HIGH-RESOLUTION AUDIO: MUSIC DOWNLOADS THAT GET BACK TO GREAT SOUND
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.
HI RESOLUTION AUDIO TAKES THE STAGE AT CES
By Marc Finer
Hi Resolution Audio Takes The Stage at CES
Hot topics at the 2014 International Consumer Electronics show, held in Las Vegas January 6-9 for 150,000 attendees, included everything from Ultra Hi Definition TV and smart watches to 3D printing and driverless cars.
In the midst of all of this, another initiative was unveiled that created particular excitement among music enthusiasts. Generally referred to as High Resolution Audio (HRA), it raises a number of implications about the future of music, audio devices and digital delivery.
HRA arrives more than a decade after the launch of the first MP3 music players and download services. While MP3s were a convenient way to carry a thousand songs in your pocket, that benefit came at the expense of sound quality, resulting in an entire generation of music enthusiasts who have never had the opportunity to experience music in full fidelity.
So do consumers still care about sound quality? Well, according to a recent study by the Consumer Electronics Association, nearly ninety percent of those surveyed cited sound quality as the most important criteria when it comes to their listening enjoyment. Moreover, sixty percent are willing to pay more for better sound, provided they don’t have to sacrifice convenience.
High res audio recordings have actually been available for a decade in formats like DVD-Audio and SACD. But in today’s world of downloading and streaming, millions of people don’t use physical media to meet their entertainment needs, and until recently, digital delivery systems and home networks lacked the bandwidth and storage capacity necessary to make HRA a reality.
All of this has dramatically changed, thanks to a variety of new HRA products entering the market. During CES alone, nearly 50 manufacturers displayed a wide range of HRA capable devices, from headphone amplifiers and USB drives that connect directly with your computer, to shelf top systems that come complete with amplifier and speakers. There were also HRA enabled Blu-ray players and home theater systems, along with enough digital to analog converters (DACs) and servers to delight any audiophile.
These new products are more compatible, convenient, and compelling than before and offer outstanding sound and value for consumers. Most of these devices can automatically play virtually every available hi-res audio format. They also support WAV and FLAC files as well as, along with low resolution codecs like MP3 and Apple Lossless.
These products simplify the way you transfer files to your entertainment system. Plus, their controls have been designed to be more intuitive, making it easier to access, organize and store your music collection. Many models also utilize metadata to deliver a wealth of supplemental information about the artist and the recording. And they incorporate the latest, most advanced USB and Wi-Fi technology, for greater speed and efficiency.
Best of all, there are thousands of high res music recordings now offered by major music companies and independent labels. Titles span every category and genre and are readily available from digital retail stores such as HD Tracks.
Within The Recording Academy Producers & Engineers Wing, leading producers and engineers are fully engaged in hi-res audio. This will enable digital enthusiasts to get closer to their favorite music and experience it the way the artist originally intended.
It all adds up to the incredible HRA experience that was dramatically on display during CES. But for high resolution audio, this is only the beginning. There’s much more to come!