Neil Young Doesn’t Like Digital Music Files

Neil Young was interviewed by Walt Mossberg about digital music, and made a number of statements where he expressed a desire to see more high-resolution audio files. He claims that only “5 percent of the data present in the original recording” is present in MP3 files – though he doesn’t specify what bit rate. He also suggests that vinyl LPs or cassette tapes reproduce nearly all of the 24-bit, 192 kHz files used to master recordings.

Well, I take exception to these claims, which are a bit off the cuff. First, comparing 24/192 files to anything is ludicrous. In order to get all of the “data” from those files, you need very high-end stereo equipment. Even if you do have a standalone DAC (digital audio converter) between your source and amplifier, the majority of these devices only go up to 96 kHz. Next, recording artists listen to their recordings in studios on equipment that is even better than what most obsessive audiophiles have in their homes. I’m sure there is a difference in sound in a recording studio: not only do you have the best studio monitors, but you also have acoustically perfect rooms in which to listen.

But suggesting that LPs, with their clicks and scratches, or tapes, which are notably known for problems at high frequencies (remember Dolby noise reduction on cassettes?) is just disingenuous.

It’s interesting that Neil Young became famous during the time of AM radios. Even those with stereos had equipment that was light years behind the average stereo today. He got famous because of his music: his songs, his lyrics and his voice, not the quality of the sound. Yet he says “we have 5% of what we had in 1978,” which is just a lie. Analog recordings did not approach the 24/192 benchmark that he cites, and the sound quality of the average stereo then was crappy compared to today’s iPods. (It’s worth noting that Neil Young suffers from tinnitus, or at least he did in 1995 – it generally never goes away – so how much of that 24/192 does he actually hear?)

He wants people to be able to buy high-resolution files more easily. There are many vendors who sell these files, and he seems to not realize that this is possible. He calls for a “device” that can play high-resolution files, but says that it takes 30 minutes per song to download these files. (I don’t know what he means by this; with my Internet connection, I can download a high-resolution “song” – a file just a few minutes long – in just a few minutes.)

Young claims that he and Steve Jobs were “working on” such a solution, but I think this is not true; if they were discussing it, it was most likely just an idea in the air. There were rumors of Apple offering 24-bit files via iTunes last year, but the source of this was never clear. My sources have told me that this is very unlikely, at least in the near term, for a number of reasons: bandwidth, price, playback, etc. The audiophile market is too small for Apple to provide high-resolution files for all the music they sell. It is entirely possible that, in the future, they offer high-resolution files for a limited selection of music, but even that seems unlikely, as it would confuse average users.

Neil Young does say that he looks at the Internet, and piracy, “as the new radio.” “That’s how music gets around.” It doesn’t bother him that people download his music, saying “it’s acceptable.” It allows people to discover music, and for him this is a good thing. Of course, he makes enough money on royalties and back catalog that he doesn’t need to worry about income…

While I understand Mr. Young’s desire to have better quality music files, you must remember that this idea comes from someone who can afford the hardware to listen to them. The 99% of music listeners who don’t have that hardware simply don’t care. They buy music for music, not for audio quality.