The Death of Compact Disc

Hello and Goodbye

In-car entertainment has become a reliable barometer of our acceptance and preference for audio hardware and formats. In the 70s, the American automobile industry incorporated 8-track machines in to the dashboard of practically every car.  In the UK cassette machines became standard equipment - the British never really got on with cartridge tapes.  On either side of the Atlantic, pre-recorded tapes were becoming increasingly popular, to the point where tape overtook vinyl in the mid-80s. 

By the mid-90s, electronic companies had overcome the problem of CD machines skipping and stuttering each time a car’s wheels hit a bump.  Cassettes were on the way out; CD autochangers began taking up boot space.  

In 2017, an in-car CD player has become an optional extra.  Instead, we to connect our phones to the audio system via Bluetooth.

At the time of writing, unwanted CDs pile up in charity stores and at car boot sales, with asking prices as low as 10p each.  CD machines are disappearing from many home entertainment systems, whilst an increasing number of personal computers, laptops and tablets are appearing minus a CD ROM drive.  UK CD sales have fallen from 162m in 2004 to 47m in 2016. 
 
After thirty years, the compact disc system is on its way out.  What could have gone wrong?

From The Beginning

The compact disc was first launched in Japan in August 1982 and worldwide in March 1983.  Consumers were at first reluctant to adopt the new format – the players were expensive; c. £500 for the earliest models (£1625 in 2017 value).  The discs were launched at £12 each (£39 in 2017)[1].  Compact Disc came across as an expensive toy for hi-fi buffs.  Except that many audiophiles, especially owners of elaborate turntable set-ups, were reluctant to accept the format. 

The first batch of CDs released in Japan were from the CBS/Sony catalogue and were unashamedly aimed at the American and Japanese markets, including music by Billy Joel, Barbra Streisand, Journey and Toto.  Although Billy Joel’s 52nd Street is often cited as being the first commercially available disc, it was released as part of a schedule of 50 discs on October 1st, 1982. 

Compact disc first went on sale in Japan in October 1982.  Wikipedia records that the first compact disc test pressing was produced in Hannover earlier the same year - Herbert Von Karajan’s Eine Alpensinfonie, which was eventually issued as Deutsche Grammophon 400 039-2 in March 1983.  The first commercial compact disc was also manufactured in Hannover – although produced in 17 August 1982, Chopin waltzes by Claudio Arrau (Philips 400 025-2) did not go on sale until March 1983. 

Certain CD albums issued in Japan were hastily withdrawn – neither Pink Floyd nor The Beatles had given permission for their music to be issued in the new format. Thus, Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here (CBS 35DP 4), Dark Side Of The Moon (EMI CP35-3017) and The Beatles’ Abbey Road (Odeon CP35-3016) immediately became collectors’ items – it would be years before these albums were given official worldwide releases. My recollection is that these early versions of Dark Side Of The Moon and Abbey Road were sonically inferior, to say the least.   Meanwhile, in Europe Foreigner’s best-of album Records (Atlantic 7 80999-2) was withdrawn in 1983 after one week on sale for contractual reasons.   Polygram released all of Genesis’ CDs in 1984 but did not bother asking the band for the original master tapes, using second-generation tapes instead.

[1] Rates calculated using this handy online inflation calculator




Now I'm Here

In 1985, although in-car compact machines were comparatively scarce, home CD players were becoming more affordable (as low as £100).  All but the most expensive tower & midi audio systems featured a turntable and twin cassette machine but not a CD player.  This changed with the launch of Amstrad’s budget priced (c. £100) TS41 tower system in 1985.  Meanwhile, the first CD boom-box appeared in 1986, however the earliest portable CD machines – the Sony Discman – had arrived in Japan in late 1984.  The first European personal players arrived in late 1985 and if memory serves, sold for a whopping £400 (£1184 in 2017 money…)

Dire Straits’ 1985 album Brothers In Arms (Vertigo 824 499-2) represented a milestone in compact disc marketing.  At the time of release, the limited number of CD pressing plants was causing shortages of many titles – particularly those on EMI labels.  Polygram ensured that upon release in 1985, ample stocks of the new Dire Straits CD were available.  The CD and cassette version contained 55 minutes of music compared to the LP, which was eight minutes shorter.  There were no additional tracks, rather four of the songs were substantially longer on the CD and tape.  The longer tracks - So Far Away, Money For Nothing, Your Latest Trick and Why Worry – were eventually issued on vinyl but only in 12” single format.  For some record buyers, this signalled the beginning of the end of LP format.  By 1985, pre-recorded tapes were outselling vinyl LPs[1] – but Brothers In Arms was the first album that I can remember where, behind the counter, the CD was outselling the LP.   It was as if many adult record buyers had waited for a suitable excuse to add a CD player to their audio systems.

By June 1986, in a certain large record store in Cambridge, England, albums such as Genesis’ Invisible Touch (Virgin GEN CD2), Peter Gabriel’s So (Virgin PGCD 5) and The Eurythmics’ Revenge (RCA PD 71050) were outselling their LP counterparts by some margin – at that time, our typical stock holding ratio of vinyl-to-tape-to-CD for chart albums was c. 20% - 50% - 30%.   By 1987, Brothers In Arms had sold 250,000 copies on CD in the UK. 

