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Apple’s Mastered for iTunes: Is it Legit?

Apple's Mastered for iTunes is pure marketing hype. It's time for Apple to get serious about offering high-resolution downloads from iTunes.


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Apple’s Mastered for iTunes allegedly replicates a CD quality level digital audio file. But British mastering engineer Ian Shepherd says it doesn’t.

Since the rumors of Apple’s interest in high resolution audio downloads first surfaced in late 2011, a growing number of people have become interested in the topic.

Apple very quietly bypassed the music industry record labels' participation in any such high-resolution download project by launching its Mastered for iTunes initiative.

A number of tech-enthusiast websites did notice the launch of the initiative however and shortly thereafter started to report on this potentially huge music development.

In response, members of the music recording industry have begun to look at Mastered for iTunes to see if it holds any true potential to solve the problem of low-resolution files overshadowing better quality products. Bobby Owsinski, a L.A.-based recording engineer recently outlined the professional music community factions that pit those who believe a separate master file must be used for iTunes versus those who feel the status quo is just fine.

Owsinski also outlines Apple’s mastering guideline recommendations that include:
  • Always use the highest resolution file available (24-bit/96kHz, if it’s available)
  • Apple recommends to mastering engineers not to compress a track. Owsinski says there’s a feature called Sound Check in iTunes that lets users hear all of their music files at the same level. He says a highly compressed track will actually sound less impactful because of the Sound Check technology.
  • Moving beyond some of the technical aspects of mastering he adds that compressing is becoming less relevant because file storage is becoming less of an issue for consumers. This is why he theorizes that Apple is pushing its AAC Plus lossless high-resolution format (The existence of AAC Plus Lossless could not be verified).
The British mastering engineer Ian Shepherd goes deeper in his analysis of Mastered for iTunes by using a music engineering tool called a null test. Shepherd explains this procedure as a method of reversing the phase of a song’s waveform so that after a song’s waveforms and volumes are matched in software a mixing engineer can play them back to see if the song’s out of phase waveform cancels or nulls out the normal version of the song. In his comparison Shepherd lines up a Red Hot Chili Peppers song that was downloaded in the Mastered for iTunes format with a CD version of the same song and an AAC-encoded version of the song.

After his comparison of the three digital music files, Shepherd says there was a sonic difference between the Mastered for iTunes waveform and the CD waveform. Whereas he says comparing the CD waveform and AAC-encoded files revealed far fewer sonic differences, adding that this proves to him Apple’s Mastered for iTunes isn’t 'closer to the CD' than a standard AAC file from Apple's iTunes store, as engineers involved in the releases have claimed.

“What is not true is to say is that this [Mastered for iTunes] sounds closer to the [CD version] than this [AAC file],” he states. “It makes perfect sense that software engineers spend a lot of time making AAC, MP3 encoders; whatever encoders you choose sound as close as possible to the original CD. How could a mastering engineer using his ears be able to [do] a better job than that [AAC or MP3 encoder]?”

If all this wasn't confusing enough Shepherd points out another area for potential confusion is the fact that two different things are being labelled as "Mastered for iTunes." One is the specific "Mastered for iTunes" releases like the Red Hot Chili Peppers album Shepherd uses as an example. "This is what I'm emphasizing in the video, and where I believe the real slight-of-hand is being pulled," he explains. '"Optimizing' for lossy codecs shouldn't be necessary, and my test shows that [in the case of Red Hot Chili Peppers at least] it isn't necessary. But the other thing is the set of guidelines and tools that Apple have put on their 'Mastered for iTunes' page. These [guidelines] I think are absolutely fine, and actually quite valuable for making people aware of mastering issues like the loudness war. Personally I think the benefits of a 24/96 source after being reduced to a 16/44 AAC file will be trivial, but the prospect of higher quality releases in future is appealing, and there's nothing wrong with having high-quality sample-rate conversion and encoding tools readily available."

Based on this early feedback from the pro audio industry, Apple and the music industry will be better served to find some type of tiered pricing policy that offers consumers a choice of download formats that actually live up to the claim of “CD quality” or "high-resolution audio.” If these parties can’t reach a legitimate compromise, the people who really know this business will expose these claims for what they really are: marketing hype.




