Digital Entertainment

Making Music Sound Better on iTunes


Andy VanDette's studio at Masterdisk

Courtesy Masterdisk Studios

Andy VanDette's studio at Masterdisk

There are many people who say Apple saved the recording industry with the iTunes Music Store, the first successful digital music retailer. Audiophiles strongly disagree. They lament that by championing tightly compressed 128 kbps (kilobits per second) song files, Apple (AAPL) popularized a low-fi format that is vastly inferior to CDs, to say nothing of traditional vinyl LPs. Now Apple arguably is making amends by promoting albums under the banner of “Mastered for iTunes,” which have been sonically upgraded by recording engineers. Andy VanDette, chief mastering engineer for Masterdisk in New York, recently remastered 15 Rush albums for iTunes. He talked to Bloomberg Businessweek’s Devin Leonard about the process and how Mastered for iTunes could change the recording industry.

Explain what Mastered for iTunes is all about and why it matters?

It’s the natural progression of what mastering has become. When I started 26 years ago, we were in the middle of the vinyl heyday. Everything was maximized for the vinyl medium. Of course, some clients would take that and try to put it on a cassette, and it wouldn’t work on a cassette. So then we ended up mastering a special version for the cassette. Then CDs came along. The first CDs were heavily criticized. Mainly, they were just digital transfers done while we were cutting vinyl. Then CDs gained momentum. People started listening to them and said: “What is this? This doesn’t sound like the music. I’m not getting that emotion, that feeling that I want.” Then the shift became mastering for CDs. It’s been that way for some 15, 20 years. Now that no one’s buying CDs, it’s only natural that mastering would start trying to maximize for the limitations of the new format—AAC (advanced audio coding, a lossy compression format).

Why now? MP3s have been around for more than a decade and a half.

Personally, I kind of ignored MP3s, AACs as long as possible. We’re all audio snobs here. So we were hoping the next progression of audio would be something high resolution. The kids reached out and embraced something lower resolution. For a long time, I tended to say: “They’re just going to take my CD master. They’re going to rip it, and they’re going to sell it. And however it sounds is however it sounds.”

What changed?

It’s really the outcry of our clients saying: “That doesn’t sound like the CDs” or “That doesn’t sound like my music. I need you to enhance it in a different way so that my listeners can get that feeling that I want to project.”

So how do you do that?

Bad digital has a sound to it. The vocal gets kind of cold. The stereo image can become more narrow. The bottom can sound boxy and two-dimensional. Is there any of that that I can make up for? Sometimes you can’t. You threw out 70 percent of the data [in the compression process]. There is going to be a difference in the sound. But if the vocal got more edgy, I can do something about that. If the bottom isn’t as punchy and I’m not feeling the impact, I can do something about that. If the AAC encoder turned the level down, I can do something about that. The things that I can make up for, I make up for. The things that I can’t, I’ll try to minimize. There is a whole different perspective about mastering for iTunes. That’s making it something different than the CD. That can involve adding more bottom because earbuds are so deplorable. So are laptop speakers.

You recently remastered 15 Rush albums. What was that process like?

I grew up in Buffalo, so I grew up listening to a lot of Rush. So it was really cool to have the opportunity to go back through that catalogue and say: “Wow, yeah, you know, I think that could be better,” or that, “This sounds great. Let’s just, you know, give it a nice transfer and let it rock.” The process that I went through was very much comparing it to the CD. I had the CD locked in time to the AAC, switching back and forth. What do you notice that’s different? On a live album, I noticed that the lead vocal on the CD was already on the verge of being a little too low. And on the AAC version, it was kind of disappearing. So adding some equalization in the center brought that out more. I see it as everything is going to end up being Mastered for iTunes because it is the format of choice.

Why?

Well, everything now is 256 kbps. So if everything is 256, doesn’t the big question become: Do you want your mastering engineer to listen to the AAC or do you not want him to? Do you want him to listen to the rip and say: “Yeah, I do hear a miniscule difference in the vocal. Why wouldn’t I make a change for that?” Or do you want to stop mastering for CDs entirely? And basically Mastered for iTunes is what ends up on a CD. They’re forecasting the CDs are going to go away. If the market for CDs is that miniscule, why wouldn’t you put your mastering budget into something for the dominating format?

Is there anything that anybody’s done that made you think this is, “Yeah, that’s the one?”

The definitive Mastered for iTunes track?

Yeah.

I don’t think you’re ever going to get that. I think audiophiles are always going to say: “Why isn’t everything released 96K full bandwidth, 24-bit? Why isn’t that more available or more popular?” And there are niche sites like HDtracks.com, where people who really care about audio will go. But they are the people who care about audio. At the same time, it is pretty cool to be able to carry your entire record collection around in your pocket. We can only hope that people at some point will embrace something that sounds a little better, whether it’s the Apple lossless, FLAC [free lossless audio codec] files, something that doesn’t throw away quite so much data.

So then ideally who’s this for?

I’d say right now it’s for the masses because iTunes is king.

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Leonard is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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