Following the release of Brothers In Arms, a much-publicised CD single of the album’s title track, plus three other songs, was issued in a promotional edition of 400 copies.  The record was not made available for sale, rather it was given away to a select few to publicise the group’s worldwide tour and their promotional tie-in with Philips’ compact disc players.  In January 1986, Jive Records released Ruby Turner’s If You’re Ready, Come Go With Me (JIVEX 109) as a commercially available 3-track CD. The following month, Island Records’ The Classic John Martyn (CID 265) contained 5 tracks and sold for £5.99.  Neither CD was eligible for inclusion in the singles chart.  In 1987 chart rules were relaxed to include sales from CD singles.  In May of that year, Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Arista 659 008) reached UK no. 1 – the first single available on CD to top the charts. 

[1] Billboard 6 Nov 1982 records that in 1981, deliveries to the UK trade were 64m LPs and 28.9m cassettes.  By 1985 , the balance shifted from to 53m LPs and 55m cassettes

The issue of Beatles music on compact disc was perhaps the deciding factor for music buyers to fully adopt the CD format.  By 1987, EMI, The Beatles and Apple Corps had resolved contractual issues enough to begin issuing Beatles albums on compact disc.  The band’s first four albums were issued in the last week of February, the next three in April – on June 1st, 1987, the 20th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was celebrated by the release of the album in its first compact disc edition.  The remainder of the original albums were issued on CD between August and October.  Two compilations – Past Masters Vol. 1 & 2 – were issued in March 1988; these albums collected the non-album singles, B-sides, EP tracks and foreign language recordings that did not feature on the studio albums. 

By 1989, sales of compact discs in the UK officially overtook that of LPs[1].   In early 1991, the UK’s largest music retailer (Woolworth) stopped selling vinyl records altogether.  Vinyl albums were disappearing from the catalogues; many new release albums were being issued in CD only.

[1] Official Charts website figures

Vinyl in the Ascendant

In the 1986 movie 9½ weeks; the affluence and sophistication of the central characters is implied by the close-up shot of a CD being inserted into a compact disc player.  Joe Cocker’s version of Randy Newman’s You Can Leave Your Hat On booms out of the stereo as Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger explore the contents of the refrigerator.  In 1993’s Indecent Proposal, the limitless wealth of John Gage (Robert Redford) is subliminally emphasized by the £30,000 Goldmund turntable in his living room. 

Director Adrian Lyne – responsible for both movies – seemingly recognised and dismissed the innovation and modernism of compact disc in favour of the durable cachet of esoteric and extravagant analogue audio. 

In Edgar Wright's 2017 movie Baby Driver, the lead character Baby (Ansel Elgort) asks his waitress (Lily James) the name of the song that she is singing.  Carla Thomas' B-A-B-Y , she informs him.  Baby heads off to the nearest second-hand record store and buys a vinyl copy of the album that contains the song - Carla, on the Stax label. 

All fine, except that throughout the movie Baby listens to all of his music on iPod. 

Music documentaries such as Bob Dylan – After The Crash (2006) would once feature interviews of journalists and musician against backdrops of large CD collections.  Nowadays, directors prefer to film against extensive libraries of of vinyl LPs.  Swathes of CDs no longer advocate taste or erudition.  Racks of vinyl are today’s measurement of musical knowledge, experience and sophistication. At least if there is a film crew in attendance.

From 1990 onwards, the UK music industry was trying to rejuvenate the LP record, typically, with the V For Vinyl campaign.  However, by the mid-90s the major companies[1] gave up and discontinued practically their entire LP catalogues.  Limited quantities of certain new albums were however made available on LP, possibly for nostalgia or credibility’s sake. 

Rock fans, however, began returning to the vinyl LP.  Owning the latest album on vinyl was maybe considered chic by students and teenagers.  By 2013, vinyl sales were at their highest since 1997. In the UK, ¾ million LPs were sold, the three leading tiles being Arctic Monkeys' AM, Daft Punk's Random Access Memories and David Bowie's The Next Day.  By 2016, UK vinyl LP sales stood at slightly over 3m.


[1] CBS/Sony, EMI, Polygram/Universal, BMG, WEA/East West

Fig. 1  (Official Charts Company)

eBay’s Christmas 2016 TV commercial (above) featured a father and son, both listening to Lonely Boy by The Black Keys.  Father is streaming the music via his one-piece Bluetooth system, the son is lowering the tone arm of his turntable onto a vinyl record.  “Very nice song!” says father.  “It sounds much better on vinyl!” chirps the boy. 

Were the boy in possession of an even halfway decent turntable, he might have had a reasonable argument. Except that the son’s turntable is a frightful groove-shredding moulded plastic toy that sells for less than £50.  Such monstrosities are allergic to the task of playing records.  Nonetheless, the commercial implies that vinyl is the way forward, no matter what a record is played on.  Even though a budget CD player connected to a half-decent amplifier and speakers (outlay c. £400) would, sonically, wipe the floor with both father and son’s audio systems.

