Trent Reznor Fights The Loudness Wars, Offers ‘Loud’ & ‘Audiophile’ Masters Of Hesitation Marks

Nine-Inch-Nails-Hesitation-MarksTrent Reznor is taking a stand in the ‘loudness wars’ by offering the latest Nine Inch Nails album, Hesitation Marks, mastered two different ways:

  • the standard, ‘loud’ mastering (which is what you’ll find on the CD, on iTunes, and everywhere else); and
  • an alternate ‘audiophile’ mastering, designed for audiophiles and people with an understanding of the mastering process.

The ‘loudness wars’ is the trend for music to be mastered with greater and greater compression, which results in tracks sounding ‘louder’, at the expense of dynamic range. According to the band, the standard ‘loud’ version will be preferable for most listeners, but the ‘audiophile’ version is a more accurate reflection of the music.

Alan Moulder, who mixed the album, offers a more detailed explanation:

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. On the main release, Mastering Engineer Tom Baker did exceptional work to maintain the integrity of our mixes and reproduce the low end as much as possible and still get a decent level, although it’s still nowhere as loud as a lot of modern records.

The Audiophile Mastered Version is more true to how the mixes sounded to us in the studio when we were working on the songs. Have a listen, turn up the volume and enjoy the experience!

Mastering Engineer Tom Baker adds:

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.

If you order any format of Hesitation Marks from, you’ll be able to download one or both mastering versions, in whichever formats you prefer (MP3, FLAC, Apple Lossless, and WAV), beginning September 3rd.

What do you think of the idea of offering multiple masters of albums – ‘loud’ and  ‘audiophile’?

74 thoughts on “Trent Reznor Fights The Loudness Wars, Offers ‘Loud’ & ‘Audiophile’ Masters Of Hesitation Marks

    1. Great idea, of course this has been done before, though perhaps not publicized and choice offered…Many people are experimenting with varying degrees of compression and limiting.

      The thing that’s not being mentioned is what is the real downside of the loudness war: that the music is fatiguing and ultimately you just don’t want to listen to it as much as you would otherwise. If this were truly understood, we would all step back from the precipice.

      1. This has been done before. Probably the most talked about release has been Metallica’s Death Magnetic mastering for Guitar Hero. The songs in the game sounded a lot better than in the CD. When people started to analyse both releases it became clear what happened.

        There’s an awesome book that helps to understand how the loudness wars started:
        “Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music” by Greg Milner

        1. nah, it started much earlier
          the remastered cd of the stooges raw power is the first thing i remember where it was really obvious
          it sounded so bad that i though i had f***ed up the monitors – so did send them in for repairs, lol

    2. Most vinyl releases are the same idea, less compressed versions of the CD master. That is why they “sound so good” 🙂

      1. Actually that’s not true. Vinyl masters are very altered from the master tapes. They are limited and have the low end rolled off to stop the grooves from being too wide.

        You are listening to a mechanical representation of the master tapes. How can that be more accurate? To me vinyl sounds soft and has mushy transients. It might be “warmer” sounding, but that’s because it lacks high end.

        CDs can exactly like the master tapes. If the master tapes are mastered loud, so is the CD. But the CD does not alter the sound.

        1. oh dear, I’d best not be technical in my response cause you clearly know nothing…so BASICALLY…..

          But fIrstly, as you say CD’s can replicate more accurately what has been mixed and mastered.

          What is currently mixed and mastered for CD’s is in many cases NOISE….over the years, since CD’s tracks have become louder and louder. The performer didn’t ever play them that loud in the studio, they have been made loud artificially. So that they will be heard. As a result this artificial loudness spoils the dynamic range ie. how loud an instrument or vocal gets on the track and how quiet they get. It spoils the contrast, so you just hear LOUD all the time. Currently this is thought to be the best way to sell music.

          A lot of people enjoy listening to music that has lows and highs in terms of dynamic range, as this makes a piece more interesting. Obviously this can be captured accurately on a CD, as you said.

          However, when capturing this interesting dynamic range, which can add to the passions, presence, and interest, and build up and slow down of parts of a piece. it works best on vinyl…most people say so anyway……

          But what DOES NOT work well on Vinyl is the loud stuff, it causes what you correctly describe as the wide grooves and slipping, but the track should not be like that!! it’s boring and unkind to your ears.

          So it’s not that vinyl is better, it’s that uncompressed music with a dynamic range is better, and because you are conditioned that louder is better (which don’t work well on vinyl) this is why you think vinyl is shit. Hope this makes sense

    1. It’s probably just a matter of it being hard to fight the status quo, and indifference from listeners. Plus, a lot of artists wouldn’t want to pay to master their music twice.

