[CONFERENCE PAPER] The test-disc cultures of the audio compact disc (CD) format


This talk will be presented on 18 December 2020 as Eamonn Bell, “The test-disc cultures of the audio compact disc (CD) format” at Sound Instruments and Sonic Cultures: An Interdisciplinary Conference, Bradford, UK. December 14–18 2020.


A video presentation of this paper will be made available for download here after the conference.

Talk outline

When the digital audio CD format was launched in 1982, it introduced a new paradigm for sound reproduction to the consumer market. Instead of tracing recorded sound with a quasi-indexical groove like its phonographic forebear, the microscopic pits and lands on the CD’s plastic surface represent sound as symbols. As the interpretation of symbols is largely conventional, precisely how these pits and lands corresponded to audio was determined by a small group of engineers who had worked to define the CD standard in the years leading up to its release. In this short talk, I’ll discuss test CDs: discs that were used to put the audio CD format on trial both before and after its standardization by its creators, Philips and Sony.

Standardization largely took place over the course of six bilateral meetings, which were held alternately in the Netherlands and Japan between late 1979 and the summer of 1980s.1 The delegations of CD engineers that traveled back and forth between Eindhoven and Tokyo brought with them deliberately damaged disc media. These test media were used to assess, among other things, the performance of candidate error-detection and correction systems, and contained patterns of known random data sequences: test data chosen by Philips lay on these discs in strict alternation with data chosen by Sony.2 For this reason, these anonymous, one-off discs bear material witness to what economists Kretschmer and Muehlfeld called the relation of “co-opetition” between these two corporate giants.3

Although test CDs are closely related to demonstration discs, such as the stereo demonstration discs studied by T. J. Anderson, the epistemic stakes for test discs are different.4 Demonstration discs authenticate particular technologically mediated listening set-ups in the here and now of their performance, say in the audio showroom or in the audiophile’s “den”. Test discs, however, pretend to greater generality, as the results of tests involving such discs were intended to be interpreted as evidence of how sufficiently similar discs might behave in the future. The notion of “projection” from the sociology of technology is useful. As Trevor Pinch points out, whether or not the results of a test may be “projected” backward or forward in time to “‘real-world’ use” depends on the relationships of similarity and difference between the test set-up and the real world outside.5

An example: the discs used during the Sony–Philips bilaterals were handmade. This cast doubt on their usefulness to the design and test of the CD’s novel error-correction and detection technology, since these custom-made test discs would not accurately represent the eventual manufacturing tolerances of mass-produced disc media.6 Furthermore, one Philips engineer familiar with these meetings noted that it was difficult to consistently damage these discs with scratches, dust, and fingerprints for testing purposes.7 Actors who express views such as these forecast a failure of projection, which was remediated in part by the increasing standardization of test media.

Once the so-called “Red Book” audio CD specification had been finalized, test discs were designed for mass production by teams at both Sony and Philips. For example, Philips Test Sample 4A (released 1982) carried a compilation of classical and pop music representing the format’s expected usage.8 Unlike its undamaged twin (Test Sample 4), the 4A disc included examples of three kinds of simulated local defect printed on the polycarbonate surface of the disc, including an “interruption in the information layer”, a “black dot at read out side”, and, interestingly, “a simulated fingerprint”. These discs were intended to put particular implementations of the CD system “through their paces”.

For this reason, references to these test discs abound in user manuals, service manuals, and the datasheets of CD-specific integrated circuits, as well as in consumer audio magazines, technical standards and other reference materials that post-date the release of the CD. Documents such as these, of course, are written with particular audiences in mind, with each constituency taking an interest in different features of the format and its ecology: research and development staff, repair technicians, end users, regulatory bodies, and so on. In the early years of the CD, jewel cases still played host to a rich print culture, so extensive liner notes shed interesting light on the test-disc cultures of the CD.9

For example, the liner notes for the test disc entitled “Denon Audio Technical CD” explain how test CDs could be used as cheap and reliable source of time-critical test tones.10 Because the audio CD format represented audio data at a high sample rate and with negligible pitch deviation, CDs with pre-recorded signals—nominally pure sine-tones, sweeps, white noise, silence, and so on—offered a less-expensive alternative to purpose-built signal generators and required neither calibration nor onerous maintenance regimes. More strikingly, a test disc published by RCA in 1984 included a single track containing both test tones and an orchestral excerpt from Bizet’s Symphony in C, in direct succession.11 The frequency of the test tones is chosen to mesh with the range of the excerpt, which features a solo oboist. Between these two discs, both sine tone and tone-poem become test signal.12

