The loudness wars claim a major casualty


Last Friday was a momentous occasion for a certain long-haired segment of the population: Metallica released a new album.  And it did not suck.

Musically, I mean.  On other fronts it was not without its problems.  But we’ll get to that shortly.

“Death Magnetic” was hyped up months before its release as a return to form for the creatively stagnant millionaires behind the massive ball of confusion and betrayal known as “St. Anger.”  If Lucas raped our collective childhood with the “Star Wars” prequels, Lars raped our collective high school years with “St. Anger.”  For everyone still smarting from several successive crappy Metallica albums, and from the whole Lars/Napster/don’t-download-or-we’ll-hunt-you-down fiasco, “Death Magnetic” was both an apology and a love letter.  It really does sound like the lost album that should have come between “And Justice For All” and the black album.  Or maybe, even more accurately, like the album the black-album-Metallica would have produced if they had said, “Cool, we made our bajillion dollars – now we’re going to try to crank out another ‘Puppets’ for you guys.”  And subsequently failed to do so, but still made a valiant attempt at it.

So yeah: “Death Magnetic,” pretty damn good.  First Metallica album I’ve purchased since the black album.  First Metallica album I’ve even CONSIDERED purchasing since the black album, in fact.

That being the case… why is the internet abuzz with fans complaining about “Death Magnetic” and once again running up the war standard?

Because somebody – the band, producer Rick Rubin, mastering guy Ted Jensen, or some subset of all of these – screwed the pooch hard when it came to the sound of the album.

If you’re not familiar with the idea of brickwall compression and limiting, this is the quick and dirty explanation: Compression is when you make the soft parts louder and the loud parts softer so that the entirety of a song sounds all about the same volume.  That enables you to crank up the whole track so that it all sounds much louder, while the loudest peaks are still within the not-distorting-like-Link-Wray’s-amp range.  Limiting is just chopping off those loudest peaks so you can crank it up a few notches further.  Modern audio product – er, music – is usually compressed and limited like a motherfucker so that the music blasts out of your headphones/cell phone/radio like a rocket.  The goal of this desecration is to make it so you never have to strain your ears to hear anything.  It’s all clear and present and LOUD.  And if you open up one of these modern audio tracks in a visual editor, it looks like a brickwall, because from start to finish the peaks slam right up against the top and bottom of the decibal range.

The “loudness wars” of the title are a race to the top and bottom that the major record labels have been engaging in for years now.  The louder something is out of the box, the better suited it is to be an MTV single, a ringtone, and an mp3.  So everything is over-compressed and over-limited until there’s no chance of a bit of dynamic subtlety remaining.  If you’re old like me, do you remember hi-fi stero systems and people buying really expensive speakers, and turning them up to absurd volumes, to hear every nuance of the music they bought?  Well, nowadays we don’t buy music and there’s no such thing as nuance.  (End cranky old man rant.)

I’ve generally made my peace with this shit – if you consume as much music as I do, you basically have to.  But on “Death Magnetic”‘s retail version, a significant corpse just fell on the field of battle.

“Death Magnetic” is compressed and limited and normalized and amplified into a square wave.  There’s nothing left of it.  An old CD from, let’s say, the early 90s, would have plenty of dynamic range and would be generally rather quiet; if you ripped it in iTunes and let the “Sound Check” feature work its magic, it would determine to play the songs at somewhere between -2 and -4 db.  A standard modern CD from any time since 2000 would probably play at -12 to -14 db – a huge 10 db difference that is accounted for entirely by compressing the hell out of the sound.  “Death Magnetic,” when I ripped it on Friday, wants to play at about -16 db, and even at that level it sounds loud and aggressive.  It will not be suppressed.

Worse, however, and on top of having no dynamic range at all – which is bad enough, but not usually noticable to the non-audiophile – “Death Magnetic” is a clipping, distorted mess.  It sounds like they got to a certain point with the compression and said, “It’s still not loud enough.  Let’s just turn it up 3 db and see what we get.”  And at that point, Diane, what you get is DISTORTION.  Most of the CD is completely overdriven.  Loud drum hits disintegrate into wooden splinters; guitars that were already distorted coming out of the amps now break into shards of digital noise.  The overall effect, for those of you tired of my metaphorical bludgeoning, is like playing the whole thing through small and busted speakers.  It sounds like this: frapppppaaarrrrrrfffrrrrrrfffrrrrKOOOSHffrrrrrrrrrrrrr. 

