Sitting in an oversized bulbous chair outside the interview room waiting for my turn to speak with Neil Young was surreal. I didn't grow up a big fan of Neil. I was introduced to his music through my favorite band Pearl Jam. PJ frequently plays Rockin' In The Free World as an encore at its shows. In addition, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam refers to Mr. Young as Uncle Neil. According to Eddie, Neil has provided much needed guidance to the band from the mid-nineties monstrous successes to the suicide of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain and the band's decision to take a step back from the limelight. As I sat in the nice Austin breeze, several thoughts went through my head. I was expecting Neil to be tired of answering questions and possibly annoyed that a guy from Computer Audiophile was about to interview this vinyl loving rockstar. Let's face it, I'm no Ben Fong-Torres. Was I going to turn into Chris Farley interviewing Paul McCartney on Saturday Night Live? What if I said, "Remember when you were with Buffalo Springfield, that was awesome." My mind was spiraling out of control with endless possibilities. Fortunately my questions for Neil were on my iPhone and my Nagra ARES-MII recorder was in hand. All I had to do was ask the questions and listen to the answers. Then, Rick from Warner Brothers said, "Chris, you're up."
Chris Connaker: This is pretty damn cool for me Neil.
Neil Young: Good.
CC: You guys just hit $2 Million on the Kickstarter campaign. Are you surprised?
NY: You know, I'm happy but I'm not surprised that people are reacting like they are. That's why I did this. I knew people wanted it. I wanted it. Musicians wanted it. And we're very grateful. But we're not surprised.
CC: Computer Audiophile reader Bruce F. says hello.
NY: Oh great, Bruce.
CC: Are you still using the Pacific Microsonics Model II?
NY: Ah, for some things. There are better ones now. Yeah it's a great one. The jury is out, but there are a few other things on the horizon which is good. But we still use it.
CC: The entire Computer Audiophile community would like nothing better than to see Pono turn into the next Beats, but with high quality. Beats are everywhere. it would be great to see Pono everywhere. What's your goal with Pono?
NY: The goal is to make people aware that there's another place to go. To bring freedom of choice to the audio experience that's been missing for twenty years. That's very unAmerican.
CC: Says the Canadian.
NY: Yeah, yeah. It's unworldly. We can't have no freedom. You can't be limited. You can't be. Just like we shouldn't be limited to one fuel for our cars, we shouldn't be limited to one type of music for our ears. Or one type of food for our mouths.
CC: What would it take for you to say, "I've succeeded with Pono?"
NY: If I succeed with Pono it might not be that Pono makes millions of dollars. It may be that we made out and we were able to be a company. Maybe we just survived because someone much bigger than us cam along with million and millions of dollars and out-spent us and out-did us and out-everythinged us and did what we did and brought this to the world in a way that we couldn't. Although I think we can. It's just in my history nobody has been interested. I know when they see success they become interested in how they can monetize it. It's a win-win for music and audio to find out what's missing today. If Pono does that it's a huge victory. Were on our way to doing that. You can see something is happening. I'm sure that people in the audio community are encouraged to see the reaction of the people on the street. That's what we've always been about. Were not an audiophile company. We are about bringing the quality to the people the way it used to be. In other words we made analog records that became vinyl and that was the quality we made in the studio then it went to the people. We're not doing anything new. All we're doing is saying, in the studio today make your digital music in whatever resolution you want to make it at. We're going to say what it is on our player you'll know. It will be there somewhere. People will learn when they listen to things. When it sounds great they'll get curious. They'll want to know what it is. Some of them may some of the may not. They'll choose to take a look. A go, look at that, I love this, and it's 192. It's one of three things I have that are 192. All the others are lower res, some are 48, some are 96. They may, in their mind, go "oh shit" this is what it sounds like at 48, really great. I wonder what it would have sounded like at 192. The awareness of those differences and the palette musicians have to play with will change. Producers will now be able to use resolution as an effect. It can be super clear if you want that. Or, it can be dull if you don't want that. Even within one recording you can go from low res to high res. You can use it as a tool. You can use it creatively. You can turn it on and off. The whole recording will have to be presented at it's highest resolution. But if the chorus and the hook are at 192, and the rest of the song is at 44.1 or 48, something compatible, then it's mixed at 192. The source was low res, the chorus was super high res, some of the vocals are really high res, some are dull. It's a new way to play. A whole new thing. That kind of creativity in the studio is possibly a new tool for the hip hop and rap community. It's not one of the things they've done. They are very creative and incredibly poetic in their way, which I appreciate. Yet, guys like me can do what we do. Create things the way we create them. Whatever we do in the studio, we finish, we can hand it in to Pono and it's going to sound exactly like what we did. Through the best player you can get. You may be able to make some improvements to our player, maybe not in our size. We really got a great sound. It's an odd shaped player because of what's in it. We had to make some things big to make those earphones sound good. There's a reason for everything. It's not just because we thought it was cool. Although we do think it's cool. We think it stands for something. That's who we are. That's what we do. We're not a format. We are anti-format. We don't want the musicians to ever have a format again. Formats are for computer companies.
