Hello Mr. Soul: My Interview with Neil Young

Photo Credit: Danny Clinch

Neil Young: Are you from England?

Michael Lavorgna: New Jersey.

NY: Well Chris Christy and Margaret Thatcher are pretty similar.

(laughter)

NY: I'm cracking myself up over here.

Rick Gershon of Warner Bros: One million nine hunded and eight two [referring to the then current Kickstarter total which has now reached $2,500,092]

ML: Congratulations by the way on your Kickstarter campaign.

NY: What a trip huh? Who knew....We did. (laughter)

ML: People have commented on AudioStream things to the effect of I can already buy HD downloads from a number sites and play them through my DAC. So what's the new thing with Pono?

NY: There's nothing, there's nothing new. There is no new thing. It's just available. It's available to everybody.

Audiophiles have really got a bad name. They just want to deal with shit, they want to hear it. And now people think they're geeks. The fact is they are the pioneers, they're looking for the sound and they'll do anything they can to get it. And you know, more power to them.

"But now what we've done is we've created something that lets Joe on the street listen to audiophile quality sound. But really what it is it's consumer quality sound."

But now what we've done is we've created something that lets Joe on the street listen to audiophile quality sound. But really what it is it's consumer quality sound. Its consumer sound. This is the new floor for consumer sound. You know records in the '70s, they were great. Right?

ML: Yes

NY: That was consumer sound. Consumer sound went downhill for 45 years creating the largest opportunity in the history of recorded sound. And the only people who knew this were the audiophiles who tried to find the upper end. And of course they can go to HDtracks and then they'll be able to go to Pono and they can go wherever they want.

Pono guarantees it's the best that can be had, our stuff is what is the best. We get it right from the horse's mouth. We go in there and we find the history of it. And we do our best to bring the best. And if it's ever made any better, which is our goal to make it better, to say wow what about this 44.1 file you gave us it's the only thing you mastered why did you not master it in the 96 you cut it on? Why not master from 96 and then dumb it down to 44. That'll be the new thing people will start doing.

So it's not like we are going to be married to what we make. We provide the best it can be and if the best it can be gets better, Pono will supply the new track for nothing. You get it. You already bought the best it can be, the best it can be just got better, so you don't have to pay a penalty. That's why you bought it and it doesn't cost more.

ML: One area that seems to have been a problem with high resolution downloads is people couldn't agree on what to call them...

NY: Pono. They're Pono. Its one thing, its righteous. It's the one, It is what it is. It's like God. It's one thing. It's just a level.

"What the artists have done is what we want to serve. We don't want anything on it, we don't want any special sauce, we want no magic, we want no encoding/decoding, we want nothing. We want a straight shot from whatever the artist created to go right into the consumer's ears."

What the artists have done is what we want to serve. We don't want anything on it, we don't want any special sauce, we want no magic, we want no encoding/decoding, we want nothing. We want a straight shot from whatever the artist created to go right into the consumer's ears.

And the artist now instead of the key of C and the melody and the beat being the only important things and the lyrics and all that, now the resolution is going to matter.

ML: Do you think Pono is going to raise the awareness for high resolution?

NY: I think it's obvious its going to raise the resolution. Because our players will ultimately supply this information. When you're listening to a track you can browse to the back pages for the track and you can find out what you're listening to. So as consumers become more educated through the player musicians will realize their secret's out.

ML: One of the other things I picture is when you go to an artist's website and they have a new album out and you see "Buy from iTunes" or "Buy from Amazon", do you envision having a Pono option there as well?

NY: If they want to sell Pono they should do that. Why wouldn't they. They want to sell it, right. Here we are.

ML: I think this is great.

NY: Well thanks. We do too. I'm a musician I want to empower musicians to do what they do. To make their music be what people hear. And for their decisions to be understood. Their decisions in the studio to be understood.

