Neil Young's Misguided Solo Project

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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.


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It's doubtful anyone could explain the beauty of high-resolution digital audo to a mass audience in 90 seconds. What may be the enduring takeaway from Pono is that, for the better part of 2012, there isn't a community in the Cloud that has not been debating the merits of high-res digital. And that will be good for everyone in the long run.

There is plenty of bandwidth in my house to make high-res digital our audio standard. There is not enough bandwidth to make high-res digital the standard for streaming in the Cloud.

And that's OK. People have used low-rate-services radio, for one to enjoy and discover music as they move through the world. Ubiquitous digital players and streaming services just extend this opportunity to formerly inaccessible places (e.g the New York subway system). It's eminently convenient.

So the author is right. Pono may never get off the ground, or it will probably fail if it does, for all the reasons cited. But high-resolution digital will find its niche in the Cloud. The luxury automotive market, with its quiet cabins and 18-speaker sound systems, seems the likely early adopter. After that, market forces will govern its spread.

'It's doubtful anyone could explain the beauty of high-resolution digital audo to a mass audience in 90 seconds.'

I disagree. Neil Young should have simply said something along the lines of:

'Imagine how good you think your favourite cd sounds, well my new system can make it sound even better. You really have to hear it to believe it'.

Follow that with a demo of the system. That would all take less than 90 seconds.

If people want to know about the technicalities behind the system, they will ask during/after the demo.

I'm reading this with much interests (being linked from other sites). A mass market player combined with an on-line music store that allows payable downloads of (at least) a Audio-CD format is definitely what I'm looking forward to.

It's not just audiophile contents which Linn is doing (good job shifting to streaming business and I believe this is the future too), but also should carries content of the pop artists and major labels. I'm not sure iTunes is seriously looking into improving their resolution from the current small file size lossy AAC format to CD quality (or more). But more players in the CD to High-res downloads arena are definitely welcome.

I always have to encode my old CD with FLAC and play on my portable devices. I don't mind spending an amount slightly lower than CD to get a downloadable Audio-CD format. And I certainly don't mind spending slightly more than CD to get a High-Res format, importantly, for the music that is not only targeted for audiophile audiences but also the general audiences.

The internet bandwidth is definitely able to carry at least Audio-CD for streaming now. The next step is for audio production companies and record labels to realise this, implement it, and market to the general audience. I for one will be interested to take part in this development if given the opportunity.

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