Compact Disc Duality

The DualDisc format, which combined CDs with DVDs, led a fleeting and ephemeral existence, despite a heavy push from the music industry. What happened?

Hey all, Ernie here with another piece from David Buck, who has been on an audio-collector kick of late. Last time, he brought us his musings on crate digging in the streaming era. Today, he’s back with a dialogue on the DualDisc.

Today in Tedium: Audio and video formats come and go. Some formats experience an unexpected renaissance while others totally crash and burn. This is a story about the latter. Ok; that last statement was a bit melodramatic, but today’s topic is concerned with one of those less-than-stellar formats that despite initially strong sales was doomed to failure. I was never much of a fan of the CD/DVD combo disc, but I find it a fascinating optical artifact of the early 2000s. So grab your 2004 remaster of Back in Black, dust off your old DVD player, and pray neither side of the disc is scratched because today’s Tedium is all about a misbegotten, mostly forgotten format called DualDisc. — David @ Tedium

Today’s Tedium is sponosored by Numlock News. More on them in a second.

1.5 mm

The thickness of a typical DualDisc. By fusing two different layers—one 0.6mm DVD layer and one 0.9mm CD layer—the DualDisc ends up being 0.3mm thicker than a standard compact disc. Because of this, DualDiscs may become stuck in a standard CD player if users aren’t careful (though I’ve never personally experienced this, it’s been known to happen). The DualDisc also can’t hold as much data as a standard CD either, clocking out at approximately 60 minutes compared to the standard 73 minutes of a regular CD. The thickness of the disc also disqualified the DualDisc from being considered a “redbook CD”—that is, a CD that complies with the official specifications for the Compact Disc as outlined in the titular red book.

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An example of a DualDisc. (Museum of Osbsolete Media)

The not-so-great disc wars

The early 2000s saw a great deal of innovation and invention in the realm of optical media. In the world of video, DVDs had been slowly overtaking VHS since their 1997 arrival on the home market and completely replaced the older video format by 2008. Blu Ray Disc and HD-DVD would come into the picture around 2006, igniting a format war that would see the former emerge victorious. In music and audio formats, something similar was happening on a much smaller scale.

Some albums—including a large swath of Bob Dylan records that I bought at the time—were slowly seeing a re-release campaign on the new Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD) format in both standard SACD format (which could only be played on a compatible player) and hybrid CD/SACD discs (which could be played in a CD player—with lower audio quality, of course).

On the other side of the coin was DVD-Audio (DVD-A)—something Frank Zappa’s estate began experimenting with Halloween and Quadiophiliac albums, ostensibly to take advantage of the surround sound and longer play time afforded by the format—and parts of which were incorporated into the DVD side of DualDisc as it began life. Though both formats sort of flopped, they’re still around in limited forms today, according to the Museum of Obsolete Media. I can’t say I’ve come across any new ones recently, though.

In 2004, an exciting new format with the potential to totally replace the CD was introduced to the music listening world after a few competing labels got together and decided they needed a singular format that would increase sales of physical media. This format would combine both the audio and visual to create something entirely new. Dubbed the DualDisc, this new format was a little different than those which came before. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Around 2005, DVD was exploding in popularity while music sales were in a steady decline. The obvious solution was to create something with a visual component to give buyers more bang for their buck, or as Steve Koenig of the Consumer Electronics Association put it in a 2005 Chicago Tribune interview, “meeting consumer demand for content and bringing new value to the marketplace.”

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This side up. (Museum of Osbsolete Media)

The DualDisc was a simple concept—a CD one side, a DVD on the other. Sony BMG Music, of course, put it a different way on their official website:

DualDisc is a new two sided disc product introduced by the music industry which mates DVD recorded material on one side with digital audio material on the other side. DualDisc is similar in size to a DVD and CD. The DVD side of the DualDisc offers DVD video or DVD audio content which may include many of the features currently found in DVD discs including enhanced audio; 5.1 surround sound, music videos, artists’ interviews, behind-the-scene footage, documentary films, photo galleries, lyrics and other material produced by the recording artist or label. The audio side of the DualDisc does not meet the technical specifications to be called a “Compact Disc Digital Audio”.

