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.