Happy Birthday to compact disk

The Baltimore Sun

Having spent last week on vacation sans Internet, I had to wait until today to extend a slightly belated happy 25th birthday to a gadget that forever changed the way we entertain ourselves.

On Aug. 17, 1982, the first compact disk (or disc) rolled off a German production line, paving the way for a generation of devices that can now cram a thousand hours of hours of music or more into a box the size of deck of cards.

The technology that made the CD possible has also changed the dynamic of the music business - including the role of artists, the companies who market their music, and those of us who listen to it.

Ironically, that same technology now threatens to make the CD irrelevant. But 25 years ago, the shiny polycarbonate compact disk and the $900 device that played it were the state of the art - thanks a new generation of powerful chips that brought industrial-strength processing power to consumer electronics for the first time.

What made the CD truly revolutionary, however, was the way it stored music - and more importantly, the way it separated music from the medium that carried it.

If that sounds a bit abstract, consider that before the CD, we bought music on vinyl records that held less than 30 minutes of audio per side, using the same basic technology that Thomas Edison pioneered in 1877.

Those records had tiny grooves whose wavering internal shapes were directly analogous to the shape of the sound waves that produced them. That's why turntables were known as analog devices.

The alternative to vinyl was magnetic tape, which used fluctuating magnetic fields to approximate the "shape" of the musical sound waves they stored.

Although both produced excellent recordings - and some purists still prefer the "warmth" of vinyl - these analog media had a problem. The very act of playing them, with a turntable needle or magnetic tape head, slowly eroded the quality of the recording.

Even with delicate equipment, no vinyl record or tape sounded as good after 100 plays as it did the first time. Although it was possible to copy a vinyl record to tape, or duplicate a cassette, the copy would never be as good as the original.

All that changed in 1979, when two industry giants, Sony and Philips, put their heads together on a new recording format that would store music on a plastic disk with a protective coating that was far tougher than vinyl or magnetic tape.

The new disk would hold 74 minutes of music - about 20 percent more than vinyl LPs. According to official accounts, that was enough room for the longest known recording of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the favorite of a top Sony executive.

More importantly, CDs would store music digitally, as a series of ones and zeroes that were burned into the plastic, read by a laser beam and ultimately turned back into Beethoven, or Diana Krall or Snoop Dog.

Turning audio into digital data, through a process called sampling, was the key to unlocking the music because those ones and zeroes could be stored on a variety of media - including a CD, magnetic tape, a computer's hard drive and later, a flash memory card.

Any gadget with the right hardware and software could read that data and play it back. Any computer powerful enough could write it. As long as the ones and zeroes were intact, a digital tune would sound as good after 1,000 plays as it did the first time. And copies would not be copies - but exact duplicates of the original.

With its long life and superb reproduction, the CD turned the vinyl album into a relic within 15 years. The recording industry pulled in fantastic profits as millions of consumers not only bought new music on CDs, but replaced their old vinyl albums.

As long it had a lock on the powerful computers and exotic production equipment necessary to record and produce CDs, the industry prospered. But in the 1990s, a funny thing happened: Personal computers got some real muscle. Manufacturers began packaging them with sound cards and CD-ROM drives that could not only play CDs, but even copy or create them from scratch.

Still, digital music was hostage to the sheer volume of data it took to record. An audio CD required almost 10 megabytes of data for every minute of sound - and the music on a single disk was enough to fill all but the most capacious hard drives of the day.

That also made digital music difficult to transmit over networks. So an industry organization called the Moving Pictures Experts Group (MPEG) came up with a scheme to compress digital music to about 11 percent of its original size - with a relatively small loss in quality.

Suddenly, CD owners could "rip" tracks from their CDs, store them on their hard drives and - much to the horror of the music industry - trade high-quality copies known as MP3 files over the Internet.

This development also changed our listening habits. Fans who had long put up with CD albums that contained only few tracks they really enjoyed could now pick and choose the tracks they wanted to play - or make their own "mixes" on CDs or a new generation of pocket-sized digital music players that stored data on tiny hard drives or in flash memory.

Apple completed the revolution in 2003 with its elegant iPod music player and - more to the point - the first legitimate online music store that allowed customers to download tracks for 99 cents a pop, or $9.99 for most albums.

So whither the CD?

Although its dominance is likely to fade slowly, the odds aren't in the CD's favor. By today's standards, it's just too inefficient for artists and fans alike.

Music fans can already browse through millions of titles online, listen to samples and download the tracks they enjoy in a few seconds. As time goes by and more labels agree to sell music without copy protection - the trend will accelerate.

The decline of the CD may also give artists a chance to reconsider how they create music. With the ability to deliver tunes directly to their fans, some established performers are asking why they need a big recording company - and the CDs it produces.

With the physical medium no longer an issue, it may make more sense to create and release one song at a time - the way performers did in the "singles" era.

So the decline of the CD could well produce a triumph of quality over quantity.

That's a change I can live with.

mike.himowitz@baltsun.com

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