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Article Topics

Blogs · Audio · Video · Digital Media · Apple · Itunes · All topics

About the Author

Robert Archer, Senior Editor, CE Pro
Bob is an audio enthusiast who has written about consumer electronics for various publications within Massachusetts before joining the staff of CE Pro in 2000. Bob is THX Level I certified, and he's also taken classes from the Imaging Science Foundation (ISF) and Home Acoustics Alliance (HAA). In addition, he's studied guitar and music theory at Sarrin Music Studios in Wakefield, Mass.

60 Comments (displayed in order by date/time)

Posted by steve Silberman  on  02/28  at  08:45 AM

Hi Robert-

Thank you for the article. I think this might be a stepping stone between standard AAC and an inevitable giant leap towards 24-bit / 48KHz or 96KHz files.
Nipping at Apple’s heals are several high-quality streaming services, such as MOG and Spotify. Mog (for example) offers 320Kbps streaming for only 10.00 a month while iTunes offers 25kKbps for 1.00 per song. Services like MOG undermine the value of purchasing low-resolution files. Why buy when you can rent more for less…?
All of the current IOS devices such as iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch are designed to handle true high-resolution files. Additionally, there have been leaks regarding Apple requesting that the major studios provide high-resolution 24-bit files for iTunes. Will Apple release premium performance songs at a premium price? Time will tell…

Best regards,

Steve Silberman
AudioQuest

Posted by Robert Archer  on  02/28  at  09:05 AM

Steve I think the public is ready for a tiered pricing structure that provides a choice of formats that range from low res 128kps AAC all the way up to 24/96 lossless iTunes files if they are available. Owsinski makes a good point that storage is less of an issue now, and I think it’s up to Apple and the record labels to hash this out so consumers have the ability to make choices.

I believe in the iTunes business model and I am a huge Apple enthusiast, but with that being said it was great that Shepherd did this comparison. Hopefully people learn about Apple’s deception in this matter and call on the company to offer a real, high resolution alternative.

Posted by Scote  on  02/28  at  11:20 AM

“Apple recommends to mastering engineers not to compress a track. Owsinski says there’s a feature called Sound Check in iTunes that lets users hear all of their music files at the same level. He says a highly compressed track will actually sound less impactful because of the Sound Check technology.”

This is a bit confusing. Sounds like a conflation between normalizing the audio levels for play back and level compression during mastering—which aren’t the same at all.

Posted by Dan  on  02/28  at  11:29 AM

“Apple very quietly bypassed the music industry record labels participation in any such high-resolution download project by launching its Mastered for iTunes initiative.”

There seems to be some confusion as to what the Mastered for iTunes actually is. There doesn’t need to be any record industry anything as its just a guide and toolset for converting your masters into iTunes Plus format, the one thats been around awhile, since 2007 for EMI and 2009 for everyone else. Its not about a lossless format or some new format, just a fair amount of useful information about sound encoding and what to watch out for to get the best quality you can out of a iTunes Plus encoding.

Posted by Marc  on  02/28  at  11:53 AM

I think you all missed the point of the “Mastered for iTunes” thing. It’s to get full quality audio into the Apple system so they can post better quality compressed materials at a later date. Read the ARA article for a much better analysis. http://arstechnica.com/apple/news/2012/02/mastered-for-itunes-how-audio-engineers-tweak-tunes-for-the-ipod-age.ars

Posted by Georges Constanza  on  02/28  at  11:54 AM

Sorry for my poor English. This initiative of iTunes is pure BS indeed. Are you aware of a new music service based in France named QOBUZ.com ? They are providing everything lossless including the 4 majors, all repertoires, a large range of High Resolution 96, 192/24 and what is really incredible, a Lossless Quality subscription ! Interesting to see how a music driven company can make much better things than a tech and commercial driven company like iTunes.  G.M.

Posted by Robert Archer  on  02/28  at  12:01 PM

Marc, I will be addressing that story shortly, but you are correct. Apple and Owsinski’s points is something mastering engineers tell clients all the time: do not compress your music mixes before sending them to a mastering engineer.

The point I was trying to make in the story was that Ian found that Mastered for iTunes doesn’t perform any differently than a standard AAC encoded file, and that if Apple wants to offer something that is sonically better than it needs to offer something that equals CD’s 16-bit/44k standard or something better such as 24/96 files.

Posted by Steve Silberman  on  02/28  at  12:17 PM

Hi Georges-

Thank you for turning us on to QOBUZ.com . I just spent a few moments over there and I’ve already loaded 5 albums into a queue to be purchased this evening. Most interesting is the fact I can get mainstream music rather than just obscure audiophile albums.

