The CD – Perfect Sound Forever?
I bought a Sony CDP-101 player as soon as they came out. A remote control? That was SO cool.
Philips sampler disc with advert (Philips)
Digital recording had been around since the early 70s from Denon in Japan. Sony developed a digital recorder, and the information was stored on Sony U-Matic video tape.
Analogue recording, on disc or on tape, is a wave form. If you like, it’s a continuous wavy line. Digital replicates that line with a vast number of dots … ones and zero. Or on and off. This is the basis of the analogue v digital debate, or the vinyl v CD debate.
The vinyl (or open reel tape) enthusiast maintains that the wave form is natural, human while a digital version … however incredibly large the numbers of dots … is synthetic, and the brain tells us it’s not “human.”
The first advantage of digital is that there is no generation loss when copying. Every copy is (theoretically) the same as the original master. The second is that as it is read by a laser, there is no contact with the disc, so no wear caused by stylus and dust, or degrading magnetic tape. All mechanical systems will have noise from motors (rumble) or speed variation (wow and flutter).
Of course amplifiers and hi-fi speakers are not digital, as vinyl fans will be fast to point out. That means the digital recording has to be converted into an analogue waveform. The device that does this is a D/A converter and the quality of these vary enormously, which is a major reason why your £3000 CD player sounds better than a £20 portable device … regardless of speakers, or amplifier or room..
The early adopters of digital recording were classical and in Japan. Classical music was being digitally recorded and digitally mastered for several years before CD arrived.
DDD, ADD, AAD
Those three combinations of letters, or SPARS (Society of Professional Audio Recording Services) code, were printed on CD releases from 1984 onwards. They dropped the code in 1991 (it was too hard to trace the history of some recordings) but labels continued to use them.
These were the three main ones.
DDD … Digital recording, Digital mixing, Digital mastering (i.e. on CD)
ADD … Analogue recording, Digital mixing, Digital mastering (i.e. on CD)
AAD … Analogue recording, Analogue mixing, Digital mastering (i.e. CD)
There was also:
AAA … Analogue recording, Analogue mixing, Analogue mastering. Basically, an LP. It was hardly ever used, though RykoDisc used it on cassettes)
DAD … Digital recording, Analogue mixing, Digital mastering … a few self-producing musicians liked their old analogue mixing desks. Though this is rarely seen, the prevalence of high-quality analogue desks meant that it was used more than labels admitted. For example, the first mega-hit CD, Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits was labelled DDD but had an analogue mixing desk (so really DAD). Dire Straits were used by Polygram (owners of Philips for the CD players, and Mercury for the discs) in a worldwide promotion for the CD format. It was the demonstration disc in hi-fi shops for years.
Between the late 70s and 1982’s introduction of CD, several LPs were issued with DIGITAL RECORDING on the sleeves. Most were classical, though the first in America was jazz, Archie Shepp’s On Green Dolphin Street in 1977.
So technically, these would be DDA (no one used this code). The first digitally recorded rock / popular record was Bop Till You Drop by Ry Cooder in 1979. It was recorded on a 3M digital 32 track machine. It had notes on the digital recording on the reverse of the vinyl LP sleeve, but its natural medium would be the CD, which came four years later.
Bop Till You Drop: Ry Cooder, 1979. CD issued in 1983
Other pre-CD digital recordings were Tusk by Fleetwood Mac (ADA) and Stevie Wonder’s On The Secret Life of Plants (DDA).
A musician friend asked me recently about the album he was doing. ‘I think I’ll just do download and vinyl,’ he said, ‘I’ll skip the CD.’
I told him I would buy a CD given the choice of three. ‘Not the vinyl?’ he said in shock.’The vinyl will be £22, the CD will be £11, probably. Also, your recording is DDD. No mysterious analogue wave there to be conjured up.’
The birth of CD
In a parallel to their CBS subsidiary, Sony launched Compact Disc in Britain mainly with classical, while Philips (Polygram) released popular and classical.
Abba’s the Visitors was planned as the first ‘popular’ release but was delayed, so Billy Joel’s 52nd Street on 1st October 1982 was the first popular CD on the market.
I remember the first releases I saw … ABC, Van Morrison and Steve Miller. In my memory, Polygram (Philips) was way more active in promoting the medium with spinner racks and publicity in Britain. Most of the early rock releases I saw were on the Polygram owned Mercury label. ABC Lexicon of Love, Van Morrison Inarticulate Speech of The Heart, Steve Miller Band’s Greatest Hits 1974-78.
Greatest Hits 1975-78: Steve Miller Band, CD 1982 Mercury
In the Bournemouth / Poole conurbation, only two shops sold them. Disc Music Centre in Winton sold LPs and 45s too, but were the very first to embrace CDs. My copy still has the price sticker: £9.99. Just what CDs cost today. Except that £9.99 in 1982 was the equivalent of £35.26 in 2020 money. Yes, they’ve become cheaper.
I’d go every week to find out what had been released … we were waiting for Thriller, but they were slow on releasing that: Off The Wall was reissued first. There was another shop in Ashley Road in Parkstone and that only sold compact discs. Compact Music? The owner had installed shiny lightwood racks, but it took a long time before he could get anywhere near filling them. When I first discovered the shop, he had just sixteen CDs. He got every one that came out. There was nowhere near enough rock or pop, and desperate as I was to experience the sound, I started getting modern jazz and classical. It definitely widened my musical horizons.
Then a third shop opened in Holdenhurst Road, near Bournemouth Station. They sold some but they also RENTED CDs. Yes, just like VHS video, you could rent them by the week. That was a way of exploring whatever came out without committing.
