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.