March 14, 2014

"Whatever you believe about where things come from, the human body is unbelievable. It's so sensitive."

"And when you give it something, it loves it. You give it good food, it grows. It's nourished. And when you give it good input, it loves it. When it sees great art, it feels good. We all are like that. So with our music, we were deprived. And we started getting very little, a minuscule 1/20th of what we [are] capable of getting, what we used to listen to. So then one or two listenings, you'd heard it. Your body was not getting anything new after that. You've already figured it out. That's it. OK, I recognize it. And music even changed a little bit. ... Music adapted. It became beat-heavy and it became right for what the media was that was selling it. It became smart, it became clever, tricky."

So says Neil Young, who has introduced a new musical format called Pono (which means righteous or goodness in Hawaiian).

I still remember the rant by Neil Young that Harper's Magazine published back when CDs were first introduced. Seemingly everyone at the time was raving over how much better CDs were, and here was Neil Young crying over how bad they were. He sounded both crazy and correct. When are you pulled into believing what one person says when everyone else is saying the opposite? For me, that was one of those times. I never forgot it.

By the way, I think one reason taste in music changed is that people started listening to it in the car and then later on portable devices. Subtlety doesn't work too well unless you're sitting quietly, like an elegant man in one of those beautiful living rooms in those old ads for very expensive stereo equipment, which we used to think about and spend more money on than would make any sense to a young person today. We read books back then too, and the book was an entirely different object from the technological device that played the music.

Ah! I found the old Neil Young piece in Harper's (where I have a subscription). It's in the July 1992 issue, under the heading "The CD and the Damage Done," which retitles what was originally headed "Digital Is a Huge Rip-off" in Guitar Player. (PDF.) Excerpt:
Digital is completely wrong. It's a farce... [Y]our brain and your heart are starved for a challenge, and there's no challenge, there are no possibilities, there's no imagination. You're hearing simulated music. Your brain is capable of taking in an incredible amount of information, and the beauty of music should be like water washing over you. But digitally recorded music is like ice cubes washing over you. It's not the same....

Listening to a CD is like looking through a screen window. If you get right up next to a screen window, you can see all kinds of different colors through each hole. Well, imagine if all that color had to be reproduced to only one color per hole — that's what digital recording does to sound. All that gets recorded is what's dominant at each moment....
All that gets recorded is what's dominant at each moment.... That sounds like a larger, scarier idea about modern life.

70 comments:

PB Reader said...

I'm not sure why we need a new over-priced music player for FLAC files when my computer and phone do it just fine today.

Besides, the claims about fidelity are bunk (unsound engineering and physics).

Shouting Thomas said...

Several of the major studios in the Woodstock area have returned to analog format, or at least offer both analog and digital format recording.

One of the most prominent is NRS Studios. Scott Petito, the owner has written at some length about his decision to return to analog. Scott has engineered albums for just about every serious artist in the world.

One of the most frustrating things about producing recordings in this digital world is that musicians, engineers and producers go to great lengths to produce as true a hi-fidelity sound as possible. But, the listener is listening on the most lo-fidelity sound systems imaginable. He's also usually listening to compressed recordings (MP3s). Sometimes, particularly when songs are uploaded to the web, they have been compressed more than once.

The kids seem unaware that the great music of the 60s and 70s that they revere was usually played on speakers that took up half the living room. When I was in college, I owned a pair of Klipsch speakers so big that it took three guys to move them when I had to find a new apartment.

chrisnavin.com said...

I don't listen to musicians for their metaphysics, nor do I read poets, authors etc. for the same.

But after all that hippie business, this is no surprise.

I hope to hang a picture of Neil Young next to The Beatles at the Kennedy secular temple for liberal worship.

Peter said...

There's some really good math that proves digitization does just fine at representing sound. Indeed, that's the genius of digital, that it can be made to represent just about anything. Not that hard math (or even double-blind comparisons) have a chance competing against proofs citing gaseous "colors through a hole" and whatnot.

When I hear an old record played, I'm always surprised at how bad it sounds. Even if it appears to be in good condition, it's noisy and sounds crummier as it plays toward the center. How could people ever have listened to something so bad?

Nonetheless, CDs seem to still be in the era of "everything louder than everything else." Which is to say, just about all new recordings are volume-compressed so that everything is within a few dB of the max. And yes, stuff like that can quickly become tiring- it sounds startling at first, but quickly progresses to "please turn that off!" listening fatigue.

Farmer said...

This article addresses the problems with Pono. I have a huge music collection and have imported everything at 192kbps and put it on my iPod with a lot of room to spare. And it sounds great. I defy anybody to tell the difference between those files and a CD.

