Compact Disk

This is my story of the Compact Disk. It is not in any way the definitive story, as there is tons of information out there that will go into more detail.  This is just another angle and a fun way to get an idea of its zeitgeist.

 

My last blog was about a famous synth from 1983, the Yamaha DX7, but this blog is not about a synth, it’s about another Big-Bang that happened that year. The introduction of the Compact Disk. Synths will be mentioned in this blog as well. Why the Compact Disk? Because it’s quite a remarkable Cinderella story that has been undeservedly ignored, especially in recent years with the resurgence of vinyl. The Compact Disk had a huge influence on standardising many formats that followed in the audio industry. I’m also writing this blog with a fair amount of national (Dutch) pride. I will draw a lot of information from a Dutch TV program from back in 2012 that featured the CD story. This program was called “Andere Tijden” (Different Times). I will also highlight how much the CD meant and still means to me today. If you are a vinyl lover, you might not want to take my words too seriously, even though I have extremely fond memories of vinyl as well, but the CD just happened to arrive at a critical time in my life and coincided with another major musical discovery, on which more later.

 

Born from a flop

Philips had been extremely successful with their 1963 introduction of the Music Compact Cassette, of which billions were sold worldwide and is still being treasured by a small group of fans today. In the early 70’s Philips had lost the race in the video cassette recorder market, where Betamax and VHS became more popular than Philips’ V2000 system, even though technically Video-2000 was way more superior and could even record on both sides of the tape for a total of 16-hours. The company had to come up with another innovation to regain market dominance, so they introduced the Video Disk, which was a pre-recorded video format, that had the consumer thinking they could also record to. The Video Disk, looking exactly like the later more successful Laserdisk, was really the granddaddy of the CD and DVD, using the same technology. Because consumers assumed the Video Disk was also recordable, they turned their backs on the product, leaving Philips with yet another “commercial” flop. With determination and belief in this Video Disk technology, Philips had the idea of developing an Audio only disk format using hi-fidelity digital information, hence the Compact Disk. A prototype of the compact disk was introduced as early as 1979, but it wasn’t until 1983 that the product was introduced to the public.

 

1983

What a year this was. Not only one, not two, but three big bangs happened that year: the Compact Disk, The DX7 and MIDI. On a global scale the CD became the most famous and is next to MIDI still a world standard to this day, but more on that later. We, the average Dutch person, were not much aware of Philips’ new brainchild. A biennial consumer electronics trade show in late 1982, “The Firato” in Amsterdam, had not yet revealed the product, so it sort of came as thunder at a clear blue sky. My dad and I attended the 1982 Firato show, as we wanted to see a few new synths, the Korg Polysix and Juno-60. Dutch synth makers Synton had a small stand as well, introducing their now legendary and rare Syrinx synth. Sequential Circuits, who had a distribution centre close to Amsterdam in the small town of Mijdrecht, were also there, but without the Prophet-600 and with only a preliminary, black & white brochure of their new flagship synth the Prophet T8.

 

Growing Pains

The compact disk was met with much resistance by the music industry and there was still a lot of resentment from Record companies towards Philips about the music cassette tape, as it was a way for consumers to copy music. I vividly remember my own thoughts on the CD and also wondered why we had to switch to another format. There was always a small rack of CD’s somewhere in the record store to lure people, usually next to the counter, but the selection of available titles was still microscopically small compared to the ocean of vinyls. The price was also something that put people off. An LP was standard around 25-guilders, with some titles on sale for perhaps 20 or 15. This was a considerable amount of money back then and small donations from parents and grandparents to save up for LP’s was never achievable, especially when also wanting to buy Dutch liquorice and new footballs that ended up on roofs, in ditches or through the Pastor’s living room window. Occasionally I’d have enough pocket money to buy 7-inches, but there were two albums I desperately wanted to get. Luckily I had a deal with my grand mother, that for every goal I scored in football I would get 1-guilder. Not a prolific goal scorer before, I quickly became one, scoring goals left, right and centre for both my club and school teams. When I finally had enough money, the next big dilemma was to choose which of the two albums to buy. I had Level-42’s debut album in one hand and Dutch super group Powerplay’s first album in the other. Obsessed by drummer Leon Klaassen, I picked Powerplay’s Avanti, which to this day still is one of my all time favourite albums. Not long after that I acquired Level-42’s first album as well, which is also absolutely brilliant and highly recommended. Further on in high-school I was able to buy more music through earning money doing paper-rounds and restocking supermarket shelves. Even then 25-guilders for us teenagers was a lot of money, so imagine facing the 40-guilders one had to pay for a CD, not to mention the CD-players that were still hovering around the 2000-guilder mark. Economically the first half of the 80’s were also in hot water, so to state that introducing the CD was a bold move by Philips would be an understatement. Their timing therefor seemed odd and illogical, but later proved to be a touch of genius.

