Neil Young Hates MP3s (and so do we)

Speaking up at the Sundance Film Festival, Neil Young spoke out against shitty sound quality. He told MTV news:
"I'm finding that I have a little bit of trouble with the quality of the sound of music today," Young said. "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 a 78. Where are our geniuses? What happened?"

"If you're an artist and you created something and you knew the master was 100 percent great, but the consumer got 5 percent, would you be feeling good?" he asked. "I like to point that out to artists. That's why people listen to music differently today. It's all about the bottom and the beat driving everything, and that's because in the resolution of the music, there's nothing else you can really hear. The warmth and the depth at the high end is gone."

Hey hey, my my I have to agree with Mr. Young rock and roll can never die but can we kill off the MP3?
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COMMENTS
johnnya's picture

    it woud appear that consumers have little to no power to affect a positive change in quality:  320 kps is available on pay for view streamers, but not for download. if musicians are not willing or able to bring pressure to bear on download sites, then who can? Perhapsm musicians can offer decent quality downloads on their own sites?  at this point, we are getting what we are fed: damn inadequate gruel!

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Free MP3s for raising awareness via easy/cheap distribution works for me but the idea that people should be asked to pay for MP3s helps explain, imo, why people seek out free alternatives.

whell's picture

The story about consumers - (aka, the mainstream, where most of the money is as far as the music industry is concerned) - opting for convenience and portability over sound quality is nothing new.  Its disappointing for us who enjoy pursuing the pinnacle of audio perfection, but the sooner we acccept that we're a niche market and can't be the tail that wags the entertainment industry's dog, the happier we'll be.  

Thank God for the internet and computer - based audio, which finally allows the niche market to be serviced at relatively low cost, and allows entrepenuers easier access to us in the niche.  

Artists are being screwed by the music industry as well.  I have no problems with artists, particularly those who have been spurned by the major labels where "selling" an artist often has little corellation to the talent of that artist, selling their MP3's.  They've got to eat too. 

Neil Young grew up in music in an era where talent often mattered, the recording industry was pursuing perfection, and "bubble gum" acts where curiosities.  Today, convience matters more than perfoection, and bubble-gum acts are the mainstream.  Neil has also been frustrated with every new music delviery medium since the phonograph (God bless him).  

Nothing new to see here.  Let's move on. :-) 

Michael Lavorgna's picture

MP3s add another level of shittiness to convenience and portability that for the most part did not exist in the past and it’s a shittiness that you cannot “upgrade” out of as you could when you decided to buy a better hi-fi to play your records or CDs on.

Once someone with a collection of MP3s decides they’d like better sound quality, they need to re-buy all of the music they already bought.  So let’s not move on just yet.

whell's picture

...but the music industry doesn't.  They like that whole "re-buy" thing.  Works great for them.   And we in the niche support it as well.

For instance, many of us have bought music from HD Tracks.  A good bit of the music on HD Tracks has been re-cycled from SACD, which was recycled from the master tapes that also brought us the LP, the 8-Track, the cassette and the CD of the same music.  How many of us that have bought the download from HD Tracks also have purchased the LP or CD or SACD of that download?  I'd suspect if we asked for a show of hands of all of the folks who've NOT done that, most of the room would stay seated and still.  

I'm not a fan of MP3 downloads, but I also understand that there are millions out there who value them for their convenience.  I also suspect the revenue stream from those MP3's may help un-noticed artists get noticed, which may lead to opportunities for us in the niche to purchase that same music in a better quality package at some point in the future.  

On the other hand, who knows what the future will bring?  People started buying MP3'a in the days when AOL and Compuserve via a 28800 baud modem were the pathways that most people took to get to the internet.  Now that broadband is more ubiquitous, maybe music distributors will get with the program and package their product in a higher quality wrapper.  We can only hope.  

