Sonic Assassins

russiawave

In a developing mystery, Associated Press is reporting that US diplomats stationed in Cuba are complaining about ‘health attacks’ which appear to be linked to some kind of odd sound phenomenon. The incidents have taken place both in the homes of the diplomats and in hotels, and are said to be “confined to specific rooms or even parts of rooms with laser-like specificity”. One victim reported experiencing the ‘agonizing’ sound only in his bed; when he walked to the other side of his bedroom, it was completely absent.

“In several episodes recounted by U.S. officials, victims knew it was happening in real time, and there were strong indications of a sonic attack.”

The episodes seem to take the form of “vibrations and loud ringing or a high-pitch chirping similar to crickets or cicadas” and a “blaring, grinding noise”. So far, doctors have examined 21 affected Americans, diagnosing them with mild traumatic brain injury (or concussion) and permanent hearing loss. Some victims now have problems concentrating or recalling specific words, and other symptoms include brain swelling, dizziness, nausea, severe headaches, balance problems and tinnitus, or prolonged ringing in the ears.

Puzzlingly, some people have reported some of the symptoms, but have not heard unusual sounds of any kind.

Speculations that some kind of ‘sonic weapon’ has been brought to bear are hard to substantiate. Devices that might cause these kinds of effects using only sound are not known to exist, and even if they did, they would be large and require a considerable amount of power – not the kind of thing you could sneak into someone’s house unnoticed.

“Brain damage and concussions, it’s not possible,” said Joseph Pompei, a former MIT researcher and authority on focussed sound technology. “Somebody would have to submerge their head into a pool lined with very powerful ultrasound transducers.”

So what’s going on? Have malevolent anti-US agencies discovered a new quirk of physics that they’ve deployed into a frightening sonic brain laser? Is it a manifestation of collective obsessional behavior? Or is there some more mundane explanation that has yet to be uncovered?

Stay tuned, we’ll keep our fingers on the pulse of this one.

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The Sound of Silence

saturn2

In two days, as of this writing, one of the greatest scientific adventures of all time will come to a close. I am, of course, talking about NASA’s extraordinary Cassini mission. Launched amid controversy* in 1997, and arriving at Saturn in 2004, Cassini’s primary mission was to observe the ringed planet and its moons for 4 years. It exceeded expectations, and after completing its main objectives, continued to return groundbreaking science for almost a further two decades. Now, its power supply is reaching depletion, and the mission team have decided to terminate the life of the spacecraft while they still have it under their control. To avoid the unlikely – but still possible – contamination of Saturn’s water-bearing moon Enceladus by Earth microbes that may have hitched a ride on the vehicle, its orbit has been changed to plunge it into Saturn’s atmosphere at an oblique angle on September 15. It will be incinerated in seconds.

Anyone with an ounce of imagination can’t fail to have been awestruck by the amazing high definition real-colour images that Cassini has beamed back from the edges of Saturn’s rings. We’ve also marvelled at the many extraordinary hidden features revealed by the craft’s ability to see into the infrared and ultraviolet.

Something that is less known, however, is that Cassini also captured many of the sounds of Saturn and its moons.

cassinisound1

Now, there is no sound in space, as we all know, since there’s no atmosphere to conduct it, and Saturn’s ‘sounds’ are actually not the kinds of things we could hear with our ears anyway; they are formed from magnetic fields, and from radio and plasma waves captured by Cassini’s magnetometer and RPWS (Radio and Plasma Wave Science instrument). In order to make them audible to a human ear, the mission scientists have taken these very high frequency emissions and dropped them down in pitch to bring them into the audible spectrum, and then time compressed them, so that events that happen over many minutes or hours, are revealed in seconds.

You should not think this is a fanciful pursuit, undertaken by geeks in order for the audio nerds to boast as much as the imaging team. Instead of being merely quirky, sound recordings made in this way can actually reveal useful data about Saturn that cannot be ‘visualised’. We know, for example, that Saturn’s auroras sound similar to the auroras of Earth when rendered in this manner, as do lightning storms. These ‘sped-up’ sound snapshots also provide insights into the rotation of the planet and the movements of its moons that cannot be easily grasped in other ways.

You can hear some of the strange and beautiful sounds of Saturn here, along with a few musical works made by composers inspired by them.

