Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Happy Christmas !

Just a quick post to wish everyone reading this blog (who celebrate it) a very Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year !

I'm excited at the moment because I'm working on new project which some of you may be interested in - it's early days yet but you'll all be the first to know when it goes live.

It's challenging and exciting, which is just the way things should be.

Let's hope the New Year brings plenty of great music, mixed and mastered at sane levels, and sounding fantastic !

I'll be off-line for most of Christmas, but I have several posts in the pipeline - watch this space. See you all in a couple of weeks !

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

The Future Of Music Composition ?

Get this widget!

How does realtime video collaboration with hundreds of contributors all around the world sound ? Could this be the future of music composition ?

Well, perhaps not quite yet, but it certainly made for an entertaining evening's viewing - and will continue to on future evenings, until the 24th of December.

I'm talking about the current Christmas Special run of internet show Rise and Shine TV - 

"a live show, in which songwriters face the daily challenge of writing a song based on news and current events. The songwriters get to choose what song they are writing - but audience suggestions are always welcome. It’s a tough ask, writing an original topical song from scratch in under three hours, and we need all the help we can get."

This evening, Ben Walker (him what wrote The Twitter Song) got plenty of help from his live audience, via the Mogulus chat interface, as over the three hour running-time, the initial concept of a song called "Christmas Volcano" gradually morphed into soon-to-be-christmas-hit "Magma Lady" - click on the play button in the widget above to hear it yourself.

The brilliance of this concept only really becomes apparent when you watch the show itself and start to interact - Ben, admirably simultaneously wielding guitar, keyboard and macbook while fielding comments and writing a song, would pause in mid sentence and mutter something like "a name, he needs a name", at which point suggestions would come flooding in, (along with links to Wikipedia articles on volcanoes) and you just can't help chipping in yourself.

It's addictive stuff, remarkably slick, and very high-tech - the show's producer Dean Whitbread (him what does John Cleese's podcasts) can choose to switch between multiple camera angles at the location, and also to himself or a live presenter - Christophe Delire, based (of course) in Belgium. Although, in pleasingly "live TV" fashion, nuts 'n' bolts are still in evidence - both Ben and Christophe received phone-calls while the show was on air. (Ben's was from his Mum, who may also be his manager. "Hi Mum, I'm live on the internet...")

My favourite chat suggestion of the evening was for the potential refrain "hot magma mama", which somehow got lost along the way, regrettably, along with my idea that the song's subject, a lonely geologist, would discover Santa's grotto while drilling for a magma chamber in Iceland. Or, at one point, Hawaii. 

However, I did leave one indelible mark on the evening's proceedings - I contributed the geologist's name: Derek.

The show got a great reception, and I for one will be eagerly tuning in again tomorrow evening to see what lies in store, and I recommend you do, too. The shows start at 7pm GMT - Twitter users can follow @riseandshinetv for updates and a heads-up when the show starts. Meanwhile there is an archive of the first series of Rise and Shine's TV output here.

*Stop Press* Watch the show again here: http://riseandshine.tv/ben-walker/ (but it's not the same without the live chat ;-)

Sunday, 14 December 2008

My Massive CD-Mastering Mind Map

Everything you could ever want to know about mastering (*), all in one monstrous PDF mind-map file.

It speaks for itself, really.

(*) Or at least, everything that has occurred to me so far !

If you're curious, you can download it HERE.

This post started out as an experiment with a great piece of iPhone software - iBlueSky. I've been using this great little app on my beloved iPod Touch, and I'm seriously impressed. If you're an iPhone or iTouch user who's interested in mind-mapping software, I heartily recommend it. (When they add the ability to manually colour-code branches and type-set the text, it'll be even better.)

I'm also using it to brainstorm ideas for my new, very hush-hush "secret project" - but more on that in a future post.

If there are any questions or suggestions you'd like to make about the map and it's contents, please feel free to comment !

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

The Loudness War Is Over - If We Want It

The Loudness Wars are over. The tide has turned. The massive backlash against the crushed, distorted sound of Metallica's Death Magnetic has had exactly the impact we all wanted.

Want proof ? Guns 'n' Roses' new CD, "Chinese Democracy", has been mastered by industry legend Bob Ludwig, who offered the producers three different masters, and they chose the most dynamic version.

In an article on his website, Bob says

I was floored when I heard they decided to go with my full dynamics version and the loudness-for-loudness-sake versions be damned.

and goes on to explain:

I think the fan and press backlash against the recent heavily compressed recordings finally set the context for someone to take a stand and return to putting music and dynamics above sheer level...

...I’m hoping that Chinese Democracy will mark the beginning of people returning to sane levels and musicality triumphing over distortion and grunge. I have already seen a new awareness and appreciation for quality from some other producers, I pray it is the end of the level wars.

Bob isn't the only one to see a change, though. Mastering engineers have been commenting on the Gearslutz Mastering forum and elsewhere that since the publicity surrounding the release of "Death Magnetic" more and more people are asking

"Please don't do a 'Metallica' on my record"

I've seen it myself too - recently I called a long-time customer to suggest that his latest CD would sound better with a few dBs more headroom - I said "I realise you'll probably disagree with this, but in my opinion it's too loud" - and he replied "I know" !

That had never happened before.

But it will happen more and more, from now on. Despite Metallica's unconvincing insistence that they are happy with the way Rick Rubin produced "Death Magnetic", over 80% of fans responding to a poll on their forums think that it should be remixed. Over 18,000 people have signed the online petition. Only a handful of the 280,000 who have viewed the YouTube comparison video say they prefer the CD version.

And what about "Chinese Democracy" ? One of the most expensive and anticipated rock albums in recent years ? Against all expectations, it has been produced and mastered with dynamics, punch and power. The average A-weighted RMS loudness is around -16 dBFS, and as a result it "jumps out of the speakers" at you in a way that "Death Magnetic" never will. Check out a preview of the first track on Last.fm - listen to the way the guitars pile in at 1'26" and then again at 2'10" and then again at 3'36" - you just can't achieve that kind of buzz and build with an RMS of -4 dB.