When I get roughs, final mixes and mastered versions of music I record, I get them as WAV files. I listen to them very closely, repeatedly, with headphones. I can't for the life of me tell the difference between them and the same files converted to a 192kbps mp3.

Plus, as the author of the article notes, the limited storage space on the Pono is absurd. If the purpose is to listen to higher quality files that necessarily take up more space, you need more storage space than the competition, not less.

TMink said...

PB, your phone will not play high resolution music files. The Pono will play 24bit 192Khz files that will put your mp3s to shame. Now, that may not be important to you, but it is to some of us!

The claims about fidelity are easily demonstrated, and have been, in double blind listening. Give high def music a listen yourself. And remember, the Nyquist theorem is 100 years old. Outdated world view material for sure.

Trey

TMink said...

Farmer, my wife can tell the difference between a cd quality rip and a high res file of the same material from a different room. Everyone I have met who says that nobody can hear the difference has never heard the high res to compare them. Are you in that category too? If so, live a little, and listen a little, then get back to us once you have some experience.

Trey

Tank said...

I think he's probably right, but, ironically, I don't think he plays the kind of music where it makes that much of a difference.

For most listeners of music, it does not make much difference either. For those who it does, this kind of thing is very important.

I love a good "alive" sound; that's what I look for when I'm playing the guitar (I'm not very good, but I can get a nice thick alive sound).

Farmer said...

@Peter - that's an industry choice, not a technological limitation. It started with Nirvana's breakthrough album and yes, a lot of artists and producers still do it, but it seems to be going out of fashion. The stuff on the radio is overcompressed because everybody wants to be the loudest. I'd be surprised if it's still a trend in ten years but who knows, I never would've thought it would last this long.

@Shouting Thomas, I'm sure you know all recordings are compressed to some degree, whether the producer and engineer use actual compressors or claim to be against anti-compression while overloading the pre-amps or overusing limiters for the same exact effect. Compression isn't bad - overcompression is.

Shouting Thomas said...

Digital sound processors are the culprits.

Yes, there is a difference.

DSPs record and produce a slightly metallic, boxy sound.

On the other hand, DSPs provide musicians with a cheap recording platform. I own a Zoom R24 that costs $500. For that money, I can record 8 tracks simultaneously, and a total of 24 tracks. So, I can actually record the Old Dawgz live. 4 tracks on the drums. 1 for bass. 1 for guitar. 1 for guitar or keys. 1 for vocals.

We're recording our first full original album on the R24.

The difference in sound quality between full studio recording and our little home studio is more than offset by the freedom the R14 gives us to spend as much time as we please in the creative process.

And, it's a hell of a lot cheaper. Pro studios charge $200 to $500 an hour or more.

Will Cate said...

The only thing Pono brings to the table is an end-to-end ecosystem for consumption of hi-def digital audio. There are already hi-def portable players:

http://www.realhd-audio.com/?p=1568

And there are already places to buy hi-def FLAC files:

http://www.hdtracks.com/

And Apple Lossless format supports the same high bit-rates as FLAC, even though the iPod won't play anything higher than standard CD rez, and the iTunes store doesn't sell it. But if that were to change... well, I guess the Pono folks are just hoping that doesn't happen.

Pogo is Dead said...

We hear through a glass darkly.

Farmer said...

@TMink

I've been playing music professionally for about 30 years. I don't hear it, and I've done A-B comparisons on some of the highest-quality studio speakers money can buy. The majority of engineers and producers I've asked about it (and I've asked a lot, because I'm fascinated by people who claim to be able to hear a drastic difference) say the difference is so minor as to be irrelevant. Read the article I posted. The waveform of an mp3 at a 192 bit rate is virtually indistinguishable from the higher quality files on a CD. Your wife has incredible, superhuman hearing. Cool. Most of us don't.

Shouting Thomas said...

Reading these comments, I think that I might have landed on the true crux of the issue.

Which is more important? Access or perfection?

Cheap means everybody can get in the game. And digital is cheap.

Analog is expensive as hell. Which keeps a lot of people out of the game.

Maybe Neil Young is just nostalgic for the era when it took a million bucks to make a record and distribute it. That whole system has been blown to hell.

Also blown to hell was the ability of musicians to collect royalties for the music they produced.

The Crack Emcee said...

I can hear it but, in the case of .mp3s, I don't care. I also used to listen to cassettes, which sound like crap, and I don't remember hearing anyone making a big deal about 'em.

Neil Young's a contrarian. Let him do his cranky thing if he wishes. I guess he's earned it, though I can go without hearing it - and his music - myself.