One thing I should note is that there was, in fact, some ‘human audible’ sound returned from the Cassini mission, and that happened quite soon after the spacecraft’s arrival in the Saturn system in 2004. As Cassini passed Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, it launched its probe Huygens down to that world. Because Titan actually does have an atmosphere, Huygens was fitted with microphones designed to capture actual audio frequencies. If you’d been on that probe, this is what your human ears would have heard.

In two days, Cassini will go silent. In spite of all the astonishing visual material that Cassini has beamed back to us over the decades, we will still use a sound metaphor to convey the idea that communication from it has forever ceased.


*Cassini is powered by a nuclear power source fuelled by plutonium-238. At the time of its launch, people who didn’t really know much about science freaked out about this for reasons that are hard to understand.

Compression Depression

sadmusic

“Research finds MP3s make your music sound more depressing” says the latest bit of breathless reportage to come floating down the audio/science news feeds. In this new ‘post fact’ age, I guess I’m no longer supposed to be surprised by the paucity of actual evidence offered up in support of any particular assertion put forward as scientific ‘research’ but in the interests of actual reality, let’s focus the Hummadruz lens on this affair.

As usual, nearly every mention of this that I saw completely uncritically regurgitated copy that looked like it came from one source. I couldn’t narrow it down to a first instance, but the coverage from NME was typical:

New research has found that listening to music in low-quality digital formats can dampened its emotional impact.

According to a study by the Audio Engineering Library, MP3s can have a distinct effect on the “timbral and emotional characteristics” of the instruments involved.

Researchers compared responses to compressed and uncompressed music over ten emotional categories at several bit rates.

It’s always instructive to find out who is responsible for research, so my obvious first action when I read the above quote was to click on that link to the ‘Audio Engineering Library’ and find out who those dudes actually are. Puzzlingly, the link just leads to the abstract of the actual paper, which makes no mention of that organisation.

In fact, searching the web for the ‘Audio Engineering Library’ reveals that there is no such entity, and, instructively, pretty much every search result leads to some variation or other of the story about ‘How compression makes your music depressing’. It’s a veritable self-referential maelstrom. Audio Engineering Library? Someone just made that shit up.*

If ever there was an indication that we are about to enter the land of hogwash and horsepiss, here we have it.

Still, we have the paper right? Published on Researchgate – the science industry equivalent of LinkedIn – to be sure, but proper science will out!

The first thing we should note is that this research is a one-off  publication, on an online site, of a conference presentation. The research it entails has neither been replicated, nor peer-reviewed. This is, in scientific terms, not much more than a bunch of opinions.

We don’t have to delve far into the paper to find its true worth:

3.2 ListeningTest

We used eight sustained instrument sounds: bassoon (bs), clarinet (cl), flute (fl), horn (hn), oboe (ob), saxophone (sx), trumpet (tp), and violin (vn).

Whoa there cowboy! I was told by NME that the compression made my music more depressing. You do know what music is, don’t you NME? What it is not, is a bunch of fixed-note sustained instrument noises taken entirely out of musical context.

In addition to that complete clanger, there is no mention anywhere in the paper about how many subjects were used in these tests, nor anything about how they were conducted – just a lot of technical hocus-pocus about compression methods, and some graphs that are totally meaningless given what we just read. Wading further through this procedural mess, we find so much experimenter subjectivity stirred into the mix that the study is rendered all but useless as a piece of viable science.

To sum up, an unpublished, un peer-reviewed paper, conducted by a fictional institution,  tells us that in an un-replicated study, an unspecified number of listeners (keeping in mind that could be as few as two) were played compressed timbral instrumental single tones (not music) and asked to subjectively choose – from a list pre-determined by the researchers – how those noises made them feel.

Would you conclude that from there you could get to “Research finds MP3s make your music sound more depressing”?

No, me neither.


*Addendum: It seems they probably mean the AES (Audio Engineering Society) Library, where the paper is also archived. So let’s chalk that one up to sloppy journalism, rather than wilful deception. On the AES site, the presentation appears under its actual title The Effects of MP3 Compression on Perceived Emotional Characteristics in Musical Instruments [my emphasis].

Notice that this doesn’t make any claims about music, per se, and is a much more accurate appraisal of what the study was actually looking at (see comments below for further clarification).