We pored over reviews. We learned that Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony were getting rave reviews AND the records were DDD.
Pines of Rome: Charles Dutoit, Orchestre symphonique du Montreal, Decca CD 1983 – Note that DIGITAL RECORDING flash.
The early rush of classical releases impacts on the current value of classical vinyl. As with the introduction of LPs, classical fans with good hi-fis were the early adopters of CD. Classical switched to CD faster and more comprehensively than Popular. Jazz fans were also faster to switch. That means classical vinyl went off the shelves several years before Popular / Rock vinyl did.
There was limited pressing capacity. Look at that little CD burner attached to your computer if you still have one. Back in 1983 we were told that CDs could only be produced in strict dust-free near vacuums at one of just a couple of pressing plants in the world.
I had a lecture tour of Japan, and to my delight, they were well ahead on releases. I bought the #1 and #2 records in the Japan CD chart. The Beatles Abbey Road and The Rolling Stones Tattoo You.
Both were on Toshiba-EMI. They weren’t out long. The Beatles and The Stones both had them stopped in their tracks – they had no permission. In fact we were to wait years for Beatles releases. My Toshiba-EMI Abbey Road was going for £200. But only if sealed with the Japanese translated OBI strip, which I had thrown away.
The Beatles held back until 1987, when they issued the first four CDs, fortunately the British versions in glorious mono. The delay was much discussed. CD sales worldwide passed 50 million in 1986, and that doubled to over 100 million in 1987.
There were two competing views on the delay. The Beatles were in the middle of a law suit with EMI. Their lawyer said:
They’ve been holding up the release of the CDs as a way of getting leverage over the Beatles in an attempt to get them to drop the lawsuit.
Leonard Marks, to New York Times EMI responded:
We felt that it would be inappropriate to put out a treasury of such proportions as the Beatles catalog until we had access to sufficient manufacturing capacity,” Bhaskar Menon, then-chairman of EMI Music Worldwide, told The New York Times. “It had nothing to do with any contractual situation. We’re still in discussion with them concerning a preferential royalty situation on the CD.
Bhaskar Menon, to New York Times
Early CDs have been criticized for harsh and brittle sound – all treble and bass. One of the first CDs I bought was Beautiful Vision by Van Morrison. It’s been remastered twice in the intervening years and each has been a significant improvement.
In those pre-internet days, you bought a Music Master CD Catalogue listing all releases ever!
Over 30,000 entries!
Lasts forever …
Does it? Home recordable CDRs can and do deteriorate. Ten years has been given as an optimum figure. Commercial CDs are said to deteriorate as well, with much dependent on the dye used on the label side which can cause pits on the playing side. Note that the Decca disc above has only the necessary words – no overall dye.
CDs are not all the same. I’ve used a Philips CDR-Audio Recorder for years as well as burning CDs on computer. Often CDRs with famous brand names … Sony, Philips, JVC, TDK, Maxell, Verbatim, Fuji, Kodak can have a very high failure rate. That’s why most brands have premium CDRs too. Connoisseurs will seek out “plain white label” CDs actually manufactured in Japan and Korea.
I have had commercial CDs that have deteriorated. On the other hand I’m writing this while listening to a CD of Lexicon of Love by ABC, bought in 1982, or thirty-eight years ago. It’s still fine.
Lexicon of Love: ABC, Mercury CD, 1982
Silver discs are prone to oxidation, which is why specialists like Audio-Fidelity produce gold plated CDs, which they predict will last 200 years rather than the 100 claimed for silver discs on CDs launch. Ah. It reminds me of our twenty-five year guarantee on a drain repair. It failed after twenty-three, and they came out and replaced it cheerfully. I said it must be a major expense. ‘Not really. It’s not transferable to the next owner of a house. Only 10% of people are there after twenty years.’
Bridge Over Troubled Water Collector’s Edition: Simon & Garfunkel, Columbia Legacy, MasterSound CD with SBM (Super Bit Mapping).
Stage Fright: The Band, Capitol DCC 24 karat gold CD. 1994 release of 1970 record
Gold discs from Sony’s MasterSound system, or from Audio Fidelity, are gold on both sides. Sony Legacy discs also add Sony’s Super Bit Mapping which is claimed to improve fidelity. So a bit more perfect than compact disc. For other labels (as with EMI’s Capitol), “Mastered by Steve Hoffman” was the secret mark of quality.
Do I believe the hype? Yes, actually. For years I’ve used Birdland from Heavy Weather by Weather Report to test hi-fi components. I started with the LP, then went on to the CD as well, and now I use the Sony Gold CD. It does sound the best.
More perfect than perfect …
Naturally perfect got more perfect as Sony introduced SACD, then we had the rival DVD-Audio / DTS Audio. Then Blu-ray 5.1 is probably as good as it gets. Take my all-time favourite record, The Band.
The Band: The Band
Top left: 1986 Capitol CD, first CD release
Top right: Capitol Japan CD in replica card case, 1998
Bottom right: Remastered CD with seven bonus tracks, Capitol / EMI 2000
Bottom left: 24K Gold CD with one bonus track, Audio Fidelity 2009
Background: 50th Anniversary Box Set, 2 CDs, Blu-ray with 5.1 surround sound mix, 2 LPs playing at 45 rpm for enhanced quality, Rag Mama Rag 7″ single, DVD Classic Albums The Band. 2019
Yes, perfection keeps improving.
SEE ALSO: DAT, SACD and DVD-A