Bob Ellison said...

Shouting Thomas, yes, speakers matter. Digital does not, except that it lowers the S/N ratio to zero and the dynamic range to the sky.

Spend your money on speakers, people. But don't live in the past.

Shouting Thomas said...

When I mix down tunes nowadays, the loss of fidelity I worry about doesn't involve the analog vs. digital quandary.

I know that most people are going to be listening on crappy computer speakers.

So, the question is how to maximize sound for an incredibly shitty delivery platform.

Will Cate said...

It also depends on how good the original recording is. For something like Steely Dan, or Pat Metheny, I can definitely tell the diff. between a 192 kb MP3 and the orig. CD from whence it came. But an MP3 at 320 kb is pretty much indistinguishable (to me) from the CD.

Todd said...

Part of this is the 80/20 rule. Lets be honest, most people can not tell the quality difference. Their ears (training?) are not good enough. For some that can tell the difference, the cost difference for the extra quality is not worth it. High end audio-ites care and always will but they are not the vast majority of listeners.

For most, just being able to hear the music at all, at their convenience is reward enough.

I have a fiend that just loves the visual quality of the old laser discs and he snaps up everyone he can find but most people don't see enough of a difference to bother. Same sort of thing...

traditionalguy said...

Boze is nice.

The Crack Emcee said...

Bob Ellison,

Don't live in the past.

I told ST his ideas about the business are outdated just a few days ago.

Thanks for the unsolicited back-up.

He's quite stubborn when it comes to his own failures, very loud when he imagines others,...

St. George said...

Has Neil Young released an album of new material worth buying since Harvest Moon in 1992?

Or a great album of live hits since "Year of the Horse" in 1996?

Shouting Thomas said...

I played a gig and made money last night, Crack. With a group of people in their mid-30s.

What were you doing?

Ah... you spent the evening ranting about racism.

Off to get my oil changed. Maybe you need a full system revamp.

The Crack Emcee said...

Pouting Thomas,

The question is how to maximize sound for an incredibly shitty delivery platform.

No, the question is why you would waste even a second on your incredibly shitty music?

Throw some cats in a metal can and shake 'em around a while:

Same result,...

The Crack Emcee said...

Shouting Thomas,

Ah... you spent the evening ranting about racism.

But at least I don't suck. See, ST, you don't get that:

I had something bad happen in my personal life and dropped out - but I never sucked.

YOU SUCK.

And that makes all the difference,...

Paul Mac said...

I hope Neil Young will remember, a digital song don't need him around anyhow.

There is some of Neil's music I like, but I've pretty much only listened to it digitally.

rhhardin said...

Music adapted. It became beat-heavy and it became right for what the media was that was selling it.

Faure avoids downbeats (youtube Panzara sings Clair de Lune)

Marshal said...

So OT comments are deleted, except crack's.

How revealing.

Ann Althouse said...

"Has Neil Young released an album of new material worth buying since Harvest Moon in 1992? "

Harvest Moon? I thought you meant Harvest, which was 1972. We rejected that, thought he'd gone soft, gotten like America or whatever. (America, the group, I mean, not America, the country, but maybe that had gone soft too.)

The first 3 albums though, those were great!

The old Harper's piece, from 1992, refers to one of his old albums, the one everybody knows is the best, from 1969.

Bob Ellison said...

Professor, kismet! I went for years thinking the America song "Horse with No Name" was by Neil Young. It was imitation, though; America was trying to sound like Young.

I'm not much fond of Neil Young. This Jimmy Fallon + Springsteen parody captures Young's musical style perfectly.

madAsHell said...

"Gold plated speaker wires!!
You've got to have gold plated speaker wires.
You can immediately hear the difference."

Excerpt from a conversation.
No, I didn't buy the gold plated speaker wires.

Bob Ellison said...

madAsHell, and you've got to use expensive, huge, 12-guage speaker wire to carry an analog signal that could safely travel on a wire the size of a toothpick without any signal loss.

The point of gold contacts is that gold doesn't corrode, I guess. True. Wow.

People living in the past.

Shouting Thomas said...

I love a lot of Neil Young's work.

Heart of Gold is one of my favorites.

I turn him off when he starts on the politics.

Shouting Thomas said...

@Crack

This will be hard for you to understand.

I successfully raised my children through the deaths of their mother and their stepmother.

You're wasting your time on me. Nothing deters me.

The Crack Emcee said...

Paul Mac said...
I hope Neil Young will remember, a digital song don't need him around anyhow.

I seriously considered saying something like that,...

madAsHell said...

The first 3 albums though, those were great!

