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We all know that professional music production technologies have become more and more within the grasp of those of us on something of a budget. But it might surprise you to learn that a free bit of consumer playback software has become the mastering choice of one of the world’s most notoriously fussy musicians.

buddy the catThe New York Times reports that guitarist/producer Ry Cooder recently struggled with the sonic integrity of a folk/blues concert record concerning a cat in a mythical American music landscape. The usual processing wasn’t cutting it — and when he played back in his car (a tried and trusted objective test of listenability), it just sounded processed.

However, listening to a CD that he burned using iTunes, he noticed that it all sounded much nicer. One of the studio engineers explained to him about the default setting in iTunes called “Sound Enhancer“, and so he decided to investigate.

Cooder concluded that, in fact, it was exactly the sound that he’d been after — and so the final mastering on the album consisted of nothing more than a trip through the iTunes software.

It’s a nice story. I’m not sure to what extent it’s rooted in fact, since mastering is actually about more than just sound-sweetening, but does raise interesting possibilities.

Even though Sound Enhancer is meant to treat finish digital files that have already been through the mastering process, Cooder seemed to think that the process was enough of a mastering system itself. That, of course, has a lot to do with the genre of music and, in a way, makes sense simply because professional studio mastering can often get quite heavy handed on the compression front under pressure from the labels to put ever louder records.

Unlike Rock, Hip Hop and Dance music, which require a certain body and punch, folk and blues music (like jazz and classical) benefit from dynamic range, acoustic space and room for the instruments to breathe. That kind of treatment only comes with the slightest of processing. A light touch.

Sounds like the iTunes software has just the right type of the slightest of processing for this kind of job. I just listened to some unmastered folk music through the Sound Enhancer (which can be found in the Playback settings), and cranked it up to about 75%.

He may have a point.

Not sure what we conclude from that — but maybe it’s of some use to you.