Metallica "Death Magnetic" sounds better in Guitar Hero - Mastering Media Blog

Monday, 15 September 2008

Metallica "Death Magnetic" sounds better in Guitar Hero

It's official - the distortion that Metallica fans are so enraged by on the new album "Death Magnetic", and that mastering engineer Ted Jensen was so unhappy about is not present on the version used for the Playstation 3 game "Guitar Hero", exactly as was suggested by forum discussions yesterday and described in my last post. I have been sent what I understand to be sample files from both versions, and although I'm not at work I don't need SADiE or B&W monitoring to confirm that the Guitar Hero version sounds much better. In comparison, the released CD version is - to coin a technical phrase - smashed to f**k.


A picture tells a thousand words:



As you can easily see, the CD version on the bottom has been heavily compressed, limited and/or clipped, and sounds massively distorted as a result. In fact, despite the appearance of the waveforms, the CD version still sounds louder, even though it's level has obviously been reduced in the sample I was sent - presumably to match the levels for comparison purposes.

To be completely open and up-front about everything, the files were mp3s - not the best sources - and I haven't yet heard the album myself(*) to confirm the sample is a truly accurate representation, but the samples clips on iTunes are enough for me to be very confident. No mp3 encoder would do this to a file.


(*) Since posting this I've had a chance to make the comparisons, and can confirm that the mp3s accurately represent the released CD in terms of the overall sound, degree of distortion etc. Details here.


I have removed the link in the comments from my last post to the samples which were uploaded (not by me!) to avoid any possible legal issues, but if you are curious to hear the difference for yourself there is a video on YouTube which I link to in this post which demonstrates it pretty clearly.


And of course, this doesn't answer the questions about how, why and where this amazing feat of sonic demolition was achieved - however Ted Jensen says it wasn't him, and I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt - and his colleague, Chris Athens, says on the Gearslutz Mastering Forum thread:


Rick Rubin and Metallica are solely responsible for the end product. They gave the directions, they approved it. They are not rookies and no one at the label can ever bully these guys into anything. Both parties are 800 pound gorillas in the music industry. These guys are smart and in control. You and I may not like their taste, but it's not a Chris Athens record. It's a metallica record and this is what they want to give the record buying public. Only Metallica and Rick know why it sounds like it does.


- which would seem pretty conclusive. Given Ted's original comments, it seems hard to believe that the album was presented to him as it sounds on the Guitar Hero version, so it will be interesting to see if the band or producer Rick Rubin decide to speak out.

Personally, I don't know whether I should laugh or cry. I'm not a big Metallica fan, but to hear this much pure damage done to what was obviously originally a decent recording, in the mistaken belief that it sounds good, is hard to stomach. I'm no audio purist, but the end result on the samples I've heard is genuinely un-listenable.

As I write this, the online petition to have the album re-mixed and re-mastered stands at 2252 votes - I'll be adding one more.

(Edit to add - sadly this album is just one more example of the so-called "Loudness Wars" in the music industry at the moment - I have written a post illustrating why "Louder is Better but Too Loud is worse" and how this affects "Death Magnetic" here.)

54 comments:

HappyParts said...

Ian - nice one mate- but so what? I would rather you play the record backwards and see if it has a
satanic message- that's more fun! Besides people playing guitar hero - need it louder to "rock out" more- volume brings action- like a 50's beehive.

ianshepherd said...

Yeah, nobody does backwards messages anymore - shame... (Grin)

I think you might have misunderstood though - the CD is loud and distorted, the game is much quieter and sounds much better.

Either way, I agree that stuff needs to be good and loud to "rock out", but this album is so far beyond it's not funny.

Dom Schacht, Beer Correspondant said...

I agree Ian. This is intense.

I am a massive MetallicA fan, and am genuinely impressed by what they recorded on this album... but i though my stereo had broken or something! The mixing is no good - and something's gotta be done. The public to revolt or something... cities to burn... i don't know what's required, but after reading enough now I'm going to search for a complete album made up of the guitar hero mixes!

ianshepherd said...

Hi Dom,

It will be interesting to see what happens. I can't believe the album will be recalled, but maybe they'll release an alternative "TurnMeUp" version and offer an exchange for people who aren't happy. I'm sure they want the fans to be happy.

Ian

Jon said...

It's nothing new though. Californication by the Chillies was clipped to high heaven. At the time I thought it was my copy but checking on two other peoples its still the same. People have volume knobs and gain controls. If its not loud enough by a bigger amp! instead of producing a million beer mats because of poor engineering.

