I'm about to write something that at first will seem like another gray-beard waxing nostalgic for a by-gone analog era. But, stick with me, because I think the tables are turning to where going analog might be as forward-thinking as it gets.

Let's take a look at my studio, as it sits quietly today receiving some needed service and the ensuing reflection that comes with tech-days.

I just had to take my Studer A80 1/2" machine apart because the manual brakes (which make it stop when you press stop) were not gripping very well any more. I pulled out the manual for the deck, in which each and every single part of the machine is laid out in detail with explanations about how to fix it, found the page for the manual brakes, and eventually got in there and removed the drums and saw that the braking surface was, indeed, worn. I tried a few things, like scuffing and cleaning them, but they're shot. Cost of a new set of drums? About $300 plus shipping from Germany.

Across from my Studer machine is a Macintosh computer that houses a Pro Tools HD card and some converters in a rack - it's my digital rig. That also needs replacement parts soon. The computer wont load the operating system that will run the new version of Pro Tools.The HD card has been replaced in their product line-up with the new, rather expensive, HDX card, and, thankfully, I bought Lynx Aurora converters, so I can just change the port card on those if I need to go to a different porting format to accommodate a new computer and/or sound-card.Nothing is actually broken in my digital rig, and my system works fine, but eventually I'm going to need to upgrade, as any professional studio must, at some point, to remain compatible with the rest of the changing world. Cost of new computer, software, cards, port card, etc?I shiver to give you the number, but there would be five digits before the decimal point. And those five digits are coming sooner than later.

I bet you can already see where this is headed.Blah, blah, blah, another gray-beard going on about the wonders and value of analog. Planned obsolescence sucks....yadda yadda.

But, here's the thing. I'm completely freaking out about Neil Young's new Pono system. In a nutshell, he's going to be bringing to market an iPod-like device that will play 192khz, 24-bit transfers directly off of master recordings - essentially as close as you can get to the master tape in digital format. (I know, this will spur a debate about sample rates and all that - I'm not going to debate it. Call me unscientific, that's a title I can own. Whatever, 192khz can't be worse than lower SRs.) Anyways, the Pono-pod will have a killer hi-res digital-to-analog converter, a great clock, a really good headphone amp and line driver. It's basically going to be a mastering-grade digital playback system that stores and plays actual hi-res masters and fits in your pocket.

To guarantee that you're not playing a 192khz version of a craptacular MP3, Pono is going to be working on a guarantee system in which the artist and labels assure the provenance of the Pono file. And wouldn't you like to know that that 180gram vinyl you're getting was an analog-to-analog transfer? Or, at least, of the very best quality possible?

And this is where my Studer repairs start to look really cheap, and my analog gear starts to look less retro and pretty futuristic.

We will learn again to demand fidelity, I know it.I am a believer in fidelity. I am a believer in the aesthetic revolution that will bring back to people a sense of wonder and awareness about recorded music and undo this casual, whatever-with-fidelity-treat-it-like-a-used-Coke-can attitude toward one of the greatest art forms ever conceived by mankind. I believe the MP3 is a piece of shit, a scourge on art and beauty, an evil impostor.

So, $300 to fix the brakes on my Studer - the machine that will capture the highest resolution possible for archiving the works I have the privilege to have a hand in making, and the same machine that will allow me to make the Pono guarantee. $300 that will also raise the value of my recording rig without replacing it. $300 that actually fix something that's broken vs. $XX.XXX dollars to replace something that's not broken, that wont sound much different (if at all) and will likely be obsolete in another six to seven years.

So, while I will admit that I'm certainly saying something that more than a few other gray-beards grumble about every time they begrudgingly sit down at a computer to work, I have to say that Neil Young may have just done something really interesting to the economics of analog-vs-digital, because it is my prediction that more and more people are going to start listening to Pono, start realizing how amazing, say, an all-analog recording of Aretha sounds when it goes direct to Pono, and suddenly the pain-in-the-ass $300 brake drums seem like the cheapest thing on the planet, as your $7000 plugin bundle starts selling for $300 on eBay and your fast-as-a-Ferrari-computer-when-you-paid-out-the-wazoo-for-it suddenly wont load the latest version of whatever DAW you need to run, which will also just cost you $1k in upgrades that include next-to-zero-new-features and possibly a new plugin format that drove down the value of your $7k software package anyways.

And don't get me started on the rising value of my console's channel strips vs. the plugins. Seriously, I have some unexplained-and-overwraught-passion about that particular topic. That console was the smartest thing I've bought in decades. API can't make it obsolete, can't take it away, can't really do much but offer me support and parts and cheer me on, as they do. By the way, that enduring technology was also develped about forty years ago.

