Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Metallica "Death Magnetic" - Bands comments spark furious response

If Lars Ulrich, Metallica's drummer, thought that his comments to Blender.com about the distorted sound of "Death Magnetic" would put an end to the controversy, he was sadly mistaken. 

With no official word from the band, many who disliked the excessive compression and distortion of the CD release had simply chosen to listen to the much cleaner and more dynamic mix from the PS3 "Guitar Hero" game instead. On the Metallicabb.com forums where much of the debate has been conducted between fans over the last few weeks, things seemed to have started to calm down again. 

However Lars' comments have lit a blue touch-paper, and suddenly the dissatisfaction has exploded again with renewed vigour. The forum is swamped by threads, bitterly arguing about Lars' apparent disregard for the opinions of loyal fans. It's true that Metallica has picked up it's fair share of "haters" over the years - people who are determined to criticise whatever the band do - but the vast majority of people complaining about the sound have always made it clear they love the new material, and only have a problem with Rick Rubin's punishing, fatiguing production style. Lars' dismissal of the 12,000+ signatures on the petition to have the album remixed as "a few people" was greeted with incredulity and scorn by most, along with his assertion that it sounds "smokin'" in his car.

One group of fans, dismayed by what they have learnt about the so-called Loudness Wars since the release of Death Magnetic, have already set up a new site to try and stop the Loudness "arms race" - JusticeForAudio.org is still in it's early stages but already features an impressive level of activity. 

Since the Blender.com article, a new focus of protest has also developed - a co-ordinated return of CDs to Metallica's offices on October 17th. Initially suggested on the Metallicabb.com forums, the plan has been given focus by a blog post by user mikemelancholic, and seems to be gaining considerable support amongst unhappy fans, judging by the replies on the forums.

It remains to be seen how many copies will eventually be returned, but if the organisers achieve their goal it could have considerable impact - if there's one thing that makes record companies sit up and take notice, it's returns.

Meanwhile views of the YouTube video offering a comparison between the CD and Guitar Hero mixes actually seem to have increased since Lars' comments rather than decreasing as he must have hoped, and leapt up to over 175,000 this evening, with signatures to the petition seemingly unaffected and steadily growing by about 1000 a day.

It seems this battle in the Loudness War isn't over just yet.

 

Monday, 29 September 2008

Metallica "Death Magnetic" - Distortion is deliberate, say band


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.


Friday, 26 September 2008

Metallica "Death Magnetic" - Guitar Hero Mix Sounds Better on Radio

At the end of my last post I briefly mentioned that Australian metal radio show Full Metal Racket had chosen to play the "Guitar Hero" versions of "Death Magnetic" - because they sounded better. Having listened to the streaming broadcast in full, I think  this part of the story deserves more detail.

The show demonstrates the differences between the CD and Guitar Hero versions again, but in the process also effectively disproves an enduring myth of the music industry - that louder is better on radio. It isn't. In the opinion both of the presenters, and to the ears of most listeners to the program too. The truth is that the broadcast compression used on radio equalises the levels of all the music played anyway, to ensure good reception - so the cleaner, more dynamic "Guitar Hero" mix sounds great, but the hyper-compressed CD release simply sounds like distorted mush. Again.

I can't really do any better than simply quote the show's host Andrew Haug and his guest Rohan:

"[The CD is] so raw that you cannot hear the nuances, the clarity, especially with James' amazing riffage"

"On this Guitar Hero version you can hear a lot of notes that Rob's playing that you can't hear on the standard album"

"to anyone's ears, it's pretty obvious"... "[the Guitar Hero version] just sounds incredibly comfortable, and if anything, normal"

"[The CD] kind of sounds as if a distortion pedal is over the whole band, instead of just the guitar"

"The band are striking, they're on fire, and the [CD] mix is letting down their ability"

"The band have not cut corners on the album, the sad thing is you can't hear the precision... of James' riffs, and even Rob's bass and a lot of Lars' tom work... these are really important elements"

