Digital Refresh of U2’s Offerings in iTunes

Original Story by Aaron J. Sams with Josh Fuller (2019-07-04)

The offerings in digital music stores often get refreshed. Sometimes the changes are just better artwork, or other cosmetic touches, but sometimes there are actual changes to the music itself. In late April / early May the U2 catalog on iTunes went through a major refresh, with almost all the older digital versions of albums being removed and newer versions being put in their place. This is not just something happening in one country, it was done worldwide in most iTunes storefronts, and most of the newer versions now start with an Apple ID starting with 144.

What has been ‘refreshed’? It looks like almost all of the U2 albums have been done. This includes the albums which were released on May 28, 2017 as part of the “Mastered for iTunes” (MFiT) release, the newer releases such as Songs of Experience and even other album length releases such as “Live from Paris,” and the compilations The Best of 1980 – 1990, The Best of 1990 – 2000 and U218 Singles. The majority of the album refreshes were done between April 26 and May 2, 2019, and these compilations were done shortly after.
Several older singles were also done including “Summer of Love (Club Remixes),” “Get Out of Your Own Way (Afrojack Remix),” “You’re the Best Thing About Me (Acoustic Mix),” “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” (EP), “One,” “If God Will Send His Angels,” and many others. Strangely, they have also refreshed older versions of the albums, the versions that existed before the MFiT releases, and now you will see two different versions for sale of All That You Can’t Leave Behind, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and others.

It’s not just U2 that have seen a refresh in the iTunes catalog. iTunes updated the albums of many other artists as well, including Madonna. This is unlikely something that has been initiated with the artists themselves and is more likely being done internally at Apple.

But are their changes in the files that are there now, beyond the Apple ID? Yes, there are. We haven’t gone through and done a thorough review of every new offering but we will over the next few weeks. But we can tell you about some of the changes that are now being seen in these newer versions.

On May 28, 2017, U2 issued several albums in new versions as part of their “Mastered for iTunes” program. These new releases in a digital format were meant to be a high-quality digital release (but still compressed), with an accompanying digital booklet and even some new audio mixes done for three of the albums, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, Pop, and Rattle and Hum done under guidance by The Edge. The reissues included all of U2’s albums to that date, as well as Wide Awake in America and U218.

The original MFiT releases through Apple had seen some sort of volume leveling done during the creation of the tracks. That means that on The Unforgettable Fire, all tracks are taken to the same loudness, including quieter songs which should not play as loud as some of the harder songs. Instead all of the tracks have a similar volume peak at roughly 0.0dB. The new 2019 version on iTunes fixes this issue, and a song like “MLK” which is meant to be quieter is quieter, coming in at around -4.0dB, while louder tracks come in around 0.0dB. This volume leveling wasn’t present on the 2009 remaster of The Unforgettable Fire on CD or at other digital storefronts. It appeared to have been an issue on iTunes itself.

Songs of Experience which was released after the original MFiT releases, also had issues. On that album, the CD and lossless digital versions of the album saw “Love is All We Have Left” around -3.0dB. On the iTunes version of the album (labeled at the time “Mastered for iTunes”), the song was much louder, nearing the peak at 0.0dB. Again, this has been resolved on these new 2019 versions of these files.

And while the differences in volume can be annoying, we can hear some readers asking if this is really worth a new purchase of the albums?

It isn’t problematic on many of the albums, but you are hearing some songs louder than were originally intended during the initial recording and mastering of the album. But on a live album like Rattle and Hum it creates issues when you go from one live track to another. In those cases there is no silence, but rather continuous crowd noise. And the older 2017 MFiT recording released on iTunes had a big jump in volume which is very noticeable. It has been fixed in the 2019 version, and the transition between “Star Spangled Banner” and “Bullet the Blue Sky” no longer has the jump in volume that was present in the 2017 version. The new master of Rattle and Hum by The Edge, has only been released to date on Apple, so it is nice that some of these issues have been fixed.

War, Under a Blood Red Sky and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb all remain unchanged from their earlier 2017 versions. Along with the examples above, many of the other albums are showing changes. The 2019 and 2017 versions of Achtung Baby are showing many volume differences. And it does NOT appear that the newer 2018 remaster done for the vinyl release was used in the creation of these files. However the file length remains constant, and the changes in volume appear to be the major changes in these tracks, so it does not appear that a new audio mix has been created, but rather some tweaking of the volume has happened here.

We also took a listen to The Best of 1990-2000. The original version from 2002 used an alternate lyric in “Mysterious Ways.” That alternate version was removed in the 2018 remaster. The version on iTunes remains the version that has been there all along, the 2002 version of the album with the alternate lyric. Although newly added and updated these new versions of the album are not using the newer masters, once again pointing towards this being something done on Apple’s end.

The booklets accompanying the releases are the same as the 2017 versions. Even the errors present in the 2017 copies, such as the one panel in white and three in grey on the Pop image remain in the 2019 version.

Our recommendation? If you have the music on CD, or from other digital stores, there’s no real reason to go out and grab these. The music hasn’t changed, this isn’t a new mix of the audio, just the volume seems to have changed here where there are changes. If you have your albums through iTunes alone, you may have an interest in these as they do fix some of the volume issues that were present in earlier versions available from iTunes. The one release that does interest us the most is the newer 2017 remaster of Rattle and Hum. That remaster has only been released through iTunes to date, and the original version had volume issues as mentioned above. This newer version fixes those issues. The remaster for this release or Rattle and Hum was directed by The Edge. It was originally rumoured to be released in the Fall of 2018 on vinyl, but that was release was delayed when the tour was moved from 2018 into 2019. To date, we are told that release has not been rescheduled.

Finally, thanks to Josh Fuller who brought these to our attention and worked with us on the article. The assist is very much appreciated. Josh previously took a look at the changes made in the 2017 MFiT releases and how the issues with “The Troubles” had been resolved.

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