Final Touch update – latest version sees Positive Grid get together with Apple

Download from iTunes App StoreFinal Touch logo 2Mastering used to be a bit of an unknown art form hidden within the depths of the overall music production process….  the last stage of an album project where a golden-eared, super-experienced (read ‘costly’) engineer, using esoteric and super-high quality equipment (read ‘costly’) set about the various mixes on the album project and applied some sonic fairy dust to get the project sounding (a) like a coherent whole, (b) ready for broadcast (and which often meant making the overall playback level a bit louder) and, in the olden days of vinyl, (c) making sure the stereo mix wasn’t going to get the needle jumping out of the groove.

Today, of course, everyone knows about the existence of the mastering process and, while it is still somewhat shrouded in mystery, lots of DIY musicians will, as part of their own music production process, also take on the role of DIY mastering engineer. There are some powerful software solutions for this and, on the desktop environment, software such as iZotope’s Ozone has allowed even those on a modest budget to give this final processing stage a bit of a go. That doesn’t always mean the results are good – mastering is a difficult job and those golden ears and high quality monitoring are required for a reason – but, where budgets are tight, DIY may be all you can afford.

Final Touch packs quite a punch given the price - even at full price :-)

Final Touch packs quite a punch given the price – even at full price :-)

Given the history of the mastering process, it is hardly surprising that lots of experienced music professionals spit their coffee when you tell them you can have a stab at DIY mastering on an iPad. In fact, iOS is blessed with two very good mastering apps; Audio Mastering and Final Touch and, while you have to add all the other qualifiers about needing good ears and a decent monitoring environment to fully exploit them, in terms of the flexibility and quality of the processing (and, after all, digital audio software simply crunches ones and zeros so any modern computing device ought to be able to cope with that), both of these apps do a remarkable job.

Now, Final Touch has been updated and v. 1.1.0 of the app appeared on the App Store yesterday…  and that’s really what this post is about…  but to make the update itself make sense, I think a little bit of further context is actually useful…  so bear with me for just two or three more short paragraphs….

Be my ‘bud?

There are a few of other things that more traditional mastering engineers have become a bit agitated about over recent years also (so the iPad will not be top of their list of grumbles but Apple might get some flack). First, that mastering has, in some people’s minds, becomes closely associated with making things VERY LOUD. Unfortunately, in the wrong hands (ears?) this also results is a degradation of audio quality and a lack of dynamics (even the quite bits of the ballads are loud). Second, most people (that is, those listening to music) now do it on cheap earbuds and very few listeners actual sit and listen to music on what might be described as a high quality audio playback system.

Music - how do you consume yours?

Music – how do you consume yours?

Third, and this is perhaps the kicker, is that most consumers of music buy that music in a compressed, downloadable format. Depending upon where you do that, MP3 has, until fairly recently, ruled the roost. MP3 can, if you keep the bit-rate high enough, sound pretty good even on a good playback system. However, as you seek to cram more tracks onto your mobile phone or MP3 player (Apple or otherwise), and listen on your ear buds, lower bit rate tracks mean more space for more tracks and the quality of the ear buds means it is difficult to tell the difference between 128 kbps or a more upmarket 320 kbps.

MP3, while still popular, does have a successor lined up; Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) and those with the technical understanding of these things (and hearing not knackered by standing for too long next to a drummer’s ride cymbal) will tell you that AAC produces superior results to MP3 for the same bit rate. AAC is now the audio format used by YouTube, Nintendo, various digital radio formats and is part of the MPEG-4 specification. It is also, of course, the format used by iTunes to deliver anything from Rihanna to Ratt to your iPod, iPhone or iPad.

iTunes is the master

And, because so many consumers now get their music fix via iTunes, it is a gradual trend in the music production industry to ‘master for iTunes’. Essentially, this involves a separate mastering treatment for a song’s final mix (that is, separate from the version you could also buy on a CD) so that it sounds at it’s best even when (a) downloaded as a AAC file and (b) is listened to via ear buds.

Indeed, there is now a ‘Mastered for iTunes’ section on iTunes where songs that have already been processed following guidelines produced by Apple can be viewed. To Apple’s credit, at some point, this might actually be a very good thing because the intention is to eventually make music available via a newer version of AAC – HD-AAC – and with which there is no loss in audio quality as a result of the compression used to keep the file sizes down….  This is a story for another day though as it is still something to come rather than with us now.

And Final Touch?

OK, already… so what does this have to do with Positive Grid’s iOS audio mastering app Final Touch? Well, the key thing added to the v. 1.1.0 update that appeared yesterday is that – in collaboration with Apple – it includes a new AAC preview feature. You can, therefore, audition your Final Touch processed track in a fashion where the result of AAC encoding has been ‘applied’ and, therefore, adjust your processing settings to produce the best result.

Final Touch now includes the option to preview your track through AAC processing

Final Touch now includes the option to preview your track through AAC processing

If you are intending to distribute your music in the AAC format – and possibly even through iTunes itself – then this is obviously a very useful feature. However, there is also more to come as Positive Grid are obviously working with Apple to integrate the complete ‘Mastered for iTunes’ process into the app. This will, eventually, allow you to export a track directly from Final Touch in that format. Whatever your own personal take of the consumption of music via downloads and ear buds, for the vast majority of music sales, this is how the ‘business’ of music is now getting done. Feel free to be creative about your art…  but if you do want to earn an income from your own music, this is a format you will almost certainly need accommodate.

Having given this a try myself today, the AAC preview seems to work well enough. Don’t expect it to produce a dramatic shift in the sound of your tracks – it will not and, in reality, that’s not the point – and you may well need to be listening on some decent speakers or headphones to appreciate the difference between switching the preview processing on/off. However, this is undoubtedly going to be something that appeals to DIY mastering engineers (that’s the likes of you and me) as it does allow you to check that your finished tracks are going to survive the AAC encoding relatively intact.

As I covered in my original review of Final Touch, at an asking price of UK£13.99, it is a heck of an app and to see such a sophisticated set of audio processing tools running on a platform like the iPad is very impressive. This latest feature is a very interesting – and I suspect quite clever commercial – step for Positive Grid to take. It will certainly be worth keeping an eye on to see just how quickly they can deliver the complete ‘Mastered for iTunes’ experience…  watch this space….

Final Touch

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