Here are some predictions for "Chinese Democracy":
  • It will sell by the bucket-load (head?!) even though it hasn't been smashed to hell
  • No-one will complain that it's too quiet
  • It will sound fantastic (and loud) on the radio, because it's dynamic and punchy
  • No-one will start a petition to have a crushed and distorted re-release made
Hats off to Bob and the team behind Guns 'n' Roses, and here's to a future of better-sounding music.

Please use the Digg or Stumble buttons below if you enjoyed this post and would like to publicise the issue of the Loudness Wars !

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

8 Music Mastering Techniques to Make Your CDs Sound Better

How can you make your CDs sound as good as possible ? 

By "mastering" them - meaning, by balancing each individual song against the others in level and sound to create a coherent, satisfying whole.

Many of my posts are squarely aimed at people who want to get as close as they can to having their CD mastered by a professional. However these tips and suggestions are more general and will benefit anyone who wants their CD to sound good - they apply equally, regardless of the level or standard of your mastering skills.
  1. Think big - Mastering is about making an album from a collection of songs. Now isn't the time to agonise about the details - whether the vocal is too high in one song, or whether you should add another guitar part to another. Mixing is over - move on ! Think about how songs relate to each other, look for a "line" through them, so they flow convincingly. I often describe mastering as finding the "centre of gravity" of a collection of tracks, and helping them all sit right next to each other. Listen to the overall sound of each song, and work on that.
  2. EQ and volume are everything - The equalisation (broadly speaking the bass, middle and treble balance) of each track needs to be right before anything else will work. To choose the right EQ, the level needs to be right, but the EQ influences what level you choose. Sounds like a Catch-22 ? It is. So, set the level, adjust the EQ - repeat until happy. Of course dynamic compression is a crucial part of this process - see below.
  3. Have an open mind - Normally my advice to people is "don't try to master your own stuff". If you are trying to do it yourself though, throw away all the pre-conceptions and ideas you have inherited from the recording and mixing process, and start afresh. Be prepared to cut swathes through all the detailed decisions and reasoning you've put into the project so far - a mastering engineer gives an impartial, third-party opinion about what's best for your material - you need to try and do the same. Listen to the Big Picture.
  4. Match vocal levels - When choosing how loud each song should be compared to the others, it's easy to get confused. A great rule of thumb is to balance the vocals. If you can get the vocals for each tune to sound as if they're in the same ballpark, almost anything else will work around them. Where you don't have a vocal to listen to, pick the main melodic element instead.
  5. Work fast, be bold - Use broad brush-strokes; listen to each song and make big, instinctive changes. Set the level, choose an EQ and go for it. Instinct is important in mastering, and often your first thought is the right one. If you find yourself going around in circles worrying about the details, it may be best to move on to a different song and come back later.
  6. Keep it Dynamic - You can master a CD without boosting the overall level at all, and all the EQ and level adjustments will still be invaluable. However most people also want to lift the overall level to be closer to commercial releases as well, and so compression and limiting become important parts of the process. I'm writing a whole series of posts about this, but the main point to make here is - don't be tempted to over-cook it. Music needs light and shade - without Quiet, there can be no Loud. So strive to find the "sweet spot" for your album, where the benefits outweigh the problems compression and limiting can cause. If in doubt, check out my post How Loud Is Too Loud ? Don't let your CD be a victim in the Loudness Wars - no-one wants to be the next "Death Magnetic"...
  7. Good gaps - mix it up - The silence between tracks on your CD can sometimes be as important as the tracks themselves. If a gaps are too short, the album can feel rushed and exhausting - too long and the listener is distracted form the flow of songs wondering where the next tune is. Some people swear by two-second gaps, but my favourite rule of thumb is - make the gap equal to two bars of the out-going song. Times to consider breaking this rule are early on on the album, where you might want to build momentum, or after a song with a slow fade. Occasional longer gaps can give the listener time to catch their breath, or frame a change of mood or style, for example. Variety is the key here.
  8. Burn Slow, Burn Steady - So your songs are sequenced, balanced, boosted and spaced - all you need to do is burn a quick copy at 52x and listen, right ? Wrong. Different brands of CDRs work better in certain burners than others, and error rates vary widely depending on the write speed. Yet again this is a complicated topic, but on the whole we see the best results burning at slower speeds like 16x, 8x or even 4x. This isn't such a big issue unless you want to use your CD for replication, but avoid the very high speeds, and spend a little more on "name" brands like EMTEC, TDK or Verbatim. If you want to use what we use, these brand-names are no use, though - the company widely-regarded as producing the most reliable CDs of all is called Taiyo Yuden - but not all suppliers can offer them.
If your goal is to try and get a professional result for a CD release, all the above techniques will help you. You'll also need decent monitoring in a reasonable room, and probably to read all my other DIY mastering posts - but you'll find the ideas here equally valuable, even if your goal is only to make your band's demo sound as good as possible, or you just want to make a better-sounding mix tape.

I hope you find them useful, let me know how you get on trying to put them into practise.


Tuesday, 21 October 2008

How to shoot a film for free

For a blog whose blurb claims to be about a "Mastering engineer and DVD Author" there's been very little about DVD and films here! Here's a post to redress that balance slightly.

One of my favourite DVD projects of recent years is Greg Hall's magnificent cult triumph "The Plague". SRT created a new 5.1 upmix and re-master of the original stereo soundtrack, plus a new upscaled master tape for the film's digital cinema debut in Covent Garden, and later the authoring of the DVD, all under the watchful eye of Tom Swanston from WYSIWYG Films.

Originally shot on mini-DV for only £3500 (!!!), "The Plague" is a fantastic mix of black humour, social commentary and improvised drama, and has won awards and garnered praise from all corners, not least none other than Mike Leigh, who said

"It's anarchic, crazy, kind of rough-edged and raw, but it's got an amazing energy, and it embraces white kids, black kids, Asian kids, kids up to no good, boys and girls out on the street. It's a full length film, made low budget, so it's absolutely a gang of people getting together with great imagination and wit, and a bunch of talented actors. It pulsates with energy."

