Ars Technica says Mastered For iTunes Can Sound Better

The Red Hot Chili Peppers I'm with You was one of the first "Mastered for iTunes" albums

A few months ago, Apple's "Mastered For iTunes" PDF made the rounds and made some WAVs causing speculation that Apple may be looking at offering lossless downloads sooner than later. Speculation, as is often the case, proved premature. But this did not ebb Ars Technica's Chris Foresman's interset in the dodgy subject—is the "Mastered for iTunes" approach pure marketing B.S. or does Apple's process actually offer a guideline whereby the end result offers better sounding music.

Does "Mastered for iTunes" matter to music? Ars puts it to the test is the result of this inquiry and Ars went so far as to involve a few recording engineers as well as engage in the titillating practice of null tests and the diametrically opposed practice of listening for difference. And the results? Mixed in theory but subjectively all listeners appear to agree, more and less.

We enlisted Chicago Mastering Service engineers Jason Ward and Bob Weston to help us out, both of whom were somewhat skeptical that any knob tweaking could result in a better iTunes experience. We came away from the process learning that it absolutely is possible to improve the quality of compressed iTunes Plus tracks with a little bit of work, that Apple's improved compression process does result in a better sound, and that 24/96 files aren't a good format for consumers.
That last bit, "24/96 files aren't a good format for consumers" was not put to the listening test or verified with the recording engineers and equipment manufacturers who diagree with this premise. Instead, Foresman leans heavily on the xiph.org blog post, "24/192 Music Downloads...and why they make no sense" by Chris Montgomery. Leaving that bit aside (as hard as that is since this question is much more interesting than the one under investigation and deserves more than a passing shrug off), I take it as reassuring news that Apple's "Mastered For iTunes" approach appears to be what it says—namely a method for making otherwise crappy lossy files sound better.

Here's what celebrity record producer and line-cutter* Rick Rubin had to say in an interview with MTV Hive about his experience mastering the Red Hot Chili Peppers I'm with You for iTunes:

“In the past, CD masters would be converted to iTunes masters without any checks and balances, and while both formats are digital, each has its own sonic signature,” Rubin tells Hive. “We tried many different conversions before we came across the optimal combination of starting with a bit rate higher than what is currently available in a mainstream way, and used those files to create the iTunes files doing several more rounds of mastering, listening to the iTunes files and correcting accordingly.”

Rubin says that the difference between these two versions is “night and day.”

“It seems to contain more sonic information than the typical iTunes file,” he says of the Peppers’ new set. “It’s much closer to the sound of the CD and it took several weeks of additional experimentation and mastering to reach the final iTunes master.”

* I never thought I'd have an opportunity to share this story...at this year's CES I was in a long line of people waiting for an elevator up to the exhibition floors in the Venetian Hotel when Rick ambled by in that aimless - I wonder why everyone is just standing around - fashion while he proceeded to cut to the front of the line and onto the next elevator. A note to Mr. Rubin—line-cutting is bad karma.

COMMENTS
deckeda's picture

1) ... for his work with Johnny Cash's "American Recordings" releases.

2) And then I subtract about 50 points for everything since.

3) I then award 3 more points for helping spearhead better sound for the world's biggest record store, even if I don't shop there.

And yes, Foresman is way out of touch regarding recognizing Monty's Ogg Theora agenda. What's ironic is Chris' ability to hear better sound (24/96 masters played in the studio) and then shit all over their value a heartbeat later.

I honestly believe some of these people have self esteem issues that manifest in dictating standards for others, denying as they do what they admittedly heard with their own ears. It's nuttiness. Without the tasty nougat center.

Jmilton7043's picture

Egad! Line cutter, indeed.

Better iTunes is good news for all of us...

JustinB's picture

I guess I am in that tiny group that doesn't really consider iTunes a relevant option for music. Many new LPs, praise the Lord, come with a download for taking your music mobile. For stuff not available, a used copy of the CD on Amazon is usually cheaper (even with shipping) than the compressed iTunes version. If I care enough to buy a particular record... I don't see how anyone on this site wants to settle for so much of the musical information missing. Yes, my way is more work and requires more patience but in the end I hear what the musician wanted far more closely than all of the people who drop $10 or $15 at Apple for a lossy file.  The day Apple decides to replicate what HDTracks.com is doing is the day I will consider spending money at iTunes.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Which also means they can move the market. The fact that Apple is even talking about sound quality, regardless of what people think about their approach, is a step in the right direction. When Apple decides to offer lossless downloads (yes I said when not if ;-), some people may not notice or care but people who do care will have something to be very happy about.

