Dr. AIX's POSTS — 17 September 2014

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I had a very pleasant phone call with the former CEO of Pono yesterday. John Hamm has been traveling a great deal since his departure from Pono, but we finally managed to connect. I knew I liked John when we first connected in April during the Pono Kickstarter initiative, which he conceived as the way to launch Neil’s dream of better quality music. I especially enjoyed spending time with him in Chicago at the AXPONA show…that’s where I heard the Pono player and he experienced some of my best high-resolution surround recordings. This former audio engineer, current audiophile, and businessman knew exactly what he was hearing in my demonstration room. I was thoroughly impressed. John is a guy that understands music, music, and money. Pono was very fortunate to have someone with his experience and dedication on board during the launch of the company.

Our conversation was private and I’m not going to share any information that John shared in confidence with me. He still regards Neil and the Pono enterprise favorably. However, there were issues and important choices that had to be made for a rapidly growing company…and differences emerged that ultimately caused a split. John was replaced as CEO by Neil Young and has moved in another direction. He wishes the company success…and I do as well.

Pono should focus on being straightforward, transparent, and honest about what’s being offered to customers of Pono. They have a great piece of hardware and I’m confident that the website will be wonderful. However, I felt let down when I discovered that virtually ALL of the tracks on the Ponomusic website will be ripped CDs at 44.1 kHz/16-bit FLAC. That’s not what I expected from Neil and his organization. It runs counter to his pronouncements and evangelizing all these years. He was all about 192 kHz/24-bit FLAC as the minimum standard for “rediscovering the soul of music”.

Here’s some additional information from their Executive Summary:

“The large majority of music we listen to today is digital. Because music is made up of analog waves, it is impossible fully to record those waves digitally because the music must be captured as a series of numeric samples saved as bits (0s and 1s). This is where digital recording devices are used to sample audio waves thousands of times a second, capturing the “loudness” of sound waves at each point in time – a process called analog-to-digital conversion. Ultimately, the digital bits end up on a playback device where the reverse process takes place. The data is processed through a Digital-to-Analog Convertor (DAC), which attempts to reproduce the original analog waves based on the digital samples. Clearly, the more samples taken and the better the loudness spectrum of each sample, the higher the quality of analog sound that can be reproduced. This is the essence of high-resolution audio.”

This is where a little more knowledge of digital sampling theory and practice would be helpful (as well as knowing the difference between loudness and amplitude). The Pono folks are suggesting that, “it is impossible fully to record those waves” because the process and storage containers are binary as opposed to analog tape, lacquer, foil, wire, or vinyl. This is wishful thinking and may work as a useful sound bite but is otherwise completely false. A well-designed high-resolution digital production chain consisting of an ADC and DAC running at 96 kHz/24-bits is more than adequate to record and reproduce the fidelity “as it was recorded by the artist and to experience music the way the artist intended.” Anything higher than 96 kHz/24-bits is overkill. When people start talking about 384 kHz and even 768 kHz sample rates and 32-bits, they’re in spin mode again. It’s pure fantasy.

It’s also not true that, “the more samples taken and the better the loudness spectrum of each sample, the higher the quality of analog sound that can be reproduced ” To a degree, fidelity benefits from higher sample rates and longer words but the capture system only needs to exceed the fidelity of the original recording when you’re transferring older masters. Contrary to their statement, this has nothing to do with high-resolution audio.

High-resolution audio is sound that has been captured and distributed at fidelity levels that meet or exceed the capability of the human ear. Analog tape doesn’t get us there. CDs get very close. Real High-Resolution Digital does! Calling anything else high-resolution runs counter to reality.

To quote Bruce Hornsby, “That’s just the way it is”.

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(5) Readers Comments

  1. The old bait ‘n’ switch.

    It will be interesting to see what this does to Young’s legacy.

    The day Pono comes out, HTC will probably start a big promotion campaign. Maybe even Apple.

    Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword. (hoping no danger comes to anyone)

  2. I think part of the issue with Neil Young is that it seems he genuinely does not understand many of the basic aspects of digital technology and seems immune to learning the basics from people close to him that obviously do. Just look at how he conflates sampling rate with dynamic range in the following quote extracted from an interview:

    “CC: Will Pono have an effect on the Loudness Wars or encourage less dynamic range compression?

    NY: (Long pause) Well, I don’t know. It could. To me dynamic range is king. The music decides how compressed it is. If you make a mix and you make the mix, not mastering, in the mix, that’s where you do the compression. You compress certain instruments as an effect. That’s really all you want. You want that shit to pump so that’s what you compress. Why compress what comes and goes? You don’t have to make that decision in mastering. The artist can make the decision. If they want something that pumps and grooves all the way through like ah, what the hell is the name, it’s a great great band, two guys, two guys (The Black Keys -CC), Yeah, they are great. They use a lot of compression in their mixing. They record at like 48. I’ve noticed what they do. They’ll have more to play with. They can still have that sound and have it be a 192 master with just like one area of the song, maybe the hook, or one instrument be 192, just fucking, what the hell is that! The mix is made up of these two things (sample rates). You get source stuff that is 48k, it’s not going to be higher than 48k unless you put acoustic echo on it and that echo will be at 192k. Using resolution as an effect is one of the offshoots of Pono. That’s one of the creative tools that people like the Black Keys, Kanye West, Eminem, Jay Z, LIl’ Wayne, can use. They are very creative, let them go, let them have whatever they want we just give them more.”

    I don’t think he can be educated in public. I think at a minimum it would take a very, very prominent popular artist and a similarly prominent recording engineer to privately sit down with him in a studio and with a few charts to begin his (re)education. But perhaps that’s been tried and he dismissed it all.

    • Sidenote: in that same interview, Neil Young was apparently bothered by the possibility that one of his own recordings had been upsampled for distribution. He seems to be genuine about not wanting to offer music at anything other than the native resolution, and at least seems to get it that upsampling doesn’t add quality and will be misleading if an upsampled rate is not clearly identified as such. Or maybe I’m too much of an optimist.

      The interview I refer to was with Chris Connaker at computeraudiophile dot com. I think it’s one of the best interviews of Neil Young I’ve found re: Pono.

      • I read the interview…very informative.

    • I’ve written about his previously. Neil is a really terrific artist/musician. I’m a huge fan. However, you’re right…he should leave the tech stuff to people that know more about it. The whole multiple sample rate thing for “color” is ridiculous.

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