Neil Young on the Travesty of MP3s

Neil Young made headlines last week when he appeared at the Wall Street Journal’s “D: Dive Into Media” conference and voiced his disapproval of the way music is being heard these days. “We live in a digital age,” Young said, “and unfortunately it’s degrading our music, not improving it.”

Young is deeply dissatisfied with the sound quality of compressed MP3 digital files, which he said carry only five percent of the data from the original vinyl or master recordings. “It’s not that digital is bad or inferior,” he told the Journal‘s Walt Mossberg and Peter Kafka. “It’s that the way it’s being used is not sufficient to transfer the depth of the art.”

The full 32-minute interview is now available online, and can be seen above. Throughout the discussion, Young’s commitment to his cause is clear. “My goal,” he said, “is to try and rescue the art form that I’ve been practicing for the past 50 years.”

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Comments (24)
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  • Carlos J. says:

    Very interesting! I’m not an audiophile, but definitively Neil has a good points, the size of quality audio files is not a problem, we can leave that downloading along the day/night and enjoy a great music, and as he says we truly don’t know the difference because all or must of what the average user is exposed to is to that 5% quality mp3 files.

    Recently I bought an 5.1 surround speaker system for my computer room and all the music I listen to has different quality, some sound extremely well all surround while others simply play just nice.

    A coworker always got the bluray movies, because they had better video and audio quality while we said it was a waste of time, that we could just get the regular ones and still would be good, but after a while I switched to a better quality when you get the chance to really compare the 2 sides of the coin.

  • Randy Tellez says:

    Progress is progress..MP3 files are simply an easier way to distribute music and a well enough method to store a lot of data (music) in small spaces or small pieces of hardware. There are tons of audio enhancement programs available. Look at the differance between broadcast radio and MP3 files played in a vehicle – I’d rather listen to an MP3 file. I have a 5.1 audio system on my desktop and an iPod touch..I can take my MP3 music files anywhere and I enjoy my home system…can’t play vinyl in a car or sitting at the doctor’s office waiting room. And vinyl will degrade much faster than a CD…and no degredation of an MP3 file. Progress is progress…get over it.

  • Super Dave says:

    Don’t confuse mp3 files with digital media. Mr. Young has nothing bad to say about digital media, he just wants people to have access to files that contain the full source material and not just a snippet like what we get now. If we were given the ability to buy the full files, we could still use our digital devices like an iPod. The only issue would be file size. The convenience of the product would be the same. When he made mention of the iPod, he was referring to a redesign of the product so that it could handle the full quality of the media, which at the present time the iPod isn’t close to handling. There really isn’t any reason why what he says couldn’t and shouldn’t be done.

  • Ken Cowan says:

    Good gravy, those two guys talking to Neil are irritating. I run into this same issue when discussing photography with the average Joe, and the general public is just as clueless, and misses the issue of available quality, just like these two schmucks.

  • Ingrid Venice Mentor says:

    I am an “old broad” – Neil is right on. I listen to music ALL the time and when Neil said “there is really no other option to MP3” he is right. Once again, ignorance is NOT bliss – you miss out on GREAT sound. By the way, Kevin Cowan, I agree with you – the general public is clueless. ( I too am a photographer and it blows my mound what “young people” think is good and great and will argue about the quality of the image.) The bar has been lowered to the point of subterranean lows. Those two guys are jokesters – no respect or comprehension. Notice how they could only identify with the back end of the donkey – typical and sad.

  • Ingrid Venice Mentor says:

    I am an “old broad” – Neil is right on. I listen to music ALL the time and when Neil said “there is really no other option to MP3” he is right. Once again, ignorance is NOT bliss – you miss out on GREAT sound. By the way, Kevin Cowan, I agree with you – the general public is clueless. ( I too am a photographer and it blows my MIND what “young people” think is good and great and will argue about the quality of the image.) The bar has been lowered to the point of subterranean lows. Those two guys are jokesters – no respect or comprehension. Notice how they could only identify with the back end of the donkey – typical l and sad.

  • Marc says:

    “The bar has been lowered to the point of subterranean lows. ”

    @Ingrid – I would love to hear you explain this one. I’m a graphic designer in his 40s and I disagree with you 100%.