I personally look forward to sampled records and hip-hop that suddenly realize hey we have a new thing to go with. Now we can be like lo-res for the beat and then we get to the hook we'll go to high res. There's all kinds of things you can use this for. You can have a 192 recording and play back that's based on 16/44 for several of the instruments and then when you get to the hook it goes to 192. That can happen and be an effect, its part of the musical palette. Its part of the musical thing.

Now with my kind of music an acoustic expression what I would do sometimes, not always, I would do that then you'd be able to hear it all. That's what I like to do.

But I think rap and hip-hip and everything like that when they discover they have more tools to use, they'll use them. They're geniuses. These people are geniuses. They're creating the new music of the day and its great music and its reflecting on things that are very important. And sometimes it's, you know, aggravating and brash and everything but that's what rock and roll is about. So I understand that. I just want to give them more tools.

ML: Audiophiles and the audio industry has been trying to convey this message of better sound quality for years and they've failed miserably to a certain extent...

NY: Because there are no examples of it. It's like you're trying to say this is no good but it's not available in the mainstream. We're bringing it to the mainstream. We have an iconic looking player that no one's ever seen before that's in colors like Apple's in colors and it plays on earphones like everybody likes to do. It's the same model, it's the same convenience.

ML: And it's the whole chain.

"Everything from the musician to the ear."

NY: Everything from the musician to the ear. We've taken care of every step. It's not just one little part of it. That's key. You have to give people confidence in every area that it's Pono all the way through. And Pono is a describer like Kleenex it can be Pono and might be HDtracks, who knows. But if it's Pono it's good HDtracks. Pono means one, righteous, good. That's what it is. That's what we're trying to do. We'll see what happens, people want it though.

ML: I mentioned this to my wife that I was going to be speaking to you about Pono and she was like what is it again? And I said well it's higher quality of the music that you want. And her comment was if I was aware that this existed I would buy it. I don't want to buy crappy stuff from iTunes, if there's a choice.

"There hasn't been freedom of choice in music in America for twenty years."

NY: There hasn't been freedom of choice in music in America for twenty years. It's a gigantic, I mean of course there's always a way to get something if you want to go through all the back doors put all your wires together, hang stuff off your computer and get your earphones and change the DAC on your computer and go through all of this stuff but people don't want to do that. Theirs is the age of convenience. They've been trained. But the one thing that's still happening today is even though there are these devices that do everything and they do everything in a mediocre kind of way but they do it. You know no wire to the speaker and they get it to the point where...they've created a situation where dedicated devices have a place. The Nest, the thermostat thing that fits on your wall, that's a dedicated device. It does a lot of stuff but it's dedicated to your environment. It's keeping track of it.

Things that do one thing really really well, a dedicated device, that's what Pono is. It's another breed of device.

ML: Did this idea come to you over a period of time or was it more of an "aha!" type moment?

NY: It's been coming through you know starting about 2000, 2001 something that I started thinking about it. When I started working on my Blu-Ray set in 1990 I knew we had to have quality. Whatever the digital quality is we have to have that. We have to get to the highest level. So this has been going on for a while.

[A group of people leave and Neil gets up to say his goodbye's]

NY: These guys have been working for nothing, some of them for months, some for years because of this.

ML: It's great to see the reaction on Kickstarter.

"People need this stuff. They want their music. When they know they're missing some, they want it all. This is our promise, we're bringing it to you."

NY: People need this stuff. They want their music. When they know they're missing some, they want it all. This is our promise, we're bringing it to you.

ML: With all of the other artists in the promotional video it's a great message.

NY: It's overwhelming. Your going what the f* I said this all along to everybody. The musicians want this. We don't have a problem getting musicians. All you have to do is play it for them.

ML: Do you think that's the same with people?

NY: Absolutely. I think it's especially going to be that way with kids. That's what I think. Because kids don't care, kids are not married to yesterday. They want to know what's happening now, what's new. What's cool. What's the new thing. They may be a little upset that they bought all that music but they can still play it on Pono. And it should sound marginally better. Plus you know we've got the Ayre DAC, the good filtering, you know we've got some approved stuff by Charlie Hansen. These guys are great. He's a genius guy.