      Reznor can do things a lot of artists can’t do because he’s technically savvy and he’s got a lot of clout.

  1. Years ago, our band stupidly used too much multiband compression on our masters. We recently did a re-release of a CD and the mastering used no additional compression. The mixes were compressed very tastefully by the mix guy. It sounds SO much better. Before it plays you have to get up and turn the volume up, then you have to turn the volume down before you listen to a more smashed CD. Not a big deal.

    However, it’s not “radio-friendly”. When we get radio play, they already compress their output bus anyway.

  2. Sounds like a good exercise in terms of comparison to me…
    Usually no audiophiles have no idea what’s happening, that’s why they keep consuming it.
    Having two different versions of the same audio could make it possible to distinguish the huge world between and loud and non loud record… It makes sense at least to me

  3. i prefere One Mix at all.why choose between 2 Mixes? ok maybe the Idea is that People can better understand.

    the latest Jack white Album. it was mastered without any dynamic Processing and it Sounds great!

    Trent should only Release the audiophile imho.

    sorry for my shitty english…

    1. I can see why you might want two – dynamic range reproduction on radio and TV isn’t as great as it might be on a good home system, or if say you’re listening on the train or in your car or whatever, where a quiet bit might just get obliterated by background noise. So a “loud” version may work better for that (although there are loudness standards for TV music).

      1. I agree. With the emergence of digital delivery, there can be a loud mix for cars, subways, etc. and a dynamically uncompressed mix for “serious” listening.

        1. With cheap ICs that can perform compression why can’t these be built into devices and enabled under high background noise situations, even automatically as detected by the device itself? Many car stereos already adjust level according to background noise as it is. The master shouldn’t be designed for worst case listening scenarios. Good on ya, Trent for giving the knowledgable listeners a way to sidestep the loudness war.

          1. ehh, i’d rather hear a made-to-slam mix slammed through a $50k mastering chain than a dynamic one mangled by some portable device’s crappy dsp..

            1. For real. Compare a good-but-hot mastering job with the “loudness” setting on your average car stereo and it’s quickly apparent. Mastering engineers as a rule don’t *like* to slam stuff, but when they *have* to, they at least try to do the best job they can…

  4. Ten bucks says all the people who whine about loudness will say they prefer the “audiophile version” on internet forums then crank the properly mastered one when no one’s watching…

      1. Oh, I’m well aware how loudness and compression work. If the “audiophile” version truly sounded better there would be no need for a “loud” version. When you have to explain to someone why they should think it sounds better…it probably doesn’t.

        1. In the short term, “louder” always sounds “better.” However, when music’s dynamics are unnaturally equalized, it becomes fatiguing and very non-musical. I suspect Trent’s experience with both trumps your suppositions about either. It’s easy to make assumptions for a reason. Rather than suppose you know about something you’ve never tried – why not actually try it?

  5. As a musician, performer, producer, engineer, studio owner and operator as well as a music fan, I find modern (loud) mastering an abomination and truly superfluous. It has ruined so much music as to be a crime against musical artistic integrity.

  6. Lol doesn’t understand what loudness is. It’s not about volume. A decently mastered piece of music should sound good at all volumes. Yes, including cranked. Things that are artificially loud are made so by clipping off parts of the sound wave, resulting in poor fidelity. That is what most “audiophiles” dislike. It has nothing to do with volume.

  7. Would you rather be the musician whose music people turn up because they want to hear it better, or the one they turn down because it makes their ears tired?

    1. Cut the crap. Too loud is always too loud, no matter the shape of the waveform. A fully dynamical spike at 120dB will hurt your ear just as much as a clipped flat-top at 120dB. Possibly, increased dynamics would result in wearing your eardrums out more, as they need to adjust more.

      1. In this context “loud” means dynamics. It has nothing to do with SPL, only average amplitude of the signal, regardless of the SPL.
        Your theory about “adjusting” is misinformed. Exposure to sustained high SPL is how ear damage occurs.

  8. Light clipping and limiting in a mastering process can be beneficial I think. Its a technique that has existed and been used since the 60’s when pressing to vinyl. It can be used to add some dynamic consistency while adding its own tone. It can be used artistically, or it can sacrifice quite obvious quality in a recording. If the mix doesn’t have as drastic dips in volumes in some places meant to sound obviously quieter it can detract from the original intentions. There is audibly a fine line between too compressed and actually pleasing compression in my opinion, but as of right now the threshold has ben exasterbated many multiples of times since even the 90’s. There are other problems just as important I think that include equalization during the mixing process that is harder to pin down in laymen terms, but lets just say its fairly extreme in modern music.

