You may have never heard Madonna’s Like A Virgin the way she heard it when she recorded it in the studio 33 years ago, but now you may. Tidal on Thursday launched Tidal Masters, an initiative that will see the streaming service offer thousands of songs from its catalog to HiFi subscription members at the same level of audio quality as their master recordings.
Tidal partnered with British technology company Music Quality Authenticated (MQA) to become the first of the major on-demand music subscription services to allow fans to hear master quality audio. Simply put, a master recording is the initial, raw recording of a song that an artist makes before it is encoded into multiple different audio formats. MQA takes the master recording, digitally processes it while retaining all of the sounds from the original recording that would be lost when being converted to such smaller formats like MP3, and then delivers it in a form small enough to be downloaded and/or streamed. So, those faint sounds you never knew existed on your favorite CD will be front and center in a mastered copy.
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Only those HiFi subscribers who pay $19.99 a month will be able to hear the master-quality audio, and only on the desktop app by clicking on the What’s New and selecting Masters in the albums section. Just because Tidal is streaming songs in master quality does not mean you will necessarily hear them in that quality. According to MQA’s website, while Tidal is one of the select streaming services with MQA playback, you will still need a device or software with an MQA decoder in order to hear the songs in their full master-quality glory. Those without such devices can still hear the MQA-processed songs at a higher quality than CD. At press time, 14 companies offer devices capable of playing back MQA converted files in their richest form, including Pioneer and Technics.
This is quite an ambitious endeavor, one that Jay Z’s streaming service may have jumped the gun on a bit. The website says HiFi members will have access to “thousands of master-quality albums” and “over 30,000 tracks” in master sound quality. At time of publication, there are only 199 albums in the Master section. A PR rep for Tidal informed Digital trend the Master section is not the full amount of albums with master quality audio, but a curated collection of albums. Fans will be able to know which albums are included by playing the album and seeing if the status bar next on the playback reads MASTER or simply HIFI.
Some of Tidal’s part owners will offer their newly mastered albums as part of the campaign. Beyonce’s Lemonade, Coldplay’s 2015 opus A Head Full of Dreams, and Jay Z’s 2007 concept album American Gangster are featured in the collection But, you’re more likely to come across Madonna’s 1984 album Like A Virgin than anything from contemporary Tidal co-owners like Rihanna, J. Cole, and Kanye West, all of whom have no music in the Masters section. A noticeable portion of the albums are older than a lot of Tidal’s subscribers, including the 2016 remastered version of David Bowie’s 1975 album Young Americans and The Doors’ seminal 1967 self-titled album.
The collection of albums in the Master section are not categorized by genre, artist, or anything identifiable, and are not in alphabetical order, similar to the What’s New section where Tidal debuts new albums and singles. That could mean as Tidal adds more master quality content — as the website states it will — the newer additions will be at the top and not necessarily based on what year they were released.
Master-quality audio is the latest feature Tidal has added in the past year. Tidal has supported offline playback for videos since at least February 2016, when the streaming service debuted the second season of Money & Violence, the popular YouTube series. It beat Netflix by nearly a full year, and is still the only on-demand music streaming service to offer such a game-changing feature.
Two years ago, Tidal owner Jay Z explained Tidal’s place in the on-demand subscription music wars by stating the competition “can be McDonald’s, we’ll be Shake Shack.” Only time will tell if mastered-quality songs will be the company’s secret sauce or a nice topping to an already impressive main dish.