40 Years of Recorded Music Distribution

Vintage baby

Vintage jams

Quick history lesson —

Digital audio made it’s public debut with the CD standard known as “RedBook”, started in 1978. A collaboration between Phillips & Sony, the CD standard was originally going to be 14bit/40k with error correction and ship on a 115mm disc, but Sony pushed for 16bit/44k with no error correction. A VP of Sony also pushed to increase the total run-time from 60 minutes to 74 minutes, warranting the disc be enlarged to 120mm, and ruining Phillips’ early investment in a plant already printing the 115mm discs! Corporate intrigue for sure.

The RedBook standard was finalized in 1980 and CD players started hitting the shelves by 1982. To this day RedBook is owned by Phillips and costs a manufacturer over $300 to download the specifications. Why the name RedBook? The engineers compiling the specifications did so in a red binder. Engineers aren’t known for creativity ;-).

In the marketplace, the new digital CD’s had numerous advantages over the two existing analog formats of vinyl albums and cassettes. To list a few: no dust problems, little heat warping, less vibration-induced skipping, couldn’t unwind or tangle, vertical storage no longer needed, no replaceable stylus, not magnetic, liquid-proof, instant auto cue. Also there’s the indefinite duplication with no loss in quality on the copy or the original – that’s a huge advantage for digital.

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But CD’s did not clearly “sound better” than vinyl when all the other issues were addressed. Most of those issues are considered interference or physical media issues. None of them address how the actual recorded music is presented. All music sounds best live, as the microphone is not able to recreate our auditory system. Did CD’s actually sound “better” than analog once playback and media issues were addressed?

This has been a sticking point since the early 80’s. Many of us could hear something missing from CD’s, and it wasn’t just dust and motor noise from the turntable. It was the stuff that is nearly impossible to describe in words: reverbs and decays were different, the timbre of cymbals, voices, and stringed instruments were different, the mid-lows weren’t as warm or round, delays didn’t seem as present or accurate, the stereo-width wasn’t as obvious, the center was hard to find, the top was very pronounced and brittle, some complained of a boxy sound or a digital graininess.

The 1980’s didn’t just bring CD’s to market, it brought us personal computers and the early internet. By 1990 the same group that was working on the JPEG digital picture compression standard starting working on a media compression format. MPEG was designed for squashing CD-quality audio files small enough to stream on dial-up modems. By the mid-90’s the mpeg format was in use and competing with other early digital audio formats like RealAudio.

Now that the music could be squashed to an easily tradable size, piracy ran rampant. The late 1990’s brought us mp3 (after mpeg-1 and mpeg-2). Napster, peer to peer file sharing, bad DRM attempts (security on audio files), and ultimately led to a rapid decline of the music industry. Everything was being stolen and fewer hard copies were selling. The new mp3 files were perfect for trading online, and the novelty of this new convenience outranked the decline in sound quality. “Good enough” became the standard for sound quality.

Into this disaster stepped Apple, wisely seeing an opportunity to re-invent the personal audio player like the Walkman/Discman (stealing that market from Sony) and re-invent the record store (taking that market from traditional retailers). First they launched the player line “iPod” with it’s easy loading from your computer, then they opened the new record store with legal $1 songs and no-hassle purchasing.

Apple bet right and it took off (I bought music from there for a few years). I kept thinking I was getting ripped off though — where’s the hard copy with artwork that I can love, lose, find, loan out, break and buy another (or not?). All gone. Instead of our society going “paperless”, we went “album less”, to our detriment. We have been buying and streaming low-quality audio for over a decade now, and not always because of technical limitations.

That’s the end of this lesson, kiddies. The point here is that if you grew up in the mp3 era, you were listening to a compromise built on top of a compromise. 24bit HD Audio should be a revelatory listen for you.