The rise of digital recordings
Pliable, who worked for EMI back when EMI was a record company, has a fascinating post about the advent of digital recordings.
I knew that Willi Boskovsky's 1979 Neujahrskonzert was the first major-label (i.e., European) digital record, but I didn't know much about why that delightful concert was the first choice. I certainly didn't know about EMI's damage-control. I had always assumed that digital recordings just sort of happened, so it really is intriguing to learn a little bit about the competition and the circumstances surrounding digital recordings.
Of course, I can't say I have the experience to comment with any great authority on the quality of those early records. I'll take Pliable's review of the Boskovsky Neujahrskonzert on faith. In my experience, the perfect signifier for the whole affair comes with the reissue of Glenn Gould's 1981 Goldberg Variations. Originally done as a digital recording, when it came time to remaster the set, Sony went back to the analogue tapes. A lot of those early digital recordings were too shiny, too slick, and not too great on the ears.
Good engineering, now as then, overcame a lot of the problems that digital presented, but -- in the days of spot-miking and already-slick sound -- there were a lot of crappy-sounding records made, digital or not. Well-recorded analogue tapes sound great, even on CDs, as Wilma Cozart Fine's loving remasters of the Mercury Living Presence series and the RCA Living Stereo reissues (either project) can attest. Those records were fifteen or twenty years old, in many cases, when digital appeared. They still sound better than those early digital records.
It is amazing to think that, save for half-hearted stabs toward HDCD and SACD, the technology for recording most classical records burst into the major labels in 1979 (1976 if you count American labels). Analogue recording technology has been around for a long time and was around for a long time when digital appeared, but look at video. In my lifetime, Betamax, VHS, and DVD all rose and fell. Blu-Ray looks like it's the new format, replacing DVD in ten or fifteen years. There has not been a viable contender to the CD (as far as hardcopy music media goes, which is to say, other than the MP3) or digital recording since the introductions of both. One would think, given the essential requirement of accurate reproduction of sound that serious music presents, that wouldn't be the case. One would be wrong, though.
Since classical music is in some turmoil right now, I doubt we'll see much happen any time soon. Interesting reading from Pliable, however, and something about which one should think.