Despite the increasing popularity of vinyl records, in 2016 they represented a fairly miserable 2.6% of UK sales.   Be sure that compact disc will be killed off by the music industry long before sales ever fall that low.

Fig. 2  (Official Charts Company)

A child's toy, yesterday. 

Warm Analogue vs Hot Mastering

It has long been the belief of many hi-fi pundits that vinyl records consistently sound superior to compact discs.  There are many arguments in favour of this generalisation, few (if any) that can be pinned upon the compact disc format itself.

The tangible and touchy-feely ceremony of playing vinyl records on intricate and delicate turntable set-ups far outweighs whatever physical and visual indulgence that can be gleaned from inserting a 5” silver disc into a nondescript black box. Miniature CD artwork cannot compete with the splendour of a heavyweight gatefold album sleeve, complete with free poster, inserts, polythene lined inner sleeve and a bespoke record label design.  Not forgetting the curiously persuasive aroma of ink used by certain printers…

Nonetheless, the primary function of audio equipment is to reproduce sound, preferably as accurately – or maybe as appealingly – as is possible.  Ideally, nothing should be added or subtracted from the source.  Any distraction and amusement arising from enticements as noted above must rank a distant second or third to the noise that is emerging from loudspeakers or headphones.  Forget the sideshow and listen to the music.

If compact discs sound brittle or harsh, the fault must predominantly lie with the audio engineer in charge of remastering.  Injudicious use of noise reduction, equalisation and gain adjustment can reduce a beautifully warm analogue recording into an ice-cold and overly sibilant digital blast.  Compare an original vinyl copy of Joni Mitchell’s Blue with the latest CD remaster of the same album.  You’ll get the idea.

More of a problem is the frankly noxious practice of hot-mastering – a process whereby everything within a recording is made to sound louder than everything else.  The difference between the average and maximum volume levels are reduced and in some cases, eliminated.  Hot mastering squeezes the life out of music, compacting the audio signals into distorted and heavily clipped flat lines.  The technique is used to make records sound louder and more appealing on the radio (and mobile phones).  Instead, hot mastering makes music sound irritatingly loud and creates noticeable listener fatigue – except, perhaps, to teenagers listening to contemporary/ephemeral pop music at full volume on cheap ear buds. 

Instead of taking full advantage of the remarkable potential dynamic range of the CD system, engineers turn everything up to eleven whilst analysing spectrographs of the recording with a view to eliminating any quiet passages.  Meanwhile, it is now difficult to buy contemporary pop, rock or dance music that has not been subjected to a full-on assault of artificial volume and digital compression. 

Hot mastering is best likened to attending a loud rock concert or nightclub.  Before long, one’s ears build up a resistance to the high volume – particularly in the mid-to-high frequency range.  Everything will begin to sound flat and distorted; sonic detail will be lost, high frequencies clipped as one’s brain attempts to shield the ears from the onslaught of noise.

Hot mastered tapes also end up on vinyl records.  It is likely that a CD master will have been used for the vinyl version, but due to the explosive bass response that can be achieved through CD, some LP masters must be compressed still further. It is a sad fact that too much bass on a vinyl record will make even the most expensive cartridge and tone arm combinations skip out of the groove. 
The following are some of the best (worst) examples of hot mastering.  These are among of the loudest albums ever made.  Spectograph examples of tracks from each album are attached, below.
Red Hot Chilli Peppers – Californication.  Bootleg copies of the original album, minus the hot mastering - known as the Premaster edition – are highly prized amongst Red Hot Chilli Peppers fans.  Many consider that the commercially available CD is extremely difficult to listen to for any length of time on quality equipment.  The track shown below - Californication - is one of the quieter songs on the record, yet the spectograph reveals that the volume levels have been absolutely maxed out on the CD version.

Red Hot Chili Peppers - title track from Californication - the official CD version.  CTF, as we might say in the studio.

Red Hot Chili Peppers - Californication - the (bootleg) pre-master version, minus all that compression. 

Iggy and the Stooges – Raw Power (1996 remix).  Many considered that the original 1973 LP lacked the collision-force impact of The Stooges’ uncompromising pre-punk musical savagery.  Iggy’s remix of the album is sheer sonic overload, emphasized further by an overwhelming use of audio compression.  It is not fondly remembered amongst fans of the album; the original LP mix has since been reissued on LP and CD.  There is nothing quiet about Iggy’s mix. 

Iggy & The Stooges - Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell, from the 1996 mix of Raw Power.  The loudest CD ever made? 

Oasis – Be Here Now. The sonic excesses of Britpop condensed into 70 minutes.  Countless guitar overdubs and maximised volume obliterate what many considered some very lacklustre playing and mediocre song writing.

Oasis - Stand By Me, from Be Here Now.  Is there a good song somewhere in here trying to get out?  

For comparison's sake, below is a spectograph of The Beatles' And Your Bird Can Sing.  The average volume level is set at about 60% of the maximum. 

The Beatles And Your Bird Can Sing - from the 1987 CD master of Revolver.  Loud enough, and no louder.

