Neil Young: An Interview
by Ken Richardson
Neil Young is in his element. A small recording space in downtown San Francisco is decked with carpets, candles, comfy chairs, and "my favorite instruments, the ones with all the best overtones." A few members of Crazy Horse - more like family members than band members - drift in and prepare to play. "Let's go to work," an engineer offers. Young and Crazy Horse are at Toast Studios to record some overdubs for a new album that, as Young wrily says, is tentatively called Toast.
But before "going to work," Young spends the better part of an hour in another of his elements -
talking about DVD-Audio. He has just released the live Road Rock Vol. 1 in the new
format, and he's preparing a 30th-anniversary reissue of his top-selling album, Harvest.
Young may refer to DVD-Audio as his "pet project," but that understates his fervent devotion to it.
He not only granted this rare interview gut allowed the
"CDs were a mistake from the beginning because of the sampling rate," he declares. "The numbers were too low. To achieve the promise of digital... it just wasn't there. At first, everyone was impressed - as I was - by the lack of surface noise, but shortly after that, I became aware of the lack of sound and the lack of everything you associate with the air. That's where the surface noise and the tape hiss lived: on the sound floor. It's not the loud stuff that gets affected, it's the quiet stuff. When you take something like a long fade and turn that up on a CD, if you've got a big amp, by the time you get to the end of that fade, you're listening to some of the worst sound that's ever been sold."
This helps explain why Young has been reluctant to sell some of his old vinyl albums on CD, including titles like On the Beach, Trans, and Landing on Water. "I've given the record company the best I could give them, as far as sound quality goes, for certain reissues that they just couldn't live without. But all of the others are more for my hard-core following. I've held those up. Some of them are just starting to come out now... though, really, there's no need for them to come out now. They've already been eclipsed in sound quality.
"Some people are impressd by the CD. I think it was [producer/engineer] Bob Clearmountain or [producer Robert John] 'Mutt' Lange or somebody who said, 'Well, the CD gives you the dymanic punch, and you can turn it up so loud - you can really hit it hard, you can fill it up. It's much better than vinyl that way, better than audio tape.' but that's only one thing it does.
Of course, there have been alternatives to plain-vanilla CD - HDCD, for one (the initials are for High-Defeinition Compatible Digital). In fact, the very first HDCD-porocessed album was Young's Mirror Ball, back in 1995. Did that get him any closer to his sonic ideal?
"A little closer, yeah. [Pacific Microsonics, which invented HDCD] took a bad format and did the best they could with it. Basically, HDCD is a fantastic [analog-to-digital and digital-to-analog] converter with the ability to record more and play back more through their proprietary system, which enables them to expand the sound on a CD that's being played through their decoders. So, yeah, it's better than a regular CD - all you have to do is listen to it and you can tell it's better, but it's still a compromise. My test is, you take a master analog tape - a classic, something where everybody knows what it's supposed to sound like - and put a CD of any quality up against that master, and HDCD will be the best, but it won't be good enough."
DVD-Audio, in Young's refreshingly unguarded opinion, is much more than good enough, allowing him to hear the natural sound he says he never heard from CD. "There's no comparison," he states. "There's absolutely no comparison. DVD-Audio is simply the best that exists today. It's the best way you can listen to music that you can buy en masse. The mid-level of quality of a DVD-Audio disc is where the CD should have been when we went digital. For the last 20 years, I've been forced to put my whole art form through something that's inferior to what I listen to."
But there's another issue to consider here, the launch of DVD-Audio comes at a time when some listeners are content with downloadable music files that are, shall we say, sonically challenged. Does this worry Young?
"People have to be led to DVD-Audio," he acknowledges. "You know, MP3 sounds bad. Napster sounds bad. All of that stuff sounds bad. It's a joke that they're worrying about charging for it; no one should ever sell it, it's so bad. The reason why people are settling for it is because they've been fed such poor quality for so long. They've never heard anything better than a CD or a cassette - unless they're audiophiles and they've checked out old albums on good equipment. Most people have nothing to relate to, so they've got nothing to lose. If the sound quality of MP3 is a little worse, what difference does it make?
"DVD-Audio is going to open the window again, so that people can actually listen to music and enjoy it. When I started making records, I used to sit in front of the speakers for hours, listening to the playback of the masters we made - over and over, so into it, listening to all the details. When CDs came along, I'd do a mix, and after it was finished I never wanted to hear it again.
"For a layman's example, if you take a DVD-Video, 90% of the [data capacity] goes toward the sound, and 10% goes toward the sound, With DVD-Audio, 90% goes toward the sound, and 10% goes toward the navigation system and whatever visuals you have.... So, the sound quality of DVD-Audio is great. It's time for music to be that good. It's way overdue."
