Neil Young Wants Perfect Sound. Here's Why I Don't.

Categories: The Upsetter

The Upsetter (one).jpg
Today, at last, Neil Young and I are united in our ambitions: we would like you to go back in time, to Valentine's Day 1967. We want you to enter a recording studio in New York. This is a session for Atlantic Records, so the great Jerry Wexler is there, as is King Curtis and his saxophone. Most remarkably, though, is the presence of Aretha Franklin, who, as I write these words, is belting out the first verse to a record that will, for several generations to come, assert itself, time and again, as a masterpiece of soul music. The song is "Respect," written by Otis Redding.

Now, the best I can do to get you to conjure this scene is pile on word-after-word, each offering detail-after-detail. Maybe I can embed a video of the record. Sure, I'll do that: right here.

Neil Young, on the other hand, thinks he can do one better than I, as far as our twin dream goes, of returning you back to that room in New York, almost 50 years ago. And really, who am I to argue with Neil Young?

Next year, Young is set to launch a new music service called Pono, whose purpose is "to save the sound of music." More specifically, Pono will act as a corrective to digital-download services that offer music to consumers in highly compressed formats. The service will include a store for downloads where you'll be able to buy "Respect," among thousands of other titles, each download boasting a "digital-to-analog conversion technology intended to present songs as they first sound during studio recording sessions."

Oh, and above all this, Young has been demonstrating Pono by playing a lossless "Respect" from his souped-up Cadillac Eldorado to industry insiders like Red Hot Chili Pepper bassist Flea. Me? I'm reporting to you from a five-year-old MacBook with a janky "I" key.

But still. I like my means better.

Why? Well, I want to return to Pono's promise to "present songs as they first [sounded] during studio recording sessions." This is a refrain familiar in the annals of recording technology. As early as the 1890s, "perfect sound forever" was Emile Berliner's hard sell when, with his then novel-idea of capturing sound on lacquered discs, he began to challenge the fidelity of Thomas Edison's cylinders. Then there was "The Golden Age of Hi-Fi," in the 1950s, which some readers will associate with its brothers-in-kitsch, the exotica and tiki booms. Believe it or not, superior sound was once even the claim compact discs enthusiasts made in the 1980s, as the digital format began to supersede vinyl at record stores.

But when I think about the "Respect" session, it doesn't excite me at all to think there might be an audio format waiting in the not-too-distant future that will finally liberate the unmediated reality of that day's performance from the limitations of the tools used to render it. In fact, such a promise as the one Pono makes runs counter to the very reason I listen to records in the first place.

When I listen to a record, I want to hear the music, sure, but I want to hear the technology, too. I want mediated experiences that are less -- not more -- like reality. I want this so I can more easily file my first-hand memories into one drawer, while keeping my second-hand memories (those I get from record-players, TV sets, books, and art galleries) in another, lower drawer. The hyper-realism of hi-res photography and video has already started to violate my filing system some. I'm not too thrilled by the prospect of old records I already intimately know learning the same tricks.

Next: Why I like the skips and pops of old vinyl

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Nice piece of writing. My favorite: the ad at the bottom showing the young nude women wrestling and the "Ten hot, sweaty silly Coachella dances," also with nude or scantily clad young women. We don't have that sort of thing here in the South.


Well, this high-fi thing has been tried before and I'd be surprised if it took off. 

Every so often I browse around for the latest in audio tech or representation and they're here and there. We had SACD and DVD-A. We had sites that promised high quality. I'm not sure people care. Not many people actually sit down and LISTEN to music anyway. Everyone's on the go, in their car, sound-tracking their busy lives with background sound(noise). Do they notice the fidelity in that din? Maybe, but not enough to warrant a sea change in people's habits enough to SEEK hi fi audio. There will always be a niche. It's good for that I suppose


 @mattedj "Not many"?

I still actually listen closely to music, so do MANY others.

Neil's whole point is that very few people have ever heard a master recording, and if they have an easy way to do so they will love it. As I understand it, the Pono player allows a listener to directly compare the sound of an uncompressed, high-fidelity recording to the same music as an Mp3. If the price is similar nobody will buy the crappy Mp3 once they hear the difference.

He talks about this quite a bit in his new book, Making Heavy Peace.

I sure hope he's right.


Stout, I'm not really sure you get it.  You talk about wanting to hear the technology, like the hiss and pop of a vinyl record, but only old timers, hipsters, and niche audiophiles like myself are listening to vinyl these days. Young's PONO is not seeking to compete against vinyl but rather low quality mp3s.


You say your rule is "the higher the fidelity, the less evocative its playback, the less true and unique my listening experience."  You do know that vinyl is high fidelity, much more so than CD and certainly mp3, right?  Vinyl can produce frequencies between 10 Hz and 60,000 Hz.  CD's go from 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz.  With mp3’s it depends on the algorithm used, but almost all algorithms remove frequencies higher than 16000 Hz, frequencies lower than 100 Hz, as well as all sorts of frequencies in between.  So are you saying you like listening more to mp3’s than you do vinyl or CD’s? Because both of those are considerably higher fidelity.  Or are you saying you enjoy the surface artifacts like the hiss and pop in vinyl?


I love the popping and hissing when I listen to my old vinyl.  The experience is like traveling back in time to the days when these recording were first pressed.  But I also like the warmth and depth of the sound, with wide volume ranges that come through with simultaneous clarity.


In contrast, the mp3 sounds tinny and thin.  Volume range is compressed, which “muddies” the sound.  Low frequencies are removed taking away the warmth of the bass.  There aren’t flaws related to the physical playing surface, like the hum, hiss, and background noise found on cassettes and vinyl, because there is no physical object.  There just isn’t as much music there. How does this added to the experience of the subjective?


Maybe your confusing high compression (mp3) with the genre of low fidelity music (rock bands like the Pixies, Pavement, Modest Mouse, etc.).  In this case, low fi refers to the presence of technical flaws like distortion, hum, and background noise that are generated by low quality recording equipment.  Now that has an aesthetic quality that can be appreciated.


PONO isn’t obsoleting your record player or your tape deck.  Its an alternative to the mp3- high quality with portability.  You say you like the music and the technology, well its the new technology.  Not everybody got to hear Aretha record RESPECT live in studio.  For those of us who didn’t, we’d rather hear the master recording then a highly compressed file.



Stout, if this is serious you're a total idiot.

I can see you now, listening to the run-out groove on an old LP over and over again,  your face painted with ecstacy as it brings back memories of crackles and pops from the past..

Must be satire...


Go Neil!


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