 

How the CD became a worldwide standard

According to Jan Timmer, the managing director of Philips during the 1980’s, the idea behind establishing a world standard, was to find another large electronics company to partner with. Because Philips had invested heavily in their previous innovations, Video 2000 and Video-Disk, they could not risk taking another tumble. A small team of Philips engineers therefor took four prototype compact disk players on a airplane to Japan, to attend a big global electronics trade show. The four CD players were put in 1st class seats, as Philips didn’t want to take any chances of the devices being mishandled during transportation. The prototypes were met with disbelief by Japanese visitors to the show, even though the devices were connected to large boxes that housed the electronic components. Philips had managed to get the mechanics working inside the players, but they had not managed to fit the electronics. This was another reason for trying to partner with the Japanese, as Japan was ahead of the game in miniaturising components. After the trade show, Philips took the prototypes to Pioneer, Matsushita (Panasonic), JVC and Sony.  The latter showed keen interest, but with one rather peculiar request. Sony’s managing director had a mono recording on a reel to reel tape with a concert of Beethoven’s 9th symphony on it, which was exactly 74-minutes and 33-seconds long. He wanted Philips to fit that recording onto the CD, but the CD seemed a bit too small for that. The original size of the disk was 115mm in diameter, so Philips had to make the disk 5mm bigger in order to fit the entire recording on there. The size of the hole in the centre also deserves a mention. When the engineers discussed the size of the hole, one engineer pulled out few Dutch coins from his pocket and put the 10-cent coin on the disk, laconically stating “this will do”. I still have a 10-cent coin, which fits accurately in the centre of the CD, so never mind the Dutch myth of the hole in the dyke, there’s now more significance in that hole on your DVD’s and CD’s.

Herbert von Karajan

Going back to the consumer reactions the CD initially received, if Philips had relied on that reaction alone, the CD would have never seen the light of day. A stroke of genius was to market the product through the Classical Music industry. With the average consumer ear being used to the crackling noises of the LP, a different type of listener had to be targeted, the more demanding, classical music listener. The dynamic intricacies of the Classical Orchestra were a perfect fit for the dynamic range and clarity that the compact disk provided. This combined with the fact that Philips owned 60% of the Classical music market, with Deutsche Grammophon, Decca and Philips’ own Polygram, the marketing machine behind the CD was in full swing. Austrian Herbert von Karajan was a big name conductor in the Classical world of music and he also happened to be a huge techno buff, with a taste for high-end audio equipment which he had collected over the years. There was no doubt that Karajan was going to become a huge fan of the Compact Disk, so Philips believed this partnership was another essential step in spearheading the CD to success. Karajan became an important ambassador of the compact disk and he managed to persuade the rest of the Classical Music world to also get on board. The classical world realised that Karajan was stealing the show, so they followed suit.

 

My first encounter

As with any new technology that came out before the Internet era, you had to experience it first hand. Record stores were not set-up properly to demo the product, it was usually just on display. Like all things one cannot afford, you tend to walk right passed it. My first listening experience came when my parents and I visited acquaintances in Amsterdam. The guy of the couple was an Audiophile, with a love for everything Revox, which was a German company producing high-end Hifi consumer equipment. He had every single device in their range of products and thus had to have this new Compact Disk player as well. To our astonishment he had also acquired quite a large collection of disks, which at that stage were still manufactured in small numbers. The first disk he grabbed from his collection was Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. What happened next is one of those moments in your life where you couldn’t help feeling stupefied. It was like looking through spectacles after years of squinting at busstop timetables. It was like someone pulling away a thick wool blanket from the speakers. Up until that stage our brains were only exposed to bad audio, such as vinyl crackle and tape hiss. Now we could suddenly hear every single detail which was usually masked by hiss, pops and crackles. It was like we were sitting next to the audio engineer during the mixing sessions. The experience was so profound, that it immediately made me question why I was still listening to vinyl.

