Opening the “Red Book”

The digital Audio CD format from the viewpoint between musicology and media studies

This two-year project explores how the once-ubiquitous Compact Disc (CD) audio format was designed, subverted, reproduced and domesticated for musical ends. It is supported by a Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellowship, awarded by the Irish Research Council in 2019.

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This project charts the international research and development effort that culminated in the first standardised functional specification of the CD: IEC 60908, also known as the “Red Book”, published in 1980. This history is centred on the aural experience of a skipping CD, a familiar sonic sign of the failure of the CD system to faithfully reproduce recorded sound.

Although the CD was designed to be resilient to dust, scratches and fingerprints, various musicians and sound artists have successfully damaged discs and tampered with playback hardware to create “glitch” music. In so doing, they expose the limitations and error conditions of a quotidian digital technology, exemplifying how artistic practice can serve techno-critical ends.

The sound of a skipping CD has been often simulated through audio sampling, digital signal processing plugins and even notated sheet music. The factors which determine whether or not these simulations are convincing derive from the specifications of the Red Book, the psychoacoustic profile of the human ear and the musical features of glitched tracks.

This project also examines how the CD, with its digital timecodes, facilitated new interactive sonic experiences: music visualisers, educational listening guides and rhythm games.