Metallica "Death Magnetic" - Setting a few points straight - Mastering Media Blog

Friday, 19 September 2008

Metallica "Death Magnetic" - Setting a few points straight

Wow, it's been an amazing few days.

Since my first post about "Death Magnetic" on Tuesday, it's been quoted by, and linked from - amongst others - Rolling Stone, the Guardian, Wired, MusicRadar and literally hundreds of others. The petition has leapt to 7000 signatures, there is a video on YouTube which has been viewed over 25,000 times since yesterday, and I've seen an extra 40,000 hits on this blog alone. (Thank-you for all the positive comments !)

This is fantastic news - as a mastering engineer I am delighted to see the "Loudness Wars" getting some mainstream press attention at last - if more people listen critically to what they buy as a result, and maybe start returning (or not buying) a few of the worst offenders, perhaps the tide will start to turn. (I always was an optimist !)


After reading lots of discussion and comment about this over the last few days, I keep seeing some common misconceptions and misunderstandings repeated over and over. Rather than reply to them all individually, I decided to write this post to set a few things straight, "just for the record". Then I can link back to it when necessary. So here goes.

POINT ONE: I'm not saying "Death Magnetic" shouldn't be loud.

It's rock music, it should be loud ! In fact, it should be brutal, and pin you to the wall. Currently it couldn't pin up a post-it note. That's because loudness comes from contrast. "Death Magnetic" starts with clean picked-guitar intro, and then is supposed to hit you like a ton of bricks. It doesn't - it's so squashed, the intro is almost loud as what comes after it. There's no contrast, there's no impression of loudness. Now if the CD overall was at a lower level, there would be more scope for contrast. People would put it on, adjust the volume for the guitar intro, settle back and... wallop.

It's ironic, the very tools needed to make it sound loud and punchy have been sacrificed in the quest for a high-level CD. To quote user onesecondglance on the (great) Sound On Sound forum thread about this album:

power is nothing without control. light is nothing without shade

POINT TWO: Compression is GREAT

Dynamic compression (NOT data compression like mp3 encoding) is an essential tool of a recording or mastering engineer, in most genres. The Beatles discovered it when they were recording Paperback Writer and used it on Paul's bass, and never looked back. Used well, it can pull a mix together, add punch and impact or "bounce", make things warmer and fuller, more exciting and more immediate. I use it all the time, I couldn't work without it.

But excessive or clumsy compression flattens music. It squashes it, crushes it, and sucks the life out of it. You're left with something dull and blunt that gives you a headache.

Limiting or clipping, of either the analogue or digital variety, are both extreme forms of compression, where the compressor has an infinite ratio. Used in moderation, they can be the most transparent, inaudible kind of compression, and can achieve additional level boosts without many negative effects. Overused, they just smash the hell out of things, and result in a distorted, fatiguing mess.

Sound familiar ?

POINT THREE: Distortion is GREAT

Distortion is another essential part of modern music. Without distortion there would be no electric guitar, no hammond organ, no valve EQ, no tape compression, no soft-clipping, no Roland 303, no "Back in the USSR"... the list goes on and on. Distortion as a creative tool takes real talent, and when it works it's an amazing thing.

Unnecessary distortion because of over-compression, over-limiting, bad gain staging, excessive clipping and the rest just sounds nasty, makes you think your speakers are broken, and makes my teeth hurt.

POINT FOUR: I'm NOT saying the "Guitar Hero" version sounds better.

At least, I'm not saying it sounds better in every way. The key way in which it IS better is that it doesn't feature the extreme distortion of the CD. But in other ways, it isn't as good as the CD:
  1. It's less exciting - the mixes aren't quite right, and don't match the CD exactly. Also:
  2. It would benefit from a little compression (dynamic, not data)
  3. It lacks bass and low mid, it needs to sound warmer and fuller
  4. It's a bit to "toppy" and so sounds a little thin and slightly harsh
  5. It is stored on the PS3 as data-compressed files, so it contains mp3-like compression artefacts, which I hate
However despite all these negative aspects of the GH version, the fact is that the actual CD release is so distorted I wouldn't ever choose to listen to it, and this overides all the other differences, for me - and, for many (most?) others too, it would seem.