"To my ears, [the CD] sounds way too overbearing"

"That's what I want hear - the precise riffs..." -  "and on the album version it really doesn't show, it's doesn't pop out at you"

"We're just gonna go with the Guitar Hero mix, because honestly... (laughs) I think we prefer it"

What's really interesting though, is hearing the CD versions and Guitar Hero examples compared side by side - through radio broadcast compression. Certainly the CD has no advantage at all level-wise in this scenario - but it's sound and impact also suffers dramatically in comparison. Just as in the YouTube video, it sounds stodgy and poorly defined, distorted and mushy, whereas the Guitar Hero version sounds full, punchy and powerful. On the radio as well as in real life, loud and distorted is worse.

The sucker-punch is struck by the show's listeners though - after playing examples and a full track from the PS3 version (with the console audibly being cued-up in the background to the chat) Haug asks for comments from his listeners, and gets them - with texted comments like:

"You're right it sounds so much better... I know nothing about Guitar Hero but I'm definitely going to pick up this one"

"I was shocked by the CD version, it sounded like my headphones had been transformed into a two-dollar set which had been broken by volume"

"I thought it was my sound system so I'm glad that it wasn't just me... what a shame such a great album came out like this, still a great CD in my opinion"

- and there are many many more in a similar vein on the show's message board.

You can hear all of this for yourself for the next few days while the stream is still available - leave it to load for a while and jump to 50 minutes into the show for the start of the discussion:


Then head on over and suggest it to the BBC as a story they should cover too. Demonstrate the differences to your friends, and get them to sign the petition.

Louder is better but Too Loud is worse.


Metallica "Death Magnetic" - Manager claims complaints are a minority

Media coverage of the "Death Magnetic" loudness controversy continues to spread, with articles in the LA Times:


and the Wall Street Journal:


Several source have quoted a response for the band's manager, Cliff Burnstein, who says

'98% of listeners are "overwhelmingly positive"... there's something exciting about the sound of this record that people are responding to.'

In my opinion this statement needs to be treated with extreme scepticism. Presumably his number is based on the 10,000+ signatures on the petition to remix the album compared with sales of nearly a million copies. However conventional business wisdom is clear that only a very small minority of dissatisfied customers actually complain. Estimates range between 1 in 3 to 1 in 500. On this evidence as a conservative estimate those 10,000 signatures could well represent in excess of 100,000 unhappy Metallica fans.

The cleverly ambiguous statement about people "responding to" the album's "exciting" (Read: distorted) sound is clearly intended to draw attention away from the fact that the band and producer have resolutely declined to comment - probably since it now seems likely they weren't present for either the final mix or mastering sessions. 

Since Burstein's comments yesterday there have been an additional 1000 signatures on the petition, and 10,000 more views of the YouTube comparison video, which is now the UK'S 3rd "most favourited" music video, after only a week online.

Meanwhile Ted Jensen, the engineer who mastered the album, has confirmed that the quote from his email last week was genuine, saying

'I'm not sure I would have said quite the same thing if I was posting it to the bulletin board... [but] it's certainly the way I feel about it'

Fans are now reporting that national Radio stations in Australia and elsewhere are discussing the issues and playing comparisons(*) on air. Tellingly, when pausing to play tracks from the album, they chose to use the less distorted version from the soundtrack of PS3 game "Guitar Hero", rather than the "crushed to death" CD version.

(*) Approximately 50 minutes into the show

I encourage anyone who hasn't already done so to help Stop The Loudness Wars by submitting this issue to the BBC to help encourage further media interest.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Mastered by Muppets

OK just a bit of fun but this is simply too good not to mention:

Listen to this and read this along with the singing.