Following a successful test (or as Billboard reported in 2004, “an overwhelming response”) in the test markets of Boston and Seattle, the first round of DualDisc releases were announced in late 2004, with a full release schedule of titles the following year. Sony BMG Music Entertainment was a driving force behind the push for DualDisc, as reported in the Mar. 19, 2005 issue of Billboard, and really tried to push the format, with more than 40 releases in 2005 alone. Some industry folks were on board with Sony in a big way including Warner Music Group and Universal Music Group, along with other heavy industry hitters like EMI.

Then there was the minimalist, now defunct official DualDisc site that reinforced the benefits and value angle of the format, while providing news and promotional videos relating to the format, along with a helpful FAQ that tells you if the CD audio isn’t playing, simply turn it over because you have it on the wrong side. Luckily there’s a label on each side, noting whether it’s the CD or DVD, so the chances of putting the disc in on the wrong side are pretty slim. Right?

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“Because the DualDisc does not adhere to the industry Redbook specifications, the audio side of a DualDisc may not play correctly in PlayStation, PS one or PlayStation 2 consoles (including the redesigned SCPH-70000 series consoles). In addition, playing a DualDisc in one of the following PlayStation 2 consoles while in the vertical position may possibly damage the disc, the console, or both.”

— A warning on Sony’s PlayStation website that a DualDisc could cause issues with users’ PlayStation, PlayStation One, or PlayStation 2 consoles. Other manufacturers during the era published similar warnings about DualDiscs due to their failure to follow the Redbook standard, but the message is particularly notable from Sony given the fact that another part of the company was also pushing the product at the same time.

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“Devils & Dust” introduced a lot of the public to the DualDisc.

Why the DualDisc format proved costly and ineffective

DualDisc sales looked good at first, but there was some debate in the industry about whether the sales indicated consumer interest in the format or just a coincidence based on the fact that two of the highest-charting albums of that year—Bruce Springsteen’s Devils & Dust and Dave Matthews Band’s Stand Up—were exclusively DualDisc releases. The 2005 Bruce Springsteen DualDisc, Devils & Dust, was something that Warner Bros. desperately hoped would provide a shot in the arm for retail sales, as it was the “highest profile DualDisc release” at the time.

Some were cautiously optimistic, however.

“The DualDisc might help save the music industry or become another failed format. For some time, people have missed having the visual component, and I see this as giving the consumer something extra,” noted Ken Richardson, the entertainment editor for Sound & Vision magazine, during a 2005 interview with the Chicago Tribune.

The idea of DualDisc providing more value than standard CDs was a consistent argument for the format—but it was one that ultimately never went anywhere.

When they first came out, DualDiscs were only a few dollars higher than the standard CDs. By the late 2006, they were potentially being sold at twice the price, which eventually contributed to the downfall of the format. It wasn’t really any better for the other labels who may have desired to license the use of the DualDisc branding—The RIAA began licensing use of the DualDisc logo in 2005, along with setting up a very particular set of criteria for what is actually considered a DualDisc. The cost? $250 per licensee or up to $2500 annually—just to license the logo. The RIAA also created a DualDisc spec book of their own, requiring the DVD side to contain surround sound versions of the audio content and the “audio must be contained in the DVD-video zone in LPCM (16-bit) stereo or mono.” Following this was a seven step process for DualDisc certification.

As for functionality, DualDiscs didn’t work in every player and there was quite a bit of buzz about the subject, both positive and negative, on the Steve Hoffman Music Forums (among other places). My own experience with DualDiscs—I’ve collected a handful of them over the years—have been very inconsistent. Weird Al’s Straight Outta Lynwood works fine in my computer, but won’t play on any of my CD players. My copy of the AC/DC masterpiece Back in Black works fine everywhere. I have a copy of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue that has never worked properly on my stereo systems, but plays perfectly in my car’s CD player (where it still resides today). Devils & Dust worked fine, but alas, I am not a major fan of The Boss.

Consumers didn’t really like DualDiscs much, according to a 2005 NBC report on the format. Per the article, one electronics store in New York—where the author was based at the time—received several returns on DualDiscs each day, while not selling many of them to begin with. Other issues were problems ripping music tracks to a PC, sub-par surround sound and player issues also pop up on occasion. Many of these complaints are echoed by the online audio lover community at large, although there are some folks who do enjoy a DualDisc experience from time-to-time.

