Neil Young Reveals the New Killer Gadget That Will Save Music

In the opening minutes of his new memoir Waging Heavy Peace (I listened to the audio book, and you can too for free), Neil Young talks about his model trains, his extensive collection of vintage cars, and not much about music per se — although he does highlight his entrepreneurial effort to save the music industry with a new-fangled audio system called PureTone. 

For quite some time now, Young has lamented the decline of music during the digital age. It’s not pirating that’s the culprit. It’s the MP3, a format that degrades the quality of the music we hear. Speaking at a Wall Street Journal conference earlier this year (watch here), Young complained that the MP3 can’t “transfer the depth of the art.” “My goal,” he continued, “is to try and rescue the art form that I’ve been practicing for the past 50 years.”

Enter PureTone, which has actually been renamed Pono more recently. The device/music service will hit the market next year, and it essentially promises to let fans hear recordings in super high fidelity, as if they owned the original master tapes created by various artists. Not long ago, Flea, the bassist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, raved about the sound of Pono, telling Rolling Stone: “It’s not like some vague thing that you need dogs’ ears to hear. It’s a drastic difference.”

If that’s right, Young may do a great service for musicians everywhere, and make a lot of money for himself and others along the way. I mean imagine the number of remasters that could hit the market in the comings years, starting with two by Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and Highway 61 Revisited. A perfect place to begin.

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Neil Young on the Travesty of MP3s



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  • Nick

    ” It’s the MP3, a format that degrades the quality of the music we hear.”

    This is just wrong, an urban legend that someone needs to take down. I urge this blog to look into the details. Of course, low-quality MP3s (ie below 192 kbps) are no good. But over 192 it is almost impossible even for trained listeners to hear any difference. I wouldn’t be totally suprised if someone who works for a major label is partly to blame for the urban legend. And because of it, people are flocking, needlessly, to huge file sizes which choke up bandwidth.

    http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2012/06/concluding-the-great-mp3-bitrate-experiment.html

  • Roger Leatherwood

    While I appreciate Neil Young using his fame and legacy to bring attention to the fact that compressed music sounds terrible and we are at a technological point where we don’t need to accept it anymore (and specifically that music can still be _produced_ at high quality and can survive at or near master quality through to delivery), he does not seem to be the articulate spokesman for the job.

    In this interview and at the “Dive Into Media” conference he seemed barely able to make the points. Thankfully he’s not a slick salesman, but it’s easy to come away with the impression that he’s espousing some hippy-dippy idea of “the soul of music” stemming from his days in the ’60s counterculture.

    Cheers, Dan

  • CHRIS

    Stick with vinyl records! They sound best of all. Go analog. I can buy a record (whole album) in the thrift store for the price of one iTune low quality mp3. And on these records you will acually hear music and musical instruments instead of synthesized beats with autotuned voices! Who would have thought? :)

  • Keith

    I sure hopes this takes off because I can sure hear the difference. I’ve been feeling quite bad about the declining fidelity of music with MP3 and iTunes so it would be awesome if we could turn this around before it is too late.

  • Margaret-Rose STRINGER

    I was going to make a Comment of regret about the fact that we Downunder are unable to view the clip; but when I read the Comments already here, I realise I’m not missing anything.
    Nick and Roger, quite obviously, know what they’re talking about: Chris, whilst indubitably correct, writes of something that, for me, is TOO LATE.
    Together the trio’s arguments are powerful.

  • Kylwillimas11

    I couldn’t agree with Neil more. I listen to almost exclusively vinyl and since I can’t turn up my MP3 format up without it actually bringing physical pain to my ear drums. Sure, there would be a small market but it is the difference between DVD and BluRay. If this device came out tomorrow, I would be in line waiting for it.

  • http://geohistoriact.wordpress.com Andrés_Erre_Dos

    I totaly agree with Nick, the problem is not MP3 but the lack of dynamic range in most of modern recordings, music´s been terribly recorded since the early 90s, it´s a pity that, in a time when technology allows every note sound clear and pristine, producers are wasting the digital format by bad mastering, and yes, vinyl sounds much better ´cause it needs a more careful mastering, check this link out:

    http://www.dr.loudness-war.info/index.php?search_artist=muse&search_album=

    For more info:

    http://turnmeup.org/

    Music Industry is a liar, remastered versions sound much worse.