Carry On Streaming

Despite the variable sound quality offered by early mp3 players, the concept of keeping an entire record collection about one’s person soon proved irresistible for the younger generation.  The album format suffered partly due to the use of the random feature and personalised playlists, but mostly because of individual tracks being sold for less than the price of a can of own-brand diet cola. 

Popular music forever became as disposable as Pick & Mix confectionary.

In my experience, many people who now use mp3 as their primary music source really have no idea how to transfer music from disc to device.  A dear friend once asked that I transfer their modest CD collection onto a brand-new iPod – for them, an impossible task.  Another friend often hands me their iPhone and asks that I fill it up with their favourite music.  Despite the highly intuitive software and interface of the latest IOS, they have no clue how to perform this function. 

Neither of these friends have any difficulty operating a CD machine.

Streamed and downloaded music afford no tangibility whatsoever.  Oddly enough, this has not detracted from their popularity.  I have tens of thousands of songs on my hard drive.  At the last count, there is six months of music in my iTunes library.  There are hundreds of albums stored in my Spotify library.  I can play this music anywhere in the house in truly exceptional sound quality.  It is fully portable. A sizeable new house extension would be required to store all this music in CD or LP form – a consequence of which might be that much of the music would remain on the shelf, never to be heard.  Downloads and streams do have their function. 

It is worth noting that the number of officially downloaded albums has dropped from 94m in 2013 to slightly below 69m in 2016 (ref. fig. 1, above).  It is conceivable that accessibility to music, rather than ownership, is becoming increasingly important to consumers.  A neighbour friend keeps his entire library of books, videos and music on a hard drive.  He assures me that it is all backed up somewhere.

I am death - the destroyer of the album.

Early mp3 player.  Ugh.

Super Deluxe

In simpler terms, the record industry has stagnated. There is nothing new under the sun.  It has become dependent upon selling us the same recordings again and again, each time adding in further out-takes and live recordings and more luxurious packaging, to make one’s third or fourth purchase of the same record appear worthwhile.  Unsurprisingly, the large majority of vinyl albums sold in the UK are catalogue titles, rather than new releases (ref fig. 3, below).

The quality of sleeve art being used for supposedly high-end 180g vinyl reissues is frequently little short of a disgrace.  Step into your local record shop and examine the covers of the latest premium-priced reissued LPs.  Definition and contrast have all but disappeared on album covers such as The Ramones’ 1st, Carole King’s Tapestry, Nirvana’s Nevermind, The Beatles’ Abbey Road and David Bowie’s Pinups.  Indeed, it is hard to find an LP in the racks whose cover art can compare with its original.  Led Zeppelin – renowned for being fastidious regarding cover art – reissued their catalogue in 2014.  Even so, the artwork to the LPs – notably Houses Of The Holy – is undoubtedly substandard. 

One of the worst examples is the 2007 double album reissue of U2’s Joshua Tree.  The original 1987 LP sleeve set a new standard in LP artwork.  The blackest, textured ink combined with Anton Corbijn’s evocative, sharp yet grainy photography and discrete gold lettering, all printed on rigid art stock – The Joshua Tree represented a masterpiece of album packaging. 

The reissue used a cloudy photocopy of the original.  It resembled a knock-off that one might have found on a market stall, somewhere in the Far East.  Likewise, the inserts to the reissued (and expensive!) double LP The Beatles are incredibly blurred.  It is as if record companies, despite being so particular with their audio restoration, cannot be bothered to locate the original lithography, instead settling for low-resolution scans of old LP sleeves. 

The music industry will never shrink from selling us further copies of our favourite albums.  With the CD in retreat, they have resorted to reissuing long playing records.  All packaged in shoddy photocopied artwork, the music taken from master tapes designed for CDs.  But look at the sheen and feel the rigidity of that 180g virgin vinyl! 
“Remasters are like buses. Just wait for the next one to come around”[1].

In one’s humble opinion, the overall quality of popular music has taken a nose-dive in line with the mushroom-like growth of recording technology.  Broadcaster and journalist David Hepworth has made much of the quantity of stupendously good music produced in 1971 (i.e. Who’s Next, Sticky Fingers, Hunky Dory, Tapestry, Led Zeppelin’s untitled 4th album).  1971 is Hepworth’s Annus Mirabilis - upon inspection of his list of albums issued in that year, it is hard to disagree[2]. 

Hepworth also argues that 1965 was the year of the 45 – the following were all released in that year: -

  • Rolling Stones – The Last Time; (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction; Get Off My Cloud
  • The Beatles – Ticket To Ride; Help; Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out
  • Bob Dylan – The Times They Are A-Changin’; Subterranean Homesick Blues; Maggie’s Farm; Like A Rolling Stone; Positively 4th Street
  • Kinks – Tired Of Waiting For You; Everybody’s Gonna Be Happy; Set Me Free; See My Friend
  • The Who – I Can’t Explain; Anyway Anyhow Anywhere; My Generation

I can’t imagine any further such bursts of creativity in the production of contemporary music.  And making records in 1965 and 1971 was very different to today.

