Dr. AIX's POSTS — 25 July 2015

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Having a celebrity endorse a product or champion a cause is usually a good thing. But not always. Awareness of “high-res music” among the general population didn’t really happen until Neil Young Kickstarter campaign for Pono was launched in the spring of 2014. The Pono campaign became the 3rd highest raise that KS had ever seen and Neil Young was everywhere singing the praises of “high-res” audio as the way to “rediscover the soul of music”. I heard him on NPR, watched videos of him online, read a number of interviews, and watched him deliver an impromptu speech at the last International CES Show. I was probably not the only person working in high-res audio that cheered his ability to get the press writing about “high-res” audio.

But not anymore. Neil Young has done more damage to the cause for better audio than any single individual on the planet. And I’m not the only one that thinks this way. He’s embarrassed himself, his company, his reputation, and the quest for higher fidelity. And I’m one of his fans! I’ve met Neil Young more than once, talked to him, and even have a Gold DVD on my studio wall for the work I did on his “Rust Never Sleeps” production.

I know that he cares about sound. His engineers are knowledgeable and very capable, so there is no doubt that he produces records that he thinks sound great. He is an analog guy, however. He railed aggressively against CDs when they first arrived. When DVD-Audio and Blu-ray were launched, Neil was right there ready to have his analog sourced older master remastered to the new formats. And then came high-resolution digital downloads…and the KS campaign to fund Pono and Ponomusic. He’s recently decided that streaming is “the lowest fidelity format” and therefore he’s removing his tracks from Spotify.

Neil Young became the cheerleader-in-chief for “high-res” music. If you listen to him speak about the subject, it’s clear that he’s not a techie. He actually said that difference sample rates could be used like EQ in the midst of a tune…”to alter the sound”. This is crazy talk. It would have been better to have him champion better sound and leave the heavy lifting for others. But he continued.

The mainstream press, YouTube “celebrity” posters, technical people, and even many audiophiles cast serious doubts about the music being offered on PonoMusic. And they were right. His insistence that everyone can perceive the improvement “hi-res” music deliver and the fact that the PonoMusic web store has almost no new recordings done at “better than CD quality” further eroded his credibility.

Pono’s Vice President of Content Acquisition Bruce Botnick (a celebrity audio engineer responsible for numerous hit records including The Doors), told the Associated Press, “More than 90 percent of the PonoMusic store is represented essentially by digital copies, or rips, of CDs”. He continued, “It’s a real fact-finding job…it’s going to take some time to handle the thousands of albums in question. Until then, it’s a case of buyer beware.”

Those of us who advocate for real high-res music couldn’t be more frustrated that Neil Young became the de facto voice for high-res music. I doubt whether the “hi-res” music campaign can recover from his snow job, seriously. The industry needs to discourage Neil from speaking about “hi-res” and maybe find a YouTube personality that understands the realities of good sound, has a large following, and can connect with music fans in a truthful and clear way. The message is simple…don’t over promise, don’t tell people if they can’t tell the difference it must be their hearing, get the facts straight and let people know that they’ll likely have to upgrade their systems.

The wrong people have been running the ship and it’s time to mutiny.

Step 7: Only demo recordings that are dramatically better than what the public has been used to hearing.

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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.

(11) Readers Comments

  1. So we have admission by a Pono VP that their catalog is 90 % CD rips. I am curious what the majority of the catalogs at HDtracks and Acoustic Sounds really contain. Have they actually gone back to the original master tapes and done a fresh take to HDA or are they mostly just CD rips up-sampled to a large bucket. I guess a large part of that would be answered by your call for more complete provenance.
    At least back in the day we knew pretty clearly what Mobile Fidelity was selling us.

    • 90% is a very conservative number. PonoMusic is unique in pumping up its library by including 2 million CD rips and calling them high-res. HDtracks and SuperHiRez get their files from the labels. These are newly transferred analog tapes that may or may not be remastered. Sometimes the tapes and the transfers are great and other times just so so. HDtracks doesn’t upsample the file. In fact, they check all of the new material for signs of upsampling and reject them.

