The Future? Format-Specific Mastering Processes

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Rick Rubin requested an iTunes-specific master on the latest Red Hot Chili Peppers release, I’m With You.

But it doesn’t end there. It turns out that the mastering team actually created three separately-mastered versions: one for AAC (iTunes), one for vinyl, and another for CD, according to information shared with Digital Music News.

So, is this where mastering is headed?  Here’s a detailed interview with Vlado Meller, who mastered the album at Masterdisk with the help of Mark Santangelo (who also cut the vinyl).

Digital Music News: You mentioned that there are three, separately mastered versions on this Chili Pepper album: the CD master, a vinyl master, and a special master prepared specifically for iTunes AAC.  Is this considered unusual for releases?  After all, this is being touted as the first rock record specifically mastered for iTunes.

Meller: Until now, yes, this would have been unusual. There have been only a few releases which went through this process for iTunes. We believe that this will become more of a standard practice in the music industry.

Digital Music News: Which of these three versions is the highest quality? Or is it a fair comparison?

Meller: Well, it’s a little bit like apples and oranges, especially when it comes to vinyl. If I had to name one format as the “highest quality” for commercial release, I’d say that it’s the CD master.  The optimized AAC files for iTunes were designed to retain the frequency response and level of the CD, and the quality of those files is very good too.

When it comes to vinyl I mentioned “apples and oranges” — that’s because the vinyl format has some limitations, like a decrease in quality as you get to the end of a side.  Yet it has a coloration that many people love.  Vinyl lovers with high-end systems can overcome a lot of the format’s “quirks,” but they do exist. I’m With You was cut from hi-res 24/96 files, so the sound quality is optimal.

Digital Music News: Is there an option for consumers to reach higher and grab some master-quality fidelity versions?

Meller: At the moment, the highest quality is the commercial release (CD master).  Hopefully in the near future, digital distributors will be able to deliver high-resolution files.

Digital Music News: What specific considerations play into the AAC mastering process?  Can you really make a version that brings white earbuds to life, or is that not the point?

Meller: Yes, with an iTunes optimized master, the listener will be able to enjoy more clarity and an overall better sound quality than is otherwise currently available.

Digital Music News: What specific considerations play into the vinyl mastering process?

Meller: Vinyl has its own limitations, so level and high frequencies and extremely low frequencies have to be handled carefully. The vinyl purist appreciates the warmth and depth of the vinyl and can forgive the occasional clicks and pops —  he or she may even like it better with a little surface noise. To get the vinyl to sound its best, test cuts are made and compared to the original high resolution master. Adjustments in tone and level are made so that the vinyl plays back without distortion and without skipping. It’s a very physical process.

Digital Music News: What specific considerations play into the CD mastering process?

Meller: Often, mastering studios are supplied with high-res files which unfortunately need to be downconverted to 44/16 CD audio quality. Basically one always tries to achieve the best possible sound compared to the original mix file. It is a collaborative effort between the artist, producer and other engineers involved.

Digital Music News: You’re an audio professional, and can probably hear things that even dogs can’t.  But can average listeners really hear the difference.  Does it really do more for the consumer, or is it mainly done to satisfy the creative production desires of the artists and engineers?

Meller: Absolutely, yes, it is for the listener. If the consumer were to listen to the quality of a commercial CD against its corresponding standard digital download, they would notice that there is quite a difference.  With the exception of the more critical listeners out there, people generally don’t make these kind of listening comparisons between the two mediums — but if they did, it can be noticed.  With iTunes optimization during mastering, the AAC files are much closer to the sound of the commercial CD.