Michael Lavorgna's picture

When we decide to change formats, we are making an informed choice. Within the audiophile world you certainly have people buying the 24/96 download of the 45rpm 200 gram pressing thay have of the LP they already own which they also have on CD and SACD and would really love to find on 15ips, 1/4" half track tape. And that Japanese pressing is supposed to be amazing...

The difference is consumers were sold on the idea that the MP3 was good enough but it isn’t. Again an LP or CD can upgrade along with your system, the MP3 is a throw away in that regard. I suppose you could make the argument that file size is still an issue for portable players so the MP3 'fits' that model.

On the bright side, I’ve seen many independent musicians offering CD-quality downloads from sites like Bandcamp. As a matter of fact I learned about one such artist, Clara Engel, when she emailed me an MP3 of her work which led me to her Bandcamp page and eventually to purchase her vinyl EP.  This is where I see MP3 playing an important role and having real value.

mward's picture

My fear is that this is an issue of demand. Lossy compression is good enough for most people that purchase music (or choose to copy their friends' music), and higher quality files are a niche market. Some artists, labels, and download merchants are addressing this niche market, but most are content to lose a few sales.

For the time being, I'll just stick to buying and ripping my own CDs. Better sound than most downloads, and I can rip to whichever format I choose.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

For many people a music download = MP3. But more and more sites are offering CD-quality FLAC downloads (see the list) as an option which will help raise awareness.

And this includes great independent labels like Matador and Drag City, to large distributors like Boomkat, and majors like Universal Music – the point being not just audiophile stuff.

I also think it’s important that sites like AudioStream continue to talk about this issue and it certainly helps spread the word when Neil Young speaks about it during an interview on MTV from the Sundance Film Festival.

I suppose I'm suggesting that it's better to view this as an evolving issue (and I think it is) as opposed to a foregone conclusion.

jazzfan's picture

Nowhere in the interview section quoted above does Neil Young explicitly state that it is mp3s or even lossy compression that he is referring to so perhaps he was casting a wider net and was also complaining about dynamic range compression, better known as "The Loudness Wars". Between lossy compression and dynamic range compression just about all mass market commercial music sounds terrible.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

He talks about MP3 specifically:

“[there's] 5% of the data in an MP3 that the original 192 file has.”

He goes on to explain how this negatively affects resolution in that second paragraph quoted above:

“It's all about the bottom and the beat driving everything, and that's because in the resolution of the music, there's nothing else you can really hear. The warmth and the depth at the high end is gone."

jazzfan's picture

Sorry about that, I stand corrected. Nonetheless, lossy compression coupled with dynamic range compression remains a potent combo for making music like pure headache inducing garbage.

On the other hand NHeil Young is a man who stands by his convictions since somehow or other he manages to make sure that all of his recordings are available in the best sounding format currently available whether that format is DVD-Audio (now dead), high quality vinyl (still alive) or blu-ray high resolution audio (which does not seem to be catching on).

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Yes, Neil Young cares about what his recordings sound like. We need more artists like him.

deckeda's picture

In no particular order:

Some LPs come with coupon cards for a free download. In my limited experience (the fine Tom Petty Damn the Torpedoes reissue from ORG, and Beastie Boys Hot Sauce Committee Part Two) the available downloads were 320kbps. One of the 'Boys wrote the text on Hot Sauce's coupon card, claiming it was for an "audiophile" or hi res download.

WAIT---that's not the full story. The 'Torpedos reissue's coupon card also permitted a choice of free 24/96 download. Was that Petty, his management, his label, ORG---who had that bright idea?

Even with only two examples given, I don't suppose 320kbps downloads are rare, but it's my guess the common delivery mechanisms (iTunes, Amazon et al) are locked into what they offer as much for marketing reasons as anything else. They have support issues to contend with, and turning huge ships around takes time. None of that explains why the labels don't routinely offer lossless of some kind.

*******************

MP3s shouldn't be free, they should instead die for the reason Michael mentioned: zero upgrade path. If they were free, the music industry would also (at this moment) have good reason to fear lost sales of anything else, because they haven't bothered to educate consumers. But if the point of a "free MP3" is to offer a preview, then increase streaming efforts instead.

