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Music

An Appreciation of the Compact Disc

In between becoming ascendant and outmoded, compact discs had a complicated integration into the mainstream. Still, it’s almost impossible to explain to the uninitiated how unbelievably great compact discs sounded in the mid-’80s.

Depending on how old you are, the iconic image above may mean different things. If you are young enough that digital files have been the primary way you've experienced music as long as you can remember, the picture of a compact disc is like an old car: a relic, a nostalgic reminder of a product that has long since been improved upon. If you are old enough to remember using CDs, you also remember having to pay for them, so their increasing disappearance from the cultural landscape is a welcome development. If you are mature enough, perhaps you already owned enough albums that you never wanted (or needed) to jump on the technological bandwagon. If you are old enough and/or an ultra-audiophile who disdained these discs from the get-go (which means you are an old fart, a pretentious Luddite, or Neil Young), you probably saved a ton of money the last few decades, but then again, you probably wasted it on ludicrously expensive gadgets and hundred dollar speaker cables that are actually worth the pocket change it costs to produce them.

If, on the other hand, you are a guy like me, who got his first job right around the time compact discs starting appearing in record stores (note: there were once things called record stores and they sold things called records), you can recall the way the light bounced off that sucker like the star that once guided the wise men through the desert. I'm not ashamed to admit that I acquired my first compact disc even before I had a machine to play it in; I knew I was getting one so I began stocking up as quickly as possible. And after listening to records (good), cassettes (bad), and 8-tracks (ugly), I looked at this pristine new invention the way the apes look at the monolith at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Here's the thing: LPs are somewhat back in vogue now and, to be certain, many people never stopped listening to them in the first place. But people who remember too fondly by half how the system used to work are either in denial or never lived through the era in the first place. Listen: you hear that snap, crackle, and pop? That was an inexorable part of the experience. Yes, if you took good care of your albums, they lasted much longer, but everyone can recall how infuriating (and inevitable) it was to open up a brand new record, slip the needle into the groove and have it skip, usually on the one song that made the album worth buying in the first place. As a result, I am positive I'm not the only person who got in the habit of immediately copying each new LP onto a blank cassette in order to capture and preserve that (hopefully) flawless first-listen. But then, what was the point of doing this when you could not (would not) listen to the actual album after a while? In other words: the system was flawed and it used to be a dorky dream out of some sci-fi fantasy to imagine music being permanently unmarred for a million listens.

Enter the compact disc.

(Intermission: this reminiscence is prompted by news that Norio Ohga, the former Sony CEO and the man credited with helping create and develop the mini disc, has passed away at age 81. There is an interesting summary of his life from AP.)

In between becoming ascendant and outmoded, compact discs had a complicated integration into the mainstream. Yes, from the get-go there were legitimate gripes about the fidelity and the authenticity, and the mere notion of digital numbers replacing analog wax made many purists pause. I had records, I loved records, and I sincerely wish I still had all my old records (most of which I gave away or sold to used record stores for pennies on the dollar in order to acquire compact discs), but I can't -- and wouldn't -- change the way things unfolded. It's almost impossible to explain to the uninitiated how unbelievably good compact discs sounded in the mid-'80s. It wasn't just that they sounded the same with each subsequent listen, they sounded better than the LPs. (The argument, which still rages on in coffee shops and online chat groups and at High-End Audio conferences, is one that can never be reconciled: anyone who claims they can unfailingly tell the difference between an album and a vintage AAD compact disc -- e.g. a disc that digitized an original analog recording, which was the case with virtually all music until the technology caught up with the creation of "new" music -- is being recalcitrant or is the same type of person who insists their $300 gold-wired speaker cables make a discernible difference in the quality of the sound pumping through their "listening room". In other words, it's an argument that means so much to some people because it means so little to everyone else.)

Records did (and do) have that inimitable warmth, and a certain something that can't be duplicated, but it's folly to suggest or insist that contemporary music did not sound better digitally. For instance, I had albums by the Police and those first discs (even though they, like virtually all first pressings throughout the '80s and into the '90s, have been radically improved upon since) sounded better than the albums. A lot better. There was more clarity, you could hear all the instruments, and you could definitely discern subtle sounds that were buried into the mix or lost in the ether of fidelity and technology.

Perhaps more importantly, and this is something the younger generation can never fully fathom and therefore never appreciate, is that content was not ubiquitous or readily available back in the bad old days. And I don't just mean it wasn't all free for all plugged-in pirates; I mean a great deal of it did not exist. Many albums from the glorious era of prog-rock had not been reissued or had fallen out of favor and, in some cases, had never been in favor in the first place. As such, particularly during a time when MTV, hair metal, and synthpop reigned supreme (dark days, my wet-behind-the-ears-brethren), "classic rock" was not just considered music made by dinosaurs; it was a dinosaur -- it was extinct.

There is no doubt in my mind that the proliferation of compact discs led to the resurgence of sales for old music, which prompted the classic rock radio formats that became a huge deal toward the end of the '80s.

It would be near impossible for anyone who didn't live through those days to imagine a world when you waited for anything: iPods and online access have made everything that has ever happened available, immediately. Back then, waiting for certain Rush, Yes, King Crimson, and especially Jethro Tull albums to get their digital reincarnation was like patiently awaiting Moses to deliver a new sonic commandment every other week. The upside of this, of course, was that it was still a time when you had time (you had no choice) to savor and spend time with a new purchase, and by the time you'd (temporarily) exhausted your enthusiasm, you had ample funds to get the next installment. This was also, as many will remember, a time before information itself was a free 24/7 proposition. As such, each trip to the record store was loaded with possibility: you never knew what might have been released--including albums by bands like Genesis and Pink Floyd -- that you never even knew existed. And, it should go without saying that the prospect of upgrading scratchy vinyl (or tape-recorded) copies of Beatles, Stones, Doors, Zeppelin, and Hendrix albums was something slightly beyond orgasmic.

And so, it was not just a matter of how it all sounded, it was also a matter of discovering all this new (old) stuff. In this regard, I reckon I was the right age at the right place at the right time, and my obsession with all types of music coincided with this giant technological leap. If compact discs made more classic rock available, it's simply not possible to convey what a godsend this format was for jazz and reggae, not to mention classical. If you think early Pink Floyd albums were obscure (and they were), getting out-of-print Blue Note jazz discs or any reggae by anyone other than Bob Marley was a pipe dream (literally). While I may have saved tens of thousands of dollars had all this music been available by some magical computer -- which is what it would have seemed like then, and still, to a certain extent, seems like now -- I can't say I regret the inexpressible thrill of discovery and the delight of entire eras of music suddenly within my grasp. For me, the pleasure was never in doubt, the rewards indescribable, and at the end of the day, this was the best investment I've ever made. Every single disc I ever bought (except of course the ones that were borrowed or stolen) I still own, they all play, and they still sound impeccable.

My world, in sum, existed with albums and compact discs and then digital files. It still does, and while it's strange to imagine, I'll welcome the next technological advancement, if there is one. In the final analysis, all of these toys and innovations are delivery devices for the purest form of expression mankind has been capable of perfecting.

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