Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Neil Young Is Back on His Audiophile Bullshit

Neil Young went on the Verge’s podcast this week to complain about digital music again, as he is wont to do, and promote his new book, which features his complaints about digital music. It’s all a load of nonsense gatekeeping. He started off with a rant about streaming music services, and an analogy to streaming video:

You have to associate visuals with audio so you can make the comparison. For instance, if you’re watching a show on […] Hulu or Netflix or, you know, whatever. And you’re watching it and […] you notice that, every once in a while, it gets really fuzzy looking; it’s like, it’s not clear. And then it comes back. […] You know how it gets soft and really fuzzy looking and not really there? And then eventually the signal improves and it comes back? Well, when the signal comes back to perfect, that’s where we were up until the digital age began. Okay? Basically, that’s where everything was at. Analog was all there; everything was clear like that. Now, if you take the softest-looking thing, that’s where we’re at now. That’s where Spotify is, that’s where Apple Music is. That’s where the streaming companies are streaming the lowest common denominator of quality to avoid having dropouts.

I recognize that Young is making a non-literal comparison here, but it’s actually pretty apt for proving his argument wrong. Lossless music would use far less bandwidth than streaming video services do today. It’s totally doable to offer streaming lossless audio — something which, incidentally, Spotify offered for a while. Tidal continues to provide a lossless streaming tier. Young even states later in the interview that he could see a way to do lossless streaming on his discontinued Pono player.

Young claims that there’s no way to hear the difference between lossy audio, lossless audio, and an entirely analogue audio chain; it’s something that, he says, you have to feel. As Fake Steve Jobs once wrote:

So over the holidays I purchased a copy of “Abbey Road” on vinyl. Not a special reissue on fancy 180-gram vinyl. Just an ordinary original copy from Capitol, but in mint condition, never opened. Fired it up on the Linn-Naim rig at home and oh my God. It’s like discovering the Beatles all over again. No wonder we all loved music back in the Sixties and Seventies. First of all, the music was just so friggin good. And what is it about vinyl? It friggin breathes, and I don’t know how or why.

Young says that he’s old enough to know when music sounded great, and that younger people have no idea how good it can be because they have no basis of comparison if they have only ever listened to digital music. Well, Mr. Young, I happen to have a large collection of digital music in lossy and lossless formats, and a moderate collection of vinyl records, new and old. I have many of the same records in a mix of these formats, and I have some background in music.

This argument is utter garbage. I’ve written before about how human ears physically cannot tell the difference between the highest-resolution studio masters and “standard” lossless files. The difference between high-bitrate lossy formats and lossless formats is possibly audible, but it’s not as vast a chasm as people like Young claim. But whether there is any difference to be heard largely depends on how records are mastered.

The thing that makes most music sound bad is that it’s mixed poorly and sonically compressed to hell — and that can happen in the analogue world, too. In an Audio Technology interview (PDF), engineer Jim Scott confirms that virtually everything on the Red Hot Child Peppers’ “Californication” was recorded on vintage Neve analogue equipment to tape — and that album is notorious for sounding like crap. There’s none of the “warmth” and “depth” Young claims to hear in analogue recordings.

For what it’s worth, I love my record player. I have some great-sounding albums in my collection, some of which are quite old original pressings sourced from the best quality a ribbon of audio tape can offer. There’s something of an experience to listening to a physical record that builds on top of the music it contains, as expressed particularly well by Trent Reznor. But I am not at all convinced that the audio quality is more “pure” or reflective of the true musical performance than a decent quality digital file.

Young also spent time denigrating those who make music on their laptop. Apparently, that’s not okay; people should not be doing that if they want their music to be real.

This sort of thing really chaps my ass. Everything about Young’s argument screams that he values the erecting of unnecessary barriers to creating and enjoying art. It isn’t evidence-based; there’s little legitimacy to the idea that analogue audio chains are inherently of higher quality than digital equivalents. His claims echo those who say that you can’t make real music with samplers, synthesizers, or on a computer.

Of course, Young dismisses that his argument is in any way elitist. He says that everything used to be analogue, which means that everything used to be of a higher quality; now, because everything is digital, analogue is a niche and, therefore, quality is a niche and has become unfairly expensive. But if you remove from his argument the fiction that delivery methods are currently the biggest barrier in music audio quality, then his argument remains solely that people should not use computers to make or listen to music. And that’s exclusionary to the people who just want to create their art — even if Young thinks otherwise.

One final point: Young frequently references Steve Jobs whenever he argues about audio quality, even going so far as to claim that the two of them were collaborating on a new iPod. He has also said, numerous times, that Jobs only listened to vinyl at home. While Jobs did, indeed, have a pretty serious record player, I have found zero evidence — aside from things Neil Young has said — to suggest that Jobs did not listen to digital music at home. On the contrary, a 2016 auction featured a portable Sony CD player that was apparently used frequently by Jobs in his kitchen. It seems pretty crass to lie on behalf of a dead person.