Happy 30th Birthday CDs! (The full but brief history of CDs)

30 years ago today, on October 1st 1982, the first commercial CD was released alongside the first CD player. The album with the distinction of being the first marked CD digital release was “52nd Street” by Billy Joel (35DP-1), the fourth was Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here (35DP-4) – though the first 50 were released simultaneously. The very first 50 CDs were chosen, somewhat arbitrarily, by the Japanese Sony team in charge of production. The first 100 CD titles were released, with special gold faces in 6 categories, including pop, classical, domestic Japanese music, and sound effects.

The prices of the first CDs were 3,500 and 3,800 Yen – £20 then, £30 in today’s money – launched this day accompanied by the first commercial CD player, the Sony CDP-101 with tray loading. The equivalent European machine, the Philips CD-100, was top loading. Both retailed at $1000.

Before 1982

100 years after Edison patented his phonograph in 1877, laser disc technology innovations were underway at both Philips and Sony. On Mar 8th 1979 Philips Industries announced plans for the “Compact Disc”, so named follow their Compact Cassette format, together with the early CD logo. Soon after Sony joined forces with Phillips to share the high investment costs and work together, and set up a project team of less than a dozen engineers. Once they had overcome early trust issues in the joint venture, the team worked for a year to make a set of standards, delivering the “Red Book” – the start of a series of ‘Colour Books’ that agreed standards that could be patented and developed.

The manufacturing process and method of encoding were contributed by Philips, while Sony created the digital error-correction that made reading the data reliable. Put simply the technology involved 3 parts: ‘digital data processing’ into sound, ‘optical reading’ using laser, and ’mechanics’ to turn the disc. Compact discs remain largely unchanged 30 years on, as a polycarbonate disc 1.2mm thick with indentations (“pits”) together with a layer of aluminium to reflect the light. They necessitated their own new store case.

The music on the discs was initially described by the SPAR code (Society of Professional Audio Recording Services): a three-letter code that appears on the early Compact Disc recordings informing the consumer whether analog (A) or digital (D) equipment was used in producing the recording the music. For instance “AAD” represented a first stage recording in analogue, a second mixing stage in analogue, with the digital third stage mastering – all CDs having a final digital mastering by fact of its digital nature. Very early CDs are now considered highly valuable as analogue recordings were ‘laid flat’ onto digital medium with no remastering, with near perfect capturing of original source tapes, without tampering of the original audio recording.

The Compact Disc

The standard 12cm size of a compact disc allows for data capacity, raised during the development from 60 to 74 minutes. Norio Ohga, then Sony President, agreed with conductor Herbert von Karajan, assisting Philips, that the new disc must accommodate Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. They predicted that classical music lovers were more likely to appreciate, and buy, the increased audio quality of the CD system.

Only 12 cm in diameter, but if the data track on a disc were unwound, it would stretch to over 3.5 miles long. A disc can carry 700MB, to put it in computer terms computer users, and is ‘read’ from underneath, from the middle out, with its spin adjusting between a rate of 500 and 200 rpm as it does so – this technology remains the same 30 years on.

The First CDs

In Japan, CBS / Sony Records opened the first commercial compact disc pressing plant in April 1982, in Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan. The production of commercial CDs started in mid-September, after some early teething issues with the blend of polycarbonate. The official launch was in Japan on October 1st, 1982. The very first CDs pressed were by CBS/Sony, as theirs was one of only two pressing plants at the time, so they also made for Toshiba-EMI Records. Originally due to cost and technology, the only CD pressing plants were Sony’s in Japan and Polygram’s in Hanover West Germany (the Polygram record company wholly owned by Philips).

In West Germany the new technology was privately inaugurated with test pressings in 1980, and the first modern CD pressed was Richard Strauss’s “Alpine Symphony” conducted by Herbert von Karajan. The following year, the Bee Gees went on the BBC’s Tomorrows World with the album ‘Living Eyes’ – I remember watching the now classic demonstration of jam being smeared on and wiped off the back of the disc, proving that the new medium was a great advance over vinyl and cassette technologies.

