Nine Inch Nails' first album in five years, one of our more anticipated fall releases, is now streaming over on iTunes, and today brings an additional update from the Trent Reznor camp. Turns out Hesitation Marks has been mastered in a separate "Audiophile Version," which will be freely available to those who purchase the record on the band's website. Here are some details on what that entails, via Pitchfork:
As explained Tumblr, the differences are subtle and for "the majority of people" the differences will be be slim. For audiophiles "with high-end equipment and an understanding of the mastering process," the alternate version could be preferable.
On Tumblr, engineer Tom Baker said it was Trent Reznor's idea to master the album in two versions, "and to my knowledge it has never been done before." He articulated the differences between the standard mastering and "audophile" mastering.
That's an intriguing and, as Baker points out, apparently unprecedented approach to what has been popularly termed "The Loudness War"—in other words, the tendency of music engineers in recent years to master albums with as much volume and sonic compression as possible, at the expense of sound quality and dynamic range. Confused? Here's a popular two-minute rundown of how that works:
Sure, it sounds technical. But you don't need to be an audio engineer to bristle when pop songs sound so hideously compressed they might as well be blaring from earbuds across the room. For a music lover's perspective on the phenomenon, scan "Imperfect Sound Forever," Nick Southall's outstanding 2006 essay for the sadly defunct Stylus Magazine. (It also appeared in 2007's Best Music Writing, which—sadly—is also now defunct.)
Trent Reznor gets this. Famously attentive to every millisecond of sound, each snare hit and synth bubble, he's throwing a bone to the thick-spectacled audiophile corner of his fanbase: He's offering them a higher-quality product. But he's also drawing a line in the sand between audiophile and average listener and suggesting that sound quality is only of interest to the former. Reznor is challenging the Loudness Wars, yet simultaneously capitulating to the new normal by offering up the "Audiophile Version" for a niche audience only.
This is a shame. As his producer, Alan Moulder, writes, "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 why not just release the audiophile version on CD and vinyl and let it speak for itself? Reznor's known to be an uncompromising artist (remember Broken? The Fragile? "I'd rather die / Than give you control"?), so maybe the fact that he's now signed to a major label has something to do with it.
At any rate, you can stream Hesitation Marks here. That'd be the compressed version, because, of course it is.