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Grand Unified Theory of Compact Disc

January 31st, 2013 by Multimedia Mike

This is something I started writing about a decade ago (and I almost certainly have some of it wrong), back when compact discs still had a fair amount of relevance. Back around 2002, after a few years investigating multimedia technology, I took an interest in compact discs of all sorts. Even though there may seem to be a wide range of CD types, I generally found that they’re all fundamentally the same. I thought I would finally publishing something, incomplete though it may be.

Physical Perspective
There are a lot of ways to look at a compact disc. First, there’s the physical format, where a laser detects where pits/grooves have disturbed the smooth surface (a.k.a. lands). A lot of technical descriptions claim that these lands and pits on a CD correspond to ones and zeros. That’s not actually true, but you have to decide what level of abstraction you care about, and that abstraction is good enough if you only care about the discs from a software perspective.

Grand Unified Theory (Software Perspective)
Looking at a disc from a software perspective, I have generally found it useful to view a CD as a combination of a 2 main components:

  • table of contents (TOC)
  • a long string of sectors, each of which is 2352 bytes long

I like to believe that’s pretty much all there is to it. All of the information on a CD is stored as a string of sectors that might be chopped up into a series of anywhere from 1-99 individual tracks. The exact sector locations where these individual tracks begin are defined in the TOC.

Audio CDs (CD-DA / Red Book)
The initial purpose for the compact disc was to store digital audio. The strange sector size of 2352 bytes is an artifact of this original charter. “CD quality audio”, as any multimedia nerd knows, is formally defined as stereo PCM samples that are each 16 bits wide and played at a frequency of 44100 Hz.
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