Friday, February 24, 2012

You're Not Finished Buying Your Favorite Music Again! Apple Introduces, Mastered For iTunes....

Being a Tech Consultant in Music City the past seventeen years has given me a front row seat on the titanic interaction of technology and music. Two industries facing complex issues, vast wealth, and perhaps most universally the past two decades, constant change. Virtually all aspects of technology today are unrecognizable from fifteen years ago and while there are still plenty of classic songs from the mid-twentieth century playing on the radio, the details of music creation, distribution, and publishing have been heavily influenced-- some would argue for better, others passionately disagree!-- by the winds of technology. Creative artists, engineers, publishers, and others in the techno/music universe, are often divided as to the merits of "the next new thing" and I suspect this new Apple initiative will be no different.

One of many consequences of these tidal forces for consumers is the "opportunity" to acquire, and in many cases re-acquire, songs in new formats every few years. Musicians, audiophiles, players throughout the music creation and distribution process, argue (at times with extreme passion) over the relative merits of  various music distribution formats. One global generalization I can affirm, talented musicians, sound engineers, and afficiandos, lament the loss of range, dynamic overtones, and loudness which compression has brought to recorded music since the days, not all that long ago, when "vinyl died."

CDs, followed by the birth of the iPod and subsequent distribution of music through iTunes and other digital distributors, has caused most music sold today to be compressed, in varying degrees, from the audio masters from which they were born. Along the way, 8 tracks (remember those!?) and cassettes helped prepare us for the sub-optimal listening experience of MP3s (and all the related compression formats of the past fifteen years). (Interestingly, there is a resurgence in interest in vinyl recordings today. I lament the loss of my vinyl collection; a casualty of my one and only renter in my life who skipped  out on her rent obligations and stole my decades old LP collection while fleeing town.)
Link To Non Remastered CD

This relentless march of progress, or at least convenience, has many long time music lovers, including yours truly, repeatedly buying classics again and again through the decades. (At last count, I think Sweet Baby James has gotten ten royalty payments from me for "Fire and Rain" alone!) Vinyl (a couple of times, college frat parties were very hard on LPs!, 8 tracks, cassettes, CDs, compilation albums, you get the idea).

In 2012, hard drive space is almost as cheap as water. Many people own one, two, or even three terabyte drives allowing for storing an almost unlimited number of songs in lossless, uncompressed, format, for the cost of one relatively nice dinner out for two. (You can store around 2,600 ALBUMS in a lossless format on a one terabyte hard drive costing less than $150 today. That's over 30,000 individual songs!) Oh yes, over the past twenty years,  Apple has gone from a niche computer manufacturer with lackluster financials, to one of the two or three most valuable companies in the WORLD and also the biggest distributor of music on the planet. Times change.....

Recently, Apple has formally requested that music submitted to the iTunes Store be made available in a higher standard. Essentially, Apple is asking that songs be delivered in 24 bit/96 khz  format. If you swing by the iTunes Store you will find a new section entitled, "Mastered For iTunes." There is a limited range of material currently available, but I am sure the selection will grow in coming weeks.

It is important that you understand that this "new standard" is still not lossless! Without delving into technical specifications which are likely to bore most of the readers of this blog, these new masters should sound superior to today's 256 kpbs files users of Apple's new iCloud Music Match platform (and others) enjoy. (The Match service provides you with this compression even if your local copy of the same song file is encoded in a lower quality format.) Apple's newest standard still falls short of the CD quality, "lossless format," available today.

If  you are a publisher, or musician, interested in finding out more, or learning technical details as to how to create these newer, higher fidelity, files. Apple has provided several links and free authoring tools intended to make the process relatively easy.

Personally, this seems like (one more) intermediary step in the march back to CD quality music (which many would argue is still a step behind where we were back in my college days of high quality turntables and vinyl). I think the cost of pushing lossless music through the iCloud is in part driving this incremental change. Still, Apple hasn't been shy about charging a premium for higher quality music files. For perspective, when Apple first opened the iTunes store, songs were sold at 128 kpbs which didn't always sound great but suddenly allowed you to carry your entire music library around on an iPod.

If you are viewing this new release from a purely consumer viewpoint, you may have to ask yourself, "does it  really even matter to me?" Depending on the quality of the hardware you use to playback your audio files, your age, the quality of your hearing, and the environment(s) you listen to music in,  you may not realize any perceptible benefit between a 256 kpbs version in widespread distribution today and this newer format. This is a highly subjective determination which only you can really decide for  yourself. If you have a song or two available in multiple formats, you can answer this question for yourself with a little effort.

For those that in fact hear the loss of fidelity in today's popular compressed MP3 formats (particularly loudness which is a quality of digital music outside the scope of this post), there have been niche online destinations such as HD Tracks offering digital sound files equalling, and at times even exceeding, Apple's new Remaster Standard for some time. Admittedly, these companies have had a limited catalog of offerings, but the ability to distribute and sell higher quality music has been there for some time. One of the primary reasons I have purchased the majority of my digital music through Amazon for the past few years is their commitment to selling higher quality versions of popular music at prices equal or superior to, Apple.

The march is relentless. In music, the path to the "next new thing" is often driven by marketing and expediency. Let's see, Fire and Rain Remastered.... In another year or two,  Fire and Rain (the lossless edition). A decade from now there will likely be a new format unconstrained by today's digital recording limitations which sounds every bit as good as the old LP version.  Now that's progress!

If you are interested in listening or purchasing Apple's New format,here are links to a few titles you may enjoy:

What are your thoughts about a new digital music format? Does the quality of the music file play a role in how and where you purchase music today? I invite you to share in the discussion using the comment link available below.

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