How we made the compact disc | pop and rock
Jacques Heemskerk, research scientist, Philips
In the 1970s, Philips felt that the vinyl record was nearing the end of its life, as it was bulky, dusty and rough. In the United States, the music market had been completely taken over by cassette tapes, but they were mostly used in cars and were of very poor quality. The idea was therefore to propose a small disc which would be digital, and not analog, for a better sound.
When I arrived, Philips had a project called the long video player (VLP) – later called LaserVision – which put video onto a 12-inch optical disc that looked like a glossy vinyl record. It didn’t fly, but it was a primitive DVD. At the same time, Philips and Sony were looking for new audio discs. Because both companies had seen what happened on video – where rival formats VHS and Betamax held each other up – we agreed to develop a standard disc together.
At first, there was mistrust on both sides. But as soon as you start talking, you realize that the other team has the same issues and experiences. So you see you’re not so different after all.
That said, one problem was that the Japanese often use the word “hai”, which means “yes”, to mean “we understand you” or “we know what you mean”. So very often, when they said ‘hai’, we thought we had reached an agreement, but they just said they understood us. It was very frustrating.
We had two years of meetings and discussions before settling on a 12 cm polycarbonate disc [plastic], with a reflective layer containing laser-readable data. It would take up to 74 minutes of music – because the president of Sony wanted to be able to listen Beethoven’s 9th Symphony without interruption. When we finally agreed in 1980, technical specifications were written in the secret “Red Book”. Then we had a big party.
We have developed the disks and gamers at the same time, then licensed the technology to other companies to manufacture. Once we convinced Panasonic, everyone else followed. The first player cost $1,000 – a lot of money in 1982 – but after a few years the price started to drop.
We had to do a lot of publicity and knew that pop music would be the biggest market, but we couldn’t start with something extreme, like punk. So we made a deal with Dire Straits to promote it: all their music was on CD, and they appeared in posters and advertisements. When Brothers in arms became the first million-selling compact disc, we knew we had underestimated how quickly it would become the dominant format. The vinyl album was thus established, and in the United States it seemed unthinkable that the cassette would disappear. But after that, things changed very, very quickly.
When the CDs arrived, 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 always hurts. Even though I worked on the CD, and it’s technically the best, I’m not sure people will have the same warm and emotional feeling towards them that I had with the vinyl album, with the beautiful cover 12 inches.
Jean Schleipen, research scientist, Philips
I joined Philips in the early 90s with a PhD in physics. By 1999, CD had become the established format and developed into DVD, which had been another revolution and had supplanted video. DVDs were smaller and higher quality, and you didn’t have to worry about fast-forwarding tapes – you could find the place you wanted instantly, which was a game changer.
So my role was to take the next leap in Blu-Ray. Technologically, CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray discs are much the same – a digitally encrypted optical disc is read by a laser beam – but moving from one generation to the next took 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 it contains too much information. So we needed a disc that could hold it all.
Of course, once we fixed that, the internet improved beyond recognition. Now, if you want to watch a movie, you stream it from the internet. So after all these years of research, we abruptly stopped. The Blu-ray is the last of the family, so I was fired. I am joking. I’m working on something completely different.