By The Way, Neil Young has the worst website in the world.
But we won’t hold that against him. He’s a geek who obsesses over electric hybrid cars and sits on the board of a toy company. Oh, yeah – and he’s a fine musician, too.
This week he spoke at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech Conference and he had some harsh things to say about the state of the music industry.
In the iPod age, music sound quality has been dumbed down to “Fisher-Price toy” levels, rock star and tech enthusiast Neil Young said Wednesday at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech Conference.
Young spent most of his time on stage lamenting what he feels is an increasing focus on convenience versus quality in today’s iTunes/iPod-dominated music industry. And he wasn’t afraid to criticize companies – Apple (AAPL) in particular – that he feels have brought down audio standards.
He’s right about the audio quality, but wrong about the reason and the cause.
It is not primarily an issue of convenience. It’s a matter of quantity over quality. And it has more to do with the music industry than the music technology.
Yes, the de facto standard of 128 kbps MP3 has brought down the quality of music presentation. But people like being able to store more songs.
Yes, the tendency towards cost-competitive portable playback equipment (including the iPod) has tended to reduce the quality of audio playback as well.
But while MP3 is not an ideal format, at higher bitrates it does a fine job of compressing CD-resolution music. There is no reason a portable music player cannot be built to accurately reproduce CD-resolution music. And from an information theory standpoint, CD-resolution music should be sufficient – if properly used – to provide the necessary sound quality.
Even still, I agree that a little more audio resolution would be desirable, and there are better alternatives all around. Computing power, storage, and bandwidth have all improved to the point where compression is hardly necessary. FLAC is a far superior audio codec that provides lossless compression. The files are bigger, but storage is cheap. It supports larger sample sizes and higher sampling rates if desired. And using higher quality electronic components would not increase costs that much.
None of these things matter, however, if the music being played is created in such a way that can’t take advantage of these high quality alternatives.
Bob Dylan complained about a different kind of compression – dynamic range compression – a couple years ago in Rolling Stone:
You listen to these modern records, they’re atrocious, they have sound all over them. There’s no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like — static.
Only Dylan didn’t seem to know that’s what he was complaining about. He blames it on the technology and the CD. In reality, in the everlasting quest for “loud“, music gets mastered with little or no dynamic range. The largest bit depth and sampling rate in the world won’t make it sound any better. And this music will sound just as lousy on vinyl played on the most expensive sound system money will buy.
T-Bone Burnett is also advocating high resolution audio formats, but he also complains about modern mastering techniques and dynamic range compression, so he knows how to take advantage of that extra audio potential.
He has been promoting something called “CODE”, and the first CODE release is the new John “Cougar” Mellencamp album, “Life, Death, Love, And Freedom”.
What is CODE? The MarketingSpeak describes it as:
T Bone Burnett and his team of engineers developed CODE, a proprietary audio technology that creates high-definition audio files that are virtually indistinguishable from the original master tapes.
It appears that the format is just a DVD using the 24 bit 96 kHz PCM audio format. The Mellencamp album will ship with the CODE DVD, a standard CD, and a number of digital files allowing playback on just about every digital audio device in the world (MiniDisc and DCC excepted).
Of course, T-Bone Burnett and his engineers did not “develop” this – the DVD-Video working group did, but I applaud their decision to use it. There are other disc-based high-resolution audio formats out there (remember DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD?), but these “CODE” DVDs will play in any DVD player in the world (and most HD-DVD or Blu-Ray players), which can easily be set up to feed good home theater setups which can take advantage of all that information.
Back to Mr. Young. He plans to release his back catalogue on Blu-Ray and DVD later this year. No details on if he plans on making them video discs with PCM audio (or one of the other supported codecs), if they will be stereo or surround remixes, or if they will just be data discs for your computer with some sort of digital files on them. He does seem to want to include multimedia elements in an effort to discourage piracy (unfortunately a dubious premise). So these will be a fascinating experiment in music distribution to keep an eye on this Christmas.