  2. Right on Mark. You have eloquently put into words what many of us were thinking all along. Young dropped the ball on this and I doubt if I will live to see anyone pick it up and carry it over the finish line. I’m 62.

    • I’m the same age as you…trying to stay young. Neil Young started with the right message and then drifted away when the realities of business appeared. Too bad.

  3. What Neil Young can do for me is remix After the Gold Rush in 5.1. SAcd, bLU rAY, dts, i DONT CARE.

    • I would love to be in the business of remixing and remastering old classic albums.

      • What are you waiting for, your no spring chicken. 🙂
        Strike a deal like MoFi had. YOU get the master tapes, remaster, and do multi format releases. I’m tired of hearing the HDTracks line “that’s what the label gave us”

  4. This is a great site you’ve got here. I just want to comment on my thoughts on Hi-Res PCM. I’m a clear analog guy. Hi-res digital at it’s best does sound very good, but different than vinyl.

    With that said Hi-Res still fails in many categories: Vinyl is better at delivering real instrumental textures, the dimensionality is lessened compared to vinyl, the general homogenization of the sound, the emphasis on the notes attack and sustain over its decay, the feel of real musicians in a real space. In all these aspects vinyl is still champion. Hi-Res is slightly better at macro-dynamics, not micro although close in that regard. It does sound like real musicians just not as real as vinyl.

    Vinyl is superior to my ears as of now, but clearly the gap is closing which of course is a great thing.

    • I can agree with your statement that vinyl LPs sound “different”. But your claims that high-res digital is less capable than vinyl or analog in “other categories” is simply a matter your personal opinion. I hope you’ve had a chance to download some of my files in either stereo or surround. When played in a good system, the experience exceeds analog tape of vinyl LPs on every measure in my studio.

      Enjoy your vinyl…I can’t argue with what you hear. But if you sat in my studio and listened to a full 5.1 hi-res version of Jennifer Warnes or John Gorka, your opinion may change. My favorite email of late came from a guy that had an epiphany moment in Chicago at the AXPONA show:

      “Hi Mark,

      First of all, I want to thank you for the most memorable musical experience that I have ever heard at the recent Axpona show. To enjoy and appreciate your superb recordings, in the proper room, with extraordinary speakers and components, (which can do them justice) was beyond my expectations. If you aren’t mentioned as the best or one of the best sound rooms at the show then there is something wrong with the major audio publications.

      I know you met so many people at the show that it would be impossible to remember everyone but I was the two channel tube diehard who could never envision myself with a multichannel system before going to your demonstration. Well…hearing is believing!!! Nothing in my 50+ years in audio reproduction has impacted me the way your recordings did. For the first time ever, I felt like I was in the CENTER of the performance. Perhaps this is what a performer experiences!

      In summary, I just wanted to express my appreciation for all the time, talent and energy that you put into your recordings. You have the rare ability to truly bring us into the recording venue and let us feel the music.

      With grateful thanks,
      David Hinshelwood”

      • Thanks for replying! You’re absolutely right when you say that this is strictly my opinion. I’m a former musician with over 30 years of experience so I hear music in a way that most casual music listeners simply cannot. I know what live music sounds like, and I know the compromises recorded music makes. I can hear distinct audible differences between DSD, RedBook CD, Hi-Res PCM, and Analog. It has always been my contention, perfect sinewave or not, that the midrange realism of tubes is far superior through vinyl than through any combination with digital. Why? Who knows. Regardless I’ll be sure to download your files and put them to the test.

        • We all like what we like…I would never argue that one’s personal preferences for formats, music types, speakers etc can’t vary. Of course, they will. I just want my readers to understand some of the technology behind the formats, the specifications, and the realities. At the end of the day it’s about enjoying music.

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