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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