Great lengths

Strange as it may seem, the first thing I do after I plonk a new CD into the player is check the total time. If the display reads anything near the 60 minute mark, I’m happy. When the music kicks in, the smile mightn’t last too long.

The amount of music on CD is a throw back to when I had a sizeable collection of records made out of plastic. We preferred to call it vinyl. It’s hard to remember any record which lasted longer than 45 mins. Anything over that and it was double album territory. Or the odd triple with the gatefold sleeve.

It turns out that LPs were not as long-playing as they could have been. Any new release clocking in at 35mins could have gone on for another 25, though in some cases even the 35mins couldn’t pass quick enough.

A new record from a favoured band was always anticipated with optimism. Especially if the last album was good or the NME or Melody Maker gave it the thumbs up. But handing over hard-earned cash for a miserly half-an-hour was a rip-off. If we went to the cinema and the lion roared after 30 mins, he wouldn’t have been alone.

I’m still obsessed with time and the amount of it I’m getting on new and expensive CDs. The clock has gone up slightly from the vinyl days but the occasional one displays 45 mins and I seethe.

CDs can hold exactly 74 minutes of music or whatever you’re having yourself. If artists are being a little shy on the music, then it’s no wonder people are a little shy in paying for CDs. Full price is not the full story.

And the tale of how CDs came to hold exactly 74 minutes isn’t either, revealing in its own way the machinations and black arts the music and entertainment industry has never been able to shake off. Prepared to use the revered name of Ludwig Van Beethoven to achieve its nefarious ends.

Let me take you back to 1980 and the misty dawn of the digital revolution. Two entertainment giants – Philips and Sony – have agreed to pool their resources to develop a new way of distributing music.

Philips is riding high on the soaring success of the compact cassette and Sony is deliriously dovetailing with the Walkman. Why wouldn’t that same graft continue to bear fruit?

The engineers from both camps met at two-monthly meetings alternating between Eindhoven and Tokyo. The minutes of the first meeting reveal both companies’ starting positions. The physical size of the planned CD was critical from the off.

Philips wanted a 11.5cm disc, based on the size of its compact cassette. This size could hold an hour of music. Sony’s initial proposal was for a smaller, 10cm disc. A lot of the arguments between the two companies centred on the technology and what standard was to be agreed. Dealing with lasers at this level was problematic but solvable.

By the time of the fifth engineers meeting in Eindhoven during May 1980, agreement had finally been reached on the size. Both companies put aside their preferred option and settled on a 12cm disc. This would provide for a playing time of 74mins. So what changed their minds?

According to the research section of Philip’s website: “The playing time was determined posthumously by Beethoven”.

Sony vice-president, Norio Ohga, decided he wanted the composer’s Ninth Symphony to fit on a CD. It was his wife’s favourite piece of music.

The Berlin Philharmonic version of the Ninth, conducted by Herbert von Karajan, kicked in at 66 minutes. Philips assured Sony that their disc could accommodate the extra six minutes.

Then, according to Philips, a check was made to find out the length of other recordings of the Ninth and lo and behold one was found which was 74 minutes long. “This therefore became the playing time of a CD. A diameter of 12cm was required for this playing time”.

I spoke to one of the engineers who was intimately involved in developing the CD.

Dr Kees Schouhamer Immink is now an adjunct professor at the Institute of Experimental Mathematics in Essen, Germany. He is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the National University of Singapore and an Academician of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences.

He has little time for the Beethoven bunkum. “At that time Philips owned Polygram, one of the world’s largest distributors of music. Polygram had set up a large experimental CD disc plant in Hanover, Germany, which could produce huge amounts of CDs having, of course, a diameter of 11.5cm. Sony did not yet have such a facility.

“If Sony had agreed on the 11.5cm disc, Philips would have had a significant competitive edge in the market. Sony was aware of that, did not like it, and something had to be done.

“The long-playing time of Beethoven’s Ninth imposed by Ohga was used to push Philips to accept 12cm, so that Philips’ Polygram would lose its edge on disc fabrication.

“It was all about the money and competition in the market, and not about Ohga’s great passion for music.”

Somehow, I always knew that particular score.

© Fergus Cassidy