“You know … I never thought the marketplace was all that interested in high resolution audio then. I’m not sure they’re interested in it now! Especially if they have to pay more—or anything—for it.”

CNET columnist Steve Guttenberg (no relation), in his short retrospective on DualDisc at his Audiophiliac channel. Though he collected some of the discs, he noted the format came and went in the blink of an eye.

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A patent drawing included in the European patent filing for DVD Plus, a nearly identical format that predated and competed with DualDisc. (Google Patents)

Trust in us, we’re DVD Plus

In 2002, “the world’s most versatile optical disc,” DVD Plus arrived. The proprietary format was created and patented by German producer Dieter Dierks, famous for his work producing numerous albums for the rock band The Scorpions. Dierks was always tinkering with new ideas and came up with the idea of the double-sided CD/DVD combo. Several albums were even released in the DVD Plus format in 2004—around the same time the major labels began discussing their major DualDisc release initiative.

They’re made the exact same way as a DualDisc, but are only 0.28mm thicker than a standard CD rather than a full 0.3mm, and they offered the same bonus opportunities as the later DualDisc. So, why weren’t we buying Dierks’ DVD Plus instead of the DualDiscs we did get? Patents.

Around the time the major labels all decided to place their proverbial eggs in the DualDisc basket, Dierks had come up with the technology and obtained a European patent for it. He also applied for, but had not yet received a US patent for the tech.

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Yes, the official DVD Plus logo includes a credit line for Dieter Dierks. (via Discogs)

Then, Dierks made a deal with Warner Media Group to add the DVD Plus logo to DualDiscs as a way to prevent further legal issues. This apparently had some issues, as Warner was still releasing discs under the DualDisc branding without adding the DVD Plus logo.

DVD Plus combined the technology in a better way by creating a full capacity CD on one side and a full capacity DVD on the other. Dubbed OneDisc, it...sadly never took off under that brand name. DualDisc came and went and the rest would normally be history, except that Dierks is still producing the DVD Plus disc though his company DVD Plus International. The best part? Both sides of the disc are longer playing and conform to full-length specifications for both CD and DVD.

2006

The year “Weird Al” Yankovic’s first—and only—DualDisc album, Straight Outta Lynwood, was released. The album famously contained the hit “White & Nerdy”—a parody of Chamillionaire’s “Ridin’ Dirty” that extolled the virtues of being a nerd and featured an immensely popular music video. The album followed in the footsteps of Al’s previous two records—Running with Scissors and Poodle Hat—both of which featured “enhanced content” when placed in a CD-ROM drive (a mini-mockumentary featuring Dr. Demento and home videos/instrumental versions of album tracks respectively). This DualDisc release hit #10 on the Billboard Top 200 in October 2006—but that was probably largely related to the popularity of the lead single and the six animated videos featured on the DVD side that corresponded to the six original songs on the album—the entire reason Al chose to release the record on the nascent format.

By late 2006, DualDisc wasn’t really catching on, but that didn’t stop the format’s largest supporter from continuing to push it. Sure, there was an amazing, nicely reviewed Talking Heads box set called Brick that arrived in 2005 and a few other albums we’ve already talked about here, but at the end of the day, DualDisc was not performing well and music was making its transition into streaming and the decline of owning music in a physical form.

DualDisc unceremoniously disappeared around 2007 or so due to a combination of pricing issues and general consumer confusion. Most casual music buyers didn’t know—or care—enough about the different format and likely went with a cheaper option. While it was a novel idea to have both audio and video on the same disc, it just didn’t work out for larger music consuming public.

Ultimately, the higher-ups aggressively pushed a lackluster format that failed to truly take off and played right into their own hubris, only to let the format quietly fade away and become lost to the ever shifting sands of time. Or whatever.

We’re just a bit depressed that Barenaked Ladies’ Everything to Everyone never made the leap from a test version of DualDisc to the real thing. Come on Warner Bros., make it happen. The world needs the last rockin’ BNL album on this obsolete format.

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David Buck

Your time was just wasted by David Buck

David Buck is a former radio guy/musician who researches and writes about all manner of strange and interesting music, legacy technology, Nintendo and data analysis.

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