Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

‘Mastered for iTunes’ Becomes ‘Apple Digital Masters’

Chris Eggertsen, Billboard:

On Wednesday (August 7) Apple Music announced the launch of Apple Digital Masters, a new initiative by the streaming giant that combines all of its “Mastered for iTunes” offerings into one global catalog. This is the company’s first public acknowledgement of the initiative, which it has been quietly unveiling for some time.

Eggertsen was first to report this, and it was picked up by MacRumors, 9to5Mac, iMore, and others, who all seem to have been confused by the last couple of paragraphs in Billboard’s story:

Apple Music isn’t the first streaming service to offer premium audio.

On its 2015 launch, Tidal offered a “HiFi” subscription tier for $19.99 month ($10 more than a regular subscription) that allowed users to stream lossless audio; two years later, the service upgraded its HiFi tier to stream even higher-quality sound files created with Bob Stuart’s Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) technology. Deezer and Qobuz also offer lossless audio plans for $19.99 a month, with the latter recently unveiling a higher-quality “Studio” subscription tier for $5 more. Spotify has also flirted with a hi-fi tier in the past.

The way this is written makes it sound like Apple Digital Masters is equivalent to the lossless files offered by other platforms, but it is not. It is a rebranding of the Mastered for iTunes spec — probably because Apple is no longer using the soiled “iTunes” branding to refer to their music products, with the exception of the iTunes Store. This spec is important because it helps labels deliver music that is mastered specifically for a compressed audio format, not just a conversion from the CD or vinyl master. This is great.

However, based on everything I’ve read, that seems to be all this announcement is: a mastering specification with a new name, which — according to a screenshot posted last month on Reddit — will still output songs as 256kbps lossy AAC files, which is exactly the same format and bitrate as “regular” Apple Music and iTunes tracks. I feel compelled to point out that there is nothing wrong with this.

It’s a mistake to conflate lossless audio files and better mastering. One will noticeably improve the way your music sounds; the other simply requires far more disk space.