  9. I think it is a superb idea! Perhaps we could have the choice to make a “low volume” master of our work if we wish so, without people thinking our work has less quality than the one with a “loud master”.

  10. I hate the word audiophile. And as an artist, why not release it the way you want it to sound? This isn’t the 70’s when the bands were at the mercy of the labels. Saying that most average joes would rather hear the “loud” version is ridiculous, they wouldn’t even know the difference if people wouldn’t mention it.

    1. The issue is not the loudness. It is that when compressed to high heaven, there is no dynamic range. There are no quiet sections, all one volume. The goal is a louder sounding track, but the means is compression. All that is quiet is made loud, all transients are buried in the rest of the signal.

  11. One of the great things about digital recording and playback media is the hearable dynamic range. In the days of tape and vinyl compression of some sort was desperately needed to get the quiet parts of a piece of music louder than the hiss of tape or the rumble and grinding of a record player. Brilliant engineers worked years to overcome the sonic limitations of the available media, and helped make many great records, but you almost never heard a really quiet part ’cause you just couldn’t do it then. Now we can, but, at least in popular commercial music, we don’t, only now it us for other reasons.

    Thank Goodness jazz and classical recordings seldom get made un-listenable this way!

    ’til next time;

  12. Sounds

    Say what you will, and make all futile attempts to preserve your integrity, but the inevitable result of the whole recording process is MP3, FLAC, Apple Lossless, and WAV, among other formats. Choose your weapon of audio war.

    This all sounds like an attempt to publicize the record.

    1. Your example doesn’t make much sense. The difference between a 24-bit master and a 128K mp3 is big, granted, but higher rates and better formats don’t do nearly as much damage to a mix as over-compressing it. Now, there are some styles of music where big, loud, compressed sound won’t take anything away– i.e., music that lacks dynamics.

      Audiophile is a little annoying as a “brand” only because it is become connected to a type of OCD stereo shopper– one who spends hundreds on placebo 4 feet of 10 gauge speaker wire. I think calling one master “Dynamic” and the other “Standard Compression”

    1. Perhaps judging from your “winky” you are making a joke. If not, consider purchasing both versions. There is a marketing angle, but I also think that making folks aware of this cartoonish compression is important. Down the road, CD players can even have a function where they read a code on a track that tells it to adjust the overall level of the disc.

      1. the “audiophile” version is a free download for everyone that buys it, I believe. I don’t see how that’s a marketing gimmick.

        1. u can’t see how this is marketing trick?
          well then u must be reading a different thread then i am
          just look @ how many comments it rained on here in a few hours 😉

          1. If it’s a marketing ‘trick’ I wish more artists would trick me! The artist is giving away a version of the album with dynamic-range preserving mastering. If nothing else it may be educational for consumers to hear the two different versions.

            So, yeah, it is marketing. But so what? There’s nothing deceptive about it.

      2. Adjusting the overall level is irrelevant. In fact, it defeats the purpose as, unless it’s a ridiculously expensive “audiophile” cd player, the adjustment will be in the digital domain further varying from the original signal. More useful would be media that contained both mixes and the means to pick which one plays or which is the default version played. More likely, IMHO, is the artists will allow the consumer to purchase their preference (and, perhaps, give the other just to those who ask for it).

  13. no, im not kidding
    as i c it there a to ways to go about this
    a) u think the compressed wall of sound sounds like shit then u don’t limit till the cows come home
    b) u like the wall of sound and go for it

    this is a pr gag

  14. It doesn’t make sense to have two versions. The artist in question should just make a decision.

    As for the audio files, regardless of whether they have ‘knowledge’ about these things, they are the only ‘clients’ we have.
    No one else is buying m usic 🙂

  15. Reznor probably had to come to a mutually beneficial agreement with Columbia over this. Makes both parties happy, since the dynamic version reaches the marketplace and the publicity over this decision helps to market the album. But we need more wealthy, influential musicians to grab their balls and insist on more dynamic masters, since this idea that “louder sells better” is just a fallacy perpetuated by noone except the record companies. It is destroying popular music, and ensures that I rarely listen to any full albums mastered later than about 1992 because I just find them fatiguing. I am a sound engineer but I’m not really an audiophile; however I do believe that your brain gets tired more quickly when listening to “brickwalled” music, even if you don’t notice it on a conscious level.