  • D. Thomas says:

    I agree with Mr. Young on the fact that the industry has become stuck on a grossly inferior format and has failed to give the consumer any choice.

    However, after listening to the whole interview, it seems that Mr. Young is actually indulging in the old audiophile CD vs. vinyl debate, even though he denies it. He discounts lossless digital (16-bit, 44.1k–the same as CD) formats as only slightly better than MP3. He seems to be advocating a 24-bit, 96k standard.

    I disagree. I contend that there is an enormous difference between MP3 and CD quality, which is entirely due to the distortion, or “artifact” in engineering jargon, introduced by MP3 data compression. That is an entirely separate issue from the bit depth or the sampling rate. I contend that the greatest improvement can be gained by simply upgrading from MP3 to lossless, which can be done with existing players. Yes, 24-bit, 96k is better than CD-quality, but that difference is only noticeable on audiophile systems.

    He is also incorrect in thinking that a device containing a 24-bit D/A converter can be manufactured as cheaply as existing devices, even in volume.

    Finally, Mr. Young also fails at math.

  • Annie says:

    Yeah, but remember those horrible transistor radios we all listened to in the 70s? We were lucky to get 1% of the sound of the music but it didn’t stop us.

  • johnvile says:

    mp3 is rubbish. but when u see kids walking around listening to music from a phone speaker.. qualitys not really an issue.
    sound and music has been mobile for decades. in its mobility it just changes shape.

  • Bob Sellon says:

    All Neil is saying is that you lose musical/audio information when you reproduce it with 16 bits at a 44.1kHz sample rate(CD quality). Anyone who has ever played an acoustic guitar knows that the sound of the instrument coming through speakers, even with the best mics, preamps and speakers, is an inferior to hearing the instrument live. Still very good, but very different from hearing the wood causing the air in the room to vibrate. CDs were invented at a time when the storage of audio data at 16/44.1 was quite expensive. And bulky. Compromises were made but a very good standard emerged that ushered in the age of digital age. I think Neil is just asking the people who make computers, phones and software to give us the 24/192 option. I’d wager that the 24/192 AD/DA converters are nearly the same price as 16/44.1 versions. Data size/disk space is certainly an issue but less so all the time. Due to the nature of the data, loss-less compression would also yield excellent space savings. Neil has certainly spent a goodly amount of time in the presence of live instruments, not to mention 24/192 recording equipment, so he certainly speaks with authority. I think he just doesn’t want you to miss out on the good stuff (especially when you don’t need to).

  • Tom says:

    I agree 100% with Neil. I don’t get why so many people are defending the degradation of audio. A good entry level dac-converter (up to 192kHz-24bit) is available for less than 300$. If your portable device doesn’t accept high-resolution files you can downconvert them with freeware (Audacity) to cd or mp3 quality for on-the-go. Or maybe they could offer an extra mp3-copy with the download (think of blu-ray combopacks including dvd & digital download). MP3 was cool in the Napster-days. Now we have broadband-modems, cheap storage devices. Even streaming of lossless and high-res. audio is possible. So, why all the hate? At this moment let you pay a “premium price” for an inferior, worthless format. Seems like you didn’t move on with you “prehistoric” mp3-format? Neil seems to be more up-to-date with modern technology than the average teenager.

  • Liam Ocean says:

    Neil is the quintessential analog guy being polite in a digital world whilst crusading for better quality sound from the people who manufacture the digital medium. I’ve always believed there is a very real warm difference between digital and analog sound and that we are right now compromising real tape analog warmth for pro tools produced compressed digital emulations. Tubes, transistors, and capacitors gave real electricity and warmth to recordings. They gave us the human factor. Digital ones and zeros are just emulations and lack the human factor. That’s one of the reasons all this digital music blends together and sounds the same. The true human warmth is missing. Sacrificed for the sake of efficiency. Neil is obviously working on helping get the proper sound out but we need a sea change in recording. The digital age is obviously here but at what cost? We seem to have given up our souls for it. All the music sounds the same to me these days. Being digitally produced it’s in one ear and out the other. Yet throw on one cool album from the 70’s recorded on an old SST board and voila! Goose bumps. That’s the difference.

