Ever wondered why a CD’s running time is the length it is?

In this extract from Timekeepers: How the World Became Obsessed With Time, Simon Garfield considers the moment music first became digital . . .

On 27 August 1979, the chief executives and leading engineers of Philips and Sony sat around a table in Eindhoven with the simple intent to alter the way we listen to music. Decades before the term was invented, they planned disruptive technology on a grand scale. The grooved vinyl LP had hardly changed in 30 years, and was blighted by dirt, dust, scratches and warping, and a truly tedious limitation: how could you lose yourself in even the shortest symphony if halfway through you had to lift the needle, remove the fluff, flip the disc and start anew? (On 27 August 1979, the chief executives and leading engineers of Philips and Sony sat around a table in Eindhoven with the simple intent to alter the way we listen to music. Decades before the term was invented, they planned disruptive technology on a grand scale. The grooved vinyl LP had hardly changed in 30 years, and was blighted by dirt, dust, scratches and warping, and a truly tedious limitation: how could you lose yourself in even the shortest symphony if halfway through you had to lift the needle, remove the fluff, flip the disc and start anew? (The LP was, of course, also beautiful, tactile, warm of sound and transformative, but progress is progress.)

The LP was, of course, also beautiful, tactile, warm of sound and transformative, but progress is progress.

And so the compact disc was born, or at least conceived. The idea was to combine the neat modern ease of the compact cassette with the aural durability and random access of the videodisc, and in so doing persuade music lovers to become gadget lovers. The CD was to be a smaller object, a digital recording read optically by a laser, and what it lacked in aural warmth it made up for in dynamism, accuracy, random access and a wipe-clean surface. (It was also a cool new thing, and although few who handed over their money for Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms could have anticipated it, the CD was also the public on-ramp to the nascent digital universe.)

There was one problem to overcome before this could happen: the format. Stung by the video wars between Betamax and VHS, during which two competing technologies slugged it out for the consumer to the detriment of all, Philips and Sony now agreed to work together on an unprecedented scale. Both had developed a similar technology and announced it to the world in March 1979, but they differed on the specs; consumers would again face an incompatible choice of players. They needed a united front, particularly if they were to convince music lovers to buy the same music they already owned.

But precisely how compact should the disc be? And how much digital information should it contain?

The meetings between chief executives and engineers took place over several days in Eindhoven and Tokyo, and resulted in the industry standard manual known as the Red Book. Summarising the agreement years later in IEEE Communications, the journal of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a long-standing member of the Philips audio team named Hans B. Peek took great pride in contributing to a product that nudged the culture. Peek suggested that the LP was simply out of time: in an age of miniaturisation it just stood there, the records stout in the stacks and the player bulky on the sideboard. Peek wrote of the tiny ‘pits and lands’ of the CD grooves and how the pitfalls of the digital registration of audio signals were mastered. Unlike the LP, a CD would be read from the inside to the outside edge. Skipping, clicking, dropouts — all the errors of optical reading that could be caused by such a simple thing as fingerprints on the disc — had to be overcome, and an agreement had to be reached on information density. Prior to Sony’s involve-ment, the diameter of the disc was agreed at 11.5cm, the same as the diagonal length of a cassette. The initial playing time was set at one hour, a nice round figure and a considerable improvement on the LP.

In February 1979, prototypes of a CD player and discs were played to audio experts at PolyGram, the newly formed record company founded by Philips and Siemens (a synergy that provided access to the entire catalogue of Deutsche Grammophon). The PolyGram people loved it: crucially, when several samples of music were played, they could detect no difference between the playback of a CD and the playback of the original master tapes. Journalists got to hear a CD for the first time a month later; again, the sound astonished: on one of the earliest recordings, a complete collection of Chopin waltzes, one could hear the pianist’s assistant turn the pages. The media also liked what they didn’t hear — there was no sound at all as they paused music in the middle of a track: the precision pause button, the suspension and elongation of musical time, was itself revolutionary. The CD also offered something else: a whole new consciousness of musical time. It’s a thrill, really — seeing the first seconds of the track appear on a digital read-out in green or red, with the ability not only to pause, but also to repeat and scan back. The operator was in charge of time in a novel way, everyone a DJ with precise control, Abbey Road in everyone’s road.

Philips then went to Japan to talk manufacturing partnerships. Representatives spoke to JVC, Pioneer, Hitachi and Matsushita, but only Sony signed a deal. Norio Ohga, Sony’s vice-chairman, arrived in Eindhoven in August 1979 to begin hammering out the details of what would become the industry standard, and it wasn’t until further meetings had concluded in Tokyo in June 1980 that an agreement was reached and final patent applications were filed. By then, the original formats proposed by Philips had changed. According to J.P. Sinjou, who led a team of 35 at the Philips CD lab, the 11.5cm disc was changed to 12cm on the personal wish of Norio Ohga. The extra width would allow Ohga, who was a trained baritone and passionate classical music lover, to extend the duration of the disc by a crucial amount. ‘Using a 12cm disc,’ Hans B. Peek wrote, ‘a particular performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a favourite of N. Ohga with a length of 74 minutes, could be recorded.’ Other issues were met with even neater solutions: ‘J. Sinjou put a Dutch coin, a dime, on the table. All agreed that this was a fine size for the hole [in the middle of the disc]. Compared with other lengthy discussions, this was a piece of cake.’

Could it be that its initial length was really inspired by a lengthy recording of Beethoven’s Ninth?

Could it be that its initial length was really inspired by a lengthy recording — Furtwängler’s interpretation at Bayreuth in 1951 — of Beethoven’s Ninth? Wouldn’t that be wonderful? The story is quoted only as an ‘anecdote’ by an engineer, and doubts have crept in. Another version suggests the Beethoven fan was not Mr Ohga, but his wife. It may be that the Beethoven story was concocted in retrospect, an inspired marketing wheeze. And there was one further twist: Furtwängler’s 74-minute performance could technically be accommodated on a single CD, but it couldn’t be played; the earliest CD players could only handle 72 minutes. It was a fate the conductor was to share with Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland: today both masterpieces fit on a single disc, but initially they were split between two.)


Simon Garfield is the author of seventeen acclaimed books of non-fiction including A Notable Woman (as editor), To the Letter, On the Map, Just My Type and Mauve. His study of AIDS in Britain, The End of Innocence, won the Somerset Maugham prize.

www.simongarfield.com

Timekeepers: How the World Became Obsessed With Time is available now.

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