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!