Mercurial

freddie

“Science Confirms That Freddie Mercury Was Basically The Most Amazing Singer Of All Time” screams one headline. “Freddie Mercury Is The Greatest Singer Of All Time, Because Science Said So” says another. “Queen’s Freddie Mercury Had One Of The Best Singing Voices Of All Time, According To Science” gushes a third. I’m sure you saw them in your social media feed in the last week or so.

So what’s the story then? Have scientists come up with some amazing new method for applying empirical assessment to artistic subjectivity? Has scientific endeavour somehow managed to ‘confirm’ that Freddie Mercury is indisputably the most accomplished singer in human history?

Well, as you might have guessed, not so much.

Let me say from the outset that, by a considerable agreement of subjective reckonings, Mercury is an amazing singer. His vocal prowess is all the more extraordinary in light of his lack of formal training; he was self taught instrumentally and vocally, and claimed not to be able to read music. We really don’t need science to be able to legitimise his talent, per se.

And indeed science is not even attempting to do any such thing. The hyperbole above is generated by the lamest corners of the social media press, after the recent publishing of a paper by Christian T. Herbst et al, from the Faculty of Science at Palacký University, Olomouc, in the Czech Republic. Herbst frames the intentions of the research like this:

“The purpose of this study was to conduct a viable analysis of publicly available data material, in order to arrive at more empirically based insights into Freddie Mercury’s voice production and singing style.”

So the researchers, who self-describe their work as ‘fan science’, take it as a given that Freddie is an awesome singer and are simply gathering some data to help understand – in a technical way – how he did his stuff.

To do so, they examined both his speaking and his singing voice, concentrating on its timbral qualities, vocal range, vibrato and vocal subharmonics. In addition, they had a trained singer emulate some of Mercury’s vocal stylings and observed the active vocal cords with an endoscope. It is all fairly fascinating in its own right, and the breathless exaggeration from some sections of the interwebs really does the science no favours.

So what do the results of their efforts tell us? Well, not a lot that an experienced singing teacher couldn’t have concluded just by listening, in all honesty. They found that Freddie’s vocal style encompasses a remarkable variety of techniques, including a faster than average vibrato, the occasional use of vocal subharmonics (mostly to add a growl or burr to his voice) a proficient control of phonation and an impressive vocal range (although not quite the four octaves often claimed).

The paper provides empirical details of all these things, although, surprisingly in my opinion,  not much investigation into Mercury’s falsetto, which was one of his most dramatic vocal accomplishments (Mercury showed an almost incomparable ability to elide from his upper vocal register into falsetto and back again with virtually no audible transition – singers will tell you that this is very difficult to do).*

So to sum up, we already knew that Freddie Mercury was a pretty astonishing singer. What this investigation does is shed a little bit of scientific light on how he did his thing. What it does not do is ‘prove’ anything about his standing in the dominion of wonderful singers through the ages. And truly, that task is simply not the concern of science.

You can read the full technical paper ‘Freddie Mercury—acoustic analysis of speaking fundamental frequency, vibrato, and subharmonics’ here.

 


*You can hear many examples of this in the early Queen albums Queen, Queen II and Sheer Heart Attack. It is notable on the songs Lily of the Valley, Nevermore and The March of the Black Queen. Mercury’s use of the technique diminished as the band became more conventionally ‘rock’ oriented in later years.

Brainless

Over the last few months I’ve had numerous articles pop up in my Facebook news feed of the kind that promise to reveal some new ‘scientific’ discovery or other that will just amaze the socks off me. One of the favourites – going by the number of times I’ve seen it shared – is this one:

“According to Scientists, This is The Most Relaxing Tune Ever Recorded”

The one page sound-bite rich story is widely dispersed over numerous ‘health and wellbeing’ type websites (like this one), where it is for the most part uncritically accepted as a proper piece of news. It outlines the results of ‘a study’ that has honed in on the single most relaxing piece of recorded music ever to have graced human ears. I know – quite a bold claim – but it’s science, my friends, so you couldn’t just pull that kind of thing out of your ass, right?

The ‘tune’ in question turns out to be a piece called Weightless by ambient music trio Marconi Union. You should probably listen to a little bit of it before we go on – I hope it won’t relax you so much that you can’t come back after the break.

Well. Cute idea for a video, but in my considerable experience of the genre, that’s fairly generic electronic ambience.