We were all proud to be involved with it (and had a great time at the premier!)  Meanwhile Greg went on to direct "Kapital" for the Man
chester International Film Festival, a bold collaboration with composer Steve Martland, and is currently working on "Bash The Rich", an autobiography of Ian Bone, as well as numerous smaller projects. I highly recommend his blog, Broke But Making Films as a great, inspiring read for any would-be indie film producer, but his latest venture will be particularly exciting to follow, I think.

After his "naive" success making the Plague for such a tiny budget, Greg has decided to make his third feature film for no money at all. No, I don't know how this is supposed to work, either! As he says it's a "slightly mad" idea, but if anyone can do it, Greg can - he has "the equipment, the crew, the actors, the determination and the mad glare in my eyes to be able to do this" - and my bet is that the results will be inspirational.

Best of all, he will be blogging it for our education and enjoyment. As he says in his latest post:

I will blog and keep a video diary of the whole journey. We will show the improvisation period that is often kept secretive, the madness of shooting on no money, the turbulent editing process and the possible festival circuit and uk cinematic release of the film. Everything you need to know on how to - or possibly how not to - make a no-budget feature film.

As anyone who has checked out the fantastic extras on the DVD of The Plague will know, coming from Greg this is no idle claim. I for one will be keeping a sharp eye on his RSS feed in the coming weeks and months, I hope you will too.

And you could do worse than rent or buy a copy of "The Plague", while you're at it, too!

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Radio 4 discussing Death Magnetic and the Loudness War

I will be taking part today in BBC Radio 4's consumer affairs show, "You and Yours". They are doing a short item discussing the controversy over the distorted sound of Metallica's "Death Magnetic" CD and the Loudness Wars, focusing on the unprecedented reaction of the fans who are unhappy about the way the disc sounds.

I'll be wearing my "boffin" hat and providing technical background and there will also be audio examples and interviews with fans, I believe.

Update: Just got back from recording my interview - it was basically done live, so I heard the whole "item" from beginning to end. I managed to say most of the things I wanted to (I think, it's a bit of a blur !) and the interviews with the fans were excellent. It's a hell of a lot of information to pack into 10 minutes of radio, but I think it really gets the message across, I hope all the fans agree.

Updated update: Well, having listened to the programme I'm really pleased with the way it turned out. I said more of what I wanted to than I remembered straight after the recording ! Thanks to Joel Moors at the BBC for doing such a sterling job putting the piece together, and to John Waite (the presenter) for making it such a painless process.

Update #3: Click play to listen to the clip here:
The show will be also available for a week on the "You and Yours" website here:


Look for the "Listen Again" section on the right-hand side and choose Friday's programme. Drag the slider to around 42 minutes to hear the item.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Metallica fans needed for radio interview today

I have been speaking to a BBC reporter who wants to do an item a UK radio show about the controversy over the sound quality of Death Magnetic, and the reaction of unhappy fans.

Ideally he would like to speak to them in London, but this could be extended around the UK if necessary. Please check out one of these threads to get in touch if you are able to take part:



This is a great opportunity to get the word about the Loudness War and Death Magnetic out to a wider audience. Even if you're not able to take part yourself, maybe you know a friend who could - please try to help out !

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Metallica "Death Magnetic" - Vinyl sounds better than CD. But not much.

To cut a long story short:

The vinyl LPs of "DeathMagnetic" sound better than the CD release. 

Not by a huge margin - they were clearly made from the same, heavily distorted original mixes, but despite this they sound a little more real, more dynamic, more spacious and (yes, really!) more exciting

That's the good news. The bad news is that the difference isn't that huge, and not all the tracks sound much better - there is more difference on some than on others. And also, the versions I listened to are the $100 5-LP set. So not only do you need a turntable to listen to them, but they aren't cheap.

There are however several fascinating questions which are raised by this, of which the most controversial is:

Did the CD mastering actually make the sound worse ?

Of course "worse" is a subjective term, but I'll explain what I'm hearing in more detail below.

What makes Death Magnetic (on CD) sound the way it does

There are three major factors that contribute to the overall sound of the Death Magnetic CD:
  1. The mix - hard, raw, dry, with very litle reverb. This is Rick Rubin's signature sound on this kind of material, and undoubtedly is the way the band wanted the album to sound. Even the "Guitar Hero" mix that many fans prefer shares this sound.
  2. Distortion - the CD release is massively distorted, especially the drums and the bass. This harsh type of distortion is made by a process known as "clipping" - in this case it sounds like analogue or "soft" clipping, probably from overdriving valve circuitry, channels on the mixing desk or similar. This distortion is mostly absent from the "Guitar Hero" mix, but mastering engineer Ted Jensen's claims the "artistic" decision to make the record sound like this happened at the mixing stage.
  3. Digital clipping - caused by lifting a digital signal above it's theoretical maximum level. Although it is also a form of distortion, on a record this distorted to begin with, it's debatable whether this would actually be audible as such - it tends to have a more thin, "fizzy" quality which is probably mostly masked by the crunchier, cracklier analogue distortion discussed above. However it has other effects on the sound - in small quantities it can allow additional level boosts without major distortion and loss of punch. If overdone though, or used on signals that are already very loud, it can actually have exactly the opposite effect. Unlike the mix and analogue distortion, it's not possible to know with any certainty whether this clipping occurred at the mix, master or both.
Or rather, it wasn't possible (for me, at least) until now.

Why listen to the vinyl ?

There has been discussion from the outset on the Metallica forums and elsewhere that perhaps the vinyl release would sound better than the CD. This doesn't rely on any purist audiophile belief that vinyl is better per se, but simply stems from the fact that vinyl releases are typically mastered separately from the CD versions, partly to take into account the pros and cons of each format, and partly because engineers often specialise.

This means there is scope for a vinyl version to sound different:
  1. Because it was mastered (or "cut") for a different format
  2. Perhaps by a different engineer
  3. Perhaps from a different mix
This last possibility was the one that had the fans really excited, but it was quickly established that it wasn't the case - the crackly analogue-sounding distortion was on the vinyl, too. At this point most people lost interest, and in fact many commented bitterly on the fact that the much-touted "audiophile" release, pressed on limited edition heavy vinyl at 45rpm for the best possible quality, suffered all the problems of the vanilla CD.

