Could It Be Magic? The Remarkable Disappearing Act Of The CD-R

Valentines Day, sometime in the mid 1990s. You and Jemimah have been going steady for a whole year already and you feel this anniversary must be celebrated appropriately. Besides it being the most romantic day on the calendar, you’re both clearly ready to take the relationship to the next level and now some kind of amorous gesture is required to solidify and strengthen this union. But what will it be? You’ve come up with an offering that you’re absolutely convinced will blow her socks off! Throwing on your loudest shirt, you grab the keys to the convertible and head out into the night. Parking up together in your favourite spot of absolute pitch darkness, you chivalrously lean in to present her with…. a diamond ring? A bunch of red roses? A promise to take off that shirt and set fire to it? No! Every one of these options pales in comparison to that ultimate token of undying devotion: a CD-R in a plastic presentation case, lovingly adorned with a tracklist scribbled in proficient blue biro. Cupid – take the night off!

Against all conceivable odds, this plan proves a blistering success. Jemimah is completely enraptured and demands to know if you’re a magician. Even the disc’s opening song – a sort of limpid guitar instrumental so inconsequential it seems to be both playing and erasing any memory of itself at the same time – is greeted as one might a vision of the divine. Your date really is going very well indeed and this whole romance thing is an absolute doddle! Thank you, recordable CD technology and especially that particular ‘cool electronics company’ that made it all possible. What could possibly spoil this happy scene? It’s NEVER going to stop being the 90s!

With the benefit of 21st Century hindsight, while this video may throw up its fair share of questions (Where exactly are they? What is going on with his wardrobe?), one thing we can be pretty sure of is that this freshly-burned copy of Entirely Forgettable Love Songs will have long since ceased to function. A terrible blow for languid guitar enthusiasts everywhere – and for great swathes of our nation’s sound heritage, by extension.

A quick history lesson: Launched in 1982 and developed in tandem by Philips and Sony, the original compact disc was a revolution, boasting a potential 75 minutes of crystal clear digital audio on a surface just 120mm across and only 1.2mm thick. Audio data is recorded as a series of binary digits embedded on a spiral 5km long and over 60 times thinner than the groove of an LP; a series of pits and spaces that is converted into analogue sound when read by a laser. With the digital audio content being protected from scratches and fingerprints by a layer of plastic, CDs were initially touted as being indestructible, with some TV presenters at the time feeling confident enough to demonstrate by attacking them with stones or spreading honey all over them (we would strongly advise against trying either of these at home). In spite of such childish stunts and the initial high cost of the technology, the CD was quickly adopted and became the dominant format for commercial music right up to the present day, only really superseded by the rise of digital streaming and download services in the 21st Century. It’s easy to see why – the CD boasts far better sound quality than a cassette and greater portability than a vinyl LP. They’re certainly not indestructible and are prone to scratches, smudges and other marks on the playing surface causing the disc to play incorrectly – or in severe cases refuse entirely. But if a conventional CD has clearly been well looked after, is in visibly good condition and has been kept safely in its box; there’s a pretty good chance that it should provide reliable playback for decades to come. Sadly, the same can absolutely not be said for what came next…

Another remarkable display of shirt-wearing!

Despite their comparatively recent development in 1988 and a fairly close resemblance to their compact disc cousins, the recordable CD or CD-R is a far more unpredictable specimen and undoubtedly the most troublesome of all the formats we’ve covered here as part of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Project. The simple fact is that they degrade extremely rapidly – even in ideal storage conditions a lifespan of ten years for a CD-R is considered optimistic, and with so many brands of varying quality on the market, many discs will be lucky to last even that long. Unlike a conventional CD, the digital data on the disc is suspended within a dye that breaks down over time, while the addition of sticky labels and marker pen to the top surface can cause further problems. Even if the disc appears in good condition and your CD player is willing to play it (which is never guaranteed, by the way), audio distortion, skipping and other issues caused by ‘disc rot’ or errors in the manufacturing process are surprisingly common. On the very rare occasions when we’ve come across an item that has completely refused to give up its contents, 95% of the time the pesky little troublemaker is a CD-R. It’s a shiny little nightmare.

So, for those of you organising your home collection or personal archive, one of the most important first steps is to be able to differentiate between the regular CDs and CD-Rs in your possession, as they are basically at opposite ends of the preservation scale. Thankfully, the differences aren’t usually too hard to spot, especially when placing the upturned discs next to one another and comparing the colouring of the playing surface. Regular CDs will be predominantly silver, while CD-Rs will more often have a blue or greenish tinge. We’ve found ‘the bluer the disc, the greater the risk’ to be a pretty helpful and accurate mnemonic. It’s a good idea to perform this colour test on everything, even the more ‘professional’ or ‘formal’ looking CDs in your collection, as many independent or ‘bedroom’ labels continue to release albums on CD-R even today – the lower manufacturing costs and the ability to make very short runs clearly proving too much of a temptation! If any doubt remains as to what kind of disc you’re working with, simply play safe and treat it as a CD-R, then make plans to digitise the contents at your earliest convenience. Better to be safe than sorry!

As part our commitment on the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project to not only preserve our nation’s audio treasures for future generations, but also to empower the Great British Public to do the same, we’d like to hereby invite you to our inaugural Sonic Surgery, a free event which takes place online, 1-2pm on Wednesday 24th February, where our Audio Engineer Robin Warren will be discussing the pros and cons of various analogue formats and highlighting some of the issues that one might face during preservation and digitisation. Tickets are free but limited and all are warmly encouraged to bring along some old records and tapes for a show and tell. It should make for a fun and informative hour. We promise Robin won’t spend the entire sixty minutes just complaining about recordable CDs, but you have to admit it’s a strange situation we find ourselves in when an original 1950s acetate tape reel of President Tito addressing the LCC has aged better than a walking tour of Southwark created almost half a century later. And yet here we are: The former still works without too much trouble, but the only way to hear the latter would be to try and track down the original participants and ask them if they’d mind having another go!

Southwark – pay it a visit and give your ears a treat!

At the close of our opening video time-capsule, the final shot pans slowly up to the night sky while our hero addresses the camera directly and expresses his confidence that they will be enjoying their new CD recorder ‘for many, many years to come’. We can only hope that their bright young love has endured longer than the average CD-R. And that he threw away that shirt…

Goodnight, drive safely…