The Real Downward Spiral

99.9% of the music I listen to, buy, rave about, and scare distant relatives with, is heavy metal. However, over the years there have been a few non-metal bands that I continue to follow and buy all of their new releases with glee. Quite possibly my favorite in this privileged, albeit smallish group, has got to be Nine Inch Nails. Pretty Hate Machine and The Fragile are still some of my all time favorite records and in my book, modern day classics.

And I believe a big part of their staying power falls not on just the music itself, but in the shrewd marketing and adept ways in which Trent Reznor has leveraged new technologies to meet the demands of his substantial fan base.

You see, when major labels and industry pundits were still wrestling with (and still are) the ideas of digital distribution and mobile playback, Reznor had already embraced them. Take for instance the Year Zero promotional campaign in which USB sticks with unreleased songs in MP3 format were left in tour venue bathrooms for fans to discover. Or how about using open source software to build “the brain” that controlled the lighting and effects on the “Light the Sky” tour. Need more proof? When the RIAA was suing teenagers for downloading pop music en masse, Reznor was giving away his next album for free…in FLAC. My hero.

Yet for all of his technical savvy, he’s still a victim of the Loudness War. Big time.

You see up until 1994′s Downward Spiral, all of the NIN’s releases (“Halos”) were quite dynamic. It was right around Halo 10: Further Down The Spiral where the Loudness War started to rear its ugly head. By the time 1997′s Halo 11: The Perfect Drug hit the streets, the post production priority was clearly measured in volume units, not dynamics. The band hit an all time low with 2005′s With Teeth, clocking in at a miserable DR5. Year Zero then also followed suit. Tomorrow’s release of their 8th studio album, Hesitation Marks, continues the downward spiral with half the songs squarely in DR4 territory.

But in an amazing turn of events, Reznor and his post production team consisting of Alan Moulder of Assault & Battery 2 Studios and Tom Baker of Precision Mastering, have decided to offer an alternative version of Hestiation Marks targeting audiophiles. If you buy the CD through nin.com, you are then eligible for a free download of the alternative “audiophile” version the day of its release.

Put simply, Reznor pulled a Swano.

But why?

In the announcement on NIN’s official tumblr page, Moulder explains:

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 and have a significantly lower level record, or do we sacrifice the bass for a more competitive level of volume? The biggest issue in mastering these days tends to be how loud can you make your record. 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. So after much discussion we decided to go with two versions.

Moulder admits that once you compress a record down to industry wide averages, you damage the music irrevocably. Period.

What’s even more fascinating is this:

NOTE: The standard mastered version is in no way inferior to the Audiophile Version – we wouldn’t release something inferior as the default. And vinyl purists rest assured, the vinyl edition was mastered to sound the very best for that format. 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.

I could be very wrong, but this “clarification” has Columbia’s stink all over it. My guess is in order for Reznor to release the audiophile master, he is forced to issue this dubious statement in order to quell any label fears of fans perceiving the standard version as an inferior product.

But the real insanity here is the idea that a NIN album has to be stupidly loud to begin with. These guys have been making music for almost 25 years. If that doesn’t buy them the right to release their music how they want to, what does?

Even more disheartening is how this announcement began:

For the majority of people, the standard version will be preferable and differences will be difficult to detect. Audiophiles with high-end equipment and an understanding of the mastering process might prefer the alternate version

Given Moulder’s comments above, how can you issue a statement like this with a straight face? You can’t. And as Dave has already proven, it’s complete BS.

In any event, the fact that Reznor and crew spent the time and money to do this for audiophiles is fantastic! He is now paving the way for other artists to dip their toes in hi-fidelity waters too. Once again, Reznor has my respect and more importantly, my support (read: dollars).

If you happen to be a NIN fan, do not hesitate (well, actually…): Go buy Hestiation Marks, admire the liner notes, throw out the CD (do not re-gift it, that’s just cruel), and wait for the download link tomorrow.

NIN’s real downward spiral maybe finally coming to an end!