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Neil Young is on a mission to restore 'the history of recorded sound'

by John Horn and Darby Maloney | The Frame

Neil Young and his Pono, a high-resolution audio player that sells for $399. Darby Maloney/ KPCC

The rise of digital music has been a messy story of radical shifts in the way we purchase, hear and think about music. All of that has changed even further with the rise of streaming services, which — for better or worse — are extremely convenient. But that convenience comes at a cost: artists complain about inadequate compensation and sound quality can be compromised.

Enter Neil Young's Pono. It's designed to play music of any sonic resolution, ranging from low-quality MP3s to files larger than FLAC (Fully Lossless Audio Codec). The Pono is designed to offer listeners a chance to hear and purchase high-resolution audio, though some reviewers are somewhat dubious about the science behind the device.

Still, Pono was appealing enough to music lovers to surpass a Kickstarter goal by a pretty significant margin: its target was $800,000 and the Pono campaign received more than $6.2 million dollars in pledges. Not too shabby. Here's the video that got people so hyped about Pono in the first place.

The Frame's host, John Horn, sat down with Young at the musician's management company in Santa Monica, where they chatted about the history of digital music, the experience of listening to hi-res music for the first time, and the apathy of the music industry. By the way, Young says pono is Hawaiian for "essence" or "beginning."

(This transcript is an extended version of the interview heard on The Frame.) 

Interview Highlights:

What was going on in your musical or professional life that made you want to create Pono.

Dissatisfaction with what my product was sounding like by the time it got to consumers.

MP3s have been the standard for a number of years. Everyone’s been listening to your music on Apple devices. Maybe they haven’t enjoyed it, so—

I think MP3s, basically, are too much of a compromise. As an artist, I look at it that way. They are handy and you can store a lot on a player because the MP3 has very little information in it. That is a feature that allows it to store many, many songs that you can actually recognize as being a song.

But people have become so accustomed to that format that it’s kind of a dumbing down?

You know, people being accustomed to these things is not a reason to not change things.

If I listen to "Heart of Gold" on MP3 and then listen to it on Pono, what would I hear differently?

Well, when my daughter did that, halfway through the song she turned it off and looked at me and said, "Why have I never heard this?" And she wasn’t talking about the song. She was talking about the sound, because we played the same song on both systems. And I said, “Well, honey, it’s just never been available. What you get is pretty dumbed down compared to what we make.”

Why did that become the standard? Was that a collective dumbing down by the industry, by the music labels, by the technology? How did we get there?

We got there because people became really impressed with convenience and a number of features available on smartphones and on devices made by Apple. And they were pioneering devices and they were great. It’s fantastic what Apple’s been able to accomplish. However, it was not envisioned by Steve Jobs that the MP3 was going to be a standard for music. And I don’t think it is a standard for music. I think it’s the low bar for music. Although it has been exceeded on the lower level recently by streaming and other things like that.

People should listen to music no matter what they listen through, but if you want to hear all the music, there hasn’t been an opportunity to do that. And now there is. Freedom of choice is very American and I think that it’s a very good thing for music lovers to have freedom of choice. And this gives music lovers a chance to actually come together as a group, as a community worldwide. Because they’ve had nothing to rally against or around for years.

[There's been] a little vinyl resurgence — you might point to that. But let’s face it: this is a convenience-oriented society and vinyl is not a convenient thing. It’s a niche and it’s a great niche and it’s a wonderful thing and I hope people continue to enjoy vinyl and it continues to grow because it’s a good thing. However, a lot of people that buy vinyl today don’t realize that they’re listening to CD masters on vinyl, and that’s because the record companies have figured out that people want vinyl. And they’re only making CD masters in digital, so all the new products that come out on vinyl are actually CDs on vinyl, which is really nothing but a fashion statement.

So, what we have in [the Pono] is a highly digital device, but what you’re saying is that digital device creates an analog-quality sound?

