The History of CD-R

by Bob Starrett

posted to the Roxio newsletters on Jan 17, 2000

If you are new to CD recording and just bought a recorder for $149, it may be a little hard to imagine that the first CD recorder sold in the US cost $149,000 -- one thousand times more than the recorder you just bought. Actually, that first CD recorder would have been part of a susbsystem that included all the other equipment necessary to make the recorder record a single-session disc at 1x, the top recording speed at the time.

There were really only three companies selling CD recording technology ten years ago: Meridian Data, Optical Media International (OMI) and Reference Technology. All were using Yamaha's recently-released PDS (Programmable Disc Subsystem) audio recorder. It cost about $35,000 wholesale and was merely a two-piece rack mount recorder that could record audio at 1x. To make it capable of recording data CD-ROMs, additional circuitry had to be added.

Meridian Data designed and manufactured a circuit board called the LEA. LEA stood for Layered Error Correction Code Augmentor, and its job was to add the additional ECC/EDC error correction code needed for data CD-ROMs. The board cost about $14,000 and was coupled with the PDS by placing the recording unit, the LEA, and the PDS Encoder in large case with a built-in CPU. The unit was called the CD Professional. Today we'd be shocked by the complexity of a system like this, with its multiple and various connections, compared the single IDE or SCSI cable, power supply connector, and audio out jack on today's half-height recorders.

So there was the recorder, complete with error correction for CD-ROM. But it had to record from a special hard disk subsystem. Known as the CD Publisher, this was the machine that most companies used to make CD-ROMs in the early days, or rather, to make 9-track tapes containing an ISO 9660 image of the CD-ROM. These tapes were then sent to a mastering facility which read the image and created the glass master from which thousands of polycarbonate discs were replicated.

The CD Publisher was about the size of a washing machine, a fact not lost on the Meridian Data's marketing department, which once ran an ad for the Publisher showing a box of Tide laundry detergent sitting on top of it. Contributing to the size (actually 30 inches deep, 21 inches wide and 42 inches high) and weight (300 pounds) of this "subsystem", was the 9-track tape drive, usually from Storage Technology, which took up about half of the case, and four to eight hard drives in slide-out trays, accessible from the back of the unit.

Additionally, there were a couple of pretty hefty power supplies, and then the assorted cabling and a lot of neat lights to impress the potential buyer. The early models used ESDI, (Enhanced Small Device Interface) not SCSI hard drives. In 1986, when the first Publishers were shipped, SCSI was in its infancy, IDE did not exist, and MFM drives used in most personal computers were too small for the job of holding a full CD-ROM image of 650 megabytes.

Even the ESDI drives were too small to hold an image (300 to 380 megabytes each) and so they were spanned to make a partition large enough for the image. But you also needed another partition to hold the source files: a total of four 380-megabyte drives in the base model, for a total of 1.5 gigabytes of storage space.

But there was more. Since the Yamaha PDS was SCSI, the hard drives needed to be SCSI, too, so one or two Emulex ESDI to SCSI controllers were used to make the ESDI drives appear as SCSI devices. Once formatted, the drives could be partitioned into two 700-megabyte drives, one MS-DOS partition and one ISO 9660 partition. The DOS partition held the files that were ultimately to be placed on CD-ROM. They were copied to the partition by loading several 9-track tapes with the data on them. Once this data was on the DOS partition (necessary in case it needed some manipulation), it then needed to be copied to the ISO partition. A copy could take some time and so you usually started the process and went out for an extended lunch.

Once the files were on the ISO partition, you could load mscdex.exe and assign a drive letter to the partition which allowed you to emulate a CD-ROM. Then you would test the CD-ROM application, making sure that everything worked well in a 2048 sector size format. Then you wrote the ISO partition or "image" out to several 9-track tapes for delivery to a mastering facility.

If you wanted to record a CD on the spot, you needed a Meridian Data CD Professional, which, like the publisher, was the size of a washing machine - it used the same case. Inside the Professional's case were the Yamaha PDS, and a state-of-the-art computer: an Intel 80386 processor running at 25 Megahertz, 8 megabytes of RAM, and a 40-megabyte hard drive from an upstart company called Conner. Included was a Toshiba 1x SCSI CD-ROM drive, and a 5 1/4 inch floppy drive.

So, after cabling the two together, you had a computer running MS-DOS, a Yamaha audio recorder, an error correction board, a 9-track tape drive and 1.5 to 3 gigabytes of additional hard disk space for the CD-ROM files and the ISO partition. Recording was anything but straightforward. First, you needed to run the CD Master software which initialized the LEA. Then you chose an ISO partition to master. You were required to enter the lead in and lead out times manually, and then choose "Master" which would send some commands to the LEA and tell you that the PDS was waiting for a trigger. You had to exit the CD Master program and send the trigger. The trigger came from the Yamaha-supplied PDS software, possibly the worst user interface ever designed, with features like dynamic function keys that changed functions from screen to screen, even though there was no reason for it. In one screen, write would be F9, in another it would be F6. There was a test mode available, but its toggle was buried deep in the interface and many a coaster was made by writing before testing, because you thought you were in test mode when you were not.

Finally, when you had spent many minutes moving around the program to check all the settings, you pushed F9 and sent the trigger. Wow. You were recording a CD at 1x and if you got a buffer underrun or other problem that resulted in a coaster, you were only out $100.00 for a piece of media, and two or three hours of time.

This equipment was solidly built and generally reliable, but few could afford it. Legend had it that, during the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 which destroyed much of downtown Santa Cruz, several CD Professional systems that were recording only 12 miles away were unaffected. I doubt that this is true: in my experience, bumping the recording unit slightly was sufficient to ruin a disc.

The next generation of CD recorders came from Sony, starting with the CDW1/EDW1 recorder. This was a two-piece unit, comprised of a recorder and an encoder. Smaller than the Yamaha PDS and with the EDC/ECC for CD-ROM built into the unit, these were sleek machines about the size of a stereo component. They were connected together by fiber optic cable, and you could daisy chain up to sixteen recorders to record simultaneously. With one encoder supporting sixteen recorders, you could build a rather large 1x duplication stack for a cool quarter million dollars.

Finally, recording came of age when Philips released the CDD 521, the first 2x recorder. About the size of a stereo receiver, this recorder was originally priced at $12,000. Soon, it was replaced by the CDD 522 and the price dropped to about $5,000 and then into the $2,000 range.

Although JVC released the first half-height CD recorder in 1992, in its initial incarnation it was part of a subsystem that included a dedicated hard drive, much like the original Meridian Data subsystems, but much smaller and lighter, of course. The cost of the system was $11,000.

Two drives really defined the CD-R market after that, the first being the Yamaha CDR100, the first 4x recorder. This was a rugged unit and became a favorite for duplication systems. In 1995, it was priced at about $5,000, too expensive for the average user, but the price-to-performance ratio was pretty good. The big break came in September 1995, when Hewlett Packard released the 4020i half-height 2x recorder (manufactured by Philips) for the then unheard-of price of $995. The thousand dollar barrier had been broken, and recorder prices continue to fall today, when recorders are available for $149, or even $99.

Bob Starrett can be reached at

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