October 2012 Archives

I cringed throughout Neil Young's recent appearance on The David Letterman Show, in the way you do when sensing public embarrassment of one of your heroes at the hands of a talk-show host. What made it worse though, was the confirmation it gave that my visit to Broken Arrow a year ago had made zero impact on the great man.

Letterman: "The system you're working on, Pono, what is it, what does it do?"

Young shows him a yellow, wedge-shaped prototype with three buttons labelled -, 0 and + and a small, blue screen.

Neil Young: "This plays back master files, the best sound anybody can get, it can't get better than this. This is what they do in the studio, the highest resolution. Like tomorrow, we're in the studio. We're transferring Highway 61 Revisited from the original tapes and Freewheelin' from the original tapes of Bob Dylan classics and we're negotiating with Sony so that we can put all of these things out and I have a deal with Warner Brothers [sic]."

I sympathise with both men here. Letterman asking the most basic question possible, Young bursting to explain at the first opening the sheer magnitude of his vision and, as a result, completely baffling the host.

The problem is that Young has confused himself. He has conflated into one the notions of music player, high resolution music file format and the process of digitising old analogue tapes.

Anyone looking at the toblerone-esque device knows intuitively that it is most definitely not going to offer "the best sound anybody can get." Anyone looking at Neil Young knows intuitively that he is not Steve Jobs, that he won't be building a new iTunes around his Pono player / format.

And this is why Pono will fail. If you can only use his esoteric version of an iPod to hear Bob Dylan at high res, who will buy either the player or the music?

Frustratingly, I told Neil Young exactly this last year, and it appears he didn't take on a word I said. There are already music players that play high resolution digital files. In FLAC we have a perfectly good file format that is free, open and lossless. And so Pono risks fragmenting the market, confusing many of those music lovers who would choose high quality, and delaying the standardisation and therefore the adoption of high resolution by the wider music industry.

Neil Young's Pono music player

Back to the interview... Letterman wants to talk about the gadget, the prototype that Young put in his hand - he wants an answer to his original question but tries a slightly different tack...

Letterman: "So did you come up with the computer map for this or what?"

Neil Young: "No, I kind of described exactly what it was. It's like the mother of all formats, it's not a new format. It plays back anything. All the digital formats. So... uhh... when the uhh... when the artist records at a certain level that's it. It doesn't get dummied down to CD, it doesn't get dummied down to mp3. So now we can preserve the original works of all the great artists through the years from Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway all the way up to Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, and Jay-Z - all the way through."

Isn't it a pain when you describe something perfectly, only for the recipient to ruin it all by failing to understand? So he tries again. But again, Young isn't obliging the host by talking about the shiny Pono player, instead describing the basics of high resolution digital music.

Our valiant host persists...

Letterman: "Is this a digital way of recording analogous sound? I'm struggling to come up with something I can understand."

At this point there is much laughter as the two attempt to steer the discussion to common ground, Young accusing Letterman of pretending not to understand, and Letterman agreeing with tongue in cheek to be acting dumb.

Young turns the question into one of how you get vinyl records onto the Pono player and answers it...

"What we do is transfer it into the highest possible resolution digital, because analogue has got all of the information in it and you get as close as digital can get to that analogue, and that's what comes out of the player."

And that's it. Neil Young's 90 seconds to sell Pono to the world. At least we know what 'the blind leading the blind' means.

Neil Young could be the face of high quality music if he wanted to, and could even do a great amount of good, if only he worked with the existing standards rather than against them. Sadly, I fear his latest misguided solo project will lead only to failure and ridicule.