Ableton Co-Founder Robert Henke Says It’s Time To Reconsider ‘Underrated’ Compact Disc Format

In a post on Facebook, Ableton co-founder and media artist Robert Henke (Monolake) argues that it’s time to reconsider the ‘underrated’ compact disc format for music:

“I still love physical products. But manufacturing big heavy plates of plastic and have them shipped around the globe is a huge waste of energy and resources. In times of global warming and dependency on cheap energy from the likes of Russia or Saudi Arabia, I consider not doing any releases on vinyl anymore, but fully embrace CDs.

The last big physical media innovation, with a better signal to noise ratio, better channel separation, better frequency response than vinyl in a smaller package Compact Disk, you are underrated and you will always have a place in my heart.”

He goes on to list 7 reasons for moving from vinyl to CDs as a physical distribution format, noting that vinyl is more expensive to ship and CDs will last longer.

Is it time to reconsider CDs as a physical distribution medium for music? Share your thoughts in the comments!

80 thoughts on “Ableton Co-Founder Robert Henke Says It’s Time To Reconsider ‘Underrated’ Compact Disc Format

      1. It would be appropriate to add (sic) in that context – so readers understand that the error was left intentionally as part of the original quote.

  1. They definitely won’t last longer. I have Vinyl from the 60s / 70s that’s still perfectly playable, while CDs from the 90s already began to decompose and are no longer readable by any contemporary CD drive.

      1. I agree with Sascha. I have a bunch of cds that started to flake off the metal layer. One flake and it’s dead.

    1. All of my discs from the late 80s still play fine. I guess results vary. The same could be said for vinyl, though, as with each listen, they degrade, especially the highs.

      1. Scan to same def to computer. Burn over and over and over and over and knitting and knitting and knitting… CDs slam on the custom car stereo, amps/subs, etc… Spotify, not so much. Turntable to big for the glove box, and vinyls in AZ, bad idea… I still buy all formats, fun.

    1. Mini Disc – atrac & that weird DRM. dont get me startet.
      you lose everything after recording if TOC isnt written right. great 😉

  2. This is crazy talk. And I kinda have a hunch, he knows himself. Maybe he just wants to stir things up and get some attention.

    1. Crazy talk? No he is wise. If you want to distribute music and actually get paid fairly. CDs are great and can sound fantastic..

    1. Neither are the always on servers that provide the streams for you. Also my physical media don’t disappear when some streaming service loses streaming rights.

        1. Lets go fully digital – f**k the real physics. We need to stop climate change and unequality at all costs – even if we are loosing our real behavoiur and our real freedom of choise at all.

          We should support the “Great Reset” and in general the WEF Agenda. Read the book “the great narrative”.

  3. CDs have come a long way since their inception. Modern discs, on a modern player with a good DAC sound lovely. The format will have a resurgence at some juncture.

  4. Why use a 5 inch slab of plastic to distribute WAV files? Theres literally no sonic difference over a download.
    If you want a collectable put the download code/sd card in a renewable collectable sleeve (hand printed hemp fabric perhaps) or offer a shirt with it or something of actual value.

  5. I’m not finding any reason why this isn’t just nostaligic fetishism that doesn’t solve or improve anything — It’s an outdated storage format for PCM files. Except maybe for Henke doing a performance piece using hacked CD players. I’m still a fan of Oval and Mille Plateaux so I’ll tune in for that.

  6. Virtually everyone owns a smartphone, laptop or tablet – These devices are perfectly capable of purchasing, storing and playing back music. The only reason to still produce and buy physical media such as cassettes, records or CDs that comes to mind is vanity. Artists like to show off their work, collectors their taste. Ultimately, everyone has to decide for themselves how much energy and natural resources they want to burn to cater to their ego. For me physical media is a thing of the past, but I get that some people have to cling to it for a little longer.

    1. +1
      Have a massive CD and DVD collection. One of my justifications was source material to sample. But there is Infinite sources on-line to use, BBC sound effects web site is actually a feat rabbit hole lol!
      YouTube alone is a vast world of almost anything I would want to sample.