Streams are typically just annoying enough to dissuade copying efforts while offering on-demand convenience anywhere. That's what Spotify, MOG et all are for. And NPR's full music previews. Love that.

*******************

re: Young

He's actually reformed. Young learned a hard lesson, having accepted lo res digital masters in the '80s and '90s. We'll never have hi res versions of that content. (I concede the recordings nevertheless sound good, and stand ready to trot out Fagen's The Nightly as an early lower res digital recording (16/50) that sounds good ... )

I really appreciate his efforts here, and I know he's been on this soapbox for a while now. His Caddy with the hi res audio system was recently featured in a video clip on Occupy Audio's Facebook page and he supports their efforts. link to story about that:  http://www.spinner.com/2012/01/24/neil-young-occupy-audio-new-crazy-hors... On the other hand, nothing in the video on Occupy's FB page has anything to do with hi res formats, and is (in my opinion) more of a comment on the possibility of having good sound (hi res or not) in the shitty acoustics of an old car?)

*******************

US!

Audiophiles can play an important role by hosting "MonkeyHaus"-type listening gatherings. But I think the intended benefit would come from not pushing boring A-B-A comparisons or dogmatic "see? MP3s suck!" pronouncements. No one wants to be preached to, and when you force listeners to "agree" with you, more often than not their perception will continue to be that the MP3 is good enough and the whole thing would backfire. And modest or "unsexy" equipment probably works best ... shiny stuff would distract and convince the audience you need to spend a shitload of money for good sound. #1 on the list would be a decent turntable, old or recently new, playing anything and everything, cleaned-up old LPs. Most people have no idea that LPs don't have to be noisy or fussy.

Michael, you've been to a few. Does John open that up to the public and if so, advertise/advocate it in any way?

Michael Lavorgna's picture

I don't believe John opens them to the public and I’d imagine that’s because it’s best to have some control over attendance numbers. I’ve been to a bunch from smallish gatherings to larger ones for audiophile clubs and other groups where we listened in ‘shifts’ which worked out just fine.

I recall one Monkeyhaus in particular where part of the evening was dedicated to 78s and there were a bunch of people who’d never heard a 78rpm record before. And the reaction was a huge head-shaking smile to outright laughter over how amazing they sound. A lot of very happily surprised listeners.

This kind of event, where the focus is on the enjoyment of music, is a great way to also show people that part of this enjoyment is related to the quality of the experience.

For those who are unfamiliar with John DeVore's Monkeyhaus events, here are a few things worth reading:

Art Dudley, Listening #92

Stephen Mejias, At The Monkeyhaus

Pablo's picture

I'm sorry but it's not the mp3 that its giving us the bad sound, its actually their mastering. Now a days most of the records sound awfully compressed if you aren't just hearing audiophile bands.

I have converted myself some of the HD tracks that sound superb to mp3 320kbs CBR and let me say that in a blind test the differences weren't that much, yes there was a difference but not one that would make it sound bad.

So blame the audio engineers not the mp3.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Now a days most of the records sound awfully compressed if you aren't just hearing audiophile bands.

First off I don’t know anyone, including music reviewers, who have the time to listen to "most of the records”. Of the hundreds of new records (too many to list) I've listened to recently, many sound wonderful and none of them are “audiophile bands”. The idea that “most” new music is compressed is based, in my experience, on pop radio-fare which accounts for about 0% of what I listen to.

As far as comparing 320kbs MP3s to HD recordings, any value judgment regarding a perceived difference is purely subjective. In other words your “not bad” may very well be some else’s no thanks.

Gretschguy's picture

I listen to zero top 40's pop radio.  I listen to a lot of alternative music and classic rock from the 70s, 80s, 90s, and 00s.   The recordings I buy now almost always disappoint me sonically and I can easily measure it with AudioLeak (you can to with any program that measures dynamic range).    I'm a music lover not a technician but I had to figure out why new stuff just sounds like crap on ANY format, so I started measuring things and quickly found the culprit to be compression.

