Metallica "Death Magnetic" Clipping Distortion - Mastering Media Blog

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Metallica "Death Magnetic" Clipping Distortion

Those of you keeping an eye on the "Loudness Wars" may be interested by current discussions on the Metallica forums. Fans have been complaining bitterly about the extreme clipping distortion on the new album "Death Magnetic" - it's clearly audible on the previews in iTunes, for example - and the finger has been pointed at Ted Jensen, head engineer at Sterling Sound, who mastered the album.

In an interesting turn of events, however, user "oneway23" has posted what he claims is a reply from Ted, stating that the album was supplied to him with the clipping already in the mix:

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 it 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.

Check out the thread for yourself:

I GOT A RESPONSE FROM TED, JENSEN wrote back...He's not happy

Assuming this is genuine, props are due to Ted for sticking his neck out and saying what he believes. However things may not be quite that simple. A version of the album was leaked via BitTorrent in the weeks before release, with people already complaining about the way that it sounds. Analysis of the waveforms shows that the released version is even louder than the leaked version:

Death Magnetic - Wave Form Analysis

(Edit to add: The seems to be some controversy about these waveforms, with various alternative versions floating about. I will check them out myself as soon as possible. )

Additionally, as my colleague Simon Murphy notes, there are several different types of distortion in the released version, some of which (for example of the snare only) can only have been incurred during tracking or mixing, but others which may have been introduced in mastering.

Analysis of the levels in the tracks shows it is VERY loud. Great-sounding albums typically average an RMS loudness of -16 to -12 dBFS, however i recent years louder albums have pushed much higher, for example -8 or -6 dBFS. Here is one mastering engineers analysis of Death Magnetic:

I just skipped through 3 random songs and the highest I saw on the meter was -4,3 dB RMS (-1,3 RMS in AES17 norm), looking at the realtime RMS meter with Wavelab's default time constants.

Wavelab's global analysis (with its default time constants) reports -2,93 RMS [+0,07 in AES17] RMS in one of those tracks.

Most of the album (looking at the meters) sits between -7 and -5 (between -4 and -2 in AES17).

You remember that popular myth that mastering will "make your record sound the same across different systems"? I now get the point. Death Magnetic (although apparently not introduced through mastering) sounds thin and distorted on my laptop speakers. And it sounds thin and distorted in my mastering studio. There's always a silver lining

In a further bizarre twist, some fans are now claiming that the version of Death Magnetic used in the popular Playstation 3 game "Guitar Hero" sounds better than the released version:


Strange as it may sound, this suggestion actually has some credibility - in order to have versions of new releases available at the same time as the album release, Guitar Hero developers have very early access to the music, and additionally have a certain degree of control over the individual tracks to ensure it works in a game environment. Fans are now discussing "ripping" the versions contained in the PS3 version, and creating their own, less distorted version of the album.

(Edit to add: I have now been able to compare samples of both versions, and have made a new post with my conclusions here. There is a detailed comparison of the differences in sound here.)

Whatever the truth of the matter, from Ted's public statement it's clear he was persuaded to push the album louder than he wished, probably by the band, and against his better judgement. Sadly this is quite common in modern mastering, where the myth that "we need to be louder than everybody else" persists far beyond it's sell-by date.

As someone on the Gearslutz Mastering Forum commented recently, most people don't care about the RMS loudness, they just turn it up - have you ever heard anyone complain that Nirvana's "Nevermind" was too quiet, for example ?

There have been plenty of clipped, distorted albums before, sadly - Oasis' "What's The Story Morning Glory" was one of the first, for example. What's interesting and unusual about this case is the furious reaction from the fans, and the media coverage that will almost certainly follow.

Will this backlash help turn the tide in the Loudness Wars ? We can only hope.

27 comments:

made said...
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ianshepherd said...
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Melo said...

Great post!

I think we need to get a final position from the bandd. It was intentional or not?

ianshepherd said...

There's no question in my mind that it was intentional. Deeply misguided, but intentional. Don't get me wrong, I'm all up for a bit of artistic distortion now and again - has anyone heard "Accelerator" by Primal Scream, for example ? It makes Death Magnetic sound clean and tasteful, by comparison. But this isn't an artistic effect, it's just an exercise in audio brutality, which makes the album _less_ enjoyable, not more. Imnsho...

Charlie said...

There's quite a lengthy thread on the Steve Hoffman Music forums regarding this album http://www.stevehoffman.tv/forums/showthread.php?t=157101

SxJ said...

i like this post, but i still like the cd as is

shimniok said...

Here's hoping the consumer pendulum swings back in the direction of sound quality once again...

Noddy said...

"St. Anger" was slammed too. The copy I bought came with a bonus DVD containing the same tracks as the album, recorded in their rehearsal rooms. Although the DVD sound is raw "rehearsal room" acoustic, it is clean and rocks in a way that the album doesn't. We put the CD away and only listen to the DVD.

ianshepherd said...

The opinion amongst the fans I've spoken to is that St Anger was a flawed experiment that didn't work. Whereas this is more of a mystery. If I'm honest, it's got "cock-up" written all over it, especially given the rumours about the band not being present at the mix or master...

Rick said...

Well said Ian, this trend towards garbage sounds is tasteless and short-sighted. Who's the target audience for clip distorion? Psychopaths? Masochists?

If an artist wants to trash up their sound, there are plenty of ways to do that before mixdown. Keep fighting the good fight, man. With high-compression formats overtaking sales, it's goood to hear someone speaking out about this nonsense.

The Gallery said...
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The Gallery said...

the magnet on the cover of the album was in the studio and the band was fooling around with it while they were working and it fuxxored the sound

Jason Henry said...