However as time went on, several people started saying that the vinyl was better in some ways, even though the distortion was still there. One chose to send me a couple of high-quality FLAC extracts to listen to, to get my opinion of them.

How does the vinyl sound ?

My first move was to listen to the same track I've used in my other comparisons - "The Day That Never Comes". I quickly established that indeed, the same mushy distortion covered the mix as the CD version. However discussion on the forums mentioned that different tracks sounded better than others, so next I chose one they highlighted as sounding clearly better - "All Nightmare Long". Before listening I used AudioLeak to calculate the long-term RMS loudness of both files, and reduced the CD version by 3.6 dB to match them. Comparisons without matched levels are highly unreliable. (The A-weighted values suggested a 5dB difference, but the CD sounded unfairly quiet to me at this level.)

After loading them up to ProTools, instantly I could hear a difference, even though I was just listening at home on headphones. Both were crunchy and distorted, but the vinyl version had more "punch", more weight in the drums, and the bass was clearer and more defined - even though the mix overall had less bottom end in it, the notes were more clearly audible. This was especially obvious during the more "full-on" sections, where the CD version suffered noticeably in comparison. After listening a little longer, I found I had a strong preference for the vinyl version. 

Returning to "The Day That Never Comes", I can hear the same difference, and draw the same conclusions, although the distortion from the original mix is so extreme it doesn't jump out at you in quite the same way. In comparison the CD sounds flat and lifeless. I'm still not keen on the distortion, but of the two versions I would choose the vinyl to listen to.

The difference between the vinyl and CD

Waveforms aren't proof in cases like these - there are lots of reasons the vinyl might look different. In fact though, they are remarkably similar. Having looked at the waveforms of the CD before, I was pretty sure of what I would find, but zooming in on the waveform confirmed my suspicions.

The upper (CD) waveform is digitally clipped or "squared off", as expected, but the unexpected part is the vinyl version - it's a very unusual, unnatural shape because of the distortion, but it's not squared off. This explains why the vinyl sounds better - although harsh, the analogue distortion hasn't completely removed all the remaining dynamics. Extreme digital clipping of this kind on the other hand, where the whole wave becomes almost square, obliterates pitch information - the ear can't resolve the original fundamental or it's harmonics. Impact and punch are lost, too - the result sounds two-dimensional and plastic in comparison.

Some people on the Metallica forums expressed the opinion that the extra "peak" information on the vinyl didn't represent "real" musical information, simply the inherent difference in the format. Initially, I was inclined to agree, but after doing these listening tests myself I don't agree - the vinyl is less clipped than the CD and sounds better as a result.

Put another way: True, we are only talking about 3-4 dB extra dynamic range. But most of the CD tracks have a "loudness range" of only 3dB RMS anyway. So the vinyl has roughly twice the loudness range of the CD.

More questions

There are various differences between the vinyl and CD versions, as I would expect of two different masters for different formats. The CD sounds slightly thicker and fuller, without quite as much edge, and perhaps slightly more compressed. However the most noticeable difference is in the levels - there is 3.6 dB RMS between the vinyl and CD versions, even though both are peaking at full digital level. This means someone somewhere decided to boost the CD version by a further 3.6 dB, and digitally clip it in the process. (It's possible a digital limiter might have been used, but it looks like a straight clip.)

The question is who, and why ? The RMS measurement of of the vinyl version is -8.5, which is right at the top end of the loudest you can go without damaging the sound, and it already has the harsh, aggressive, distorted sound it seems that Rick Rubin wanted. So as a mastering engineer, I would see no reason to boost it further - simply balancing the EQ and levels of the tracks would be fine, and I'm sure Ted Jensen would have the same opinion.

So, were the files supplied to Sterling Sound already clipped ? Ted says they were "already brickwalled" - does he mean in a digital sense, as well as the analogue distortion ? Or, was he pushed to make the CDs even louder than the mixes, to the detriment of the sound ? He says he "would never be pushed to overdrive things as far as they are here". In which case, were the files that were supplied for CD mastering clipped more than the ones used for the vinyl ? If so, why ? There seems to be no logical reason for doing that, at all. Perhaps new, cleaner files were supplied for the vinyl cut in response to the unfavourable public reaction to the CDs ?

(Edit - I have been told the CD and vinyl versions were released simultaneously, in which case this last suggestion doesn't hold water.)

Either way, it's a shame the CDs ended up this way - the clipping isn't enough on it's own to ruin the music, but in my opinion in the unfortunate case of "Death Magnetic", it really is the straw that breaks the camel's back.

Now, I wonder what the downloadable mp3 versions sound like...!


Thursday, 2 October 2008

DIY Mastering Part 5 - How loud is Too Loud ?

As regular readers of this blog will know all too well by now, I am firmly opposed to the so-called CD "Loudness Wars", where everyone tries to get their CD louder than anyone else's by pushing the recorded level higher and higher. This is ultimately a self-defeating process - the CD spec defines a mazimum recordable level, and the harder you push your music up against that level, the more squashed, flattened, crushed and ultimately distorted it gets. Meanwhile there is far less scope within the tracks on the CD for the contrast needed for a satisfying musical result.

BUT as a mastering engineer I spend a lot of my time lifting the level of people's music so that it can compete with the high levels of other CDs out there. And, as I've said in a previous post, I feel that this is actually a positive step for most albums.

How do I reconcile these two apparently contradicting views ? The answer is something I've also said several times before here:

Louder is Better, but Too Loud is Worse

By which I mean - every track (and group of tracks) has a "sweet spot", where it's loudness (and by implication compression, level, EQ etc) is just right. It sounds the best it can be. If it's not compressed enough, then quiet passages won't have enough presence, the mix may not "gel" or have enough impact, detail may be lost, and loud passages will make you wince. Whereas if it's too loud and compressed it can sound squashed and dull (meaning bland and lifeless, not lacking treble) and ultimately fatiguing.