In 1976, Punk and New Wave helped create a mushrooming independent music business on both sides of the Atlantic.  Punk and New Wave, depending on one’s standpoint, represented a long-overdue kick in the pants, or an autocratic year zero, for the music industry.  Whatever one thinks of the artistic shift created by Punk/New Wave, making records became that much easier.  In later years, technology such as drum machines, sequencing & sampling, MIDI, Pro Tools & Auto-Tune as well as high-speed internet links and high-capacity digital storage have become invaluable tools in any recording studio. 

Musicians no longer need visit the studio to overdub whatever part or solo is required to complete a recording.  More likely, session players will remain at home, dash off a chorus or two and send it down the line - rather than jetting in to Los Angeles first class, registering at the LA Hilton before attending a 3am gig at Sunset Sound.   A record producer can assemble a convincing backing track from snatches of previously recorded beats, fills and licks stored on a hard drive.  Musicians have become largely irrelevant to the production of popular music whilst record producers are required to be computer wizards and/or nightclub DJs.

In 2002, I was involved in the construction of two major recording studios in the centre of London, each for very famous and wealthy clients.  Neither studio required a piano - grand, upright or otherwise.  These most dependable of instruments, arguably the most important building blocks in modern music, seem to be no longer required.  Such is the impact of modern recording technology that many studios[3] are closing their doors altogether, as musicians record their latest album directly onto PC or Mac.

Arguably, none of the technology mentioned above has had any positive effect on music (popular or otherwise).  Stardom has become even more ephemeral.  Each year, a famous UK televised talent show drenches the performances of its contestants in Auto-Tune and countless Pro Tools apps, affording each one the voice of an angel.  Or Mariah Carey.  The majority of surviving contenders then suffer the ignominy and embarrassment of car-crash performances in later episodes as the voice-enhancing effects are turned down or off.  The majority of wannabe karaoke no-hopers are voted off and head off to obscurity. 

Manufactured stardom is, of course, nothing new.  Today’s prime time TV sideshows would not create so much of a problem for the music industry were the radio, TV schedules and singles/album charts not dominated by an ersatz, synthetic and cloying music that is the product of overwhelming computerised enhancement.

Perhaps it is of little coincidence that the number of truly classic singles and albums that have appeared since, say, 1997 is a very short one indeed.  Each to his own, of course – but I can’t think of many albums that would cut the mustard amongst the very best of 1971, nor singles that would stand up against what was happening in 1965.  Or, indeed, any other years up to – say – 1979.

It is of even less coincidence that the music industry is becoming more reliant upon the reissue market.  Since the birth of compact disc, Dark Side Of The Moon has been reissued five times[4], the entire Led Zeppelin catalogue four times, the Beatles and Stones catalogues three times.  In addition, the works of each band have been reissued for streaming/download purposes; Zeppelin’s albums are also available in high resolution downloads.  Furthermore, music is constantly being reissued in high-end surround-sound formats (i.e. SACD, DVDA) as well as niche-marketed ultra-high-fidelity discs (i.e. MFSL, Audio Fidelity).

[1] A devilish comment left on a Steve Hoffman forum .  I wish I’d have thought of it first.

[2] 1971 - Never a Dull Moment: Rock's Golden Year – ISBN 178416206X

[3] For example, Townhouse, Roundhouse, Whitfield Street, Eden, Strawberry, Trident

[4] Harvest/EMI have issued the compact disc of Dark Side Of The Moon in the following editions: -
CDP 7 46001 2 (1986) (1st remaster)
0777 7 81479 2 3 (1992) (2nd remaster)
7243 8 29752 2 9 (1994) (21st anniversary)
7243 582136 2 1 (2003) (Hybrid CD/SACD w/surround sound)
50999 028955 2 9 (2011) (Immersion remaster)

An original 1987 vinyl copy of U2's The Joshua Tree

The 2007 "deluxe" vinyl reissue of U2's The Joshua Tree

Fig. 3 (Official Charts Company)

One of the many inserts included with the 1968 double album, "The Beatles" (aka The White Album).  On the left is an original copy.  On the right, the blurred photocopy included with the deluxe vinyl reissue. 

In The Vinyl Analysis

“Regardless of what you may have been told, most vinyl these days is cut directly from a CD production master – and it’s been that way for years. Vinyl masters will probably use a higher-resolution file format, for example 24-bit and perhaps 48 or even 96 kHz sampling rate, but if the CD has already been mastered these will probably be available from the original mastering engineer for little or no extra cost. And even if hi-res files aren’t available, a great CD master will give decent results, even at 16-bit 44.1 kHz”.

- Ian Shepherd – Mastering Engineer - http://productionadvice.co.uk/vinyl-mastering/

Compact discs – with their "miserably inadequate" 44.1kHz sampling rate – remain quite capable of capturing and reproducing exactly what is on the master tape, with dynamic range to spare and none of the distortion that plagues the vinyl medium – wow/flutter; harmonic distortion; rumble; tracking error; surface noise; groove and stylus wear; needle skipping and crosstalk.