According to the ‘news’ article:

This eight minute song is a beautiful combination of arranged harmonies, rhythms and bass lines and thus helps to slow the heart rate, reduce blood pressure and lower levels of the stress…

…and

The results showed that the song Weightless was 11 per cent more relaxing than any other song and even caused drowsiness among women in the lab.

The more you read, of course, the more you begin to see the divergence between the hyperbolic claims of the headline and the actual content of the piece. “11 percent more relaxing than any other song”? What does that even mean? 11 percent more relaxing? Calibrated how? Any other song ever written? Any other song of the same genre? Or just any other song on the iPod of one of the ‘women in the lab’ (is it just me, or is the implication here that the men in the lab were far too macho to be influenced by the wafty charms of the New Age ditty?).

Oh, here we go:

this song induced the greatest relaxation, higher than any other music tested till date

Right. So that would be how many songs, exactly? Not all the tunes ‘ever recorded’ is my guess.

Having worked for many years writing music for advertising, I can easily spot a marketing campaign when I smell one, and this one veritably reeks of fish. But a marketing campaign for what, exactly? There’s no product mentioned in the article, and it doesn’t seem like a promotion for the band. But I guess that’s possible. Let’s see what the internet has to say about Marconi Union.

OK, not much to be gleaned out of the obviously self-penned Wikipedia entry, other than that Marconi Union uses the flimsiest of pretexts to contrive to have their name linked with that of ambient music guru Brian Eno (in several different ways).

What about the ‘scientists’ involved in this astounding breakthrough? The experiment (we’ll call it that for expediency’s sake) was run by an entity by the name of Mindlab International who describe themselves as  a ‘neuro’ marketing company. Their website is slick and snappy.

But here’s one thing I’ll tell you about marketing – it’s not science. The sole goal of any marketing company on the planet is to gather enough data to convincingly support exactly what their client already believes to be true, extracting a generous fee in the process. Not convinced? Consider this: the marketing company is hired by the product maker. The product maker already thinks their product is the best thing since sliced bread. The marketing company who tells their client otherwise is therefore wrong, and gets fired. Marketing companies are the definition of the messenger who really doesn’t want to be shot. So, being a successful marketing company is all about finding convincing ways to make the message appealing to the client. If you can also convince them that you had a hand in increasing sales, that’s a bonus, but don’t think for even a second that that’s their raison d’être (notwithstanding the fact that many of them apparently believe that it is).

In case it needs to be said, none of this is the job of science. Science is about determining truth, no matter what the consequences to human sensibilities or dog food sales. Good science is out of a job when it comes to the advertising business.

The fact that this story involves a marketing company and a bunch of exaggerated claims  immediately raises red flags. It’s quite obviously not concerned with giving the reader factual news. No,  it’s solely about selling something. The more observant among you will have noticed that the video of Marconi Union’s Weightless – linked in the article (and above) – is interestingly named. It has the peculiar bracketed codicil ‘Radox’ in the title.*

Ah, yes. It’s all starting to make sense. So factoring ‘Radox’ into a search with ‘Marconi Union’ and ‘Mindlab International’ gets us straight to the nitty gritty. The first sentence on this page at a site called musicactivation.com reads:

Radox Spa brand has made an ambient track that is scientifically proven to be more relaxing than a massage.

Oh, now what a coincidence! The ambient track Weightless, which was made by (I think we can assume ‘commissioned by’) Radox Spa bath salts just turns out to be ‘the most relaxing tune ever recorded’.

Are you smelling any science here, sports fans? Or are you getting an overpowering aroma of horseshit? For the full experience, you might like to watch this:

Well, that was the biggest load of bollocks I’ve seen in a long while. I wonder how many completely unscientific instances of prestidigitation you caught there? If you needed proof that Mindlab International is entirely unconcerned with actual science, there’s plenty of ducking & weaving going in that clip.

What’s happened with this whole thing is that hundreds of websites have mindlessly snapped up a piece of marketing propaganda (something that was, no doubt, fed out to the media machine as a press release from Mindlab International) and completely credulously echoed it far and wide across the social networks as if it actually had meaning. I probably don’t need to rephrase it to reflect actuality, but for amusement’s sake, this is how that headline should really have read:

“According to a Marketing Company, a Piece of Music that their Bath Salts Client Commissioned is the Most Relaxing Tune Ever Recorded”  

Not something that’s going to rapidly circulate on the social media, is my guess.