  • Turkmanistan

    Fraunhofer created a brilliant way to disseminate music for mass consumption with the mp3 codec…..however, that was a long time ago. The mp3 algorithm is no longer needed or relevant, given the advent of lossless data compression.

    The real issue here, is not the problem of bandwidth consumption or of lossy data compression schemes such as mp3 or AAC. Those concerns are technological and will soon go the way of the dinosaur as bandwidth increases.

    The issue with modern music is an ultra-compressed and heavily limited dynamic range in modern releases and “remasters”. Our music is no longer enjoyable to listen to, solely due to the fact that it is fatiguing and does not allow the chance for our auditory system to recover from an onslaught of loudness.

    We need to continue to develop algorithms that deal with relative loudness, such as sound check, etc. This way, A&R execs and artists won’t be putting pressure on mastering engineers to “grab that last 1dB of level”

    Even 16-bit digital audio has a MASSIVE dynamic range, of which, we use about 20%. Why aren’t we using it? Time to get out of the cycle of “being competitive” and get back into the cycle of “sounding good”.

    Love,

    Someone who does this for a living.

  • Turkmanistan

    Just food fpr thought, but one might also remember, that audiophiles are not the chief consumers of music, and will thusly never be pandered to on a large scale.

    Engineers every day are mangling the sound of a snare drum through an sm57, a neve 1073 and an 1176, while some spend thousands of dollars on oxygen-free gold power leads “for a richer soundstage” and “enhanced realism”.

    The idea of it all IS really a bit of a laugh ;)

  • Rob Ueberfeldt

    Niel Young blames MP3 then says we need to be able to platy music at a better quality than CD.

    That MP3 is a low quality form of music compressionand and that anyone can hear the difference between full bit rate cd files and MP3 is debatable, that we can hear the difference between the “master disks” and CD isn’t.

    Mr Young is either very confused or just trying to make a bit of cash getting in on the shirt tales of I-pod.

  • http://www.boscosgrindhouse.com Orlando G Acosta

    The big miss I see with a lot of posts here is that people argue and debate bit rates and compression and file sizes while the real issue is that digital cannot replicate the warmth and feeling that analog has. It comes down to not only analog vs’ digital but convenience vs’ passion. Are you passionate about music enough to seek out good old fashioned analog whenever possible or are you too into the fact that you can store thousands of songs in a device smaller than your pinky, at the expense of the ‘experience’?

  • Doug

    I think that there are multiple issues with current recording and releases and Neil does know what he’s talking about, if he doesn’t explain it all that well. First, people just put up with pure crap these days … I have been to numerous large live shows with terrible sound coming out of massive expensive sound systems. The idea seems to be to maximize volume and kick drum with no interest in any other aspect of the sound … and it’s painful. Then, in November I saw (hey!) Neil Young in an arena and the sound was great and super loud … when leaving I commented to my wife that although it had been very loud and you could hear every instrument and voice, my ears weren’t ringing …. somebody knows what they’re doing and cares.

    Some time ago recording went to crap. It became all about cranked bass and drums … music for morons. While it is now possible to fiddle with every little parameter and cut and paste every note in ProTools, people should learn when NOT TO. Good engineers know this … it is far more about good mics, mic placement and quality equipment than about fixing everything afterwards. Neil also knows this very well, and records most things with a live band off the floor, as it should be. Many recordings now are so far from live that it’s not really a band recording at all, but a collage. The new Anthrax album sounded like ProTools … great songs, perfect execution … only exists on a computer. Every sound is in a box, and it sounds like it.

    I’ve gotten back into buying vinyl again, because it sounds great. I’d forgotten what it was like, but now I want everything I buy to be vinyl. It’s not only the sound, though, but also he format itself. Records are linear, and you listen to them from beginning to end, as the artists intended. They have a narrative, which is not at all the same as listening to random tracks. As my local record shop guy says, “you have a date with a record … you decide it’s time, you sit down and put it on and you pay attention to it … it’s what you’re doing, not something going on in the background”. It’s a physical medium, and whether or not you can explain why, you can tell the difference.

    I’m not going to judge Neil’s digital device until I hear it … so far, though, he’s always been right.

    Doug

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  • Michael Roney

    So what are the basic Puretone specs? Bit rate File size for a typical song, etc.? Nobody seems to be answering those questions.

  • Mark

    Doug hit the nail on the head. Well said.

  • Macferg

    “The issue with modern music is an ultra-compressed and heavily limited dynamic range in modern releases and “remasters”. Our music is no longer enjoyable to listen to, solely due to the fact that it is fatiguing and does not allow the chance for our auditory system to recover from an onslaught of loudness.” – Turkmanistan.