      The last 10 years of my life I have moved away from having “stuff” My soft synths blow away most any of my hardware. Rarely even use my Kronos or my other physical synths these days. Phase Plant alone puts any of my modules or synths to shame and editing on a 36” monitor for me is so much more fun than tiny endless menus on crappy little screens. Don’t think those little screens will fade? They will. My TD-20 screen lasts about an hour before fading. My DMPro screen was replaced 2x, my Triton Studio…blue screen of death, etc. Obviously these are my own experiences and opinions YMMV.

      1. Have you tried plugins from the time of a triton studio (2002)? Loads of it is not maintained anymore and won’t run well on modern OS/DAW combos. My soft synths don’t blow away my hardware though they have definitely gotten better. But we had all this, let’s go computer entirely… (i didn’t) and people got bored of it. Sounds like round 2 is coming. Also screens are cheaply and easily replaced.

    2. Virtually everyone owns a smartphone, laptop or tablet – These devices are perfectly capable of producing electronic music.The only reason to still produce with physical hardware such as synth, drum machines or effects processors is vanity. Artists and collectors like to show off how much gear they can afford. Ultimately, everyone has to decide for themselves how much energy and natural resources they want to burn to cater to their ego. For me physical electronic instruments are a thing of the past, but I get that some people have to cling to it for a little longer.

      P.S. I love hardware synths and physical media… I will cling on a lot longer and must have a big ego.

      1. “The only reason to still produce with physical hardware such as synth, drum machines or effects processors is vanity. Artists and collectors like to show off how much gear they can afford. ”

        This seems like an extremely elitist comment. It disregards the reality that hardware offers a better playing experience, because it’s tangible and becaue practice gives you muscle memory, which you will never get playing around with a mouse.

        It also assumes that a hardware setup will be more expensive than a software one.

        That can be the case, but software also chains you to an annual upgrade cycle, your computer hardware will only be supported for about 7 years and it you’ll want to upgrade it earlier than that, anyway. Add in audio interfaces that go obsolete, hardware MIDI controllers that have to be replace, misc peripherals and most people will spend an average of at least $1,000/year on a computer music set up. You can get two or three decent hardware synths for that, every year, and they’ll never need upgrading.

        So you could argue that computer musicians are showing off how much money that they can flush down the toilet on their systems.

        Regarding physical media, you can’t argue with enjoying music in the format in the format that the artist originally created it for.

        Listening to a vintage album on vinyl is a different experience than streaming it or listening to it on CD. It has some physical limitations, but it also has physical charms.

        And the experience of intentionally listening to an album, flipping it over after 20 minutes, and listening to the other side – as you enjoy gorgeous 12″ foldout artwork and geek out over the gear list – is a nice experience. And it’s how lots of music was originally intended to be listened to.

        Yeah, I’m arguing against Henke’s position, but we’d both agree that there’s a place for physical media, enjoying the experience of listening to something tangible, and supporting artists that you love.

  7. Consuming music on a vinyl is not (ONLY) about the sound and media quality. It’s not (ONLY) about owning a physical object either. It’s about how you face the limitations of the playing system, – no easy song skips, no easy rewind, no easy forward – this all leads you to force listening the music material completely. Not understanding this and speaking about a waste produced is either lack of the intellect or willing to get some hype on the topic.

    1. Vinyl is about experiencing music as it was originally intended to be experienced – as an album, with full size art, actively listening.

      1. Vinyl was about selling copies of music on cheap and easily mass produced media. Technically, it has significant limitations; poor frequency response after multiple plays, mediocre 60-70db SNR, artificial limits to hard panning of bass-heavy music to avoid skips, a limit of 26 minutes of music per side, and more.

    2. Those who have gone through the vinyl era will agree with you, it is a whole package with album art, the enjoyment of holding, looking at and reading the materials that come with it. It is not just the music.

  8. i dont understand why CDs are sleeveless and therefore easily damaged….

    unlike, for example, a 5″ floppy disk, which is basically the same design, but has a sleeve to protect most of the disc surface

    i dont think just making the disc out of plastic and calling it a day was the best idea

    but what do I know

    1. A floppy is a far, far different, and much more fragile design. They are not even close to the same. If you keep a cd in its case, it will be just fine. Floppies are magnetic, CDs are not; and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

      1. no you dont get it, so you are answering a question i didnt ask

        try reading it again or maybe just move on instead

        1. The psp went that route. I don’t know if they did music, but they did movies and video games. It was a little cd in a little plastic case. They stayed well protected , but if they did manage to get dirt in them they were kind of a nightmare to clean

  9. I like CD’s digital format, but I seldom play them from the CD itself. The first thing I do when I get one is rip it to the hard drive in my media server (Apple Lossless format) and store it away in a cool dark basement. I have re-loaded my drives more than once when compression formats got better, when drives failed, and when I got larger ones. I always keep the CDs as backup. I have a Sony 400 CD disc changer but hard drives are faster and smarter.