Original LPs by the Talking Heads, Joe Jackson, New Order, Stones all measure around 30dB -- almost anything from the 70s and 80s.

Now great new stuff like Arcade Fire and The National, which I love, measure around 18dB and that's good for today's standards.   I'm left wondering just how incredible these would sound at around 30dB if the mastering engineers could really open them up.

Hey, I'll still enjoy those "good" new records but when I a/b something like a 70s vinyl and a new remaster of the same, even at 24 bit, the dynamic range has been reduced dramatically.  It's simply a fact -- the LP at about 30dB the remaster often around 20dB, CDs are often even worse than the vinyl, so I buy the vinyl of new stuff hoping for a little better experience -- sometimes yes, sometimes no.

The recent Smiths vinyl and CD remasters are a case in point, about 25dB to 30dB down to 18dB.   It's noticeable Michael, that's a 30% reduction in dynamic range and easily measured.

I agree that something classical or jazz or an "audiophile" release is often really good and here the data compression is a bigger factor -- point well taken.  But typical rock and alternative just sounds like crap these days.   Most recent loser new music I bought include "Chapel Club" (great songs can't listen to it), "Chain Gangs of 1974", and the worst of all was "The Domino State" love the songs but it sits on my shelf and sounds terrible, only sounds sublime when played at low volume through my laptop!  I can only wonder how good it could sound -- mp3 or other...

 

Pablo's picture

I believe the so bad sounding mp3s teens use, its mainly because they get from sources like youtube or transcodes from somewhere else and thats self explanatory. Even itunes doesn't offer 320kbs of bitrate.

As for the records on my personal taste one of the best albums this last years ArcadeFire- The Suburbs comes to mind, R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now and Metallica - Death Magnetic.

Old albums being remastered this days sound worse than the original, even from youtubevideo you can tell the difference

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DRyIACDCc1I&feature=player_embedded

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sTBoMlsw-0I&feature=player_embedded

Wallstreet article on the matter http://www.wallstreetjournal.de/article/SB122228767729272339.html

And here a database list http://www.dr.loudness-war.info/index.php?sort=year&order=desc

This to say that isn't that linear and we can agree to disagree but yes a judgment regarding a perceived difference is subjective. But since you are the rockstar here, yes you are, and since we care about you think if you find time to do it out of curiosity, I would like to hear your own conclusions of comparing the HD tracks and report back if it sounds that bad.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Not all remasters sound worse than the original, not all new music suffers from dynamic compression, and not all of the records listed in the Loudness Wars db that are in the red sound bad. At least in my opinion.

But yes, dynamic compression is an important issue but it does not negate the fact that MP3s are lossy and there's no reason that I can see to deal with lossy formats. As far as comparing HDtracks tracks to 320k MP3s to see if in fact the latter do not sound that bad, I think I’ll take your word for it.

Gretschguy's picture

Indeed.. But what gets me wound up about it is that when I buy an mp3 I know I'm making a trade off of convenience for sound quality.   It's a deal I understand.

When I buy a $30 vinyl LP of a new indie band that sounded decent on internet radio and I play it and realize that it sounds terrible, I measure the dynamic range at 12dB, then I feel that I've been taken.   Likewise when I buy a $30 vinyl of an old artist and it sounds far worse than I expected.

The point is that people are getting pasionate about this compression thing since we feel burned SO often -- probably half of what I buy now disappoints me sonically but I love music so much that I keep hoping it will change and hope the next one will be better -- but I have no way of knowing.

When I buy an mp3 at least I know what I'm getting.

Look I'm not supporting mp3's, I listen entirely to ripped LPs at 24 bit -- I'm a total snob about 24 bit -- I'm just saying that we should be barking down a different tree if we actually care about sonics.   Garbage in, garbage out...

And I really don't think its just my ears, their not golden, when friends here these new recordings their like that's a cool song, a really cool song, can we put on talk radio now...