But you only do so much with a bad signal. So once you hear one Pono signal against that stuff you're gonna go whoa!

ML: We have two teenage daughters and I've been trying to talk to them about music quality and it hasn't really hit home.

NY: Well, you have to show them. And they've never had a choice in their world. Where they take the player with them, they put on their headphones and they go into their little world and they put on the 'phones and go, god dad was right. You know you get their music, we're working on Taylor Swift right now we've got Warner Nashville behind us we've got everybody behind us. You know the videos haven't even started yet. We have I think sixty five artist testimonies, that are three minute videos where the car pulls up, they get it, they listen, get out and go whoa!

So that's it. We just spread the word. That's what we're doing.

ML: Thank you very much for your time and it was great meeting you and I just want to say thank you for a few decades worth of great music.

NY: You're welcome. I've enjoyed making it.

COMMENTS
firedog55's picture

That the Pono remasters are going to be any better or differnt than what we get on HDT and Qobuz. I wish NY was a little clearer about how they are going to get their material.

Archimago's picture

"ML: People have commented on AudioStream things to the effect of I can already buy HD downloads from a number sites and play them through my DAC. So what's the new thing with Pono?

NY: There's nothing, there's nothing new. There is no new thing. It's just available. It's available to everybody..."

Doesn't this just imply it's the same as the other sources? Hopefully they'll pick and choose better official masterings where available but I suspect that'll be about it. Don't know if they'll have access to better future masters say if a company like Audio Fidelity / MFSL / Analogue Productions come up with something newer.

I guess we'll wait and see. Doesn't look like we'll see the product for many more months in any case!

Tyll Hertsens's picture

Thanks so much, Michael. Hearing him talking about digging for good masters makes me feel much better about Pono. Tough road ahead, but I think this may be one of the best things to happen to hi-fidelity in a long, long time.

bernardperu's picture

Did Neil Young actually say he would dig for good masters? I think he said he would dig for the highest quality available, meaning the largest files available.

All Neil Young Young had to say was that Pono would sell the Masters used for vynil records if the ones for digital versions were not good enough. But he didn't say that. Instead, he tested Pono in moving cars. Those who will financially benefit from selling more expensive music got off the cars and said that pono sounded great.

NascentAudiophile's picture

Check out this article for more in-depth explanation about sourcing the music:

http://www.theabsolutesound.com/articles/an-interview-with-neil-young-an...

spaceghost's picture

Why didn't you specifically ask him about dynamic compression?!?

Here was the perfect chance to get a definitive answer about this critically important issue from him, and you didn't even bring it up!!! The closest he got to this subject was him saying, "We want a straight shot from whatever the artist created to go right into the consumer's ears." Does that mean no additional dynamic compression? Does it mean Pono is just going to sell whatever the studios give them, just like the other hi-res websites?

Very disappointed with this interview.

labjr's picture

"ML: I mentioned this to my wife that I was going to be speaking to you about Pono and she was like what is it again? And I said well it's higher quality of the music that you want. And her comment was if I was aware that this existed I would buy it. I don't want to buy crappy stuff from iTunes, if there's a choice."


Were you trying to be funny or does your own wife have no idea what you do?

sassycat's picture

Sure I have an "idea" of what he does. However, I don't know the specifics of his job just as he doesn't know the specifics of my job. If I asked him about respiratory acidosis, I'm sure he wouldn't be able to talk about it. Hope this helps.

labjr's picture

I guess I was a bit surprised the wife of a writer from a national publication who reports on the very subject of high resolution audio, wasn't aware that higher quality music exists. I think this just confirms Neil's assertion that most people are unaware they can get higher quality music.


IMO, music is probably more universal than "respiratory acidosis". However, I did a Google search out of curiosity. Never know when I'll have a conversation with someone.