Then again, there is an alternative to DVD-Audio - the Super Audio CD. Young has auditioned SACDs, but he says he still prefers th sound quality of DVD-Audio. He also believes that, as opposed to SACD, "DVD-Audio was thought through. A lot of people have worked on it and tried to make it was good for the artist as possible. And then there's the versatile nature of the disc, the way you can use the different audio channels."
Ah, yes... those different audio channels. DVD-Audio is multichannel from the get-go, and among the first batch of discs is Road Rock Vol. 1 (Reprise), which is credited to Neil Young, Friends & Relatives. The friends are guitarist Ben Keith, keyboardist Spooner Oldham, bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn, and drummer Jim Keltner. The relatives are Young's sister and wife, Astrid and Pegi, on backing vocals. And the Rock in question was recorded out on the road during Young's recent Music in Head tour.
The songs are a tantalizing sampler of Young's early material. Cowgirl in the Sand goes all the way back to 1969's Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Words is from 1972's Harvest, and then there's the title track from 1975's Tonight's the Night. You also get relative obscurities like Walk On, Peace of Mind, and Motorcycle Mama as well as the previously unreleased song Fool for Your Love and a duet with the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde on a cover of All Along the Watchtower.
Overall, Road Rock is loose, live Young at his ragged best - breathing easier than a Crazy Horse disc but with nostrils flaring nonetheless. And the surround sound is one of the most vivid concert mixes I've heard. Luckily, I am among the first to hear it: a freshly burned DVD-A disc is overnighted from Gateway Mastering in Portland, Maine, to San Francisco so that, on the day of my interview with Young, I can audition the disc at Dolby Laboratories.
Young hastens to point out that the mix of Road Rock wasn't done after the fact. Instead, it was done live by his front-of-the-house mixer, Tim Mulligan, drawing from the mikes on stage, the P.A. system, and mikes set up in the audience. "Your front speakers are giving you the P.A.," Young explains, "and then as the sound goes back into the surrounds, you get more of the venue. That's not echo added. It's not 'let's move something to the back' - no, those mikes were there. So, the beauty of this is, this isn't a contrived DVD, a built DVD - it's a real DVD, an acoustically balanced DVD, which represents something really interesting."
Road Rock may be Young's fist DVD-Audio disc, but it was preceded by three DVD-Videos in quick succession: Silver & Gold (Warner Reprise), Year of the Horse (USA), and Red Rocks Live (Warner Reprise). Just as each is a different Neil, each is a different multichannel experience. The solo-acoustic Silver & Gold skips the center channel and uses the two surrounds for some fairly detailed, robust ambience. Year of the Horse, film director Jim Jarmusch's documentary of Young and Crazy Horse, fills the center with vocals, bass plucks, and drum cracks. Meanwhile, it cranks the subwoofer and puts a big-hall echo in the surrounds. Red Rocks Live, a full show taken from the same tour highlighted on Road Rock, treats the center like a third surround channel and clarifies the ambience.
But wait, there's more! The Road Rock DVD-Audio disc, as opposed to the Red Rocks DVD-Video, lowers the center channel, changes the sub from a boomy bass to a punchy bass, boosts Young's guitar, and envelopes you more than the TV-centric video mix. And the DVD-A just plain sounds better, more musical, than the DVD-V - which is exactly how it should be. Oh, and did I forget to mention that the final song on the Silver & Gold DVD-V is a live-in-the-studio performance of the title track that places lush sound prominently in every channel?
Okay, given that we've now identified five different multichannel mixes related to the same artist, how is Young approaching Harvest and other titles in his back catalog when remixing for DVD-Audio? On an album-by-album basis? Harvest itself has three distinctly different sounds. Most of the songs, including Heart of Gold and Old Man, are primarily acoustic. But both Alabama and Words are mostly electric. And two more cuts, A Man Needs a Maid and There's a World, are orchestral. So, how is he approaching the DVD-Audio release of that album - on a track-by-track basis?
"Well, let's be clear about what I think DVD-Audio is," he replies. "It's not that it's a 5.1 format. For me, 5.1 is one of the bells and whistles it can give you. DVD-Audio can present a 192-kHz/24-bit stereo copy of the original work, That's what i'm interested in. Because I'm not interested in reinventing the horse.
"On certain albums that did really well or that can be really interesting, I may put one or two tracks in 5.1. But to go back and remix all of that stuff in 5.1 - first of all, to my eyes, and my ears, I want to hear what I did back then in the clearest way possible. I don't want to once again hide it, like the CD hid it.
