Hello, and welcome to a series of articles I’m going to be writing about the creation & release of my compilation album Pieces!
Today I’m going to talk about one of the bonus features for those who pay for the release via my Bandcamp page, and why I decided to release it in the first place. This feature is something I’ve wanted to experiment with for a little while now, and it’s called the “audiophile master”. To explain what that is, we have a bit of ground to cover first. This will serve as more of a primer for the overall concept – if you’re looking for an in-depth look at mastering and the processes involved, I would strongly suggest looking elsewhere.
So: What does the mastering process entail? Generally speaking, the mastering process is the final creative step between an otherwise completed project and the listener. As songs are recorded, produced, and mixed individually, this can result in a collection of tracks which may have some quite wild sonic variations throughout. Naturally, this would not be particularly useful for the average listener – an album should flow naturally with each track sitting comfortably alongside the next. Listeners should not have to ride the volume control while listening to an album to compensate for wild amplitude fluctuations between tracks. It is the job of the mastering engineer to take the final project mix-down, and make sure it all sounds correct as one complete work. It is also the job of the mastering engineer to get the project ready for distribution, which can involve adding ISRC codes and other meta-data to the release.
Why are there two masters in this case, then? Well, this actually goes back to the point I made above about the listener not having to ride the volume control while listening to an album. It has become common practice over the past two decades or so to raise the overall level of a project during the mastering stage, so that the final album will sound satisfyingly loud next to other commercial releases. While this sounds like a reasonable thing to do on paper, this practice involves the use of heavy compression and limiting, which will result in reduced dynamic range and, in some instances, distortion in the form of digital clipping. There is only so far you can push digital audio before this happens and, naturally, this is not a good thing. It is up to the mastering engineer to strike a fine balance between perceived loudness while preserving a project’s natural dynamic range. While a listener should not have to ride the volume control while listening to an album, there should be room for an album to ebb and flow in a satisfying manner if necessary. While listening to an individual song that is AS LOUD AS POSSIBLE might be satisfying at first, this may fatigue the listener over the length of an entire album or with repeated listens. Again, this is not a good thing. An often cited example of an overly compressed record is Metallica’s Death Magnetic. It is compressed to the point of repeated clipping, and – even to the average listener – sounds distorted throughout.
Soooo… why are there two masters in this case, then?! See, I came across this idea last year with the release of Nine Inch Nails’ rather fantabulous album “Hesitation Marks”. They made a big deal of the fact that copies of the album purchased through the website would feature the regular version of the album, which would be compressed & limited to a commercially viable level, and an “audiophile” version of the album, which would be specifically designed for those wishing to listen in a dedicated listening environment with the dynamics preserved to a much higher standard. This sounded like a fantastic idea to me – a commercially loud master for regular listening, and a dedicated master that eased up on the compression for those who want to kick back and listen to the album in a quality listening environment.
What you’re saying is that, basically, you stole the idea then? Well… yes and no (buuuut… mostly yes!). To be honest, I wasn’t particularly satisfied with the NIN audiophile master. It sounded different, and there was definitely a bit more going on in the low-end which was a bonus, but it didn’t preserve the dynamics of the original album mix as well as I’d hoped – especially when compared to the vinyl release. There is no reason for this in my opinion. Vinyl is not a superior format in terms of potential dynamic range, but vinyl masters are often far more dynamic than their digital counterparts. This is a huge issue in my opinion, and is not something that can be solved by releasing albums at a ridiculous sample rate and high bit-depth. This is one reason why I was a bit miffed at the marketing for the Pono player, which seemed to completely skirt the real issue entirely. It is for this reason that I decided to go with a sample rate of 48khz at 24-bit for the audiophile master – the difference in dynamic range comes from the master itself, not from the distribution format.
If the audiophile version is better then, why not just release that? That is an excellent question, and there’s one big thing I want to point out here. The “regular” Pieces master is in no way compromised or inferior to the audiophile version. They are meant for different purposes. Strictly speaking, I wrote the album with the regular master in mind, and it was the first master that I heard in its entirety and was completely happy with. I would never put out a release that I felt was compromised in any way. For everyday listening, the regular master is the way to go, and I imagine it will be the version of choice for the vast majority of listeners. However, for those with a dedicated listening environment with high quality equipment, the audiophile master provides a nice alternative. When I use the word “audiophile”, I am referring to the kind of person who loves listening to albums from start-to-finish in a dedicated listening environment, and not to the kind of person who would spend hundreds of pounds on hi-fi cables because they sound “cleaner”.
Let’s get down to it then: what are the main differences between the two masters? Here goes…
- The audiophile master is less heavily compressed & limited than the regular master. For those who like to listen out for this kind of thing, this means the audiophile master likely have a bit more of a dynamic feel to it though, having said that, the regular master was designed to have a satisfying ebb and flow to it as well.
- The equalisation is different throughout. In the regular master, there is slightly more of an emphasis on the high-end. In the audiophile master, the extra headroom means that there is a bit of extra room for the lows and mids, and so the audiophile master capitalises on this. Which one you prefer will purely be a taste thing.
- The audiophile master is released at a higher sample rate & bit-depth. As I mentioned above though, the difference in sound will come much more from the actual master than the distribution format. That said, I felt it made sense to release the audiophile master in a slightly higher quality format for those that want it. The regular master is released as a CD-quality master at 44khz/16-bit. The audiophile master is released at 48khz/24-bit. If you want me to release it at a higher sample rate then allow me to re-iterate what I’ve said previously – you’re going to be in for a bloody long wait!
In short: The main reason behind the existence of the Pieces audiophile master is to provide some additional choice for those who want it. When I say that “most people will prefer the regular master”, this is not a condescending or disparaging statement. Which version you prefer will likely come down to taste as much as anything, and I would much rather offer the choice to those that want it than offer a one-size-fits-all release with no alternative.
Regardless of which version you prefer, I hope you enjoy Pieces when it’s released on the 8th August!