Very very clever.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Metallica "Death Magnetic" - Remixed from stems by "name" mystery producer


Today the "Death Magnetic" saga took yet another strange twist, with the arrival of a "remix" of one of the tracks, allegedly by a "name" metal producer, according to the email which acompanied the file. This new mix of "Broken, Beat & Scarred" has been created by the mystery producer using "stems" extracted from the Playstation 3 game "Guitar Hero". The PS3 mixes in realtime to allow guitar parts to drop in and out as part of the gameplay, and this allowed the extraction of 3 stereo submixes - Guitars, Bass and Drums + Vox. Even with this limited palette, a new mix has been created, adding reverb, EQ and mix tweaks - even going so far as using a clever trick to add reverb to the snare.

Almost immediately I was offered the chance to listen to the track, and despite initial reservations my curiosity eventually got the better of me and I decided to take a listen. I didn't have high hopes - it seemed unlikely that only 3 stems would enable a major improvement. And, once again I'm at home so relying on my trusty MacBook Pro and some high-quality headphones, but even at this early stage I can say it's quite a transformation.

What follows are my early impressions of this "new mix" - bearing in mind that it has been created without the bands approval, the methods used to create it are questionable legally, and distributing it publicly is clearly out of the question. Please treat this as a "bit of fun".

So:

First impressions are strong - more bass, fuller guitars, more spacious drums and great weight and power - all the things that are missing from the GH version, and flattened or buried in distortion on the CD.

Listening in more detail, here are some initial observations:
  • No distortion
  • More bass - fuller & deeper.
  • Richer guitars - reverb and EQ added. Maybe width enhancement ?
  • Drums similar to GH but smoother and cleaner. The snare is lower level and has reverb - see below
  • No stereo FX on the guitar solo - this will be a limitation of the stems
  • Still too loud. This mix measures a long-term RMS of -7.7, whereas the CD has a punishing -5. However this mix is still mastered loud. Too loud ! It's clearly been limited hard, what was the point of shaving off those last few dBs ? Luckily:
  • Comparatively speaking, it's clean as a whistle. (Bearing in mind I'm listening to an AAC file) Thankfully no trace of the huge distortion that masks the CD, bar remenants of the clipping already present in the GH version
  • Overall impression is similar to the CD but cleaner, wider and fuller - more spacious. Maybe too polished.
One of the most noticeable differences is the selective addition of reverb to the snare, and it turns out this has been achieved by sampling the snare sound from another Metallica classic album - the Bob Rock produced "Black Album", triggering it in time with the track, and using it to add reverb. It's not clear if any of the snare sound itself was added to the mix - if so, it sounds as if it was minimal to me. Regardless, this is a very cunning trick.

So, in summary ? Personally I prefer this mix to both the CD and the GH version - it's much more the kind of sound I would have liked to have heard. And to achieve this result with only the three stems to work from, is truly impressive. In my opinion it is still unnecessarily loud though - an extra few dBs of breathing space would make a welcome relief.

HOWEVER

This mix certainly isn't the sound that Rick Rubin and the band wanted. Both GH and the CD mixes are dry as a bone, and there's no doubt that's exactly the way they were intended to be. The GH version proves that the hard, dry sound of the CD could be achieved without the distortion, and personally I find productions that dry tough to listen to, but the transformation wreaked here moves this mix firmly from the realm of "alternative version", where GH sits, to "fan edit" space.

Fan Edits & mash-ups are obviously a big buzz on the internet at the moment, and it doesn't take long watching the Metallica forums to realise that a host of these alternative mixes will certainly now follow in a short space of time, once the stem files are out "in the wild". However these versions are exactly what the name says they are - "fan edits". Not what the band wants, or what the producer wanted, in a any shape or form. Who knows - in light of the intense media scrutiny and 10,000+ signatures on the petition, maybe Metallica will speak out on this issue soon, and release a remixed version of Death Magnetic, more along the lines of the mix presented here. But maybe not. This reminds me of one of my favourite expressions -

A man with a watch may know what the time is, but a man with two is never sure

For example, legendary Beach Boys album "Smile" got the fan-mix treatment in the same way when copies of all the original 60's tapes escaped and were widely shared on the internet. Many versions existed and were endlessly discussed, but eventually the generally agreed "ultimate" version of these edits only materialised when Brian Wilson himself finally released a brand new recording of the record, and the fans were able to duplicate it as closely as possible using the original takes.