Audioholics have since conceived a raft of supposed distortions that can affect compact disc – for example, quantisation noise[1] and Jitter[2].  They have devised gallons of hyper-expensive snake oil to supposedly minimise such imperfections and improve CD performance (see this article).  In 1989, Which? magazine announced that compact discs would self-destruct inside of 10 years due to corrosion of the aluminium layer[3].  Some record labels responded by using discs with gold layers rather than aluminium.

Thirty years on, I am pleased to report that not one of my thousands of discs have suffered from such rot.   

We vinyl fiends just adore collecting and listening to records.  We relish the cleaning, preservation and restoration of the vinyl and its packaging.  We await the incidence (or absence) of distortion and surface noise and congratulate ourselves when snap, crackle and pop are suppressed to below an acceptable level.  We gaze lovingly at the spines of the thousands of LP records that go to make up our extended collections and pore over every detail of the covers, labels and deadwax[4].  And the retail therapy of browsing through, selecting and purchasing vinyl albums – be they brand-new shrink-wrapped or dog-eared and well-hated – cannot be properly explained to an outsider.   None of this has any bearing on the sound quality produced by the medium of long playing records. 

It is hard to fathom why music transferred and restored to digital could benefit sonically from being transferred to vinyl.  It shouldn’t, but it does?  Or maybe the nice, warm (read: compressed & coloured) sound produced by the analogue format combined with the tactile enticements discussed earlier clouds one’s judgement.

[1] Quantisation “…generated by music frequencies that do not coincide with discrete sub-multiples of the sampling frequency where error is at a minimum…”   Got that? 

[2]  “The deviation from true periodicity of a presumably periodic signal, often in relation to a reference clock signal..” – Wikipedia .  Many consider that whilst Jitter can be measured, except in extreme cases, it cannot be heard

[3] Compact discs that are not stored properly, i.e. in extremes of heat and/or humidity have been known to corrode. Furthermore, many types of self-adhesive labels will, unfortunately, destroy CDR discs.  You may wish to check your collection (of pirated knock-offs) and make some back-up copies

[4] The final space between the label and the end of the record, often reserved for catalogue/matrix numbers and secret messages inscribed by the cutting engineer.  SO MOTE BE IT…

In the right hands - a compact disc will always (hang on to your hats) produce a more faithful reproduction of an audio source – i.e. a master tape - than a vinyl record ever could.  The fact that vinyl often sounds more agreeable than digital does not in any way mean that it produces sound with greater accuracy.  Consider that audio engineers will only ever use a vinyl record as an audio source (such as, for a reissue) when the original tapes cannot be found.  For the 50th anniversary reissue of The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper, producer Giles Martin did not search for a first-press 1967 mint copy of the vinyl album. The original 4-track tapes were transferred to multitrack digital, stored within a bank of high-capacity hard drives.  The deluxe 180g vinyl reissue – now so beloved of collectors - was borne of a digital source.  Indeed, the only vinyl record used to compile the 5-disc set was a badly-worn US radio copy of Penny Lane, - the version complete with trumpet ending.  For which no master tape could be located. 

Imagine that the master tapes of Steely Dan’s masterpiece Aja are missing[1]; meanwhile, the album is due for reissue as a super-deluxe double LP half-speed mastered vinyl edition.  It is hard to imagine Donald Fagen or producer Gary Katz producing a new master tape from an old vinyl copy of the record, no matter how quiet its playing surface.  Without any doubt, they would reach for the best available commercial digital version and work with that.

And I seriously doubt that anyone would notice.

[1] The sleeve notes to the 1999 remaster of Aja state that the multitrack versions of two songs are indeed missing, effectively preventing the preparation and release of a 5:1 surround sound edition of the album

CD rot.  Avoid excessive heat, humidity, sticky labels...

Whatever's For Us

Despite CD prices hitting rock-bottom in supermarkets and charity stores and on internet sites, there is a definite upward trend in the price of selected titles by certain artists.  Second-hand ex-chart albums are invariably selling for pence; meanwhile less mainstream music – including jazz, orchestral, folk/roots, stage & screen – is beginning to fetch premium prices on compact disc. 

At the time of writing, there are over 75 compact discs by MOR bandleader James Last on sale at Amazon.co.uk with asking prices in excess of £50.  Vinyl equivalents of many of the albums are on sale for a few pounds only.  Hundreds of CD albums (box sets, double and triple albums excluded) by conductor Herbert Von Karajan are selling for in excess of £75.  In many cases, Amazon offer mp3 downloads for the same albums at around £10.  A new copy of Stan Getz’ Concord CD Spring Is Here sells for around £100.  A double vinyl 180g limited edition of the record can be bought for just over £20.

Much of Van Morrison’s back catalogue is currently out-of-print.  Despite mp3 and streaming versions all being available, premium prices are now being paid for new copies of albums such as Days Like These (1999); Avalon Sunset (1989); Hymns To The Silence (1997) and The Philosopher’s Stone (1999).

A used copy of Jim Pepper’s Pow Wow CD on the Wounded Bird label sells for more than £350.  The vinyl reissue on the Hi Horse label is about £15; an original LP on Embryo is around £10. 

A used copy of Peter Skellern's Astaire album sells for £70 on CD; a vinyl LP can be bought for under £2.

