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Posted by on Apr 25, 2011 | 0 comments

Norio Ohga, “Father of the CD,” dead at 81

Just a brief note of sound design-y import: MSNBC reports that Norio Ohga, president of Sony in the 80s and early 90s and (nominally) “Father of the Compact Disc” has died of multiple organ failure.  He was 81.

Ohga is generally cited as being the primary industry champion for the Compact Disc-Digital Audio system, the “Red Book” CD or just plain “audio CD” to you and me. It’s to Ohga that most sources attribute the choice of the running time and recording dimensions of the CD, 74 minutes of 44,100 hz (actually 44,056 hz), 16-bit stereo audio; for many years a legend circulated that Herbert von Karajan had suggested the 74 minute running time in order to accommodate his recording of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony “Choral,” but this was always apocryphal and probably invented by an over-aggressive marketer at Phillips, Sony’s partner in the development of the CD.  The CD-R and CD-ROM quickly followed on after the original CD-DA standard in 1980, and the rest is, as they say, history.

Ohga had originally trained as an opera singer, and had been hired by Sony after writing them an angry letter complaining about the quality of their reel-to-reel tape machines in the 1960s; he remained interested in hifi sound his entire life.  He’s also credited with focusing Sony on content creation as much as consumption, using his tenure as Sony CEO to buy Columbia Pictures, CBS Records, and creating Sony’s Playstation unit.

The choice of lossless linear PCM for the CD, a simple and royalty-free format, infinitely reproducible and unencumbered with effective copy protection, was obvious and practical at the time, but would have extraordinary repercussions for us and everyone else in the business of professional recording. Because of the audio format, the CD was the first widespread consumer format that could be used practically by professionals, and it was–for the first time an amateur, at home, with nothing more than a consumer computer and consumer disc recorder, could produce recordings of as high a quality as a professional, and this recording could be played in any middle-class living room or car. The fact that sound could be “ripped” off a CD at full fidelity in non-real time, unlike any tape format, revolutionized what most old-timers tended to think of as the “sound library.”

The ease of ripping also made massive, widespread and decentralized content piracy a reality, and I think it’s not too strong a claim to say that CD ripping initiated the debates we now have over copyright, the rights of copyright holders, the putative right to “mash-up” and repurpose recordings without a proper license, and the practicalities of maintaining a copyright regime in an era where massive amounts of audio can be copied across the globe, at marginal cost, with modest equipment available to any 9-year-old.  I’m sure none of this occurred to Ohga at the time, but in retrospect he stands at the very crux of these developments. What if the CD had been a few years late in development, or Ohga had demanded a two-hour run-time, and so Sony proposed the CD contain ATRACS audio instead of PCM?  Perhaps then the CD would have just been MiniDisk 0.9…

Take a moment and reflect on how different the last 20 years would have been if you’d bought your music on digital cassette, you’d bought all your libraries on DAT, and your only choice for archiving your libraries was a PCM-F1, DASH or ProDigi tape.

For more on the compact disc check out Pohlmann.

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