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Apple’s Lossless and Spatial Audio: The Future of Music?

The tech giant rolled out two audio advancements this year. We look at how it’s impacting and transforming the industry

Academy and Grammy award-winning composer A.R. Rahman was the first musician to adopt Dolby Atmos, one of Apple's audio advancements, in his debut feature production '99 Songs.' Photo (right): Courtesy of artist

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Music’s been around the block; we’ve had mono, stereo and now, spatial. The last of which just might represent the future of music. But we’ve all experienced surround sound, right? The whoosh of a bullet ricocheting off the wall and skidding right past the hero to meet the unlikely mark of the villain; home theater systems and cinema halls have accustomed us to a life-like sonic experience. Before stereo, we indulged in the rich, focussed tone of mono, that while not enveloping, still offered a concentrated taste of pure music. How then does Apple Music rolling out lossless and spatial audio mark a new expanse for sound?

For our better listening experience

This year, Apple Music wasn’t the only streaming platform that introduced audio advancements; Amazon Music launched HD and TIDAL debuted HiFi (high fidelity) which Spotify is primed to offer in the upcoming months as well (Everyone but Apple has yet to make the formats available in India). Why then must we take note of Apple Music? Well, for starters, Apple has steered the ship on two fronts —transit and listening. Developing their own implementation of audio compression technology AAC (advanced audio codec), their ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) is a form of compression that preserves the original data of the recorded file, making the end audio listening experience virtually indistinguishable from the original studio recording — aka you listen to music exactly the way the artist intended for you to hear it. Lossless alongside spatial audio with Dolby Atmos then transforms the listening experience into a multidimensional event, creating an immersive sonic encounter like never before.

Apple’s vice president of Apple Music and Beats, Oliver Schusser, described the experience to be magical. “Apple Music is making its biggest advancement ever in sound quality,” he said in a statement. The tech leader went on to speak of how spatial marks a new frontier in music, especially as the sound comes from all around one and resonates incredibly. “Now we are bringing this truly innovative and immersive experience to our listeners with music from their favorite artists like J Balvin, Gustavo Dudamel, Ariana Grande, Maroon 5, Kacey Musgraves, The Weeknd, and so many more. Subscribers will also be able to listen to their music in the highest audio quality with Lossless Audio. Apple Music as we know it is about to change forever,” he went on to say.

Breaking the wall between musicians and listeners

“I hope audiences are able to experience the music in the manner it should be,” said A.R. Rahman in a video statement about Dolby Atmos. Photo: Courtesy of Artist

Academy and Grammy award-winning composer A.R. Rahman was the first musician to adopt Dolby Atmos in his debut feature production 99 Songs, released earlier this year. “Music creation is a very personal process and you always hope the listener is able to feel and receive all that the music is designed to deliver. From the maker to the audience, you hope for minimum intervention in the transit process,” said Rahman in a video statement. He added, “And now with the advent of technology, we’re able to transcend our creations to millions across the globe. With Apple Music and spatial audio, we’ve recreated the songs of 99 Songs, ‘Meri Pukaar Suno‘ and Dil Bechara in a newer, richer way, and I hope audiences are able to experience the music in the manner it should be.”

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Abhishek Khandelwal, a sound engineer at Yash Raj Studios, says that when he first started doing Dolby Atmos spatial mixes, he thought it was “just a gimmick.” 

“But the moment I did three songs, I realized the potential because we had [previously] done the stereo mixes. And now when we mixed the same songs in spatial audio, we could hear things that were getting masked in stereo; things only people who had worked behind the scenes knew about, that wouldn’t be audible for a lot of people who were hearing it for the first time. Spatial audio gives me so much more space to make people hear each and every instrument more clearly,” says Khandelwal, whose credits include landmark Bollywood films like Veer-Zaara (2004) and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013), as well as Disney’s Queen of Katwe (2016). People have now started designing the song arrangement and production keeping in mind that it’s going to be mixed and consumed on spatial audio, he informs.