If the idea of using compression on a mix surprises you, it's worth knowing that as a rule of thumb people tend to like quite loud, compressed music, especially for pop and rock. Rick Rubin, who produced Metallica's latest album "Death Magnetic" (currently being heavily criticised for it's excessively-squashed, distorted sound) said in an interview from 2004:

I wish I had examples here to play for you. If I knew we were going to talk about this I’d go through the library and find examples. Ultimately, if you listen on a car sound system or in the mainstream place where most people listen to music—cars, boomboxes sound systems you get at (chain stores), and if you “A/B” the less compressed version to the more compressed version, you pick the compressed version.

And he's right ! He also says, in response to a question about things sounding better on the radio:

Sometimes actually, if it’s too loud, it sounds worse on the radio.

And again, he's right. Sadly, this is exactly the case with Death Magnetic. Clearly this is a delicate issue, and one that even the most respected engineers sometimes misjudge. Music needs just the right amount of compression and level, based on the style of music and the original recording.

So, how loud is Too Loud ? Where do we cross the boundary from sweet-spot into overcooking ? The answer of course is -

Something is Too Loud when it starts to sound worse

But what is worse ? Everything is subjective. Rubin obviously thought Death Magnetic sounded good when he was working on it - perhaps he still does. Lars from Metallica has no problem with it, but I and many others think it's a great shame that so much distortion had to be introduced.

Loudness Measurements

Ultimately the only real way to judge this is to use your ears, but for what it's worth, here are a few facts and figures. I have analysed the loudness of several tracks using a free Mac utility called AudioLeak to measure their long-term A-weighted RMS level. RMS stands for "root mean square" and as applied to music roughly describes the loudness of a musical signal. A-weighting improves on this by taking into account the fact that the ear is less sensitive to bass and treble when judging loudness, and provides a better guide to how loud we think things. A track of equal "raw" RMS level but with more bass won't sound quite as loud, for example, and so will have a lower A-weighted RMS.

Here are some example A-weighted RMS level measurements, with raw RMS in brackets - they are long-term measurements, ie. average values over an entire track. The highest theoretical value possible is zero, and slightly confusingly they are measured down from there, so -10 is louder than -12, for example. So, with the loudest at the top, we have:

-8.6 (-6.2) Oasis - "Some Might Say": Severe clipping distortion
-8.9 (-4.9) Metallica - "TDTNC" (CD): Massive distortion & clipping
-10.4 (-7.7) Feeder - "Pushing The Senses": Heavy clipping distortion
-12.7 (-7.7) Metallica - "BB&S" (Mystery Mix): Slight source clipping
-14.0 (-10) Katatonia - "Consternation": Awesome (clean) sound, massive choruses
-15.3 (-13.1) Sugar - "Fortune Teller": From 1993
-21.8 (-16.9) Metallica - "TDTNC" (GH3) Needs to be louder !

There are plenty of interesting things to be seen looking at these numbers - firstly, the Oasis track actually measures fractionally louder than Metallica ! However by looking at the raw RMS values we can see that in brute power terms Metallica has a higher level - they just have more low-frequency in the sound than Oasis, so the A-weighted value doesn't reflect that. This higher raw RMS may also explain why the distortion on the Metallica tracks is even worse than on Oasis.

Looking at these tracks it would seem that with care the A-weighted RMS can actually be pushed as high as -12 dBFS without obvious distortion. Whether the result is satisfying musically, the numbers can't tell us, though. In my opinion the two best-sounding tracks here are Katatonia and Sugar - "Copper Blue" was a loud album for it's time, but look how things have changed. (By the way examining some SRT masters, the A-weighted RMS typically hovers around - you guessed it, -14 to -12 dBFS)

So, is the answer to "how loud is too loud" actually "any higher than an overall level of -12 dBFS RMS, A-weighted" ?

Well, if we're judging "too loud" to mean "the onset of distortion", then for guitar-driven rock music, yes, maybe. However other genres may suffer more or less and we need to bear in mind that rock is a highly compressed, distorted genre to begin with. I prefer a more dynamic sound personally, so I would pick a level closer to -14 - if it suits the music. Once again, at the end of the day we need to use our ears to make these judgement calls.

Understanding Loudness Measurements

It's also interesting to think about what these numbers mean. The Katatonia track is only 2dB (RMS) quieter than the "Mystery Mix" of Broken, Beat & Scarred", but still has more punch, weight and impact, to my ears. This difference is vastly more apparent comparing to the Metallica CD, and looking at the numbers we can see why. Katatonia has maximum RMS of -8 dB, in the track, compared to an average of -14, giving it a "loudness range" of 6dB.

Compare that with the "Death Magnetic" track. The highest raw RMS level in the track is -2.5 dB. But the average is an eye-watering -4.9, allowing it a range of only 2.4 dB. So the loudest parts can be only 2.4 dB louder than the rest of the track. Katatonia has almost three times the loudness range to play with. No wonder TDTNC sounds flat and lifeless by comparison, whereas when the chorus kicks in on "MyTwin" the impact and buzz it generates is huge. And with almost 10dB to play with, it's obvious why the Guitar Hero version has so much more punch and life - and in fact in my opinion, it would benefit from some EQ and being at a higher level and more compressed, to get it into the "sweet spot". This is why despite preferring the reduced distortion, some listeners still find it lacking.

Ultimately the decision about when the music starts to suffer at the expense of level is one of taste, and requires a judgement call by all concerned. However looking at RMS levels as we have here can be very revealing for a mastering engineer, so I strongly recommend you experiment with AudioLeak or another form of loudness metering - like all mastering facilities we use them constantly here at SRT when mastering. I also recommend you stick around the -14 dBFS A-weighted RMS level to ensure that your CDs are both competitive but also loud-sounding in their own right.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Metallica "Death Magnetic" - Bands comments spark furious response

If Lars Ulrich, Metallica's drummer, thought that his comments to Blender.com about the distorted sound of "Death Magnetic" would put an end to the controversy, he was sadly mistaken. 

With no official word from the band, many who disliked the excessive compression and distortion of the CD release had simply chosen to listen to the much cleaner and more dynamic mix from the PS3 "Guitar Hero" game instead. On the Metallicabb.com forums where much of the debate has been conducted between fans over the last few weeks, things seemed to have started to calm down again. 

