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…