A sound engineering shift in the digital age

Mastered for iTunes

Culture : Entertainment By Photo by Apple VIA

Like Harold Camping on the subject of Judgement Day, audiophiles are notorious for predicting the death of high quality audio at the hands of the digital music revolution. We certainly think today’s emphasis on MP3s has put a dent in the quest for high fidelity, but initiatives like Apple’s Mastered for iTunes series do give us hope that a focus on quality will return.

Studio recording is typically done in a digital 24-bit 96kHz format. Most of the music that makes its way to consumers is then converted for particular sources. For instance, CD audio is released in 16-bit 44.1kHz quality, which sound engineers then adjust to mimic the original source material as best they can. The current higher-quality iTunes Plus albums are typically created, however, by downsampling and compressing the mastered versions of songs optimized for CDs — which means there’s a level of distortion created from the compression process.

The Mastered for iTunes initiative addresses this issue, by partnering with sound engineers to tweak iTunes Plus audio files in order to compensate for the losses introduced by the iTunes AAC algorithm. Unfortunately, the process is still a bit of a black box, since Apple’s algorithm affects tracks in unpredictable ways, making it rather tedious for engineers. That’s why the selection for this content is still quite limited compared to Apple’s total catalog. Their efforts definitely translate into a better listening experience, though, on your computer and iPod, so if you haven’t seen this label pop up in your iTunes browsing already, it’s worth seeking out if you want the best possible sound from your compressed audio library.

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