    1. i think it also matters very much on what speakers you are listening to the music
      the squeezed to death stuff works very well on shitty laptop speakers and cellphones …
      on big monitors and good cans it stresses me so much that I’m fed up with listening to music after 1/2 an hour …

  16. Sure, only someone like Trent Reznor has the financial backup to start an “experiment” like this, but I still hope that this will point the way. Hypercompression is a disease. I’m aware that some genres need the dense sound of compression more than others, but even something like deathcore music does not have to be compressed to -5 dB(RMS). But currently it is the norm.

    It would be interesting to know the RMS difference between the standard and the audiophile version. Are we talking about a little more dynamic range, like -5 dB(RMS) to -8dB (RMS) or is it more like -5 dB(RMS) to -15 dB(RMS)? I’m really looking forward to finding out 🙂

      1. Okay? What would the dB(FS) value tell you? I don’t mean to be rude, I just don’t understand your objection.

        As far as I can tell, every mastered song will be about -0.3 to 0 dB(FS). That would be the peak value.

        For mastering it’s really helpful to see how much average “loudness” is appropriate in a genre – and for that I can only think of the RMS value. At least that’s the only way common DAWs can quantify loudness. I would know of no other way.

  17. “Hesitation” seems like the right word. This way he can earn the reputation bonus while not endangering his sales.

    If he was serious about it, he would have done the version that 99% will hear in dynamic mastering. THAT would have been a statement. Clever marketing though.

  18. Of course this isn’t the first time a project has had multiple mastering jobs. However, I do believe it is the first time people have been given a choice on a major release.

    As a consumer, I applaud being given a choice.

    If he had just chosen the audiophile mastering for the entire project, the general public could get the impression that the record was inferior in some way because it’s not as loud as other contemporary releases. When the ‘quieter’ mix is presented as being superior, it changes how it is perceived by the listener. I think he’s taking a conversation that happened only in audio-nerd circles and elevating it to the next level.

    Ultimately, I think this is a way to push sales to (direct) where he potentially gets a bigger cut of the profits. I think its genius. I’d much rather a larger percentage of the money I spend on a record go to the artist rather than the delivery platform.

    Go Trent!

  19. I think you are all right.

    It’s an experiment, it’s a statement, it’s a marketing gimmick, it’s silly, smart, informed, it’s a tip of the hat to refined ears, it’s an acceptance that the general public can’t tell the difference, and ultimately it’s a cool thing to do and I don’t mind that he did it.

    Though he still isn’t the first to do this very thing with a release. He’s just the most famous.

  20. Brilliant, kinda wish the “audiophile” version was available on CD.
    It makes me very happy to see Trent stand up to the “loudness war”, this current trend
    of brick wall limiting has to stop, the human ear enjoys dynamic range.

    For those uneducated about the specifics of the “loudness war” and brick wall limiting during mastering,
    buy a film score CD, something thats classical based, NIN fans may like Hans Zimmer Dark Knight or Dark Knight Rises and listen to it on a home stereo, home theatre (CD’s will play on most DVD & Blueray players), listen to the peaks & valleys, the quiet vs the loud. then compare it to something like Metallica’s Death Magnetic (which was one of the the most heavily, over compressed, brick walled CD’s to date) on the same system. The first thing you will notice is Death Magnetic will sound louder, bet then you will notice it doesn’t have the peaks & valleys. This is a psychological trick the record companies push for, the human mind tends to prefer something that is louder, people tend to think louder sounds better, but what happens is without you knowing, your ears experience fatigue, and you tend to stop listening much sooner, but at that point you’ve already bought the record, and the record company succeeded.

    Ever notice commercials on TV use to be much louder than the TV shows you were watching, especially locally run commercials? Same thing was going on, they were over compressing the the commercials, so they were louder, until recently, when legislation was passed, and ended it.

    In music, the fan needs to send a clear message to the record labels to end this brick wall mastering, and give us the dynamic range we desire.

    Thank You Trent Reznor, & NIN, Let’s start the “Dynamic Revolution”

  21. Seriously? Why the hell are all of you people arguing like there’s no tomorrow about this? I honestly have no clue why this is such a hot topic for debate; fact is, the second “audiophile” version is a digital-only release which is being offered to EVERYONE who purchases “Hesitation Marks” from, regardless of format.

    It clearly states on September 3, your account will be provided with BOTH digital versions – nobody is being forced to choose between one or the other as a download. So instead of sitting here arguing amongst one another – a completely futile and pointless endeavor, mind you – accept that Reznor & co. have opted to go with two different DIGITAL versions whilst keeping ALL physical media in one mastered edition only. On September 3, download both copies in your preferred lossless formatting (don’t go with MP3’s or other lossy encodes because it’ll defeat the entire purpose anyway) and listen to each one to see how much of a difference you can hear. End of story.