*Update: since I penned this piece, Marconi Union seem to have disassociated themselves from Radox, so the original video I linked here has disappeared. References to Radox don’t appear on the re-uploaded version of Weightless

The Sound of Distant Drumming…

bilbo

With Peter Jackson’s movie version of The Hobbit killing box offices around the world, most people can hardly have failed to notice that, like Spielberg and Lucas before him, Jackson is using his considerable clout to spearhead another leap in technical quality for the cinema experience. I am talking, of course, about The Hobbit‘s release at the projection speed of 48 frames per second, which has already become popularly known by its acronym, HFR (high frame rate).

Jackon’s decision to use HFR for the film was almost certainly prompted by the desire to increase the quality of 3D – something which it indisputably does. Unfortunately, HFR got off to a bad start when news got out that audiences at the CinemaCon preview of The Hobbit in April of 2012, were finding the high resolution experience rather disconcerting. Mostly, the criticisms centred on the HFR looking ‘stagey’ or ‘fake’ or ‘cheap’. Peter Jackson brushed off the criticisms, saying we’d all get used to it, but there is no question that HFR has some ‘issues’. Since the release of the full movie, there have been many dissections of the curious nature of the 48fps effect in the film, some smart and some fairly far-fetched. I have my own hypothesis as to why we have trouble with the HFR experience, but I mostly want to talk about one aspect of that here. And it’s an aspect that no-one seems to have picked up on yet: the sound.

It’s not really that surprising to me, I have to say, that no-one has thought to scrutinize the part that sound plays in the perception problems for a high frame rate experience. People hardly pay attention to sound at the best of times, and in this particular case the whole issue has been entirely one of ‘the look’. A movie, however, is not all about what you see.

For you to follow my argument in this post, I need to just give a brief overview of the usual experience of sound in the cinema. Currently, most movies you see are delivered to an audience in a format that was first formulated in the 1970s by Dolby Laboratories and then widely adopted in the 1990s for the cinema. It is called 5.1 surround sound (some high end modern movies use a variation of 5.1 called 7.1, but for purposes of this discussion it’s essentially the same thing). 5.1 is arranged in such a way that three speakers across the screen deliver most of the critical sound. These are designated as Left, Center and Right. Usually these speakers are placed just behind the screen, along a horizontal center line halfway down. Two further speaker groups (they are usually groups, but just think of them as single channels, because that’s how they are treated) are designated Left Surround, and Right Surround. These are placed to the side and behind the audience. This array, the L,C,R,Ls,Rs is the ‘5’ of the 5.1, referred to in the profession as ‘5.0’. The ‘.1’ is the Low Frequency Extension, or LFE, which is situated behind the screen with the LCRs, usually on the floor. The important thing about the 5.0 array is that this is what determines the spatial placement of sounds for the audience.

soundlayout

Over the last couple of decades, the surround sound array has proved to be a versatile and durable system, providing considerable enhancement of the 2D experience. Here’s the thing to keep in mind, though: the key to the effectiveness of the whole notion of surround is that the sound can be made to appear to be – fairly convincingly – anywhere inside the theatre in front of the screen. The whole surround sound concept is based on the idea of enveloping the audience.*

The increasingly fashionable use of 3D over the last five or six years has, however, introduced something new into the movie experience: depth. 3D imaging is, in a way, the complete obverse of surround sound. 3D doesn’t bring the image out into the theatre as much as it expands the depth behind the screen into which the viewer looks. This creates an obvious problem for sound: how do you make the sound feel like it’s back there with the image?

If an object – let’s say a racing car – is on a flat screen (in 2D), then no matter where it is on that screen, it’s always on the same plane as the the speakers reproducing its sound. If  the car appears to be receding into the distance, we have learned by cinema sound ‘convention’ that its sound will get quieter (fade away) to make it seem like it’s attached to the car, but in realistic terms it simply can’t appear to be coming from a point source a  hundred meters beyond the screen (it’s crucial to understand here that our ears don’t judge the location of a sound solely by its loudness. In addition to loudness, we detect small differences in delay times to place an object aurally in space, as well as as different kinds of reverberation textures and times, and comparisons to other sounds we might be hearing. Our brain’s processing of audio information is complex and detailed, and artificial sound reproduction has pretty much always been a kind of ‘cheat’). As it happens, it’s perfectly acceptable in 2D because the image of the racing car and its sound never actually go off that 2D projection plane.