Beyond that, I agree. Most people reading this site care about sound quality which means lossy downloads are not a viable option. As I've said before, I think lossy formats are great for discovering music but once I discover I like something enough to own it, I do what you do and buy the best quality version I can get. And that may be a download (obviously not from iTunes), a CD, or an LP.
 

kavon yarrum's picture

Why should iTunes dominate and move the market?

They don't have to if artists take control.

How many artists offer FLAC downloads directly from their web sites?

A miniscule number. Some DO..so we all know it is possible. I recently bought FLAC downloads directly from the Civil Wars, Fitz & the Tantrums, The Unthanks, and a few others. Everybody else offers the CD and Mp3 files for sale.

Apple does not care one iota about quality. They are their to move iDevices. Period.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

I think the more important question to ask is why does iTunes dominate and move the market. Based on the last sales figures I saw this is not conjecture it’s fact.

How many artists offer FLAC downloads directly from their web sites?

I think this is one example that goes into the ‘why’ column. Simplicity. For those iTunes users who are not interested in file conversion or add on apps, FLAC does not play in their sandbox. I’m not making a value judgment one way or another, just trying to represent the state of things.

Apple does not care one iota about quality. They are their to move iDevices. Period.

I could make the argument that Apple supports USB Audio Class 2.0 whereas Windows doesn’t. And if you read the content of this post, some professionals feel Apple’s Mastered For iTunes guidelines offer a path toward better sound quality. That's two iota's worth imo.

And what better way to move iDevices than to automatically upgrade every single iTunes user's music purchases to a lossless format? Seems like the great excuse to offer new and improved product with more storage.
 

deckeda's picture

I used to think that way, because in the Internet age I'd forgotten the important role a retailer or other central outlet plays in gathering eyeballs to discover things they otherwise might not. Even if a buyer knows what they want, getting it all from one place can be beneficial.

The other thing is, artists would probably prefer to create and not sell. To each entity their own specialzation, yes?

kavon yarrum's picture

What on earth are you talking about?

Plus, your statement below is non sense. I have not been to a show in the last ten years where the artists had not had CDs, Lps, or T shirts for sale.  And even if artists are not currently oferring lossless downloads from their websites, they are selling CDS.

"The other thing is, artists would probably prefer to create and not sell. To each entity their own specialzation, yes?"

deckeda's picture

The art of noise, indeed.

kavon yarrum's picture

When I inferred that artists should and can offer FLAC downloads, I really meant lossless downloads of any format..ALAC, WAV, AIF, whatever. 

The fact that Apple does not support FLAC is another issue...don.t get me started junior!

When you say iTunes dominated the market...I don't know a single person who consumes music from the iTunes store.  I know people do, that is obvious. But those who do could not care less about MFIT. As a matter of fact, they would not know an ALAC from an AIF file if life depended on it. 

Do you really think Apple supports USB 2.0 for audio to make audiphiles all giddy? 

Cmon now Michael, you know better. I

 

 

Michael Lavorgna's picture

In 2009 the iTunes store became the number 1 music retailer. As of June 2011, the iTunes store sold 15 billion songs.

I don't know a single person who consumes music from the iTunes store.

It's a big world and not really a good idea to base what you think on who you know.

As a matter of fact, they would not know an ALAC from an AIF file if life depended on it.

The notion that you do not know a single person that consumes music from the iTunes store yet you feel comfortable speaking to what everyone who does knows and doesn’t know is a leap of faith I’m not willing to take.

Do you really think Apple supports USB 2.0 for audio to make audiphiles all giddy?

I don't ascribe to the notion that corporations are people so I try not to attribute human reasons to corporate decisions. Apple supports what they support for business reasons. For example, if there are sound business reasons for providing better sound quality, they will do so. Take iTune Plus as one example where Apple moved to higher bitrate downloads and offered these upgraded versions of iTunes music purchases to existing customers. For a price, of course. And how did Apple sell this upgrade? a) better sound quality, and b) DRM-free music.

