Music started out free from any physical form until Edison managed to encapsulate it in a wax cylinder, which later evolved to shellac discs, and we got used to buying a thing that contained the music. Now music is digital, and since digital can be consumed in virtually any device with internet access, it is once again free. It’s a completed cycle that can hardly be called the end, with an uncertain future ahead.
How did we get here?
Ones, zeros, and compact discs
It all started, as is usual, in another field, seemingly unrelated to music: Telecommunications.
Transatlantic phone calls required cables, but they kept breaking because Earth moves and continents drift. It was an expensive but necessary endeavor, so they set out to make things cheaper, the first approach was to squeeze more simultaneous calls in the same cable, and thus, unknowingly, the race towards digital music began.
The year was 1962, Bell Labs finally managed to turn the analog sound waves into ones and zeros, and thus sound was now digital. The approach that finally worked was to eliminate the frequencies that our brains don't register, so the baseline was the science of psychoacoustics (we'll come back to them later, so put a pin here). The accomplishment consisted on sampling a sound wave and slicing it into tiny bits that could be broken down into ones and zeros. So far nothing to do with music.
We know that by 1974, Phillips, a Dutch company, was already working on a digital format for music. In 1977 they set up a lab to develop a "compact disc". Now, simultaneously, Sony was working on a similar project in Japan, so by 1979 they join forces, and came out with a 11.5 cm in diameter, 60 minute capacity disc that met the standards they'd set out to meet, and called for champagne, I imagine.
Enter the president of CBS/Sony Records, Norio Ohga.
Mr. Ohga was an opera singer and classical music lover for whom 60 minutes just wouldn't cut it. You see, Beethoven's 5th longest recording was the 1951 German Bayeruth Festival Orchestra's performance, conducted by the legendary Wilhelm Furtwangler, and it was 74 minutes long.
So a tweak here and an adjustment there, and the compact disc project resulted in a circular disc, laser engraved, laser read, with the following specifications:
Now, for all non-audio geeks out there, 44.1 KHZ just means that each second of sound is sliced in 41,000 slices, or 41,000 samples per second. 16-bit just talks about the number of possible amplitude values that can be recorded for each sample.
Looking back, Sony and Phillips are a match made in heaven. Culture is one aspect we could discuss, but if we stick to pragmatism, David Byrne tells us:
Phillips had the laser aspect in development and Sony had the manufacturing process, so they agreed on this new format together [and thus] a lot of proprietary nonsense that could have burdened the acceptance and dissemination of CDs was avoided."
By 1982 the players hit the shelves at a price tag of $750 usd, some $1,800 in today's value. The first music releases in CDs were of classical music, the industry just assumed that rock and pop fans preferred vinyls and cassettes, and that classical music fans would put value and importance in the quality of the sound, so the new CD format would be right up their alley.
The first CD release to reach the magic 1,000,000 units sold mark was Dire Straits' Brothers in arms (1985).
By the year 2000, 2 billion CD units are being sold.
On our next post, we'll discuss the next step in digital music: MP3. Stay tuned!
Luis Garza is a professional project manager, and the head of strategic planning in Estratagema Records.