In 3D in the movies, though, our brains are forced to deal with a kind of cognitive dissonance. The racing car appears to be much more realistically moving at some distance away from us, but we hear the sound that it’s making on the same screen plane as every other sound we’re hearing! In fact, the 3D ‘world’ space and the domain of surround sound hardly overlap at all.

3dcover

This odd paradox is a legacy of the stumbling technical evolution of the cinema. The whole point of introducing surround sound into the movie environment was to attempt to create another level of involvement for the audience. Because the image on the screen was flat, no-one really thought of having the sound go beyond the screen; like the wall of the cinema to which it was attached, the screen plane has always been treated as a hard and absolute boundary (aside from anything else, there would be the technical and economic consideration of having speakers – and a whole room – on the other side of the screen). The difference between 5.1 and everything since old fashioned mono, was that surround was largely about pulling the sound forward and off the screen, by creating the ambiences of things that you did not see.

With 3D, a whole new space opened up – a space full of things we can see and that can be anywhere from slightly in front of the screen plane to an infinite distance away. And if those things make sounds, then our brains quite understandably expect those sounds to be glued to their matching apparent position in space.

This was never a problem in 2D, because 2D is a stylized way of looking at the world which we have learned to accept as ‘reality’ through massive exposure to 2D images over more than a century, and to which we have become habituated. Up until The Hobbit came along, there wasn’t even much of a problem with 3D, because the quality of 24fps 3D is not really that great and you just didn’t notice the ‘gluing’ error that much. But with the extraordinary detail that is available in HFR, the 3D begins to push a level of resolution that approaches reality. And, as that happens, our brains start to tell us that something is out of whack: “That horse galloping off into the distance! It’s very quiet, but its sound is coming from right in front of us!”

Not that we process it consciously, of course, but it adds to the sum feeling that there is something kind of wrong with what we’re experiencing.

While I was watching The Hobbit this strange dissociation of sound and image kept catching me at every turn: Bilbo runs behind a rock but his footsteps are unattached from him; an arrow hits a distant ledge in a cave and it sounds like a small stick being thwacked next to my ear; a warg runs off into the distance and its growling doesn’t manage to go with it. In general, the whole soundtrack is somehow ‘smeared’ and its details diffuse. Now, I know the guys who did the sound on this film, and I can tell you – they really know their stuff. And I’m willing to bet that when I get to view The Hobbit in 2D here in my studio in 5.1 on BluRay, it will sound spectacular. I believe that the problem is not with the way the sound is done, but with the way the sound is done for an HFR 3D film. The sound for The Hobbit has been created in the manner in which we normally create sound for the surround cinema environment and that process is now approaching a point where it’s simply not adequate to create an illusion of reality.

This difficulty is not confined to the sound alone. In The Hobbit, a similar predicament exists with the lighting and other aspects of its cinematic ‘world’. We’re at a stage with this technology where the whole technical way we make films needs to be rethought.

For sound, I don’t really know how we can easily remedy this situation. One of the other technical innovations that was rolled out for The Hobbit was a new sound format by Dolby Labs called ‘Atmos’ (which unfortunately I didn’t have  a chance to experience, since there are no cinemas in the southern hemisphere – other than the Embassy in Jackson’s home town of Wellington, NZ – equipped with it). Dolby understands that as cinema image resolution increases, the 5.1 (or 7.1) array will start to struggle to hold its ground. The Atmos system is an effort to expand the level of detail of, and control over, the aural environment. Atmos employs a speaker array with an astounding 64 programmable point sources throughout the theatre – that’s 58 more speakers than 5.1 – but I’m sure you’re ahead of me here: this hasn’t changed the overall concept of cinema sound. The sound is still inside the auditorium, not back where the 3D is happening. It is likely that Atmos will give a new level of detail to what you hear in the theatre, but it still needs to somehow address the sound on the other side of the artifical boundary that is the screen plane.

