The first CDs and CD players came out in October 1982. That means the format is now 40 years old, which in turn means most avid music listeners would never know a world without them. In fact, all of today’s teens — the most musically avid demographic — were born after the commercial peak of the CD in 2002, and for them, no physical medium is more ancient. Vinyl records have enjoyed a long twenty-first century renaissance as a premium product, and even cassette tapes exude a retro appeal. But how many understood what a miracle CD technology was when it debuted, with (what we remember as) its promise of “perfect sound forever”?
“You could argue that CD, with its massive data capacity, relatively robust nature, and with the further development it spurred, changed the way the world does almost all media.” So says Alec Watson, host of the Technology Connections Youtube channel, who was previously featured here on Open Culture for his five-part series on RCA’s SelectaVision video disc system.
But he also created a six-part miniseries on the much more successful compact disc, whose development “solved a major digital sound problem: it required enormous amounts of raw data for the time being.” At that time, computer hard drives had a capacity of about ten megabytes, while a single disk could hold up to 700 megabytes.
Figuring out how to encode that much information onto a thin 120-millimeter disc required serious resources and engineering prowess (available thanks to the involvement of two electronics giants, Sony and Philips), but it was just one of the necessary technological elements for CDs. into a proper format. Watson covers it all in this miniseries, starting with the invention of digital voice itself (including the Nyquist-Shannon sampling theorem it is based on). He also describes physical processes such as how a CD player’s laser reads the “holes” and “landes” on the surface of the disc, producing a stream of numbers which are then converted back into an audio signal for our listening pleasure.
The CD also changed our relationship with the fun. “If CDs heralded a new era, perhaps the way they suggested a special way of interacting with recorded music was such a question of fidelity,” wrote Daryl Worthington of The Quietus. “The fact that the CD is programmable, and the tracks can be skipped easily, is perhaps the most significant feature in terms of its heritage. They loosened up the album as a permanent document.” Paradoxically, “it is also the format par excellence for albums as a complete standalone unit to be played from start to finish.” Even if you can’t remember the last time you installed one, fourteen million of them were sold last year, compared to five million vinyl records and 200,000 cassettes. At 40, CDs may no longer feel like magic technology, but we still can’t count them out.
The Story of How Beethoven Helped Make CDs Play 74 Minutes of Music
Discover Rare 1980s CDs by Lou Reed, Devo & Talking Heads Mixing Music with Computer Graphics
The Story of the MiniDisc, The Lost But Not Forgotten 1990s Sony Audio Format
When Movies Came to Vinyl: Marvel’s Early 80s Engineering and Marketing Disaster It was SelectaVision RCA
How Vinyl Records Are Made: A Primer from 1956
Celebration of Retro Media: Vinyl, Cassette, VHS, and Polaroid Too
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcastst about the city, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter book about cities, book The City Without a State: A Journey through 21st Century Los Angeles and video series City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.