Monday, March 9, 2009

CD and digital music reminiscing

Gizmodo remarked on the (sort-of) 30th anniversary of the CD format, prompting the following reverie (and also more begging for a downloadable "golden master tape" format):

a) There were no consumer cd burners available until something like a 15 years later.

You're right. I worked at a PC multimedia chip company in 1994. We had a $3000 2X Yamaha CD burner to make CDs of software releases and developer kits. If you so much as looked at it funny you'd get an under-run and the CD-R was worthless. It could duplicate a music CD, but with the blanks costing $10, why would you? Sony and Philips must have known bootleggers would eventually copy CDs, but as with vinyl and cassettes, you send cops with sledgehammers after that crime.

To show off our chip's audio quality we wanted to get a high-quality audio sample. This was in the day when 8-bit sound cards were the norm, the sample.WAV files in Windows played "boinnggg" noises, and at best CD-ROM drives had an analog audio connection to the sound card. So we rigged up a SCSI CD-ROM drive to an Adaptec controller, used special ASPI commands to read the 1s and 0s off a music CD, and converted them to a .WAV file that was the same song. There was no name for this process, this was seven years before Apple's "Rip. Mix. Burn" ads and 4 years before the first MP3 players. The resulting file was an unimaginable 17MB long.

I knew at the time it was going to be a huge deal. Not that we had made a copy — you could already do that with cassettes. The original song was divorced from any kind of media, turning it into a computer file that could be duplicated and manipulated at will. Eventually, a computer with a huge hard drive could be a jukebox. Many companies realized this sea change, they predicted and eventually came out with a hard drive music player for the trunk of your car, a hard drive music player for your home, etc. (I don't recall anyone predicting the dominant model of carrying your music collection with you in an iPod.)

This "home copying" to a computer didn't feel like piracy, any more than making cassettes of your albums for your car was piracy. Napster arrived 5 years later in 1999. Massive piracy required the confluence of music CD ripping, the Internet, and faster-than-dialup connectivity plus MP3 compression. The whole must have been completely unimaginable to Sony and Philips engineers in 1979.

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