I started skateboarding in the late 1970s. I could do a 360 when I was 7. I also had a bowl-cut and tube-sox. I was rad. This was a time when skateboards were being made of fiberglass, plastic, aluminum - it was an age of much innovation in skateboard technology, and everyone had to have the latest, new, cool, skateboard. Things were changing fast. I craved a fiberglass Hobie and finally got it! And then it snapped under the weight of my 11-year-old-100lbs-maybe body. And I had all the plastic types, which, frankly, sucked ass. And my friend had an aluminum board that looked really cool but also sucked ass to ride and got scraped on the edge so that it cut your fingers when you picked it up (ouch! crap!). And then, finally, I got an older wooden board. Wood. The original material. The simple material. The real material. The material that all serious skateboards are made from today. The material that we collectively arrived at through intelligent and soulful assessment of what was the best ride available.

When it comes to recorded music, I have that feeling that in 2013 we're pretty much where skateboards were in the 70s. We've seen an incredible amount of innovation around new technologies, but slowly, and surely, we're all kind of realizing that the old stuff really hit the mark. Vinyl is back and only getting more and more popular (I have to pinch myself to make sure I'm not dreaming). And, due to Pono, my Studer - over 30-years old - is fast becoming the most relevant machine in my studio!

$300 for brake drums. I'm lucky they're that cheap.

Dear reader, I beg you to think twice as you look at your next investment. Is this going to be relevant in the Age of Pono? Is it going to last me a long time? Is it reasonably priced? What are my alternatives? I'm not telling you what to buy, believe me please. I am only suggesting that we all start to see the analog obsession not as a nostalgic look backward, but perhaps as a very wise look forward.

As always, I'd like to thank Neil Young for being brave, bold and for believing in the power of music to move us. Neil, the aesthetic revolution will be beautiful!

Allen Farmelo
Brooklyn NY 1-17-13

 

Tape Op is a free magazine exclusively devoted to
the art of record making.

 
Tue, Aug 19, 2014 - 11:49PM
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Thu, Jan 17, 2013 - 1:05PM
David said about this:

I have a hard time believing that the Pono will kill off the MP3. Why? Because most people that have iPods have them because they can hold tens of thousands of very low quality mp3's...being able to have that many songs in your pocket is what most consumers seem to think is important...and that the songs are free....I pray that I am proved wrong by Pono as I would love for everyone to hear my mixes exactly as I intend for them to sound. I also think that Pono would end up costing much more than a iPod : /

 
Thu, Jan 17, 2013 - 1:13PM
Drannon Bell said about this:

I really hope you're right. I would love to see the public abandon the MP3 and go back to vinyl. I just don't think most people care.

When I heard about Young's product I could do nothing but give a hopeful sigh. I honestly don't have faith in the idea that people give two sh*ts about recording quality.

 
Thu, Jan 17, 2013 - 1:34PM
Ben Jarvis said about this:

I don't own a tape deck. I cut my teeth on a 4 track cassette deck, but once digital was within my grasp, I took it. I have no beef with people loving the all analog workflow, but for me digital is a way more convenient. Tape as effect is fine, but tape multi-tracking is not for me.

As for Pono... I had not heard of it until this post and unless this will be a feature of smartphones, I can't see this taking off. As soon as my phone absorbed my iPod, I was done carrying 2 devices. I listen to my music in lossless ALAC and care about quality. 192khz music files are an interesting idea, but I have my doubts about the casual or even serious music listener's ability to hear the difference over a 44.1khz file.

192khz/24bit music is a great technical spec, but its overkill. Especially when the music it records is sampling scratchy LPs, 12bit samplers, and bit crushed beats. Classical? Sure, there is potential. Jazz? Definitely. But pop and rock and just not that hi-fi.

 
Thu, Jan 17, 2013 - 3:31PM
Fistful of Dave said about this:

You are comparing the cost of one repair to the cost of a new rig. What is the repair and tape costs over the same lifetime as the digital rig?

Second issue. ProTools and it's ridiculous shift in pricing and technology leaving users high and dry. Try another software and there are plenty that do the job as well that are reasonably priced. Get rid of Avid Hardware same reason. Something with Thunderbolt (even a firewire device with a Thunderbolt conversion cable) will cost you far less. The ubiquitous argument for ProTools is a poor one.

I have an easier time trouble shooting a computer and software than fixing a machine. My computer skill level is high so that makes my life easier on that end. I have often though why don't I fix my own car when I have no trouble tearing a computer apart or finding software issues. It's all comfort and motivation.

 
Fri, Jan 18, 2013 - 7:03PM
Kilohertz said about this:

I mostly agree with this article.

I can't understand why the industry is taking this long to teach people the pleasure of Hi-Fi. Since the '90s, the movie industry has gone through two changes (DVD and BluRay), apart from downloads. The music industry has only gone through one (MP3), that we really cannot consider an upgrade, the way DVDs and BluRays are.

What is most surprising, no one in the music world seems to be pushing for the change. Not even sound engineers.