In the same way, until (if) Metallica ever make a clear statement about the sound of the Death Magnetic CD, we will never know if this is how the album should "really" have sounded. This mix I think moves too far from the existing versions to be able to claim that for itself.

Personally I think fans would be better advised to maintain pressure on the band and label to release a different, (non-distorted!) official new version of "Death Magnetic", rather than spending hours second-guessing what they "might have done".

But having said that, remixing your favourite band's stuff is really good fun - it's something that has long been talked about as the ultimate in audience participation, that my idol Brian Eno has long advocated, and here I am commenting on the damn thing already ! Time to listen to my own advice and so something else more useful instead...

UPDATE: Having listened in the studio this morning I stand by most of my comments above, with a few extra comments:
  • For me, listening on speakers, (this stuff is hard to judge on cans) the snare is now too low in the mix, and doesn't have enough weight - it's too tasteful. A compromise between this and the GH version would be better. Interestingly, lots of fans have commented that there is too much reverb added to the snare, but the reverb itself is quite subtle IMO - the big difference is you can hear the drum's "ring" much more clearly now - there is a lot of extra high frequency EQ on the drums. This is audible in the GH3 version too, but not in the same way.
  • Overall it's a little too bassy, in my opinion
  • It is unnecessarily loud - I wish it were a few dBs quieter. This may not sound like much, but when you're pushing stuff this hard, every little helps.

Finally to return to one of my points above - apart from the issues I've raised, this would still be my choice of mixes to listen to so far. BUT I can't "commit" to enjoying it in the same way as I could to a proper remix from the band. It doesn't feel authentic, because the band aren't involved. I think we as listeners look for statements from artists, and this isn't it... an official remix is still needed.

How do we hear loudness ? Peak vs. Average Level

I have seen lots of confusion over the last few days about the differences between the CD and "Guitar Hero" versions which feature in the YouTube comparison video. Some think that the Guitar Version (GH) is louder, but in fact this is not the case. The two version are level-matched - the average level is equal - and this is how our ears judge loudness.

If the Guitar Hero version feels louder to you, it is because it is more dynamic. It has more variety in the average level, and more contrast between the loud and soft sounds, so it sounds more lively, more energetic and more exciting than the overly crushed CD version. (It doesn't sound as good, in some other ways, though - see "Point Four" in this post.)

How do I know the two are level-matched ? Partly because I've listened to them and can hear they match - balancing levels is a crucial skill for a mastering engineer. But also because measurements back this up, as can be seen in the graphics of the videos.



The two screengrabs here show the same point in the song from the video. look at the level display, highlighted by the red arrows. First look at the Guitar Hero version (GH). The pale blue bit shows the peak level of the music, and the darker blue shows the average level. So we can see that the peak level at this point is almost up to the maximum, whereas the average level is about 10 dB below that. (Click on the image to see a larger version)

Now look at the CD graphics from the same point in the song. The average level is the same - about 10 dB down. But the peak level is barely any higher - about -7 dB or so, instead of right up at the top.


This fact that the average level measurements are equal confirms that the clips are level-matched as I'm claiming. Our ears judge loudness by the average level, NOT the peak level, so they are matched in loudness at the same point in the song.


(Actually it's quite a bit more complicated than that, but this explanation is close enough for the point I want to make in this post. There's more about measuring loudness in this post.)


So why do some people feel the Guitar Hero version is actually louder ?


Try watching the video again, concentrating on the meters. Probably the first thing you'll notice is that both the pale and dark blue meters jump up lower and higher on the GH version, just as the overall graph goes higher and is more spiky. Doesn't this mean it's louder ? No. The dark blue meter is centred around the same point on both versions - roughly 10 dB down from the maximum - so the average level is the same, and over the course of the whole track or album, the ear judges it's level to be the same.


