This Week in Tech: Dec. 16, 1770: Beethovens Birth in Bonn Leads to Longer CDs
By Randy Alfred December 16, 2010 | 7:00 am
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 240 years old and likely immortal in more ways than one.
No record has been found listing Beethovens 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, Beethovens 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 Beethovens 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 companys point man 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 Furtwngler at the Bayreuth Festival in 1951. That playing went a languorous 74 minutes.
But Philips engineer Kees A. Schouhamer Immink, who participated in the technical negotiations between his firm and Sony, says thats 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 head start 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 m to 1.6 m, and the bit length from 0.5 to 0.6 m. The 30 percent lower information density made production easier and playback more reliable. Maximum playing length was set at 74 minutes, 33 seconds.
That was theoretically long enough for Furtwnglers Ninth, but in reality it wasnt. The real limit for CDs started at 72 minutes, the maximum length of the U-Matic videotapes then used for audio masters. So the Furtwngler performance couldnt be released on a single CD until new digital audio technology made that possible in 1997.
A Philips webpage is often cited for the more-musical, less-technical version of the CD story. Its is no longer available on the Philips site, but the Internet Archives Wayback Machine still archives it. The Phillips site now has this brief mention:
The original target storage capacity for a CD was one hour of audio content, and a disc diameter of 115 mm was sufficient for this, however both parties [Sony and Philips] extended the capacity to 74 minutes to accommodate a complete performance of Beethovens 9th Symphony.
The rumor busters and urban-legend experts at Snopes.com call the Beethoven CD story neither true nor false, but undetermined.
So, theres a hole in our story, just like the hole in the middle of the CD. The diameter of that hole, the Philips website points 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 its on CD, an old LP, an even older 78, FM, satellite radio, all-Beethoven web radio or an MP3-loaded iPlayer of some kind. The flame still shines.
Image courtesy Library of Congress
An earlier version of this article appeared on Wired.com Dec. 16, 2008.