Overall - the GH version needs mastering.

Actually, even that isn't true - mastering from a data-compressed file is usually a waste of time. 

But if Ted Jensen were given a decent, clean copy to work with, he could make a new master which would blow the current CD out of the water.

And if he could be given a completely new mix, with the same goals as the CD in mind but without the ridiculous distortion, this album could really live up to it's hype.

(End of rant)

OK, it feels good to have got that out of my system. The issue of level and the so-called Loudness Wars is complicated and difficult to get your head round. But at the end of the day, if a CD is distorted and tiring to listen to, it's probably because the levels have been pushed too hard in a misguided attempt to try and sound loud in contrast to other CDs.

Listen critically to your new purchases. If they sound poor, take them back, or at the very least email the record company to complain. And in the meantime, send a message to the music business - sign the petition.


Daniel said...

I created a group on facebook in your honour to helping you out, i hope that´s ok with you?

Thanks for standing up against the loudness trend

ianshepherd said...

Hi Daniel,

Thanks for the comments, and the group ! I don't use Facebook professionally, but I'm planning a post crediting everyone who has contributed to this little skirmish at some stage, so I'll give your group a mention then.


Daniel said...

Thank you Ian, beeing a musician myself i remember mastering our Album over in London last year, this was the issue we talked about with the Engineer, keep the dynamic! And he teached us alot of things in the world of mastering. I will return the box set i bought to show that i won´t support this things anymore, it´s it´s time for a change:)

Ty said...

Mr. Shepard, have you ever used/heard of a tool for media players called Volume Logic? It was a real-time dynamic range compressor and agc+limiter for use with WMP, Winamp, or iTunes (mac/win -- now defunct). I used to use it all the time with poorly encoded mp3s and speakers (before I got an ASIO capable soundcard and a great pair of cans).

Try grabbing a copy (the trial should be sufficient for your use, any version number really) and using Winamp's disk writer plugin to render the GH mix to a wav file for comparison with the album version. You might need to tweak the settings a bit, but I am certain you can find a similar effect to what Rick Rubin achieved.

The Lost Turntable said...

I don't know if you mentioned this yet, I haven't read through all the posts, but have you compared the CD version to the vinyl version? Does a shitty master show on a vinyl record? I know vinyl can't be as loud as a CD.

ianshepherd said...

@Ty Thanks for the suggestion but I'm a mastering engineer so I'm not short of tools :-)

The GH3 version is data-compressed (like mp3) and these things never work well in mastering.

@the lost turntable - Sadly I am told the vinyl is distorted too:

Ty said...

Ian: I realize this. I just thought that you were also trying to come up with a similar effect to apply to the GH DM (resembling CD DM) to further your proof. Miscommunication on my part.

Henrik Wils said...

@ty, Volume Logic is nothing but a piece of crap. I realised this after discovering what the DSP actually did (I was amazed too, thinking it actually did "remaster realtime").

It only adds a smiley curve to music and compress the dynamics even further. It doesn't do anything good. In fact, once music has been tampered with dynamics compression there's no way to bring them back.

@ianshepherd, I disagree that you think dynamic compression is good. While you mention the good places it's used, it seem you try to promote it as a good thing to apply the final mix. IMO dynamic compression should only be used for artistic purposes, NOT on the final mix! Only reason producers have to squash it that much, is that mp3 players have a limited amp and will save battery power playing music tampered this way.

ianshepherd said...

@henrik wils - I understand your point of view, but in my experience most material will benefit from suitable dynamic compression. Of course it depends on the mix, the band etc - but nowadays there are very few mixes good enough to get away with no compression at all.

The reasons for using it have *nothing* to do with mp3 players or their battery life, however. (The biggest drains on mp3 players are the screen and hard drive.)

I intend to blog on this in my next "Mastering Techniques" post - stay tuned.

Magnetic Crack Detector said...

This was the issue we talked about with the Engineer, keep the dynamic! And he teached us alot of things in the world of mastering.