December 20, 2012

Modern artifacts

Filed under: Modern artifacts — acagle @ 8:30 am

Since I was away in the field at the time, I missed this: 30 years ago, the CD started the digital music revolution

The digital music revolution officially hit 30 years ago, on Oct. 1, 1982. While you may be surprised to learn that the heralds of the coming age were, in fact, the Bee Gees, it probably comes as less of a shock to learn that Sony was at the very heart of it. After years of research and an intense period of collaboration with Philips, Sony shipped the world’s first CD player, the CDP-101. Music — and how we listen to it — would never be the same.

. . .

In such a world, the idea of carrying around a disc loaded with just 10 or 12 tracks and switching it out every hour sounds positively stone-age. But the MP3 and streaming media are not just the CD’s replacements, but its descendants. The future of music in fact made its unofficial debut, believe it or not, in the hands of the Bee Gees.

It was on the BBC show Tomorrow’s World in 1981 that the Bee Gees publicly demonstrated CD technology (and a new album, Living Eyes) for the first time. Artists were excited about the format — the prospect of a high-quality, track-separated, non-degrading medium was enticing, though many were still skeptical of digital encoding. But music industry heavies like David Bowie and renowned conductor Herbert von Karajan were quick to embrace it, and soon the likes of Dire Straits would hit a million sales and cement the CD’s position as the new standard for music.

I don’t even remember when I first got a CD player, but I know it wasn’t until the later 1980s, probably near to 1990. I was in grad school from 1986 on so I had more pressing concerns (and less money). I never looked back though, once I discovered them. Never liked the sound of cassettes and LPs were too bulky and un-portable, not to mention the inevitable popping and scratching. One thing I’ve come around on slightly over the years is the argument over vinyl vs. digital (you think gun control is a contentious issue, just drop in on one side or the other of that divide in an audio forum. . . .): I used to believe the vinyl crowd was absolutely nuts. Well, mostly I still do, but with one exception: they may have been correct that a lot of the early CDs sounded worse than their LP counterparts. This had nothing to do with the inherent quality, but was a result of the mastering process. In the early days, they had just been taking the original master recording and copying it to CD. But those recordings were originally mastered for the then-dominant media, the LP. Just playing them on a CD revealed all of the limitations of the LP. Once they started remastering the old recordings for the new medium, the quality improved markedly.

I didn’t know this:

The first CDs to market, with the notable exception of Billy Joel, were mostly classical. In fact, the capacity of the CD was raised during development from 60 to 74 minutes in order to accommodate Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The creators of the format knew that classical music lovers were more likely to appreciate (and more likely to pay for) the increased quality of the CD system.

That does make sense because most classical pieces aren’t split up into 4-5 minute songs and it’s much nicer to listen to an entire piece all the way through than to have to flip a record over, and the sound quality is much more noticeable in that genre so cassettes were not that popular with classical aficionados.

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