Dr. AIX's POSTS — 16 July 2015

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It’s like a comet that keeps circling around the center of the music world. Neil Young has popped up all over my FB page, in emails, and on the web. It started last night just before I was getting ready to leave the studio. Bob Lefsetz, music pundit in chief, weighed in on Neil and his Pono initiative in relation to streaming services. His newsletter stated,

“Old man take a look at yourself

What if you put out new music and no one cared?

Even better, what if you said you were gonna save the music business and no one cared?

Then you’d be Neil Young.

I’d say he’s become a laughingstock, but the people he’s playing to, the writers for the somnambulant press, trumpet his every word and neglect to point out his failings.

That’s right, they review all his new music, usually giving it stellar accolades. And then when it fails in the marketplace…crickets.

Where’s the follow-up story to the Pono disaster? We had to endure endless plaudits for his Toblerone box, how so few paid so much on Kickstarter, Neil appeared not only on late night TV, but at the Salesforce conference. Then the product became commercially available and it made less noise than Peter Frampton’s “I’m In You.” At least the press castigated Robin Thicke for his “Paula” album, but more people heard that than Pono.

Why does Neil Young get a pass?”

And then I read this today. Neil Young posted this on his FB page…

“Streaming has ended for me. I hope this is ok for my fans.

It’s not because of the money, although my share (like all the other artists) was dramatically reduced by bad deals made without my consent.

It’s about sound quality. I don’t need my music to be devalued by the worst quality in the history of broadcasting or any other form of distribution. I don’t feel right allowing this to be sold to my fans. It’s bad for my music.

For me, It’s about making and distributing music people can really hear and feel. I stand for that.

When the quality is back, I’ll give it another look. Never say never.

Neil Young”

I’ve met Neil and know his team of audio engineers. I know he cares of the “sound” of his records…that distorted, analog, thick, dirty, fidelity that is crafted by highly skilled practitioners of the analog black art. But distribution formats are distribution formats. He’s ranting about streaming because the sound is so bad. Hello? What about cassettes, MP3 at 128 kbps, HD Radio, and iTunes AAC downloads at 256 kbps. You’re OK with those formats and your music?

The problem with streaming is the business arrangement and the lack of respect for the artists. The winners are the streaming services, the rights owners, and the investors. Neil should be rejecting streaming for the right reasons.

Read Your Streaming Music Payments Are Going Where? by Joshua Brustein. The RIAA may try to argue with the results of the Berklee study but the fact is that musicians made more money before streaming.

Later…

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About Author

Dr. AIX

Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

(28) Readers Comments

  1. Neil Young is totally right. The SQ of MP3’s, AAC’s, and all of the other lossy, crappy codecs out there is aweful. The artists’ only hope is Meridian’s MQA. Hopefully, MQA will be adopted by the major labels and do justice to the expectations of the artists.

    I am sure he is not alone in his dispair.

    • Yuval…the sound quality of MP3 and AAC files at 320 kbps is not awful. In fact, many consumers can’t tell the difference between them and a CD or even HiRes file. Neil is complaining about the sound quality of streaming without realizing that plenty of distribution channels are worse.

      You’ve stated repeatedly the MQA is the answer. You’re attributing capabilities to the technology that it doesn’t have. It is a lossless codec with the ability to be backwards compatible. Artists can produce and distribute incredible sounding albums without MQA…I’ve been doing it for 15 years.

      • I’ve been hoping you would talk more about MQA since your meeting with Bob Stuart at T.H.E. Show in Newport, but rather than wait I’ll jump in at this point to address something I’ve been wondering about.

        I attended the MQA demo there and had a chance to talk with Meridian representatives a fair amount while waiting for the demo. Setting aside the clever file packing/unpacking scheme and streaming ability, they seemed to be the most excited BY FAR about how MQA corrects the temporal blur created by the use of filters in recording music digitally and converting it to digital. If their research is correct – that humans are 10 times more sensitive to timing than frequency – and digital filters have had a detrimental impact on the timing of those recordings wouldn’t the implication be that every single recording that used filters in this way could be improved by MQA? THAT is a much bigger deal than it seems you’re giving it credit for.

        Ref. pg. 2 of Robert Harley’s article: https://gallery.mailchimp.com/fac58a756f250e4de279807e3/files/The_Absolute_Sound_MQA.pdf

        I’m sorry if I’m not conveying Meridian’s claim here, but this seems to be the biggest promise of MQA. I’ve been curious since the show. What are your thoughts on MQA’s ability to remove temporal blur?

        • Devin, I’ve been in touch with Robert. I wrote to him with a serious of questions regarding MQA, which he promised to answer and send back to me. He assures me that he’s working on them but so far nothing.

          The issue with the timing stuff is not universally accepted. I believe that spectacular recordings can be made using 96 kHz/24-bit PCM (I’ve been doing it for over 15 years). The thought that a 50 years analog tape will be sonically enhanced by MQA was dismissed by Robert during our lunch. He told me that some of the company’s representatives might be reaching somewhat beyond the basics of the technology. However, I will wait until I have the words from him in writing.

