Dr. AIX's POSTS — 24 January 2014

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Several years ago, Apple decided that the sound quality offered through its iTunes digital music download service needed an upgrade. The previous fidelity standards hovered around 128 kbps (recall that uncompressed CDs run at 1400 kbps) with some recent moves towards 256 kbps. This level of quality is reasonable for the ear bud, portable music crowd but is incapable of delivering the kind of fidelity that audiophiles demand.

From what I’ve read, Steve Jobs was a huge music fan and interested in better quality audio. Apparently, there were even some discussions with Neil Young about the merits of better downloads and living up to the artist’s intent. Nothing ever happened because of Steve Job illness and ultimate death, but the company that he founded and guided so skillfully has a culture for quality. This should naturally translate to audio (I write this on the 30th anniversary of the original MacIntosh computer…which launched on January 24, 1984!).

So along comes “Mastered for iTunes” in 2012, which is a set of tools and production procedures that is supposed to improve the quality of the 256 kbps downloads that we all acquire. They upped the quality of the iTunes site with the moniker of iTunes Plus in 2007 and are now coordinating with the major labels and other suppliers to get 96 kHz/24-bit files submitted to their production gateway (all labels use a program called iTunes Producer to submit new tracks or albums to Apple). The previous standard was simple CD resolution.

According to a company statement, Apple is keeping the new “higher” quality masters in their systems to allow for full advantage of future improvements to your music.” What does that mean?

It means that Apple is asking the companies to give them so-called “high-resolution audio” versions of their content so that they can market them as “Mastered for iTunes”. However, they are still subjected to 256 kbps compression using AAC or the new and improved HD-AAC formats. The statement does hint at perhaps iTunes will offer uncompressed versions of these higher spec’d source files…but I’m pretty sure that they will be limited to CD quality and not high-resolution versions. And it won’t matter anyway because most of the recordings are not taking advantage of high-resolution audio specifications during the sessions.

And think about it for a second…does outputting a 96 kHz/24-bit version of files that was mastered for CD release really create a better sounding download? No, it definitely does not. So all of this re-working of older masters in bigger bit buckets (with or without new mastering sessions…which is not happening) means nothing to end consumers interested in quality.

In fact, tests that have been done on the “Mastered for iTunes” versions of releases from Universal Music Group and others shows that they aren’t really any better than standard CDs. There is some real potential in the concept of using better sources, but the reality is that the files coming from the mixing and mastering studios are still heavily compressed, were produced using 48 kHz sampling rates and lots of other processors and were mastered for maximum volume through FM radio. We need to lobby for alternative versions of classic recordings and new releases in “audiophile mastered” style.

So the real question is do the labels, producers, artists and engineers care enough about sound quality to change the production procedures that they’re using to include a version of their masters that might appeal to audiophiles? So far, they’ve given no indication that they do.

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About Author

Dr. AIX

Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

(5) Readers Comments

  1. Hi Mark, thanks once again for a fascinating read.
    You put the question forward: “So the real question is do the labels, producers, artists and engineers care enough about sound quality to change the production procedures that they’re using to include a version of their masters that might appeal to audiophiles? ” The “Labels” certainly do not. In fact, unless there is an obvious (and additional) buck in it for them, they couldn’t give a large rodent’s ass for “serious” quality reproduction. After all, they count green-backs, not bit rates.
    Producers and engineers certainly do care about quality, in fact I have ranted before about how galling it must be for these guys to have their “work of art” interfered with by some “ham-fisted” mastering house OR and company who’s only concern is getting it out for Christmas.
    I wouldn’t be prepared to give an assurance that ALL artists care enough about quality. Being one myself, I have met a lot of artists who look at me stupid when I mention the subject of Hi-Res….the recording process to them is a means to an end. However, many others do care greatly and despair when they hear the finished tracks.
    I think the real issue is that 24/96 or 24/192 is here and has been for years. There can be NO excuse for releasing the inferior garbage that we are currently fed. Why not release every disc as a “dual disc” or “Hybrid disc” which will enable the end user to get the best of both worlds?
    We’re being “touched up” here and without so much as a pre-sale kiss.

    • Warren…I would agree to a point. I’m not sure that very many artists actually know about high-resolution audio, compression and such. The artists that come through this studio certainly don’t. They trust the engineers and they trust the record company to represent them the way that will enhance their chances for success.

      Everyone can say that they care about quality but you’re not being offered any choices when you record a track. How many records have you made in a live performance hall without any audience?

  2. but Mastered for iTunes isn’t 96khz/ 24 bit – just bought U2 : Achtung baby “mastered for iTunes it’s 256kbps VBR 16 bit – and sounds it…

    pure marketing BS as far as I can see

    The only way it’s not a waste of money – is that I won’t waste anymore on “mastered for iTunes”

    • The folks at Apple have been requesting and receiving 96 kHz/24-bit master files from the labels for many years now. They aren’t yet delivering them but will soon…IMHO.

  3. Recent Mastered For iTunes releases I’ve purchased show variable bitrate values up to 461 kbps.

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