Feb 29, 2012
Apple’s new “Mastered for iTunes” has been causing quite a buzz recently – and causing lots of confusion.
I’m going to try and explain it all as clearly as I can.
[Update edit: I started out sceptical, but after new clues have been discovered about Apple's plans for "Mastered for iTunes", I'm actually very excited by the opportunity it presents - check out the "Stop Press" update at the end of this post.]
four five ways that the term “Mastered for iTunes” can be interpreted.
1. Mastered for iTunes is a set of utilities and guidelines
The easiest to understand and least controversial definition of “Mastered for iTunes” is described on this page on Apple’s site, here:
Basically it’s a set of guidelines for people to follow, to ensure you get the best quality versions of you music files available in the iTunes Music Store. Apple also include free utilities that allow you to preview how your files will sound once they’re encoded.
The guidelines are great – they encourage you to submit the highest quality files, and suggest how avoid falling into common traps that affect the quality – for example avoiding clipping and not over-cooking the music’s level because of the so-called “Loudness Wars“.
At the moment, the final files are still 44.1 KHz, 256 Kbps AAC files – so, they’re perceptually encoded files, using lossy compression – basically like high-class mp3s.
Whether you’ll hear a real difference from submitting a 24/96 version of your music is debatable – my quick tests suggest the answer is “not much” – but Apple also hint that in future they will use the high-quality masters to offer better downloadable versions in future, which can only be a good thing.
So far, so good.
2. Mastered for iTunes is a section of the iTunes Store
Here’s where things get a bit messier. Apple have also created a specific section of the iTunes store for files that have been mastered according to the “Mastered for iTunes” concept.
BUT this section includes examples that clearly don’t follow the guidlelines!
So for example, titles like Metallica’s “Beyond Magnetic” and the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s “I’m With You” are both clear “loudness war” casulties – mastered at a ridiculously high levels and lifeless and full of distortion as a result.
They may have been supplied as hi-res files, but when the vinyl sounds better, you know something’s gone wrong.
3. Mastered for iTunes is being used for hype, hot air and BS
Talking about “I’m With You” brings us to the area where this all gets really murky.
Because no matter how good the new “Mastered for iTunes” files are, they’re still made using lossy compression. A certain amount of detail is thrown away, so they sound different to the source.
Some engineers go so far as to say that AAC encoding actually changes the sound. And in fact, that you need to “compensate” for this in the mastering. They’re making new masters to account for this, that they claim sound “closer to the CD”.
This so-called “adaptive mastering” is nonsense, in my experience. I made a YouTube video about it – to hear it for yourself, click here.
4. Mastered for iTunes is also an opportunity
Just because the masters for “I’m With You” sound less like the CD than a straight rip, doesn’t mean they had to be that way.
There’s nothing wrong with the option of making an iTunes master sound different to the CD – in fact, there’s the opportunity to make it sound better.
Imagine if the “Mastered for iTunes” version of “I’m With You” had sounded more like the vinyl !
In that case, I’d have no reservations in declaring the process a huge success. The disadvantages of the lossy encode would be completely outweighed by the improvement in sound.
This would be nothing to do with high sample rates or bit depths, but everything to do with great mastering. It wouldn’t sound “closer to the CD”, it would sound better – because it would have more dynamics, more depth, more space, more punch – just better.
Maybe there are already “Mastered for iTunes” titles out there that already achieve this goal – if so, I’d love to hear them.
5. STOP PRESS – Update: Mastered for iTunes will use a new lossless format
Since I wrote this post, Tom Davenport has unearthed some very interesting new information over on Gizmodo:
In a nutshell, Tom believes Apple are going to use the new HD-AAC format to allow us fully lossless access to files that have been “Mastered for iTunes” at some point in the future.
You should read the full article for all the details, but this is huge – and it makes it all the more critical that musicians, labels and mastering engineers take advantage of this future format upgrade.
What’s the point of lossless 24/96 masters if they don’t sound great ?
It still sounds fairly squashed to me, unfortunately (although this could well be the mixes as much as anything) and I don’t see a difference in the measured dynamic range values, but this is what we need – engineers making new, better-sounding masters for future higher-quality formats.
Tell the world you want this
So is “Mastered for iTunes” the saviour of great sound after all ?
Apple have given us the opportunity, but it’s still up to us to make the most of the new guidelines and future format upgrade to get great sound.
I’d love this to become a reality – for the “Mastered for iTunes” label to come synonymous with Great Sound – and even better sound when Apple eventually increase the quality of their download format.
If you agree – spread the word !
Post social media updates, start forum threads, support Dynamic Range Day – let people know we want “Mastered for iTunes” to really mean something.