Until a few weeks ago, I had no experience with Apple’s “Mastered for iTunes” program. Google Play music was my go-to source for audio, and my iTunes collection had been gathering figurative dust for years. I stumbled upon Apple’s mastering initiative through completely random internet browsing. Skeptical but interested, I re-purchased one of my favorite albums to hear the new “Mastered for iTunes” version.
By that evening, I had subscribed to Apple music.
A few years ago, Apple launched the Mastered for iTunes program. It’s a set of mixing guidelines for music producers to maintain the best possible audio quality once a song is processed and compressed for distribution on iTunes. iTunes uses the AAC codec, and with the right mastering, it is indistinguishable from CD audio or lossless audio.
“Mastered for iTunes” albums are clearly-labeled in the iTunes store with a little blue badge (or some prominent text in the mobile app). Furthermore, Apple Music uses the Mastered for iTunes versions of files when available. Music must be specifically submitted or resubmitted for inclusion, and must meet the standards set by Apple. If you already happen to own a version of an album that is then Mastered for iTunes…sadly, you’re out of luck. No free upgrades. This is kind of a bummer. If you want the new version, you either need to be an Apple Music subscriber or you need to pony up the cash for the new downloads.
That last point soured me. I wanted to hear the difference before I committed to a new subscription service, but my ancient iTunes library contained no Mastered for iTunes music. I’d have no choice but to re-buy something I was very familiar with, in order to directly hear the differences.
Remasters are a crapshoot. Often, when something is remastered…it’s just compressed to sound louder than the older version. That’s not great. Other times, extensive work is done to produce a better version of the album. There’s no way to know if a remastered version of an album sounds better unless you’ve listened to it, or read a review of someone who has. “Remastered” is frequently just a marketing tool used to get listeners to buy the same music over again without any boost in quality.
So, that’s why I was skeptical about buying into this whole Mastered for iTunes thing. Apple’s guidelines for the program, linked on that site above, are actually quite reasonable. But still I wondered…would this new version of Jagged Little Pill Acoustic benefit from any real work? Or would it sound exactly like the other versions I’ve already owned and listened to for years? Or maybe it would sound worse? I hovered my mouse over the buy button, and paid Apple 10 dollars for an album I already owned.
My fears, at least in this case, were unfounded. The Mastered for iTunes version of Jagged Little Pill Acoustic is the best-sounding version I’ve heard. The changes were immediately obvious, particularly when played back opposite the older version. The biggest difference is that the entire mix has been tweaked in a way that’s much more friendly to the acoustic nature of the album. Bass impact is toned way down, but low notes are still present. Highs are a little crisper. Alanis’s vocals are a bit more forward in the mix. It’s all very lovely, and every song benefits. As cheesy as it may seem, it really was like listening to the album for the first time.
The last two songs, Wake Up and Your House are easy to hear the differences in. They both have thunking low notes that almost dominate the songs in the original master. Here, the bass has been tamed, and the result is much more even. At first, I wasn’t sure if I liked it because it was so dramatically different, but upon careful listening, the improvement in quality was undeniable.
The original version (still available on other streaming services) had a punchy, loud quality that retained some of the harsh edge that the classic 90’s version of the album is known for. This new iTunes-exclusive take on JLP Acoustic is much more intimate, soft, and inviting to listen to. It’s a better listen overall, and I’ve loved re-experiencing it. The original mix sounded like the loudest acoustic concert in the world, and the Mastered for iTunes tracks feel more like sitting in a chill cafe with the band.
Impressively, these differences are noticeable even on the cheapest gear. You won’t need high-end “audiophile” stuff to hear the changes, at least on this album. I can reliably tell the difference even on my Apple earpods, just because the mix is so different.
I was totally shocked at the work and care that went into this, as I honestly wasn’t expecting to hear a difference going in. I subscribed to Apple music immediately so that I could listen to “Mastered for iTunes” versions of other albums I love. While not everything I’ve tried has had the obvious attention that JLP acoustic received, I haven’t noticed any of the obvious loudness compression or digital effects trickery that plagues many remastered albums out there. It seems that producers are actually following the standards set forth by Apple, and the result is music with plenty of dynamics delivered in a small compressed file.
Jagged Little Pill Acoustic is still a brilliant album, a decade after its release. I think it’s the superior version of JLP, and I think the Mastered for iTunes release is the best way to listen to it. These new masters are available both on their own, and as part of the Jagged Little Pill Deluxe Edition on iTunes and Apple Music. Some might say that the acoustic version of Morissette’s pioneering album doesn’t have the trademark edge of the original, but I think the extra decade of experience and maturity on her voice, and the superior instrumental compositions, lend it a character that makes it perhaps her best album.
I’m thrilled that Apple’s Mastered for iTunes program seems to actually make a difference, and I’m thrilled that they are trying to push the industry towards paying attention to recording and mastering quality. I wish that the other streaming services would follow suit, or perhaps be allowed access to these new masters…but it wouldn’t really be the Apple way to play nice with other companies. Kind of a shame. I’m happy I received a genuinely-better version of my favorite Alanis album, and some new hope for streaming sound quality on the whole.
Sometime soon, I’ll write a review of the brand new 90's-era Alanis songs we got as part of the JLP Deluxe Edition. I still can’t believe that happened!