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- Written by Doug Schneider Doug Schneider
- Category: Monthly Column Monthly Column
- Created: 01 November 2014 01 November 2014
When the Compact Disc was initially introduced, in 1982, I had just graduated from high school and was entering a computer-science program. It was a time when very few people had computers in their homes, and if they did, it was probably an Atari or something similar, for playing games on their TVs. Personal computers back then were for the office, and were still far from being entertainment devices. So CDs and CD players were necessary to consumers for playing digital recordings -- and they sold well, eventually supplanting LPs and turntables as the way we enjoyed our music in our homes.
Yet because of the ways computer technology was advancing, it wasn’t too many years after CD’s introduction that I could foresee it being replaced by another digital medium. CD’s eventual obsolescence seemed almost guaranteed from the start. But unlike vinyl, which was eventually sidelined after the Compact Disc took the scene, the CD won’t enjoy the resurgence that the LP has recently enjoyed. In fact, when at last the CD dies out, it won’t be reborn at all, for reasons explained below.
An LP and a CD have some similarities: both are disc-shaped storage devices that spin and contain music signals on their surfaces. In short, they’re both physical media. But that’s about as close as they get, because of one huge difference: the LP contains analog signals, and the CD contains digital signals.
On an LP, the modulations of the music signal are represented by grooves stamped into the surface of the vinyl. Those grooves can’t exist without the vinyl carrier. Put another way, you can’t put those grooves onto something else and have your turntable read it and pass it along to the rest of your system. You also can’t transfer the signal that’s encoded on an LP to another medium, such as tape, without significant degradation of that signal. This is one of the inherent limitations of analog signals -- just ask anyone who’s recorded an audio tape from a turntable. So consider the LP’s grooves and vinyl as a package deal that can never be separated.
Digital doesn’t work that way. While Compact Discs have indentations, called pits, stamped into them to indicate the bits that make up a digital music signal, and the combination of the disc with the data written in a certain way is what makes a CD a CD, the data representing the music don’t necessarily have to be on that disc to be played back -- the data can be stored on pretty much any medium, provided there’s enough space and the reading device can read it quickly enough. And when the data are transferred to that other storage medium, even though it won’t be on a CD anymore, it will still represent precisely the same digital music signal, to be ultimately passed through a digital-to-analog converter. You can also copy digital data over and over again, without any degradation. So the digital signal can live on, with or without the optical disc. That’s a big difference from LPs.
IBM PC XT, circa 1983
The optical disc came about because, at the time of CD’s development and introduction, there was no other way to easily store and distribute the large amounts of data required by the 16-bit/44.1kHz standard agreed on by Philips and Sony, the two companies that invented the Compact Disc. (Because the specifications of the Compact Disc format -- the whole kit and caboodle of data, disc, and everything that goes along with them -- were originally published by Sony and Philips in a small book with a red cover, those specs became known as the “Red Book” standard.) Remember, this was all pre-Internet -- there were no such things as high-speed downloads, or any other way to efficiently move large bundles of data around. What’s more, a three-minute song recorded at CD quality takes up about 30 megabytes, whereas, at the time of CD’s introduction, the hard drive of the typical personal computer had a capacity of only 10 or 20 megabytes -- not nearly enough for a song, let alone an entire album. Floppy diskettes, which were either 5.25” or 3.5” at that time, held only a fraction of the data of a hard drive, so they couldn’t be used -- and things like thumb drives didn’t exist. Magnetic tape, which was popular in that era and was used on the production side, wasn’t as practical, cheap, or sexy as the silver optical disc. As a result, the nearly 700MB that the optical disc could hold was necessary -- and to the consumer, it was very attractive, because it ushered in a new era of music listening.
But there was nothing special about the optical disc itself, other than the facts that it could hold an enormous amount of data, was cheap, and could be manufactured and distributed easily. Also, unlike the LP, whose grooves and vinyl could never be separated, the marriage to the optical disc of digital music’s bits and bytes was one of convenience -- divorce was always imminent, since new options for storage were around the corner, and the bits and bytes were always free to go their merry way.