 

My first CD player

By 1986, three years after its inception, the compact disk had finally established itself in the consumer market and it was no surprise that the two leading countries in CD sales were Holland and Japan. It was in that same year that other factories besides Philips and Sony started to manufacture CD’s as well, so this raging flood had pretty much become unstoppable. The CD suddenly appeared to be a lot more attractive, with more album titles offered at special prices, but mainly the CD-Players had significantly come down in price. The time just seemed right to finally part with vinyl, even though prices of LP’s had steadily dropped as well, but it just didn’t seem to make any sense anymore to invest in an inferior format. On December 4th 1987 I decided to purchase my first Sony CD player at RAF Audio in Hilversum, as my parents had gifted me a compilation CD of Miami Vice, which I was a huge fan of, mainly because of Jan Hammer’s musical contributions to the show. With the 80’s being an extremely hedonistic era, where consumerism rose to new heights, the CD player was the next must have item for everyone. I paid 699-guilders for the player, which was considered at that time as a mid-range player. Hard to imagine when 10-years later players could be bought for 50-guilders at supermarkets. My CD collection rapidly expanded, with purchases happening on a weekly basis. I bought all my favourite albums on CD, like The Nightfly by Donald Fagen, all Nik Kershaw’s albums, Go West, Scritti Politti and every single Level-42 album. But there was a hunger starting to happen for another genre, which I had just rediscovered through the band I was playing in.

 

New Musical Journey

After finishing high school and leaving the high-school band dramas behind me with it, I got the chance to join a Fusion band at Music School, together with a bunch of guys who were much older than me and who were more serious about music than my piers. It was the perfect transition for me, as slick 80’s pop music was slowly being replaced by sample-loop oriented hits and charts dominated by the Stock, Aitkin & Waterman citadel. Fusion could not have entered my life at a better time. The Fusion genre had picked up a fair amount of popularity again, with record label GRP signing on many artists, so this marriage of virtuosic playing and the pristine sound of the Compact Disk was a match made in heaven. For me this proclaimed a new era in my life, where an exciting new musical adventure began. I had just switched from drums to keyboards. Our keyboard player had work commitments and couldn’t find the time anymore to study the parts. Searching for another keyboard player, who was familiar with Fusion, was a tough task, so I took the challenge upon me. The Sony CD player had an A-B Repeat function, which in 1987 was scarcely featured on players. Sections of a track could be repeated by pressing the A button (start) and the B button (end) to loop the section. This was extremely useful to me in order to find out what chords were being played. After all, I was still pretty much a drummer trying to learn how to play keyboards. This priceless feature helped me to discover the depths and beauty of Fusion music. The beauty was that, some bits were pop like simplistic and other bits were extremely complicated, which kept me on my toes and broadened my musical thinking. This also largely contributed to the growth of my CD collection, because it seemed so much more convenient to have the CD, instead of having an out of pitch Cassette tape that you had to rewind all the time, in the hope you hadn’t gone too far back. Cassettes also often varied in speeds, so you were never sure of what key the music was in.

 

CD Hunt/Trade

All the guys in the band were collecting Fusion CD’s, but finding albums on CD was a challenge. Luckily as mentioned before, the genre was becoming more popular again, with the North Sea Jazz Festival in The Hague contributing to a rise in popularity as well, but Fusion albums were scarcely scattered across the Jazz sections of record stores. This posed another problem though; which of the other guys in the band would get there first? If lucky, there would be two copies and the person would buy both, knowing that at least one of the other guys in the band would take it off them, but more often than not you had to dig out every single record store you came across to find your own copy and pay full price. This became a skill in itself and was heaps of fun, almost like a treasure hunt. I remember finding two copies at a reduced price of a Steve Smith & Vital Information album, rushing to one of the guys’ house on my moped in the poring rain, surprising him with my find. At band rehearsals we would swop out disks for money, always leaving someone disappointed for missing out. However, the Music Cassette was still extremely popular as well, so we would record each other’s CD’s to tape, so we could listen to an album in order to find out if we liked it enough to also purchase it on CD. This was almost always the case, so to touch back on the music industry being angry at Philips for the Music Cassette, there was a positive side to copying as well.

