Tech Troubles with “The Troubles” Gets Fix in Latest Mastered for iTunes Re-Release

Original Story by Josh Fuller (2017-05-31)

[Ed. Note: We’d like to welcome Josh Fuller, who is contributing this guest column that came out of posts he made to our forums. If you are looking for a place to discuss U2’s discography and lyrics, please check it out. Thanks Josh!]

With iTunes’ recent re-release of U2’s studio catalog in the “Mastered for iTunes” (MFiT) format, many are eager to find out whether or not another iteration of a catalog that most fans have already purchased many times over is worth buying again. This question is easily answered for those fans whose objective is to own everything by their favorite artist, in every released format available. For others, perhaps buying a few of their favorite albums is an acceptable strategy. Additionally, there are those fans who remain uncompelled by the MFiT format and may choose not to purchase any of the new releases, at all.

We here at stumbled across a technical defect on Songs of Innocence as it was first released on CD and digital in 2014. Using a sonic frequency spectrogram analysis, it was discovered that on track 11, “The Troubles,” all frequencies above 16kHz were cut off, or removed, from the 3:30 mark to the end of the track.

Below is a visual representation of the track’s audio footprint with time represented on the horizontal axis and frequency, in kilohertz (kHz), represented on the vertical axis. Notice the offending area in the upper right of the spectrogram’s quadrant, this represents lost information that should be present.

IMAGE: Spectrogram of “The Troubles,” track 11 on the 2014 CD release of Songs of Innocence

A brief discussion of digital sound technology includes the widely-agreed belief that most humans, under normal conditions, are unable to hear sounds exceeding 20kHz. We’ve all heard the old adage that dogs can hear higher pitched sounds than humans, hence the invention and proliferation of the dog whistle, which typically has frequency ranges of 23kHz to 54kHz. Dogs hear them…You and I don’t.

Back when the compact disc was invented, its creators selected the somewhat arbitrary, yet rooted-in-science (and technological constraints of the day) frequency of roughly 22kHz as the maximum frequency on a cd. (For those techies in the crowd, never mind the Nyquist Theorem, and its implications for the purposes of this article.)

When the MP3 was invented it accomplished the significant downsizing of CD-sized music files by selectively removing sound information data. It was argued that some information in recorded sound is irrelevant and/or superfluous to the extent that in removing it the listener will not appreciably notice this elimination, and the resulting smaller file sounded, “as good,” or “good enough.” One of the ways MP3 encoders accomplished this, particularly early on, was to eliminate sound frequencies above a certain frequency threshold, often times at or near the 16kHz range. Newer MP3 encoders, as well as a host of other compression formats no longer rely as regularly on frequency cutoff as a means to reduce file size. Interestingly enough, television broadcasted audio is often cut off at or around 16kHz, as well. This makes it all the more curious as to how or why we observed this frequency cutoff in a portion of one track on an album produced in 2014.

With the originally released Songs of Innocence CD, iTunes, as well as other digitally available commercial releases all confirming the same spectrogram result of eliminated frequencies, it was initially theorized that this was a natural phenomenon of this particular track. To test the theory, we ran spectrogram analysis on the audio component from the music video of “The Troubles,” available commercially on DVD and Blu-ray, on the 2016 release U2 iNNOCENCE + EXPERIENCE: Live in Paris. Much to our surprise the music video did not reveal this same frequency cutoff.

IMAGE: Spectrogram of “The Troubles” music video on the DVD release, U2 iNNOCENCE + eXPERIENCE: Live in Paris, Deluxe Edition.

This finding indicated the likelihood that the initial release of Songs of Innocence included a technical defect on the track in question.

With the re-released MFiT version of Songs of Innocence on May 26, 2017, we were delightfully surprised to observe that the error in track 11, “The Troubles,” had not transferred in this mastering.

IMAGE: Spectrogram of track 11, “The Troubles” on the 2017 MFiT release of Songs of Innocence.

Based on this observation, we assume that the album has in fact gone through a different mastering process than the original 2014 “Mastered for iTunes” release. An initial listen-through of the album by the author impresses with an altogether, albeit subjective, different listening experience. The songs seem more dynamic with clearer separation between vocals and instrumentation. Other elements seem to be brought more to the foreground that were otherwise relegated to virtually inaudible background noise on the initial release. Perhaps, most notable of all, as is true of all of the MFiT albums listened to thus far, is a lack of dither, or static, meaning there is less noise not made by music. One of the purported benefits of the MFiT process is just this. The mastering process itself eliminates the addition of dither that is accompanied by other mastering processes.

So, if you’re on the fence over whether you want to splurge for the new “(Re-)Mastered for iTunes” U2 albums, I encourage you to consider at least trying one or two of your favorites. If you’re able to appreciate discernible differences, perhaps you’ll be inspired to buy more, or all, of the recently re-released material.

Happy Listening!

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