Some Pono-related rambling

Over the past week or so, it seems that the internet (or, at least, audiophiles-and-heavy-listener-types) has been going positively nuts over the idea and concept of the Pono. Much has been said about how it will supposedly bring forth a new wave of high-quality digital music in the face of low-quality MP3s and other lossy digital formats. It supports up to 192khz audio files – I mean, more is better, right? Go go, audiophile power!

As you may have gathered from the tone of that first paragraph, I’m not entirely convinced.

In theory, I should love this thing

In my reasonably humble opinion, distribution formats and their upper-limit specifications have absolutely nothing to do with the quality of modern music masters. Zip. Nothing. For starters (and I apologise to anyone who has a passing interest in this sort of thing for posting a link you have probably seen a zillion times already),  24-bit/192khz files are pointless from a listener’s point of view. Of course, from a music production point of view, there is very much a place for 24-bit audio files and higher sample rates. But from a listener’s point of view? Nope. Needless to say, if you’re expecting me to ever release my music in a sample rate over 48khz then you’re going to be in for a bloody long wait!

So, no, big numbers do not a great music player make. But at least Neil Young’s doing something about the ridiculous proliferation of MP3s, while trying to bring a sense of artistry back to proceedings, right? Well, actually, I take serious issue with some of the stuff being churned out by Mr Young. Here’s a snippet extracted from an article here.

“This vibrant, creative culture started to go away,” Young explained, describing an entire class of musicians, studio employees, clerical workers, even deliverymen whose careers were impacted. “And it was because of the MP3, and the cheapening of the quality to a point where it was practically unrecognizable.”

This is such an absurd point of view to hold, and it’s views like this which, in my opinion, give lovers of music a bad reputation. I love listening to music – after all, I find that to be kind of important if you’re writing and producing music for a living… but there are so many things that I take issue with here.

Firstly – while I tend to listen to most of my music in my studio as 44khz/16-bit FLACs, you know what? I find it genuinely tricky to tell the difference between that and a 320kbps MP3. Heavens above! Shoot me! Before you get your pitchforks ready, I’d like to point out that this is especially true if I’m listening to a 320kbps MP3 in a medium in which it’s best suited – i.e., a situation in which storage may be at more of a premium, and where I might not be listening to my music in the most ideal setting. How about, say, every time I’m not in my studio, or not at a dedicated live venue. Listening to music in a lossy format takes nothing away from my enjoyment when I’m out of the studio, and I would argue that you are doing both yourself and the music you’re listening to a massive dis-service if you’re focussing on nothing but the numbers.

Secondly – and I’m returning to my earlier point here – I believe that the upper limit specifications of digital audio formats are not the real issue here. Curiously, I feel that it’s an issue which the Pono would do well to alleviate were they to focus on this particular issue rather than playing the numbers game. The issue is the continuing state of the loudness war, and the continued pushing of overly loud, overly compressed, not particularly dynamic masters. This is not a fault of the medium, it is a fault in the manner in which the medium is being used. I’ll come back to this in a second, but I can’t overstate the fact that this has very little to do with the current state of available digital audio formats to listeners.

Thirdly – the widespread proliferation of MP3s and other lossy digital formats has very little to do with this “vibrant, creative” culture supposedly going the way of the dodo. This is hyperbole at its most obnoxious. Again, I would argue that this has more to do with music making tools becoming more affordable and much more widespread than anything else. As for whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing – that’s a discussion for another time, and has nothing to do with digital music distribution and listening. And labelling the old guard as a “vibrant, creative” culture? Well, that only serves to further the snobbish divide between musicians who choose to work using more limited means. If they’re “vibrant” and “creative”, where does that leave saps like me? Are we lacking in vibrance and creativity? I would argue not, but I guess that’s not really my call to make. (On a totally unrelated note, if you fancy watching a film that does a much better job of highlighting the state of big-budget music making, I’d highly recommend Sound City. I thoroughly enjoyed it)

Finally – this device is doing nothing new. Musicians already have the means with which to get their music directly to their fans in whatever format they choose. Listeners already have plenty of choice regarding what format to purchase their favourite music in, digital or otherwise. You like FLACs? Buy FLACs. You’re ok with MP3s? Buy MP3s. Still prefer physical media? Buy CDs or vinyl. Similarly, listeners already have plenty of choice regarding what environment they choose to listen to their music in. Want to listen to music in a dedicated listening space? Go for it. Want to listen to music on the train? Sure. Want to listen to music in your car? Why not. This is nothing new, and I’m not even going to get started on the weird Toblerone-esque design of the thing.

Going back to another earlier point – if musicians and labels wanted to genuinely release music in a more dynamic, less heavily compressed/limited/clipped (i.e., more listener conscious) manner, they can already do that. There is nothing stopping them besides commercial and competitive concerns. If the Pono can encourage more musicians and labels to do that, then in my view that would be a fantastic outcome. In my mind, a return to more dynamic masters would be of greater benefit to listeners than bumping up the sample rate and bit depth, especially if you’re going to verbally slap genuine music lovers in the face while doing so. I’d also like to point out that while I’d appreciate more choice with regards to released digital masters, I’m definitely not saying that music “used to be better”… because that would be absurd.

As such – until they lay off the hyperbole and stop playing the numbers game, you can count me out.

4 thoughts on “Some Pono-related rambling

  1. I quite agree, especially with regards to the modern mastering technique of overly loud/compressed tracks and the desire for high quality audio during recording. When I was first learning about audio recording in the early 90s, the professors would always talk about the components of the signal path and the gear (in addition to proper recording techniques) in order to achieve the highest quality recording. Even the quality of the tape on the multitrack machine was part of the equation. We always strove to get the highest quality source material throughout the process. The fact that we have different rates of digital recording quality is (as you say) nothing new.

    In regards to modern overly compressed/loud masters, if the loudness wars had never started, there probably wouldn’t be a need for Pono, because 320kbps MP3 files would be fine for most people. and the dynamic range would be preserved. Audiophiles already have the gear to handle higher quality digital audio formats.

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