A cheap fix for stubborn CD-burning problems

Have you cleaned your CD or DVD burner’s laser lately? Until this week, I had never tried using a special disk to clean dust from the laser in my optical drive. But that turned out to be the sure cure for a stubborn problem I encountered recently, and I thought it might be worth sharing my experience here.

For the past month or so, I’ve been frustrated when trying to burn music CDs. In a typical session I might be able to burn one music CD successfully, but trying to burn another would fail. The writing software would hang or appear to complete successfully and then return a write error. In some cases the drive itself would lock up so tightly the disk couldn’t be ejected until a restart. The burned disks wouldn’t play back properly on any other device.

I probably turned 30 disks into coasters while investigating this problem, trying every troubleshooting trick I know to find the source of the problem. Converting the source files to WAV format and caching them locally didn’t help. The problem wasn’t software, either, as I found by repeating the issue with multiple burning programs, including Media Monkey and Easy Media Creator 10.

I knew the cause wasn’t the media itself (high-quality Sony disks). I also knew the cause wasn’t specific to my original test system, as the problem was reproducible with a clean install of Windows 7 on a separate PC from a different OEM using a different brand of CD/DVD burner. Both systems had plenty of RAM and fast quad-core CPUs and had burned plenty of CDs over their lifespan. Searching forums and support sites I found scattered reports of people with similar problems but little in common with my configuration. In fact, I found several posts from people who had experienced similar problems using OS X.

By this point I was beginning to suspect a conflict between Windows and the drive or drive controller—both drives were connected to a Intel ICH8R/ICH9R SATA controller using Intel Matrix Storage drivers.

To rule out the controller, I tried an external drive, using an LG combo Blu-ray reader and DVD writer. This SATA drive is mounted in an external enclosure with its own power supply, and I used the USB output to connect it to my Windows PC. This time I was able to burn multiple CDs in quick succession with no problems using every imaginable combination of file formats and software. But when I hooked up a second drive to a SATA-to-USB converter and tried using it as a burner, I got coasters again.

In several forum posts, I had read recommendations for special disks designed to clean the laser on a CD/DVD player/burner. I found this Memorex model at Amazon for $6.03 (the price has since risen to $7.98), and decided to take a chance. (This Allsop model costs about $5 more at Amazon but also gets excellent reviews.)

When I received the product and removed it from its packaging, I have to confess I was skeptical. It looks like a regular music CD with instructions on the label side and a half dozen small brushes arranged in a track on the bottom (shiny side) near the center of the disk. In Windows Media Player, it plays like a music CD, with 14 tracks that include audio instructions delivered in a friendly female voice, along with some test tones to help you determine whether your speakers are wired correctly.

After completing the entire suite of tests in 10 minutes or so, I popped in a blank CD, fired up Media Monkey, and told the software to burn a collection of FLAC files from a network location to CD, converting them to WAV files in a local cache on the fly. Surprise! The first disk burned just fine. As did a second, a third, and a fourth.

Still slightly skeptical, I ran the disk cleaner on my other test system and tried the same operation. The results were the same: 100% success using multiple disks, multiple burning programs, and multiple source file formats.

The Memorex marketing copy says the disk “has 6 ultra-soft brushes designed to safely remove dust and dirt from your CD/DVD player’s lens” and recommends using it “after every 10 hours of playback to ensure optimum laser performance.” Given my results here, I plan to do exactly that.

12 thoughts on “A cheap fix for stubborn CD-burning problems

  1. I hope this is placed in the correct area. I wanted to comment on the laser cleaner disk. Until now, I didn’t know such a cleaning tool existed, nor if I had, would I believe it to do the job successfully. This is great news, Ed.

  2. Been cleaning CD players and burners for years by tacking them out, pop the covers and gently wipe the lens or eyeball with a Q-tip. Cost $0.00. Over the years most of my drives came from thrift stores with that same problem.
    Its called dust.

  3. Ray, I wouldn’t encourage anybody to clean players the way that you do. Besides warranty restrictions, it’s a good way to make a costly mistake, in my view.

  4. Bill, in over 15 years of home built I have only warrantied one motherboard. If it runs for a few months its mine. If it dies after 2 -3 years its done me service time to upgrade.

  5. Ed
    I have thought also that these Cleaner disks were a waste of time but maybe its worth a follow up. Just a quick question why do you use FLAC format for music files? I prefer all my music to be in MP3 format, whey copying or burning.

  6. Brett, most of the music I download (legally, from archive.org and bt.etree.org) is distributed in lossless FLAC format. I prefer to rip music in lossless WMA format as well. If I buy an album from online sources, it comes in MP3 format, which is fine, but I would prefer to keep it lossless.

  7. I wonder why optical drives don’t have some kind of lens cleaner built in? Something that brushes away dust when the drive head is parked.

    I suppose after a while the brush itself would get dusty but it should prolong the period where everything’s fine. Can’t see if costing much to add, either.

  8. As a long time Music CD collector (over 1000)I have been using a cleaning disc for years on my CD player.
    When I frist started messing with computers a bit over two years ago, the first 4 computer I used were hand-me-downs and junk. I just used my regular CD cleaning disc on my computers to improve sound. It worked!!! Seems as if us newbies can teach you Geeks a thing or two.

  9. I’ve always been sceptical of CD Drive cleaning disks. The ones I’ve seen in the past just didn’t seem as if they would have any physical effect on the laser glass in the drive. From reading your post Ed, it seems as if they may have become a bit smarter in these disks. But, so far the old can of compressed air has provided fair results for me. I may have to try your suggestion though, thanks for the insight!

  10. Brett,

    I rip all of my music into FLAC format using Exact Audio Copy. This gives me a nice lossless copy that I can transcode in lossy formats (MP3, AAC, WMA) as needed.

  11. @Ed & ShoresofDoom

    Thanks for the heads up there. I just didn’t think that FLAC was a widely used format for music files.

Comments are closed.