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G2: Arts: How we made ... the compact disc 'When the CD came in, I got rid of all my old Rolling Stones and Beatles vinyl. It still hurts'

July 29, 2014

Interviews by Dave Simpson

Jacques Heemskerk, research scientist, Philips

In the 1970s, Philips felt that the vinyl disc was coming to the end of its lifetime, because it was cumbersome, dusty and scratchy. In the US, the music market had been completely taken over by the cassette tape, but they were mostly used in cars and were awful quality. So the idea was to come up with a small disc that would be digital, not analogue, for better sound.

Over at Sony, our competitors were also looking at creating a new kind of audio disc. Because both companies had seen what had happened in video - where rival VHS and Betamax formats held each other back - we agreed to develop a standard disc together.

At first, there was mistrust. But as soon as you start talking, you realise the other team have the same problems and experiences. We had two years of meetings before settling on a 12cm disc of polycarbonate [plastic], with a reflective layer holding data readable by laser beam. It would take up to 74 minutes of music - because the president of Sony wanted to be able to listen to Beethoven's 9th symphony without interruption. When we finally agreed, in 1980, the technical specifications were written in the secret "Red Book". Then we had a big party.

We developed the discs and the players at the same time, then licensed the technology to other companies to make their own. Once we convinced Panasonic, all the others followed. The first player cost $1,000 - a lot of money in 1982 - but after a couple of years the price started to come down.

We needed to do a lot of advertising and knew pop music would be the largest market, but we couldn't start with anything extreme, like punk. So we made a deal with Dire Straits to promote it: their music was all put on CD, and they appeared in posters and advertisements. When Brothers in Arms became the first million-selling compact disc, we knew we'd underestimated how quickly it would become the dominant format.

When CDs first came in, I was decorating my house. So I decided to get rid of all my vinyl albums and get my old Rolling Stones and Beatles records on CD. It still hurts. Even though I worked on the CD, I'm not sure people will have the same warm, emotional feeling towards them as I did with the vinyl album, with the beautiful 12in artwork.

Jean Schleipen, research scientist, Philips

I joined Philips in the early 90s with a PhD in physics. By 1999, the CD had become the established format and developed into DVD, which had been another revolution and superseded video. DVDs were smaller and better quality, and you didn't have to mess about fast-forwarding tapes.

So my role was to make the next leap into Blu-ray. From a technology point of view, CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray discs are much the same - a digitally encrypted optical disc is read by a laser beam - but going from one generation to the other involved 10 years of research and hundreds of engineers. The main advantage of Blu-ray over DVD is storage capacity. On a DVD, you cannot record or play a high definition (HD) movie, because there's too much information. So we needed a disc that could fit it all in.

Of course, once we'd cracked this, the internet improved beyond recognition. Now, if you want to watch a movie, you stream it from the internet. So after all those years of research, we suddenly stopped. Blu-ray is the last in the family, so I've been sacked. I'm joking. I'm working on something completely different.

Interviews by Dave Simpson


Small wonder . . . (above) the new format dazzles 80s consumers; (below) Dire Straits' CD promotion for Philips

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Source: Guardian (UK)

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