Technology

Disc that changed the world

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It looked nothing like a big deal when Mr. Joop Sinjou, the then head of the Philips CD-Lab held a small round disc that was meant to give better quality of sound. On March 9, 1979, he was accompanied by Mr. Joop van Tilburg, the head of Philips audio division, and the president of Sony, Mr. Akio Morita. Standing between them, a real star of the time – conductor Herbert von Karajan.

It was “Eine Alpensinfonie” (An Alpine Symphony) by Richard Strauss, performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker and conducted by Herbert von Karajan, that made the first test pressing in order to create the first ever recording for a Compact Disc.

The company from the Netherlands and of one-time rival from Japan made a progress rarely seen in business. Philips and Sony set up a joint task-force in 1979 to develop a new digital audio disc. They enjoyed a support from the famous conductor from day one, as Herbert von Karajan advocated the technological development.

By the time CDs were introduced to the market in November 1982, some 150 titles – mainly classical music performances – have been produced. It was the Swedish pop band ABBA who had their album “The Visitors” recorded on the 12-centimetre disc as the first manufactured at the Philips factory in Langenhagen, Germany.

What Philips and Sony achieved was a multiple success story. They have jointly created a sound carrier that indeed replaced the vinyl records, first in quality and then in market presence, which was their primary goal.

In doing that, they have also created an industry standard for the CD sound quality, launching a shift from analogue to digital music technology. The technology included the first ever mass usage of laser technology, among other things.

It was quickly and widely accepted even by die-hard audiophiles, who swore never to abandon vinyl long play records (LPs). They adorned both classical music masterpieces and the newest popular music. Musicians enjoyed new royalties after remastered recordings were published again and sold out despite initial high prices of CDs. David Bowie’s entire catalogue was converted to CD and accompanied by four greatest hits albums.

New generations accepted scratch-resistant CDs and compatible technology such as Sony’s Discman, which followed the success of Walkman. Soon enough it changed the way music was perceived, since one’s soundtrack became a moving high fidelity delight.

The Compact Disc Digital Audio (CDDA) standard proved to be a catalyst for a string of innovation in digital entertainment. CDs paved the way for Video CDs, Digital Versatile Disc (DVD) and the latest Blu-Ray optical media.

Meanwhile, CD technology extended into computer world, becoming principal carrier of data, and sending floppy discs into history. Floppy discs would in turn become the omnipresent symbol, reminding every computer user to “save” the document. CD family added Recordable and Rewritable CDs, together with development of dye and metallic alloy materials used for CDs recording layer.

A CD could contain as much as 700 megabytes of data, making it the largest read-only memory (ROM) carrier, outpacing hard disks of the time. The capacity of CD was allegedly adopted to accommodate the entirety of the particular recording: the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of the Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 12, which lasted just under 74 minutes. This influenced contemporary musicians to create longer songs or more songs per album, awarding listeners with additional music and maxi-single versions.

Curiously enough, the Mini CD format, which could run 24 minutes of music, wasn’t so successful as its vinyl predecessor, the 45 RPM single, but held an important role as carrier of data and programming tools.

Compact Disc also brought a challenge for designers, who had to deal with package for the fragile CDs. They created the “jewel case”, a thin plastic casing with safety mechanism for holding the disc, which turned out to be a very expensive component. In time, slim casings, and even vinyl-style envelopes appeared (but haven’t replaced) the jewel case.

Artworks, booklets, designer features made a CD casing a real treasure. The disc itself became a field of artwork, with drawings and letters inscribed by either screen or offset printing process.

While the CDs do have a limited lifetime, their influence on technology, industry, music and life is profound and lasting. As the era of CDs resulted in download of albums from the internet and flash stick memory cards, Compact Disc still turns around one-third of the music market.

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