PARNELL said...

What about the vinyl version? Please tell me there isn't ridiculous compression on that.

Shane said...

Impeccable find! I too thought I had a bad rip or a failing sound card, or even old speakers. I like the songs, but I thought it was just my ears playing with me when I loaded up GH3 and thought it sounded so much better.

It'll be interesting to see if the Metallica camp responds to any of these sentiments.

The difference is night and day, no bones about it.

David said...

To be honest I have no idea about music, but in terms of the albums Metallica has produced..Death Magnetic sounds more like there first albums, as if there style has come full circle & is aiming to recapture the style of their first albums with a raw/non-perfect edge..just listen to the evolution of Hetfields way of singing.

Ride the Lightning/Master of Puppets etc were raw..Black was perfect/controlled but somewhat sanitized..then hetfields voice followed, improving his singing range/quality over Load/Relaod. Then on St. Anger he began to growl/raw, the music also changed becoming more intense/sounding more compressed.

It seems they're trying to move away from a perfect/sanitized product..as you can hear on Death Magnetic it has gone one step further, his voice growls/screams almost, no real singing & it wouldn't suprise me if the distortion is intentional as another way of moving away from a 'perfected' overworked/album.

I liken it to a drawing - a sketch has more impact than a highly finished drawing sometimes as it's fresh/uncontrolled/free/dynamic

Peter Kyme said...

Californication was also a Rick Rubin production.

I suspect part of the problem here is that many of the 'old hands' in the industry don't understand the difference between the clipping you get from analogue tape and digital clipping.

Tetley said...

It's interesting that you bought up Californication. I remember when I bought the album I thought it was the worst sounding album I'd ever bought, but had forgot all about it until now.

I work in the games industry, and until recently we've had the same problems, producers wanting it loud all the time.

Thankfully in the last couple of years things are changing and I try and talk producers out of wanting everything louder than everything else. They're now starting to listen, and it's beginning to make a real difference.

elliott said...

have you ro anyone else analysed the lps? I'm not sure how these things work but is there a chance that they could be better?

ianshepherd said...

I haven't got my hands on the LPs yet, but I've heard they have the same problems.

One interesting point is that I don't think it _is_ digital clipping - yes there's clipping going on, but it's not the whole story - we tried boosting the GH version (clipping it digitally) and it didn't sound nearly as bad. This is another thing that points towards the mix, not the recording or mastering.

r4f4 said...

The Lp would not ever that compressed!

Booga said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Booga said...

It's wierd, I have the UK standard edition CD on Vertigo. I play this on a *decen't* HiFi seperates system, and I have to say I hear very few of the issues everyone is mentioning. The CD is undoubtably mastered enourmously loud, and I actually turn the volume down significantly for it. BUT, to me it just sounds like a massively upfront production with very little in the way of OTT clipping. The dynamic range of the sound is certainly limited, but it does sound very forward and well seperated. I don't find it distressing to listen to, and the ocassional excess distortion and compressed 'sag' that occurs in parts, I think adds to the overall heaviness. Much more preferable to the clinical,plastic Nu-metal productions of the recent past, and more like a super-max'ed version of 80's style thrash production/mastering.

I wonder if there is some regional variation in final masters, i.e. US version of CD different to UK?

More woryingly, is it possible older people like me (who still has pretty good range last time it was tested, which was fairly recently) can't hear the issues e.g. Rick Rubin, and Metallica?

ianshepherd said...

@Booga, check out the YouTube video I linked to in my latest post, with a pair of headphones - I'm pretty sure you'll hear it then.

It's not all sizzly digital clipping, there's shedloads of crunchy analogue stuff in there too. Nothing wrong with that in itself, but it's massively overdone.

Pepe said...

Very true: this last CD from Metallica has great music but too poor sound. It's a real shame.

Anyway, I let you all know that, "at the usual places", for those "demonic" enough and in the "iso-hunting" process, you can find a "Death Magnetic - Guitar Hero rip" both in FLAC and high bitrate MP3, so you can finally get what you paid for when you bought the offical CD.

Regards.

TexasLnghrnsFn13 said...

im sorry but the album sounds fine
its their best album in a while and it sounds heavy
thats all i care about
just listen and stop taking everything too far

PARNELL said...

Nobody's taking anything too far. The point is that it's a good album. It's disappointing that it was treating so poorly in the mastering process. Nobody would worry this much about the clipping if it wasn't a heavy as fuck, good record.

