Much of the hype surrounding Nine Inch Nails’ Hesitation Marks stems from the fact that the album is the first record from Trent Reznor & Co. since 2008. But the album also is making news in the audio industry because the group will release two versions: the “standard version” and an “Audiophile Mastered Version.” As you may guess, the latter comes with a lower overall volume and a larger dynamic range than the standard version.
NIN and the Loudness Wars
By now, pretty much anyone that’s spent anytime in or reading about the audio industry (and the audio mastering industry, in particular) has heard of what has become referred to as the “loudness wars.” In the most simple form, this refers to modern masters that sacrifice the dynamic range of the track as the whole to obtain a higher overall volume.
This reason this is done on most recordings today is simple: a song with a louder overall volume is perceived to sound better to most listeners. However, audiophiles typically wish to retain that larger dynamic range – the volume difference between the quietest and loudest part of the track – as it better represents the actual song that’s recorded in the studio.
Why Nine Inch Nails Released Two Versions
The group posted a blog explaining the thinking behind releasing two versions that is pretty interesting. We want to present some telling snippets from the blog, but first it should be pointed out that the primary take away is that the band isn’t saying either version is better, just that there is a demand for both.
“The standard mastered version is in no way inferior to the Audiophile Version - we wouldn’t release something inferior as the default…” the group writes. “The Audiophile Version is merely an alternate take on the mastering, which some people will appreciate. It’s meant to give a slightly different experience, not denigrate the standard version. Listen to each and come to your own conclusions.
And we also think this is the important take away from all the so-called loudness wars. It comes down to personal preference. However, it is pretty exciting that a group as visible as NIN are putting out different options of the master. Just a note, you have to download the album directly from nin.com to be able to access the audiophile version.
The following are some interesting parts of the blog explaining the process in this release experiment.
From Alan Moulder, who mixed the album, after explaining that the group decided to mix and master the record track by track (rather than have the entirety of the record mastered after recording and mixes are complete):
Whilst doing this we became aware of how much low bass information there was on the record. Since that can define how loud of a level the mastering can be, we were faced with a dilemma: do we keep the bass and have a significantly lower level record, or do we sacrifice the bass for a more competitive level of volume?... It is a fact that when listening back-to-back, loud records will come across more impressively, although in the long run what you sacrifice for that level can be quality and fidelity.
Moulder also points out that even the standard version of the record is “nowhere as loud as a lot of modern records.”
Tom Baker, who mastered the album, explains the difference in the two versions:
The standard version is “loud” and more aggressive and has more of a bite or edge to the sound with a tighter low end.
The Audiophile Mastered Version highlights the mixes as they are without compromising the dynamics and low end, and not being concerned about how “loud” the album would be. The goal was to simply allow the mixes to retain the spatial relationship between instruments and the robust, grandiose sound.