Apple music just recently announced that it would be bringing both Lossless Audio and Spatial Audio (in partnership with Dolby Atmos). This is very likely a direct competition to services like Tidal and other high res providers. While this is a very exciting prospect for both casual consumers and audiophiles, it does bring with it some interesting implications to some of us who are making music.
Let’s first try and understand what these new additions are starting with Lossless Audio. Basically in simple terms, all audio on streaming platforms usually undergo some degree of compression. This is done to ensure smaller file sizes that play faster on consumer devices and also take up less space on servers. Lossless Audio does away with the middle man that is the software compression that the file goes through.
Instead, it allows you to hear the file just as the producer/artist had put up in all its full-sized glory. This is done with Apple’s new codec – ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec). They have different playback tiers and it starts at CD quality, which is 16 bit at 44.1 kHz (kilohertz), and goes up to 24 bit at 48 kHz, and is playable natively on Apple devices. For the true audiophile, Apple Music also offers Hi-Resolution Lossless all the way up to 24 bit at 192 kHz.
The last one however will need a dedicated DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) and possibly a nice headphone amp/Headphone pairing to be fully appreciated. It is important to note that Bluetooth devices cannot decode these formats so you’ll need wired headphones/earphones. The iPhone has a built-in DAC that supports 24-bit, 48kHz so you can use a pair of Lightning headphones. The 3.5mm port on the Mac also supports 24-bit, 48kHz.
Additionally, Apple’s 3.5mm Lightning headphone adapter includes its own DAC that supports 24-bit, 48kHz so high-end wired headphones will work. However, the Lightning to 3.5 mm Audio Cable that Apple sells for the AirPods Max doesn’t support Lossless streaming.
This Lossless feature was long overdue as most of the platforms that did provide high res audio were not available to the Indian market. Not every song will be available in these formats at the beginning, but Apple says that to start with they will be adding more than 75 million songs to the Lossless catalog with more being added every day.
The Spatial Audio bit is more interesting and fresh. Apple has partnered with Dolby Atmos for this particular feature. It uses the same tech that goes into theatres to provide an immersive experience. This feature, however, is limited to products that have the capability of Atmos playback.
Apple says that their earbuds and a variety of beats headphones will be able to play these initially. However, as we’ve seen when Apple announces any new tech, we can be fairly certain that many other major players will soon follow.
Spatial audio treats elements of a song as ‘objects’ that can be placed in a virtual space. This allows the listener to experience the audio in the context of it being around them in a virtual space that is interactive.
Now that we’ve got the introductions out of the way, we’d like to talk about what this means to the average producer, engineer, and artist. It is important to note that this isn’t the first time a company has tried to bring something like 3D audio to the mass market. In the early 1970s, several manufacturers developed quadrophonic systems to bring four-channel audio and a sense of excitement to the music.
However, due to prohibitive costs and competing formats, quadrophonic sound never took off. Even Sony has been doing it with 360 Reality Audio which some other streaming services have adopted as well. Apple however has a knack for pushing these technologies to the mainstream market more efficiently than other players.
So it is fairly safe to assume that this technology is very highly likely to be more widely adopted. To further cement this assumption, Apple is incentivizing major artists and producers including J Balvin, Gustavo Dudamel, Ariana Grande, Maroon 5, Kacey Musgraves, The Weeknd, and many more to make content in these new formats.
In recent times, we’ve seen the ceiling for producing professional-sounding content drop lower and lower with the introduction of DAWs and home studios. The quality of affordable gear both on the software and hardware front has become extremely high.
This is making the gap between the products made in high-end professional studios and home studios shrink day by day. The recording quality that is influenced by the treatment in rooms, high-end microphones/preamplifiers, and high-quality AD/DA converters is probably the only separator.
But you can reliably mix a record in your home on a laptop and pair of headphones. With a reasonable level of skill, you make make it quite difficult to tell if it was done in such a manner.
With respect to Lossless, the mastering engineers will start playing a more significant role. There are already quite a few people certified to deliver Apple Digital masters (formerly MFiT or Mastered for iTunes). The introduction of something like Spatial Audio does change things a little bit more.
It requires new skills, new software, and possibly new equipment upgrades. Dolby Atmos has recently been seen pushing its 300$ production suite in collaboration with Avid and Protools. They have been actively promoting this software and its use.
Being in a studio that never considered a 5.1 setup or surround setup before, we now find ourselves actively looking to procure the software and hardware necessary to be Atmos capable.
Top-level engineers including the likes of Manny Marroquin from the US and even our very own Shadaab Rayeen have been seen making major upgrades to their studios to add these capabilities.
So what does one need for these capabilities? Well to start with, you’ll need the Dolby Atmos production suite (that currently works with Protools). They are offering a comprehensive trial to anyone who is willing to try their tech out.
In fact, when we emailed them, they were extremely helpful and willing to provide information and resources to help us learn and understand the technology. They call it Object-based mixing. You can mix with headphones using virtual room simulation software like Waves NX and even Dolby is supposed to have similar software.
The recommended way is to have a full surround speaker setup. You can give them your budget, room dimensions, and other constraints and they provide you the best setup possibilities.
So does this raise the ceiling a little bit again? Does this put certain bits of the production process out of reach for the average producer? Well, it all depends on how quickly things are adopted and how widely received the whole thing is.
As an audio engineer, it is quite exciting to these new avenues. The lossless audio is a huge booster and long overdue. A lot of soul is lost through the compression process and the music is never heard by the consumer in the same way it is heard by the producer/engineer or the artist.
The introduction of lossless audio should bridge that gap a little. It will also be interesting to see how players such as Spotify respond. They have been rumored to announce a similar thing for a while and we’ll have to wait and see how it plays out.