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Chapter10   Studio Recorders Go Digital

Studio Recorders Go Digital


  • The digitization of studio recorders continued with the PCM-3324.
In popularizing the CD, the contribution of Toshitada Doi was also instrumental. He was responsible for introducing digital technology to recording studios throughout the world. With 30 young researchers from the Audio Technology Center, Doi began to develop and commercialize digital audio for professional use.

Following the development of the home-use PCM-1 digital audio processor in 1977, the professional-use PCM-1600, which used the U-Matic machine, was launched in March 1978. As a master recording system for CD software, the PCM-1600 brought digitization to the recording studio. In fact, it was the beautiful sound produced by the PCM-1600 that had moved Maestro Karajan so much. In 1980, Doi visited recording studios and broadcasting stations around the world to facilitate the commercial use of digital audio systems. While doing so, however, he met considerable opposition. Studio engineers were opposed to digital technology. They criticized digital technology on the grounds that it was more expensive than analog technology and that it did not sound as soft or musical. Some people in the recording industry actually formed a group called MAD (Musicians Against Digital), and they declared their position to the Audio Engineering Society (AES).

Amid all this, Doi and his colleagues drew support from various camps. Famous artists like Stevie Wonder and jazz pianist Herbie Hancock were taken by the sound of Sony's digital tape recorders. At an AES Exhibition, these artists sat in the Sony booth while playing back demo tapes they had recorded digitally. By doing so, they gave a tremendous boost to Sony's efforts to promote digital technology. A growing number of musicians began to say, "If Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock say they like digital sound, then perhaps we should consider it ourselves." In the classical music world, Maestro Karajan promoted the quality sound of the CD. These great performers played a major role in popularizing the CD.

Doi and his colleagues used the PCM-1600, two-channel digital recorder to successfully bring digital technology to the world of classical music. They were also successful several years later in developing the PCM-3324, a 24-channel multi-track digital recorder, which gained worldwide acceptance from popular music recording artists.

A Miraculous Reversal in Four Years

The increase in production quantities of CD titles in Japan over the years is proof of the speed with which this technology caught on. At the end of 1984, when the D-50 was launched, the number of CDs produced was a mere one-tenth the number of LPs. By 1986, CD production rose to 45 million per year, far outstripping LP production.

The CD became the principal audio medium just four years after its introduction. By 1988, 100 million CDs were being produced annually, matching the quantity for LPs at their peak. By 1992, CD production tripled to 300 million a year.

An increase in Sony's CD software production capacity was an additional factor contributing to the rapid spread of CDs. In addition to the CBS/Sony CD software plant in Japan, Sony in the late 1980s, maintained a plant in Indiana, and one near Salzburg, Austria. These three factories represented a collective annual production capacity of 120 million CDs. In April 1987, a CD player plant was established in Alsace, France, enabling Sony to become one of the first makers to provide both CD hardware and software worldwide.
When Nakajima's team first began developing the CD, they had projected that CDs would overtake LPs by 1989 and reach a peak production volume of twice that of the LP. This projection had even been pushed forward two to three years to impress on Sony's management the promising future of CDs. A common Japanese proverb says that, "It takes ten years for things to change." Nakajima and his team expected it to take this long for the CD to replace the LP. It was a wonderful miscalculation. The music industry was given a new life thanks to the CD. Nakajima was overjoyed. He could only say, "Thank God we developed digital technology."

The CD business eventually expanded beyond CD players and discs. Sony began to sell key devices, including the LSI circuit and the optical pickup, to CD hardware manufacturers around the world. Since the introduction of the D-50, demand for these devices surged from other audio equipment manufacturers. Sony's ability to meet all of their requests helped to boost the CD business worldwide. Ohga put forth a business strategy to turn a profit on everything related to the CD. His target was to reach a 50% market share of the global CD player market. At one point, Sony even achieved a 70% share.

MiniDisc : A Replacement for the Audio Compact Cassette


  • Norio Ohga announces the MiniDisc as the new personal audio format.
Ten years after the launch of CDs, Sony announced a new music medium. In the 1990s, the production volume of audio compact cassettes was rapidly declining from its peak of 76 million units in 1988. Seeing this trend, Ohga, then president, felt the need to replace compact cassettes. In the 1980s, Ohga had led the establishment of the CD business, and CD technology had quickly replaced analog audio technology thanks to its digitally-based, high speed random access and direct search capabilities. CDs were a great success, but they were originally a read-only media, and Ohga wanted to make something that was rewritable, a kind of disc that would replace the audio compact cassette.

When Tsurushima's team from the Audio Development Group exhibited a prototype of a recordable CD at the 1989 Audio Fair, Ohga stopped and paid close attention. Just after the development of the CD in the early 1980s, Sony began development of a recordable discs. The objective was to give magnetic tape the same function as discs. The result of Sony's efforts was the launch of the Write-Once (WO) optical disk in 1986 and a Magneto-Optical (MO) disk two years later. The prototype of the recordable CD that Ohga saw at the fair had actually been produced in 1987. It was based on the same recording technology used in the MO disk, which was originally developed together with KDD (Kokusai Denshin Denwa).

Demonstrations of the CD were made worldwide using the not-yet perfected prototype. In New York, at a joint press demonstration with Philips, one of the engineers out of view from the journalists, was busy doing his utmost to prevent the system from overheating by cooling it with a Japanese paper fan.

Though impressed, Ohga said to Tsurushima, "You should develop a recording and playback device that uses a disc smaller than the CD to replace the audio compact cassette." This led to the development of a new music medium.

