Terrible Lie

We were fooled. Bamboozled. Duped, suckered, hornswoggled, and flimflammed. In short, we were deceived. And Alex’s wallet is $28 lighter. The only way to get the “audiophile mastered” version of Nine Inch Nails’ new album Hesitation Marks is through NIN.com. Seemingly worth buying it direct, right? After all you get the “audiophile” version of the album.

First, mixing engineer Alan Moulder said this:

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 and have a significantly lower level record, or do we sacrifice the bass for a more competitive level of volume?

Significantly lower level record is the key phrase there. Then he said this:

It’s meant to give a slightly different experience, not denigrate the standard version.

So which is it, significantly lower level, or slightly different? Well, now we know. Let’s take a look, shall we?

Top: standard CD mix Bottom: audiophile mix (FLAC)

Top: standard CD mix Bottom: audiophile mix (320CBR MP3)

No, your eyes are not deceiving you. The version on the bottom is the “audiophile master.” The waveform is a bit peakier and slightly more dynamic than the standard version, but hardly significantly lower level. In fact, the “audiophile master” version and the “Mastered for iTunes” version are almost the same, at least as far as the dynamic range meter is concerned. I have not tested the iTunes release for clipping. What’s worse is that the “audiophile” version was still so compressed that MP3 encoding caused serious inter-sample overs, as you can see in the second image.

I honestly don’t know what the hell happened here. Who did Moulder and mastering engineer Tom Baker think they were going to fool with this? This version of the album could’ve been called just an “alternate mix,” and there would’ve been no complaints. When you call it the “audiophile mastered” version though, and describe it specifically in the context of the Loudness War, people are going to have expectations, and those expectations were clearly dashed. Audiophiles know what dynamic range is and aren’t going to be fooled.

NIN could’ve simply released the digital vinyl master, as Dan Swanö did with Witherscape, and everyone would’ve been happy. Instead, they promised something and then completely and utterly failed to deliver on that promise. The “audiophile master” is slightly quieter and a bit more dynamic than the standard CD mix, that much is true. It’s also really problematic in terms of production and actually sounds worse than the regular CD!

This is a prime example of the dynamic range meter’s report not being the whole story. The CD version of “Everything” clocks in at DR4, compared to DR5 for the “audiophile” version. The CD version is better produced though, and ultimately sounds better. Sadly, as is usually the case, if you want to hear Hesitation Marks the way it should be, you need to buy the vinyl.

UPDATE: Ian Shepherd of Production Advice has a fantastic video comparing the two. Check it out.