A brand-new CD of Ed Palermo’s Big Band Plays The Music of Frank Zappa will cost over £300.  (Sadly, the Astor Place label didn’t get around to issuing a vinyl copy). 

As the market share of CD continues to shrink, spikes in demand for used and unused/new CDs will continue.  Prices will move in one direction only.  It is highly unlikely that technology companies will ever market a new tangible audio or video format.  Home entertainment will be downloaded, streamed, on-demand and in-the-cloud.

Nonetheless, a large number of consumers prefer to own physical copies of albums, films and books.  They know that Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu et al cannot offer the picture quality afforded by a £7 Blu Ray disc, played through a £50 machine.  That reading a book on a tablet computer is a perfunctory experience, lacking the allure and sensation of reading quality print on fine paper.  And that a photograph displayed on an LCD screen cannot compete with the same image, printed on high quality stock, mounted behind the glass of a befittingly appropriate frame.

Despite what the media and tech companies would prefer me to believe, I remain convinced that a standard compact disc, played on even a budget quality CD player through hi-spec amplification and loudspeakers, will – 99 times out of 100 – sound superior to a high-res download, played through a dedicated high-end streaming device.  Connected, of course, to the same amp and speakers, and playing the same album[1].  My door is always open, should one require adequate proof of the above statement[2].

[1] A hi-fi buff once tried to prove to me the superiority of vinyl over CD by comparing side-by-side recordings of Dire Straits’ Private Investigation.  On the turntable, the studio recording from Love Over Gold.  On the CD player, the live version from the Alchemy album. There was, uh, no comparison

[2] Custom-built SSD network media unit - MHZS valve CD player - Audiolab M-DAC+ Digital-to-Analogue converter - Roksan Caspian M1 pre-& power amps - Magneplanar 1.6 speakers - REL Stentor sub-woofer. 
The CD machine wins nearly every time, often by some margin

It is highly likely that production of CD ROM drives and compact disc players will cease within the next twenty years.  The CD will join redundant formats such as compact cassettes and VHS tape.  A fertile collector’s market of old discs and machines might emerge whilst contributors to hi-fi publications and internet forums mourn the 5” silver disc.  Grandchildren might ask of their elders,

“What exactly were compact discs and why did they stop making them?”

After some chin scratching, a grandparent might respond: -

“Compact discs, eh?  I remember them.  They sounded marvellous – owning a good CD was like having your own copy of a master tape! Yet they often cost next to nothing, were highly portable, didn’t wear out, and could be easily duplicated using a domestic PC or laptop.  They were child’s play to use, and universal – a CD made in one country would play in any other.  Before CDs, we had records – which could easily become dirty and scratched and wore out if you weren't too careful – and cassettes, which didn’t always sound too good and did not last very long at all.  But CDs – I had hundreds of them.  They were fantastic!”

“But why on earth did they stop making them?”

“I suppose, because teenagers liked the idea of having their entire music collection on something no bigger than a packet of cigarettes, no matter how awful it sounded.  And some old fools – like me – preferred to believe that their record players sounded better than compact discs ever could.” 

“Grandad – what is a packet of cigarettes?” 


Dig - and dig deep.  Witchitai-To!

One Last Thing

Nothing in the above article is intended to suggest that we should neglect our turntables.  I will be first in the queue when Technics re-introduce the SP10 turntable in or around 2019.  Nothing will stop me from buying hundreds of LP records every year.  My Linn Sondek is a permanent fixture. As are the Technics SL1210 and Nottingham Analogue Spacedeck[1].

The resurgence of interest in the vinyl record has indirectly resulted in more LP collections ending up in charity stores or at car boot sales.  On line and in musty second-hand shops, vinyl records remain surprisingly affordable.  There are thousands of records that have not appeared on compact disc.  And as discussed, original vinyl is often cheaper than CD – I recently purchased a mint copy of Stanley Turrentine’s Wonderland LP for £5.  The CD version on Amazon goes for about £30. And collecting, restoring and playing vinyl is tremendous fun.  Despite my misgivings, some 180g reissues are sorely tempting and quite rewarding.  For instance, The Beatles’ albums (artwork aside) are remarkably good. 

But the sound quality of CD is seldom equalled.  Its functionality is amazing.  Dig the compact disc whilst you still have the chance.  It really is that good. 

Most of all, please don’t choose an audio system based on the whims of fashion, or dare I say, street cred.  Enjoy your music in the way that you want to.

1] I confess to owning three turntables.  Plus three more that I haven’t told you about.

The Technics SP-10R.
Gimme, gimme, and most of all, gimme.

The Nottingham Audio Spacedeck.  It's dead good at playing records.