          The section of Robert Harley’s piece that describes his listening experience complete fluff. I experienced that same “1-hour private demo” and can attest that the recordings sounded fabulous…but the same recordings played from the source tape would sound exactly the same…fabulous. MQA is not an enhancement technology.

          Be patient…MQA is a terrific invention, but it’s being oversold IMHO.

          • In my particular conversation, the Meridian folks weren’t claiming MQA was improving the 50 year old analog tape. They were claiming that in the process of transferring that tape to CD temporal blur was introduced by the DAC. They said MQA could correct for the negative effects of the various DACs used in these transfers. (Better yet they would re-transfer from the original masters and not apply the filtering that was causing the temporal blur.) So, as I understand it, they’re not improving the original they’re just eliminating – or correcting for – detrimental effects in the D/A process.

            I’ll be very interested to hear how Mr. Stuart responds to your questions.

          • Thanks for the follow up. I think your description is very good. MQA allows the capture and transfers of original fidelity without loss, in a smaller bit bucket, with smaller bandwidth, and as good as is currently possible. It does not change the sound.

  2. What about AM and FM radio, you forgot about them Mark. 🙂
    The only album of his I purchased was Harvest and then I very much enjoyed the slap that Lynyrd Skynyrd gave him with Alabama for his superior Yankee attitude. His best work was with CS&N and BS. Overdriven, highly distorted guitar has never been my thing.

    Oh boy Mark, your gonna hear it from Craig now. LOL

    • I don’t worry about Craig…in fact, he might find that I’ve been very fair to Neil.

  3. Really wish my monthly $9.99 for streaming would go directly to the artists with just a bit of overhead to the streaming company. I wish the artists were the rights holders too. The labels should just go away.

    • It doesn’t work that way…artist sign away their publishing, the labels own the masters (the recordings), and the artist get a percentage of the label’s take and the writer’s half of the publishing money. Labels are not necessarily evil…they develop the talent and promote the music. But they are backing the streaming companies through investment and therefore have an incentive to keep the costs (the payments to the artist) low.

  4. So Neil pulls his music from streaming services because low sound quality but not from Sirius/XM which can sound worse than streaming? What gives, Neil? It’s about money.

    • Neil’s reasoning doesn’t make sense. I would buy it if it were about money.

  5. Wow, I’m infamous. I have only one phrase to issue re: today’s column ,” Over the top.”

    • I thought you would appreciate that my postings about Neil and PonoMusic are kind in comparison to Bob Lefsetz.

  6. Hey, I don’t know the whole story behind Pono, and it being maybe less than hoped for, but he is trying to promote better sounding music.
    And I could rip on a lot of artists/bands, but everyone has their own taste in music. Neil has many facets to his extensive catalog. Anyone who would say he only put out one good album, needs to listen to “Harvest Moon” or “Prairie Wind”. I always preferred Neil’s acoustic side, although some of rockers are very good too. I’ve seen Neil live at least 4 times, over the years. He takes a stand, he spoke up against artists selling out to advertising companies. I agreed with him, it cheapens the music. And I do realize some bands/artists have no control over the use of their catalog. Or need the money.

    I don’t even know who Bob Lefsetz is, but I do know who Neil Young is. And in my book, he is a class act. Look at all he has done for the Bridge school. My understanding is that Neil has two handicapped children, now may be young adults, but he got involved with Lionel trains, so they could operate them. His kids, and many others.

    Be unhappy with Pono, but knock off the personal attacks. I’d buy a Pono, if I had spare cash. Can it only load Pono supplied music? If not, then load it up with other music. And any snob who will only listen to the highest resolution versions of music, or not buy lesser quality, is not a music lover. I’ll listen on a transistor radio if it is all I have available.

    Mark, I have come to respect your opinions, and knowledge, I’ve learned a lot reading your daily news letters. If Neil gets people interested, they will then do the research, and decide what is acceptable to them.
    I don’t like replacing, and have only done so with a few titles. At times acquiring the 180g LPs, just to compare, and sometimes to try and get the best version available. With CDs I often pass the lesser quality version on to a friend, to turn them on to something new, well new for them.

    I’m not disappointed in you, but I think criticism of Pono can be done without, a cheap, personal attack, on one of the good guys.

    • Jeff, I’m a fan of Neil Young. I have worked with him on a couple of projects, have a Gold DVD on my wall thanks to him, and endorse his efforts to make music sound better. I quoted Bob Lefsetz who is a commentator on all things music. I don’t agree with him on many things but he does have influence. I didn’t and wouldn’t make a personal attack on Neil. I have reported facts about his PonoMusic initiative and I have expressed my opinion regarding his misleading promotion of CDs as high-resolution but I have not attacked him personally.

