By the Mayan calendar, 2012 was supposed to have been apocalyptic. By the measurement of music mastering engineers, however, it was instead a turning point in the history of how good iTunes music can sound. That’s because file-based music and iTunes in particular now have the tools needed to make AAC mp4s and other compressed file formats sound far better than they have in the past.
“This year it’s different, this year it all changed,” exclaims Eric Boulanger, a mastering engineer and manager at the The Mastering Lab, a Los Angeles studio facility where records receive their final polish before distribution. The facility, where artists including the Eagles, the Rolling Stones, Al Jarreau, James Taylor, Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett have had their sounds perfected by mastering legend Doug Sax and his staff, was the first to employ Mastered for iTunes, the software toolkit released earlier this year by Apple and developed with significant input from mastering engineers affiliated with The Recording Academy’s Producers & Engineers Wing.
“There’s been a movement towards this for some time now,” Boulanger continues. “The market has been demanding higher-quality sound. You see it in the resurgence of vinyl: vinyl records are being bought by teenagers who, other than maybe a few times in their lives when they’ve listened to a CD, have spent their entire lives experiencing music through mp3 files and earbuds. When they hear what music can sound like on actual records played through speakers, they say, ‘We want that!’”
And that’s what everyone will soon have access to, thanks to new tools that let mastering and other audio engineers approach file-based music formats as their own entities, instead of simply taking the 44.1 kHz/16-bit .wav files that are the basis for Compact Discs and jamming those larger files into the confines of a 128-kb/sec or 256-kb/sec file. Andy VanDette, chief engineer at New York’s Masterdisk who has mastered records for artists including Rush and the Beastie Boys, says attention began being paid to the mastering of music files when artists began to complain about how their recordings sounded on iTunes. “It took a long time for the market to pay attention to how file formats affect sound quality,” he says. “But then artists began to tell us, ‘This doesn’t sound like my music anymore,’ when they heard it on iTunes.”
According to Boulanger, Apple’s own engineers had been looking into the issue of how data compression affects music for a couple of years. However, computer engineers understandably would look at a challenge from a coding point of view, not necessarily from an artistic perspective. When they began to collaborate in earnest with members of the P&E Wing, progress accelerated. It reached a turning point in January 2011, when Colbie Caillat’s producer (and father) Ken Caillat met with iTunes executives to discuss how to improve the sound of Colbie’s music when it was distributed through the iTunes store. Ken Caillat referred Apple’s people to Boulanger, who conveyed to them his concern that since the iTunes’ encoding process to the AAC file format took place after the mastering stage was completed, the esthetic intentions of the artists and engineers for the music could be distorted by the additional data processing. He suggested that if Apple could make that encoding process more transparent, and offer access to it to mastering engineers before it was delivered for AAC encoding, music could better accommodate the process. The ultimate goal, Boulanger says, was to establish iTunes as a primary format for mastering purposes, on a par with the CD and vinyl, rather than as an afterthought.
From that larger collaboration Apple created Mastered For iTunes, a software kit that lets artists and engineers preview how their tracks will sound once they are encoded for iTunes, allowing them the opportunity to make informed decisions regarding levels and how hard to hit the AAC encoder, thus adapting the music for the medium ahead of the iTunes encoding process. Mastered For iTunes also standardizes certain protocols suggested by mastering engineers, such as delivering masters at 24-bit resolution.
A combination of new tools and a heightened awareness of what’s necessary to make music sound good on files is opening a new chapter in music production. The dialog opened around the mastering of Colbie Caillat’s LP All Of You led directly to the creation of a toolkit from Apple now downloadable by anyone who wants to optimize their music for iTunes distribution. It reflects insights offered by collaborating engineers, resulting in tools such as AFClip, which allows engineers to measure whether or not a high-level master will clip the encode and decode stages of AAC, causing distortion.
Apple’s cooperation was critical -- in the second quarter of 2012, by Apple’s own estimate, iTunes accounted for 64 percent of the entire digital music market and 29 percent of all music sold at retail (including both digital and physical formats). And the company, often known for its diffidence to outside collaboration, cooperated by making its ALAC (Lossless) encoding process transparent. It has not only embraced the quest to improve the overall sonic quality of file-based music but has included in the on-line toolkit, AU Lab, a free digital audio application that can be used to perform key quality-enhancement tasks such as detecting peaks and clipping, and performing double-blind listening tests. This injects optimization for file-based distribution further up the music production chain and, combined with Mastered For iTunes, will take sound quality even further.
“Apple is huge in music, so when Apple changes, the entire industry changes,” says Boulanger. What consumers can expect as Mastered For iTunes becomes more ubiquitous is a big change, too -- a change for the better.
By Mark Waldrep
As a musician, audio engineer, producer of high-resolution recordings, audiophile, blogger (www.realHD-Audio.com) and professor of audio recording, my life has been dominated by music and sound for a very long time. I’ve been working in the field for more than 40 years and have experience with a wide variety of formats including analog tape, vinyl LPs, cassettes, CDs, minidisc, DVD-A/V, Blu-ray and soundfiles…as an engineer AND consumer.
Sound recording has been around for more than 100 years. During that period, the fidelity of each succeeding format has improved. From the first Edison cylinders and Emil Berliner’s flat discs to today’s high-resolution formats, music consumers have benefited from the inevitable march of technology. With the possible exception of the MP3 format, listening to recorded music has never been better than it is today…and you don’t have to be a well-heeled audiophile to appreciate it.