 

Still my favourite format

Many of my contemporaries would disagree and veer more towards the vinyl record for their dose of nostalgia. I definitely have nostalgic feelings for vinyl as well, but that feeling I get when I grab a CD is far greater. Because of this my opinion on the revival that is going on right now with vinyl is not something that vinyl lovers would like to hear. I think there is a place for everything and vinyl should absolutely stay. However, to pay $45 for a copy, while I can have the CD for $15, seems a bit disproportionate. If I see a 2nd hand vinyl for $2, I will definitely grab it, but there is no way that I would ever pay $45 for a new vinyl record, knowing I can have 3-albums on CD for that money. Going back to the story of me delivering a copy of a CD to a mate’s house, I would have not been able to do that with a vinyl record. The two CD’s easily fitted inside my rain jacket. If the CD jewel-box got damaged, you’d just replace it, but once your vinyl cover was damaged it remained a thorn in one’s sight. By the way, the name “Jewel-Box” was an idea the Philips marketing department came up with, as management reckoned it needed a suitable name that would accentuate the CD as a highly prestigious product.

 

Quality

So let’s finally get to the audio quality side of things. I still hear a huge difference between FLAC or ACC and the CD, let alone between CD and vinyl. None of the digital file formats can be trusted anyway, as the minefield of different streaming services and their dodgy codecs give us a widely distorted image. So why do we still opt to listen to these inferior formats then? Well, one word secure that answer “Convenience”. Still more convenient than vinyl, compared to a phone or iPod, CD’s are rather cumbersome. You could get a Diskman and walk around with that in your bag or purse, but unless the diskman has a decent anti-shock feature, you’ll probably quickly get annoyed with the constant skipping. Then there’s all the background noise when commuting, which will completely mask the difference in audio quality anyway, so why should we care? “Pride of Ownership”, is another expression that Philips’ CEO Jan Timmer uses. To own a physical copy of your favourite music in hi-fidelity is something that makes us feel proud and gives us a sense of owning that music. An audio file that sits on a server somewhere feels like a rented apartment, everything is real but it doesn’t belong to you (lyrics from the song “Snake Dance” by Wang Chung).

 

Final words

Yes, the CD’s reign has slowed dramatically, with sales reaching their peak in 1999 and retailers still ever shrinking down their CD sections in their shops to fit other more lucrative products. To the question how much longer the CD will still be around for, former Philips CEO Jan Timmer answered; at least another 10-years. Perhaps 10-years from now CD’s will have become a novelty, but there will always be people who keep their collection. In 2010 a total number of 240-billion were sold worldwide. That’s 40 disks per person. It is therefor undeniable that Philips have succeeded in creating a world standard that will long be remembered. For those who would like to rediscover the CD, in the same way that vinyl was rediscovered, now is the time to pay visits to 2nd hand stores. I would sometimes visit record fares and I am still baffled by how vinyls have now become worth more than CD’s. To me it feels like something went wrong in the universe's coding. Where the CD was once the way to the future, taking our music listening experiences to new heights, it has now relegated to the dungeons of technological innovations, in the same way VHS, Music Cassette and Minidisks have, but how can it be less popular than vinyl? It would be like going back to horse & carriage, or to tape machines instead of DAW’s. As we are on the verge of entering an oil crisis, it also seems highly illogical and counter productive to stamp out large pallets of PVC to produce vinyls. 

Consider this: 

  • A song takes weeks or months to write.
  • Once a collection of songs have been painstakingly crafted, a studio needs to be booked.
  • These studios are acoustically treated, tuned and fitted with the highest quality equipment, such as a large collection of instruments, microphones, top quality pre-amps, the most accurate converters, bundles of software, several sets of high end speakers and not to forget extremely well trained engineers to operate all this.
  • Then after days and weeks of tracking, it goes to a mixing engineer, who will put in many sleepless days of finding the right sound and ironing out issues with phasing, EQ, dynamics and backing up different versions of mixes.
  • Once the mixing is done, a Mastering engineer will receive it and usually faces more issues with the mix overlooked by the mixing engineer. Back and forth file exchanging will take place to eliminate more problems with phasing, EQing, imaging, low-end rumble, clipping, wrong file formats, etc…. Mastering engineers have to take different streaming services codecs into consideration as well.
  • Once all that is done, there can still be further hurdles, such as the artist not being pleased with the end result, A&R managers wanting something else, etc…

 

Now think about putting all that hard work onto an audio format where lots of low-end, top-end, stereo imaging and dynamic information is lost. Information that was so meticulously preserved throughout the whole production process. It would be bit like fitting a flawlessly polished diamond into a plastic ring.

I love vinyl and I love Music Cassette, but the Compact Disk should still be the format of choice, considering it still hasn’t been bettered.

 

Thanks so much for your time reading this!!!


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