Nine Inch Nails – Audiophile Master? Are You Kidding Me?

September 6, 2013

nineinchnails_hesitationmarks

It has been all over the internet. Nine Inch Nails has released a new album – Hesitation Marks – in two versions: “Audiophile Mastered” and standard. Here is what Tom Baker, the mastering engineer had to say:

I believe it was Trent’s idea to master the album two different ways, and to my knowledge it has never been done before.

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.

Could this really be a breakthrough? Then beginning of the end of the loudness wars? Let’s examine it with Izotope RX2, a professional audio restoration software suite. You can click on the graphs to enlarge them.

But first a few graphs for comparison. Here is the waveform of some classical chamber music everyone is familiar with – Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik performed by The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields lead by Sir Neville Marriner.

mozart_nachtmusic

The difference between the average (RMS) loudness and the peaks, known as the “crest factor”, and more often than not erroneously referred to as the “dynamic range” of a recording, is 23db, which is fantastic. Different programs calculate the crest factor differently. The popular Dynamic Range Meter gives a reading of DR15.

Now let’s take a look at some rock. Here is the waveform of The Eagles’ Hotel California as it originally appeared on the CD. It has a crest factor of 21db – excellent for a rock recording. By comparison, the Dynamic Range Meter reading is also DR15, equivalent to the Mozart.

eagles_hotelcaliforniacd

Here is the waveform of Hotel California in the remastered 192/24 version available on HDTracks.

eagles_hotelcaliforniaremastered

As you can easily see the gain has been jacked up and peak limiting engaged to prevent clipping. Of course the high resolution version sounds different, and, because it is louder, apparently sounds “better”, than the CD version. Nothing like comparing apples and oranges to “prove” the sonic superiority of high resolution audio. Nevertheless, it has a crest factor of 15db and is assigned a DR10, which is still pretty good.

Now let’s take a look at the waveform of the cut Copy of A from the standard version of Hesitation Marks. It has a crest factor of a 9.96/10.13, and the last minute of the cut, which appears as a solid block, has a crest factor of 7.28/7.20. By comparison, it is a DR4. DR4. Think about that.

copyofa_standard

Okay, now let’s take a look at the waveform of the same track from the “Audiophile Mastered” version. Overall, it has a crest factor of 11.04/10.82, and the last minute of the track has a crest factor of 8.10/7.66. In other words, it is less than 1db less compressed. As you might expect, the Dynamic Range Meter clocks in at DR5. Do they sound different? Yes. They are EQed differently. The “Audiophile Mastered” version has more bass.

copyofa_audiophile

Is this really an audiophile mastering? Are you kidding me?

By the way, both the standard and the “Deluxe” versions of Copy of A on iTunes are DR4.

For those interested, I use Isotope RX2 for generation of the spectrograph because I think they are easier to read when I do a screen capture and post to the web. Here is what the two files look like in Pro Tools if that is what you are used to seeing. The Audiophile Mastered version is blue and the standard version is green. They look somewhat different than the Izotope RX2 graphs – and not better – due to different vertical and horizontal scales.

copyofa_protools

Update

I have read the criticism that it is ridiculous to compare classical music and ’70s rock to the industrial rock of Nine Inch Nails. The purpose of the comparison was not to compare genres of music qua music, but rather a three fold purpose: 1) to give readers a view of what dynamic music looks like compared to compressed and peak limited music, 2) to show that the same music, Hotel California, when remastered, went from DR15 to DR10 for no other reason than to make it louder, and 3) to show that the “Audiophile Mastered” version of a cut off Hesitation Marks was anything but – the dynamic range simply moved from DR4 to DR5 and more bass was added.

But I understand the criticism. So lets look at the two singles from Nine Inch Nails’ most popular album (4x platinum) The Downward Spiral. First let’s look at March of the Pigs. It has a crest factor of 13.01/12.63 and a Dynamic Range Meter reading of DR7.

marchofthepigs

Let’s also look at Closer. It has a crest factor of 13.67/13.68 and a Dynamic Range Meter reading of DR9.

closer

The Downward Spiral as a whole is a DR8. Hesitation Marks standard version as as a whole is a DR5. So we’ve gone from DR8 to DR5. That tells me that the loudness wars are still ongoing. And coming out with an “Audiophile Mastered” version with a DR6 isn’t helping. Let’s go back to at least the DR8 of The Downward Spiral. You could still turn it up as loud as you want using your volume control.

I’d be really interested to see the master that was used to cut the LP version of Hesitation Marks.