What determined the playing length of an audio CD?

by on April 3, 2011 at 12:18 pm in Books, History, Law, Music | Permalink

Here is one account:

Sony had initially preferred a smaller diameter, but soon after the beginning of the collaboration started to argue vehemently for a diameter of 120mm.  Sony’s argument was simple and compelling: to maximize the consumer appear of a switch to the new technology, any major piece of music needed to fit on a single CD…Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was quickly identified as the point of reference — according to some accounts, it was the favorite piece of Sony vice-president Norio Ohga’s wife.  And thorough research identified the 1951 recording by the orchestra of the Bayreuther Festspiele under Wilhelm Furtwängler, at seventy-four minutes, as the slowest performance of the Ninth Symphony on record.  And so, according to the official history, Sony and Philips top executives agreed in their May 1980 meeting that “a diameter of 12 centimeters was required for this playing time.”

That is from the new and interesting book by Tim Büthe and Walter Mattli, The New Global Rulers: The Privatization of Regulation in the World Economy, the book’s home page, with free chapter one, is here.  Speaking of which, Garth Saloner is another very good South African economist and he is now Dean of Stanford Business School.

MSG April 3, 2011 at 1:02 pm

I remember reading this story in a news magazine not many years after the event, and believed it then. But after hearing it fondly and glibly repeated in later years, I began to wonder if it is a corporate legend, like the Chevy “no va” story.

Marc April 3, 2011 at 1:10 pm

And the hole of an audio CD is exactly the size of the Dutch old dime (10ct/”Dubbeltje”). A Dutch Philips engineer put a Dubbeltje on the table and that was to be the size of the hole, fastest design decision they made.

Source in Dutch: http://www.trouw.nl/tr/nl/4324/Nieuws/article/detail/1135495/2009/03/06/Philips-geeerd-voor-uitvinding-compact-disc.dhtml

aethel April 3, 2011 at 1:44 pm

consumer “appear”? ray cyst …

Roy April 3, 2011 at 1:55 pm

This is an old story, often linked to von Karajan, I remember hearing it in the 80s


Richard A. April 3, 2011 at 2:42 pm

A bit of trivia–the second movement to Beethoven’s 9th was used as title music for NBC’s “The Huntley-Brinkley Report”, and according to Wikipedia–
was “from the 1952 studio recording with Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra.”

mulp April 3, 2011 at 5:52 pm

Seems to me the authors failed to make a clear statement of the problem that motivated their work and the book. As they write in their first chapter:

“The institutional structure for setting product standards in the United States is characterized by institutional fragmentation and contestation among competing standard-setters. In Europe, by contrast, the domestic standard-setting institutions are characterized by a high degree of coordination and organizational hierarchy. … We find compelling evidence that high complementarity between standard-setting institutions at the domestic level and the institutional structure of standardization at the international level favors European over American interests in ISO and IEC. By contrast, the relatively poor it between U.S. domestic institutions and the international structure puts American firms at a disadvantage.”

In my view, the 80s marks the turning point in US holding onto its dominance in global standards setting. This was a political decision, based in large part on the idea of “American exceptionalism.” Reagan and his supporters weren’t going to let the Europeans dictate to the US how to make products or do business.

While Asia then and now often rejects outside standards for political reasons, their industrial policy and export policy overrides their political conservatism and nationalism.

And let’s be clear, private institutions have been setting standards for centuries, but the effectiveness of these standards in global trade have depended on government policies to support unified national standards setting and spreading those standards globally. The standards for railroads are primarily private, but they matter for international trade, as well as national trade, so government has a strong interest in ensuring trains can run not only border to border, but also across borders. Until the US and British government forced the industry to standardize on nuts and bolts, you needed to buy many of them from the manufacturer who sold you the machine that needed them – that created severe problems in WWI when war disrupted supply lines and an English bolt didn’t fit an American nut.