CC: I'd rather listen to Pearl Jam on an AM radio than listen to Scottish nose whistle at 24/192. Content is king. Can Pono get the record labels to completely open their vaults?
NY: Yes. Have you seen the Pearl Jam (Kickstarter PonoPlayer signed edition) offering, it's blowing through the roof.
CC: I bought it yesterday the second I saw it. It's all sold out.
NY: They sold out?
NY: I figured it would. They were the second or third one to sell out. The other ones did because I was on them and I have a lot of my fans going to the site. That makes sense. Pearl Jam selling out is great. There are other ones on the way. It's just a matter of time. We keep adding more artists. James Taylor (Kickstarter PonoPlayer signed edition) came out today.
CC: Numbers such as sample rate and bit depth are only part of the equation. The people behind the recordings are more important. Will there be a Pono certification or guarantee or Mastered for Pono type thing to designate tracks that are of pono quality.
NY: No. Pono is Pono. You make what you make. When we say it's Pono that means we are bringing you the closest thing to the master, if it's not the master, if it's not the native resolution it's the closet thing to it that was mastered. Then were asking why the hell didn't they master the native resolution. If you buy what it is they supplied, and there's a higher resolution, and we're after them to master it, and they master it, you get it. You don't have to pay for it. You've already bought the best it can be. The best it can be is what we're gong to give you. You just have to download it again in our store. You'll get notified in our little newspaper, these are the new things that got upgraded. You bought it, you can believe if we can we'll upgrade it if it's not it's high as it ever can go. A lot of our stuff will be as high as it will ever get. A lot of people recorded at low res in the last little bit of time. Before that it was different. It's only recently people gave up. There's a window of that. There's nothing we can do about that. We can't put people down for that. We'll play whatever it was they were able to do. They created it. That's what Pono is. It's not about mastered for Pono. It's mastered. Period.
CC: Will Pono have an effect on the Loudness Wars or encourage less dynamic range compression.
NY: (Long pause) Well, I don't know. It could. To me dynamic range is king. The music decides how compressed it is. If you make a mix and you make the mix, not mastering, in the mix, that's where you do the compression. You compress certain instruments as an effect. That's really all you want. You want that shit to pump so that's what you compress. Why compress what comes and goes? You don't have to make that decision in mastering. The artist can make the decision. If they want something that pumps and grooves all the way through like ah, what the hell is the name, it's a great great band, two guys, two guys (The Black Keys -CC), Yeah, they are great. They use a lot of compression in their mixing. They record at like 48. I've noticed what they do. They'll have more to play with. They can still have that sound and have it be a 192 master with just like one area of the song, maybe the hook, or one instrument be 192, just fucking, what the hell is that! The mix is made up of these two things (sample rates). You get source stuff that is 48k, it's not going to be higher than 48k unless you put acoustic echo on it and that echo will be at 192k. Using resolution as an effect is one of the offshoots of Pono. That's one of the creative tools that people like the Black Keys, Kanye West, Eminem, Jay Z, LIl' Wayne, can use. They are very creative, let them go, let them have whatever they want we just give them more.
CC: How will PonoMusic, the Pono online store, be different from sites like HDtracks, or will it be different?
NY: I don't know what the HDtracks store is like. The Pono Store will be the Pono Store. We sell stuff that is Pono. It's the best that's available. Period.
CC: Will you have any exclusive Pono releases?
NY: It depends. If we pay to have it mastered it may be ours for a while but there's no reason to keep it. It should be everybody's. If we pay to master it we'll want to have it for awhile so we can say look what we did then everybody can have it we don't care. It's about music it's not about owning it. We don't want to own somebody's master or the rights to sell it, but it would be nice to have a little windows if we made it available.
CC: Will Pono address the provenance issue that's going on right now, as an example one of your recordings Le Noise was released at 24/96 but the material used to create that was 44.1 or 48k, will Pono provide details of up sampled albums?
NY: Everything that is on Pono will be listed as exactly what it is. I don't know about the DVD of Le Noise. I'm trying to think what that was. Maybe that was up sampled because of the ... let's see is there anything on there … I think it's at 48 … I though it was high res, I wasn't focused on that part when I made it. That was Daniel Lanois who did that, they were cool but they didn't take it to the max which I thought they would. They had a board from Canada, I don't know what the hell it's called, like a Xanax or something, something I've never seen before. A very mellow board a Xanax (Neil laughs). Anyway, it was a 48k board and I didn't know that but I think it may have been at 96 on the DVD because it had videos. But there wouldn't be a Blu-ray because there was no reason. The DVD standard may have been 96k, but if they doubled it up that was wrong. That shouldn't have happened. It doesn't sound worse.