  10. Solid state storage is more than capable of playing back the same files. I am very nostalgic about the experience of going to a music store and buying a physical object. I miss the album art, the liner notes, and the special hidden tracks. But thats what the used market is for. The world of digital art is virtually limitless. Crazy new stuff that nobody thought of before is made every day. New ways of experiencing and sharing it are too. We should preserve or repurpose vintage stuff so it doesn’t go in a dumpster, and look forward to what is new.

  11. I have ancient cassettes that still sound great, especially the ones made the first time I dropped the needle on beloved LPs that eventually gathered dust, hair, crackles, oily goo and pops that ruined the fun. Most of my CDs still sound crystalline, but what do I use the most? WAVs & MPdamned3s. Half of all the music I own is on a few safety flash drives. It makes “2001: A Space Odyssey” seem antiquated. I’m fine with that.

  12. He’s dead wrong about CDs longevity. I’m an archivist and it is common knowledge that they have a life span of 25 years. My vinyls are over 60 years old

    1. Sorry but you are the one that is wrong. Most CDs will last far longer than 25 years, i have plenty of CDs that are 40 years old that both look and sound like new. It would not surprise me if they last 100+ years if treated and stored right! Even older badly damaged CDs can be played with a good player as the CD format has a very advanced faultcorrection. CDs are technicslly superior to Vinyls in most ways. But vinyls are cooler to collect of course. And most of the time sounds good enough.

  13. I moved away from physical media over a decade ago. I spent a long time recording all of the vinyl I wanted to keep but was completely out of print before selling it. I recorded them to 24-bit/96Khz, Apple Lossless format. They are all now backed up to SSDs for ultimate safety. When new storage formats get released that become new industry standards, I will transfer the files over to them.

    Now that Apple and Amazon are selling and streaming music in high bit rate, lossless, multi-channel formats, I truly see no reason for any kind of physical media anymore. The vast majority of my library is streamed from iTunes now — even all of the stuff I recorded from my own physical media library years ago, including the long out of print stuff. If there is anything I want that is unencumbered with copy protection, I purchase it from the iTunes store for a quite reasonable price.

  14. Sound quality wise there is nothing a CD does better than a high res stream or download.
    When it comes to the “physical artifact” aspect of it I think CD, Minidisc and Cassette tape are all pretty useless.
    All the plastic packaging for those products where horrible. I think 80% of my CD:s have broken plastic tabs on their covers and they generally just fall apart when you pick them up.
    I always preferred paper covers for CD:s for this reason, but they also became pretty worn very quickly.
    Cassette suffered from a lot of the same problems, although slightly more robust.
    I think as physical media the only thing that gives me any emotional nostalgia is Vinyl or real-to-real tape.
    I think it has to do with the ceremony of putting the needle to the record, or loading the reals with tape and then seeing a large physical object spin and you can see the whole chain producing sound.
    CD has none of that.
    It is also much more pleasing to sit and look at a vinyl cover when listening compared to the small CD cover.
    So for me it’s vinyl as physical media and the digital formats just go as downloads to my phone.
    I don’t see any major environmental gains of doing it any other way…

  15. I think there is a place for CDs. They come in handy when you’re in a remote place with limited internet.
    My old Panasonic portable CD player still works great! Also, I would like to see a revival of SACD or something with higher resolution than 16 bit, with cheaper players

  16. If or when we have another Carrington Event ( or EMP attack we may loose access to all digital media so having a hard copy such as a CD or Vinyl is a good thing. Such an event may never happen and yes I understand that if such events happen the devices to play such media would be unusable too.
    Also what you download isn’t really yours if it’s a legitimate download it’s actually a licensed item that you paid for but don’t own so if the license changes you may loose access.

  17. For all the reasons he gives for abandoning vinyl, even moreso, we should also abandon CDs. Most of us know that most physical products we buy are future trash– and some trash lasts for thousands of years, or winds up haunting us in some way (e.g., micro plastics, etc.)

