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.

10 comments

  • Out of curiousity — what kind of headphones? Too bad that it wasn’t worth the money for you, David.

    • I tried a bunch of headphones. I have my Sony MDR-V6. Sennheiser HD202. Standard iPhone 4S earbuds. A Jawbone Era. Another high-power in-ear suction earbuds for my iPhone that the brand rubbed off…

      • Wow. I generally only have one pair of earbuds at a time and keep them up until they break which sadly is more often than not. At the moment I am using a set of Altec earbuds that I got from Woot.com for something like five dollars for two pairs. They sound way better than the ones I got from Duane Reade for $10!

  • Big budget mastering, done tastefully, should never intend to add brightness, affect the sound of the room where the performance occurs, or “add anything special”. Those decisions are reserved for the artistic realm and cemented in the mixing process. However, the process of mastering for the challenges of specific formats often affects one or more of those variables. Mastering is the technical process of readying that final mix for the intended format. For vinyl, loud enough to compete with hiss, but soft enough to not jump the needle. Restrain the extreme low end that sounds great in the studio, but will cause poor performance on a boom box. I came upon your blog looking for some analysis of the new collection by someone familiar with mastering but still found your take as a music enthusiast interesting. Apple has a technical article on their website describing their goals for this new process, which is mainly an effort to preserve more of the digital master once translated to the compressed (file size) iTunes format. I doubt anyone went back into the booth for extensive EQ and dynamic compression adjustments, if any at all, for these releases. A better comparison would be between an existing digital file and the new one, trying to identify an improvement in clipping, distortion, or other artifacts sometimes introduced when an audio file is made smaller for download. Ironically these details are less apparent on lower end and portable equipment most likely to employed when listening to an iPod.

    • I understand your technical points, but I wasn’t arguing adding something that wasn’t there to begin with and there’s a link to the Apple tech PDF in my review.

      An iTunes Plus song can give you a sense of the space that was using during a recording; dead, if it’s in studio like mainstream Pop songs, and what I call “presence” — and that includes brightness and the special extras I mention in the review — especially if it’s a live recording on site or with wild mics in the studio where you get the ambience of the room.

      A hallmark of a good Jazz album is “capturing the room” and the breathing and the whacking of fingernails on strings or cufflinks against a pickguard — in addition to providing a sense of place and the temperature of the audience in a live recorded venu in situ. You feel as if you’re there in the room with the performer. I don’t get any of that sound with these Mastered for iTunes albums. All I get is a deadness of sound and an odd background hiss that doesn’t belong in the original recording.

      I chose Mastered for iTunes Jazz albums that I knew would or should have that extra sense of “Live Performance Jazz Space and Time” that iTunes Plus captures so well — and I found that uncanny valley missing in the Mastered for iTunes engineering. Mastered for iTunes songs sound a bit better, “closer” if you will, on an iPhone than a computer with external speakers, and I find that a curious, if sad, compromise for the mobile mentality as the room disappears.

      Perhaps Apple’s plans for “Adaptive Streaming” that I read about today will address Mastered for iTunes misses in sound reproduction when it comes to playing device and speaker delivery:

      http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2012/feb/28/apple-audio-file-adaptive-streaming

      Apple must feel Mastered for iTunes is the proper, if not superior, file format for these songs — or they wouldn’t be pushing it so hard in the iTunes marketplace. Why would they press a less robust sound on their loyal audiophiles?

      • I understand. I think the only way to determine if Apple has met their goal would be to A/B a few 24/192 files with the Mastered for iTunes counterparts on a high end system. Even if there is still a way to go, having the content owners submit the higher resolution files for archiving with iTunes will ensure that if future technology/bandwidth is required to meet the goal, the content will be available to take advantage when it is ready. My opinion is that 24/192 is in no way inferior to any analog format, so hopefully we’ll eventually have more of our favorite recordings in a ‘definitive’ format. It’s so exhausting chasing these tiny improvements every few years! Although it is sort of fun :-)

        • I agree this process is exhausting, but totally delightful to explore. I especially love the iTunes Exclusive live performances. They really capture the spirit of the performer in relation to the song — plus they really sound great.

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