On Friday I had the pleasure of sitting in on a meeting with three representatives from Apple at Oasis Mastering, as they briefed us on the latest info on the new “Mastered for iTunes” program.
While there’s already some info on the program currently available, it was good to finally get the most up-to-date details directly from the source. Here’s the gist of the program.
“Mastered for iTunes” at its most basic is iTunes finally opening up to hi-res masters. This means a number of things:
1) iTunes now prefers that you supply the master audio files at 96kHz/24 bit, but any sample rate that’s a 24 bit file will still be considered “Mastered for iTunes.” Music files that are supplied this way will have a “Mastered for iTunes” icon (like on the left) placed beside them to identify them as such.
The reason why they’re asking for 96/24 is so they can both start with the highest resolution source material for a better encode, but also for a bit of future proofing in the event that iTunes later converts to a better format or a higher encode resolution (it’s now 256kbs, but more on this in a second).
2) “Mastered for iTunes” doesn’t mean that the mastering facility does anything special to the master except to check what it will sound like before they (or the record label) submit it to iTunes, and then check it later once again. All encoding for iTunes is still done by Apple, not by the mastering houses, record labels, or artists.
The reason for this is to keep the encodes consistent and to prevent anyone from gaming the system by hacking the encoder, but also to avoid any potential legal problems that might occur when a mastering house sends the files directly to iTunes instead of the label without their permission, or uses different specs, etc.
3) As stated above, the mastering house doesn’t do any encoding directly, but Apple has provided a number of tools that they can use to hear what the final product will sound like when it’s encoded. That way they can make any adjustments to the master to ensure a good encode.
One unique aspect of “Mastered for iTunes” is something that’s not been publicized called a “test pressing.”
When Apple finally encodes the file, they’ll send a copy back to the label/engineer/artist to check. If they sign off on it, the song then goes on sale in the iTunes store.
Of the few mastering houses that are currently participating in the program (all of the major ones), it was surprising that most of the time a test pressing was rejected not because of the audio quality, but because it was the wrong master.
Yes, as record companies seem to do, someone would actually send the un-mastered file or a completely different song or version. Luckily, the problem is now able to be caught in the test pressing stage.