Digital Bloating

Okay, I'll admit it: I'm a slave to technology. When laser discs resurfaced in the late '80s, I couldn't pass up owning one of the magical machines. And having shelled out the bucks for a laser disc player, it seemed to make sense to upgrade to a home theater system, since pumping a laser disc's digital sound through two stereo speakers is a lot like drinking a fancy beer in a baby's bottle.

More recently, I said good-bye to an old friend -- the cartridge-driven 16-bit Super Nintendo video-game system -- to welcome the awesome power of the CD-driven 32-bit Sony Playstation, which now beckons to me constantly. Given all that, I should be the perfect patsy for enhanced compact discs, a new hybrid of the audio disc and the computer CD/ROM that, according to some, will phase out plain old music CDs in a few years.

But not even countless hours spent playing video games have eroded my mind to the point that I believe new technology is always what it's hyped to be. Take the MiniDisc and the Digital Compact Cassette, for example. Just a few years ago, these two formats -- both of which boasted digital sound and recordability -- were supposed to swiftly dispatch the conventional audio cassette to vinyl hell. It didn't happen. Instead, the MiniDisc and DCC became the Betamax of the '90s.

So which is the enhanced CD? Laser disc or MiniDisc? At the moment, it's a little hard to say. Basically, an enhanced CD takes advantage of an audio disc's unused space, filling it with computer data for a multimedia presentation that's accessible when the disc is used in a computer's CD/ROM drive. When played through a regular compact disc player, there's really nothing "enhanced" about them, though the first generation of enhanced CDs -- known as "single session" discs since they stored their computer data in the CD's first track -- did a reasonably good job of enhancing annoyance when they were used in a disc changer turned to the random play mode, since the player tried to reproduce the data as music. The newer titles, thankfully, tend to be in the "multi-session" format, which means the data is stored in a hidden track, one that only CD/ROM drives can read.

Enhanced discs have been around for a while, most often mixed inconspicuously with regular CDs. This Christmas, there're supposed to be as many as 100 titles available for placement under the tree. The only clue to their content is the packaging and the discs' variety of names, which includes CD+ and CD Plus (both trademarks of Sony), Rainbow Disc (a trademark of Phillips), E-CD and CD+MM; the prices are roughly the same as for a standard CD. Some titles, such as the Cranberries' Doors and Windows, are available only in the enhanced format, while others are alternate versions of existing albums, such as the CD Plus version of Alice in Chains' Jar of Flies.

What distinguishes an enhanced disc is its multimedia capabilities, and that's where the weight of this new technology rests. Unfortunately, the creators of the majority of the enhanced titles currently available use the technology in a basic fashion, producing items that seem more self-promotional than artistic. And to cheapen things further, many titles utilize existing materials -- such as band photos -- rather than items created specifically for the enhanced format.

You might call this the "high-tech liner notes" approach, and the discs that use it have a number of similar characteristics. By pointing and clicking through graphic menus adorned with artwork consistent with the album packaging, users can access media relevant to the artist and/or the music. Where the artist is concerned, there's usually a fair amount of biographical information presented in text, as well as video footage, sound bites of interviews and plenty of photos. The problem with this content is that it's a bit of a one-trick pony; a single time through exhausts much of its appeal. As for the presentation, it's hard to argue with the fact that photos are far more rich as hard copy, it's less eye-straining to read text in printed form rather than on-screen and unless you're using a fancy -- not to mention pricey -- computer setup, video footage looks much better on tape or TV.

Where the music is concerned, users can not only play a CD's songs, but also listen to sound bites of songs from previous releases and view lyric sheets and art. In addition to listing the current album's lyrics, some discs allow you to click on a particular line and have the song jump to that section, while others simply highlight what's being sung as the tune progresses, in a fashion similar to karaoke. But as with the video footage and TVs, it's likely that your home stereo sounds much better than the audio output from your computer.

Getting the impression that most current enhanced CDs offer little more than fan club fodder? For the most part, that's true. It's doubtful anyone outside of Sarah McLachlan's die-hard admirers would have any need for the in-depth recap of her trip to Southeast Asia or the catalog of merchandise found on the enhanced version of The Freedom Sessions EP. And it's likely only hard-core groupies will be interested in the walk through Bush's tour bus that accompanies the band's Little Things single (it looks like footage of a typical MTV vidiot's room) or the inane revelation on Doors and Windows that the Cranberries are a bunch of alcoholics -- they're Irish and they are rock stars, for God's sake!

There are signs of artistic creativity evident on some enhanced titles, though. Technophile Todd Rundgren, who goes by "TR-i" ("i" as in "interactive"), offers a different presentation for each of the ten songs on his enhanced-only release The Individualist; most notable is the multimedia for "Cast the First Stone," which is a DOOM-like video game that pits you against the likes of Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh. If you'd rather express your creative side, the CD allows you to "direct" a Rundgren video, using concert footage filmed from three different camera angles.

And while it's essentially a shamelessly self-promotional disc, the Cranberries' Doors and Windows does have the decency to mask the program's menu-driven structure by creating a virtual world in which you can explore various locations -- in the company of the Cranberries and their famous couch -- in a fashion similar to the popular CD/ ROM game Myst. Want to read the lyrics for "Linger"? They're in one of the books that can be found in the virtual world's living room. Feel like watching some footage from the band's Woodstock appearance? Go to the stage in the pub. And if you're amused by the simple things, you can turn the spotlights on and off in the studio.

Whether the novelty of enhanced CDs will do to conventional compact discs what CDs did to vinyl records is still an open question. On the one hand, enhanced CDs offer more -- regardless of what -- than audio-only discs at more or less the same price. And unlike the case with MiniDiscs and DCCs, consumers won't need to buy elaborate new hardware if they don't want to, since the discs take advantage of what's largely become commonplace: the audio CD player and the multimedia-equipped computer. And the identification data found on all enhanced discs -- information that includes the artist's name and song titles, in addition to the album title and a "snapshot" of the album cover -- has the potential to be used by audio CD players of the near future, enabling them to display more than just what number of the track that's playing. But until (or if) these next generation machines arrive, this particular advantage is no more tangible than all those scary things that AT&T's commercials promise to bring us over the years to come.

On the other hand, almost everything that an enhanced CD offers at the moment can be done better by more traditional media formats. Too, when it comes to music, it's the sound that matters most, and there's really no difference in the quality or accessibility of the music between enhanced and non-enhanced discs.

Really, what it all adds up to is uncertainty. While the enhanced CD may hold its ground, or even replace the conventional music disc, there's also a good chance it'll amount to little more than a gimmicky predecessor to the next high-tech wonder. And considering the accelerated rate at which technology is booming, that next wonder may not be far off. Until then, we're probably better advised to watch videos on TV, read the latest Rolling Stone and yearn for the day when a revolving platter of CDs was enough to impress our guests.

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Joe Hon