Monday, August 18, 2008

Happy Birthday to the Compact Disc (if anyone even cares)

On August 17, 1982, Sony and Philips Consumer Electronics released the first CDs to the German public, forever changing the way music would be distributed, marketed, consumed and appreciated.

CDs were smaller, faster and digital, the perfect product for a new era of hyperconsumption and hyperspeed. But that era has come to an end, now that digital music is around and that vinyl sales are increasing.

Standard CDs have a diameter of 120 mm and can hold up to 80 minutes of audio. There is also the Mini CD, with diameters ranging from 60 to 80 mm; they are sometimes used for CD singles, storing up to 24 minutes of audio.

The compact disc is a successful spin-off of the much less successful Laserdisc technology. In 1979, Sony and Philips Consumer Electronics set up a joint task force of engineers to design a new digital audio disc. The task force, led by prominent members Kees Schouhamer Immink and Toshitada Doi (土井利忠), progressed the research into laser technology and optical discs that had been started by Philips in 1977.

After a year of experimentation and discussion, the taskforce produced the Red Book, the Compact Disc standard. Philips contributed the general manufacturing process, based on video Laserdisc technology. Philips also contributed Eight-to-Fourteen Modulation (EFM), which offers both a long playing time and a high resilience against disc defects such as scratches and fingerprints, while Sony contributed the error-correction method, CIRC. The Compact Disc Story, told by a former member of the taskforce, gives background information on the many technical decisions made, including the choice of the sampling frequency, playing time, and disc diameter. According to Philips, the Compact Disc was thus "invented collectively by a large group of people working as a team."

The first CD that was pressed in Hanover was a recording of Herbert von Karajan conducting the Alpine Symphony by Richard Strauss. In August 1982 the real pressing was ready to begin in the new factory, not far from the place where Emil Berliner had produced his first gramophone record 93 years earlier. (Deutsche Grammophon, Berliner’s company, had by now become a part of PolyGram.) CDs and Sony's CD player CDP-101 reached the market on October 1, 1982 in Japan, and early the following year in the United States and other markets. This event is often seen as the "Big Bang" of the digital audio revolution. The new audio disc was enthusiastically received, especially in the early-adopting classical music and audiophile communities and its handling quality received particular praise. As the price of players sank rapidly, the CD began to gain popularity in the larger popular and rock music markets. The first artist to sell a million copies on CD was Dire Straits, with their 1985 album Brothers in Arms. In 1986 Queen became the first artist to have their entire catalogue converted to the format.

The CD was originally thought of as an evolution of the gramophone record, rather than primarily as a data storage medium. Only later did the concept of an "audio file" arise, and the generalising of this to any data file. From its origins as a music format, Compact Disc has grown to encompass other applications. In June 1985, the CD-ROM (read-only memory) and, in 1990, CD-Recordable were introduced, also developed by Sony and Philips.

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