While American firms must work in metric and use metric nuts and bolts to serve the global market, Reagan and supporters fought to keep the US on “English” standards based on the view that the world would be forced to adopt US standards. The world prevailed, the world sees global standards as part of their competitive edge, and most of the time the US is fighting the world.

Global networking is an exception, but that happened in total contradiction to Reagan’s “government is the problem, not the solution” ideology. US corporations couldn’t agree to implement the global networking standards, and the opposition to mandating ISO OSI networking products for all Federal computer products was fierce, so the US was losing leadership. So, the “Atari Congressmen” like Al Gore, pushed to have the government dictate the government designed network: the Internet. That was a reversal of policy from the 80s – the government picked the winner, the government solution became the standard for not just the US, but also the world.

And note that the CD was defined by private corporations in multiple nations for a global market with the recognition it needed to be a global standard. But nothing about the process was different than the one the US government forced on the Wright brothers and others so the US would reclaim the lead in aircraft design on licensing, and like the process for defining the standards for nuts and bolts, both about a century ago.

And the CD fit in the same form factor as the standard 5-1/4″ disk drive, which was no coincidence because CD’s for data distribution was part of the early requirements.

Andrew April 4, 2011 at 5:18 am

“private institutions have been setting standards for centuries, but the effectiveness of these standards in global trade have depended on government policies to support unified national standards setting and spreading those standards globally.”

And what does the power and motivation of the government policies depend on?

Rich Berger April 4, 2011 at 5:39 am

And the CD fit in the same form factor as the standard 5-1/4″ disk drive, which was no coincidence because CD’s for data distribution was part of the early requirements.

BS, totally. Software was coming on floppies long after the CD was invented. I remember getting Paradox and Access in the early 90′s on 3.5″ floppies.

The rest of your post – the usual unsupported “Reagan ruined everything” spiel.

Dan Weber April 4, 2011 at 11:04 am

Just looking at that specific point,

I don’t see how “software continued to be distributed on floppies long after the CD” in any way disproves “a design goal of the CD was that it be able to handle data for computers.”

Rich Berger April 4, 2011 at 11:22 am

I don’t believe that computers with CD drives were common until the mid-1990′s not just that software was still being released on floppies. According to my quick research, the CD was first mass produced by Phillips in 1980. If they took the use of CD’s for data distribution into account in 1980, the standard designers were far seeing indeed, without government guidance.

I found this on wikipeda “However, in 1985 the Yellow Book CD-ROM standard was established by Sony and Philips, which defined a non-volatile optical data computer data storage medium using the same physical format as audio Compact Discs, readable by a computer with a CD-ROM drive.” Seems like this occurred well after the size was set.

Dave Tufte April 3, 2011 at 6:47 pm

Oh my …

I’m stunned that this bit of trivia was new to Tyler. Wonders never cease.

AndrewUK April 5, 2011 at 7:52 am

I know! I thought everyone had heard this.
Of course, haven’t CDs moved on a bit, and found a little extra room? I have one that lasts 80min exactly, which I heard is the absolute limit.

Phil Koop April 4, 2011 at 9:30 am

The Karl Boehm version still didn’t fit …

Dean Sayers April 4, 2011 at 10:08 am

The Furtwängler recordings really are good and worth looking into if you like Beethoven. Who knew they were that significant though?

Thomas Chambers April 4, 2011 at 10:52 am

History repeats itself: back in the 1950s the playing length of the 33 rpm long-playing record was in part determined by the desire to fit Beethoven’s third symphony (the ‘Eroica’) on one disc.

James Oswald April 4, 2011 at 11:05 am

A good decision if I do say so myself.

Stephan Kinsella April 4, 2011 at 12:38 pm

Nice post–I mention it in my Mises blog post Where did the patent term come from?

Dave Tufte April 5, 2011 at 8:22 pm

AndrewUK: I think they get to the 80 minute limit by actually recording is an an ROM instead of as an audio CD.

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