Dr. AIX's POSTS — 19 January 2016

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In 2001, the DVD-Audio format was the new high quality audio format of choice for Neil Young. As I was moving various boxes of aging stuff from one room to another, I came across a copy of “Sound & Vision” magazine…the February/March 2001 issue. The list of featured articles including “Introducing DVD-Audio”, “5.1 in the Making”, and an exclusive and extensive interview with Neil Young by Ken Richardson. This was long before the idea for Pono and PonoMusic emerged from the iconic rocker. It makes for very interesting reading and so I thought I would revisit some of his thoughts on higher fidelity music, his recording methodology, and his comments on the fidelity of compact discs.

Let’s start with a quote from the author of the piece stating that “Young believes that DVD-Audio is what digital audio always should have been – and that the CD, as a music carrier, is toast.” Then Neil chimes in with this gem, “CDs were a mistake from the beginning because of the sampling rate,” he claimed. “The numbers were too low, to achieve the promise of digital…it just wasn’t there. At first everyone was impressed…as I was… by the lack of surface noise, but shortly after that, I became aware of the lack of sound and lack of everything you associate with air. That’s where the surface noise and the tape hiss lived: on the sound floor. It’s not the loud stuff that gets affected, it’s the quiet stuff. When you take something like a long fade and turn that up on a CD, if you’ve got a big amp, the time you get to the end of the fade, you’re listening to some of the worst sound that’s ever been sold.”

It would seem from this description that Neil doesn’t regard dynamic range as an equal partner to the high-frequency extension afforded by higher sampling rates. And including frequencies out of the audio band by transferring his analog master tapes at 192 kHz doesn’t impact the dynamic range (it affects filtering and allows higher frequencies to be captured), “the quiet stuff”, or the long tail fades he mentions. And I’m trying to remember how many long fades exist in the electric and acoustic music that Neil is famous for?

The inclusion of the word “air” in his complaint is also somewhat curious. When I was mastering records, “air” always referred to the frequency range above 10 kHz. If the existing tracks were deemed to lack “air” then I would push a few decibels at around 12-15 kHz…that’s usually did the trick. How does low amplitude surface noise and tape hiss benefit a recording? Perhaps Neil likes the grunge and imperfections of analog tape in his masters. In the article he claims to still be recording to analog tape because it delivers the “sound” that he prefers.

I tried to get him to record a few tracks directly to 96 kHz/24-bit PCM a couple of years ago when I had a connection to John Hamm, the former CEO of Pono. It would have been great fun to get his reaction to a super clean recording of “Old Man” with just his voice, a guitar, and harmonica. I couldn’t happen because of restrictions by the label, I was told. But as an experiment…I would have loved to have given it a try. I know John Hamm flipped out when he heard the John Gorka project at the AXPONA show a couple of years ago.

Neil Young states, “My test is, you take a master analog tape – a classic, something where everybody knows what it’s supposed to sound like – and put a CD of any quality up against that master, but won’t be good enough.” However, DVD-Audio (he really means PCM at 192 kHz/24-bits) “is much more than good enough, allowing him to hear the natural sound he says he never heard from CD,” according to Ken Richardson. “There’s no comparison. There’s absolutely no comparison. DVD-Audio is simply best that exists today. It’s the best way you can listen to music that you can buy en masse. The mid-level of quality of a DVD-Audio disc [NOTE: I think he’s referring to 96/24] is where the CD should have been when we went digital. For the last 20 years, I’ve been forced to put my whole art form through something that’s inferior to what I listen to,” says Neil Young.

So it rings particularly hollow when you discover that 99% of the tracks available on PonoMusic are ripped CDs…a clearly inferior format according to an artist that is described at the head of the article as a “CD-hater”. CDs are not good enough for him but they’re fine to sell on “the world’s largest high-resolution music download store”.

To be continued…

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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.

(32) Readers Comments

  1. Been a audiophile for maybe 50 years now. Back in the mid 80s I had big dollars invested in my vinyl playback, custom armed AR XB, HK ST8 with Rabco arm, an assortment of moving coil cartridges, etc. About 1986 I got my first CD player, a Magnavox CDB560 that was highly reviewed by everyone at the time. Within a year or so all my vinyl did was collect shelf space and dust, and that was the way it was till I sold it all in 2009-10 and never looked back.
    Needle drop recorded all my vinyl to 24/96 flac with Audacity before selling out so I have the music but still it gets little play, can’t stand all the surface noise and other problems of analog vinyl compared to the detailed cleanliness of most CDs
    Young and the rest can listen to their tastes and I’ll listen to mine.