Appendix

Some early European compact discs

The first 50 compact discs issued in Japan on 1st October 1982

38DC 1 Beethoven Symphony No. 5 - Schubert Symphony No. 8 (Unfinished) - Lorin Maazel : Vienna Philharmonic

38DC 2 Beethoven Symphony No. 3 - Zubin Mehta : New York Philharmonic

38DC 3 Mozart Symphony No. 35 - Rafael Kubelik : Bavarian Radio Symphony
Orchestra

38DC 4 Mozart Symphony No. 38 - Rafael Kubelik : Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra

38DC 5 Mozart Symphony No. 41 - Rafael Kubelik : Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra

38DC 6 Bruckner Symphony No. 4 - Rafael Kubelik : Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra

38DC 7 Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5 - Lorin Maazel : Cleveland Symphony Orchestra

38DC 8 Shostakovich Symphony No.5 – Leonard Bernstein : New York Philharmonic

38DC 9 Tchaikovsky 1812 Overture - Lorin Maazel : Vienna Philharmonic

38DC 10 R. Strauss Also Sprach Zarathustra - Zubin Mehta : New York Philharmonic

38DC 11 Stravinsky Ballet Music - Zubin Mehta : New York Philharmonic

38DC 12 Holst The Planets - Lorin Maazel : French National Orchestra

38DC 13 Dvorak Concerto For Cello - Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi (Vc) - Zdeněk Košler : Czech Philharmonic

38DC 14 Grieg Piano Concerto  - Hiroko Nakamura (P), Yuichirou Ohmachi : Tokyo Philharmonic

38DC 15 New Famous Pieces By Chopin - Hiroko Nakamura (P)

35DP 1 Billy Joel - 52nd Street

35DP 2 Billy Joel - The Stranger

35DP 3 Boz Scaggs - Middle Man

35DP 4 Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here

35DP 5 Toto - Turn Back

35DP 6 Journey - Escape

35DP 7 Barbra Streisand - Guilty

35DP 8 Weather Report - Night Passage   

35DP 9 Al DiMeola/Paco De Lucia - John McLaughlin – One Night In San Francisco

35DP 10 Bob James & Earl Klugh - One On One

35DP 11 Boz Scaggs - Hits!

35DP 12 Toto - Toto Iv

35DP 13 Simon & Garfunkel - The Simon & Garfunkel Collection

35DP 14 Simon & Garfunkel - Bridge Over Troubled Water

35DP 15 Earth Wind & Fire - Raise!

35DP 16 Miles Davis - The Man With The Horn

35DP 17 Herbie Hancock Trio With Ron Carter & Tony Williams

35DH 1 Eiichi Otaki - A Long Vacation

35DH 2 Motoharu Sano, Masamichi Sugi, Eiichi Otaki - Niagara Triangle Vol.2

35DH 3 Seiko Matsuda - Pineapple

35DH 4 Mayumi Itsuwa - Koibitoyo

35DH 5 Momoe Yamaguchi - Again Momoe Anato No Komori No Uta

35DH 6 The Candies - The Best Again

35DH 7 Sadao Watanabe - Orange Express

35DH 8 Kimiko Kasai - Kimiko

35DH 9 Various - New Music Best Hit

38DG 1 The SL ~ SL Sound In Digital

35.8P-1 Julio Iglesias - De Niña A Mujer  

35.8P-2 Michael Jackson - Off The Wall  
 
35.8P-3 The Nolans - Don't Love Me Too Hard

35.8P-4 Reo Speedwagon - Hi Infidelity

35.8P-5 Jeff Beck - There And Back

35.8H-1 Channels - Soul Shadows

35.8H-2 Motoharu Sano - Someday

35.8H-3 Ippu-Do - Lunatic Menu
Abba – The Visitors (Polydor 800 011-2)

Barclay James Harvest – Ring Of Changes[1] (Polydor 811 638-2)

Dire Straits - Love Over Gold (Vertigo 800 088-2)

Donald Fagen – The Nightfly (Warner Bros. 9 23696-2)

The Doobie Brothers – Minute By Minute (Warner Bros. 256 486)

Elton John – Jump Up! (Rocket 800 037-2)

Genesis - …And Then There Were Three (Charisma 800 059-2)

Gershwin - Rhapsody In Blue - Piano Concerto In F (Versions For Two Pianos) - Katia & Marielle Labeque (Philips 400 022-2)

Jean Michel Jarre - Oxygene (Polydor 800 015-2)

Jon And Vangelis ‎– The Friends Of Mr. Cairo (Polydor 800 021-2)

Jose Carreras - O sole Mio (Philips 400 015-2)

Julio Iglesias - De Niña A Mujer (CBS CDCBS 85063)

Kiss – Unmasked (Casablanca 800 041-2)

Michael Jackson – Thriller (Epic CDEPC 85930)

Michael McDonald – If That’s What It Takes (Warner Bros. 9 23703-2)

Miles Davis – Sketches Of Spain (CBS CDCBS 62327)

Randy Newman – Trouble In Paradise (Warner Bros. 9 23755 -2)

Roxy Music – Manifesto (Polydor 800 031-2)

Stan Getz – Sweet Rain (Verve 815 054-2)

Tchaikovsky - 1812 Overture / Capriccio Italien / Marche Slave - Daniel Barenboim : Chicago Symphony Orchestra (DG 400 035-2)

Vangelis - Chariots of Fire (Polydor 800 020-2)

Vivaldi ‎– Le Quattro Stagioni -  I Musici - Pina Carmirelli (Philips ‎– 410 001-2)

[1] Ring Of Changes was among the first European new release albums issued simultaneously on compact disc, LP and cassette