The Mastered for iTunes Review

Last week, I was intrigued to read about the new “Mastered for iTunes” albums that are now appearing in the online store:

Enhanced Audio on iTunes: This week, Apple quietly introduced a new section of its iTunes store called Mastered for iTunes, with albums whose sound has been adjusted by engineers “for higher fidelity sound on your computer, stereo and all Apple devices.” Mastering, the fine tuning at the end of the recording process, has long been tailored to specific audio formats, and Apple’s changes come after years of complaints by musicians, including Neil Young, that sound quality suffers from the compression used by digital services to reduce a file’s size.

I was delighted to see so many Jazz albums available for purchase with this new Mastered for iTunes engineering.  Diana Krall and John Coltrane are currently over-represented, but I expect that to change over time.

Of course, the only way to experience the improved sound, was to pony up some dough to buy a sampling of Mastered for iTunes Jazz albums — and so I did!  I spent around $50.00USD on five new “Mastered for iTunes” albums.

The first album I purchased was the new Diana Krall effort — Quiet Nights — released on February 21, 2012 and published by Verve.  Diana, if you don’t know, is Mrs. Elvis Costello.  I usually like Ms. Krall’s Jazz work, but I do not like the new album.  She’s whispering the songs.  Her voice is thin and raspy.  Her range is limited.  There’s no belt in her voice when songs call for that emotional high.  She sounds tired.  The quality of the recording also surprised me because there is a perpetual hiss on the entire album that is disturbing to the ears.  The “high fidelity” of the Mastered for iTunes songs is such that you can hear intimate drumstick clicks and fingernail clacks on the tracks, but there is no depth of performance volume that gives you a sense of presence and place in a quiet room.

Next up, I download the “Live EP” version of my previously purchased Goat Rodeo sessions.  I expected to hear some amazing Yo-Yo Ma “insider sounds” like breathing and fingers plucking, but I did not.  There was some sort of raspy background noise that created a sense of being in a cavernous room and not in an intimate strings setting.

The biggest surprise was the Mastered for iTunes reissue of — Ella and Louis — originally released on Verve in 1956.  This curious match of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong is competitive and bizarre — and I entirely loved the effort.  The music is fantastic.  The songs are timeless.  It seems clear that Ella and Louis did not like each other much because they’re both used to being the center of attention on a song.  Can an album have two soloists on each song?  No, but yes!  You have to hear the awkward tension to believe it!  There is also ZERO HISS on this album.  The albums sounds as if they’re performing directly in your ear canal.  What a gift of musical history!

Charles Mingus’ — The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady — is a musical milestone, but the “Mastered for iTunes” engineering doesn’t add any depth of story or brightness of sound.  It plays like every other iTunes download.  What a disappointment.

Finally, Freddie Hubbard’s germinal album — The Artistry of Freddie Hubbard — is another fine jazz album, but I couldn’t hear anything special whatsoever in the Mastered for iTunes version compared to every other version I have of the album.

I don’t know if Mastered for iTunes is so new that recording engineers haven’t quite figured out how to make every album sound like — Ella and Louis — but I found the experience is a bit of a crapshoot right now and the gambling on the improved sound is bet with your house money.  I listened to all the albums on my computer with speakers and with headphones and with headphones on my iPhone 4S. I say stay away from the Mastered for iTunes catalog for awhile unless and until you are able to absolutely verify that your money spent will be worth the extra return your ears demand in that expected aesthetic covenant.