The error rate performance of optical recording read channels has been modeled. Predictions of error rates can be made for a wide variety of modulation codes, data rates, linear densities, media quality, and data detection schemes. The model is described in this paper, and some representative results are shown. The model is useful in distinguishing better-performing code choices, comparing data detection schemes, and developing signal-to-noise requirements for different operating conditions. The flexibility built into the model allows it to be easily adjusted to cover the range of operating conditions encountered in the wide variety of potential applications of optical recording. © 1988 Optical Society of America.