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Neil Young sounds off

Thursday, June 07, 2012 - 01:46 PM

Neil Young and film maker Jonathan Demme were in the studio today to talk with Leonard Lopate about their new documentary “Neil Young Journeys.”  I stopped by to say hi to Jonathan – well, actually, he had accidentally asked for me at the front desk so I was the one who got the call to come and let them into the studios.  Anyway, the point is, when I ushered them into the green room to relax before the show, Neil Young went straight to the little upright piano that lives there and began playing. Just a little impromptu piano stuff, but Jonathan’s assistant took out his phone and snapped a picture.  That’s when I realized, hey, I have one of those too!

As you can see, I do not do this sort of thing often, or well. 

After he finished playing, Neil started asking questions: what kind of signal were we putting out?  Analog or digital?  What was the bit rate?  What kind of compression were we using? 

In return, I asked him whether he’d been hanging out with T-Bone Burnett lately.  If you check our Soundcheck archives, you’ll hear that the veteran producer and guitarist (who put together the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou among many other influential albums) has been thinking a lot about the sound of the music we hear.  Not the harmonies, or melodies or rhythms – but the actual soundwaves.  Burnett claims (and there is science to back him up) that even though we can’t hear sound above 20,000 hz, we can feel those vibrations, and digital music recordings that don’t take that into account can literally be disorienting.   

When I told Neil that all radio stations have to compress their signals, he responded, “that’s okay if it’s analog.  If it’s analog, you’ve compressed the whole audio universe, but that universe is still in there.  If it’s digital, you’re compressing it by taking little packets out and squeezing everything together.  Now you’re actually losing material.” 

At that point I told him of T-Bone Burnett’s theory about the missing high-end and he said, “that’s why music sounded so good in 1980.”  That’s when digital recordings began to become more commonplace, en route to becoming industry standard.

At one point he also regaled us with a little horror story: Terry Gross, host of NPR’s Fresh Air, had said that Neil Young had made an mp3 recording.  Affecting a comic degree of indignation, he said they’d gotten her straightened out.  Whew! 

Neil promised to return in the Fall with what he ominously referred to as “my Player” (I could hear the capital P), which he said would allow us to easily hear the difference between analog and digital recordings.  So, something else to look forward to when Soundcheck comes roaring back after our Summer Workshop.    

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Comments [2]

Our on-air signal is still analog, and only lightly compressed (otherwise you'd never hear quiet passages of music); but it now has a digital component too - the so-called HD Radio. According to our veteran Chief Technology Officer, Steve Shultis, our digital broadcasts are "at a special 48 kb/s compression algorithm only used in HD Radio."
Well, you asked...

Jun. 12 2012 07:50 PM
a listener

Radio stations have compressed dynamic range long before digital. From Neil's response about "losing material" I suspect he's referring to lossy data compression,which didn't exist before digital. What _was_ the bit rate? What kind of compression _were_ you using?

Jun. 07 2012 06:18 PM

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