I’m saying that it’s a high resolution digital player. It doesn’t create an analog sound; it creates the best digital sound. It’s capable of creating the best sounds that people can create in the digital realm in the recording studios. There are many different levels that people choose to record at and to mix at. The thing about this player is that it allows anything to play on it. It’s the mother of all formats. You could play a CD quality file, you could play an MP3 quality file.

And it’ll play back anything that anybody ever made. If you’ve got a bunch of CDs, there’s programs for ripping the CDs and putting them onto this player. You already bought the music. If a CD quality is what you want, you’ve got it. It’s there.

However, on things like the iPod, you can’t buy CD quality. The player is not what this is about. What it’s about is the files. It’s the master files that we sell. We have over two million of these that we’re selling right now. So, we’ve made deals over the last three years with all the major record companies with the idea of raising the bar of music to the place where it once was, so that people — consumers, not audiophiles, but music loving consumers — can actually enjoy music the way it was created, which is the way it was during the heyday of music. And when you look at music now, which is greatly reduced to wallpaper by the quality, and you [think], Well, music isn’t what it used to be. You’re right! It isn’t what it used to be. People are very perceptive.

But it seems as if artists, I mean, in your Kickstarter video, you have artists like Dave Grohl, Marcus Mumford and Norah Jones listening to the device and saying, "Oh my God, my music sounds so much better or different."

Not "different." They say "better."

But the artists themselves have become accustomed to and satisfied by ... 

No, that’s wrong. They are not satisfied. Show me an artist who is satisfied with the sound of an MP3 and thinks that’s the way their music should be made and I’ll show you a hundred artists who disagree.

So, they never had a chance to hear what it could have been?

Well, the consumers have never had a chance to hear it. And the new artists have had to deal with what’s available ... [But] why should we stay where we are, at the bottom of the level with five percent of what’s possible when technology is supposed to make life so much better for us? Why would we want to compromise and just take this lowly signal and put it into our ears? It’s like, Well, I don’t want to go to Whole Foods. I think I’ll go to Jack in the Box. Now, if that’s the decision you have to make and you want to make that decision, there’s nothing wrong with that. You’re still going to get food.

It just might not be as good.

Well, you know, it’s up to the user, but now there’s a choice. That’s what I'm saying. There’s a choice. People who love Pono music can get Pono music. They didn’t even know they loved it before because it wasn’t there. So, when people say, "Well, people have been satisfied with MP3s for years, I mean, it’s a standard of the industry." What else did they have to compare it to? Nothing.

They’ve settled for it.

CDs don’t work anymore, they don't go with this world, but the Pono player and the Pono music store bring this world up to its potential and allow the artist to speak in their own voices, not a compressed ... MP3. People can hear what it is that the artist created.

If it’s so overdue and necessary and obvious, why did you have to use Kickstarter to get it going? Why didn’t the industry or record labels or artists get behind it?

Well, the record labels and the industry and the artists did get behind it. It’s just that nobody made [a device]. The reason we went to Kickstarter is because the venture capitalists didn’t have the vision to see what this was. They have no interest in rescuing an art form. That sounds like a waste of money. It’s not a sure payback. We do have some venture capitalists that are our friends, and people with wherewithal to help us that have stepped up [who] love music. But the overall big venture capitalists people, they look at it like, Well, Apple’s already got it. It’s already happening. And they accept that and they think that’s the Holy Grail, the Silicon Valley solution. But they’re wrong. It’s not, and we proved it. 

We said, Music lovers, hello! We have something for you. It’s called music. You can really hear it. Do you want to hear all of the music that you can recognize on your iPod? You want to feel it? Do you want it to be a visceral experience? Do you want to get goosebumps? Do you want to cry? Do you want to laugh? Do you want your body to move uncontrollably while you listen to music and do you want to be able to hug someone while you’re listening to music and feel the beauty of the music in your house — not just in your phones or some rinkydink little speakers that you’ve been relegated to in this day and age?

