Beethoven: Father of the Compact Disc

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It is often quite remarkable the ways things happen, especially when they involve a deaf German. A case in point: Today, December 16, happens to be Beethoven’s birthday.

I feel it is only right that on such an auspicious occasion, I post an article relating how Lugwig Von, as my droogs would call him, had a profound influence on the path modern technology would follow more then 200 years later. It seems without his tendency to be musically verbose, CDs might be far different today. Read on to find out why….and Happy Birthday, Herr Beethoven.

The following is reposted from Wired.

Dec. 16, 1770: Beethoven’s Birth in Bonn Leads to Longer CDs

By Randy Alfred

1770: Ludwig van Beethoven is born to a family of musicians in Bonn, Germany. His Ninth Symphony will play a role in determining the length of the music CD. Exactly how big a role is a matter of debate.

Had it not been for his untimely death in 1827, the immortal Ludwig van would today have been 238 years old and likely immortal in more ways than one.

No record has been found listing Beethoven’s exact birth date. What we know is that he was baptized Dec. 17 in a time and place when infants were usually baptized the day after their birth.

Beethoven revolutionized orchestral music, leading it out of the Classical and into the Romantic era. His stormy personality molded much of his music, as did his progressive, democratic politics and his personal triumph over the deafness that struck him in midlife.

Among such career-crowning masterpieces as the Missa Solemnis and the late string quartets, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony ("Choral") with its famous "Ode to Joy" finale has also achieved widespread popularity. And therein hangs a tale.

The Ninth Symphony runs over an hour, even when performed at breakneck tempo. In the era of LP records, it generally took three sides — and hence had to be coupled with one of Beethoven’s shorter symphonies, like the Eighth, to complete a two-disc set.

When Sony and Philips were negotiating a single industry standard for the audio compact disc in 1979 and 1980, the story is that one of four people (or some combination of them) insisted that a single CD be able to hold all of the Ninth Symphony. The four were the wife of Sony chairman Akio Morita, speaking up for her favorite piece of music; Sony VP Norio Ohga (the company’s pointman on the CD), recalling his studies at the Berlin Conservatory; Mrs. Ohga (her favorite piece, too); and conductor Herbert von Karajan, who recorded for Philips subsidiary Polygram and whose Berlin Philharmonic recording of the Ninth clocked in at 66 minutes.

Further research to find the longest recorded performance came up with a mono recording conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler at the Bayreuth Festival in 1951. That playing went a langorous 74 minutes.

But Philips engineer Kees A. Schouhamer Immink, who participated in the technical negotiations between his firm and Sony, says that’s only part of the story. Writing in the December 2007 issue of the IEEE Information Theory Newsletter, he notes that, yes, there was pressure from execs to fit the Ninth on a single CD, but commercial and technical considerations played a bigger part. For one thing, Sony knew that Philips already had a factory capable of producing 115mm CDs and Sony wanted to change to a 120mm standard to erase Philips’ headstart in manufacturing.

Also, as negotiations neared an end, Philips engineers made a technical breakthrough that, at the data compression then planned, would have allowed 97 minutes of music to fit on a 120mm CD, or 75 minutes on a smaller disc. That, Immink writes, was never seriously considered, because the higher-ups had already decided on 120mm, for reasons perhaps competitive and perhaps Beethovenian.

Instead, engineers increased the track pitch from 1.45 µm to 1.6 µm, and the bit length from 0.5 to 0.6 µm. The 30 percent lower information density made production easier and playback more reliable. Maximum laying length was set at 74 minutes, 33 seconds.

That was theoretically long enough for Furtwängler’s Ninth, but in reality it wasn’t. The real limit for CDs started at 72 minutes, the maximum length of the U-Matic videotapes then used for audio masters. So the Furtwängler performance couldn’t be released on a single CD until new digital audio technology made that possible in 1997.

Links to the simplified Philips version that is often cited for the Beethoven story go to a Not Found message: "We are sorry, the page you are looking for has a new URL or is no longer available." That, despite the fact that the Philips website’s own search function gives the same URL with this tantalizing summary:

Optical Recording – Beethoven more important than technology
It was not always the technical arguments that won when choices had to be made. For example, the playing time of the CD was determined posthumously by Ludwig van Beethoven.

The Philips PR department in the Netherlands didn’t answer our e-mail query on whether the page has been made unavailable because it’s perhaps only corporate lore or urban legend.

The rumor busters and urban-legend experts at Snopes.com call the Beethoven CD story neither true nor false, but "undetermined."

So, there’s a hole in our story, just like the hole in the middle of the CD. The diameter of that hole, the Philips website takes the trouble to point out, matches the size of an old Dutch coin. So, even if the Japanese prevailed on the diameter of the disc, the Dutch called the shots on the hole.

In any event: Happy Birthday, Ludwig. And to his fans everywhere, be sure to take time to listen to some of his music today, whether it’s on CD, an old LP, an even older 78, FM, satellite radio, all-Beethoven web radio or an MP3-loaded iPod. The flame still shines.

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