Michael Lavorgna's picture

When I buy an mp3 at least I know what I'm getting.

I'm not willing to go as far as suggesting that MP3s are OK because I don’t expect much from them up front in terms of sound quality. And the issue of convenience is a non-issue for me as there’s nothing difficult about buying a FLAC or WAV download or buying and ripping a CD.

Paying for MP3s, just say no. I feel the same way about McDonalds.

Some of my favorite recent records, like Grinderman 2, look and measure horribly compressed but this in no way intrudes upon my enjoyment. Perhaps I’m just not as sensitive to the issue.

Also, $30 for an indie LP?  The new records I buy are on average under $20 and typically cost around $16 and most of them are on independent labels.

Pablo's picture

It seems audiophile community gets real defensive on the mp3 matter, you talk about it but you can't bother to do a simple test. I'm not defending mp3 use for home stereo but it's not the monster you seem to make of it.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

You admit that 320k MP3s do not sound as good as higher resolution copies.

You'd like me to listen and compare 320k MP3s with higher resolution copies and “…report back if it sounds that bad.”

You agree that any perceived difference is purely subjective as far as placing a value on that difference.

So my question to you is – what’s the point of your proposed "simple test"?

jazzfan's picture

I'll trying dipping toe into these waters.

Here's a couple of reasons why mp3s and all lossy compression sucks.

1) There are several different methods for making mp3s and each one is slightly different, therefore not all mp3s are created equal.

2) 320K mp3s sound substantially better than 128k mp3s and are therefore not interchangeable.

3) mp3s and all other lossy codecs cannot be transcoded without adversely affecting the sound. Say you take a 320k mp3 and convert it back to a wav file and then you encode that wav file to a variable bit rate 256k mp3, what guarantee is there that the resulting mp3 file has the same amount of data as an a variable bit rate 256k mp3 file created directly from a clean, i.e. never compressed, wav file. Unlike lossless files, which can be transcoded as needed, transcoding mp3 is kind of like making copies of a cassette in that there are definite generational losses. Different data (music) gets tossed away with each transcoding. I've heard some really bad sounding mp3s as result of this careless use of transcoding.

4) because Neil Young says so!

As far as the loudness wars goes. What Pablo says is basically true - most modern popular music and modern remasters of popular are being adversely effected by over use of dynamic range compression.

deckeda's picture

1) A lossy file's inherent lack of definition --- by definition, heh --- has essentially nothing to do with whether or not it's been dynamically compressed. Different kettle of worms / can of fish as it were. That is to say, it's irrelevant to the topic here.

2) Synergistic matches are very real occurrences; multiple wrongs can make "a qualified right" in limited circumstances. My point will get lost below, so I'll include it here: lossy files are fine in some circumstances. Preferable, perhaps, even for sound quality, while absolutely NOT fitting the bill at other times. Huh?

Example:

As I type this I'm listening to NPR's full album stream of Leonard Cohen's upcoming release. I won't bother to measure the incoming streaming rate at my router but we may assume it's not much, and that it's lossy. The output device is a set of foldable Sennheiser PX100s, cheap ($50-ish) and can easily be characterized as having a dark presentation. Bass is sufficient for their class but muddy. It's the forgiving mids and especially upper mids that allow these to not offend, ever. Oh, and they are plugged into an iPhone. Only using cellular data instead of WiFi would have perfected the trifecta of beleaguerment, right?

It sounds just fine. "But."

But I'm listening casually, to see if I might buy the music. But this is a simple recording of closely-miked voice, bass, soft background vocals, a preciously spare synth, occaisional but relaxed drums. Not that difficult for lossy algorithms to work with. But I know a lossless version will likely sound better. How much better? Enough to know, enough to care ... enough for me, which last time I checked, was sufficient.