I'll use the black metal point: A lot of those albums are extremely low-fi, and they're classics. There's a massive difference between what analog and digital clipping does to a sound. Digital clipping sounds cheap and jagged. Analog problems sound cheap-ish, but it has a real charm to it, and it still allows a lot of dynamics to come through.

To reiterate: if people didn't like this album, they wouldn't be so annoyed by the problems with the CD version.

benginear said...

Hi ya'll. I mix a do some mastering. Bands that want a "heavy" sound often ask for the mastering to bring up the volume so much that I feel that the sound quality suffers. They are the client and unfortunately havethe final say. Hopefully this will bring more awareness to this problem. There are so many "classic" albums that aren't that loud but sound great, I don't understan why there is such a need to bring up the level to be laouder than others, in my opinion it loses something. I never reach the limit on the volume knob and find the volume too low, so if it's not LOUD enough TURN IT UP YOURSELF!
Metallica has lost the edge I think and the SOUND is only a minor problem in this case. LOUDER DOES NOT MAKE BETTER.

Mike said...

This album still sounds great, it's an awesome collection of songs. I think the drums sound too high and distorted at times, but the rest sounds great.

Booga said...

Ian. Yes, I can hear exactly what you're talking about now, having reviewed the youtube clip. The levels are blasted way too high, and you're getting loads of analogue sounding clipping, and a degree of compression/sag to go with it. Like when the the master record level on your tape deck is set too far over the 0db level. Without having the Guitar Hero master to compare with on my main listening system, I have to say that I prefer the OTT CD sound.

The reduced clarity and depth of the individual instruments seems to benefit this album which aims to be as heavy as all hell. It's similar to being at a gig in some ways 8¬)

I think this is destined to come down to what the individual wants from the recording, how the overall effect strikes them. It'll either work for you, or it won't. It's certainly a gamble from the band and the associated parties perspective.

ianshepherd said...

@booga - Yes, you described it well. I'm surprised you like it - I disagree that it's an improvement. Certainly there are areas where the GH version needs to be improved, but the CD is way OTT for me.

Everyone is different though - Simon was worried they would sound like the CD when he went to the gig at the O2, and was relieved when they sounded much better.

Booga said...

Ian -

"Certainly there are areas where the GH version needs to be improved" - splashy hi-hat for one?

"Everyone is different though - Simon was worried they would sound like the CD when he went to the gig at the O2, and was relieved when they sounded much better."

Ha! Well if they sounded anything like they do here (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00dm7l5) (scroll to the end of the show), I'll take the CD version 8¬)

Definately appears to be a case of knowing what you like.

A Pleasure discussing this with you BTW.

ianshepherd said...

Fair enough, I agree - too clean. But how about here ?

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00dndwk/

It's pumping like hell, but in my opinion it Rocks - and it's not distorted...

ianshepherd said...

OK it really IS pumping too hard, but I still prefer it to the CD !

Booga said...

Haha, yes I admit I was being selective. I heard this on Monday, and apart from the *slightly* thin drum sound, it does indeed sound like an old time thrash gig. Really nice guitar sound. Zero disortion, but the aural pounding you'd recieve from actualy being there would more than make up for that 8¬)

Booga said...

Noooooooo, not pumping too hard. That's what you want, that is. It's thrash! 8¬)

ianshepherd said...

It's pumping *slightly* too hard. Imnsho :-)

Booga said...

8¬)

I'll tell you something though. If you've never heard some of the production/mastering jobs on some of the more obscure 80's thrash/death metal bands, they make 'Death Magnetic' look like a jewel encrusted crown of a sound job, distortion, or no distortion. it's all relative, and we've obviously come a long way since then, but if you told any one of those bands back then that they could have this sound, they'd probably faint, then bite your hand off for it.

ianshepherd said...

I dunno, I did an Anthrax best-of a few years ago - pretty damn good for the most part. And I just mastered the new Darkthrone CD - THAT sounds rough. But then, they want it to...

pfc78 said...

What a gigantic load this is. The album sounds fine, and piss on GH. I haven't noticed any of the "problems" some of the picky, whiny "music fans" seem to bring up about distortion. Shut the fuck up and try enjoying the music you crybaby puds.

Daniel said...