That excerpts from the Western art music canon were appropriated by a particular test-disc culture suggests an important point: the content of a disc does not determine its identity as a test disc. Any disc can become a test disc by convention or by convenience. For example: a freshly pressed CD pulled off the production line in the factory in former West Germany can serve a spot check for the entire fabrication facility. The discs that follow it are—we hope—identical, yet they are not test discs on my account because they are not called upon to speak for the integrity of the production line. Yet other test discs were simply ready-to-hand in a particular test context, like the discs mentioned in passing in the documentation that accompanies an early version of Heiko Eissfeldt’s code for the highly popular CD ripping software cdda2wav.13

Paying attention to the diverse contexts where test discs crop up illustrates how, in Axel Volmar’s words, “formats function as means to regulate the relations between, and, to a certain extent, the behaviors of different stakeholders or actors groups [sic] and can thus be understood as ‘media of cooperation.’”14 Here Volmar follows the media anthropologist Erhard Schüttpelz’s work on co-operative media, which tracks the circulation of media technologies beyond their notionally public distribution and consumption contexts to the sites of administration, development, and indeed—testing—that are, by design, ordinarily outside the purview of most studies of mass media.15

That is why test-disc cultures feature in the plural form in my talk: since co-operative media in general—and test CDs in particular—serve as focal points for specific constituencies of users, it makes sense to reflect on the interpersonal and institutional formations that make a particular test-disc context distinctive, even if each test context gives rise to little more than a non-public microculture. So, when I say test CDs put the format on trial, I understand “format” to refer equally to the particular settings of use and abuse for specific discs—both before and after the launch of the format—as well as to the technical features of the final CD specification according to which these discs are materialised.

It is also one reason that a classical sociology of testing has value to the theory of media formats. Recall Pinch: whether or not the results of a test “project” to behavior in “actual-use” depends on making an analogy between test and use contexts. But the similarity and difference judgments which animate such analogies are manifestly contingent, which is to say they are contextual. Thus Pinch emphasized that such relationships can only understood “within a body of conventions or within a form of life.”16 Crucially, he noted that sometimes the technologies under test can themselves “entail” or induce “radical new ‘form[s] of life.’”17

The special power of technologically reproducible media to constitute new perceptual regimes—for what else is a “form of life” to an anti-idealist?—has been oft repeated since Benjamin and approaches orthodoxy for a media theory in a broadly Kittlerian mood. This means that Pinch’s observation has special relevance to technical media in test contexts. Specifically: since the particular technical media under test condition the very perception of the test results themselves, any test context that features technical media is necessarily a recursive cultural-technical scene.18

Going further, the case may be made that the audio compact disc was the first widely used medium to introduce many of the conventional operations of digital storage media to the general public. Therefore, the test-disc cultures of the compact disc in particular represent something of a vanguard: they were the first to explore what happens when the archaeophonographic recording technique, that insisted upon continuous (or “real”) traces in magnetic tape or PVC, is abandoned in favor of one that depends on discontinuous (or “symbolic”) and, ultimately, conventional signs.

The contexts of audio CD testing become crucial sites not only because they host the trials of a particularly influential sound recording format. Rather, they are key because they relate to an emergent recording technique, whose cultural and perceptual forms were—as yet—underdetermined. Indeed, as the very first example showed, these cultural and perceptual forms were actively being negotiated at one and the same time as were the symbolic conventions that structure the pits and lands on the CD’s inscrutable polycarbonate surface.

Funding acknowledgment

This research was supported by a Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellowship, awarded by the Irish Research Council in 2019 to Eamonn Bell for the project “Opening the ‘Red Book’: The digital Audio CD format from the viewpoint between musicology and media studies.” Project no. GOIPD/2019/239.

Works cited

Anderson, Tim J. Making Easy Listening: Material Culture and Postwar American Recording. U of Minnesota Press, 2006. http://books.google.com?id=FZIkBnSyLuAC.

———. “Training the Listener: Stereo Demonstration Discs in an Emerging Consumer Market.” In Living Stereo: Histories and Cultures of Multichannel Sound, edited by Paul Théberge, Kyle Devine, and Tom Everrett, 107–24. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.

Immink, Kees A. Schouhamer. “Shannon, Beethoven, and the Compact Disc.” IEEE Information Theory Society Newsletter, December 2007, 5.

Kretschmer, Tobias, and Katrin Muehlfeld. “Co-Opetition in Standard-Setting: The Case of the Compact Disc.” SSRN Scholarly Paper. Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network, October 1, 2004. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.618484.

Macho, Thomas. “Second-Order Animals: Cultural Techniques of Identity and Identification.” Theory, Culture & Society 30, no. 6 (November 2013): 30–47. https://doi.org/10.1177/0263276413499189.

