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Happy Anniversary: Nostalgic Reflections on the CD

In 1890, folklorist and anthropologist J. Walter Fewkes declared that the study of folklore “cannot reach its highest scientific value until some method is adopted by means of which an accurate record of the stories can be obtained and preserved.”[1]  Since then, there have been many revolutions in recording technologies that have transformed our capabilities regarding cultural documentation.  This year marks 30 years for the Compact Disc which had a major impact on digital audio.  While the CD was a minor player in the field recording story, the CD had a massive impact on determining the paradigm for accessibility and use of field recordings, creating the standard for digital recording quality, as well as playing a somewhat troublesome role influencing the curation and digital preservation of field recordings.

In 1928, engineer Harry Nyquist originally put forth the  Nyquist Sampling Theorem eventually used in determining the sampling rate eventually deployed by CD technology (44,100 samples/ second).  In 1982 when the CD emerged commercially, we were told that it would transform the quality of the listening experience.  The digital listening experience wiped away the drone of analog hiss in our heads and added the perception of sharp accuracy  (sometimes too sharp but that is for another blog post).

Although the CD was released in 1982, I, myself, was deeply rooted in my growing audio-cassette collection.  In 1986 I treasured the new car stereo with cassette deck installed in my 1974 Malibu Classic blasting 1980s hits we sang along with while cruising the town.  The audio cassette collection and the accompanying boom box remained a treasured staple in my transition to college, where I met mysterious people  my age from all over the world.  I can’t remember his name but he lived down the hall, he had a stereo system taller than me (which is not saying too much) and he served as the DJ for the entire floor.  I remember the night hanging out in his room flipping through his CD collection in amazement listening to Pink Floyd, flipping from song to song seamlessly without the need for fast forwarding–wait I went too far–back up–wait I went too far–just listen to the last 10 seconds of the song.  Suddenly, my cassette collection seemed inefficient, noisy, low quality and uncool.

Portable Recording: Missed Opportunity

There was one major flaw in the commercial rollout of the CD.  There was no greater gift that you could give in young love than the gift of the customized mix tape. The CD was not a recording medium at that time and so you had to dub individual and heartfelt tracks  that expressed your true feelings  from your Led Zepeelin, Van Morrison and Bon Jovi CDs to the 90-minute audiocassette.  The CD, indeed, transformed the quality of the audio listening experience with regard to commercial music, however, the medium played a relatively minor role in portable recording.  Oral Historians, Folklorists, and Anthropologists mostly continued to press play and record at the same time to record on their Marantz or Sony audiocassette machines.  Although the affordable CD-R drives emerged around 1995, the application in audio recording remained tied to computers and audio CD players.  Those of us who were recording with digital audio in the recording studios and with high end portable digital audio recorders at the time were primarily working with tape-based digital audio media such as DAT and A-DAT. Later on, the affordable price-point and efficiency of the Sony MiniDisc proved too attractive to cash-strapped graduate students and scholars, despite the fact that it was a highly proprietary and compressed recording medium.  By the time that flash memory-based portable digital audio recorders began to dominate, portable CD-R recorders had failed to gain a foothold.  No matter the medium, however, we all strived to uphold “CD Quality” recording standards.

Archival Preservation: Promises, Promises

Far away from the field, the lives of those in the archives losing the analog audio preservation struggle requiring the copy-despite-the-loss-of-a generation compromise, were transformed by the audio CD.  We could now digitize our audio cassettes without loss, burn them to portable CD-Rs, and rest assured that they would then be preserved for 100 years as we were promised.  Estimates then fell from 100 years to about 10, and those of us who used Sharpie pens to label our CD-Rs were horrified to learn of the chemical consequences of such a sin.  We fought back with archival-designed “gold” CD-R media but quickly realized, for large audio collections, that preservation to individual CD-R proved inefficient in the face of affordable server based storage.  Archives who committed to the CD-R as a preservation medium found themselves having to individually re-preserve their CD-R collections by “ripping” the data from an audio CD and saving it as an uncompressed data file.  Additionally, digitization standards and best practices began to surpass the limitations of “CD-Quality” audio (16-bit/44.1 kHz).  Suddenly, the popularity of the CD waned in the archival context.

Legacy: Quality, Access and Preservation

During this time, the music download revolution commenced.  The portability, affordability, efficiency and flexibility of the iPod and the downloaded song proved too much for the static, expensive CD.  Think back to the MTV anthem “Video Killed the Radio Star” from the 1980s and think about how the iPod commercially doomed the CD.  The legacy of the CD is rooted in quality, access and digital preservation.  CD set the standard for resolution and quality of the audio listening experience.  The ubiquity of CD quality music eliminated the cultural tolerance for analog noise for an entire generation.  Now, inferior quality, compressed digital music threatens that legacy.  Proving the power of conditioning on cultural patterns, studies are emerging demonstrating that this generation actually prefers the sound of compressed audio over the pristine accuracy of uncompressed CD-quality audio. [2].  The CD created a new threshold for “on demand” musical experience.  No longer did you have to fast forward for minutes to satisfy your need to listen to your favorite song on an “album” of music.  Although limited by the medium, the notion of instantly navigating to just your favorite songs had a profound effect on driving future expectations of instant access to music.  The archival legacy of the CD, plain and simple, made the digitization of analog audio accessible to even the smallest of institutions.  Although the CD proved imperfect as a storage medium for long-term preservation, it opened the dialogue regarding long term digital preservation of digital audio.  Learning from perceived mistakes of the past, we have moved digital preservation efforts forward in transformative ways.

30 years later, you can still go to music stores and buy the CD, but those sales numbers are dropping dramatically.  I consider myself very snobby when it comes to the audio quality of recordings, but even I, the snob, completely caved in the face of instant access and portability.  Although I still do not “prefer” the sound of compressed music over audio recordings, the notion of “ordering” or going to a store in order to obtain music is becoming a distant memory.  Will this generation emulate previous generations in their nostalgizing of the vinyl LP in reverential esteem for the sound of the CD? Probably not.  Do I treasure my memories of the CD and how it transformed my life and surrounding culture? Absolutely.  Happy anniversary to the CD.  May you hang on like the audiocassette did for years to come and forgive me for my iPod.

[1] Fewkes, J. W. (1890). “A Contribution to Passamaquoddy Folk-Lore.” The Journal of American Folklore 3(11): 257-280.

[2] http://radar.oreilly.com/2009/03/the-sizzling-sound-of-music.html

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