Stick with the highest possible quality right from the start. I guess at this point I should also teach you how to convert an MP3 to a wave. It seems redundant to be doing this, since MP3 is a compressed format, and by converting an MP3 to a wave, you are NOT increasing the quality, you are just making the file several times larger. Therefore, the ONLY time you would ever want to do something dumb like this is because of the fact that I don't think an MP3 blends seamlessly when cut up. Anyway, you probably have two choices. You can probably load the mp3 into Audition then choose "save as" and set the filetype to Windows PCM wave. Or, what I have done in the past is to go into Winamp, go into Options then Preferences, go to Output Options, and change the setting from "DirectSound Output" to "NullSoft Discwriter." When you load up the MP3 and play it, nothing will come out of your speakers! Instead, it will "play" much faster than normal, with no sound, and the file will be written to the hard drive as a .WAV file. Where, I don't know. You'll have to check your preferences/configuration settings for the discwriter option and see where the file is going.

Anyway, back to Audition. Now you should have your .WAV file loaded. At this point, chose "save as" and make a backup copy with a different name than the original. You're going to do your editing on that backup copy. That way, if you screw things up, your original is still safe.

The next thing you should do is go through the file and figure out where you're going to put all the track divisions. This will probably take the majority of the time. Once you know where you're going to be splitting the file, the rest of the process should only take about fifteen minutes.

Count how many separate tracks you have. For instance, if I was cutting up one of my old mixes (Welcome To The Machine), I would make a list that looks like the following:

01. Playsound, 00:00
02. Spirit, 06:53
03. Losing It, 12:30
04. Waterfalls, 16:24
05. Inkfish, 20:33
06. PFN, 25:34
07. Drifting, 30:58
08. Lovely, 34:24
09. Disorientation, 39:02
10. Girl, 43:02
11. I Love Techno, 49:05
12. Musak, 52:30
13. Tell You, 54:19

Obviously, I have thirteen tracks on this particular mix. Go to the beginning of the last track, in my case, the 54 minute and 19 second mark. If you're just doing this for kicks or to learn something new for fun, you don't have to get any more accurate than to the nearest second - as long as you're close, things are good. However, if you're like me, you want to start things exactly at the start of the proper beat. To do this, I play the stuff on the screen for several seconds before the track split to get a feel for exactly where I want to split it. Then, I highlight about a fifth of the visible screen (as seen in Audition) and then chose the yellow button on the lower left of the zoom controls, which means "zoom to selection." Whatever area you have just selected now fills the entire visible part of the timeline. Play the bit leading up to your cut again, and once more get a feel for where it is. Then, once again, select about a fifth of the screen around your intended track split, and zoom into your selection again. Eventually, by repeating this process a couple times, you'll get to the point where only three or four seconds of the overall wave file are visible on the screen, and you know where the exact beat is that you want track 13 to start on, both in terms of visual representation on the screen, and time-wise.

At this point, you want to test it. Place the cursor at the beginning of the beat you want your track 13 to start on, in other words, just before the graphic representation of the wave starts to get some substance (volume) to it. Now, press play, and see if it sounds like a "good first beat to a track" should sound. If not, move a little to the left or right, until you've found a starting spot that sounds good. Once you're happy, move the cursor over that point again, click your left mouse-button and HOLD IT DOWN, then move the mouse to the right of the screen. The wave file will start scrolling very rapidly (or so it looks) to the right, toward the end of the overall file. In reality, because you are zoomed in to such a high magnification, it may take thirty or forty seconds before you reach the end of the file. Once you stop scrolling to the right, and NOT BEFORE you are all the way to the end, you can now let go of the mouse button. Now, go up to "file" and chose "save selection as" from the drop-down menu. Save it as "track 13 - whatever". Then, hit the delete key once. This will eliminate whatever you have just saved as track 13 from the mix. Your wave file will now contain only the music for tracks 1-12.

Repeat the process outlined above for track 12. Go to the 52:30 mark (in my example), zoom in until you sound like you have a good start point, then highlight from that point to the end of what remains of your mix. Save the selection as "track 12 - whatever", then delete the selection with the delete key, and get ready to start the process again with track 11.