Of course, there is a way to tangle with this puzzle, but as I said, it’s not likely to be easy. Or cheap. It involves computers, and sound modelling and other kinds of new tech. It’s rather too complicated to go into at the end of this long post, but maybe I’ll attack it at another time.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________

*Director John Boorman, an outspoken critic of surround sound, bemoaned the fact that he’d spent his whole career attempting to get his audience involved in what was happening on that flat screen and now he was expected to embrace a technology that was trying to pull them out of it.

One Trick Pono

The ‘big’ news in audio this week is that legendary musician Neil Young has introduced a new music player to the world – the Pono. The word ‘pono’, apparently, is Hawaiian for ‘righteous’. The principal selling point of Pono is, according to Mr Young, that it presents the listener with ‘the best quality audio available’. Here he is pitching the concept (badly) to a fairly underwhelmed David Letterman:

Flea, bassist from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, effusively spruiked the Pono experience to Rolling Stone:

“It’s not like some vague thing that you need dogs’ ears to hear. It’s a drastic difference.”

Rolling Stone reports that Flea discerned this ‘drastic difference’ after hearing Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’ played in Mr Young’s car. Now, I suppose Neil Young has a pretty good sound system in his Cadillac, but trust me, a car is not an optimal listening environment for a phone conversation, let alone for judging music quality, so I for one am taking the audio assessment of a bass player from a rock band criticized for the egregious loudness of its recordings with a grain of scoff.

See, the problem with this kind of thing is one of perspective. Even if we accept that Pono will deliver an appreciable difference in fidelity to what is already available – and for the record, I don’t – Neil Young thinks enough people care about that to make his idea a commercial viability. He obviously doesn’t go to cinemas, have teenage daughters, listen to the radio, or pay attention in any way to how the great majority of people consume music. He’s failed comprehensively to understand the reason that compression codecs like mp3 caught on in the first place, and, worst of all, he’s possibly the only person in the world not to have learned a business lesson from the VHS/Betamax format war of the late 1970s (which, in case the point needs to be made, showed that people don’t give a flying fuck about quality when it comes down to it). As much as I admire Neil Young as a musician, I think his business acumen sucks.

Let me put it to you from my personal perspective as a prospective Pono punter: I’m a trained sound professional with a love of music – new and old – and an appreciation for the amount of work that goes into the craft of getting it to my ears. I love good quality sound. Occasionally I buy music for the fidelity of its recording. But mostly, I don’t. Mostly I buy it for its content. I buy it for the songs, or to play while I’m making dinner, or to listen to in my car when I want to be able to ignore the hum of the city. I rarely have the time to sit and just listen to a recording in the relatively superior listening environment of my sound studio. I like to take my music with me, so I have some on my phone, and some on an iPod in my car. I have re-purchased music I already owned so I can do this, and have also digitized my not-insubstantial CD collection. Now – WHY ON EARTH WOULD I BUY A PONO AND ALL MY MUSIC AGAIN? I know that, theoretically, mp3 and AAC are inferior to uncompressed digital (whether that extends to the stratospheric192kHz/24-bit sound that Pono offers is arguable…) but I don’t care. I bet the Pono music won’t be as cheap as the iTunes store, and I bet the Pono won’t interface with my car. And I already carry around music on my phone – why would I want another gadget cluttering my pocket? It’s one of the cool things about the iPhone: I have music, a phone, a diary and a camera with me at all times in one unit. What I’m trying to show you here is the vast hurdle that Neil Young is proposing to leap, on the basis that people care about superior sound quality.

An interesting aspect of the reporting of this story is that the press seems to have picked it up under variations of this leader: “Neil Young Expands Pono Digital-to-Analog Music Service”, which, aside from being an entirely inaccurate appraisal of the way the gadget works, rides on the coattails of the hoary old myth that analog recording is somehow magically ‘superior’ to digital. Analog is different to digital. That is all. You may even prefer the sound of old analog recordings over modern digital ones, but that has, these days, nothing at all to do with tehnical quality. It’s merely fashion. And it’s a fashion that can, in fact, be reproduced adequately – for the great majority of listeners – under existing digital audio codecs. Why, if you really want very high quality audio, it’s already available in iTunes (not quite the 192kHz offered by Pono, but Jesus, people – Aretha Franklin IN A CAR???)

My prediction? One year on from the official launch of Pono and you’ll be buying the things on eBay for 50c. Come back and tell me I was wrong.