However Lars' comments have lit a blue touch-paper, and suddenly the dissatisfaction has exploded again with renewed vigour. The forum is swamped by threads, bitterly arguing about Lars' apparent disregard for the opinions of loyal fans. It's true that Metallica has picked up it's fair share of "haters" over the years - people who are determined to criticise whatever the band do - but the vast majority of people complaining about the sound have always made it clear they love the new material, and only have a problem with Rick Rubin's punishing, fatiguing production style. Lars' dismissal of the 12,000+ signatures on the petition to have the album remixed as "a few people" was greeted with incredulity and scorn by most, along with his assertion that it sounds "smokin'" in his car.

One group of fans, dismayed by what they have learnt about the so-called Loudness Wars since the release of Death Magnetic, have already set up a new site to try and stop the Loudness "arms race" - JusticeForAudio.org is still in it's early stages but already features an impressive level of activity. 

Since the Blender.com article, a new focus of protest has also developed - a co-ordinated return of CDs to Metallica's offices on October 17th. Initially suggested on the Metallicabb.com forums, the plan has been given focus by a blog post by user mikemelancholic, and seems to be gaining considerable support amongst unhappy fans, judging by the replies on the forums.

It remains to be seen how many copies will eventually be returned, but if the organisers achieve their goal it could have considerable impact - if there's one thing that makes record companies sit up and take notice, it's returns.

Meanwhile views of the YouTube video offering a comparison between the CD and Guitar Hero mixes actually seem to have increased since Lars' comments rather than decreasing as he must have hoped, and leapt up to over 175,000 this evening, with signatures to the petition seemingly unaffected and steadily growing by about 1000 a day.

It seems this battle in the Loudness War isn't over just yet.


Monday, 29 September 2008

Metallica "Death Magnetic" - Distortion is deliberate, say band

So, finally we have the statement from Metallica everyone has been waiting for. Drummer Lars Ulrich has spoken out - the full details are reported by Blender.com here. I'll pick and choose some points to comment on, but the main message is:

"Listen, there's nothing up with the audio quality. It's 2008, and that's how we make records... Of course, I've heard that there are a few people complaining. But I've been listening to it the last couple of days in my car, and it sounds fuckin' smokin'."

For all of us hoping that Metallica would listen to their fans, this is disappointing but not surprising. After all, the CD has sold extremely well, there has not been a flood of returns, and most reviews of the album agree it is musically their best in years. And as Lars points out:

"The Internet gives everybody a voice, and the Internet has a tendency to give the complainers a louder voice. Listen, I can't keep up with this shit. Part of being in Metallica is that there's always somebody who's got a problem with something that you're doing: 'James Hetfield had something for breakfast that I don't like.' That's part of the ride."

This is absolutely true, but lets look at a few numbers. Metallica's manager claims that only 2% of fans are unhappy, based on 10,000 signatures to the online petition asking for the album to be remixed, and well over a million sales. It might seem he is being generous, since by my calculation that comes out at only 1%. Lars says:

"Somebody told me about [people complaining that the Guitar Hero version of Death Magnetic sounds better]. Listen, what are you going to do? A lot of people say [the CD] sounds great, and a few people say it doesn't, and that's OK."

Based on the petition results, Lars and his manager think only "a few" fans are unhappy. But there are other numbers they are choosing to ignore. 

This blog has seen 75,000 additional hits since I first posted about the distortion and clipping which many feel compromise the sound of the CD. Out of 166 comments so far, only a handful disagree with my analysis. The YouTube video which contrasts the CD with the comparitively clean "Guitar Hero" game soundtrack version of the tunes has had over 150,000 views, and more than 500 comments posted. From all the users who posted these comments, only 34 had a favourable or even neutral comment to make about the sound of the CD as compared to the Guitar Hero mix. Even assuming that out of the 500 only 300 were posted by unique users, that still makes the comments 88% negative. 

So, even if the 10,000 (actually 12,500, two days later) petition figure is a true representation of the levels of dissatisfaction and not, as has been suggested, only one tenth or one fiftieth of the total number of unhappy listeners, I still think Metallica and their management have missed a key point here.

Virtually all the commentary on the sound of this CD has been negative.

Radio hosts have discussed it. Mastering engineers have mocked it - even the man who mastered it disclaims responsibility. The issue has been widely reported by a wide range of pundits. And still, only a smattering of responses coming to the album's defence. Even Lars hedges his bets and ends up blaming the producer:

"I will say that the overwhelming response to this new record has exceeded even our expectations as far as how positive it is. So I'm not gonna sit here and get caught up in whether [the sound] 'clips' or it doesn't 'clip.' I don't know what kind of stereos these people listen on. Me and James [Hetfield] made a deal that we would hang back a little and not get in the way of whatever Rick's vision was. That's not to put it on him - it's our record, I'll take the hit, but we wanted to roll with Rick's vision of how Metallica would sound."

Well Lars, Rick's vision is just a distorted mush. First of all - it clips. Next of all, there's a reason why it sounds smokin' in your car - it's because your car isn't a very revealing place to judge the quality of music recordings. Having said that, I can hear the distortion and blunt, lifeless sound in my car. And on my laptop speakers, and my £20,000 mastering rig, and on my iPod headphones. What is your stereo like ? Maybe as a successful musician you should invest in a better one ? Or a pair of headphones ?

Finally, half-heartedly pointing the finger at Rubin is a cop-out - damn right, you take the hit, Metallica. Rubin coaxed songs and performances from the band that all the fans agree are some of Metallica's best ever - that's a producer's job, and he deserves credit for it. The fact that his misunderstanding of what makes things sound loud resulted in the obliteration of a perfectly good mix is his fault, but even if the rumours that the band weren't present at the mix are true, they ultimately signed off the results. And the results are rubbish. Even the reviews on Amazon agree.

So, what now ? We have our statement from the band, who say there will be no remix. The battle is lost, the Loudness War blunders on. Was it all much ado about nothing ? In some ways, Yes. The album is the fastest selling of 2007/2008, and the band's shows are sold out. And after all, Live is where the fans really want to hear Metallica, and thanks to the internet they can later download the clean, undistorted recordings of the gigs from the band's official website.