What compelled veterans like the Metallica guys and uber-producer Rick Rubin to let slide this unholy mess?  The album is good, the songs are interesting and complex and the best the band has written in literally two decades.  Why did they fuck it up with a terrible mix-and-master hack job?

Of course the band and the label have made no statement on this, and despite the clamor of fans, there is no prospect of a remix/remaster/recall on the horizon.  A lot of people have said they’d even pay for the CD again if they could get a better-sounding version of it.  I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I’d seriously consider it.  (How’s that for cynical double-dipping?)

But here’s the interesting thing: there’s already a better-sounding version.

“Death Magnetic” arrived with a “Guitar Hero”-ready little brother.  If you own the game and downloaded the game-compatible tracks, you can pretend to be Hetfield and Hammett all you want.  But even better, you can hear a “Death Magnetic” that isn’t an over-compressed, distorted junk pile. 

And here’s where we (unexpectedly, quite surprisingly) get back to illegal downloading.  Grit your teeth, Lars: some good people out there have made both lossy and lossless rips from “Guitar Hero” and put out the version of “Death Magnetic” that Metallica for whatever reason did not.  I’m not saying you should go download it, Diane, but I will pose a few hypothetical questions to you:

1. If you already bought the CD, should you feel an ethical quandary about downloading a better-sounding version of the same music?

2. If you already have a bittorrent client, shouldn’t you blow the dust out of it once in a while to make your ears happier? 

3. And if you’re a member of Metallica or a big muckity-muck from their record label, why are you wasting time on one of the many complaining blogs, when you could be fixing this problem for real?

Believe me, a whole lot of us would much rather hear an official, well-mixed “Death Magnetic” than this “Guitar Hero”-derived version.  But since the former doesn’t exist, the latter is what we got.  Get yer bittorrent out and yer horns up!


6 Responses to The loudness wars claim a major casualty

  1. Ryan says:

    Quote from one of the engineers via

    “I’m certainly sympathetic to your reaction. I get to slam my head against that brick wall every day. In this case, the mixes were already brick-walled before they arrived at my place. Suffice to say I would never be pushed to overdrive things as far as they are here.

    “Believe me I’m not proud to be associated with this one, and we can only hope that some good will come from this in some form of backlash against volume above all else.”

    If he’s the mastering engineer and he got it that way, then when in the process did Guitar Hero get the tracks (maybe they got individual tracks to aid in the production of the game?) and why did Guitar Hero do a better mix than the album folks? And what mixing engineer in their right mind would do THAT MUCH COMPRESSION before the mastering stage?

  2. That quote is from Ted Jensen, who I mentioned before. The probable answer to your question about Guitar Hero is that they get raw (pre-mix) tracks – they have to, because they need to be able to have the guitar parts stop playing, or play incorrectly, when the players mess up during the game. So they probably have a bunch of pre-mixdown instrumental tracks, and what you hear from the game is their own mix of those tracks. I’m guessing all the brickwalling happened in the final mixdown for the album, which wouldn’t have affected what was sent to Guitar Hero’s team at all.

    As for your other question, it’s a good one – and I have no answer. It’s pretty standard practice for a lot of the compression, limiting, and normalization to be done during the master, so the engineer has flexibility and a lot of control over the final output. If they really compressed the bejeezus out of it before they even sent the mix in for mastering, that’s bizarre… and kind of dumb.

  3. Here’s a link to a very popular online petition regarding this problem:

    My signature is one of almost 4300 – and the album’s been out for less than a week.

  4. Ryan says:

    The creative team should be embarrassed that a video game has a better mix than the album. Not that I’m insulting the game creators at all, but audio is only one facet of their production. The folks with JUST the audio screwed the pooch on the only thing that mattered.

  5. themcp says:

    that they (probably) applied that compression on mixdown is not unlikely considering the way people do workflow in digital recording studios nowadays. a little bit of compression creeps in at every stop along the process and it can easily snowball.

    but it is Still Dumb. especially for multi-gillionaire industry veterans.

    this is the Second time they’ve had major audio quirks on a release (remember the Snare Incident?). they really need to get their it together and start listening to their shit before it goes out.

  6. Ryan says:

    A little compression on individual instruments, sure. But that kind of squashing before it gets to the mastering engineer is just inexcusable.

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