When it comes to audio quality, Neil Young’s heart has always been in the right place: championing vinyl when the man in the street was cutting over to CD; talking up hi-res audio in a world of MP3; putting the ‘better audio hardware’ conversation under mainstream noses.
Alas, the Canadian rocker’s actualisation of these ideas (ideologies?) have often come up short: withholding albums from CD release; wallet-melting pricing on vinyl releases; pulling his music from streaming services (only to quietly reinstate it a few months later); and most notably allowing the Pono player to buckle under the weight of the hi-res audio debate, instead of promoting it as an SQ-elevator of all formats, MP3 included.
Picking up the software mantle once again, Neil Young last weekend threw open the virtual doors on his own archives. NeilYoungArchives.com gives us access to almost every song he’s ever recorded. From a single URL we stream via a web browser. Format? Anything from 320kbps lossy audio to 24bit hi-res lossless, depending on preference or available bandwidth. The Orastream-powered back end will automatically adjust the bitrate downwards in the event of a bottleneck.
Otherwise, we can hit play and toggle between the lowest and highest data rates to find out for ourselves if our hardware setup and/or ears can resolve any qualitative differences. A full green bar means we’re hearing the studio master.
Be warned: hi-res audio’s significantly higher bitrate, displayed in the playback window, will eat a MUCH bigger hole from our monthly data allowance. Interestingly, not all studio masters come as hi-res. Both Ragged Glory and Sleeps With Angels top out at 16bit/44.1kHz – CD quality. The ‘Buy Now’ links point to Amazon.com’s lossy audio downloads.
No mind. The desktop interface is as stubbornly style-less as Young’s own album artwork, also available for perusal, inside and out (with additional content) by clicking deeper into each album’s archive ‘info card’, each filed along a timeline by song or by album. Confused? This Young-led video demo will help.
That Young’s introductory video initially invites us to read this from the FAQ (and then that) feels more like homework than help. The search function works just fine as starting point.
Neil Young tragics (like yours truly) will likely own much of this music already or have access to CD-quality streams from Tidal, Qobuz or Deezer. The real draw cards are the unreleased albums – 2001’s Toast with Crazy Horse, 1989’s Live Freedom, 1982’s Solo Trans, 1976’s Chrome Dreams, 1974’s Homegrown – represented by placeholders. We can’t hear ’em just yet.
Similarly, Jonathan Demme’s long out of print 1997 Year Of The Horse and 1991’s Weld concert video, among other films, are also marked as coming soon. We know not when they will drop. And if these video streams are to come complete with hi-res audio we’re looking at Gbs, not Mbs of data lunching.
At time of writing, access to NYA.com is free of charge. A subscription fee ($TBC) to come into effect in June 2018. And therein lies this site’s quandary: Young must charge to keep his online archive on the financial straight and narrow but even at a tiny $2 or $3 dollars a month, the site’s appeal lies more with enthusiasts than the casual listener.
But even the enthusiast must ask: what if every legacy artist did this?
Extrapolating this streaming model to include, say, Dylan, Waits and Springsteen, the listening experience becomes decentralised – we must click to a new URL each time we wish to change up artist. And did I mention NYA.com’s lack of mobile device support? For now, it’s desktop only.
NYA.com is an awkward add-on. If every old time rocker put their hand out for a few bucks a month for access to the entirety of their recorded output (plus rarities), those outbound dollar bills would soon stack higher than a monthly Tidal/Deezer/Qobuz hifi subscription.
As MQA and Qobuz have shown, hi-res streaming can be folded into existing services, invisibly to the end user and (with MQA) at no extra cost, thus casting NYA.com as little more than a very enjoyable side show.
Further information: Neil Young Archives