But in other ways, I think the answer is No. A great many ears have been opened by the debates on various websites and internet forums, and a great number of people have listened critically to the music they are being offered, and realised it doesn't have to be that way for the first time. The Loudness Wars have been reported by as wide a selection of commentators as Rolling Stone and the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian and the NME, and the LA Times and Wired magazine.

I'm not sure things will ever be the same again. Metallica and their label obviously hope fans will give up and stop signing the petition - maybe they will, maybe they won't. Many fans will decide the CD is un-listenable and get hold of a copy of "Death Magnetic" as represented in the Guitar Hero mix, or even a fan remix if they prefer. Others will continue to oppose the loudness war on the website they have set up themselves, just for this purpose.

I don't think this is the last time we will see this kind of reaction on this kind of scale, I think it's the first. And as a result, hopefully in future more and more people will choose not (to use that technical phrase again) to smash the f**k out of their next CD release in the mistaken belief that it will make it sound loud.

What I find truly heartening is the number of people who have spoken out about this CD, and clearly affirmed my belief, along with most mastering engineers, that

Louder is Better, except when it's Worse.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Metallica "Death Magnetic" - Guitar Hero Mix Sounds Better on Radio

At the end of my last post I briefly mentioned that Australian metal radio show Full Metal Racket had chosen to play the "Guitar Hero" versions of "Death Magnetic" - because they sounded better. Having listened to the streaming broadcast in full, I think  this part of the story deserves more detail.

The show demonstrates the differences between the CD and Guitar Hero versions again, but in the process also effectively disproves an enduring myth of the music industry - that louder is better on radio. It isn't. In the opinion both of the presenters, and to the ears of most listeners to the program too. The truth is that the broadcast compression used on radio equalises the levels of all the music played anyway, to ensure good reception - so the cleaner, more dynamic "Guitar Hero" mix sounds great, but the hyper-compressed CD release simply sounds like distorted mush. Again.

I can't really do any better than simply quote the show's host Andrew Haug and his guest Rohan:

"[The CD is] so raw that you cannot hear the nuances, the clarity, especially with James' amazing riffage"

"On this Guitar Hero version you can hear a lot of notes that Rob's playing that you can't hear on the standard album"

"to anyone's ears, it's pretty obvious"... "[the Guitar Hero version] just sounds incredibly comfortable, and if anything, normal"

"[The CD] kind of sounds as if a distortion pedal is over the whole band, instead of just the guitar"

"The band are striking, they're on fire, and the [CD] mix is letting down their ability"

"The band have not cut corners on the album, the sad thing is you can't hear the precision... of James' riffs, and even Rob's bass and a lot of Lars' tom work... these are really important elements"

"To my ears, [the CD] sounds way too overbearing"

"That's what I want hear - the precise riffs..." -  "and on the album version it really doesn't show, it's doesn't pop out at you"

"We're just gonna go with the Guitar Hero mix, because honestly... (laughs) I think we prefer it"

What's really interesting though, is hearing the CD versions and Guitar Hero examples compared side by side - through radio broadcast compression. Certainly the CD has no advantage at all level-wise in this scenario - but it's sound and impact also suffers dramatically in comparison. Just as in the YouTube video, it sounds stodgy and poorly defined, distorted and mushy, whereas the Guitar Hero version sounds full, punchy and powerful. On the radio as well as in real life, loud and distorted is worse.

The sucker-punch is struck by the show's listeners though - after playing examples and a full track from the PS3 version (with the console audibly being cued-up in the background to the chat) Haug asks for comments from his listeners, and gets them - with texted comments like:

"You're right it sounds so much better... I know nothing about Guitar Hero but I'm definitely going to pick up this one"

"I was shocked by the CD version, it sounded like my headphones had been transformed into a two-dollar set which had been broken by volume"

"I thought it was my sound system so I'm glad that it wasn't just me... what a shame such a great album came out like this, still a great CD in my opinion"

- and there are many many more in a similar vein on the show's message board.

You can hear all of this for yourself for the next few days while the stream is still available - leave it to load for a while and jump to 50 minutes into the show for the start of the discussion:

Then head on over and suggest it to the BBC as a story they should cover too. Demonstrate the differences to your friends, and get them to sign the petition.

Louder is better but Too Loud is worse.

Metallica "Death Magnetic" - Manager claims complaints are a minority

Media coverage of the "Death Magnetic" loudness controversy continues to spread, with articles in the LA Times:

and the Wall Street Journal:

Several source have quoted a response for the band's manager, Cliff Burnstein, who says

'98% of listeners are "overwhelmingly positive"... there's something exciting about the sound of this record that people are responding to.'

In my opinion this statement needs to be treated with extreme scepticism. Presumably his number is based on the 10,000+ signatures on the petition to remix the album compared with sales of nearly a million copies. However conventional business wisdom is clear that only a very small minority of dissatisfied customers actually complain. Estimates range between 1 in 3 to 1 in 500. On this evidence as a conservative estimate those 10,000 signatures could well represent in excess of 100,000 unhappy Metallica fans.

The cleverly ambiguous statement about people "responding to" the album's "exciting" (Read: distorted) sound is clearly intended to draw attention away from the fact that the band and producer have resolutely declined to comment - probably since it now seems likely they weren't present for either the final mix or mastering sessions. 

Since Burstein's comments yesterday there have been an additional 1000 signatures on the petition, and 10,000 more views of the YouTube comparison video, which is now the UK'S 3rd "most favourited" music video, after only a week online.

Meanwhile Ted Jensen, the engineer who mastered the album, has confirmed that the quote from his email last week was genuine, saying

'I'm not sure I would have said quite the same thing if I was posting it to the bulletin board... [but] it's certainly the way I feel about it'

Fans are now reporting that national Radio stations in Australia and elsewhere are discussing the issues and playing comparisons(*) on air. Tellingly, when pausing to play tracks from the album, they chose to use the less distorted version from the soundtrack of PS3 game "Guitar Hero", rather than the "crushed to death" CD version.

(*) Approximately 50 minutes into the show

I encourage anyone who hasn't already done so to help Stop The Loudness Wars by submitting this issue to the BBC to help encourage further media interest.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Mastered by Muppets

OK just a bit of fun but this is simply too good not to mention:

Listen to this and read this along with the singing.