"Harvest is a good example of the way we'll be doing the most successful releases for DVD-A. Besides putting the album on there in 192/24 stereo, we've got an interview from the period, two performances from the period - in the barn where we recorded Harvest. So, you have extra stuff there, because the versatile disc can handle it. But rather than redoing the whole album in 5.1, we chose to use the origianl mix. Only some of the tracks will be in 5.1 - for now. We haven't even finished it, so I hate to say what it is before it's done. But we're definitely interested in preserving the original performances - and showing the barn and other things, like the London Symphony Orchestra, that were all part of the Harvest sessions. The two orchestral tracks will be 5.1 because you'll be looking a the orchaestra in the visuals. That'll be a 5.1 listen-and-look.
"To me, it's a little bit of a quandary, because DVD-Audio has this 5.1 capability, and everybody thinks, 'Oh, that's so great' but I'm going, 'Hey, wait a minute - if you're archiving, 5.1 is another distortion of the original,' I want to get the original on the disc, so people can relate to where it started - and then, in any room that's left, show them what I can do if they want to hear it differently."
What, then, does he think of something like the Beatles remixed in 5.1 channels for the DVD-Video of Yellow Submarine?
"Well, that's a product. It's a different thing. The record label needs product. But something like Yellow Submarine is disconcerting to me. I wouldn't listen to it. There'll be a whole bunch of things like it that'll be coming out - and they're gonna be no good. It's like a novelty. You're 'in the room,' but you're not really there with whatever psychedelics the Beatles were doing. If they had done their own 5.1 mix then, it would be them. But this is not the Beatles.
"There will be record companies that'll go in and remix, say, the Jimi Hendrix Experience. More power to them if they think they can do justice to the original work. If they think they can go in and modify it and present it in a different way just to make a product and sell it, fine. Just - not mine. I want to make sure that no one ever does that to my original stuff, because I wasn't made that way."
Young does recognize the value of DVD-Audio as an archival medium. In fact, the long-awaited Neil Young Archives, a series of four boxed sets spanning his entire career, will indeed appear on DVD-A, he announces eagerly. "We're going to do the boxes at the highest-possible resoulution that DVD allows. And I'm so happy that we're getting the DVDs out before the CDs come out. The CD is not gonna beat this thing to the market. The DVD will be first."
"Or simultaneous...," his publicist politely advises. "Yes," Young politely responds. "Or the DVDs will be first by a couple of weeks.
"Here's what I want to do with the first Archives box, which will cover everything I did from 1963 to 1971. It's an eight-disc set. It has highlights from the albums I put out plus a lot of unreleased material and some other interesting things. That'll all be on DVD-Audio. At the same time, all the albums I released during that period will come out on DVD-Audio. That's how I want to do it - so that it's chronological and if just keeps on going. Once you start collecting the albums, if you're really into it, you can get all of them - or if not, you can just pick and choose. But it'll be orderly, and the stuff will come out in a way that makes sense."
Any idea, then, when we'll actually see the first box?
"Well, a lot of the art is finished, but I really have no idea.... Last year when I remastered the tracks, I did them at 88.2/24 for HDCD. Now I'm starting over for DVD-Audio. It's driving me crazy; this is like the third time I've had to retransfer everything."
"It seems like it never stops...," I quip.
"Well, it's gonna stop now. We're hitting the wall at the top of DVD-Audio quality.
"So, DVD-A is a nice archival thing, and we'll use it that way for the past - but the future is where it lives. What I'm doing now is much more interesting to me, because I'm going to be able to use this technology in a creative way from the very beginning. And that's how we're doing this studio record I'm making with Crazy Horse right now. We're recording seven ambience tracks, and every overdub we do has seven ambience tracks. And if we move to another place where we might do some strings - in a symphony hall - when the strings come in, their ambience will be there. So, you can move a room within a room, and move around inside, and then superimpose other environments on top of that and take them away and do all kinds of things that could never be done in any other format. You can work with the music in this format. That's where the real playground is.
"Also, down here where we're recording, we've got a locked camera that shows the whole front line of the band. It never changes. It's not a video - it's the actual performance. And we could have that on the DVD. Then you could drop in on the studio and check us out. We do that kind of stuff on our Web site [neilyoung.com], but we want to do it on the DVD. It's so good for that."
Whatever he does on his DVD-Audio discs, Neil Young will most likely do it his own idiosyncratic, trend-bucking, fascinating way. After all, despite our long talk on the new promise of digital, here's an artist who still has the heart of an analog kid. "I still record and will continue to record analog masters, even for DVD-Audio. We're using 2-inch Super 8-track to bump down to DVD-A. We're doing it like that so that in the unlikely event there's another format change in the future..."
"One never knows...," I muse.
"Yes, one never does know...so, we're going to be ready."
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