Digital recording is not a new concept because it has been happening from as early as the 1960s. In the 1970s, the format of the CD was demonstrated by companies, but it was not until the 1980s that commercial compact discs came into the scene. This made it much easier for manufacturers to get into the production business because the format of the CD was standardized.

Laser versus Mechanical Data Reading

The predecessor of the CD, magnetic tape, had its data read mechanically with a sensor which was turning a physical or magnetic pattern into electrical signals. The use of laser technology to read the data on compact discs was thus regarded as a huge leap forward in the area of audio technology. The laser was bounced off the CD and the resulting reflections were read by a sensor which then transmitted an electrical signal.

The first popular music album to be encoded onto a CD was The Visitors released by ABBA in 1981. Quickly after the release of this album, followed Billy Joel’s 52nd Street and thereafter, lots of musical releases were done on a CD. In the 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s, compact discs were in huge demand because of their portability and class.

Error Correction in CDs

From the very early stages of compact disc development, error correction was built in as functionality. This is actually one of the factors that enhanced the popularities of CDs. The ability of a CD player to dampen the effect of a fingerprint or scratch was such a lauded development by consumers. Manufacturers then introduced skip protection into their players which enhanced the listening experience. Skip protection was done by storing a few seconds of music well ahead of time so that playback would continue uninterrupted even during a skip.

In the 1980s, the cost of CD players came down significantly and this gave a major boost to the popularity of CDs. A large number of artists went ahead to convert their back catalogues to the new digital format. Among the outstanding features of the compact disc that endeared it to their audience was the 60 minute playtime together with the high audio quality they offered. The resistance of CDs to interference by external particles or dust quickly made the CD the primary musical medium going into the next decade. Portable and home players were increasingly adopted by listeners.

Improvements to CD Format

CdUnlike the other preceding formats, the CD has largely remained unchanged over time. However, there have been some slight changes to the format although not major. In 1983, experiments were carried out with the aim of developing erasable discs. This is what paved the way for the rewritable compact discs (CD RW) which took the place of the CD-Rs (recordable discs). The cost of the recorders that were able to write on the CDs as well as the CD themselves fell quickly hence making the discs ubiquitous.

In the computer industry, CD ROMs (read only memory CDs) made a debut in 1985. These were later refined and developed into video CDs, photo CDs, DVDs, HDs, super video CDs, and Blu-Ray discs.

The Sony MiniDisc

Sony Mini DiscIn 1992, Sony went ahead to challenge the musical reign of CDs by introducing the MiniDiscs. These were magneto-optical storage media that combined the strengths of both optical CDs and magnetic tapes. By introducing the MiniDiscs, Sony hoped that their smaller size would significantly offer better skip resistance and transcend the utility of the CD. However, the MiniDisc suffered from lack of players and pre-recorded albums. The final nail on the coffin of MiniDiscs came with the fall in the prices of blank CDs and the emergence of MPS music players.

In 2011, Sony stopped the production of MiniDisc Walkman players and in 2013, the production of all other MiniDisc players were discontinued thereby totaling killing off the medium.

The Radio Corporation of America introduced a device in 1958 that changed the consumption of home music; the RCA tape cartridge. Before the tape cartridge came into the scene, people were using the magnetic tape which according to the experience of many was not a realistic option for home use. This is because magnetic tapes were used on reel to reel players which were relatively complicated for consumers compared to record players.

The RCA tape cartridge introduced the possibility of encoding 60 minutes of high quality audio for home listening. However, despite this breakthrough, these tapes disappeared from shelves by 1964 because their sales dipped as a result of hesitance on the part of hi-fi enthusiast and retailers to adopt this technology.

The 8-Track Tape

Screenshot 2016-06-27 at 1.43.08 PMLater, a number of competing systems came into the market in an attempt to gain dominance through magnetic tapes, but this was not possible up until 1964 when the 8-track tape was developed. This tape was an improvement of the 4-track tape done by Bill Lear of Lear Jet Corporation together with representatives from General Motors, Ford, Ampex, RCA, and Motorola. The 4-track tape was also an improvement of the 3-track model.

8-track players were then integrated in cars in the 60s and 70s making this format the most dominant of the day despite its 46 minute play time. Towards the end of the 60s, all cars manufactured by Ford had 8-track players fitted in them as an upgrade and this contributed significantly to the release of hundreds of tapes. The Lear tape dominated the market, but the 8-track tape still remained an iconic music storage method.

Compact Cassette Tapes

In the early 1970s, Phillips came up with compact cassette tapes which had a capacity to carry high fidelity musical content. These tapes rose to domination very fast with the demand in the automobile music market reaching record highs. They were small in size, an attribute that favored them because smaller tape decks in homes and cars were preferred to the large ones. Even solders fighting in Vietnam grow fond of these tape decks because of their size and portability.

When manufacturers started making smaller and more portable tape decks, he Phillips cassette had its place in music cemented. Portable stereos became a common scene as people found them more feasible than those that were in existence during the times when the 8-track was the standard format.

The Impact of the Walkman

In 1979, Sony came up with the Walkman which is considered an innovation more important than the cassette. These gadgets which were in essence tiny portable stereo tape players deepened the acceptance of tapes among the music listening public. They brought a personal touch to music. Originally released as the Stowaway in the UK, the Sound-About in the US and the Freestyle in Sweden, the Walkman changed how people consumed music. They were no longer tied to large home record players or portable tape decks, but rather listeners could easily carry their music along with them irrespective of where they went. Since the first Walkman came with two headphone jacks, you could enjoy music with a friend.

For the first time, cassettes outsold vinyl in 1983 because of the popularity of the Walkman and other devices similar to it that had been developed by manufacturers. With continuous innovation, AM/FM radios came into the scene as well as rechargeable batteries, bass boost, and auto reverse all of which enhanced the utility of the Walkman. To prove that the Walkman name was indeed an iconic development, it is still in use on a range of devices today amongst them cassette players, CD players, and video MP3 players.