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The Front End of the Donkey

You gotta love Neil’s honesty. We owe it all to artists to stand up to what they believe in and drive us forward. Without them, we would have nothing.

“Still the searcher
must ride the dark horse
Racing alone in his fright.”

“I’m finding that I have a little bit of trouble with the quality of the sound of music today,” says Neil Young. “I don’t like it. It just makes me angry. Not the quality of the music, but we’re in the 21st century and we have the worst sound that we’ve ever had. It’s worse than in 1978. Where are our geniuses? What happened?”

I can’t agree more.  We need a new format that breathes life into the music industry by improving the quality of the sound that we listen to.   If you are under the age of 22, I will bet that most of you have never really heard a great audio recording.  You don’t even know what I am talking about.

This issue is vital to the future of the music business.  What we have today with the proliferation of ear buds as the primary listening medium and compressed MP3 files is a low res music experience that is the bottom of the barrel, lowest common denominator form of a listening experience there can be.  Really listening to music is simply lost on most people these days, and as a result the art form has lost the majority of its value.

It commonly accepted that crappy sounding music is the norm and people, by and large, have no idea what they are missing.  The MP3 has stripped the emotional value from music today and has reduced it to a commodity.  The audio business has truly been compressed and marginalized and is nearing extinction.  We cannot let that happen to the music business.

As artists, “We can’t control the back end of the donkey, laments Young.  The donkey has two ends, products like Beats and Bose and every little product that comes out for your car, the whole thing – is all about the back end of the donkey.  There is nothing talking about the front end of the donkey, that’s what I’m talking about.  You don’t have to that rich to do this, you just have to be smart…  We are in the low res world, make no mistake that is right where we are…

“I look at the internet as the new radio.  I look at the radio as gone…  People change and do their music, people trade it they do whatever and Apple makes it very possible for you to store stolen or traded songs in the cloud, they opened up the door so that that can happen… its acceptable.  Thats the way it is… Piracy is the new radio, that’s how music gets around, thats the real world for kids, thats the (new) radio… Lets let them really hear it.

“I’m hoping that some people who want the hi-res would have the choice in buying it.  It has to be convenient, people should not associate hi-res with inconvenience.  That’s a myth, we’re living in the 21st century and all of these things are possible.  The technology exists, the internet is fast enough to support it…  If Steve Jobs had lived long enough, he would be eventually have done what I am trying to do.”

Quality.  We need a new format that will deliver better quality sound to drive the business forward.  Period.  Here is a true clarion call for innovation, and something that we all need to pay attention to.   Neil Young cares about music. He is successful enough that he could sit back and ignore the realities of the marketplace today, but instead chooses to push the agenda forward. Awesome. I would not be surprised to hear a new song from Neil about a donkey.  Maybe I can sing backup on it.

See the video with Neil Young and Walt Mossberg from All things D here.

Here is a brief description of some of the technical issues from Thinkdigit.  “The renewed focus on audio quality in some circles has a sense of déjà vu about it. Some of it recalls the 1970s, back when the term “high fidelity” was thrown around to indicate quality stereo recordings. We also saw this go around again at the turn of the millennium with the introduction of SACD and DVD Audio formats, which brought 24-bit fidelity and surround sound to audio mixes, although neither took off at the time.

So what’s going on here? In a word, it’s about data. More data translates to better-sounding audio files—but those files are largely unavailable to most consumers. Granted, to the casual listener, Amazon MP3 and Apple iTunes Store sound pretty good, as they’re encoded as 256Kbps MP3 and AAC files for the most part. Amazon has some MP3 files encoded at variable bit rates, but most of them center around the 224Kbps to 256Kbps range. AAC generally sounds slightly better than MP3 when encoded at the same bit rate, although recent improvements in MP3 encoding algorithms have largely rendered this academic.

Aside from music purchases, 256Kbps is also iTunes’ default encoding rate for when you rip audio CDs in iTunes (although you can change it), and it’s the size iCloud uses to deliver tracks to other PCs or mobile devices on your network if you’re a subscriber. I’m just using Apple products here as an example; Windows Media Player, Winamp, and countless other apps do similar things. Any way you cut it, 256Kbps files sound a lot better than ones encoded at 128Kbps, which is what Apple used years ago before it removed DRM from its iTunes Store tracks. Granted, 256Kbps files take up twice the space as 128Kbps files, but on today’s devices, that usually isn’t a problem, and the improved sound quality is worth it.

The thing is, 256Kbps still isn’t enough. Higher-resolution, uncompressed, 16-bit audio files match the sound you get on an actual CD. 24-bit sound files even sound better; the increased headroom matches the format most artists and mix engineers have been working in over the past decade or so.

Cheap consumer electronics manufacturers abused the phrase “CD-quality” for many years, but in this case it still has meaning. True CD-quality files take up anywhere from three to 10 times as much as space as an MP3 or AAC file, depending on the latter’s bit rate; 24-bit files take up even more space. They come in several formats: FLAC, WAV, AIFF, and Apple Lossless. (FLAC and Apple Lossless contain some data compression but only in a method that doesn’t affect sound quality. FLAC is much more widely supported than Apple Lossless, though.)”

And finally, The Tennessean wrote a great piece on the lure of high fidelity and what some people in Nashville are working on to bring it back.
More to come.  This is a big issue.  Chime in on what you think and how can we move this agenda forward.

