Quality – Part 1 – Listening to Music

£25 and you can have thousands of ultra-high quality songs!

I am going to show you in this article how to listen to all of your music like you’ve never heard it before

iTunes match, mastered for iTunes, flac, wav…all terms synonymous with quality music playback but have you heard of them and do you know why you should be using them?  In part 1 of this blog on quality of music I am covering the process the wrong way around to talk about how music ends up being listened to and in part two I will talk about quality issues when making it in the first place.

Just as a quick note, I am not actually an Apple user other than iPod and iPad – I am a PC guy myself, but in this article I will be talking about the benefits of certain Apple formats.

We all love the ease and simplicity of being able to listen to our entire music library on portable music players, mobile phones and computers (perhaps even streamed wirelessly through amplifiers elsewhere in the house) and it’s true that even a 3gb iPod or similar can store many thousands of songs.  But did you know that the mp3 format is basically a shadow of what the music sounded like when recorded in the studio?  It’s like seeing in black and white – you can still see mostly everything but how much better is everything in full colour? Ever really noticed the difference between standard and high definition on TV?  That’s the difference between mp3 and a real life CD.  Yes that’s right, the CD which is so seldom purchased these days.  This article is not meant to be technical and therefore I’ll only cover the basics of this but the quality flowchart would look something like this:

Why does it make a difference? Well in basic terms think of it like a photograph.  Something that photographs in 16 megapixels will have much more detail than something that takes the same photo with 1 megapixel.   It’s all about level of detail.  When the studio records the music, it may be recorded in very high sample rates and bit depths (think megapixels for this) but when they need to export it so that you and I can listen, they have to choose a format, whether that be mp3 or CD etc.  One reason why CDs are a great idea still is that of hard disk space.  You see to have a wav file equivalent to a CD quality track on your hard drive would probably take up about 40mb of space. An mp3 takes up 3mb, so where has the other 37mb of data gone?? Well, an mp3 (and Apple formats, though to a lesser extent) basically loses a lot of data from the audio.  It decides that we can’t hear certain frequencies and chops them off, then slowly goes around subtracting data until we get the music but it’s flat compared to what it was and what it could be.

Flac is completely lossless.  There are sites on the internet that allow you to purchase albums in formats that the studio used, which means you can hear it better than the CD you purchased! Not everyone wants to do this though and you’ve already spent all that money on mp3s right?

NO PROBLEM!  I’m now going to show you how to give yourself a massive upgrade in your listening experience without increasing hard disk space much and only costing £25.  This can also work to get cheap music and upgrade it to better music all year long too!

What is this secret?  iTunes match.  A fantastic idea that not only keeps your music library in ‘the cloud’ so that you can access it from other devices; it also allows you to upgrade your music to the highest quality available on iTunes.   It costs £25 for one year and you keep all the music you download through this service even if you don’t renew after the year.

You can look up on Apple’s site how to pay for and use this service, but basically once activated you scan your music library and it will show up as an icon like this in iTunes:

That means that all your music is available in ‘the cloud’ but it DOESN’T mean that you now have high quality music.  For that you need to do the following…..

I purchased a Tom Odell album from Amazon because it was cheaper than iTunes, but it was mp3 format.  I imported it into iTunes and used iTunes match to scan it to the cloud.

Here’s the clever bit….right click on a song and choose ‘delete’.  When the pop up box comes up do NOT click ‘Also delete this song from iCloud’

On the next pop up you can choose to move to recycle bin because you won’t need this inferior quality song again, but if you feel more comfortable for the first times, you can keep the file.

Now we have a new symbol appear next to the song, which incidentally did NOT delete itself from my album!!! (clever huh!):

Just click the download from the cloud symbol and you will then have an ultra-high quality version of the cheaper mp3 you purchased!

To speed this up with a full music library you can just use the song list and select large chunks of songs and delete all at once and then download the same way but do not delete songs that have this symbol next to them:

It means for whatever reason that it hasn’t recognised the song on match and therefore you will not be able to download a higher version if you delete it.

Check it out – you’ll be amazed at the difference this makes to your listening experience.  Pick a song that you have on CD.  Then download it as an mp3 and then do the iTunes match but keep the file.  You will be able to listen to the difference between all three versions and see exactly what you are missing (or gaining) with each format.

Good luck quality hunters!  Quality doesn’t have to be expensive.