There seems to be a highly productive period for many individuals between the ages 18 through about 27. After that time, they just keep serving up the same.

I really wish that Jimi Hendrix had lived, but judging by the recordings he left behind, he would be playing "Foxy Lady" at the Indian casino.

Paco Wové said...

"Gold plated speaker wires!"

$21,000 speaker cables

The Crack Emcee said...

Shouting Thomas,

Nothing deters me.

Your CDs sucking will - now put 'em out and let's see the reviews.

Shouting Thomas said...

@madAsHell

Hendrix's estate executors are doing a giant artist a disservice by releasing every outtake he every produced in the studio.

The Crack Emcee said...

ST,

You're always bragging about what you're working on, but you haven't produced a single song yet that anyone agrees is any good.

What's all the hours of work for?

I make better music beating my meat in rhythm,...

gerry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dr Weevil said...

Interesting case study in psychopathy, extreme stupidity, or possibly demonic possession:

The same person who wrote "Dr Weevil, I hope blacks rape YOUR mother" two threads down wrote "But at least I don't suck" here less than 20 minutes later.

In fact, Cracks sucks like the suckiest thing in the universe, which would probably be a black hole - and no that's not racist, though I'm sure he thinks it is.

Shouting Thomas said...

@Crack

Criticism is part of the game.

As I told you, I'm not aiming for the Big Time. I'm just enjoying retirement, playing in 3 bands, writing and experimenting for the sheer pleasure of doing it, and getting out there to enjoy the company of other musicians and audiences.

I'm having a great time. The macho challenge to succeed in the Big Time is meaningless to me. I would get back out there on the road only if I could stay in 5 star hotels and travel by private jet. Nothing could get me back in the band bus.

My favorite gig is playing for Mass. My reviews are when parishioners approach me after Mass and thank me for giving them a few moments of peace and pleasure.

gerry said...

I take a perfect CD recording of my favorite songs and mix in static, scratchy noises, fake turntable rumble, and roll off the top end at 11 khz., and then put on headphones and crank it up.

Sounds just like 1972.

Dr Weevil said...

Does anyone else suspect that if Shouting Thomas did sell his music on-line, it would immediately attract a dozen one-star reviews with a dozen different names attached, all posted within an hour and with suspiciously similar language?

Dr Weevil said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shouting Thomas said...

I do sell my music online, but not under my comment pseudonym.

I don't want politics to be associated with my music, not even my own politics.

Dr Weevil said...

gerry:
I've got at least one CD that has fake record sounds (dropping needle, hiss, etc.) at the beginning and end and (I think) half-way through to represent a two-sided LP. It's by either Gillian Welch or Stacey Earle, but I forget which and am too lazy to check right now.

rcocean said...

"Also blown to hell was the ability of musicians to collect royalties for the music they produced."

Yes, If you were one of the very few luck enough to find a music company willing to gamble a $1 million on you.

Now musicians can sell their music direct, no more gatekeepers.

rcocean said...

I've noticed a drop in quality on a few of my favorite songs, some of the vocals don't seem as "warm" - but otherwise I can't tell the difference.

But then I'm a musical illiterate.

Tom Gallagher said...

The PONO music system aside, Neil Young gave hope to a lot of us who could only play five chords on the guitar and couldn't hold a note in a paper bag.

Joe said...

A few years back, I read an excellent take down of people claiming to detect differences in audio formats and equipment. Confirmation bias plays a huge role in these claims, which fall apart in true double-blind testing. Interestingly, the same author had an article showing that 24-bit audio is good for mixing, but will often actually sound worse to the consumer. If I find the link, I'll post it here.

TMink said...

Farmer, here in Nashville, 24 bit high res recording is pretty standard. They down size for cds. Would you like some files to listen to? If you can figure out a way, I will send you some to compare. If you can't hear the difference, OK. But I can and it makes a big difference in how I enjoy the music.

Trey

ganderson said...

I'm willing to concede that, given very expensive and well-maintained equipment ( not to mention PERFECTLY stored records) a record MIGHT be superior to CDs or audio files, but, for the average consumer of music the current setup, be it digital files or CDs is way better. The quality of low end equipment is much higher, too, I think(although I still like my old JBL L-26s) What interests me is the WAY people listen- I don't ever listen to albums any more- perhaps once when I first purchase something but after that it's all playlists, or perhaps the Internet Archive)

Joe said...

A big problem with Pono and claims of superiority of 24-bit audio--headphones or speakers are incapable of delivering the degree of quality which would allow you distinguish between those audio files and 320kbps MP3s. That's not even talking CODECs, software and hardware, which introduce and even higher variability.

John Lynch said...