    • I’m with you Sal. I spent a lot of hours and a reasonable amount of money with vinyl LPs and even analog tape only to be “born again” with the no compromise world of high-end digital.

  2. Entertaining post Mark 🙂

    No surprises there I’m afraid. I wonder would Neil hear more “air” if he tried one of those Nordost fancy cables or stuck a bit of wood under his Pono… that actually sounds naughty.. but we all know what I mean.

  3. Lord Mark! Have you EVER nailed it here!
    I won’t indulge in a lengthy response to this, save to tell you that I greatly admire both your technical understanding and expertise around audio recording and reproduction, and your dogged persistence to establish accurate understanding around it, despite the promotional activities of those protecting their vested interests or others who simply don’t correctly understand, and some who could care less.

    Best regards,

    Michael Kaufman

    • Thanks Michael.

  4. It’s probably just me but I am at a loss to understand why this genre of music is worthy of the effort and cost of what is laughingly referred to as high end audio.

    “If the existing tracks were deemed to lack “air” then I would push a few decibels at around 12-15 kHz…that’s usually did the trick.”

    My own experiments lead me to the conclusion that the level of reverberation in the top octave has a significant effect on perceived space. Even a small change has a surprising effect. Boosting this sound at the end of each musical phrase causes RT to be judged longer and the sound “airer.” Published measurements for concert halls invariably stop at 8 kHz.

    The Carol Rosenberger Water Music recording I referred to in a previous post has far too much reverberation recorded on it. This is so for both for the CD and vinyl versions which sounded identical to me. The CD is a two disc set and the second disc was recorded with much less reverberation.

    • I don’t think there are genres of music that deserve high end sound and others that don’t. It so easy to accomplish, why not. The choice of whether to maximize fidelity is available to every engineer and producer.

    • “It’s probably just me but I am at a loss to understand why this genre of music is worthy of the effort and cost of what is laughingly referred to as high end audio.”

      Mark has already answered this most appropriately but also remember if it wasn’t for the baby boomer generation buying the software and hardware that compose today’s “high end” to play the Rock, R&B, Country that they grew up on, there would be no high end audio as we know it.

      • Had the baby boomer generation and its follow on generations had an appreciation of music as a fine art, that might have created a market that demanded much better equipment than we have today, the result of real research, not the fumbling and blind tinkering that passes for research in this industry. The reason the goal of this industry is no longer to capture and recreate musical sounds as they are heard live at a suitable large venue is….that it can’t. The problem has beaten those who have tried, they don’t have the smarts to even understand it let alone solve it.

        • I always have to chime in whenever someone states that the goal of music recordings is to “recreate musical sounds as they are heard live at a suitable large venue”. It is not my goal. It is not the goal of any of the engineers I know. We are making artistic renderings of a piece of music in the fashion that we find most compelling or holds the greatest potential for sales.

          • I have a friend who sees the world in only two ways, her way and the wrong way. If you disagree with her you’re wrong and she’s highly opinionated about everything. I’ve told her the world would be a very boring place if there were no disagreements.

            As I see it, there are two kinds of recordings which I refer to as manufactured music and documented music. We are all customers to one degree or another of both kinds. Documented music tries to capture and recreate something as it was actually heard or might have been heard. Even where manipulation of the process is used, it is used in that service. Manufactured music does not have a connection to something that was actually heard live. It is the result of deliberate manipulation where the recording engineer is part of the creative process. This could be for many reasons. The recording engineer becomes part of the artistic process.

            Recreating a plausible facsimile of actual musical performances is a different process. For me it is a scientific and engineering problem, an intellectual challenge. Currently in the commercial world of what you can buy it is pretty much well beyond the state of the art. At most, only in a few experimental prototypes which are based on unique technologies is it even possible.

            Which is better. That depends on a lot of factors including the skill put into each individual recording and the application. Most pop artists would probably horrified at being heard as they actually perform.

  5. Pono is a business. They sell the “highest available resolution” product with the guarantee of free upgrades if a higher res file is made available of a purchase made. Neil is speaking as an artist when he disses CD, and he is right – 96/24 is better as you have declared yourself. I’m glad Pono has the number of selections they carry as I am replacing my entire library with their files. To carry only files higher than CD quality would limit their catalog significantly. Sure, I could rip my CD’s but for around 10 bucks each the Pono CD files are great and offer thousands of albums I have not purchased.. So what’s the problem? Neil and Pono need to have a stable business model – if it includes CD’s so be it. Mahalo!

