Pono: Where Music Lives Part II

Neil Young’s PONO initiative isn’t going to be about high-resolution audio. He says so in the “About” section of the mypono.com website. What Neil recognized at the dawn of the compact disc was that it sounded very different from the vinyl LPs or analog tapes that he was used to. And he’s right about that. Especially, when you consider that the first generation of mastering engineers and the tools that we had to work with were hindered by things like “pre-emphasis” and poor quality transfers. He and others have faulted the “Perfect Sound Forever” claim that was widely used by the proponents of compact discs. Here’s the line from the PONO website:

“Shocking you say? That perhaps the promise of “Perfect Sound Forever” propagated by the inventors of the Compact Disc was a bust? And that “CD Quality” promoted by the likes of iTunes and the creators of the MP3 was only an inkling of the flawed format they were hoping to emulate?”

Now wait a minute, Neil. CDs DO have the potential to sound really great…better than analog tape and definitely better than vinyl LPs. I’ve heard some really great recordings at standard definition and I’m sure you have too. CDs are not “CD Quality”, the misleading term used by digital music stores that want you to believe that they’re offering the same sound quality as a real CD. CD’s and files ripped from CDs at the native rate are the only thing that delivers CD quality and that quality is based on PCM encoding at 44.1 kHz/16-bits. The same twisted thinking would have you believe that a fiber fab Ferrari body over a Volkswagen chassis is the same as the real thing. Not hardly.

I draw a very distinct line between the Redbook specifications of 44.1 kHz/16-bit PCM and highly compressed sound files at 64 or 128 kbps (that standard for most MP3 files). Give me a CD any day of the week. I won’t listen to HD Radio or download anything from iTunes because the fidelity is just not there.

What Neil is talking about is delivering the sound of the mastered recording BEFORE it was encoded into a standard definition digital file. He and his musician friends love the sound of the mixes that they struggle to produce in the studio. He wants us to hear the same thing that he hears. And with the help of the executives at WB and hopefully the other labels, he will deliver the best that analog recording can do. He will deliver it in very high-resolution bit buckets and custom high-end hardware provided by Meridian Audio. Will it be high-resolution audio? No.

The “AMAZING!!!!” sound that the folks working with Neil are talking about will be the same sound that we had decades ago. It was great then and promises to be equally great now! I remember how great AND warm and smooth it was. But by delivering a “Perfect Past Forever” analog-like experience, nobody is going to care about how much better real high-resolution audio can actually be. Customers are going to be asking themselves why they are spending so much for hardware and software in the special PONO flavor and not getting anything different than what we enjoyed 30 years ago.

I admit this will be a substantial improvement over the very poor quality compressed files that we’ve grow used to. I read a quote today somewhere online that correctly stated that music recording and reproduction is the only media format that has actually declined in quality over the past 20 years. Neil Young’s PONO is going to send us back to a sonic past before we started the decline into “CD Quality” as delivered by MPS, iTunes and HD Radio..

Until we include real high-definition audio in the production of new albums, we’re only going to get more of the same. What we need is real dynamics, extended frequency response and multichannel mixes.

Here’s hoping.


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.

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