  • Johnny Rotten says:

    In 2008 I bought TV On The Radio’s new album on its release date on itunes.
    Songs sold in 128kbps. No joke…first I just couldn’t believe it.
    This comes only to show how disrespectful itunes operates with an artistic product in favor for strictly commercial intentions. It’s disrespectful to the consumer but also towards the artist, who’s creation is simply degenerated.
    Bunch of people dealing with a product and have no sense for its value, it’s a shame. It’s sad. No more itunes ever since.

  • Rick Pearson says:

    Everything is one thing….energy. And all energy vibrates and therefore produces sound. So, the most fundamental quality of the manifest universe is sound! We are vibrational beings swimming in a divine vibrational soup. It follows naturally that vibration is the basis of every perception we have. Beyond that, matter only makes up .0000000…1 percent of the universe and the rest is space. We exist mostly in the non-material universe where we think, dream, imagine and FEEL….where our soul resides. Music is our most direct connection to the Great Spirit that keeps printing out the material universe in an ever changing kaleidoscope. With our music we get to channel the great mystery and wonder and love that we FEEL…as well as everything else we express. The reason loss-less audio is so important is that we FEEL at 100 percent, not 5 percent, hopefully. A music mp3 is a plastic Jesus hanging from the rear view mirror on the donkey. Loss-less audio is god….potentially. Neil Young (and some rich guys) to the rescue!

  • Rick Pearson says:

    By the way, I just bought a ‘new’ guitar amp. It’s a 1965 Fender Dual Showman and it’s the best sounding amp I’ve had since….well, about 1965. I’m 65! The thing about being 65 is that my musical, electric guitar playing ears were ‘tuned’ when I was a teenager. I wish I still had the Fender Telecaster that I had when I was in high school! I wonder who’s got that one now. For the last several years I’ve tried modern amp after modern amp to find the tone that none of them possess. Tweak, tweak, tweak…..ahhh…..vintage Fender tube amp….solid pine box….priceless. As Neil said, garbage in, garbage out. It affects music in more ways than one.

  • Jon Banks says:

    Every format has it’s place. I listen to MP3s, CDs & Vinyl. I also play drums, and have done so in bands, & guitar(badly). Anybody who has been to a gig knows what music is supposed to sound like. What people need is choice and that includes having to choice to listen to music at it’s best, the way the artist / producer intended. Good luck Neil.

  • Ben says:

    My modified tube red book cd Player , SET amp & single driver horn speakers sound just fine.Do not need high res.files.

  • pimaCanyon says:

    Most people can’t hear the difference, but there is a difference. It’s subtle and it affects you in ways you’re likely not aware of. I believe that’s Neil’s point. You may not be able to hear the difference but the music doesn’t move you the way it used to, it doesn’t affect you as deeply as full spectrum sound does. I know for myself I rarely listen to music these days. I used listen quite a bit when I had a setup that played vinyl.

  • John Pearson says:

    I have been in the visual arts for over 35 years,you become sensitive to “reading” paintings and while evaluating works can feel a fake from the real thing.In general clients could not differentiate between a copy,reproduction or original in reality its all about the details. Same with music-It may sound the same but its the space between the frequencies, that where the soul dwells.

  • Russell Oates says:

    One saviour…

  • TimJ says:

    Sure something – or quite a lot – is lost when music is converted to mp3. But many of us grew up listening to AM car stereos, 8 tracks, clock radios, and crummy “hifi” consoles and it didn’t keep us from enjoying the music. Mp3 is better than nothing if all you have is mp3.

  • Zorbitor says:

    When recorded music became built around the drum tracks it was ruined forever

  • Willard says:

    this is exactly right! who cares? if the music is GOOD, we’ll listen to it through a rolled up tube and not care! I remember hearing that John Fogerty used to test CCRs recordings on a cassette deck in his pickup truck: because he knew that was how most people would hear it! If it’s a crappy transistor radio, crappy cassette/8-track, or crappy ipod playing 96kbps mp3s: who cares?

    none of us, except the few anal-retentive, OCD-driven audiophiles with the money for a great sound system (or Pono device!!), are ever going to care about anything but “good enough” sound. we’re never ever going to hear what the band hears in the studio.

    that said, Neil is right about the industry marketing crap to us, and how we are all guilty of letting them do that to us. We all don’t need Ponos, but someone should spend a few extra minutes mastering these albums better!

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