We used to have big speakers to play [music] on because it didn’t sound bad when you played it back on big speakers. Big speakers reveal how bad MP3s are. That’s why we don’t have any of them in the marketplace, because what’s being fed into them doesn’t sound good. But at [the Consumer Electronics Show] last week, we have all kinds of people in the audio business with their earphones and with their stereo systems and their big speakers and everything, all playing Pono, so people can hear what it is that they have. The highest-end earphone company, Odyssey ... from them right down to the bottom of the pile, they’re all using Pono, playing back, saying, "Listen to how great our earphones got."

So, I don’t need to go out and spend $1,000 on a pair of earphones? I can listen to Pono in my car?

Absolutely. You should be able to listen to it anywhere, but the dumbing down of the music and the dumbing down of the consumer experience has spread to automobiles. There are now devices in automobiles that would take Pono and re-sample it into something lower [quality] so that it could play better through their systems. That is a design by Microsoft. It is something that needs to be reversed throughout the whole process and we are working on that with Harman [Audio]. Harman [systems are in] 35 percent of all the automobiles in the world. We’re working on putting Pono in those cars and adapting the Harman system to work well with Pono.

It’s a huge undertaking. This is not like an automatic trunk opener on your watch. You’re not going to get instant gratification from this project. This is about restoring the history of recorded sound, so that when people make great records today, we can listen to them in 50 years and hear them. Just imagine if ...  you were in a library of music and all you have is MP3s from this period to listen to. And then you go back to 1970 or 1980 and you listen and [think], God, those are incredible. What happened? What happened to 2000? What happened to the '90s? It’s amazing.

Is there a world in which Pono and Apple and Microsoft and coexist?

Right now we’re all coexisting. It’s not like take one and leave the other. Take them all. Listen to whatever it is you want to listen to. At least you will have a choice with Pono in the equation. It won’t be just a bunch of different companies making MP3s and giving you earphones that boost the bass. The only thing that you can do to an MP3 sound is change it because it’s no good. So, you keep changing it until it gets good, but you never really make it. You really have to start at the source with something good.

When I was growing up, a lot of my music choices was dictated by what was in the cutout bin. You’re talking about a price structure here [$17-$25 per album] for people in their teens who love music, it's going to be a little bit out of reach.

I don’t think it’s out of reach. I think it’s a different structure. The MP3 and all of that is still there. If that’s what you want, you can buy that and you can pay 69 cents for a song.

But how much is the Pono player? 

The player, this player here, is $399. How much is the iPod?

You can get a Nano for maybe $150.

Yeah, but we only have one model. What’s a model that's equivalent to that one?

It probably doesn’t exist.

In size and structure and everything? Like a $300-$400 iPod?

What happens next to Pono?

It’s anybody’s guess. We’re in uncharted territory, really. All of the questions that you’ve brought up, they’re all still there. No one knows. We don’t see big investors swarming towards Pono. Why? Well, because everyone’s scared of Apple. Everyone thinks Apple must be it. They’re the biggest. They’re the best. Well, they’re the biggest and they’re a consumer company and they do a great job of making consumer products.

What’s going to have to happen for people to adopt the Pono? Do they just have to listen to it?

That’s it. Bingo. That’s why it’s not a fast thing and we’re not in a hurry. We’re not in a hurry to dumb ourselves down to make it better or easier for people to get to a lower-priced product, because we’re defining what it is and it’s not that outrageously expensive that people can’t buy it. So, if they want it, they have to pay for it. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s a lot more quality. 

(At this point in the interview, John Horn tries out the Pono by listening to Bob Dylan's “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.")

You can hear the pick flexing on the guitar.

Yeah. Can you hear him breathing?

He sounds a little congested. I think he has a runny nose.

He might.

This is as if you were in the studio as he was recording the song. Is that the idea?

Yes.

Have you listened to your own music this way?

Yeah.

Do you catch yourself saying, "I messed up there. I didn’t know I blew it there." Those little mistakes?

No, I knew I blew it. I knew I blew it.

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