You may not be the only New Jersey wife who doesn't know what her husband is up to. So I wouldn't worry to much until you start finding calls to a psychotherapist in his phone log :)

bobflood's picture

With the whole High Resolution music movement is that there is no accepted definition of what it is. It should be no surprise that people who are not audio hobbyists are confused. If Pono can establish a clear set of standards that will be followed before releasing any piece of music on the Pono store, we could finally have some basis for the music buying public to develop a level of trust and confidence that will be needed to bring high resolution music into the mainstream. Otherwise we can all just wait to buy the twentieth re-issue of "Your 19th Nervous Breakdown" in 8xDSD or 768/32 PCM.

texanalog's picture

"We provide the best it can be and if the best it can be gets better, Pono will supply the new track for nothing. You get it. You already bought the best it can be, the best it can be just got better, so you don't have to pay a penalty. That's why you bought it and it doesn't cost more."

This meaning that if a higher resolution file becomes available after initial purchase from Pone, you will get it for free. That sounds like a great deal to me, assuming that the Pono's prices are reasonable.

Moir's picture

is that I assume all Neil Young's albums will be available in high res.

deckeda's picture

that was rather astonishing to read

then again if this turns out to be a subscription service ... /:

Gretschguy's picture

I'm left still perplexed on the mastering issue. It sounds to me that Pono will simply offer the same material that HDTracks offers (which in my opinion is very hit or miss due to mastering issues). The big advance here seems to be the player itself which will support hi resolution playback for around $399 which is quite a bit less than the AK100 for example which is on my wish list.

I'm currently successfully playing back hi-resoultion on my iPad using the Onkyo HF Player and the
Herus by Resonessence Labs. The combination works great and I listen to only hi-resolution ripped from vinyl, I've been burned too many times with poorly mastered hi res downloads.

As Neil mentions, the hoops we jump through are expensive and complicated for the average person, so it seems that his target is not folks like us but rather bringing a hi res experience to the masses.

I will probably buy one for a low cost way to play back my hi res vinyl but I'm doubtful that the Pono music store itself will provide anything different in terms of the hit or miss quality that we get from HD Tracks.

Would it be possible to do a follow-up interview and get more information on the mastering topic?

It just doesn't seem practical for Neil and his team to suddenly have enough time to be analyzing every hi res offering and I would think they would want to leave the issue of mastering to the artist. So I'm a little baffled by his comments but I will assume for now that the music store will be the same as HDTracks in terms of quality.

So I'm excited about the low cost player as another option for my vinyl hi-res rips but I'm quite skeptical about the downloads / store.

v1m's picture

First, congratulations to Neil on the Kickstarter success. He is both a great artist and now a good soldier in the cause of music reproduction.

If Pono is successful, it can help reverse the degradation of our vital art form by the most crass commercial interests on the planet. I speak, of course, not only of the recording industry but of Apple, Amazon and their ilk -- mass schleppers of sonic bulimia.

Pono isn't without limitations. The greatest is that playback technology is no cure-all. As every audiophile here knows, poor mastering isn't repaired by bitrate or sample rate. There is almost nothing to be done for the improvement of lots and lots of very popular music -- except to love it for what it is.

Last night on my modest system (Meridian dac, vintage Marantz tuner, KEF LS-50s, Audirvana + laptop) I heard the sonic lusciousness still provided by 16/44 when masterfully recorded and mastered. The new release on ECM by the Billy Hart Quartet, as it happens. And I did not long for a single additional bit or sampling cycle, so wounded by beauty was my heart.

How many of us, though, can say the same about the one too many HDTracks upsampling jobs we've heard? Call it the reverse placebo effect: the expectation that hi-res will bring greater joy is met by the everyday cruelty of physics. If it ain't there in the first place, it ain't there.

In the short term, I think a lot of the average Joes whom Neil talks about will discover, the hard way, the limitations of high-res. The hope is for down the road. If he (and others, like Michael and Audiostream) can convince people to demand the equivalent in fidelity from music producers of what they now expect from TV and Hollywood, a device and storefront like Pono could be very disruptive. At the very least it could begin to weaken the market for compressed, lossy sound -- both at the production and the distribution ends.

And that would be a subversion worthy of our Neil.

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