I think something similar happened to RUSH's Vapor Trails album. If I'm not mistaken.

Johan said...

This was the first time the band wasnt there for the mixing as they were on tour in Europe.

Scott Mueller said...

Artistic integrity is one thing... but I can't imagine that the band is happy with the sound at the end of 'the day that never comes'.. it's god awful..

I noticed that it is not distorted on the video for the song that is out..

Ugh..

octobermoonlite said...

i do believe it's intentional
it's heavy metal. they wanted the material to be "abrasive". how any more heavier can you get, after all. metallica, like any othetr heavy band, is seeking ways to get faster, heavier and more offensive then it ever was

Simon said...

It's funny... The single version of My Apocalypse is cleaner, and lower RMS (-4 dBFS vs. -2.5dBFS in the loud bits...)
Still doesn't sound as good as it should, but it does sound better...

ianshepherd said...

I can't believe we're even talking about these numbers, let alone measuring them on CDs.

A maximum RMS level of -8 dBFS on a track is pretty damn loud, but includes enough scope to have some nice contrasts and life in the sound. A maximum RMS of -4dBFS I would call extreme, but you're talking about it being the minimum...

If the single release is cleaner, it probably just reflects the different tools used to get this insane level on there in the first place - or perhaps an earlier, less brutalised mix.

tomeslu said...

Wehn I was listening to the CD in the Store, I thought, that the Headphones where broken. At home, I reallized, that the sound was really that bad. It reminds me on the music cassettes that I recorded 20 years ago, in a much to high level. I feel fooled, I would never offer my fans a crap like that!!! Sorry for my English I´m scottish ;-)

anaxaplaysia said...

I see that most people agree that this CD is horribly mangled by distortion. I bought it on day one of release and I could not believe a major label released it as a final product. I also see a few people saying how great it sounds and the complainers are not listening to the music. Well I propose that it should be released minus the horrible clipping and it will satisfy those who can not hear the dreadful quality and those that need a little headroom for music to sound musical. Win win situation I think.

ianshepherd said...

Sounds good to me ! Have you signed the petition ?

Mladen said...

I bought the album in Serbia and must say that the sound is great. I listern to it everyday in my car which has great sound equipment and DEATH MAGNETIC rocks in there.

ianshepherd said...

Glad you like it ! Check out my radio interview - there's a clip in the post, it's only 10 minutes long and there's an example of the CD versus Guitar Hero 3:

Radio 4 Item

I think a cleaner, less crushed version would sound even better !

Andy Micutz said...

I've been playing GH3 remastered version all this time... the cd version is so much crapier. The cd version sound is not clear. On top of that I use a EQ that is similar to club but with lower 10 and 180 Hz and higher 3kHz. Sounds awesome on my 5.1. So, remastering the death magnetic proved so much better. MY QUESTION IS: how would St Anger sound remastered?:D:D:D.. I would love a version of that album re-mixed! Email me at candyman82@gmail.com if you have one!

Aaron said...

Personally, I think the the band (and possibly the producer) were trying to achieve something similar to the sound of St. Anger, which, while many people hated it, I thought was a brilliant piece of engineering by Bob Rock. That album had a very mean, ugly, gritty and chaotic sound that was somehow beautiful. Unfortunately, with Death Magnetic, it sounds like the band and Mr. Rubin left their artistic sensibility behind and just tried to disort entire mixes and even individual elements in the mix, particularly the snare drum. Listen to "Cyanide" for perhaps the most offensive example. You can clearly hear the level of the snare fall dramatically as soon as the vocal kicks in, which tells me that this was extremely intentional and done at the mix level. Again, this harkens back to St. Anger, where Rock stacked multiple drum hits on top of one another to accentuate certain beats. The effect there was interesting and worked pretty well... on Death Magnetic, it is not pleasing to my ear at all.

IBA said...

I listened to Death Magnetic in my car and, actually, today was the first time that I popped the cd into my cd player at home and listened to it through my KRK monitors. And I actually thought the cd was scratched, because I heared this strange clipping sound.
This could not be! How couldn't I hear this just until now? Well, you cannot hear the bad SQ of the album in your car. The bass drum is all clipped, so that is the sound that you here (broken cd clipped sound). And then I threw out the cd out of my player on the floor, hoping Metallica will do a remaster some day.

I really hate the loudness wars. It is like the artists are screaming in your head. After a few minutes you will turn the cd player off because you will get a headache from the sound.

I also hear the distortion, which you hear when you scream very loudly into a microphone. The membrane will burst or whatever and you here this: "kgggggggggg" . And that is the same thing with Death Magnetic.

Hell, they really messed up. Or, as they turn 50, they are just deaf, Rubin included.

People: don't listen to it in your car and then write a positive review. Listen to it at home when it is quiet around you. Put on your headphones or whatever en start listening. Don't be a fanboy. We all want great SQ right?

Joshua Barrett said...

Everyone crticizing the album is a complete idiot who knows nothing about music. It sounds different from their other albums for two reasons. ESP guitars were used on this album and they sound different than Gibsons which James used to record with. I believe James' ESP iron cross guitar has a carved maple top. The maple creates exactly the kind of sound you hear on the album (versus an all mahogany body which is what Gibson Explorers are made of and have a deeper tone). Also, Kirk does the rhythm work for the right channel and Kirk has a different tone than James. (James used to do all the rhythm for both left and right channels). I love this approach because it is truer to their live sound than the old albums. Their amp setups were probably a little different too.
I don't think the sound had ANYTHING to do with the mastering process. I love the new sound, personally, and am glad they took a new approach.