Regards,

Steve Silberman
AudioQuest

Posted by Goober Natorial  on  02/28  at  01:04 PM

This operates on many false assumptions:

AAC Plus is NOT lossless, nor is it marketed as such.  There is Apple Lossless codec, but that’s something different.

Mastered for iTunes doesn’t claim that it sounds exactly like the CD.  It claims that it sounds closer to the original MASTER.  Keep in mind, CDs are downsampled from the original masters in most cases, so the CD does not represent the original master.  Mastered for iTunes strives to be closer to the original source, not the compressed stamped-into-plastic CD.

The article uses compression of two types as if they were the same thing.  “Compression” in regards to the Sound Check feature is an audio mastering technique whereby all the various sounds are adjusted to be about the same volume overall.  This is what Sound Check does, basically.  Most pop music is compressed in this way.  This type of compression is NOT THE SAME as “compressing” a file to AAC.

So, neither the article nor the sound engineer quoted therein seems to know what they are talking about.

Posted by Dah Finstah  on  02/28  at  01:20 PM

Reading Apple’s “white paper” on Mastering For iTunes, it’s clear, contrary to Ian Shepherd’s statement, that they’re not aiming for CD sound. In fact, it goes on to say that using either original CDs, particularly older ones, or even older masters will deliver sound *inferior* to what is currently capable with a high-rez re-mix and iTunes Plus conversion. Whether true or not, they claim that they can achieve sonic parity, if not superiority, if the letter is followed prior to submitting to Apple for AAC+ conversion. Of course, that falls apart when he compares, using the null test, a MFiT file with a “standard” AAC encoding (presumably of the CD) and they match. (Since Apple claim to be sonically different from a CD, we can’t expect an MFiT AAC and the CD to match, can we?) I, for one, am in favor of higher-rez recordings, whether obtained via DL or purchased on physical media (and NOT using “mathematically-lossless” encoders - I’ve yet to try the null test [I will], but a simple listening test of an AIFF “rip"of a CD versus the same tune in Apple Lossless Codec reveals the former to be sonically superior.)

Posted by martin  on  02/28  at  03:38 PM

I avoided itunes because of the lossy nature of its music files.

I convert my CDs to .flac, so they are smaller than the original files but don’t lose any quality.  That way that can be on my phone with ease.

No mp3s here.

Posted by Rex  on  02/28  at  04:02 PM

Apple deserve drubbing in the media, however well intentioned their marketing strategy for tiered-quality iTunes.  Substantially unsupported by protocols and test suites MFiT channels consumers down the proper sonic PayPipe.

Technically, Swing and a miss AAPL

Posted by Ian Shepherd  on  02/29  at  02:32 AM

People have misunderstood what I’m saying in the video. Apple didn’t claim that the RHCP master sounds “closer to the CD”, but the engineers who worked on it did.

I’ve added quotes and links explaining this to the blog post where this video is embedded.

There’s no confusion about the two types of compression, theybare different but one affects the other.

Dynamic range compression DOES have an impact on the quality of lossy encodes like AAC. More heavily dynamically compressed material is harder to make a good lossy encode from, as Apple’s own guidelines explain.

Posted by Tom Coffin VP of Business Development at SRS  on  02/29  at  07:27 AM

Well I was all set to blister here and point out that Apple is NOT trying to give us CD sound it is trying to give us what the master sounds like.  CD’s in general are not great.  They weren’t meant to be.  They were meant to be average so everyone could get some decent sound.

Anyway, we are in the midst of recording our 2nd CD (TIME) shamelss plug, you can get the first one on CD Baby by searching TimeCleveland.

That disc was way too compressed for my tastes.  The new one we are going to experiment with some of the techniques sited in Master for iTunes white paper.

For what it’s worth…

Posted by scolburn  on  02/29  at  11:35 AM

Here is Apple’s actual claim for Mastered for iTunes as shown in their Technology Brief (White Paper) at http://images.apple.com/itunes/mastered-for-itunes/docs/mastered_for_itunes.pdf

“If you follow the guidelines outlined in this document and audition sample AAC encodes on Apple devices, you can achieve dynamic range that’s superior to red book audio and a final product that’s virtually indistinguishable from the original recording.”

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