Why the Humble Compact Disc should be Re-evaluated – by Dominic Meakin

Dear reader, you may know, if you saw the public service announcement, that I have been a touch busy recently. One way that I can still provide meaningful content is to invite guest bloggers, and indeed the article you are reading was not written by me, but my good friend Dominic. Without further ado, take it away Dominic…

On embarking on a new academic year at University, I have noticed that as expected there are a number of minor changes to the various study spaces. Most changes were uninteresting to my mind, or were already in progress last year. Nonetheless, when needing to send some files that I had stored on a CD-R via the computers in the study space I realised that not a single computer had even a single driver installed for the purpose of reading a CD; not even a CD drive. Yet this is becoming even more commonplace on the computer market, with fewer laptops and PCs being shipped with an inbuilt drive. Is this the precipice for the downfall of the CD? A quote from a lecturer last year only adds to this long-held suspicion: “It’s on a CD… are you all too young to know what a CD even is?”

The Compact disc was born out of long development of a videodisc format. Phillips (famous for their 1962 development of earlier tape formats, the Compact Cassette) had released their long anticipated Laserdisc format in 1978 (Although then it was called videodisc in Europe and rather more amusingly ‘Discovision’ in the US), at the dawn of the mainstream home video-cassette formats, such as Sony’s Betamax and JVC’s VHS. While initial sales were promising, it was ultimately a market failure even with a brief revival later amongst film buffs. However the stage had been set for an optical disc format – to the engineers at Phillips the benefits of reading information in this fashion was clear. At Sony, similar developments were taking place in the engineering labs while the accountants were also similarly anxious from it’s own market failure in the form of Elcaset.

When both companies realised that they were working on essentially the same thing, they formed an alliance much like the previous decade’s Anglo-French Concorde project. And much like Concorde this was a product far removed from the existing market leaders. Upon the release of the Compact Disc between Sony and Phillips to much fanfare on the 17th of August 1982, people were still squabbling over the much-derided release of Queen’s ‘Hot Space’ the vast majority of which were probably owned on LP rather than on Cassette even with sales of LP and singles on the retreat. However, while cassettes would take the crown from LP and singles later in that decade, it was to be short lived as by 1991 CDs were king of sales. Much to the relief of both companies Compact-Disc was a roaring success.

At the time of release another revolution was taking place elsewhere on the consumer electronics market. In the UK Sinclair unveiled one of the first truly affordable home computers which would ignite the computer boom here. Commodore released its own affordable development of its existing computer line which featured a storage format that had previously been generally considered suitable only for a business environment – the Floppy diskette. While the UK doggedly stuck with the compact cassette as a storage medium due to it still being astronomically expensive here for the lion’s share of the 1980s, it was a hit with the Americans. However, a 5 ½’’ diskette (which Sony was producing amongst many other suppliers of blank media) held only a laughably small 1.2 MB (at best) by today’s standards. In order for the compact-disc to be a successful competitor to the contemporary formats it needed a mammoth amount of data to handle for the time. In fact it could hold up to 700MB of data. It did not take long for discussions of whole libraries to be held on one hand held disc in hurried excitement. Indeed, not long after the Red book standard for the Compact Disc was published, the Yellow book was introduced to specify how such a format could be expanded into computer storage. Around the same time a way of writing and reading the disk within a compact space was developed and the CD-ROM as well as CD-R was added to the mix.

While other competitors including Phillips own Digital-Compact-Cassette and Sony’s Minidisc formats have come and gone, the CD has remained the dominant format for many years. In this present time there is a new competitor which seems to be the very opposite of dying away: online streaming. With the introduction of the mp3 format and a suitable number of players (most notably Apple’s iPod of 2001) and the vast expansion of online services such as Spotify, iTunes and Amazon Music it has never been easier to access music at the touch of a button. At the same time it almost seems that the venerable CD is in terminal decline. Even the old LP and Single as well as cassettes of yesteryear have taken the music publishers by surprise in their resurgence against the CD.

These formats each have their own unique advantages and quirks, but the poor old CD is seemingly becoming more and more irrelevant to today’s society. So I thought I would put together the virtues that CDs still have. In fact CDs are even better than they were upon introduction back in the 1980s. Never to keep still, Sony and Phillips have introduced improvements to the manufacturing process and the resistance of CD players to the dreaded ‘CD skipping’ issue that plagued early portable players. Away from the development labs, studios have developed experience in mastering CDs, which in the early days was poorly optimised for the format.

One key advantage of most respectable CD releases is their increased dynamic range (the range in volume between the quietest and loudest parts of a piece), although ironically one of the most damaging events to the reputation of the CD was the ‘loudness wars’ which achieved precisely the opposite. In the 1990s some studios realised that the 700MB capacity of the CD could hold a large amount of music on 1 disc through aggressive compression. Soon this caught on as it made it cheaper to produce a long album on 1 disc than 2. This could in extreme circumstances reduce the music held on the disc to a tinny mess, and started to sow seeds of doubt in the capabilities of the format.

Happily, though much of the range produced from this era has been re-released onto remastered discs with the artificial compression removed. So much so, that in comparison to the now ubiquitous mp3 and others such as .ogg found online, conceived in an age when many computers were hooked to 56k modems, a well-produced CD can outclass the streamed equivalent. I have been fortunate to have sampled music in a variety of formats; from open reel recorders running at 15ips to LPs, and mp3s but I can say that few can match the quality of a well-produced CD. The only format that I’ve come across at least that has noticeably outperformed a CD would an open reel recording, but this was a format intended, in the most part, to reside within the walls of a professional studio.

An advantage shared by many formats away from the streaming services is that it is a physical copy of the music. While one may download music and save it on a phone or computer, most people do not do this and a reliance on streaming as the primary source of music can build up a fallibility when disconnected from the internet. Having a collection of music to hand either at home on a shelf or stowed away in your bag for listening on the go can be more appealing than opening a page and retrieving it from storage on a device. Seeing the cover and having additional material which cannot be provided on a downloaded or streamed copy of the music can add to the experience of listening to an album. Ownership of each copy is a contentious issue associated with streaming music. When one streams a piece of music they only have an agreement to play the music for their own use. The streaming service and the publisher ‘owns’ the copy of the music rather than the customer. This can allow the streaming service to remove the right to access customer’s music if they deem it necessary. However with physical media once the customer purchases their copy they may play it as much as they wish and in any way they see fit within the legal confines of copyright law.

These are just some of the reasons that the CD can still hold light in today’s market. Whilst the decline and fall of the CD is set to continue its course, (perhaps because many of the interesting features about the CD are hidden from view unlike some of the older formats which have found new life) maybe the next time you are looking to buy an album you might want to consider adding a CD copy to that list.


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