Welcome, Pono. I hope the powers that be help you.

 
Fri, Jan 25, 2013 - 11:34AM
Ian Marvin said about this:

I'm not convinced that 192khz is worth doubling the bit rate over 96khz but even over inexpensive (but fairly clean sounding) Logitech computer speakers 96/24 sounds seriously better than 44.1/16 so I don't doubt that even casual listeners would be able to distinguish the difference. Remember that 24bit give 256 times more resolution than 16bit alone, imagine that as the difference between a thumbnail image and full resolution HD video. As an audio format I can't really see what Pono can offer over other lossless formats such as FLAC though. Maybe I've missed something.

 
Tue, Jan 29, 2013 - 6:06PM
Kyle said about this:

I can't see either analog or digital existing without the other. Obviously analog makes more sense economically and as far as quality goes, but consumers like me also like being able to fit hundreds and hundreds of their favorite songs into one very compact device, even if those songs do sound exponentially worse than when it was first recorded. People like their music on the go. But I'm excited to see what an industry more heavily dominated by analog would look like.

 
Thu, Jan 31, 2013 - 8:38AM
Roberto Mallo said about this:

I don't agree with the derision of the mp3 format that you do here (I most certainly want to own both a studer deck and an analog console, but can't and have to resort to their digital copies) especially because most people (even trained people, or so I've read) isn't capable of differentiate.

And concerning Pono, I found really insightful and interesting this article:

http://people.xiph.org/~xiphmont/demo/neil-young.html

Is written by a guy from xiph (authors of the free, as in beer, vorbis lossy audio codec) and it raises some interesting points about why Neil Young is completelly wrong about his Pono system (although I do think his intentions are extremelly good, and after all I'm a HUGE fan of the man and his work).

 
Sun, Feb 10, 2013 - 3:34PM
Justin Colletti said about this:

This blog post says: "Whatever, 192khz can't be worse than lower SRs."

Actually... Yes it can! In fact, in the rare cases when we *can* hear a difference at 192, that difference comes from intermod distortion or distortions that comes from transmission errors at the higher data rate.

http://trustmeimascientist.com/2013/02/04/the-science-of-sample-rates-when-higher-is-better-and-when-it-isnt/

It's flat-out impossible for 192 to have higher fidelity than 96k, 88.2k or 60k within the audible range, and definitely possible for it to have lower fidelity in practice.

For all practical purposes, any difference between even those higher rates and 44.1 or 48k should be the equivalent of a bout a half a dB of EQ near 20K in a properly designed converter.

Some high sample rate converters can add intermod or other distortions that some people might find pleasing. But to call that higher fidelity or "closer to the source" is misleading at best.

To be fair, this was probably not written to be intentionally misleading. It's likely to stem from a simple misunderstanding about how sample rates and audio work, which is unfortunately common, even among a lot of us working in the field.

Thanks for sharing that link Robert, it's a good one!

And Dave, you're right to point out that it's kinda nutty to compare the cost of a routine parts replacement on an analog deck to replacing an entire digital system! Wha?

And as much as I enjoy mixing to that same model of Studer 2-track, to compare what it does to what the computer does is flat-out silly! No two ways about it.

As a cost-benefit analysis, it really makes no sense at all.

 
Fri, Feb 15, 2013 - 8:47PM
Larry Crane said about this:

"ProTools and it's ridiculous shift in pricing and technology leaving users high and dry. Try another software and there are plenty that do the job as well that are reasonably priced."

Many of us are in positions where this is not always our choice. i was doing overdubs on a fairly high profile album last year, and if I didn't have PT I would have lost the job. I'm in business to make my clients happy and to stay in business. PT can be a pain, but most people use it so we have to deal.

 
Thu, Mar 21, 2013 - 8:36PM
Tim Macklin said about this:

I doubt anyone will ever read this but...I am a former classical bass player... You think wood from the 70's is impressive... You should try wood from the late 16th Century. Bottom line... Analog IS music. Digital IS data. You wanna make Analog data? You gotta ENCODE it. You wanna listen to it? You gotta DECODE it. Analog? You PLAY analog. That's the musical discussion. Now to the consumer discussion. Thinking about music listeners in terms of whether they care about quality or not is like thinking about a blind in terms of whether or not they get where they want to go with no sight. Most music listeners cannot HEAR the difference. I have a $50K 2-channel system in an acoustically designed room. You sit in there with a casual listener, and they look at me like I'm crazy as I point out details in the music that you simply don't hear in any digital format. They literally can't hear what I'm talking about. I'm no better than they are. My ears are just wired different. If everybody who can hear the difference would go out and buy Pono players and buy Pono music (when it becomes available... hurry it up Neil. I'm not getting any younger here!) then the format would flourish as a result. You care about music? First, try and make some. Even if you suck at it. Second, put your money where your mouth is. There it is... I'M OUT!

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