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Taking Care of CDs

Carl from OH writes:

I’m starting to have problems with CD-Rs. Especially near the end of the CD, the music gets scratchy and fluttery. They played Perfectly when I first burned them. They are stored in a jewel case. So, do CDs deteriorate or get cloudy with Age? Can they be polished up to get the music data off of them?

Great question, Carl. Many people rely on writeable CDs (CD-Rs) or rewriteable CDs (CD-RWs) to back up important information, send files to other individuals and to make music CDs to listen to in CD players. What many people do not realize is that optical media, which includes CD-Rs and CD-RWs, don’t last forever. The lifespan of a CD depends on a variety of factors, including whether the CD is of the writeable/rewriteable variety or if the data or music was etched into the disc by the manufacturer as well as how the CD is cared for and stored.

Types of CDs

Factory manufactured CDs, sometimes referred to as pressed CDs, last much longer than CD-R and CD-RW discs because of the way the data is recorded. Data on pressed CDs is actually pressed into the disc, creating a series of pits and lands. Because the data is literally etched into the disc, these discs last quite a long time and are usually only affected by physical damage. Writeable CDs, on the other hand, are covered with a layer of dye. During the writing process, a laser burns the dye on the disc turning it black. Over time the dye breaks down rendering all or part of the disc unreadable. While it’s more important to properly care for recordable CDs because of the dye, all CDs should be properly stored and cared for to extend their life.

The lifespan of recordable CDs depends on a variety of factors, such as which dye the manufacturer used and how the CD is cared for and stored. There are several dyes commonly used by CD manufacturers. Some of these dyes break down faster than others and some are more sensitive to light and temperature than others. Improperly storing a CD can also contribute to the degradation of the dye, which could render the disc useless.

Proper Storage

How you store your CDs can directly affect their lifespan and could lead to poor music quality or data that will not load. It’s best to store CDs in protective cases, such as the plastic jewel cases that CDs are often packaged in. While thin plastic or paper sleeves will provide some protection for your CDs, heavy objects placed on top of the sleeves could still lead to damage. CD jewel cases stored vertically are less prone to damage than CD jewel cases that are stacked, so keep your CDs stored vertically in a cool, dry location.

Avoid stacking CDs on top of each other or setting an unprotected CD on any surface as dust or dirt particles on the surface could scratch the surface of the disc. If you must place a CD on a surface unprotected, set it down so that the side with the information is facing up. Return the CD to its storage case as soon as possible so that it is not damaged.

The dye coating recordable CDs can be degraded by a number of things, including the light emitted by the laser inside your CD player or computer and ambient light. Because of this, it’s best to store CDs away from light sources, such as lamps or the sun. When storing music CDs in your car, use jewel cases or protective cases and store the cases in a glove box, under a seat or elsewhere in the car where they will not be exposed to direct sunlight. This will help prolong the life of your recordable CDs.

Hope that helps! Remember to keep your CDs clean and safe, but also remember to create a backup… because no matter how many precautions you take, they won’t last forever!

~Chad Stetson