Ehsaan Noorani of iconic composer trio Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy deems the influence of new formats on an artist’s creative process negligible. Photo: Amazon Prime Video

Apple’s audio advancements also bring musicians and engineers in copacetic synergy as they work to interpret their sound into spatial audio. The essence of making music, however, seems to stay the same; Ehsaan Noorani of iconic composer trio Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy deems the influence of new formats on an artist’s process negligible. “Today, there’s no limitation to your creativity; there’s a lot of possibilities. But if you can write a good song on an instrument, that’s what’s really important,” he says. The veteran guitarist adds, “Spatial audio… we’ve been used to it with the 5.1 and 7.2 surround systems and all this stuff in theaters, and even in home setups where soundbars and all give you that. So, it’s not such a massive jump, but it’s fantastic.” He recalls switching from mono to stereo in the Seventies, likening the sonic experience to witchcraft. “I don’t think anything will be as dramatic as stereo,” he maintains.

Ritnika Nayan believes lossless and spatial audio gives artists and the audience a lot more options. Photo: Dhruv Kalra

As Apple’s lossless and spatial audio support artists to ensure an authentic listening experience, the rollout is now slowly being accepted by music distributors in the country. CD Baby India is currently the only distributor enabling artists to upload and disseminate their music in lossless and spatial audio, while popular distributors like TuneCore will be offering artists the option soon. Author and CD Baby India Head Ritnika Nayan sees these formats as allowing serious listeners to get the most out of their music. “I have often heard artists complain that they can’t always showcase their music in the way they want, and I feel this can be a game-changer for them. This gives artists and the audience a lot more options,” she says.

Mae Mariyam Thomas hopes lossless and spatial audio enable people to hear what they would normally miss before. Photo: Courtesy of artist

“During the lockdown, everyone and everything went online, right? And then the audio quality of pretty much everything went down,” recalls podcaster and audiophile Mae Mariyam Thomas. The presenter, who is best known for the podcast production and consultancy company Maed In India, hopes lossless and spatial audio enable people to hear what they would normally miss in stereo mixes.“I’ve always been a bit of a nerd about music. I don’t just notice the drum beats; I notice the guy playing cowbells, or I can hear slap bass. Lossless and spatial audio gives everyone a chance to notice those things more,” says Thomas.

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How are artists adapting to audio advancements?

Mo Joshi pinpoints that until the accessibility factor changes, the Apple Music experience will likely be limited to a niche market. Photo: Shiv Ahuja (Azadi Records)

Speaking of artists — what’s it like for them to translate part or all of their discography to be compatible with these new formats? “Expensive!”, humors Azadi Records and Azadi Entertainment co-founder Mo Joshi. Costs aside, Joshi calls the undertaking a learning experience. “The more we kind of understand how it changes sound, as well as the artist now understanding what that means for their mixes and music, and what they can do with it… if you’ve to create with a bit of technology, they’ll always try and push it to its limits, you know? So you’ve artists doing that at the moment.” Joshi is speaking of Azadi artist and Indian Indie’s breakout hip-hop act Prabh Deep who finds himself in company with celebrated composer Amit Trivedi and hip-hop entrepreneur/heavy hitter Divine — artists who’ve worked with Apple to create dedicated playlists for listeners to understand the difference between spatial and stereo. 

The future of audio and accessibility

It is the end-user’s accessibility to high-quality sound that is really the win here, says Khandelwal. “We were already delivering high res masters and it has been embraced for quite some time. Now, the end consumer also gets to hear that. It was just about Apple or any other platform taking the initiative and going ahead and releasing our music in lossless format,” says the sound engineer. He also opines a truth about the true impact of an audio advancement such as spatial and lossless music. “Not too many people talk about it, but there is also a financial expenditure for the format to be available for the artists, and it becomes very difficult for an artist to deliver all the deliverables on top of those which are already there. An added format doesn’t mean budgets are going up,” he says. Khandelwal thinks it’s up to the music labels to really push the ante on the audio advancement front. “They need to support their artists, financially and creatively, for spatial to be revolutionary. If labels support their artists, it will be even faster,” he says.

Joshi, on his part, feels that India’s mass-driven music economy will take a while to fully embrace these tech advances. “We can’t afford to do everything in spatial. So we have to pick and choose,” he says. The Azadi records head pinpoints that until the accessibility factor changes, the Apple Music experience will likely be limited to a niche market. “As with most new tech, it will take a while until the affordability factor levels out with reach,” he says.

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