Hello Ian, i felt that i had to let you know that i am very happy that someone is finally trying to do something about this mastering / loudness issue so i registered a blogger page just to leave you a comment! Non of my friends have ever noticed it and they all think that when i am complaining about overcompression thats becuase i read it somewhere! I have a high-end stereo and i have around 2000 Cds and Death Magnetic is the worst sounding yet! I am a huge metallica fan and when they first released the " teasers " from their website i was sure this clipping was due to the ripping and was not that upset about it. I was sure the CD would have a crisp and clean production to it. So i spent nearly 100 Pounds on the 5-LP box set and the Coffin CD box set and was shocked! The sound is horrible, the Vinyl is horrible, i always thought vinyls would use a different master than the Cd versions? It clearly has the same loudness and distortion:(

I contacted Universal music here in Sweden and asked if i could pay for a GH3 version download and return my vinylbox and the coffin box but noone at universal could give me an answer so i downloaded the GH3 torrent. And even if its not a perfect mix, with lots of jittering i was blown-away about the difference listening to it with my headphones, now i could hear cymbals panned to the left and right, basslines and even backing vocals, one example is track nr 2, James has 2 overdubbs, one panned ot the left, one to the right and the main vocals in the center. It sounds fantastic compared to the CD.

Well, i am writing tooo much here but i wanted to thank you for bringing this subject up, suddenly i dont feel that i am alone in this world anymore, reading that so many people agree with me:)

PS, when Iron maiden relased the dance of death album i actually returend my speakers cuz i thought the were damaged, they changed the speakers for me but the problem was still there, then i compared it to the dvd-audio version of the same record and viola, sounded way better, now without digital distortion:)

Long live high-fidelity and good luck with your quest for better sound!

Daniel

Saint Kansas said...

I'm a studio hobbyist with gold-plated ears at best, but that YouTube clip is night and day even to me. The limiting is so extreme as to actually change the drum sound; the transients are just... gone (as is clearly visible in the waveform).

I remember way back in the '80s reading a review of the Beastie Boys' License to Ill -- also a Rick Rubin production -- in Stereo Review, which rated the audio quality "Unlistenable." I thought they were exaggerating, but damn, this Metallica clip comes pretty close. It's sad; this kind of squashing of dynamic range is just the kind of thing the CD format was supposed to free us from.

tbone12 said...

Lazy and horrible engineering, is all I have to say. Metalica sounds like dream theatre with down syndrome anyway. There attempts at prog rock suck.

dgfresh1 said...

Why dont you video game playin pussies put down your game controller and pick up a real guitar! This cd blows me away...couldnt be any better! I suppose Slayer, Exodus and others are distored? But wait, you dont know who the hell that is? You began your Metallica career in the 90s..please! Got back to POD please.

Saint Kansas said...

@dgfresh1

I don't understand your reaction at all. If you prefer the sound of the CD, great. I personally think it's a shame to take a drummer like Lars Ulrich and "erase" parts of his performance by feeding it through a brick wall limiter for...what reason?

I have no emotional investment in Metallica (I prefer old skool Maiden), but I'd like to think the band would want the best sounding product for their fans. (And yes, I have lots of real guitars, and drums too, thanks... that's how I know what a snare is supposed to sound like).

Dave said...

This is just as bad as Vapor Trails. The clipping around 4:15 on "The Day that Never Comes" is unacceptable. I paid for this crap!

dgfresh1: try listening to music on a high-end system. This CD sounds reasonably good on a car system with road and wind noise but a pair of high-end headphones shows the audio problems with astonishing clarity.

As long as the majority of music "listeners" out there are as ignorant as you this isn't going to change. I cry for modern music.

Joshua said...

there's actually an easy explanation as to why GH sounds better. when Activision create songs for the game, they use pieces of the multitrack recording called "stems." stems are bounced stereo files containing only one instrument (ie: drum stem, bass stem, guitar stem, etc.).

before mastering, mix engineers normally sum these elements and apply compression across the entire mix. while I assume the Guitar Hero team does the same to audio in their games, it's likely that they were just more reasonable about it.

frankly, this is what happens when you're a band who can be so cowed by it's producer as to decide guitar solos are "outdated" (Bob Rock, St. Anger). i hope their mix engineers never work again; it would serve them right for drinking so heavily during mixdown.

Hauke Haien said...

who the f¨çk are metallica and rick rubin ? :-)

I do not listen to mp3 music EVER! In fact I stopped listening to digit all music alltogether since years! It sounds dead,flat and all emotion has gone.

overcrompression has been a major problem since these tools were given to any idiot via hacked versions of mastering compressor plugins like waves L1.

