Nine Inch Nails is offering its new album, Hesitation Marks, in two different ways: a standard mix for the CD, iTunes, and other digital stores, and a different mix catered to audiophiles available through the band's website. This second "audiophile master" mix is the latest salvo against the overbearing loudness of pop music today, and, according to the band, it's the first time that anyone has mastered the same album twice for different audiences.
Most songs produced today are louder than ever before, and have less variance between the loud and soft sounds within their tracks. This "brickwall" method of mixing music (which refers to a very compressed and loud audio track) is generally derided by audiophiles because it eliminates the delicate tones that can be heard with quality audio equipment. Neil Young even went as far as introducing a completely new music player capable of playing back master recordings to sidestep the quality issues with compressed music.
Mixing a version of the album that didn't suffer from loudness issues wasn't easy. Alan Moulder, who was in charge of mixing the album, says that mastering engineer Tom Baker had to balance the many bass tones in the music, which can be loud and overpowering, with keeping the overall volume level lower for the entire track.
"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?"
"Since [bass levels] 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?" says Moulder in a blog post. He also notes that when you listen to two mixes of the same track back-to-back, the louder one can indeed sound better, but that comes at the expense of quality and fidelity. That's why the decision was made to mix the record twice: one for the mass audience, and one for the discerning listener that will appreciate the greater audio quality provided by the quieter mix.
Baker explains the differences between the two mixes this way: "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."
"The goal was to simply allow the mixes to retain the spatial relationship between instruments and the robust, grandiose sound."
Chances are, audiophile-quality mixes of music will never really make the mainstream: for most people, pop music is too ephemeral to waste time, money, and storage space on higher-quality tracks. But despite the two mixes for two audiences, Moulder insists that one version is not superior to the other and vice-versa.
"The audiophile version is merely an alternate take on the mastering, which some people will appreciate," he says. "It’s meant to give a slightly different experience, not denigrate the standard version. Listen to each and come to your own conclusions."