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Comments

10 replies
  1. Scott Shipman says:

    I agree totally with Neil,,I grew up on the music from the 60’s,,70’s,,and everything after. It seems as though after 75′ or so,,most music got deluted to nothing more than a “image/money” type thing,, rather than artists trying to write new,inspirational songs,that tell interesting stories about love,life and every thing in between.There are a few good bands in the pile,{IMHO} but the vast majority are playing music for the wrong reasons,again IMHO. Im not saying IM the best at anything,or my tunes are the greatest,but I do try to write songs that people can relate to in a real world sense. Its my blue collar roots showing thru I guess. I avoid most music released today,,it just doesnt have the “interesting factor” that music did yrs ago. Sad,,but true.

  2. Scott Shipman says:

    Whoops,, I misread the article,,I thought he was commenting about the “content” of music today,and I just realized he was referring to the actual “recording quality” of material today. I still agree with him on that point as well.

  3. Charlie Blevins says:

    I graduated from a Recording Industry Tech program near Nashville at MTSU. This debate was very fierce at the time (2004 to 2008). At that time many students and teachers were resorting to things like SACD and others for more high quality listening formats. Personally, I think we need to take a broader view of this topic and ask ourselves these questions: “What is the best way to deliver high quality audio given today’s trends and technology?” and as you mentioned in your post, “What amount of audio quality/data will today’s technology allow?”. The answer to the first question steers me in a different direction that you’ve focused on in your post. I’m a music teacher and pay $10 to spotify to access almost any song I need to instantly from my iphone. For a music teacher looking to inspire kids, that is power! My iphone really doesn’t have trouble streaming fairly high quality tracks, and it is still on a 3g network! Image the steaming quality that could be created with a 4g network or just a more finely tuned app. I think the name of the game is high quality streaming as convenience (as you mentioned) would combine with quality in this way and would eliminate the problem of storage.

  4. martin Lotz says:

    The lack of audio quality has not got much to do with the audio format at all. The problem really is in the loudness-war, and boils down to how stuff is mastered these days. I mean, the quality of recordings even on CD are lacking, In an interview with Bob Katz, he explains how mostly, this is due to peak-metering in the digital age:”Everyone pushes their loudness without realising the damage they are doing to their material in a system with a fixed maximum peak level”
    This problem becomes enhanced by going down the media chain, in compressed formats the mistakes made in the master become more clear, bringing out:”… all of the added distortion, terrible high-frequency aliasing, noise, space monkeys and squirleys” that become clearly audible using phase-cancellation of the song.

    So it is easy to say :USE a BETTER format, but this is highly redundant. Sattelite radio reduces bitrate to as low as 28/32, so no matter even if you recorded in 196kHz at 128 bits, if your master sucks, the format is not going to save you…

    What we need is more, real, properly educated oldschool AUDIOPHILE engineers like Bob Katz.

    Seeing as that is not going to happen, Mr Katz is solving the problem by introducing the K-system of metering, giving users more focus on rms levels…

  5. Lee Fitzsimmons says:

    The technology IS out there. You have to encode your MP3 files at 320 kpbs. Not at 256 or 192. Next, go to your favorite electronic store and buy some Bose earphones….

    Problem solved.

    We have the technology. Use it.

  6. Paul Jeffrey Thomas says:

    Neil Young makes some excellent points. The digital music production gear is great for home recording because it is affordable and gives songwriters tools to lay down tracks. But I see it more as a pre-production step. On one hand, these new tools have allowed a more democratic process for musicians to get songs together and distributed outside of record industry control. But Neil’s point about quality is so true. What we have gained in terms of access and affordability has come with a price. Unfortunately, both in terms of quality and content, music has become a cheap commodity.

  7. Adrian Michaels says:

    We are in the era of the 808 and digital music revolution (and I used that word loosely); where it’s all electronic, it’s all done competitively fast, it’s all done at home (because anyone with $500 and a Guitar Center nearby now thinks they are a “producer”), and it’s all done in an American Idol culture where record numbers of people want to be stars without having earned the privilege. This comes down to intentions. What you are really discussing is psychology and economics, not technical. People have to want to do music again, because they LOVE it and because they were “called” to do it, not because they think it’s their ticket to becoming famous. We can spend all day discussing bit rates, production techniques, ways to transfer music without quality loss and the like. But, if the people making most of the music simply don’t care, then it’s accomplishing nothing. There’s a great article on recordproducer.com about how Katy Perry’s song Firework is the worst recorded hit in history. But, it sold 4,000,000 copies. Engineers hate that song. But, economics will tell you that the market dictates what’s important. And, right now, the market doesn’t care about audio quality. I believe that until this generation of “musicians” (I also use that word loosely) starts to care about their craft instead of caring about seeing themselves on tv, we will continue to have this, as well as many other problems plaguing the music industry. If you guys want to increase the quality of today’s music we need to work on increasing the quality of today’s MUSICIANS.

  8. davekusek says:

    I know lots of musicians and they are not all obsessed with being on TV or becoming famous. I think you are missing the point of Neil’s post, which is mostly a technical point about compression, MP3 files and poor audio transducers (ear buds) that are delivering the sound to people’s ears. There is no question that it is all about the craft and quality across the board. But we have lost tremendous ground in the connection between the artist and the listener that has been utterly transformed by technology – not necessarily in a way that drives audio quality forward, but honestly has set us back considerably. Everyone needs to make an effort in the chain from idea to influence – and that is the point of this post.

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