Old rocker complains about new technology

According to Rolling Stone, Neil Young is pulling his catalog from all streaming music services over complaints about the sound quality. I don’t see this impacting me personally since I don’t listen to him and indeed can’t even name a single one of his albums or tracks, but apparently he’s still considered a noteworthy figure. At least enough that when he makes noise, Rolling Stone will still listen.

I’m not sure they should, though, when he’s mostly just making questionable noise:

“It’s about sound quality. I don’t need my music to be devalued by the worst quality in the history of broadcasting or any other form of distribution. I don’t feel right allowing this to be sold to my fans. It’s bad for my music.”

That’s a shocking generalization. Being born in 1945, he was around, alive and listening to music before the invention of even FM broadcasting, which arguably was the first time “high fidelity” audio was broadcast anywhere. Does Mr.  Young really think even today’s best-capable AM, with frequency response limited to only 10.2 kHz, sounds better than a Pandora stream?

He might, actually. Age-related hearing loss is a real thing, after all.

“AM radio kicked streaming’s ass. Analog cassettes and 8 tracks also kicked streaming’s ass, and absolutely rocked compared to streaming,”

Neil is simply wrong, purely factually incorrect, about AM radio. And the AM radio of his youth was even worse than the AM radio of today. Let’s see about some of those other formats.

Analog cassettes? Nominally better than AM radio, anyway. Cassette tape quality varies greatly based on the recording substrate, degrades with usage of the tape, and depends heavily the quality of the tape player in addition to the tapes themselves. While a top of the line tape deck like a Nakamachi could theoretically reproduce 16 Hz – 22 kHz, most consumer-grade mid-fi decks would reproduce about 25 Hz – 16.5 kHz. We’re getting close to high fidelity, but still a long ways to go! Not to mention, while 16-bit digital formats offer a theoretical SNR of 98 dB, the physical process of recording/playback on a compact cassette limits the effective maximum possible SNR to 50 or 60 dB. 8-Tracks would have fared about the same.

The one possible area where Young isn’t full of it, relates to compression artifact noise. The free streaming tier of Pandora Mobile, for instance, is nearly un-listenable garbage. It’s at an awfully low bitrate and compression artifacts are very apparent at those low bitrates. Moving up to the desktop, though, and you jump up to 128/192 kbps AAC+ streams which are very near to CD quality. For most people listening to music, even on the free tier of these streaming services, the limiting factor in sound quality will be the listener’s speakers and amplifier – not the quality of the source material. Moving up to the paid tiers which offer even higher quality, and you can achieve true CD-quality streaming. And heck, not that I support anyone giving Jay-Z any money, but his streaming service Tidal offers truely lossless audio streams for the ultimate in audio quality.

Most of the complaints against the sound quality of digital music date back to the early days of the technology. First- and second-generation MP3 encoders weren’t very good, and the MP3 format itself relies on some questionable psychoacoustic assumptions when performing the encoding. Modern audio compression codecs, especially those optimized for streaming, do a very good job at capturing and reproducing their source material very faithfully and in excellent quality across the overwhelming majority of use cases.

Bottom line being, from nearly every objective measure, streaming music services offer plenty-good audio quality and in many if not most cases, a true high fidelity listening experience.

Mr. Young may legitimately believe himself, that AM radio offers superior quality to Internet streaming radio. But I suspect that claim is grounded more in nostalgia than in reality.

When the quality is back, I’ll give it another look. Never say never.

I don’t think the quality ever went away. Sure, it’s not the same as listening to your own studio masters on speakers and amplifiers which cost as much as a house, but it’s not bad by any sense of the word.

What do you think?

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8 Responses to Old rocker complains about new technology

  1. Guy Prince says:

    Hey,

    I found your blog last week and really enjoyed myself. I too vote for listening to the list dcjung9 offered. I’m now older today than I was when I was younger, and find myself wanting to fling my digital music thingies skyward from time to time. Maybe what he was actually saying is that digital music streaming don’t have no Elvis in it.

    xo, Dr Biggles

    • jwk says:

      Interesting. There certainly is no tactile “experience” with a digital file as there is vinyl. Personally, I like it that way as it’s just listen-and-go! But if you enjoy connecting with your music physically, there may be a point there. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. red speck says:

    Here’s a guy whose voice sounds like broken glass being rattled around in a tin coffee can, accompanied by a 2-chord guitar progression with the amp’s distortion turned up — not to 11, but to 15 — complaining that the subtleties of sound reproduction are not adequately articulating his artistic vision of “Hey, hey, my, my… Rock-n-roll will never die”? Yoko Ono is somewhere in Soho, nodding in agreement.

  3. andy b says:

    No, he doesn’t legitimately believe that – he’s trying to sell you something. You have to buy his $400 Pono Player snake oil music contraption for “real ” audio quality!

    Or, you know, not, because he’s full of it.

  4. cgjung9 says:

    Hello J.W. Yes, I agree, although he made some very incredible songs, especially during and about the Kent State shootings (Ohio), about what a drag it is being a heroin or other junkie, (The Needle and the Damage Done), and other fantastic songs like Cinnamon Girl, Tell Me Why, Comes a Time, Old Man, Down By the River, Cowgirl in the Sand, Southern Man, You and Me, Four Strong Winds, Good to See You, Helpless, Like a Hurricane, Don’t Let it Bring You Down, Heart of Gold, and his incredible love song, Harvest Moon. That one I am willing to bet my life you’d love it. It almost brings tears to my eyes every single time I hear it. Just fantastic stuff.
    Yea, I guess he doesn’t know what to do with himself and is ranting about old times are the best times. I read that his doctor told him to lay off pot and beer. That would make anyone jumpy! haha. Seriously, he’s been living with epilepsy all his life. His grunge music period wasn’t so good to hear. I guess you get a little quirky when we age. They say it’s best to be a little bit weird and set in your ways. It helps us to cope with changes which are difficult to grasp and adapt to.

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