Software and media standardization would be required in addition to hardware standardization. But Philips, Sony's partner in the development of the CD, was the original creator of the audio compact cassette. Philips had its own idea about what medium should replace the compact cassette, believing it should be a digital cassette. Sony and Philips held countless discussions, but consensus was never reached. It seemed inevitable that two new competing media would be developed.

Engineers Tadao Yoshida and Kazuhiko Fujiie, who had participated in the launch of the CD, were once again brought together under Tsurushima. Basing their work on Sony's established MO technology, the team began work on creating a compact audio recording device that used discs. It was decided that the new disc size would be 64 mm and that it would have a recording capacity of up to seventy-four minutes, the same as a CD, on an area one-quarter the size of a CD. With the cooperation of the Sony Information Systems Research Center, this led to the development of the ATRAC (Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding) digital signal processing technology for audio compression. To ensure that the final product would be portable, technology to reduce track skipping when jostled was simultaneously developed with a new shockproof memory based on semiconductors.

In May 1991, all development was concluded, and the MiniDisc (MD), the new audio standard, was announced. To enhance portability, the disc was housed in a shell. The MD combined recordable features of the cassette tape with the random access functions and high quality sound of the CD. Sony clearly explained the difference between the CD and MD; the CD was for leisure listening and the MD for enjoying music anywhere and anytime, much like the Walkman.

Ohga announced the technical development of the MD in Japan and the US. He carried a prototype of the new personal audio system with him to all the press briefings and said, "We call upon hardware and software manufacturers to endorse the MD system and target the product launch for the end of 1992." Ohga led Sony's efforts to establish the MD as the standard by holding MD conferences and demonstration campaigns and by signing licensing agreements with influential hardware and software manufacturers.

Hardware and Software Get an Early Start


  • Sony successfully develops both MD hardware and software. Shugo Matsuo, President of Sony Music Entertainment Japan, announcing the launch of MD software.
Shizuo Takashino now led the General Audio Business Group, which had a proven track record with miniaturization. With his team, Takashino worked to complete the development of the MD system in time for a future sales launch. It was at the end of 1991 that the plan to develop a small recording device using a disc 6 cm in size was announced to the 14 members of the development team. All the engineers were experts in miniaturization and they had been involved in the development of both the Walkman and the D-50. Unfortunately, the schedule gave them only one year to develop the new product, which was timed to coincide with the launch of Philip's Digital Compact Cassette (DCC) in November 1992.

The engineers burned the midnight oil, even working on weekends. Concerned about the tough work schedule of his staff, Takashino wrote letters to the families of engineers, seeking their understanding and support. "We have entrusted the development of a technology that we consider very crucial to the future of Sony to a member of your family," he wrote. "This person is working very hard for the company and we are most grateful for the efforts being made."

MD music software and recording media were prepared along with the hardware for the scheduled launch date. By this time, CD software plants had been established in Japan, the US, and Europe, and they would be ready to handle MD software production as well. In Japan, Shugo Matsuo led the effort to acquire up to 500 MD titles within the year. Abroad, Michael Schulhof, then Chairman of Sony Music Entertainment and President of Sony Corporation of America took on the task of persuading record companies. In August 1992, mass production of MD software began in Japan. In autumn of the same year, production started abroad.

The Sendai plant began producing MD media in July 1992. The Recording Media Business Group had set to work immediately after the technology announcement, and Teruaki Aoki led the efforts to establish MD production facilities. Ohga coordinated the development of hardware, software and recording media for the MD system, and operations went smoothly.

Consumers and the mass media had created a furor over MD since its product announcements in September 1992, and in November a full line of new MD products was launched in Japan, ahead of the US and Europe. The recordable/playback MZ-1 model, the playback only MZ-2P, and the record-only MDW-60 were delivered to retailers nationwide along with 88 titles produced by Sony Music Entertainment. A "Try and Buy" campaign for the MD that allowed customers to test the product was launched at major electronic appliance stores in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya. In December 1992, the recordable/playback and playback-only models were launched abroad with software titles.

With the launch of the CD in 1982 and the MD in 1992, the sales potential for digital audio products expanded vastly. In 1995, total annual sales of MD hardware in Japan reached one million units. The CD, originally developed for only music applications, soon found new uses in AV equipment, computers, games and other areas. The CD-ROM, standardized in 1985, is today used to store audio, video images and text. The Video CD, standardized in 1993, is utilized for recording audio and video images. Since the MD was developed to handle the same applications as the CD, the MD Data format was standardized in 1993 for audio, video and text recording. MD Pictures, a format for recording video images, was standardized in 1994.

At the end of 1995, a new, large capacity recording medium the same size as a CD and capable of storing an entire motion picture was standardized. Called DVD (Digital Video Disc), this new technology exhibits a capacity equal to seven CDs and promises to be the next generation information and recording media. Initially, manufacturers were divided into two camps. Sony and Philips advocated a single-disc, multimedia CD system, and a group of seven Japanese, US and European companies led by Toshiba advocated a super density, double-sided disc system achieved by adhering two discs back-to-back. Discussions spilled over into the movie software field and the computer industry. In the end, the two camps reached consensus on the need to establish a common, single standard to benefit consumers, and the merits of both systems were recognized. Finally, manufacturers began product development aiming for product launches at the end of 1996.

Digital technology, which flourished with the development of the CD, has expanded with the endorsement of the disc as its medium. At the same time, digital audio technology contributed to the advance of the cassette tape. In 1987, Sony introduced a superb sound quality recording system, DAT (Digital Audio Tape). The sound quality of a DAT equals a CD. Based on DAT technology, in 1992 Sony launched a digital microcassette recorder, the NT-1, which uses a postage-sized microcassette tape.

Digital technology continues to enjoy further expansion, in the area of both disc and tape.
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