    • They brag about having the largest collection of high-resolution tracks in the world…over 1 million, which is not true. Neil dislikes the sound of CDs for everyone not just for his music. He records to analog tape because he likes the sound. I have no problem with that. If you want to have a CD quality music download business comprised of CD rips, then simply say so and leave the hyperbole behind.

    • You’ve got it right, brilliant. Attacking an icon who wants better sound for everyman is a backwards move whether the criticism is deserved or not. Thanks!

      • He deserves the criticism for perpetuating a myth and misrepresenting the catalog that he offers on PonoMusic as part of the high-resolution world. He doesn’t want better sound for everyone. He wants the sound he loves for everyone…recorded on analog tape, full of distortion, and full of “air” (aka tape hiss).. Sorry Craig, it’s still wrong.

      • The Doc over here isn’t attacking Neil. Rather, he is attacking Neil’s silly schtick that converting CDs to high-res audio is somehow high-res. It’s not.

    • ” Neil is speaking as an artist ”

      I almost fell off my chair laughing when I read that. Well he certainly isn’t speaking as an engineer. As I pointed out in a previous posting, when it comes to sound there is no such thing as high resolution. It makes no sense in any scientific terms. Of course in English you can redefine words to mean whatever you want them to which is what has been done here. For the sentimental, what’s old is Young again.

  6. Hello Mark
    Whatever happened to the, DDD CD labeling standard? I think the music industry tried hard to bridge the analog gap. Strange coincidence, yesterday I bought a 1987 Magnavox model CDB CD player at the Good Will Store for $5.00 and it works and sounds great. Built like a tank.

  7. No surprise about the constant attacks on Pono.

    But..CD has in fact gotten noticeably better at both ends of the chain since he made those statements. Every medium matures at some point, and CD has very definitely done that compared to much earlier days. Both the beloved LP and the unfairly maligned CD are limited signal capacity mediums that if used to full capacity can make for a very satisfying listen. Again, hearing first gen, master tape grade sound will imprint on anyone compared to those two mediums that represent how we have arrived at the present state. Good CD is fine, first gen sound is better.

    • I missed you Craig…and I was confident that pointing out Neil’s misunderstanding of the technology of PCM would draw you out. How this could be construed as an “attack” is beyond me…unless you want to agree with his incorrect belief that higher sample rates will make the fades better. In 2001, CDs had already matured to the point where the arguments of “sterile” and “harsh” had disappeared. You might be thinking of the 80s or even 90s.

      Neil got is wrong then and hasn’t changed his tune in the intervening 15 years. Do you really think that he now believes that CD sound is acceptable?

    • Ironically, for me the sound experience for the average CD audio releases have actually gotten worse, not better, in the last 15 years. We can argue about the technology itself, which I agree has changed very little. But as Craig alluded to with his mention of great sounding masters, the bigger issue is how the labels and engineers are essentially ruining the PCM audio experience for “audiophile” systems. Digital CD rips or Tidal streams may sound nice and punchy for a pair of $10 ear buds, but for higher quality audio gear that has wide dynamic range, it’s a disappointment. It’s truly sad when a live Adele performance on broadcast television sounds better than the CD release.

  8. With the mass use of iTunes, CD, to consumers (excluding the less than 1% of the global population reading this): IS HD!

    Sad but true.

    Unfortunately many of them won’t care if its MP3 quality or CD quality with their Apple headphones/Speakers at home as many won’t be able to tell the difference.

    One day, Apple will probably release HD iTunes. This will hopefully get the ball rolling a bit further…..

    • I don’t think the average iTunes user thinks about sound quality at all…standard-res or HD or anything else. If they like the tune and it fills their ear buds, it’s probably fine. If and when Apple moves to so-called “hi-res” music downloads or streaming, all of the content they offer will have less fidelity than a standard CD. So why bother with bigger files and longer download times?

      • “all of the content they offer will have less fidelity than a standard CD.”

        Who knows? Maybe, maybe not.

        Perhaps it will be CD quality minimum (like Pono) and also some high rez stuff as well (yes, maybe not much of it will be better than CD quality, but it’s a start!)

