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By Lynne Margolis
Neil Young has channeled righteous indignation into song for decades. But the two-time GRAMMY winner also has used anger as a catalyst for several groundbreaking inventions and on March 11 during an address at South by Southwest he discussed his latest: the PonoMusic service.
PonoMusic is designed to let listeners hear music as it was recorded, without compression, lost data or other alterations, explained Young, who was honored at The Recording Academy Producer & Engineers Wing's annual GRAMMY Week celebration on Jan. 21. (The word "pono" is Hawaiian for righteous, or whole, according to Young.) The PonoPlayer is designed to be compatible with any music files, whether that's Young's preferred high-resolution, 24-bit/192kHz data level, or what he calls the low end of high-resolution music — CD lossless, 16-bit/44.1kHz.
On the low-end level, PonoMusic files contain about six times more information than MP3 recordings, which have a bit rate of 192kbps or 256kbps. On the high-resolution 24-bit level, he explained, PonoMusic carries approximately 30 times more data. Digital recordings lack the nuance and warmth vinyl delivers because the files are missing large chunks of information, he noted. And in his estimation, the loss of that wholeness has reduced the pleasure of listening.
PonoMusic is his reaction to the rise of digital recording and singles sales, and the devaluing of albums and audio quality.
"What Pono will do is it will bring you the reality and let you understand what the artist has done in the studio," Young said, pacing the stage and using his dry wit to deliver a history of how digital recording has changed the music business and music itself, which, he said, has become beat-heavy to fit the medium. "Pono is about you hearing what we hear. It's a music ecosystem."
In a series of recorded testimonials played during his speech, artists and producers from Eddie Vedder, Jack White, Beck, David Crosby, and Bruce Springsteen to Elton John, Patti Smith, Tom Petty, Gillian Welch, and Don Was raved about the sound, noting its warmth and intimacy.
GRAMMY-winning producer Rob Cavallo observed, "It seems to touch your soul more."
Warner Bros. Records Chairman Emeritus Mo Ostin raved, "That is gonna be a huge, huge breakthrough."
Young has noted that major labels Warner Bros., Universal Music Group and Sony will participate in the PonoMusic online store. But Young assured music fans that they will be able to use their existing files, and promised they will sound much better through the device, a triangular bar that looks like an MP3 player.
Initially, the device will contain 64GB of storage, expandable via swappable 64GB micro SD cards to 128GB, and will retail for approximately $400. In conjunction with his announcement of the service, on March 11 Young launched a Kickstarter campaign in an effort to raise money for PonoMusic. By the time he spoke four hours later, more than half of the original $800,000 goal had been reached; in less than 24 hours, nearly double that amount had been pledged. Incentives for backers included chrome first-edition players with etched signatures of Young, Willie Nelson and several other luminary artists. At press time, more than $1.7 million had been raised.
"Once you hear this," Young said, "you can't go back."
(Austin-based writer/editor Lynne Margolis contributes regularly to print, broadcast and online media including American Songwriter and Lone Star Music magazines. Outlets also have included the Christian Science Monitor, Paste, Rollingstone.com and NPR affiliates. A contributing editor to the encyclopedia, The Ties That Bind: Bruce Springsteen From A To E To Z, she also writes bios for new and established artists.)