Creating and distributing quality recorded sound is a collaborative effort involving a variety of talented individuals and state-of-the-art technologies. The fidelity potential of today’s equipment and processes is far greater than at any time in the past…but only if producers and engineers make conscious choices to deliver recordings full of dynamics, extended frequency response and maybe even surround mixes. Believe me you’ll know quality sound when you hear it (there are free downloadable samples from my own AIX Records catalog at the realHD-Audio.com site).
Consumer demand for high quality sound is only beginning. Younger listeners are transitioning from ear buds and to better quality personal headphone listening. They’re finding that the richness and increased fidelity makes the investment in better gear worthwhile. The personalization of music also means that older listeners can get refreshed versions of their “classic” favorites in high-resolution for delivery through a new generation of better sounding devices…for the home, in their cars and from the pocket.
Quality sound brings you closer to the music regardless of the type of music that you enjoy. If things sound more natural and lifelike, you’ll want to listen more and won’t experience the sonic fatigue that sometimes accompanies over processed, heavily compressed music playback.
Better quality sound is out there. There’s new gear on which to enjoy it and lots of music content…both classic and new…to spin, download or stream. Check it out and pass it on.
By Mark Waldrep
I love listening to music. The magic way that a great song or composition can excite and connect with both your emotional and intellectual self is something that I believe is unique to music. That's why I learned to play the guitar when I was a teenager and why I continued my studies in an academic setting years later (I ended up with a Ph.D. in composition from UCLA). I wanted; no I had to somehow be part of this incredible art form. After moving from the Midwest to Los Angeles and discovering that I wasn't the only one dreaming about a career in front of a microphone, I turned away from the performing and writing side of music and became a recording engineer and producer. I've been doing it for over 30 years now.
During my career, I've recorded and released recordings made on a variety of formats. I started with analog tape, purchased one a couple of the first Digital Audio Workstations (Sound Tools AND Sonic Solutions) back in 1989 and currently own and operate a state-of-the-art HD-Audio studio near Santa Monica. I also started a music label 12 years ago. When we first started, I released my tracks on DVD-Audio/Video discs. These days, my specialty label produces and releases new "high definition" audio recordings on Blu-ray discs, which is a great format for movies but is also capable of reproducing music in high definition. We also make them available through high-end digital download sites.
And we've garnered a pretty loyal following of audiophiles that seem to appreciate the unique "sound" of our tracks in both stereo and fully immersive 5.1 surround. It's feels pretty nice to get 5 star reviews or have a customer write the words "Holy Grail" in reference to one of our productions via email.
But there are a whole variety of labels (large and small), musicians, engineers and producers that produce and issue remarkable recordings that follow a different production trajectory than my own…and they appeal in their own unique ways. If your goal is to produce a "hit" electronic dance track, your sensibilities and production techniques will be tailored to meet that goal. Each "target" category demands its own production path. They are all valid.
I spent part of last weekend at the NAMM show in Anaheim, California. It's an annual event that brings out musicians and audio geeks of all stripes. As I made my way through the crowded halls looking for the latest gadgets in the recording arts, I happened upon Laurence Juber (who has recorded a number of projects with us). He's widely recognized as one of the finest finger style guitarists in the world and a former member of Paul McCartney's band Wings. After he finished performing, we chatted briefly and he told me that he had a new project coming out. He told me that it would be available as a vinyl LP as well as a traditional CD. The session tracks were recorded on a multi-track analog machine AND digitally at 96 kHZ/24-bits. He wanted to know if I would be interested in releasing the HD-Audio files through my digital download site. He went on that the 176.4/24-bit transfer of the mixed and mastered analog version "sounded the best" to him. I'm not sure that I would agree. The project that we did over ten years ago has become a "recorded guitar reference disc" for its dynamic range and extended frequency response. And I didn't do any mastering on it at all.
His assessment could have been the start of a passionate argument over recording formats. There are a lot of forum and FB discussions over vinyl vs. analog tape vs. CDs vs. DVD-Audio vs. SACD vs. Blu-ray or HD soundfiles. I've had these discussions and they never end well. Music software and hardware bring forth some of the most passionate arguments this side of politics and religion. When the plain fact is that everyone is entitled to enjoy music on whatever format works for him or her.
Just today I was reading a piece about a couple of producers that are using a 1940's era 78 rpm lacquer recording device to capture the soundtrack to their movie. Others are entranced by the "warmth of analog" while others appreciate the sonics of analog tape (yes, there are many reel to reel machines still in operation and individuals dedicated to playing quarter in analog tape). For me it's about the hyper realistic, purist sound of a voice or instrument delivered without the heavy processing that is part of most productions and in full surround. They are all "flavors" of sound to be enjoyed on their own merits. Some may measure better than others but the end result is the connection that a listener feels.
After a lifetime of seeing formats that deliver better and better levels of fidelity, we've actually entered an era when consumers have a choice between heavily compressed MP3 soundfiles for their portable devices (less than ideal fidelity) and ultra high end, surround music that is played at home or in high end car system. They're all flavors to be tasted and enjoyed. However, even lowly MP3 files can be infused with more fidelity and dynamic range.
The variety of formats available to music lovers is wider than it has ever been. You owe it to yourself to audition as many different "sound flavors" as possible. Who knows you might find a new "sonic food" that moves you in way you've never experienced before. I know that's what happened to me when I started producing and listening to new high definition, surround music tracks.