Technically the very first production CD Abba’s The Visitors, pressed on August 17th 1982, but this production run was not on sale until end of the year. Their official consumer launch in the Netherlands and the UK was on the 1st March 1983, when the production of CD players had caught up with increasing number of titles on CD. 1000 titles were released in the first year, the first being a series of orange / ‘Red Face’ CDs the first produced where Abba ‘The Visitors’ (800 011-2) and Abba Greatest Hits Vol 2 (800 012-2).

At the start there was a mixed reception from consumers to CDs as a new medium for music: on one side considered a revolution for majority of listeners, taking away noise, being more portable and more durable. But on the other some audiophiles insisted, and still do to this day, that you can’t beat true analogue reproduction of music. Revolutionary and controversial, durable CDs were designed to replace vinyls – meaning you wouldn’t need to ‘buy again’, but meaning you did have to replace your entire existing record collection – I remember this dilemma well, offset by the new ability to skip to tracks instantly and listen noise free.

US record labels initially were sceptical of the new format, and shunned the joint venture. However given the first year success of CDs, followed suit. But it wasn’t until 1984 a plant opened in the US, with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” was the first CD to be pressed in America.

The CDs First Ten Years 1982-92

1982 was a turning point for the music industry. Michael Jackson’s Thriller sold 40m copies, the best selling album – ever, still to this day – the same year as the arrival of CD, which would go on to overtake vinyl (but not until 1988). Also in 1982 tape cassette sales had just overtaken vinyls. How music was purchased, and listened to, was starting an irreversible change. CDs after a slow start became very popular, with production by Polygram in ’82 rising from the first years’s 376,000 pressings, to 6 million in 1983, then 13m in, and 25m Polygram pressings in 1985.

Behind the production, the second book of CD standards was written in 1983, then known as the “Yellow Book”, covering Read Only Memory (CD-ROM). This became the standard for computer-based compact discs. Followed by the third book (in 1986), known as the “Green Book,” covered CD-Interactive technology, synchronising both audio and data tracks on a CD-ROM, to enable full motion video combined with interactivity.

The Next Ten Years, 1992-02

CDs and DVDs became a reliable and regular medium for distributing large quantities of information. Their power in music sales were proven in 1985 when Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms became the first CD to sell one million CDs. This established CDs as mainstream, with the relative merits of CDs coming into their own – the unedited 55mins of Brothers In Arms outsold the shorter vinyl version.

In their first 10 years to 1992, CD rose in popularity, riding the tide of increasing music sales but at the expense of vinyl’s, which fell away in that ten years, replaced by CDs as the album medium of choice, and also overtook cassette sales. In this ten years, CDs continued their rise to peak in ’02 at 2.5billion that year, then replacing and causing the demise of tape cassettes.

CDs In The Last Ten Years, 2002-12

However this 20 year rise has reversed by 2012, with CDs sales falling by 20% each year, as the whole music industry sales have shrunk to a third of 2002 levels. CDs are easy to burn, copy and share, so their sales have fallen, added to the introduction of MP3s and music downloading – and a switch to single tracks over albums after 2004 – CDs are now a minority medium for music. CDs still account for majority of album sales but volume has shrunk to a low equilibrium level, as they fill a niche need. Outside music the fourth “Orange” book, outlines the coming generation of writable CD technology, primarily CD-Es. (Compact Disc – Erasable). This technology is available today, known in its first form as CD-RW. Future uses are contained in a “White Book,” a plan for the future of compact disc technology, outlining video compact discs, and containing the standard of data compression used to display large amounts of audio and video on a home computer; again an early phase from 1995 were DVDs (Digital Video Discs).

Overall the CD has been very successful. To 2012 over 225 billion CDs have been produced. Stack these up (at 1.2mm each) and this CD tower would circle the earth nearly 7 times. CDs revolutionised the consumer audio industry, after the Dutch-Japanese alliance took a calculated business risk. The Compact Disc made it easier for all of us to listen to music, in higher quality, and ushered in the digital format of audio. Now, as music industry now battles against digital aspect of music as data, CDs remain a tangible, practical and collectable part of music history, and is set to continue and endure but at a lower equilibrium level for music reproduction, outpaced by its day to day use for handling computer data. Its precise artistry in music listening will remain to hardcore audiophiles, and the technical sophistication of data CDs will continue as a workhorse of the computer world.

 

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