Dr. AIX's POSTS — 05 September 2013

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After spending my $12 on the Nine Inch Nails web site to purchase “Hesitation Marks” in a variety of file formats including the hyped “Audiophile Mastered” versions, I’ve decided that “Audiophile Mastered” is an oxymoron. I wrote excitedly about the prospects of artists actually allowing dynamics back into their releases and was “all in” with Trent Reznor with regards to his choice to offer the regular version of his new album along with an optional version that would appeal to audiophiles like me. I’m not so excited anymore. Here’s what I found.

First, let me state that I like the tunes that he’s crafted. The variety of instrumental colors and textures kept me listening through the whole album. The first track, “The Eater of Dreams”, is a very noisy (deliberately so) gradual build on some rather archaic sounds that culminate in a blast of energy that launches the second tune, “Copy of A”.

As I started analyzing the tracks, the first thing that I saw from the waveforms was that the “Audiophile Mastered” versions were subjected to the standard dynamics crushing that was normal a decade or so ago. On the other hand, the normal “Mastered” versions were crammed even louder hand anything we imagined was possible just a few years. Those clever plug-in programmers and “do-it-yourself” YouTube mastering tutorials have allowed anyone with a reasonably powerful computer, a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) and a set of Dr. Dre’s Beats Headphones to destroy all hope that a good tune might make to music consumers with even a small amount of dynamics.

The Nine Inch Nails “Hesitation Marks” album “Audiophile Mastered” files are a complete waste of effort and hype. What could have been a major opportunity to demonstrate that a current artist would produce AND release a project that went against the trend towards louder and louder records…was lost. I was excited because I imagined a completely different approach to the mastering stage than what was advertised. My expectations were admittedly too high. What we ended up getting was an insanely loud version and a very loud version referred to as “Audiophile Mastered”.

The good news is that the files that I downloaded have a sample rate of 48 kHz and a word length of 24-bits. Of the several regular mastered tunes that I measured for dynamics the best registered 10.99 dB…a whopping 2-bits worth of fidelity. And it didn’t get much better for the “Audiophile Mastered” tracks…the best I found was 12.53 dB. The mastering engineer made use of another whole bit to slip through!

Here’s the first tune that caught my ears and eyes. As you can see in Figure 1 below, both versions are pretty much maxed out with regards to levels. However, if you look closely at the point where I switched the display from the “Audiophile Mastered” to the normal mastered versions, there is a slight area of black above and below the waveform for the normal version. That seems completely opposite of what you might expect.

nin_everything_spectra

Figure 1 – The spectragraph of NIN’s “Everything” track in “Audiophile” and normal versions. (Click to enlarge)

Well, I’ll let you in on a mastering engineers tracks. First, you push the limited on the amplitude with processing or even deliberate “digital” clipping and then adjust the gain down a couple of tens of a dB to make the record “CD safe”. I can know if that was done here but it certainly looks like it. When I took a careful look at the VU meters while this tune was playing, it left no doubt as to which version was actually louder. Take a look at Figure 2 below.

nin_vu_meter

Figure 2 – The VU Meters for the Normal and “Audiophile” Mastered versions of “Everything”. (Click to Enlarge)

So I’m disappointed. I’m tempted to call Trent and as him if he would allow me to have a shot at doing a real “Audiophile Mastering” for a tune or two (I love to mix one in surround as well). I’m convinced that there is audience for music without the heavy hand of mastering getting involved. I know Trent is all over the place these days (I heard him on the radio today in a promo for some NPR program), but I am willing to reach out to him.

The new NIN record is a really interesting listen. But the hype that has surround the “Audiophile Mastered” version is just that…hype. At this point I’m not sure if there’s a mastering engineer on the planet that would know how to leave well enough alone.

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About Author

Dr. AIX

Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

(7) Readers Comments

  1. Mark,
    this is really disappointing! When I read your post about this release three days ago I was tempted to give it a try, although new Nine Inch Nails albums are not usually a compulsory buy for me. Now I’m glad that I didn’t!

    I think this is really a shame and a missed opportunity! Who needs a version which is only slightly different than the artifically loud crap masterings for the radio?

    Someone commented to your earlier post about this that there is also an old Paul McCartney & the Wings album (Band on the Run) of which there is an “unlimited” download version available. I have bought this and I also own the old CD release. If you’re interested, I listened to both versions and while they are definitely different, the difference is also not that huge. The reason for this might be that the old CD doesn’t sound so bad in the first place. I tried to run the tracks from the two versions through an open source spectrogram software and they do not look that much different to my untrained eye. If you’re interested, I could mail you some screenshots…

    Best regards,
    Oliver

  2. Great post, thanks Mark. Yes, please do call Trent. That is exactly how Steve Wilson approached Robert Fripp about remixing early King Crimson in surround. Fripp was dead set against it, but Wilson (as he tells the story) convinced him to allow a demo track. Wilson was expecting much resistance and a big ‘selling’ process, but 30 secs into the song Fripp says it is so much better that it is not funny, and lets do all the major back catalog. (By the way, it was a ‘stage’ mix).

    Have you heard the King Crimson in surround? I think that is audiophile mastering, within the limitations of the original material.

  3. Although I agree the waveforms look pretty similar on initial inspection, I don’t think you’re being entirely fair. When you zoom in to the waveforms so that you’ve got about one second’s worth on a 1280×1024 monitor, you can see that the ‘Standard’ version often has square waveforms, whereas the ‘Audiophile’ version, while taking things to ‘the max’, does not completely square off the waveforms.

    This may seem minor, but I found the sound of the two versions to be different enough that I no longer wish to listen to the ‘Standard’ version – the ‘Audiophile’ version does not tire the ears out, and ‘feels’ better. I found this in blind testing, not knowing what I was listening to, but letting my ears decide. Sometimes, it wasn’t obvious, but by mid-way through the song I was always sure which version I was hearing.

    I do not consider myself an ‘audiophile’, but I am a sound engineer, and I would really like to see the brickwall limiting and general ‘loudness war’ nonsense put to bed. I think Trent’s done as much as he could, and I don’t think we can expect him to release an album that strays too far from what people expect an album to sound like. I do wonder, thought, if his mixing and mastering engineers are now so used to the ‘loudness war’ methods that the audiophile version sounds ‘far out’ to them…

    In short, I think there is a worthwhile difference between the two versions, but I would like to see the ‘audiophile’ version become the rule rather than the exception.

  4. Oh how the parameters of what “audiophile” are have changed. In my mind “audiophile” requires: total analogue workflow, highest quality studio components, critical pre-amps using tubes, minimalist or no mastering modifications and if a live recording, single point micing (no multitracking). that was at least what “audiophile” used to mean. now I guess I means turning down the limiter. what a joke.

    • Brett…I wouldn’t go near as far as you have in restricting things to pure analog and minimal miking. There are certainly great recordings done using other techniques. But the mastering stage and the over use of limiters is right on.

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  6. Hi Mark,

    Bit late in the day to reply to this now but being a big admirer of Mr Reeznor it is very disappointing that he seems to have taken a back seat in his own productions. This man knows what he is doing – he started out working in a studio and used this experience to great effect on the Downward Spiral album. He did release the 2004 anniversary edition of this recording in SACD 5.1 and DVD audio 5.1 and also released the 2005 album With Teeth in a DVD audio 5.1 version. He mentioned doing a special 5.1 of The Fragile album but this has never happened. The last major comment on the NIN website was a a commitment to vinyl, the last EP is only available as vinyl or download so sadly to me he seems to have gone backwards….

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