    Modern tech has allowed us to have similar or better fidelity, massive storage on smaller devices, and the ability to enjoy cover art with the same device. (Granted, a large album cover is not replaced by looking at an image on a phone). Perhaps cover art could be enjoyed in a similarly low impact way– on TV’s?

    Edible CDs. You play them for 5 years, then you have to eat it.

  18. The paradigm of Compact Discs:

    CDs… if they ever comeback for selling music, they would have to reconsider quite a lot of new paradigm.

    Have be a small format (size), where would a CD fit in the current laptop design or in a iPad? *_*
    Can’t be used in a phone! lol

    They would 100% none-scratchable!

    They would have to offer more than anything we’ve done in the past with this format.

    They would have to offer more than 70mb of audio, and all the visuals and product credential, which often comes much later than the release of albums!

    They would have to offer more benefits than the online fast purchase.

    Remember when Steve Jobs promised a revolution in design for audio in the future? Bono/U2 said Apple showed a bunch of initiatives and ideas that we have never seen come out. The Apple model works in their favour, it sells their devices and people basically have the right to have their music on their Apple toys! So far, we have not seen any of this supposed revolution from Apple, based on Job/Bono said about music in the future, now is that future!

    CD Warehouse…. who wants to warehouse CDs again? I doubt anyone would want to go this way, its a lot of money and let’s face it, The Music Shops aren’t doing well, the online model is simply too easy.

    Which involves mass production of CD plants, mass production printing, mass distribution and delivery cost, which is a pile of pollution and only for the end users to feel like they own something because its a physical thing they possess.

    The record companies failed a long time ago. They failed to sell HD audio online, and offer a better model than any other companies has come up with. They needed the brain of the big tech companies to kill Napster, if you remember that site!

    So I clearly do not see how CDs would have a comeback like Vinyl did, mind you the vinyls didn’t go dead but on dormancy state for sometime. Is the sound better on vinyl over CDs, well it depends what you define as “better”, but rather different!

    Who wants to go back to tape for music production? The cost, workflow, technical aspect, all expensive, slow and complex … while most DAW offer so much at lower cost and production efficiency. You cannot make a recording without software, even if anyone records on tape, down the road you will need to move that audio to digital, which means software required!

    The software industry abandoned CDs for install/distribution/sales for one simple reason, it’s not cost effective and its also not logistically wise … think about all those CD/Boxes that have to be shuffled when its time to update products, or when new versions comes out … Simply none sense!

    I’m sure I could go on another mile of text if I start thinking further.

  19. I can understand where he is coming from.
    He cant buy a pizza from what comes out of streaming services,
    so back to physical media.
    Why he doesnt want to bother with vinyl anymore is obvious, its not even true stereo.

    But Cds, puh I bought the last over 15 years ago, Im not sure I could play them back anymore, somewhere in the house there must be on old DVD player …

    1. why not vinyl?
      so you make niche music for a niche audience, on a niche medium; how many copies are you going to sell? and is this worth the effort? 😉

  20. “In times of global warming and dependency on cheap energy from the likes of Russia or Saudi Arabia…” we could also sacrifice electronic music altogether. Just play live and unplugged, no need for computers, daw’s, amplification, etc

  21. All you clowns claiming environmental bs over physical media production make me laugh. You are all buying into the propaganda and they only reason said propaganda is in existance is because they want to push everyone into being on the grid at every aspect. I love our technology, but if anything is killing us more then physical media, it’s the massive amount of wireless signals that has scientifically been proven to be messing with brain and body cells as a whole.

    1. Scientifically proven?
      Please post your sources.
      Given the amount of people who have been exposed to huge amounts of mobile phone signals for 20 years, you’d think there would be an epidemic by now?

  22. Anyone with any sense will know that the revival of vinyl was the music industry trying to desperately kickstart flagging sales, you feed BS enough to anyone and in the end they’ll believe it. CDs are now so good vinyl can’t compete especially when it comes to noise and dynamic range. They’ll always be tracking distortion as a cartridge can only be correctly aligned at one single point on the record and as it plays the inner tracks the worse that distortion becomes. Vinyl is the complete opposite end of the spectrum to CDs and in particular Hi Res audio, it can’t compete and anyone who thinks it can has been brainwashed by the hype surrounding it.

