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Beethoven’s effect on the CD – Apparently. Allegedly. Supposedly.

This week’s Throwback Tech Thursday is a complete long shot. It’s a real doozy, and I found it while going through this website. July 29, 1951. This is the date when Beethoven would affect the tech world. We know he wasn’t around then, but on that date, Wilhelm Furtwängler conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony during the Bayreuther Festspiele. This event was recorded by EMI. Little did those musicians know, that their version of Symphony no.9, which lasted 74 minutes, is why all CDs had a capacity of 74 minutes. MIND BLOWN.

My mind was blown until I did a little more research into this story. While I can’t say this for certain, it would appear that my opening paragraph may be a bit of an urban myth. However, there’s no denying that it’s a nice story.

Beethoven’s Symphony no.9

Gizmodo’s Jesus Diaz tells us that in 1979 Sony and Philips were working on creating the “first audio CD standard.” The story goes that Philips wanted an 11.5-centimetre diameter, whereas Sony wanted 10-centimetres. The physical size of the CD plays its part in how much audio can be played. However, Sony’s project overseer was Norio Ohga (who later became president of Sony in 1982) and he demanded that a CD format MUST be able to hold the entirety of Beethoven’s Symphony no.9. The reason for this according to Sony was that his wife “decided that she wanted the composer’s Ninth Symphony to fit on a CD.”

Apparently. Allegedly. Supposedly.

So, with that in mind, the team went and found the longest recording they could find of Symphony no.9. The version they found? Wilhelm Furtwängler’s offering from Bayreuther Festspiele. It was 74 minutes long. Which is why Philips & Sony opted for a 12-centimetre disc. Apparently. Allegedly. Supposedly. Wouldn’t it be nice-dly if that were true-dly?[“64579” ]

Kornelis Antonie “Kees” Schouhamer Immink

You see, there were others involved in creating the format standard of the CD. Meet the brilliant Kees Immink. The coder that helped put it all together. Kornelis Antonie “Kees” Schouhamer Immink, a Dutch scientist & engineer who had a massive amount of input into the creation of the CD, the DVD and Blu-Ray Disc. In fact, while working on the CD, Immink devised an encoding system called Eight-to-fourteen modulation, which improved CD running times by 30%.

Immink’s role in the Philips’ team was “to do measurements of the two competing systems, the quality, how they coped with scratches, how they coped with imperfections of the disc.”

Less romantic than the pen of a public relations guru

Kees refutes the Symphony no.9 story in an article he wrote called “Shannon, Beethoven, and the Compact Disc.” According to Immink, “everyday practice is less romantic than the pen of a public relations guru.” Mr Immink explains in his article that the 12-centimetre CD was ultimately chosen so that neither Sony nor Philips would have market advantages over each other on account of the fact that neither manufacturer had previously built discs of that size. Kees Immink was awarded the IEEE Medal of Honour in 2017.

While the Beethoven no.9 story adds a certain romanticism to the CD story, it’s hard not to see where Mr Immink is coming from. Especially after reading the last pages of this article, where he points out the reasons why. His conclusion on the point? “Therefore, rather sadly, Mrs Ohga’s favourite Ninth by Furtwängler could not be recorded in full on a single CD till 1988 (EMI 7698012), when alternative digital transport media became available. On a slightly different note, Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland featuring a playing time of 75 minutes was originally released as a 2 CD set in the early 1980s, but has been on a single CD since 1997.”

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