Its funny to see how this beast has finally been beaten to distortive levels even the ear-damaged youth can discern....

Pupu said...

That's too bad I miss the issued.

ShinSan said...

The Amazon MP3 store .mp3 files look a lot like the CDs

ianshepherd said...

Yes, and the "Mission Metallica" mp3s have been made from the same source, too. The only clean copy of this record is the Guitar Hero version...

drsnakeluv said...

When I first bought the album, my original review to friends and fellow Metallica-heads was that this album sounded like outtakes from RTL-->Load, mostly focused around AJFA/Black era.

A lot of the songs sounded like you could add them to the end of one of the albums and the albums wouldn't miss a beat.

At first people thought it was a negative review, but it was actually a complimentary one. I guess the only negative point was that it sounded a bit "dirty and distorted" kind of how some of the earlier albums started.

Based on that initial impression, it really makes me wonder if that is exactly what they were going for. In fact, I've heard that Rubin gave Lars direction of that sort (play like you're writing AJFA II) to inspire him.

I'm satisfied with the result if it was what was intended. I don't try to impose my will on the artists.

drsnakeluv said...

Also...for the record, I too enjoy hearing "all the music". I still have all of my 80s and 90s metal TAPES in my basement (over 1000) and sometimes venture down to get a few to listen to in my stereo.

It's great fun, especially for the non-musician wife as she invaribly says "Why does that song sound different?" I've grown tired of explaining it and simply say "because the tapes sound better", which is really the final answer anyway, right?

It doesn't matter how they got there, they're just better.

I think the best example of this is the difference between Nirvana-Nevermind CD and tape. Many Metallica albums are in the top 10 for "music removed" (especially AJFA) as well as many Primus albums.

inkrat said...

"ianshepherd said...

I haven't got my hands on the LPs yet, but I've heard they have the same problems.

One interesting point is that I don't think it _is_ digital clipping - yes there's clipping going on, but it's not the whole story - we tried boosting the GH version (clipping it digitally) and it didn't sound nearly as bad. This is another thing that points towards the mix, not the recording or mastering."

The answer is simple... It's called Hard Limiting. Hard limiting, for the lack of better ways to explain it while keeping it simple, is artificial clipping. Some people call this brick walling or dynamic compression, but the end result is the same: Dynamic range is eradicated and the waveforms look essentially the same. If you purposely take a recording (that hasn't already been overcompressed) and amplify it by +10db over 0db (digital limit) and then reduce it by -6db below 0db, the waveforms will basically look the same as a track that has been compressed and hard limited to hell and back. Complete with flattened waveforms.

This loudness war is exactly why I stopped buying music. Rick Rubin needs to be beaten over the head as he is one of the worst offenders of this.

Leslie said...

Well I'm definitely buying the game. This just gives me another reason too. And if you pre-order at GameStop, you get a free 2nd kick pedal. Watch this funny game trailer to really hear the sound quality difference between the cd and the game: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nN_Qg4YDHiA

ianshepherd said...

@inkrat - It's not limiting. (I know quite about about limiting, hard and otherwise !). Nor is it straight clipping - although that has been done to the album, too.

As I said (and you quoted) the distortion is over and above what can be achieved by limiting and clipping alone.

CHAPPERS said...

Hey all you geeks, stop whinging and listen to the damn music and appreciate it, this is some of Metallica's finest work.

Big Nige said...

Hi all

This is question for all the Metallica and technical people on here...

DVD sound quality - Cunning Stunts, Metallica

If you own a copy of the (excellent) Cunning Stunts movie on DVD, do you have a massive issue with the terrible sound to image syncing on this? The instruments and singing are all around .5 of a second out and it really spoils the enjoyment of what is a well engineers piece of film. I have a very expensive set up to watch it all back on and all my other music DVDs are perfect.

RSVP please...


Nige

Kiq Roqz Graphiqz said...

Here I thought I was the only one who thought this. I noticed this when I was playing the Demo [before the game was officially released] and realized the audio sounds better coming out of my television than my computer/Mp3 player.

piluTLight said...

dude i have been bitching to my roommate about this topic. i refuse to play the album through my monitors because it sounds so dangerously gross. playing through my ear-buds while riding the train makes me cringe.

John said...

It's so true. Terrible distortion...

moinsbd said...

Do you get the latst Wow. Its so nice. Looks like Metalica Album ?