  23. The only keeper of the whole article here is the picture of the guy

    By the looks of the picture a few things come to mind: industry disrupter (sic.?), visionary, extra lightbulb somewhere in there, bringing a new (oft overlooked) perspective to the blind, friendly, ‘mentor and more’ maybe

  24. same people who fervently assert that CDs last 100 years are the same people who will say with absolutely confidence there will never be side effects from the jab.

  25. Sorry, dude, you may be a computer music genius, but if you can’t hear the difference between music on CD and vinyl, I feel sorry for you. Records were also better collectibles, albeit heavy at moving time, because you could also enjoy the sleeves, whereas CD boxes are too small. But ultimately, if you want to sell me digital music, it’s got to be sliced a lot thinner than 44.1k/16bit samples for my taste. I can hear what’s missing.

  26. The average album length is 40 minutes. A CD holds 80 minutes, which is 700mb, which makes that 40 minutes 350mb in size. An Uncompressed digital format of about 40 minutes is around 1.4 GB. That is how compressed the CD format is. If they want to bring the disc back, do it as A DVD or BlueRay.

    1. CDs are not compressed. 40minsx60sx44100(sample rate)x2(16 bits) = 211.68mb.CDs also have error correction which increases the data size somewhat.

  27. As a DJ, I love vinyl because of the physical nature of the playback and for the sound quality – not because it’s better than digital but because it is worse. It’s fragility and gradual degradation are part of the appeal. But as someone who is trying to be more environmentally conscious, I feel conflicted about collecting and producing vinyl. There are a couple of companies like Green Vinyl Records that are developing vinyl made from recyclable plastics and less-toxic manufacturing processes, which is a step in the right direction but is it enough?

    Personally, I don’t see the appeal of CDs anymore. The one thing I liked about the medium is it was easiest physical media to share – I grew up burning CDs and passing them around. But as disc drives are almost entirely phased out of consumer products, it’s not as practical to hand someone a CD nowadays. And since the CD delivers basically the same playback experience as a high quality audio file, it just seems like they arent adding much value anymore.

    I think it is debatable what truly has the larger carbon footprint between cd, vinyl, streaming. On the one hand, you have all the energy it takes to manufacture physical media and distribute it, not to mention the raw materials themselves (PVC in vinyl – an oil-based plastic which is toxic, can’t be recycled and degrades slowly). Perhaps CDs are narrowly more “eco-friendly” than vinyl only because they are smaller and lighter, but they are still made out of plastics. On the surface, streaming seems more environmentally friendly because people say there is “no physically media” but of course they are discounting the entire technological infrastructure on which it is based – smart phones, servers, satellites, modems, computers – all of which rely on the burning of fossil fuels and the mining of rare earth minerals, etc. But that is getting beyond the scope of what people in the music industry can directly effect.

    I agree with Henke that we should be thinking about how we consume resources and distribute products globally, whether they are music goods or otherwise. Climate change is one valid reason, but beyond that the human species is inevitably going to be confronted with the finite nature of the resources of the planet. Not today or tomorrow but eventually. Will future generations look back and think we used oil and rare earth minerals wisely in manufacturing of cars, computers, satellites, televisions, cell phones, nuclear weapons, cities, highways and compact discs? Of course, the total carbon footprint caused by the distribution of music may pale in comparison to other industries, but that doesn’t mean that nothing should be done to reduce it. It just isn’t obvious to me which media format is best in this regard. Someone should do a thorough analysis! Or link me to it if it’s already been done ???

  28. I’m all for CDs! They never went away as far as I’m concerned and I regularly buy new releases on CD. To me vinyl is a hassle and a couple steps backwards in sonic quality and convenience.

  29. CDs are so passé! I think the problem is not the CDs, but those labels, record companies, Apple/Google all maximizing their profit on poor format and not pushing for a new experience with sound, and present the artist’s work visually. Online music means you never lose your music, how many albums and CDs I can no more ever find? Old recordings, and rare artists and publication that didnt get to be digitized on CD. Limited editions, and so on … With the Apple Music model, you never lose what you bought … but you dont gain yet from vinyl album covers and its presentation.

    But I get the sense that people want to collect stuff like it used to.

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