Perfect Sound Forever Part 3: Heading for a Heartbreak
Welcome back to the secret history of the Compact Disc.When we last left our story the cocktail glasses were clinking in Major Label Land. The white heat and fresh meat of new ways for punters to spend cash, namely videos and video games combined with the toxic residue left from the disco bubble had left the big boys on the ropes. But coming over the horizon like an MOR moneyshot was a silvery new dawn.It was nearly two years after the Bee Gee's "Living Eyes" had infested Tomorrow's World that the first players appeared. This dire demonstration had opened the minds and wallets of record retailers, electronics stores and richer people everywhere.Sony's CDP-101 and the top loading Philips CD100 appeared in 1982. Built with great care and love. Ultra high grade components and specifications to give a hifi buff plenty to brag about were obvious.After all, lots of "better than what you have" sonic kit had come and gone like the fake sighs of a midmarket escort, so there was a lot of convincing to do. Novelties like linear tracking turntables,, oversold formats like 8-track and exotic forms of tape had left a salty taste with the hip. Endorsements like this lovely infomercial featuring the remains of the Alan Parsons Project you must feel to understand were much needed.Slingers of the first kit were clear about the magic process of converting pits on silver into 0s and 1s into the analogue signals that all sound must become at some stage. The motors spinning the discs kept them stable and the Digital to Analogue converter (DAC) mashed the digital data back into music. "Oversampling" ensured that every bit and byte was rechecked to eliminate errors caused by rage dust, finger markets or yuppie man milk.In today's money, the first players were around £1,400 in today's crap cash.And one thing the big boys could look at with pride was the impact the new format had on the bottom line. You could buy (and sometimes rediscover) your collection again and the majors mined the big stadium fillers standbuys to make the nostrils merge. It was the dawn of a happy sexy sweaty time that lasted until 1999.You owe it to yourself to read the great Stereophile magazine review of the first Sony player. J Gordon Holt wrote a hauntingly precinct piece of a standard we just don't see in today's journalism. Read it all, but here is a highlight:"But the question now is, How does it sound? Is it really worth all the fuss and ruckus? I will now frustrate everybody by waffling. The truth is, I really don't know, because I've only listened to the two discs sent with the unit, and none of the selections were recorded to audiophile standards. All were multi-miked and sounded as if the middle range had been equalized out of them, many were poorly mixed, and all had that distinct haze around the instruments which suggests more distortion some where along the line than audiophile recording companies will tolerate.Apart from all that, though, some aspects of the sound I heard are quite unlike what most of us are familiar with from analog sources. The most immediately noticeable characteristics of the CD sound are its awesome lack of background noise and its almost unbelievable freedom from strain during the loudest passages. After a while one starts to notice other things. For example, the low end seems to have no bottom limit. In fact I am willing to bet I was hearing stuff at the extreme bottom that the record producers hadn't heard, because some of it was soft but obviously extraneous infrasonic noise�occasional thuds that were totally unrelated to the music. Musical bass was tighter, cleaner and deeper than I have ever before heard from any recording."To give an idea of the magic gravy train, in 1983 a US list price (so basically add a £ for the Blighty Banditry) for a new CD was $21.99. Massive price competition, loads of pressing plants and changes in consumer habits kept even the hottest LPs way, way below that. $5.99 - $7.99 was typical, and few paid close to that in the shops. Tapes, which were far more expensive to make than vinyl, had a similar price range.So the first million selling CD, Dire Straight Down the Ubend's Brothers in Arms, which I once saw soundtracking a grisly guerilla recruitment video from the Yugoslav Civil War, was a major payday. Its real hard to get consumers willing to pay a lot more for anything other than taxes and rubbish public services, so this was a massive coup.And remember, for a long time very very few places could make the product. Tales abound of the major label controlled pressing plants turning away paying customers who wanted to get their album made - they were too busy making sure masterpieces like the first commercially released CD, Billy Joel's unforgivable 52nd Street.The coming of CD gave production, promotion and distribution back to the Majors lock cock and smoking barrel of turd. In the late 70s, loads of local distributors and wholesalers supplied record shops and radio stations alike. They died on a bed of silver discs. The musical agenda, which had never really left the grasp of The Man except for a few moments, was firmly back under corporate control. MTV and Radio Payola also had a big hand in it too, of course.But what of the format itself? Why and how did it become so unloved until the point CDs have fallen in value even faster than crack rocks while they are being smoked? Well, there is price.And there is quality.Some of these early CDs were technically excellent � lovingly transferred from pristine analogue sources to sound almost like a slightly colder LP free from surface noise.But in the true pump and dump style of cynical capitalism, a good many more were technically inept cash ins de-mastered from whothefucknows generation tapes, worn vinyl stampers found on the factory floor or worse.The situation got so shit Sony and Philips often required a disclaimer to be put on the disc jackets - weasel turds that helped to create the lie in consumers minds that analogue sources somehow were to blame:"The music on this compact disc was originally recorded on analog equipment. We have attempted to preserve, as closely as possible, the sound of the original recording. Because of its high resolution, however, the Compact Disc can reveal limitations of the source tape."The audio engineering community created a little guide to how the master was made. If you were around, you'll remember AAD/ADD/DAD meaning how the disc was recorded, mixed and mastered. This was to try and shame labels into doing a better job while telling consumers any arse sounding discs was not the fault of the format itself. A fairer world would require todays totally trashy vinyl reissues to have a similar quality guide so you knew DDA means "stay the fuck away" as you're just buying a big, fragile CD with surface noise not a damn heirloom.While the first CD players, or in fact a lot of the really great ones that coax the most from this loveless revolution, are heirlooms, as will be some discs, the inheritance of the wider music industry, the size of which has collapsed by 40% since 1999 was poisoned by what these little pits of 0 and 1 did to us all.Tune in next week for the stunning, apocalyptic conclusion to the terrible true tale of Perfect Sound Forever.