  9. Loved this post Mark! You nailed it. I have yet to buy anything from Pono, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Why can’t the labels, the manufacturers, the marketers, etc. just tell the truth here. Oh, I forgot, its about money… Mark, keep preaching to the masses and eventually people will figure out the truth!

  10. Taking a swipe at Neil Young is a low road for anyone hoping to promote their own forum and views on HiFidelity music. He has probably done more to stimulate the discussion of audio quality than any other individual. This site seems to have an almost jealous disdain for the Pono device and Music Store. Not sure why that is but it does not serve the cause. I actually enjoy the portability and balanced sound output of the tobelrone shaped player. And for the record, my preferred listening mode is master analog tape but I also enjoy audiophile vinyl and HiRes digital.

    Just curious why a purist forum like this bashes Neil Young, Pono, etc. and then advertised HDTracks. I got a nice chuckle when the banner popped up. Just trying to keep things balanced and accountable here.

    • I rail against Neil Yong because he’s making up stuff that damages any real chance that high-resolution audio will succeed in the marketplace. He’s more interested in returning a profit than being honest about the Pono world. The device is well designed and offers good sound but the site sells expensive ripped CDs as part of the “world’s largest collection of high-res music”…that’s not true.

      BTW I bash HDtracks as well for false claims of high-res recordings.

      • This is throwing away the donut just because it has a hole. Berating any significant efforts to improve public awareness and offer better sound, warts and all, just doesn’t make sense to me.

        • If what Neil Young has been doing with his Pono initiative is “improving public awareness” of better sound then we’d be better off without his efforts.

  11. “The inclusion of the word “air” in his complaint is also somewhat curious.”

    He’s referring to low-level ambience. Something which 16bit/44k is unable to resolve without significant quantization error. I’ve only read a few of your articles, but you seem to be missing that part of the equation from your analysis?

    From the interview with Neil: “It’s not the loud stuff that gets affected, it’s the quiet stuff.”

    96db of dynamic range might look impressive on paper compared to your Nagra specs, but it’s a false commodity when every component of the recorded sound below -60db (eg. room reverb) is only resolved at 6 bit resolution at best. You’re comparing apples to oranges.

    • How much low level ambiance or detail do you think exists in commercial pop/rock recordings? Maybe the final fade out…but that time the track is over. CD resolution does just fine with low levels…quantization error is uniform across all amplitude levels. And remember dither is applied throughout the entire audio band.

      How did you arrive at 6 dB or 1-bit for every amplitude lower than -60 dB? What happened to the other 10-bits from -60 to -100 or so? I know my own recording have more than 60 dB of dynamic range but I agree that most recording don’t.

  12. “How much low level ambiance or detail do you think exists in commercial pop/rock recordings?

    It can vary dramatically. Listen to the Lorde song, Royals, and visually analyse its waveform.

    In any case, why limit this to a subjective assessment of the production norms of commercial pop/rock? What about film soundtracks destined for cinemas, classical music and jazz, not to mention your own recordings?

    “Maybe the final fade out…but that time the track is over.”

    The deficiencies of 16 bit might be most apparent when we hear the final fade out, but this misses the point. These are complex waveforms. Low-level ambience exists throughout the entire song, not just the one tiny bit of the song where nothing remains but low-level ambience.

    Even if the final mix has been severely compressed, it’s unlikely every individual track was during tracking. The same principles apply at that stage.

    “And remember dither is applied throughout the entire audio band.”

    I’d respectfully view that as irrelevant to what we’re discussing. I may be missing something here however?

    “How did you arrive at 6 dB or 1-bit for every amplitude lower than -60 dB? What happened to the other 10-bits from -60 to -100 or so?

    Because db is a log scale. Every extra bit doubles the voltage, and adds 6db of dynamic range.

    0db is our max reference level. -60db = 10 bits down from max reference. 16 – 10 = 6.

    “CD resolution does just fine with low levels…quantization error is uniform across all amplitude levels.”

    If you record a track at 16 bit resolution which peaks at just -48db, you’ve effectively only recorded with 8 bits of dynamic range. Consequently, you’re dealing with an 8 bit degree of quantisation error, not a 16 bit degree of quantisation error.

    It’s only uniform across all amplitude levels, if you allow the recorded sound to be resolved across all amplitude levels. Low-level ambience as a secondary component of the primary sound (eg. room reverb), by definition, doesn’t exist across all amplitude levels. Since it wasn’t captured with 16 bit precision, it doesn’t have 16 bit precision.

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