CC: I believe Chrome Dreams II has an issue (interrupted by Rick from Warner Brothers, the interview time is over).
NY: What do you believe about Chrome Dreams?
CC: I believe it was the same situation as Le Noise, people have posted graphs online and it looked up sampled.
NY: I think we did that at our studio, I know where I recorded it. I'll ask Niko Bolas about that. I'd be surprised if that was the case. There may have been some of the tracks at a certain level so we used the certain level for everything. Pono will be transparent. There will be a page. You'll be able to read what it is. We can tell just like they can tell. All you have to do is look at it. If someone says what it is when they give it to us we'll check it. Those things matter and there's no reason why we can't have that.
CC: That's great, Computer Audiophile readers are really looking for that stuff.
NY: Good that's important stuff. I agree with them that it's important. Pono is a chance to buy material and use it in whatever way they want to play it back. We think our player is pretty damn good, I'm mean look who made it. It's really good and you can take it with you and plug it into anything. The problem with some of the things we're going to encounter, if you have a new Ford or Chevy or something like that, you're going to have that Microsoft shit in there and it's going to downgrade whatever we put into it. We'll have to work through that.
CC: Thanks Neil, it was a pleasure.
Pono or Oh No
March 11, 2014, Neil Young announced PonoMusic and the PonoPlayer at South by Southwest. In addition Pono, the company, launched a Kickstarter campaign seeking $800,000. Based on the amount of press and the amount of money raised thus far, $4.1 Million, I think Pono is off to a great start. At the Saint Cecelia hotel before the interview I had an opportunity to listen to the PonoPlayer. The sound was very good coming through the TAD CR1 loudspeakers and Ayre Acoustics integrated amplifier. The selection of wonderfully mastered music didn't hurt :~) The PonoPlayer connected to this Ayre / TAD system is the only PonoPlayer in the world designed by Ayre Acoustics. In fact, the player was in a little black box that accepted digital output from the yellow PonoPlayer (a feature not planned for the final design). This black box was design by Ayre shortly before the show. There wasn't enough time to assemble an additional player. Thus, all listening impressions of the PonoPlayer done through headphones are now obsolete. The PonoPlayers available for headphone playback were the old Meridian design that will not make it to production.
Like every product brought to market, Pono has its share of fans and detractors. I was initially surprised by the comments of a few skeptics that railed against Pono for its lack of specifics about the PonoPlayer and the PonoMusic Store, and its Kickstarter campaign. In addition, a few people just had to go on record as the first folks to predict Pono's demise. The surprising part was this negativity emanated from some in the audiophile community. Nobody commenting had heard a single song on the Ayre Acoustics designed PonoPlayer, yet some were stating how Joe Sixpack will never tell the difference between Pono and a lossy iTunes track. Give Pono room to breathe people. Pono is something many audiophiles have wanted for decades. It's a movement with the ability to bring awareness of good sound quality to the masses. Plus, all ships rise with the tide. If Pono succeeds, sites like HDtracks and Acoustic Sounds will grow exponentially. High end manufacturers will benefit from an influx of new customers seeking better sound quality at home, in the office, or in the car. Imagine the traffic in David Wasserman's Stereo Exchange at 627 Broadway in New York City when he places a Pono banner in the front window. People who saw Neil Young's CNBC interview from South by Southwest may waltz through the door to see what Pono is all about. The opportunity to give this industry a shot in the arm is ripe. There are no losers if Pono succeeds.
Setting my rose colored glasses down for a moment, I also see the uphill battle ahead for Pono, good sound quality, and the high end industry as a whole. Convenience always trumps quality for the masses. Pono must deliver on both quality and convenience to succeed. What happens when people give Pono a listen and don't hear a difference between it and their iPhone with lossy AAC files? Who knows. But, these may be the same people selecting $330 Beats headphones over a pair of cheaper and better Sennheisers at the Apple Store just because the color is white or red or different. People purchase products for any number of reasons. Maybe Pono can get in the door thanks to Neil Young and his fellow rockstars' endorsements. Would the Beats company be what it is today without celebrities? Not a chance. Pono also has to get ready for the unsatisfied customers who purchase clearly upsampled albums and the onslaught of Internet chatter that follows. No matter what Neil says about transparency and provenance and letting the customers know what they are getting, upsampled material will sneak through to the PonoMusic Store. In addition to 44.1 kHz albums masquerading as 96 kHz albums, Pono faces the same pressure as all high resolution music retailers when it comes to price. It remains to be seen if the higher prices of higher sample rate content will scare off the masses.
I want Pono to succeed. Sure, this is un-journalistic but if Pono succeeds we all win. What's not to like about more good music and success for manufacturers producing playback devices and all the accessories? What's not to like about more choices for consumers? What's not to like about more competition among online music retailers? Pono has the potential to bring in the tide and lift all boats still floating.