Keep going until you only have tracks one and two left on the screen. Isolate and save track 02 as you have for the other tracks, as described above. Now, all that is left is the first track. Save it as "track 01 - whatever". Of course, this time you're just doing a "save as" with whatever is left, instead of picking a selection. By the way, for all tracks with single digits, it is smart to add a zero to the listing, ie. save "track 2" as "track 02." This matters first with track 09 (as you are working backwards), because it is the first single digit track you will encounter while tracking down. The reason for this will become clear in a minute.

Throughout this entire process, except for the very last track (track 01), make sure you always click "save selection as" rather than "save as". I've made that mistake before, and had to start the whole process over again from the beginning.

Ok, so now you have a folder on your computer somewhere with thirteen different .WAV files to represent the thirteen individual tracks. Of course, the main master .WAV file that you started with may also be there, which is fine. Open up your Nero burning program now. Find the folder. Drag and drop all thirteen tracks into the "burn" panel on the left side. NOW you probably understand why I said to make all the single digits have two digits - because it keeps them in proper order, so your CD doesn't burn in this order: track 1, track 10, track 11, track 12, track 13, track 2, track 3, and so on. Computers aren't dumb unintentionally, they were just built that way. Of course if you didn't add the zeros, you can manually rearrange the tracks so they are in the proper order, but that's extra work that can be avoided if you're smart as you save each individual track.

Now, highlight tracks two through thirteen. Once you have done that, right-click on one of them, and choose "preferences." You will see a window come up with the title "audio track info." There is a place there that says "pause" and there is normally a value of 2 (seconds) in it. Change this to zero and hit OK. Now, tracks 02 and higher should all say 00:00 for the pause value, while the first track should still say 02:00. Basically, there is normally a two-second pause inserted between each track when you are burning a CD full of tracks. However, because you want it to sound "seamless," you don't want that pause to happen. Therefore, you set it to zero seconds pause before each track starts. For some reason, the computer won't let you put anything less than a two-second pause before the first track - if you do, your CD probably won't play. However, that shouldn't matter - it's the start of the disc, and nobody notices. There is probably a good technical explanation of why the first track needs a minimum two second pause, but I'm not going to ask Sony why this is the case - it was probably just one of the conventions decided on when the big corporations came up with a plan about how to structure the CD industry.

Ok, here's the final thing you need to do: obviously, you're burning this as an AUDIO CD and not as a CD-ROM. However, you need to set the "write method" in Nero to say "disc-at-once" rather than "track-at-once" or "disc-at-once(96)". This is the only way you'll get a smooth, continuous flow of music when listening to your CD. If everything worked properly though, you will be able to use the "next track" and "previous track" buttons on the CD player to jump back and forth to the start of the different songs, or I should say more accurately, to wherever you put your setpoints.

By the way, always make sure you "finalize" your CD. If you do not finalize the CD, it will play with no problems in pretty much any computer CD/DVD player. However, if you do not finalize it, it will NOT play in the vast majority (about 99%) of normal home stereo CD players and automobile CD players and portable discman players. It would be embarrassing for you to test the CD in your computer, to make sure it works, then give it to someone and the have them discover that it doesn't play in their car stereo because you forgot to finalize it.

The method that I've outlined here SHOULD work and SHOULD be transferrable to other programs with a minimum of hassle, but if it doesn't quite work right the first time, just play around and experiment. You'll learn more by experimenting than you will by emailing someone else who doesn't have time to answer you.

One final note that I should point out is that it is not necessarily a wise move to "cut up" mixes that you're distributing on the internet, because of potential legal issues. If you separate a mix into each of the individual tracks and then offer it free to the world on the net, you are going to really piss off the artists that have tracks on the mix. Cutting it up makes it easier for people to get free copies of their music, which is frustrating for music producers. A mix that remains fully mixed is generally tolerated because it features the artists' music and often encourages other DJ's to purchase some of the better tracks that they hear on the mix. But if the mix comes as a group of individual songs, the incentive to go out and buy the songs is negated. So the main reason that I'm providing this information is for personal use only. I don't offer any cut-up mixes on my website, for the very reasons that I've just outlined. I want to support the artists who make the music that I play, rather than reduce their potential sales.

Good luck!


PS: If you want to cut a CD up into parts for use in the car, etc., but don't want to take the time to find the exact perfect moments where one song "becomes" another, just cut the mix up into five minute sections. The "songs" may not start at the beginning of a song, but at least if the CD skips and goes back to the beginning, you can forward through it in five minute chunks to approximately where you left off.