For over 50 years, rock stars, engineers and producers have labored in the studio to find the perfect sound – and in the last decade, they've been wrestling with more limitations than ever, thanks to the way most people consume music in the digital age. Neil Young, for example, has spent months at a time recording, only to realize that music fans listen to the finished product via crappy-sounding compressed files on iPod earbuds. "The MP3 has 5 percent of the data ... what everybody gets is 5 percent of what we originally make in the studio," Young told a tech panel in February. "You can't associate poor quality with convenience."
But sound quality is finally starting to come back in the digital-music age. Fans are taking advantage of high-end headphones and audio equipment containing digital-to-analog converters that lead to richer, fuller sound, even if it's coming from compressed downloads. And the files they download are sounding better and better. "If it can be a fashion statement to say, 'I got this great new set of headphones, listen to how great these sound!' or, 'I got this great new computer speaker,' it's a step in the right direction," says Andrew Mendelson, owner of Georgetown Masters in Nashville, which works on top country albums by artists like Willie Nelson and Kenny Chesney. "It's something consumers are generally paying attention to, and I like to see that."
Another step in Neil Young's direction is Mastered for iTunes, an Apple program that makes new mastering software and guidelines available to recording studios to boost sound quality for the AAC file format. The program officially began in late February, and since then, iTunes has made 300 such recordings available, including Coldplay's Mylo Zyloto, Bruce Springsteen's Wrecking Ball, Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and Nirvana's Nevermind. "Every record will improve because of it. It's great if it's in the hands of mastering engineers, I'll tell you that," says super-producer Don Was, new president of legendary jazz label Blue Note Records, which is reissuing its entire catalog according to Apple's new guidelines. "Mastered for iTunes has tremendous potential for improving the sound of digital files, but it's incumbent on everybody to live up to the potential of it."
Mastered for iTunes unofficially began last year, when producer Rick Rubin was frustrated with his inability to make the Red Hot Chili Peppers' I'm With You sound as dynamic in the AAC format as it did on a CD. Working with Apple, he tinkered with the master recording, landing on a higher-than-usual bit rate – so when he sent it to iTunes for encoding, it sounded considerably better than a typical compressed audio file. "It's much closer to the sound of the CD and it took several weeks of additional experimentation and mastering to reach the final iTunes master," Rubin told MTV News at the time.
Apple declined to do interviews for this story, but Chris Bell, who handles worldwide marketing for iTunes, said in a statement: "Artists and audio engineers have been amazed at the incredibly rich listening experience fans can enjoy when our Mastered for iTunes process is used to its fullest potential."
Mastered for iTunes' key innovation is improving the master recording to a higher resolution than engineers use for standard CDs. Thus, when the files are encoded into Apple's AAC download format, the sound quality is considerably higher. Engineers also lower sound input levels as they create the digital files, and use software such as afconvert and afclip to reduce "clipping," which makes digital recordings sound grungy. "It's all backed with sound science," says Bob Ludwig, president of Gateway Mastering Studios, which used Mastered for iTunes for Carrie Underwood's Blown Away and recent Soundgarden and Nirvana remasters. "It all makes sense and sounds better."
Some critics of Mastered for iTunes suggest it's a waste of time to try to make a compressed file sound more pristine when perfectly good "lossless" formats, such as FLAC and Apple Lossless, exist to essentially reproduce the original CD quality. One engineer said Apple's program was "being used for hype, hot air and BS." But lossless files require far more hard-drive space than MP3 or AAC files, so consumers have been reluctant to switch to the higher-resolution formats. "It's not practical, in my mind, to have a single song that's 200 or 400 megabytes and [expect] people are going to collect these things on portable devices," says Murat Aktar, president of Sterling Sound, a New York company that has remastered thousands of major albums, from Adele's 21 to Rihanna's Talk That Talk.
Although Mastered for iTunes officially began in February and covers only 300 albums so far, engineers say the program, as well as high-end headphones and speakers, represents a swing back towards sound quality for the first time since MP3s and Napster first showed up in the late Nineties. "You have no idea what it's like to drive a Lamborghini until you actually get in it," says Bobby Owsinski, a veteran producer and mixer who has remastered Who and Jimi Hendrix recordings for DVD. "It's the same thing with audio – you have kids who have only been exposed to what an MP3 is, and when they hear something that sounds better, their world is shifted."