I don't doubt that Bob Dylan or Neil Young can tell the difference between digital and analog recordings...but I can't. And neither can most of the people who claim they can.

Eugene said...

http://www.trustedreviews.com/mp3/review/2009/11/18/Sounds-Good-To-Me/p5

"There was no convincing evidence that those subjects who consider themselves audiophiles and have invested more in high-quality MP3 players or headphones could discern lossy from lossless audio files better than anyone else. What they could do, however, was give you more convincing arguments as to why one version sounded better than the other. In effect, they had better tools with which to convince themselves that their subjective impressions were correct, even when those impressions were entirely misleading."

William said...

I'm sure that Neil Young has a better ear than most people, but don't rock musicians and artillery officers suffer hearing loss later in life. Maybe he's trying to recapture the sound he heard through youthful ears. The way drug addicts need stronger drugs, maybe degenerate audiophiles need ever more expensive equipment for their sick pleasures.

PWS said...

I'm sympathetic to what Mr. Young is saying but isn't there more to music than the qualities of the system used to reproduce and disseminate it? Live music vs. headphones vs. car vs. living room are different experiences.
I still feel very moved/emotional by music coming from digital devices or in my car. The essence of a person's connection with music is deeper and more timeless than whatever the current delivery system is.

Fernandinande said...

Digital is completely wrong. It's a farce... [Y]our brain and your heart are starved for a challenge, and there's no challenge, there are no possibilities, there's no imagination.

Musicians tend to be superstitious, and Neil shouldn't pretend to be an audio engineer.

Great semi-techincal info on digital recording, superstitions and fads, featuring Mr. Young:
http://people.xiph.org/~xiphmont/demo/neil-young.html

Barry Dauphin said...

By the way, I think one reason taste in music changed is that people started listening to it in the car and then later on portable devices.

I suspect that every technological change in music has affected musical tastes, including the invention of various instruments and the invention of any form of recording.

Fernandinande said...

Farmer said -
The Pono will play 24bit 192Khz files that will put your mp3s to shame. ...
The claims about fidelity are easily demonstrated, and have been, in double blind listening.


I don't believe it (except that 192Hz sampling sounds worse than 44 or 48), so: cite for the double-blind, or preferably ABX testing?

Plenty of people - e.g. the writers at Stereophile magazine and their solid gold cables - imagine they can tell the difference between all kinds of things...until they do an ABX test.

Fred Drinkwater said...

Eugene: Sound a bit like wine tasting.
The group I attended years ago included novices through massively experienced tasters. One of the essential tasks of the elders was to give the novices a vocabulary and the imagination to use it, so they could communicate their subjective experiences.
The difference between that group, and the audiophiles I used to hang out with was this: the tasters really believed in De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum.
Also, they were generally nicer people. Maybe audiophiles should imbibe a bit before starting their arguments.

Eugene said...

The aforementioned link explains why 192kHz sampling sounds worse:

"192kHz digital music files offer no benefits. They're not quite neutral either; practical fidelity is slightly worse. The ultrasonics are a liability during playback . . . If the same transducer reproduces ultrasonics along with audible content, any nonlinearity will shift some of the ultrasonic content down into the audible range as an uncontrolled spray of intermodulation distortion products covering the entire audible spectrum."

And if seeing is believing, here's a demo showing that the analog input and the digitized output of an audio signal are exactly the same.

rhhardin said...

I save music in 11kbs (SIPR9) or 16kbs (Cooke) real audio files.

They're played through a ground loop isolator to a FM transmitter, from which it can be played on every FM receiver in the house.

It's not as warm as vinyl but it's close.

Sam L. said...

So if I look at Warhol paintings, and don't feel good...

Sam L. said...

Or, for that matter, most stuff labeled as ART...

pst314 said...

"Gold plated speaker wires!! You've got to have gold plated speaker wires. You can immediately hear the difference."

Gold plated AC power cords.

Joe said...

Another point is that many MP3 CODECs sucked a decade ago, especially at high compression. For example, I believe it was LAME which would clamp low and high frequencies up to 160kbps.

This is a big reason that when WMA first came out it was vastly superior to MP3 up to 160kbps; it was especially noticeable with classical music.

In the past few years, however, CODEC have gotten very, very good. 60kbps compressed audio today with either WMA or MP3 sounds better than 128kbps audio from the turn of the century. The latest LAME and WMA encoders are simply fantastic.

(And just wait until you see H265 video.)

ken in sc said...

Neil Young did not like southerners. Charlie Daniels did not like Neil Young. I don't care enough about why to learn why for either one of them. Plato thought that music people were important. I don't.