Very very clever.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Metallica "Death Magnetic" - Remixed from stems by "name" mystery producer

Today the "Death Magnetic" saga took yet another strange twist, with the arrival of a "remix" of one of the tracks, allegedly by a "name" metal producer, according to the email which acompanied the file. This new mix of "Broken, Beat & Scarred" has been created by the mystery producer using "stems" extracted from the Playstation 3 game "Guitar Hero". The PS3 mixes in realtime to allow guitar parts to drop in and out as part of the gameplay, and this allowed the extraction of 3 stereo submixes - Guitars, Bass and Drums + Vox. Even with this limited palette, a new mix has been created, adding reverb, EQ and mix tweaks - even going so far as using a clever trick to add reverb to the snare.

Almost immediately I was offered the chance to listen to the track, and despite initial reservations my curiosity eventually got the better of me and I decided to take a listen. I didn't have high hopes - it seemed unlikely that only 3 stems would enable a major improvement. And, once again I'm at home so relying on my trusty MacBook Pro and some high-quality headphones, but even at this early stage I can say it's quite a transformation.

What follows are my early impressions of this "new mix" - bearing in mind that it has been created without the bands approval, the methods used to create it are questionable legally, and distributing it publicly is clearly out of the question. Please treat this as a "bit of fun".


First impressions are strong - more bass, fuller guitars, more spacious drums and great weight and power - all the things that are missing from the GH version, and flattened or buried in distortion on the CD.

Listening in more detail, here are some initial observations:
  • No distortion
  • More bass - fuller & deeper.
  • Richer guitars - reverb and EQ added. Maybe width enhancement ?
  • Drums similar to GH but smoother and cleaner. The snare is lower level and has reverb - see below
  • No stereo FX on the guitar solo - this will be a limitation of the stems
  • Still too loud. This mix measures a long-term RMS of -7.7, whereas the CD has a punishing -5. However this mix is still mastered loud. Too loud ! It's clearly been limited hard, what was the point of shaving off those last few dBs ? Luckily:
  • Comparatively speaking, it's clean as a whistle. (Bearing in mind I'm listening to an AAC file) Thankfully no trace of the huge distortion that masks the CD, bar remenants of the clipping already present in the GH version
  • Overall impression is similar to the CD but cleaner, wider and fuller - more spacious. Maybe too polished.
One of the most noticeable differences is the selective addition of reverb to the snare, and it turns out this has been achieved by sampling the snare sound from another Metallica classic album - the Bob Rock produced "Black Album", triggering it in time with the track, and using it to add reverb. It's not clear if any of the snare sound itself was added to the mix - if so, it sounds as if it was minimal to me. Regardless, this is a very cunning trick.

So, in summary ? Personally I prefer this mix to both the CD and the GH version - it's much more the kind of sound I would have liked to have heard. And to achieve this result with only the three stems to work from, is truly impressive. In my opinion it is still unnecessarily loud though - an extra few dBs of breathing space would make a welcome relief.


This mix certainly isn't the sound that Rick Rubin and the band wanted. Both GH and the CD mixes are dry as a bone, and there's no doubt that's exactly the way they were intended to be. The GH version proves that the hard, dry sound of the CD could be achieved without the distortion, and personally I find productions that dry tough to listen to, but the transformation wreaked here moves this mix firmly from the realm of "alternative version", where GH sits, to "fan edit" space.

Fan Edits & mash-ups are obviously a big buzz on the internet at the moment, and it doesn't take long watching the Metallica forums to realise that a host of these alternative mixes will certainly now follow in a short space of time, once the stem files are out "in the wild". However these versions are exactly what the name says they are - "fan edits". Not what the band wants, or what the producer wanted, in a any shape or form. Who knows - in light of the intense media scrutiny and 10,000+ signatures on the petition, maybe Metallica will speak out on this issue soon, and release a remixed version of Death Magnetic, more along the lines of the mix presented here. But maybe not. This reminds me of one of my favourite expressions -

A man with a watch may know what the time is, but a man with two is never sure

For example, legendary Beach Boys album "Smile" got the fan-mix treatment in the same way when copies of all the original 60's tapes escaped and were widely shared on the internet. Many versions existed and were endlessly discussed, but eventually the generally agreed "ultimate" version of these edits only materialised when Brian Wilson himself finally released a brand new recording of the record, and the fans were able to duplicate it as closely as possible using the original takes.

In the same way, until (if) Metallica ever make a clear statement about the sound of the Death Magnetic CD, we will never know if this is how the album should "really" have sounded. This mix I think moves too far from the existing versions to be able to claim that for itself.

Personally I think fans would be better advised to maintain pressure on the band and label to release a different, (non-distorted!) official new version of "Death Magnetic", rather than spending hours second-guessing what they "might have done".

But having said that, remixing your favourite band's stuff is really good fun - it's something that has long been talked about as the ultimate in audience participation, that my idol Brian Eno has long advocated, and here I am commenting on the damn thing already ! Time to listen to my own advice and so something else more useful instead...

UPDATE: Having listened in the studio this morning I stand by most of my comments above, with a few extra comments:
  • For me, listening on speakers, (this stuff is hard to judge on cans) the snare is now too low in the mix, and doesn't have enough weight - it's too tasteful. A compromise between this and the GH version would be better. Interestingly, lots of fans have commented that there is too much reverb added to the snare, but the reverb itself is quite subtle IMO - the big difference is you can hear the drum's "ring" much more clearly now - there is a lot of extra high frequency EQ on the drums. This is audible in the GH3 version too, but not in the same way.
  • Overall it's a little too bassy, in my opinion
  • It is unnecessarily loud - I wish it were a few dBs quieter. This may not sound like much, but when you're pushing stuff this hard, every little helps.

Finally to return to one of my points above - apart from the issues I've raised, this would still be my choice of mixes to listen to so far. BUT I can't "commit" to enjoying it in the same way as I could to a proper remix from the band. It doesn't feel authentic, because the band aren't involved. I think we as listeners look for statements from artists, and this isn't it... an official remix is still needed.