    • The Pono player is terrific, completely separate from all the controversy and b.s. about the Pono Music Service complete with both informed and un-informed opinions. John Atkinsons’ review of the Pono player in Stereophile was right on the money, as was his editorial concerning the difference between ‘adaptive journalism’ and ‘accountable journalism’. Even in this column, I see a variation in theme and content that bounces between those two poles, and that’s why I haven’t shut up yet.

      • The Pono portable music player is a very good portable player. It can’t and doesn’t compete with AC powered high-end systems but then it wasn’t designed for that market. I’ve been meaning to write a post on the piece by John Atkinson. His focus on the writers and their failings is a dodge away from the real issue. Even he said it in the article (which I just reread), Neil Young was “an outspoken critic of CD-quality sound”. But somehow pointing out that 99% of the tracks offered on his PonoMusic website being rips of CDs doesn’t strike him as odd or disingenuous. John doesn’t seem to understand the relationship between the player and the music that being played.

        I don’t consider myself guilty of “access” journalism. I’ve got as much expertise as John over as much time and have been reporting facts about Pono since the first post. I’m an expert writing about something that I know very well. In fact, there’s a Pono player right in front of me. The person that gave it to me never used it because it failed to impress him…and he’s a professional.

        • Can I have it, if you don’t want it?

          The more I read the more I’m not confused, but unclear on what Neil did with his earlier attempts at transferring his music to DVD-A. I still don’t like that DVD-A requires me to turn on the TV to set up which music tracks I want to hear [stereo or 5.1] it.

          I thought Neil had undertaken to transfer all his analog tape masters to digital, either at 24/96 or 24/192. Does anyone recall if he ever did that? And if so, why wouldn’t he be selling those versions on Pono? Or is he, and what is going on is that he is selling other artists music at CD quality?

          • The Pono player isn’t mine to pass along…nice try.

            I should write whole post about Neil Young and his path along the analog digital production roadway. He’s always been and analog guy recording on 16-track, 24-track analog machines. When CD’s came along, the original analog masters we remastered for CD release. He hated the way they sounded and railed against CDs. But some of his catalog only exists on CD resolution digital. This was not uncommon as producers and engineers moved away from analog tape for the convenience and cost effectiveness of digital. In 2000, high-resolution digital came along and Neil was among those most excited to get his stuff out on DVD-Audio at 96 kHz/24-bit. BTW DVD-A doesn’t require a TV monitor if you know how to use the GROUPs feature of the format.

            Along comes Blu-ray with even better audio codecs and Neil redoes all of his old materials one more time. The standard res digital was never upsampled but the analog stuff was remastered again. Neil’s analog masters now exist at 192 kHz/24-bits and those are the ones available on PonoMusic and other sites.

            To enlarge the catalog of PonoMusic, he partnered with UK-based Omnifone. They have a very large catalog of ripped CDs complete with metadata. These albums in CD-spec audio provide the largest portion of the PonoMusic website.

  7. Once again a flawed strategy from the Neil Young camp. Will he turn his back on Tidal and Qobuz who, let’s face it, stream at the same fidelity as the vast majority of material available in the Pono Store.

    • I think pulling his music from the streaming services is a good thing…but you can’t say it’s for the poor sound quality.

  8. I want to continue to thank you for these informative posts, and for being realistic and reasonable in your position on the various formats. Having tried very high resolution file types of songs and music that had originally been recorded in the 60s and 70s I also came to realize that there was no sound difference to my ears between those files and a very well encoded (LAME encoder) constant bit rate 320kb mp3. So, I have made my entire collection that format and am more than satisfied with the sound.

    All these pundits out there would argue otherwise, but, unless the provenance, as you have pointed out, started at high resolution and stayed there, the file is only as good as the weakest link in its creation!! Streaming is a matter of convenience for me, I don’t have to carry around or even think about what music I would like to have with me when travelling or even out for the day. At home the music comes from my dedicated music server and does provide better sound (even compared to the higher resolution streaming services) than coming over the web. I have yet to try some of your expertly recorded material but have no doubt it will sound fantastic, as have other DSD and PCM offerings I have heard that were recorded exactly in the right way.

    Keep up the good work and thank you.

    • Thanks Larry…I hope you’re not encoding my stuff to 320 kbps.

      • Mark I certainly would not encode your stuff to 320 kbps, grin, as I would definitely be able to tell the difference. I perused my list of songs and can tell you for a fact, that every one of them came from a CD or from source material that is old enough it may have been mastered on tape from the beginning!! I have listened to some nice samplers of HQ music such as yours and can tell and feel the difference there but as you often point out, that is material that was meticulously recorded from the start, not put together with microphones and recording devices that never could reproduce that level of detail. Anything as high quality as your recordings are reserved for playing at home, when I can find the time, not for “on the fly” listening.

  9. “Old man take a look at yourself” – I guess its a quote from his song but in the context ageist and tasteless (which is a pity as criticism that follows is spot on).

    • The lyric is “Old man take a look at my life” … your quoted lyric “take a look at yourself” never appears in the song.

      • I quoted Bob Lefsetz’s newsletter…but thanks.

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