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Mastered for iTunes: What the hell does that mean?

Edit: They didn’t do much to announce the details, but after reading this PDF from Apple, it starts to make more sense… rendering my previous post useless to an extent.

In a nutshell, audio used to be created/finalized at 44.1khz bit depth because that was the standard for CDs. Now that CDs are going bye bye, iTunes is releasing files with a higher bit depth because a) they can, when you’re just purchasing and downloading digital AAC file directly to your computer, and b) higher sampling rate = more accurate sound reproduction.

Well I’ll be damned. It has a purpose!

I still stand by my previous point, however, that it’s mostly a marketing ploy. Yes, technically the process allows for higher quality audio… but 99% of your iTunes shoppers won’t know the difference by listening. I’ve done a bit of audio work in my day, and I can’t hear a difference. When “iTunes Plus” started offering songs at 256kbps AAC instead of 128kbps, I could notice that upgrade. But modern recordings are so slick and compressed now that any subtle advantages that this “mastered for iTunes” might offer are lost on my ears.

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I’ve seen this pop up lately around a few notable releases on iTunes: the phrase “mastered for iTunes”.

At first I thought it was like one of those “iTunes Essentials” things, or whatever… or even a live session. But no, it just seems to be a phrase added to the band’s logo on the iTunes store.

So what the hell? I played some of the tracks… they sound the same to my ear, quality-wise (and I even have a modest set of studio monitors at home that I was listening through).

Giving you some background, I’m not exactly an audio slouch. I’ve many-a-time been the guy complaining because 192kbps mp3s weren’t cutting it for me, especially in the higher frequencies, and I’ve also been the guy explaining to everyone that 192kbps AAC is far superior compression to 192kbps mp3.

Maybe they’re referring to the type of compression used? Thinking about this “mastered for iTunes” phrase harder now, I ruled out compression because I don’t at all consider it part of the mastering process. It’s just a format for delivery really.

So… what the hell?

Ah, I got it! it must be a bit-depth thing. CDs can only deliver in 16-bit sound quality, even though many studios process audio in 24-bit. Therefore, since we’re skipping the CD medium and going straight to a digital file on iTunes, then we should be able to just deliver the higher-quality 24-bit audio… right?

Oakland producer Don Reynolds, a friend of mine, steps in and says “…the bit depth is the same as far as I know …to me, it’s a bunch of BS. Thriller sounds great no matter where you play it.”

So, ok… it’s not the bit-depth.

What the hell?

Is it the other definition of compression? You know, as in compressing the waveform to minimize dynamics and pump that volume up against 0db as much as you can?

Actually, it very well could be.

The first-ever “mastered for iTunes” album was I’m With You, the newest release by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. This was also a Rick Rubin production, and if you know anything about Rick and his team: they seem to be hellbent on winning the “loudness wars” when it comes to audio production. This is very evident on Metallica’s Death Magnetic as I mentioned in a previous article.

Recent years has produced this weird crave for compressing music so it’s default playing volume is as loud as possible. Why? Because they want the sound to be so in-your-face (like radio) that you can’t ever lose interest. Softer parts to songs are now just as loud as the choruses.

In other words, the music industry seems to think that louder is better. Not for sound quality, but for marketing and keeping the listener’s attention (heaven forbid someone write a good song to keep our attention). This is roughly the equivalent to snapping your fingers or clapping your hands to get a baby’s attention. Constantly. For three and a half minutes.

Given all that information, it’s plenty possible that the whole “mastered for iTunes” phrase simply means that it’s loud as fuck. Listening to current releases by th Chili Peppers, Metallica, and Coldplay all reaffirm that theory.

Bottom line: it’s a bunch of marketing bullshit. Just buy your music… and actually, I might skip the whole “mastered for iTunes” versions if you want some actual dynamics in what you’re listening to.

– Clay Lancaster (www.claylancaster.com)

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4 replies »

  1. You stated, “…it’s plenty possible that the whole “mastered for iTunes” phrase simply means that it’s loud as fuck.”

    Not at all. It’s all about creating iTunes tracks from high resolution, high bit-depth masters. I suggest you read Apple’s “Mastered for iTunes” PDF available at Apple’s website at /itunes/mastered-for-itunes/