Audiophiles are obviously too small a group to concern Apple but that’s irrelevant to this discussion. It’s highly unlikely that going forward Apple will offer poorer quality downloads from the iTunes store and equally unlikely that their offerings will remain the same – for ever. So imo there’s only one way to go.

kavon yarrum's picture

I fully concede to you that if Apple improves the quality of their downloads that is strictly based on profit motive, which is a their only motive.  So there is an incentive.

My cousin has worked for Apple for over ten years, in a high ranking capatcity.  Two years ago when I visited him he was beaming because at the suggestion of Apple he put all his CDs in boxes and sold them and had ripped is entire collection to his iPod in 128.  I now stand corrected because he told me since then he has bought all his music, which leans towards alternative rock, from iTunes. 

He fully admitted to being brainwashed into believeing iTunes and iPod is "good enough".. ..This is a directive from the top down. 

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Back to the subject of this post…. Apple’s Mastered for iTunes is a guide to achieving better sound quality. In this document, among other things, Apple recommends submitting music in 24-bit/96kHz format and touts the sonic superiority of iTunes Plus’ 256 kbps AAC format (which came online in 2009).

It sounds like your cousin’s 128kbps choice must have been based on an older version of brainwashing.

kavon yarrum's picture

If Steve listened to vinyl in his palace then he should have known better to hawk the excrement he was selling on iTunes and calling it "CD quality" music.

96/24 sounds great. The only problem 90% of rock and pop projects are recorded at 44.1 or 48 khz, 24 bit. 

You can sell 256 or even 320 AAC and call it high rez but that is the provervial lipstickign the pig.

HDtracks is selling Norah Jones's new album at 44.1/24 bit FLAC and calling that high rez. One man's high rez is another's low rez slop.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

excrement, lipstickign the pig, low rez slop

I do not share your vitriol when it comes to stuff we simply do not have to buy.

And last I checked, we're talking about listening to music and I find this level of drama a bit overblown. Cheer up it could be much much worse.

kavon yarrum's picture

LOL. Yes, thanks Michael. Certainly it could be worse. 

But this IS a forum about digital music last I checked.

I am quite a cheery person, trust me. I am one lucky duck with respect to my lifestyle.

Yes, WE do not have to consume iTunes, but when you lie to the unsuspecting public and tell them it is "CD quality" that is BS.

What I do take personally is corprate liars and blind worship. I mean, I can't be the only one who is troubled by the fact that Apple paid 9.8% in taxes on billions in revenue while employing only less than 10% of their work force here, giving a pittance to charity, and nothing back in dividends. 

Ah, sorry for the rant. :)  Could not resist. 

Michael Lavorgna's picture

[joke]

kavon yarrum's picture

Waiting for "High Rez" Vinlyl. Or better yet, HIgh Rez Vinyl downloads.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

As part of my upcoming Pure Vinyl review.

And I've heard through the grapevine that there's a whole lot of people out there on the internets sharing vinyl rips via download. Hi-rez (goes without saying ;-)

kavon yarrum's picture

I was only half joking. I know of one particular site that has gigs of 24/96 rips available for download, er, unofficially.  

I am assuming Pure Vinyl can archive any analog source?

 

Michael Lavorgna's picture

I am assuming Pure Vinyl can archive any analog source?

As long as its vinyl.

paxjen's picture

Ric did not cut the elevator line, he just did a lossy compression of it.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

He re-mastered us right out of the mix.

paxjen's picture

Like your work a lot.  We need to see more of you in Stereophile.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

.

Esprit's picture

Just marketig.

When iTunes will sell music at least in "SD quality" we'll talk about: now it is irrelevant whether the "source file", to obtain a lossy music file, is HD.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

I agree with you as long as I remove the word “just”.

Apple is marketing Mastered for iTunes as a guide to offer better sounding lossy music downloads and some professionals agree that this is the case.

I'd also suggest that if Apple ends up sitting on a stash of 24/96 source files, it sure makes it a heck of a lot easier to offer 24/96 (or some derivative thereof) for download at some point in the future.

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