Apple will update its Apple Music subscription service in June with a no-cost addition of new sound features. But more than that, it hints at a world of music listening generally that dumps lossy compression and embraces spatial sound. And you can get started mixing for it right away.

So what’s it about? Basically, the existing Apple Music subscription and streaming gets a sound update, without changing the price. (That of course may rankle producers who hoped premium sound would command a premium price or more royalties – it seems not so much.)

The sound quality news at least is good. And Spatial Audio may well be the future, even if the listening hardware and distribution mechanisms are still uncertain.

The big breakthrough here – Dolby just got a huge leg-up with Apple Music and Apple hardware. So you might want to know how to mix for it.

Lossless and Spatial Audio, now on Apple Music – meaning also a delivery option if you’re making spatial sound with Dolby Atmos. Photo courtesy Apple.

Lossless Audio

The easy part to understand: every track on Apple Music instantly gets lossless playback. Lossy compression (like MP3) adds some audible artifacts – subtle, but sometimes detectable. It’s debatable whether you can hear that at different encoding rates – you can do double-blind A/B tests – but mathematically, the difference is there. Apple Lossless saves on file size but has the same information encoded as a larger uncompressed file (like your WAV or AIFF).

What Apple calls it: Lossless Audio (ALAC or Apple Lossless Audio Codec)

When the format arrived: 2004, actually; plenty of us have been using it ourselves in iTunes for years and it’s open-source

How to get it: It’ll just happen in June for all 75 million + sounds in the catalog, because Apple required you upload lossless masters from the very start

Where: Settings > Music > Audio Quality, then select Apple Lossless and 16-bit 44.1 kHz, 24-bit 48 kHz, and Hi-Resolution Lossless up to 24-bit 192 kHz.

Wait, hi-resolution? Yes; Apple says this is for “the true audiophile” which is I presume – not any of us who actually work in music, since we’re generally fine with the other settings. (Sorry, audiophiles.) True, you can use that with external DACs for better quality but – you can do exactly the same with 16-bit/44.1 and have the same quality as the master. (Ducks… .)

Apologies to our bat audience; I know this matters to you.

But anyway, the other Lossless formats are great!

Spatial Audio and Dolby Atmos

Here’s the slightly more confusing part of this story, but it’s also the most interesting.

Apple has been pushing “Spatial Audio” for some time, and now it’s onboard with the Dolby Atmos Music experience.

Dolby Atmos is the proprietary Dolby surround technology for cinemas, and it’s also been extended to other Atmos-branded consumer listening experiences. Here, it does really mean spatial sound – so a three-dimensional encoding technology for multichannel mixes that’s related to what Dolby sells for movie theaters and whatnot.

Think multiple channels, x + y + z space info, and then a 360-degree mix. When we’re talking Dolby Atmos Music, that information is encoded with the mix and either played back on a real multichannel surround system at home, or a headphone mix using some machine interpolation meant to simulate 360-degree immersion.

Dolby has been putting the Atmos brand on sort of everything. And that is a slightly weird decision, because it dilutes the brand. Atmos in cinemas is pretty amazing, if pricey and proprietary – Dolby even showed up at an Ableton Loop event, equipped with plug-ins. But as you imagine, taking surround sound and delivering it through stereo headphones is a totally different animal, and often disappointing. It’s the difference between a Ferrari, and … a keychain with the Ferrari logo.

But Dolby have certainly been trying. There is spatial sound processing in the latest Xbox platform and accessories, the Windows platform, and for some reason a bunch of phones.

We’ll have to see how Apple delivers this experience, but they promise use of their AirPods and all H1/W1-equipped recent Beats headphones. They also offer support for internal speakers, though why you’d want to use internal speakers to listen to 360-degree audio, I have no idea.

But don’t get me wrong – there’s potential here. Being able to know that a consumer is listening through Apple’s integrated OS and headphone experience could make this more predictable. And while Tidal already had Atmos, this is of course a bigger audience with Apple – and the promise of a deeper implementation, with directly integrated hardware.

It also could trickle up to more advanced spatial audio experiences, depending on how the creator and hardware accessory and platform are handled. Though in that event, of course, you might also just give up and use ambisonics … and I wonder what may happen soon with game tools. (Imagine that you might deliver music as an AV experience through Unreal Engine and some as-yet-unseen integration with Apple headphones and iOS, for instance… let’s see.)

For now, I expect a lot of us with an iPhone and some AirPods Pro will just be curious to try it out and let our ears be the judge. And fortunately, if Maroon 5 aren’t exactly your speed, the “thousands” of launch tracks also include things like the LA Philharmonic and producing work by Giles Martin, and yeah, I’m also curious what J Balvin and The Weeknd sound like.

I have a lot of questions – like whether you’ll be able to use third-party home equipment, whether Apple will try to get into that home game and real multichannel, and whether Apple will dig into Atmos authoring with Logic.

For now, many people are mixing Dolby Atmos with Steinberg Nuendo, the DAW from Apple’s old Hamburg rival:

But yeah, you can totally use Logic for Apple Music – Dolby quietly introduced how back in January, so let’s watch:

Atmos Music How-to

If your eyes glazed over with the Apple stuff, spatial audio fans will love the actual mixing experience. And this is wild – think about having the usual spatial tools, but being able to deliver to a broad array of listeners with your actual 360-degree mix, not just a stereo version.

Dolby Atmos Music Quick Start: Getting Started with Logic Pro

The Atmos Renderer has come a long way, and will look instantly familiar to anyone working with spatial sound:

Any spatial tool will have a panner.

And you can use this with any DAW you want – here it is as AAX in Pro Tools, but there are VST and AU version, too.

Whoa, dig the elevator music, Dolby.

Here’s how to work with Logic Pro – and we’ll see if Apple offers up some unique integration for their platform, as they do often do. (Most of what’s unique here has to do with Logic’s peculiar mixing engine architecture and Objects.)

And here’s how you make a master, in Ableton Live:

Watch this space to see what happens next.

But it does push Apple forward with stuff producers like – meaning, Spotify, your move.

PS – if you’re interested in spatial sound, we’re hosting a free event in June on the topic for all levels alongside Your Mom’s Agency, so join in:

Arts Technologist KamranV (aka CyKiK) builds bridges between the real and the ideal. Current interests include holograms, automation, and quadraphonic music. Recent explorations include developing the PHONOCUT home vinyl recorder, reimagining Moogfest, co-creating the SONOS studio and producing Suzanne Ciani’s LIVE Quadraphonic, the first quadraphonic vinyl release in over 30 years.
In this workshop, Kamran reviews the state of immersive/3d/spatial sound and how a quadraphonic music production workflow using the Quadraphonic Universally Accessible Resource Kit (QUARK) can open up current and future creative opportunities.

And more on our partner, KamranV:

Unlike Dolby’s offering, QUARK is available free:

And yeah, that means also independent distribution (not just streaming) is an alternative. But more on that another time.