Listening to the 'Harvest' Studio Master with Neil Young

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Neil Young's Harvest

Following my last blog on music industry moves towards studio master, and Neil Young's blog on the same subject, I was both gob-smacked and terrified to be invited to Broken Arrow Ranch to meet with the man himself.

Neil Young's music was a soundtrack to my teenage years, especially Harvest. Inevitably, every time I was dumped by the seemingly-never-to-be-replaced love-of-my-life, 'Man Needs a Maid' with its heart-breaking story and dramatic orchestral backing felt like it was written for me. And 'Needle and the Damage Done' just had to be nailed on the guitar in order to have any kudos at all with my guitar-playing friends.

24-bit Harvest

Gilad meets Neil Young at Broken Arrow

So when we eventually pulled up outside one of the larger out-buildings on the Ranch - a full ten minutes' drive from the gate of the property. I had just enough time to shake Neil Young's hand and give him a bottle of half-decent Scotch before excusing myself to the restroom; the sound of laughter ringing in my ears implying I was not the first guest to arrive somewhat peely-wally, as we say.

The Buick had a laptop in the trunk loaded with music, connected to an outboard 24-bit DAC, and an iPad in the front which allowed Neil Young to select easily between studio master, CD-quality and two variants of mp3 (bad and worse!). We rocked out to the studio masters, the music so loud that one of the door panels removed itself.

Quality Matters

Harvest Moon by Neil Young

But whenever he selected a lower quality he would complain loudly and bitterly, turn down the volume, and curse that the music industry had allowed not just mp3, but even CD-quality to come into being and permeate the mass market. There was genuine sadness in his voice as he explained that Harvest Moon, his 1992 follow-up to the original, had been recorded at only 16-bit, the depth of emotion in the music lost forever during the process. (Sad really that the supposed breakthrough of the digital recording process has resulted in roughly fifteen years of recordings that can never be heard at anything better than CD quality.)

What struck me most was Neil Young's passion for the quality of music, not just his own, as we played through some other studio masters including Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding. The man is on a mission to demonstrate to the key influencers in the music industry the difference that quality makes to the listener's emotional connection.

California Dreaming

So as Neil Young drives the Buick around California, he is meeting with other musicians, producers and executives, and inviting them to hear the difference for themselves. From what I gather, he's been filming people and interviewing them before and after, in order to capture genuine, emotional reaction to hearing music at studio master quality for the first time.

As exciting as this all is, I have, however, one great fear; that the major labels may not be able to resist the temptation to put these studio masters out in a proprietary format. There remains a point of view among certain industry executives, totally misguided in my opinion, that the commercial potential can only be realised through an encrypted format, requiring people to buy new playback devices in order to experience these files.

It's been tried before, it's failed before, and it would be doomed to fail again.

The only way to offer a viable alternative to iTunes is for the music industry to provide Studio Master quality in an open format, easily accessible to all at a quality that blows people's minds. So that way everyone can share the same depth of emotion I experienced sitting in a Buick with Neil Young.

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