    As a side note: I’m trained as an audio engineer, and I do understand the logistics and inner workings of sound/music theory, compression, dynamic range, acoustics, mastering, etc. By no means would I consider myself a professional in this field, but I have two technical certifications; one being for regular audio engineering, the other includes mastering, too. Thus, at the very least I have more knowledge of these matters than the ‘common’ individual would – but I’m sure there are plenty of people who have commented here who’s skills and knowledge of audio engineering put mine to shame. Point being, I do know WHY there’s a ‘loudness war’ and why ‘audiophiles’ tend to dislike the manner in which modern music is mastered with loudness in mind. Even so, arguing about it before even hearing both versions is utterly stupid.

    Oh, and for those who are fans of extreme metal, you may or may not recall Scott Hull (Pig Destroyer) offering the band’s latest record “Book Burner” in the ‘standard’ edition (found on ALL physical versions of the full length), as well as a special “for-download-only” DYNAMIC RANGE MIX edition. His reasoning behind this is identical to Trent’s; offering fans the option to hear the same record under two different lights or shades of color, if you will. I personally enjoy the ‘standard’ master as opposed to the alternate ‘dynamic range mix’, but that’s just me.

    1. there is nothing esoteric about it
      the standard way to do it now is just to make it scream in your face all the time
      if u listen to that for more then a few minutes you don’t want to hear it anymore, u turn of the music not because u dont like the music but because “your ears” are overloaded
      no fairy dust here

  22. I’d like to see an “audiophile” concert where the live sound is mixed for fidelity rather than for blowing out the eardrums of the audience.

  23. not really fighting anything. it is good idea but once you call the loud version the standard and the supposedly good version an ‘audiophile’ version (what the hell is that anyway) it pretty much surrenders to the so called fight.. if you want to fight loudness wars, mix and master properly. considering ipod specific mixes and masters is in itself loosing in your own fight.

  24. Actually, having multiple versions of an album or a specific track is not unique to this project. AIX Records has been doing it for over 10 years. Our tracks are mastered for iTunes and CDs but not for our DVD-Audio or Blu-ray titles. In fact, we offer the additional benefit of having three different mixes on each title: 5.1 “stage”. 5.1 “audience” and 2-channel stereo at 96 kHz/24-bits.

    I had the chance to discuss these things with Trent well over a year ago and I gave him one of our sampler discs with the unmastered versions of our recordings. As a former mastering engineer, I applaud him for this choice. More artists need to move in this direction.

  25. This was an awesome idea.. I definitely hear the difference. The instruments are alot more pronounced. Ever listened to an album and notice instruments in certain songs that seem like they’d sound better if they were more part of the foreground? That’s what the audiophile mastering is for. You get a better understanding of the individual sounds and layers being played on a track and it all kinda just stands out alot more. In the process, this gives you a better understanding of what instruments the artist was really focusing on.

    I sorta liken it to listening to an album stoned and being like “Wow, I never really realized how awesome that background ambiance sounded.”.

    Not condoning the use of weed here ofcourse.
    Well maybe a little.

  26. on another note, I’ve dl’ed the audiophile version in wav and loaded it on my ipod, but it won’t play. anybody have any thoughts on this? I know my ipod supports wav, but when I try to play the album, it skips through the tracks lickity split, with no play whatsoever…

  27. Reznor addresses the issue, in an NPR interview (scroll down to the end of the interview):

    “We were faced with a dilemma at the very end of mastering, which was, do we compete with everyone else? Do we want to be as loud as other acts when you’re shuffling through on iTunes? Or do we a make it just a purist thing where it’s exactly how we want it to sound? So we decided to master it two different ways. And this wasn’t meant to be any kind of tricky marketing way to fool you into buying the record twice — it was just for the small percentage of people that would appreciate the difference. If you have a high-end system, you’ll need to turn it up a little bit louder, but you’ll hear it closer to what we actually were listening to in the studio. Don’t get it expecting [that] you’re going to radically notice the difference, particularly if you’re listening to it on your computer. It’s a subtle thing that was meant for the people that care about that sort of detail.”

  28. I hardly leave responses, however i did a few searching and
    wound up here Synthtopia ? Trent Reznor Fights The Loudness
    Wars, Offers ?Loud? & ?Audiophile? Masters Of Hesitation Marks.
    And I do have a couple of questions for you if you tend not to mind.
    Could it be just me or does it look like some of the remarks come across like they are coming from brain dead people?
    😛 And, if you are posting on other sites, I would like to follow anything fresh you have
    to post. Would you make a list of all of all your social sites like your linkedin
    profile, Facebook page or twitter feed?

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