Sep 1, 2011
[Update: I've made a video demonstrating the difference between the CD release and the "mastered for iTunes" version - to hear the difference for yourself, click here]
So, the new Red Hot Chili Peppers album, “I’m With You” is out – and it seems you can’t read about it anywhere without hearing the news that it’s:
“…the first rock album specially mastered to optimize digital sound quality for iTunes Store customers. The album was produced by Rick Rubin and mastered for iTunes using high-resolution sourced audio to provide fans with an incredibly rich listening experience.”
And you know what ? That pisses me off.
Why ? Three reasons:
- It’s meaningless sales jargon. iTunes is software – an online store and mp3 player. It has no “sound” to optimise the sound quality for.
- It’s still an mp3 file ! OK actually they’re AAC files, not quite as bad as mp3 – but still, the language implies that we can expect to hear something special. But lossy audio will always sound worse than anything on the original compact disc.
- And finally – it sounds terrible. In my not-so humble opinion…
Alarm bells started ringing as soon as I read the blurb.
“We are excited to work with iTunes to make an even better listening experience for fans,” said producer Rick Rubin, who twiddled the knobs for the band’s five previous albums. “We can’t wait for everyone to hear it.”
Oh boy. The band’s “Californication” album is infamous for being one of the first absurdly loud CDs, way back in 1999 – and this one was produced by the same team, who were also responsible for Metallica’s infamous “Death Magnetic” – so you can understand this didn’t fill me with hope.
And sadly, the sound lives up to all my worst expectations.
I’m not going to lie to you, it doesn’t sound good…
To be fair, it doesn’t actually sound quite as bad as Death Magnetic – and in fact looking at the numbers it generates, it’s surprising that it doesn’t sound a hell of a lot worse. But even so the characteristic blunt, flat, clipped loudness-war sound is just… tragic.
If this is what audio “optimised for iTunes” is going to sound like, give me a wax-cylinder gramophone record, any day of the week.
And it leaves me baffled – WHY does it have to sound this way ? Rick Rubin is a self-confessed audiophile – he knows exactly what good-quality audio is about. He believes that people like compression – sure, we do. But not insanely compressed and pointlessly distorted to boot…
Mastered for iTunes ?
So what’s the basis for the trumped-up claims about the audio quality, then ? My guess is that the clue is in the phrase “using high-resolution sourced audio to provide fans with an incredibly rich listening experience.”
On it’s own that means nothing, since ALL audio is mastered from high-resolution sources, these days – but it probably means the AAC files in this case were encoded directly from a high-resolution file, rather than from a CD. Maybe the tracks were even mastered through a real-time AAC encode/decoder, to optimise them for a downloadable file-format rather than CD.
Will this make any difference, in a compressed format like AAC ? It’s impossible to tell with something as sad-sounding as this release, but let’s hope we can hear the benefits of music that’s “mastered for iTunes” in future examples.
I can’t help being reminded of the DVD I just finished authoring for black metal band “Cradle Of Filth” (whose latest album sounds pretty good, by the way – thrashing drums, shrieking vocals and all). It features a documentary called “You Can’t Polish A Turd, But You Can Roll It In Glitter”.
Update: Meaningless hype ? Actually no…
Scott from Masterdisc left a comment below shedding some extra light on this subject – I’m adding it here because lots of people don’t read the comments ! Thanks to Scott for taking the time to reply.
“The goal of the unique AAC master of the Chili Peppers album was to make it sound as close to the CD as possible. The ears involved in the process felt it was a success. Pick up the CD and compare to the AAC file with your ears. It’s really damn close.
Keep in mind, I’m not addressing whether or not you like the sound of the CD. It was RR’s goal to make the Itunes file as true to the sound of the CD as possible despite the data reduction. A lot of time, effort and careful listening went into this project. This was not just media hype.”
So, my guess that “Maybe the tracks were even mastered [through a real-time AAC encode/decoder ?] to optimise them for a downloadable file-format rather than CD” was along the right lines.
How sad and ironic that Rick Rubin asked for so much time, effort and careful listening just to accurately reproduce pointless clipping distortion…
(By the way, for those care about these details, I’m calling it “clipping” distortion because that’s what it sounds like to me – looking at the file it isn’t heavily visually clipped, which suggests the mixes were already distorted when they were supplied for mastering – which was the case for Death Magnetic, too.)