Moles, Abraham A. Théorie de l’Information et perception esthétique. Paris: Flammarion, 1958.

Peek, Hans B. “The Emergence of the Compact Disc.” IEEE Communications Magazine 48, no. 1 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1109/MCOM.2010.5394021.

Pinch, Trevor. “‘Testing - One, Two, Three... Testing!’: Toward a Sociology of Testing.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 18, no. 1 (1993): 25–41. http://www.jstor.org/stable/689699.

Schüttpelz, Erhard. “Infrastructural Media and Public Media.” Media in Action, no. 1 (2017): 13–61.

Straw, Will. “In Memoriam: The Music CD and Its Ends.” Design and Culture 1, no. 1 (March 2009): 79–91. https://doi.org/10.2752/175470709787375751.

Volmar, Axel. “Formats as Media of Cooperation.” Media in Action, no. 2 (2017). https://www.academia.edu/37738353/Formats_as_Media_of_Cooperation.

———. “Reformatting Media Studies: Toward a Theoretical Framework for Format Studies.” In Format Matters, edited by Marek Jancovic and Alexandra Schneider, 27–45. Lüneburg: meson press, 2020.

  1. Hans B. Peek, “The Emergence of the Compact Disc,” IEEE Communications Magazine 48, no. 1 (2010), https://doi.org/10.1109/MCOM.2010.5394021, 16.↩︎

  2. Interview with Philips engineer with knowledge of these standardisation meetings.↩︎

  3. Tobias Kretschmer and Katrin Muehlfeld, “Co-Opetition in Standard-Setting: The Case of the Compact Disc,” SSRN Scholarly Paper (Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network, October 1, 2004), https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.618484.↩︎

  4. Tim J. Anderson, “Training the Listener: Stereo Demonstration Discs in an Emerging Consumer Market,” in Living Stereo: Histories and Cultures of Multichannel Sound, ed. Paul Théberge, Kyle Devine, and Tom Everrett (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), 107–24. See also, Tim J. Anderson, Making Easy Listening: Material Culture and Postwar American Recording (U of Minnesota Press, 2006), http://books.google.com?id=FZIkBnSyLuAC, 208 fn. 27.↩︎

  5. Trevor Pinch, “‘Testing - One, Two, Three... Testing!’: Toward a Sociology of Testing,” Science, Technology, & Human Values 18, no. 1 (1993): 25–41, http://www.jstor.org/stable/689699, 31–32.↩︎

  6. Kees A. Schouhamer Immink, “Shannon, Beethoven, and the Compact Disc,” IEEE Information Theory Society Newsletter, December 2007, 5, 44.↩︎

  7. Immink, 44.↩︎

  8. Philips Test Sample 4A. Philips 410 079-2. 1982.↩︎

  9. Will Straw, “In Memoriam: The Music CD and Its Ends,” Design and Culture 1, no. 1 (March 2009): 79–91, https://doi.org/10.2752/175470709787375751.↩︎

  10. Denon Audio Technical CD. Denon 38C39-7147. Japan, 1984.↩︎

  11. Test Compact Disc - Extensive Tests For Audio Equipment. RCA Red Seal – RD70400. UK & Europe, 1984.↩︎

  12. Echoes here of the discography in Abraham A. Moles, Théorie de l’Information et perception esthétique (Paris: Flammarion, 1958).↩︎

  13. Archived here: https://www.ibiblio.org/pub/historic-linux/ftp-archives/sunsite.unc.edu/Nov-06-1994/apps/sound/cdda2wav0.2alpha.src.tar.gz↩︎

  14. Axel Volmar, “Reformatting Media Studies: Toward a Theoretical Framework for Format Studies,” in Format Matters, ed. Marek Jancovic and Alexandra Schneider (Lüneburg: meson press, 2020), 27–45, 37. See also, Axel Volmar, “Formats as Media of Cooperation,” Media in Action, no. 2 (2017), https://www.academia.edu/37738353/Formats_as_Media_of_Cooperation.↩︎

  15. Erhard Schüttpelz, “Infrastructural Media and Public Media,” Media in Action, no. 1 (2017): 13–61.↩︎

  16. Pinch, “‘Testing - One, Two, Three... Testing!’.”, 31.↩︎

  17. Pinch, 39 fn. 10.↩︎

  18. On the recursivity of cultural techniques, see Thomas Macho, “Second-Order Animals: Cultural Techniques of Identity and Identification,” Theory, Culture & Society 30, no. 6 (November 2013): 30–47, https://doi.org/10.1177/0263276413499189.↩︎