However it feels louder, because it has more highs and lows, more contrast - it's more dynamic. The contrast between the loudest and softest parts of the sound - in this case the drums - is much greater, so it sounds harder and punchier. And crucially because it's overall level hasn't been pushed so hard, it hasn't been over-compressed and crushed, so it doesn't have the ugly distortion of the CD version.


As I've said before, the Guitar Hero version isn't perfect - far from it. In actual fact, it's a bit too dynamic for this style of music - rock requires a "wall of sound" effect, to some degree, and the Guitar Hero version doesn't go far enough in the direction. But the CD is so crushed and so distorted, that out of the two it comes off by far the worst, for me.


As examples of what a great, dynamic rock recording can sound like, check out the Machine Head album "The Blackening" on iTunes or Amazon, or even this BBC live recording of Metallica themselves from last week:


Radio 1 presents Metallica Night: Metallica Live


(This one has a bit too much compressor-pumping in my opinion, but still beats the CD by a long shot.)


And if you find yourself persuaded by any of this and haven't already done so, please check out TurnMeUp.org, sign the petition, Favourite the YouTube video and tell your friends !

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Stop The Loudness Wars

It will be pretty clear to anyone reading this blog that I'm against excessive levels on CDs. (Understatement of the year !) So far this story has gained some great coverage for the "Loudness Wars", but if it's really going to get widespread exposure, I think even more publicity is needed.

Luckily, there's something we can do about this:

Submit this story to the to the BBC

Scroll to the bottom of the page and submit a comment saying you think they should be covering this story. Just mention Metallica and the distortion on the new CD, and say you're against the Loudness Wars. Maybe post a couple of links to mainstream coverage of the issue to help them realise what a big deal is - perhaps mention turnmeup.org, too.

Second, if you haven't already:


Even if you aren't a fan, this sends a clear message to the whole record industry that we don't want excessively loud, distorted CDs. Remember, every vote cast means ten or more unhappy fans !
Finally, email your favourite music magazine, newspaper, radio station, music TV show etc and ask if they are going to cover the story, including a link to an example - for example this one in the Guardian:


If enough of us do this, hopefully people will take notice of the story and we can really make this a mainstream issue.

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 !)

BUT:

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.



Thursday, 18 September 2008

Metallica "Death Magnetic" Yes, it IS clipping...

This is a very brief post with another image. (I know some people don't find pictures convincing - in that case please see the YouTube video I linked to in my last post, where you can clearly hear the effects of the distortion.)


I have read people deny that the CD is clipped. Here are closeups of waveforms from the UK release of the CD (top) and the GH sample I was sent (bottom).



As you can see, the CD is clipped (the tops of the waveforms are "squared off" ) whereas the Guitar Hero version on the bottom is not. This is the cause of a least some if the distortion people are hearing.

However as I mentioned in a previous post, digital clipping alone isn't enough to make the album sound as distorted as it does. So yes, the album is clipped, but in my opinion the distortion probably results at least partially from an earlier stage in the process as well - presumably the mix.

Metallica "Death Magnetic" - Comparison video, you decide

This morning there is a video on YouTube comparing a short extract of the CD release of Death Magnetic with the "Guitar Hero" version. This is the same comparison that the fans made originally and posted on the forums about, which I reproduced and then blogged about.

The onscreen text shows when you are hearing the CD and the Guitar Hero (GH) versions. Take a listen & a look, and make up your own mind. The problem is especially bad at the end of the sample, where the video loops a few times. Which is better ?



(Note that YouTube changes the audio into mono by default. I have linked to the hi-res version, if your computer struggles to play this, click on the video to go to YouTube itself to see the "Normal" version. However the audio is much lower quality in the Normal version, making the differences harder to hear.)

If you think the distortion on the CD release sounds bad, please go and sign the petition, even if you're not a Metallica fan - this is our chance to send a message to the music industry that enough is enough, and we want decent-sounding records again !

