This post focuses on Metallica's new album "Death Magnetic" as an example, because it's distorted sound has caused an outcry amongst fans of the band this week, and even a petition calling for a remix - but sadly there are many other examples I could have picked from recent years - from any genre - even country, folk and jazz are feeling the collateral damage of the "conflict".
My colleague Simon Murphy is a Metallica fan - in fact, he went to see them at the O2 last night, where he said they were excellent - sound included. Like everyone else though he was appalled by the way the album sounded. This morning he brought his copy of "Death Magnetic" into Studio 1 at SRT and we loaded it up into SADiE to compare with the samples I discussed in my last post - Metallica "Death Magnetic" sounds better in PS3 game Guitar Hero.
The first important thing to say is that although the mp3 example of the CD release sounds different to the actual CD, the overall degree of distortion is the same. Which means that, although it would be better to have an uncompressed example of the "Guitar Hero" version to compare with, we can still draw sensible conclusions from it - namely, the CD release is much more distorted, as fans have been complaining.
So, how loud is the CD version ? We turned it down to a level we might recommend if mastering it at SRT - for this kind of material, on a loud passage like this, an RMS of around -10dB. The difference between the CD and our choice was 6dB. In loudness terms, this is roughly a 25% difference.
Comparing the two versions with this adjustment made, the CD still sounded louder, and in fact we would need to boost the Guitar Hero version by a further 4dB to make them match. Which means the CD release is roughly 10dB louder than the "Guitar Hero" version - almost twice as loud, on average.
Listening with the levels roughly matched, the Guitar Hero version is much cleaner, as we already know. It's still not pristine, though - there is a mild, gritty distortion in the mix overall and the snare still "crunches" to a degree, but it's nothing like the beleagured CD release. There are EQ differences between the two, as well - this is one area where the CD release is better, in our opinion. It sounds fuller, with more weight in the rhythm guitars and bass. However this may well be partly due to differences in the mix, given that Guitar Hero versions are tweaked to some extent for gameplay purposes. I've written more about this here.
Next we tried boosting the level of the Guitar Hero version up to match the CD release. Sure enough, a boost of 11dB or so did the trick. What was immediately obvious though was that even at the same level, the Guitar Hero version still sounded cleaner. This is even though we were simply clipping the signal - in theory, one of the most destructive ways of boosting the level.
This is important for fans who don't like the sound of the CD, because it backs up Ted Jensen's statement that the album came to him sounding the way it does, before mastering. If he had simply boosted the level to the extreme heights the band asked for, it would have sounded cleaner than it does.
Does any of this matter, though ? The album sounds the way the band wanted it - who are we to disagree ? I have no problem with loud masters in themselves, if they still sound good - I've made many myself. Does "Death Magnetic" sound good, by the standards of Metallica themselves ?
The final test we did was to audition two other Metallica albums - "Load" (1996) and "Garage, Inc" (1998). Both of these were a similar level, in the same ballpark that we chose for turning the CD down to. Comparing them with Death Magnetic at a similar volume, we were interested to hear differences other than the distortion - the band were going for ultimate power and impact, presumably, at the expense of a clean result - were the results a success ?
Both "Load" and "Garage Inc." blew "Death Magnetic" away sonically, with the volumes matched, in every respect. They had more bass, more impact, more punch, more depth, more space, more edge, more everything. And no bludgeoning, fatiguing distortion. Even though "Garage Inc.", a collection of covers, was recorded and mixed in only a month. As Simon said - why can't they always do it like that ?!
BUT "Death Magnetic" was louder. Much louder - punishingly so. And, I hear you ask, isn't that the point ? Isn't that what the band want ? Won't this make "Death Magnetic" stand head and shoulders above the crowd ?
The first thing most listeners do when they put on a CD is adjust the volume to their normal preferred listening level. This instantly cancels out any of the effects of boosting the RMS level on the CD. Here's a great video from TurnMeUp.org to illustrate this far better than I can with words:
This is exactly what has happened with "Death Magnetic" - but to such an extent that as well as all the negative effects of puny "loud" sound, that we have ridiculous, splattering distortion, as well.
It's at this point that the three headless horsemen of the Loud Apocalypse tend to get wheeled out - radio play, iPods and jukeboxes. All three are regularly used as examples of why it's desirable to have your album louder than the next.
They're all nonsense.
(Nb. Simon suggested that I should think of another one so there are four horsemen, to match the song... :-)
- Radio play. Radio stations already use sophisticated processing to ensure the output is consistent - and loud, to improve reception in areas of low signal strength. Which means that everything gets levelled out anyway, and something like Death Magnetic will at best have no extra impact, or at worst be pulverised - obliterated by the Optimods and their ilk.
- iPods and other portable music players. Consumers are already complaining about the huge differences between CDs recorded in the 80s, 90s and today - listening on shuffle, it's a huge annoyance. Most people either put up with it, or use a plugin to equalise the volumes - again, the volume on the CD becomes irrelevant.
- CD jukeboxes. Does anyone use these, anymore, or just plug their iPod into a dock ? OK, fair enough - in a casual listening situation like a pub, shop or 'phone on-hold music, having a louder CD will help your product stand out. Is that important enough to wreak the kind of destruction we're hearing on Death Magnetic and other CDs ? Not for me.
We need to stop the loudness wars, before every CD we listen to gives us a headache in the first 3 minutes. Please sign the Metallica petition, return the CD if you bought it, email the band, post complaints on their forum, tell your friends - whatever is necessary to stop the pointless massacre of our music. Send out the message - we want our music back.
Louder is Better - but Too Loud is worse.
I will be posting updates on this issue as I recieve interesting information, check back regularly, or subscribe using the link on the right.