    For sure. Does PureTone/Pono intend to (with the permission of the record companies/Master owners) remaster especially for this format? What about remastering albums that are considered casualties of the ‘loudness war” over the last 15+ years such as: Red Hot Chilli Peppers – Californication, Audioslave – Out Of Exile ?

  • peter corriveau

    i was trying to view your interview with johny carson on your pure tone topic and it’s said i can’t open it because it is not available in this country, i’m on canada your old “stompin grounds” whats up?? where can i sample it’s superior sound??

  • Steve B

    Have yet to hear a quality 5.1 MP3 (it doesn’t exist). Check out what Steven Wilson is doing. Digital CAN sound better than analog, if recorded and engineered properly. Neil is on the right track, SW already there.

  • Joe S

    I admit that I took the bait and recently purchased many CDs that said, “Remastered”. I mistakenly thought that was synonymous with “better”. Oh the heartsickness I felt when I realized something was making my ears tired and making me agitated. I started loading some of the tunes into wave editors and to my horror I saw what was once a beautiful waveform with peaks and valleys turned into one massive green solid line.

    I now shy away from remasters like a beat dog around his owner. May God bless Neil Young and his efforts to save music.

    In the meantime, does anybody know of any methods I can use to regain some dynamic range with what I now regretfully own?

  • Taci Zunzer

    I can’t wait till pureTone (Poko) is available to the public. I’ve never downloaded an MP3 but have heard them others have downloaded them. Neil Young is absolutely right. The sound is terribly degraded on MP3s. I want to hear the music as if the musicians were in my living room.

  • toddB

    Joe S., nothing you can do I’m afraid. The peaks and dynamics of those r-e-b-a-s-t-a-r-d CDs are gone and can’t be restored. You can only lower the gain and resave the lossless files to reduce distortion. Better to seek out older CD masters or vinyl. Also look into DVD and Blu-ray releases from artists like Steven Wilson.

  • djeaux

    @Macferg has, as did the hippie carpenter, hit the head on the nail. The “loudness wars” & overcompression to make tracks jump out of lousy FM or mp3 systems has been going on for over a decade. To restore dynamic range to something that was mastered to eliminate dynamic range is quite the challenge!

    We make trade-offs to make our musical “artifacts” (recordings). Those who rave about vinyl these days forget that vinyl only has that terrific dynamic range for a few plays, unless one is invested in extremely expensive equipment, in which case one gets a few more plays before the wear takes its toll. The CD was as much about media that would withstand abuse & be portable as it was about sonic quality, and the mp3 was about even more portability. The Pono concept recognizes that technology has advanced to the point where the portability vs quality trade-off isn’t so bad.

    But unfortunately, for at least the past 15 years the commercial artifacts have been mastered to compensate for the quality vs portability trade-off. Pono may be great but I doubt they’ll have the resources to remaster everything for the past couple of decades.

  • Sorcerer

    I have a long standing audio engineering background and have worked with tons of gear over the years in different applications. I’d love to see this effort take off, but as many have mentioned…there really is so much more to it than on the surface. As djeaux states; bringing back proper dynamic range is the first step. This of course follows proper recording, and solid preamps. The term warmth is an amateur term also. It’s transparency you are looking for. Warmth is the side effect that our ears perceive in our audible spectrum range. What made Neve consoles for example, sound so good was that they actually extended well below and above the human hearing spectrum range, coupled with great tube preamps and channel strips. Hence, while you might not actually hear all those differences, you will “feel” them. Because they are still there. And this is actually that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you hear music done this way. This of course provided they don’t squash the hell out of it and destroy all those beautiful dynamics in the mastering process..which many do also nowadays. So as you can see, there’s a lot of things to change if you want to truly make new music still have this feel. I’ve heard stunning recordings totally destroyed by a bad mastering engineer, who pushes it for loudness. Those are not mastering artists, they are “sonic maximizers” and this is often what the job has become, especially in modern electronic based music. BUT…it doesn’t have to be that way.

    I too long for better sound that doesn’t sound like total squashed shyte. But this would mean most of the people doing home recording on Garage Band on their laptops, would actually have to learn the physics of audio too and stop just pushing buttons. You can learn it at your local library if you really need to. I really REALLY encourage that actually. All these people calling themselves producers, who know nothing about the trade beyond wanting to be called one. Arghhhh.

