May 25, 2016

Neil Young, capitalist sellout — #hypocrisy alert (updated)

Neil Young (Wikipedia photo)
Neil Young has long been known for "reinventing" himself musically every several years, but he's long been seen as a consistent liberal political and social voice.

(Update, May 25, 2016: Well, maybe not a consistent liberal political and social voice. Sure, he endorsed Bernie Sanders earlier this year, but now, he's ready and willing to let Donald Trump use his music at campaign events, as long as he pays up.)

Back to the original ....

Well, maybe we should re-invent our understanding of him. And, his voice aside, part of a trilogy of "interesting" voices along with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, maybe we should re-invent our understanding of him as a musician — at least one who understands much about actual recording and engineering — as well.

And, why do I say this?

From this great piece from LA Weekly, which once and for all refutes the idea that "vintage vinyl" sounds better than CDs.

If anything, it actually is worse.

Due to the shorter "travel time" near the label, sound quality on a record deteriorates even further near the center of the black plastic. And (petard alert!) to get more than 40 or so minutes of sounds on a piece of vintage vinyl, the sound must be COMPRESSED! And, there's extra distortion, despite that compression.

And, no, you worshipers at the Altar of Vinyl, the Altar of Glass Vacuum Tubes won't help on this.

How does this all tie to Neil Young?


It's his relationship to PonoMusic and the bullshit that Pono is selling to gullible worshipers at the Altar of Vinyl.

First, a background note. Pete Lyman, co-owner and chief mastering technician at Infrasonic Sound, notes that a lot of stuff being cut to vinyl is actually from stuff not only with digital masters, but with original engineering for digital. And, vinyl masters today aren't being produced the same way as they were in the pre-CD era.

Now, an introduction to more generalized hypercapitalist bullshit that's being sold to the Church of Vinyl:
As labels seek to capitalize on a physical medium that is gaining momentum, some marketing efforts offering superior sound are downright misleading. Most notable among these is "audiophile-quality 180-gram vinyl," which consumers assume is superior because it is heavier. Lyman, however, says the added weight offers no musical benefit at all. 
"It increases shipping costs and sales cost of the record. That's about it," he says. "It's the Super Big Gulp of vinyl, but you're not getting more [sound quality], really, you're just getting more vinyl."
OK, that sets the stage.

Here's the capitalist sellout:
With PonoMusic, Neil Young is leading fans down the digital version of a similar "bigger is better" sonic trail. 
It has long been believed that the human ear cannot hear frequencies above 22 kHz. This is why CDs sample sound at 44.1 kHz and 16 bits of information per sample. According to a theorem called Nyquist-Shannon, in order to reach a desired range, sound must be sampled at twice that range. Half of 44, obviously, is 22. 
Pono — along with some other digital retailers such as — sells some tracks that sample music as high as 192 kHz, with 24 bits per sample. Pono also offers a PonoPlayer (retail price: $399), which the company says is optimized to play those tracks.
So, the 192 kHz is just bullshit. Per Wiki, 192kHz is at the upper end of bats' sonar-based hearing range!

It's bullshit in the same way as gold-plated audio connections and similar overpriced stupidity.

Since the human ear can't hear that high, a special music player that allegedly reproduces them — as well as engineers who claim they can tell the quality grade difference — is an even higher, pricier grade of bullshit.

Even if ol Neil ain't getting a direct cut of Pomo's money in exchange for his Kickstarter effort, he's still a capitalist sellout. If he is getting some payola (I see what I did there), he's a sellout in spades.

Actually, in play rights, etc., he IS getting a direct cut of Pomo's money, though:
You can buy an armload of used LPs for the $21.79 it costs to buy a 192 kHz version of Young's Harvest at the Pono store.
 Capitalist sellout.

I'm surprised that he hasn't offered an updated "After the Gold Rush," let alone "Heart of Gold." (I see what I did there.)

And, music engineering idiot, spouting New Agey-type nonsense like this:
As he's been pitching Pono, Young has continued to promote the idea that analog formats and recording gear offer the authentic sound, and digital is a compromise. 
"I don't think [Pono] can sound better than vinyl," he said earlier this month at the Consumer Electronics Show. "Because vinyl is a reflection and any digital is a reconstitution; it's not the same thing."
Or else, a — wait for it, wait for it ...

A capitalist sellout playing on his public persona, which would expect him to say something like this, and doing so at a capitalist palooza like the CES. 

That said, he's got plenty of suckers willing to buy into his capitalist sellout if Americans bought nearly 10 million vintage vinyl albums in 2014.


G3 McK said...

To really drive your point home, you should list all the elements in the recording chain, emphasizing the notion of "weakest link". Fixing up one stage in the chain will have no effect unless that stage is in fact the weakest link, and it will only improve things up to the quality of the next-weakest link. This means that for a playback that you can trust to correctly represent what was recorded, you need an end-to-end calibration of the recording-playback process, and the only standard that's around for this seems to be THX. Getting your home theater THX-certified is justifiably expensive.

Unfortunately for Neil Young and most of his fans, he's a musician and not an audio engineer, and susceptible to the same snake oil arguments that lead to gold-plated ethernet cables and gold-plated AC power cords. The best way to think about Pono is that it's charity for Neil, in the amount of whatever royalties he gets from his endorsement deal with them.

Gadfly said...

Nice comment.

My personal thought is that speakers are likely to be the weakest link for most everyday people with everyday sound systems. I think a fair amount of people kind of know that, but that in turn makes them the biggest targets of the snake-oil types. Per what you're saying, G3, if you're really into this, the calibration has to be room specific, etc.

Short of that, even, doing basic research on types of speakers and primary types of music listening probably addresses some of these issues partially, I think.