TheBigBlack's Guide To Digital Audio

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History

If the average person was asked when digital audio technology was introduced many would say quite recently. Many would assume it was with the introduction of CDs in the early 1980s. Surprisingly its beginnings are long before the invention of the compact disc.

Pulse-code modulation (PCM) was invented by British scientist Alec Reeves in 1937 and was used in telecommunications applications long before its first use in commercial broadcast and recording.

Commercial digital recording was pioneered in Japan by NHK and Nippon Columbia, also known as Denon, in the 1960s. The first commercial digital recordings were released in 1971.

The BBC also began to experiment with digital audio in the 1960s. By the early 1970s it had developed a 2-channel recorder, and in 1972 it deployed a digital audio transmission system that linked their broadcast centre to their remote transmitters.

The first 16-bit PCM recording in the United States was made by Thomas Stockham at the Santa Fe Opera in 1976, on a Soundstream recorder. An improved version of the Soundstream system was used to produce several classical recordings by Telarc in 1978. The 3M digital multitrack recorder in development at the time was based on BBC technology. The first all-digital album recorded on this machine was Ry Cooder's ‘Bop till You Drop’ in 1979. British record label Decca began development of its own 2-track digital audio recorders in 1978 and released the first European digital recording in 1979.

Popular digital multitrack recorders produced by Sony and Mitsubishi in the early 1980s helped to bring about digital recording's acceptance by the major record companies. In 1982 the compact disc (CD) was introduced and popularized digital audio with consumers.

The CD was a follow-on project from Philip’s failed video disc technology launched in 1978. The video disc was one of the first commercial products to take advantage of laser technology that could read information from a disc without any physical contact.  Research into the video disc began as far back as 1969, and itself was inspired by Italian Antonio Rubbiani, who had demonstrated a rudimentary video disc system 12 years earlier.

As far back as 1970 Philips had begun work on what was called the ALP (audio long play) - an audio disc system to rival vinyl records, but using laser technology. Lou Ottens, technical director of the audio division at Philips, was the first to suggest that the ALP be made smaller than the dominant vinyl format and should aim for one hour of music. The project initially flirted with the idea of quadraphonic sound but a disc with one hour of music had to be 20cm in diameter and so the plan was abandoned. In 1977 Philips began to take the development of a new audio format much more seriously. A new name for the product was discussed and names considered included Mini Rack, MiniDisc, and Compact Rack. The team eventually settled on Compact Disc because it was felt it would remind people of the success of the Compact Cassette.
In March 1979 Philips conducted a press conference to show off the audio quality of its CD system in production and also to impress upon rivals how well it was progressing. A week later Philips representatives travelled to Japan after the Japanese Ministry Of Industry And Technology (MITI) had decided to convene a conference to discuss how the industry could create a standard for the audio disc. The representatives left Japan having agreed on a deal with Sony. Philips' plan for a CD with a 11.5cm diameter had to be changed when Sony insisted that a disc must hold all of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. The longest recording of the symphony in record label Polygram's archive was 74 minutes and so the CD size was increased to 12cm diameter to accommodate the extra data.

CD Taskforce

Philips And Sony Announce Joint CD Taskforce (1979)

 

CD Unveiled

Unveiling The First CD (1979)

In 1980 Philips and Sony produced their Red Book, which laid down all the standards for compact discs. From that time on the companies worked separately on their own CD equipment but in the early days agreed to share components. In April 1982 Philips showed off a production CD player for the first time. "From now on, the conventional record player is obsolete," said Lou Ottens. That first CD player would have cost more than $2,000 in today's money.
The first commercial CDs pressed (In a plant in Germany) were The Visitors by Abba and a recording of Herbert von Karajan conducting the Alpine Symphony by Richard Strauss. U.S. record labels were initially very sceptical about the CD. A year after launch there were 1,000 different titles available. In 1985 Dire Straits' Brothers In Arms became the first CD to sell more than one million copies. It is still the world's most successful CD album.

In 2000 global sales of CD albums peaked at 2.455 billion. In 2006 that figure was down to 1.755 billion.

 

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Last Updated: 25/09/2016