    And that’s my 2 cents.

  • derek

    I wholeheartedly agree with Neil’s approach. But note that it has been done before. Two excellent formats (Super Audio CD – SACD)and DVD-Audio (DVD-A). Both used 24 bit 96Kh pristine sound in 5.1 channels of sonic goodness. I bought into it maybe 10 years ago as did many others. I have SACD’s and DVD-A’s ranging from Dark Side of the Moon to Porcupine Tree’s fantastic work on In Absentia. I agree with the earlier poster that Steve Wilson from PT gets it and has been doing what Neil wants to do for a decade.

    Here’s the problem. Most people don’t care. I cared a lot and bought dozens of high resolution recordings. But it never caught on and it died about 3 or 4 years ago.

    If you want to experience this type of sound now, go buy an Oppo Blu ray player that has backward compatability with DVD-A and SACD. Try to track down some old discs like Porcupine Tree Deadwing or In Absentia, or Linkin Park, or Even Neil Young who has a few in this format. Give it a listen. Unless you are deaf or your system is awful you will hear a major difference.

    But people don’t know how to listen to music anymore. They just jam $10 earbuds into their ears and listen to random shuffles of overproduced ‘hits’. I hope Neil can roll back the clock and show the masses what they are missing. But frankly, the masses don’t know who Neil is. Good luck Neil!

  • Trevor

    I think Neil is the godfather of bringing music back to its roots. I spin records and there is a discernible difference between records and digital music (192) through a good DAC (Burr-Brown). Yes, it makes a difference.
    One issue I have is that Neil Young’s new album is priced at $73. Well, its two records, but hardly a double album. While he is promoting better music, you can bet your gonna pay for it.
    As for SACD, DVD-A, and other, better than CD and MP3, digital methods, there is a catch. Most recordings are done two channel and 5.1 channel is not it’s original method. Hence, unless the music is recorded in 5 channels or more, then you need to listen to music in two channels. Yeah, you can have 4 speakers, or even more, but it’s still left and right channels.
    So if you listen to 5.1 sound, your most likely getting a rehashed version that the artist did not intend. 5.1 is for movies (yes, and soundtracks). But 2-channel sound is for music. Always will be.
    Only caveat I have is that not only is Neil’s new album $73, but if you want a new record player and preamp, figure $600. Now get an amp and two speakers (figure another $600) and voila!! its only $1,273 too listen to “Driftin’ Back”!

  • Thomas

    It’s not a “digital” fault. (Well it can be). The main blame goes to producers, mixers, and masterers who want everything to be as loud as possible. Yeah, the MP3 file will compress the sound a bit. But if it sounds like garbage on CD or even vinyl, the file will sound just as bad. “Californication” is clear on this.nnnBlame the production, not the “file”.

  • CrimsonKidA

    An 160 GB iPod classic with lossless files already does this, and at about half the price. And the Pono is in the shape of an effing triangle?!? I honestly don’t see why this is being made…

  • David Unsworth

    I hear the remark often repeated that it is “impossible” for humans to hear the difference between a 193 kb MP3 and the CD but feel that whilst this may be true, they are missing three key points.

    1. First is the difference between CD and Vinyl is drastic. CD sound is audibly different even to people who are hard of hearing.

    For those of us born before 1980, it is hard not to prefer vinyl. The sound feels richer and warmer. I have never yet heard a copy of Van Morrisson’s Moondance that was able to reflect the record’s warmth of instrument but also searing vocal quality. Impossible to reproduce at any graphic equaliser setting with a CD.

    2. Neil Young’s aim is not to reproduce CD sound. He was as equally vocal a critic of the CF as he is of MP3′s. The ambition of Puretone is to reproduce the quality of an acetate, a sound consumers have never had access to previously.

    3. When I did my degree in cognitive science ten years ago I found the field is fraught with conundrums like this, where the theoretical maximum bandwidth of the human cognitive systems is seemingly exceeded in some practical cases. For an unrelated but important example, a cricket batsman should not be able to detect the direction of a cricket ball from a very fast bowler and certainly impossible to adjust their stroke. Yet in the real world we see batsmen doing just that. The reason this is vitral is it illustrates the point that we are learning more and more nnot just about the basic sensory capabilities of the human cognition system but also the brain that processes these and as we learn we often have to adjust our markers on the bandwidth bar of how much we think humans can see, hear or feel.

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