In the case of NPR streams, I know this to certainly be the case, as I have streamed over to my Painfully Modest living room stereo and always --- even on unfamiliar music --- considered the sound to be lacking in life. The obvious assertion that a well-made lossy file sourced from something better, should no doubt sound better than an Internet stream, only proves the point of just sticking with the best source to begin with, be done with it, and rise above ignorant bliss.

dalethorn's picture

Neil is part right and part wrong.  His early observations on CD's were correct - mostly due to bad A/D conversions and lack of experience in the industry.  His suggestion that digital was not "continuous" like analog was not correct.  Any observations he has today about the record co's compressing and otherwise trashing the sound are also correct.  But as to MP3's - a good recording un-tampered with on 320k CBR MP3 is vastly better than most of the crud being released or re-released today by the big record companies, whether WAV or FLAC et al.

Gretschguy's picture

I completely agree with this comment.  I've bought a lot of loser material from HDTracks at 24 bit / 96 kHz due to the "garbage in, garbage out" principle.  Most recently I bought The Rolling Stones "Some Girls" and it sounds dynamically compressed with poorly defined bass.   A 24 bit vinyl rip of the original LP reveals a hugely better sound -- punchy, intense, and well defined.   I experienced the same thing with several downloads and I'm not the first one to notice this.   There are some exceptions, Eric Clapton and Paul McCartney's unmastered downloads, but most are just bad.   I do applaud HDTracks for at least being there for the good stuff -- and I realize it's not their job to subjectively measure the quality of these remasters, but I think people should realize this "garbage in, garbage out" fact that is very real.

I also recently bought some new vinyl from new bands that I'd like to support and by and large its very hard to listen these LPs at any real volume.  Using Audioleak I measaure the typical dynamic range of any new recording at around 18dB, 20dB if I'm lucky -- the CDs are worse at around 15dB.   LPs from the 70s and 80s show a typical range of about 25dB to 30dB -- that's a huge difference in clarity, soundstage, impact, etc.. 

As I see it, the problem is that mixing and mastering is generating music that just makes us turn away from it -- which is the bigger culprit of music dying out now.   I, for one, am going to simply stop buying music by new bands since the stuff sits on my shelf and collects dust if I can't engage with it at a decent volume.

I'm a huge fan of 24 bit and hi resolution but today's poor mixes / mastering completely swamp the advantages of 24 bit and I agree I would prefer a properly mixed / mastered version of the same song in 320 mp3 than in 24 bit 96 kHz.

Now, once I have my hands on something of quality I prefer that song in the highest resolution possible.   Neil Young's recent vinyl reissues are fantastic!  So I agree with Neil that I want to hear HIS stuff on vinyl and not on mp3, but many other artists are producing material that might be great songs but unfortunately sound like crap on any format due to the massive compression.

What really surprises me is that the audiophile community is not doing more, much more, about the sound quality and the damage that brickwalling and compression does to the natural sound of music -- to my ears, its the elephant in the room.   A big fat one with all frequencies blurring at the same time.

 

Michael Lavorgna's picture

It's certainly as important, if not more so due to the ease of acquisition and portability on smart phones, as it was for my generation (I was tempted to say m-m-m-my generation). Sound quality, imo, becomes increasingly important if/when our listening habits and relationship to music changes over time.

jimmyjames's picture

I don't think Neil understands the marketplace and the young adults of today.  CD quality sound and beyond (SACD) is (still) available but just barely out in the marketplace of the shopping mall and big box stores.  But the 20 somethings I know do not buy cd's or MP3's.  They steal music off the internet at 320kbps and below and think it sounds damn fine for what they paid for it (nothing) and on their playback systems ( an iPod).  I have offered numerous times for these 20 somethings to listen to legally purchased music via WAV files on my computer via an outboard dac and dedicated headphone amp or to come over to my house and listen to music on my main rig via loudspeakers and they politely decline as if it was just socially unacceptable.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

My father cursed the quality of listening to homemade cassette tapes on a Walkman as well as the "crap" music I listened to on it (like Neil Young). I think its important to keep in mind that the music we listen to and how we choose to listen to it can be greatly influenced by our age as well as social concerns.

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