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Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Neil Young Wants Perfect Sound. Here's Why I Don't.

Posted By on Tue, Oct 2, 2012 at 3:30 AM


Today, at last, Neil Young and I are united in our ambitions: we would like you to go back in time, to Valentine's Day 1967. We want you to enter a recording studio in New York. This is a session for Atlantic Records, so the great Jerry Wexler is there, as is King Curtis and his saxophone. Most remarkably, though, is the presence of Aretha Franklin, who, as I write these words, is belting out the first verse to a record that will, for several generations to come, assert itself, time and again, as a masterpiece of soul music. The song is "Respect," written by Otis Redding.

Now, the best I can do to get you to conjure this scene is pile on word-after-word, each offering detail-after-detail. Maybe I can embed a video of the record. Sure, I'll do that: right here.

Neil Young, on the other hand, thinks he can do one better than I, as far as our twin dream goes, of returning you back to that room in New York, almost 50 years ago. And really, who am I to argue with Neil Young?

Next year, Young is set to launch a new music service called Pono, whose purpose is "to save the sound of music." More specifically, Pono will act as a corrective to digital-download services that offer music to consumers in highly compressed formats. The service will include a store for downloads where you'll be able to buy "Respect," among thousands of other titles, each download boasting a "digital-to-analog conversion technology intended to present songs as they first sound during studio recording sessions."

Oh, and above all this, Young has been demonstrating Pono by playing a lossless "Respect" from his souped-up Cadillac Eldorado to industry insiders like Red Hot Chili Pepper bassist Flea. Me? I'm reporting to you from a five-year-old MacBook with a janky "I" key.

But still. I like my means better.

Why? Well, I want to return to Pono's promise to "present songs as they first [sounded] during studio recording sessions." This is a refrain familiar in the annals of recording technology. As early as the 1890s, "perfect sound forever" was Emile Berliner's hard sell when, with his then novel-idea of capturing sound on lacquered discs, he began to challenge the fidelity of Thomas Edison's cylinders. Then there was "The Golden Age of Hi-Fi," in the 1950s, which some readers will associate with its brothers-in-kitsch, the exotica and tiki booms. Believe it or not, superior sound was once even the claim compact discs enthusiasts made in the 1980s, as the digital format began to supersede vinyl at record stores.

But when I think about the "Respect" session, it doesn't excite me at all to think there might be an audio format waiting in the not-too-distant future that will finally liberate the unmediated reality of that day's performance from the limitations of the tools used to render it. In fact, such a promise as the one Pono makes runs counter to the very reason I listen to records in the first place.

When I listen to a record, I want to hear the music, sure, but I want to hear the technology, too. I want mediated experiences that are less -- not more -- like reality. I want this so I can more easily file my first-hand memories into one drawer, while keeping my second-hand memories (those I get from record-players, TV sets, books, and art galleries) in another, lower drawer. The hyper-realism of hi-res photography and video has already started to violate my filing system some. I'm not too thrilled by the prospect of old records I already intimately know learning the same tricks.

Next: Why I like the skips and pops of old vinyl

On a recording made and first distributed in 1967, it's important I hear the crackle and the hiss that may rise to the surface, like a wave, the way the surface noise does briefly on my vinyl copy of "Respect," during the song's famous "r-e-s-p-e-c-t" breakdown. For me, that date stamp is as much a part of the pleasure the record affords as Redding's words or the musicians' performances. These marks of time are what I don't hear in my real life, which passes me by, moment-into-moment, sonically lossless but experientially without a handle for me to grip. On a record, surface noise soothes the existential beast in me. And the notion of hearing the "quality" of reality without actually entering into that reality seems, at best, pointless, and at worst, a feat of engineering rooted in aesthetic hokum.

So if returning to that session from 1967 is the thing I want to do, I'd rather do it through another wonderfully restricted medium: words. I'd like these words to act as little signposts directing my imagination around the room, to the smoke rings swirling above the mixing console and the look of concentration that settles within Aretha's eyes between takes. The words might even take me for a walk outside, into the snow or sunshine or whatever else the weather in New York was doing on February 14, 1967.

The record? Let that remain an artifact of this moment that happened almost 50 years ago, a recording in the most literal sense: beautiful evidence that something happened once -- not a stand-in for the moment itself. Because when it comes to inscribing a moment in sound, I've learned to abide by a simple law: the higher the fidelity, the less evocative its playback, the less true and unique my listening experience.

-- @AnStou

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Andrew Stout


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