Because I worked in the computer field, I could see changes in data storage happen almost daily, and foresaw a time when an alternative storage medium could be used for digital music and the optical disc dispensed with altogether. Today, many different types of storage device are available that far exceed the storage capacity of a CD and are very inexpensive. For example, a single 1TB hard drive, which nowadays is already considered small, can be had for considerably less than $100, and can store thousands of CD-quality albums. That’s why, today, many audiophiles and non-audiophiles store their collections on hard drives and play their music using a computer. And if you want something more portable, you can use a thumb drive, which also can hold many times a CD’s capacity. And there are other options.
Sony CDP-101, circa 1982
Another reason the Compact Disc is destined for extinction is high-resolution sound -- digital recordings made at a resolution higher than the CD’s maximum of 16-bit/44.1kHz. Back when the “Red Book” standard was created, 16/44.1 seemed sufficient to many -- it meant that a CD could hold up to 74 minutes of music with adequate frequency response (up to 22.05kHz) and impressive dynamic range (96dB). But for years we’ve been able to record and play music at greater bit depths and higher sampling frequencies, for greater dynamic range and wider bandwidth. So why not move that way? Even if we wanted to stick with the Compact Disc, we couldn’t -- the “Red Book” standard won’t change. But its constraints don’t apply to computer-based playback. The ability to play 24-bit/192kHz files is commonplace on today’s computers, as is the playback of even higher resolutions -- even the DSD format, which is what SACD is based on.
Another reason for the CD’s demise is the Internet, which didn’t exist when the CD was created, or the CD might not have been born. Nowadays, however, everyone is on the Internet, including you (it’s where you’re reading this article), and with it have come good things and bad. On the good side are downloadable files, which give consumers access to digital music from pretty much anywhere in the world, whether it be low-resolution MP3s or the highest resolution available today. Log on, surf to a site, download music for free or for pay, and you’ll get it faster than hopping in your car and driving to the store. What’s more, if it’s a hi-rez download, you can get something online that you can’t buy at a store.
Finally, consider the following: Can you imagine anyone longing for a cheap, fragile jewel case, flimsy plastic-and-aluminum disc, and the tiny leaflet that was the “album art”? That’s long been CD’s presentation, and it might have been cool in 1983, but so was A Flock of Seagulls. Now, the whole package hardly breathes quality and value. So while it’s difficult to predict the future and what someone might desire 10 or 20 years from now, it’s tough to imagine anyone wanting the CD as we know it badly enough to make it worth resurrecting.
Just because vinyl made a comeback doesn’t mean the Compact Disc will -- some technologies were necessary at a certain time, but don’t necessarily stand for all time. Also, consider that, in the late ’80s, when the CD supplanted the LP as the dominant playback format, it wasn’t so much an evolution of a technology as a replacement of it -- essentially, the world shifted from analog to digital, for reasons that included sound quality and convenience. Today’s vinyl resurgence is driven by those who have shifted back to vinyl or are discovering it for the first time, probably because the LP has always had certain appealing qualities that CD never had: a distinctive sound that may or may not be more accurate than CD’s, as well as greater physical size, which gives it a more substantial feel and lends itself to real album art. For a variety of reasons, the LP looks and feels like far more than a CD does.
The current shift away from CD is not to vinyl, but to more advanced forms of computer-based digital playback that are better than CD. That’s exactly what happens in the computer world as technologies there improve: things progress. The 5.25” and 3.5” floppy disks that were in vogue at the time of CD’s introduction were eventually discarded in favor of things like recordable CDs, thumb drives, and so on. But no one is ever going back to floppies, because they’re obsolete; just as no one will return to Compact Discs when, finally, they’re all gone.
. . . Doug Schneider