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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Neil Young on the Trav­es­ty of MP3s

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Comments (30)
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  • Nick says:

    ” 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.

  • Roger Leatherwood says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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.

  • 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:

    For more info:

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

  • Turkmanistan says:

    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”.


    Some­one who does this for a liv­ing.

  • Turkmanistan says:

    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 says:

    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.

  • 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 says:

    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.


  • Michael Roney says:

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

  • Mark says:

    Doug hit the nail on the head. Well said.

  • Macferg says:

    “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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    @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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    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.

  • Patrick Dieter says:

    After 5 decades as a pro musi­cian, onstage, in the stu­dio, and hav­ing made AND pro­duced sev­er­al albums of orig­i­nal music, I think I may have some worth things to say.

    Just because you can’t hear the dif­fer­ence does­n’t mean there isn’t one. It also does­n’t mean that you can’t FEEL the dif­fer­ence. NO, I’m NOT going all hip­pie on you.

    Exam­ple: Mr. or Ms. Aver­age Music Lis­ten­er goes to a club. Maybe there’s a band, maybe a DJ. Either way, there’s a sound sys­tem. IF that sys­tem isn’t set up right, and there’s dis­tor­tion or poor sound of some sort, the AML WILL feel the dif­fer­ence. He/she just might­n’t real­ize it’s the music, but AML will be head­ed for the door in less than 10 min­utes, think­ing “This place sucks” or if they have half an ear, “this band sucks.” NO, they won’t KNOW they’re hear­ing the dif­fer­ence, but they will do what’s nec­es­sary to get away from the bad sound, any­way.

    Not every­thing is being record­ed with the hyper-com­pressed method, nor is this brassy BS some­thing new. There have always been “pop” records which delib­er­ate­ly lim­it the son­ic pal­lete in hopes of not con­fus­ing the lis­ten­ers. Obvi­ous­ly, they have a fair­ly low opin­ion of said lis­ten­ers. Too bad. Chances are, Mr. Young knows WTF of which he speaketh.

  • Harry van den Burg says:

    It’s been awful­ly qui­et the last three years.… Come on Neil, don’t leave us on ten­ter­hooks! Is it going to hap­pen? Can’t wait to be able to buy one!

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