Don't be fooled - in some ways, the CD version does sound better than the GH version - fuller, and warmer. I've written more about this here. The distortion ruins it for me, though. If the CD's mastering engineer, Ted Jensen had been given a clean version to work from in the first place, he could have made a master with just as full and warm a sound, even more harder-hitting, but without the distortion.

If you want to know more about why they sound so different, check out my post about the "Loudness Wars" here, or visit http://www.turnmeup.org/.

These clips sound like the same ones I was sent and used for my original comparison - whoever created the samples has been turned down the CD version, matching the levels so the differences can be heard clearly.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Metallica "Death Magnetic" - Band not present at the mix ?

The plot thickens. In the latest twist in the "Death Magnetic" saga: fans claim the band weren't present during the mix or master.

In a thread on the Metallica forums, user Hetfield1963 says he conducted a phone interview with the band's James Hetfield, and quotes:

JH: I think things came out really good. They’re going to be mixing it while we’re away in Europe. Yeah, and that will be…well,we haven’t done that in awhile. We’ve usually been around for the mixes. I think it will be good for us to step away from it for a while. Let Greg Fidelman do his magic, you know that he is the engineer, he’s going to be mixing it. He is very tuned into what we like and need. He’s very tuned into what Rick likes and needs. So, he’s kind of the point man, which will be really great. We don’t have to worry about what Rick is going to think about this, or Rick isn’t going to have to worry about us battling him on some thing. You know, [Greg], he’s going to be doing the mixing, he’s a guitar player, he gets some great sounds and that’s really helpful.

Elsewhere in the thread, it is also claimed that the band weren't present for the album's mastering sessions, because they were performing at Ozzfest.

The engineer mentioned in the thread, Greg Fidelman, shares a controversial history with the albums producer, Rick Rubin. They both worked on Red Hot Chilli Peppers' "Californication", another CD both revered and reviled for it's sound - harsh, highly compressed and very loud.

Sound familiar ?

The question is, at what point did the sound of the CD move away from the comparatively clean, dynamic "Guitar Hero" version, to the highly compressed, distorted final release ?

Update: Rolling Stone magazine is reported to have an article with Lars Ulrich, saying

the record, more than two years in the making, still isn’t finished. Rubin is overseeing mixes in Los Angeles while the band is in Europe, headlining shows...

Metallica "Death Magnetic" - Stop The Loudness Wars

This post is partly my attempt to publicise the damage that the so-called "Loudness Wars" are doing to music. In a nutshell, the continuing arms-race for "loudness at all cost" is now dramatically damaging the music we listen to - even in a traditionally loud, distorted genre like rock. As a result we are given squashed, lifeless and often unpleasantly distorted products to listen to. These are less exciting, less involving, less impactful and ultimately fatiguing to listen to.

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 ?

No.

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 ?

Again, no.

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.

Enough.

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.


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.)

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Metallica "Death Magnetic" Clipping Distortion

Those of you keeping an eye on the "Loudness Wars" may be interested by current discussions on the Metallica forums. Fans have been complaining bitterly about the extreme clipping distortion on the new album "Death Magnetic" - it's clearly audible on the previews in iTunes, for example - and the finger has been pointed at Ted Jensen, head engineer at Sterling Sound, who mastered the album.

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.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Find Interesting People On Twitter


Something a little different. You may have noticed the link on the right-hand side of this blog saying Follow Me On Twitter. If you already use Twitter that will make perfect sense to you, but if not here's a great article on what Twitter is, and why you might want to use it:

Making The Most Of Twitter

Anyway at the moment I'm quite addicted to Twitter, but like many people I found it tricky to get started, because I found it difficult to know who to follow. With millions of people using the service every day, I found finding people with common interests a little like hunting for a needle in a haystack, and to some extent I still do. However I've picked up some clues along the way, and decided to share them with the world on a Squidoo lens page:


- which includes what I hope is a clever idea to make it easier to find people with common interests in future. Please check it out and let me know what you think.

Normal service will resume shortly...